Twilight: Policing Our Daughters

[Content Note: Abusive Parenting]

Twilight Summary: In Chapter 14, Edward and Bella spend the night together.

Twilight, Chapter 14: Mind Over Matter

Now that it's been established that Edward has been stalking Bella and entering her home at night without her awareness or consent, it's time for Charlie to walk in while the lovebirds are still at the kitchen table. And this is one of my least favorite parts of this chapter -- and indeed of the entire book -- because it shows complex interactions between Charlie and Bella without providing contextual characterization for either.

   Then we both heard the sound of tires on the brick driveway, saw the headlights flash through the front windows, down the hall to us. I stiffened in his arms.
   “Should your father know I’m here?” he asked.
   “I’m not sure . . .” I tried to think it through quickly.
   “Another time then . . .”
   And I was alone.

An on-going theme of Twilight is that Bella is never entirely sure just how much she wants to share her romantic life with her father, nor is she ever totally comfortable with his eventual inevitable awareness of her relationship with Edward. Those things are facts, well-established in the text. What is significantly less well-established is why Bella is uncomfortable with Charlie being aware of her romantic life.

As a person, Bella doesn't need to justify why she feels this way; it's her right and prerogative to set boundaries. But as a character, it would be nice to understand why Bella feels this way if only to shake out what, if anything, the text is saying about this father/daughter relationship in particular (as well as father/daughter relationships in general) and romantic privacy as a personal right. And while there are plenty of different reasons why Bella might want to exclude Charlie from her romantic life and decisions, each reason implies different (and sometimes mutually exclusive) characterizations for Bella and Charlie.

For example: Bella may not want Charlie involved simply because Charlie is a stranger to her; we've seen instances in the past where Bella has felt intensely private about her life and decisions, as when she deals with Jessica, Mike, and the rest of her human peers. In which case, we could view this tension between Bella and Charlie as a very private young woman being inadvertently made uncomfortable by a formerly-distant father who is clumsily trying to get to know her in ways which make her feel like a puzzle to be solved rather than a person to commune with.

Or, Bella may not want Charlie involved because Charlie's involvement in her personal life carries shades of a controlling nature. We've seen that Charlie tends to make decisions based on what he perceives as Bella's own good as opposed to communicating with her about her wants and needs, as when he purchased the pickup truck for her without asking her if that was what she wanted. (Somewhere, Alternate-Universe-Environmentalist-Hippie Bella cried.) Later in this chapter we will see Charlie trying to control Bella's actions in an attempt to prevent her from choosing her own (unknown, unevaluated, unapproved) suitor. In which case, we could view the tension between Bella and Charlie as a young woman who is still legally a child being pressured and controlled by a man who is her legal guardian but who is motivated by his own ego rather than by her genuinely best interests.

Or, Bella may not want Charlie involved because Charlie takes a rather fucked-up view of relationships. We've already seen (at least in Bella's estimation) that Charlie is living in a romantic limbo where he refuses to change the house more to his liking or even learn basic self-care tasks like shopping and cooking for himself because he still misses Bella's mother and (apparently) believes that learning self-care would mean finally admitting that Renee isn't going to walk through the front door and start cooking for him again. And his own relationship with Bella alternates between completely ignoring her versus expecting her to cater entirely to him by cooking his food and watching his TV shows with him; there's never any suggestion that they will watch one of Bella's show, or read a book together, or otherwise share her interests. Later, Charlie will grill Bella about her sexual relationship with Edward and will threaten to arrest her for protecting herself from Jacob's sexual assault. Thus, it is entirely possible that Bella is trying to shut Charlie out of her romantic life because she believes he will taint it.

All of these possibilities matter, because they completely change the dynamics between Charlie and Bella. Yet it is never really made clear whether the reader is supposed to view Charlie as a decent-but-distant father who is doing the best he can to get to know his daughter in a complex situation or if Charlie is a man who controls his daughter's sexuality either because he thinks (and does the text think?) that's Just What Good Fathers Do or if Charlie has lingering resentment over Renee and is possibly taking that resentment out on Bella or maybe trying to prevent her from rushing headlong into a serious relationship like Renee and he did. (It's interesting to note that of the two parents, it's Renee who is all encouragement and smiles at the prospect of Bella's teenage wedding. Again: it would be nice to know how the author expects us to view this fact.)

We don't get to know any of this, and Bella doesn't seem interested in exploring it, even though you'd think it might be something she would think about from time to time. 

   My father’s key turned in the door.
   “Bella?” he called. It had bothered me before; who else would it be? Suddenly he didn’t seem so far off base.

And already we're running into interpretation difficulties.

On the one hand, this seems really harsh of Bella. I would have assumed that Charlie was calling out her name to make sure she wasn't running around the hallways naked (after having thrown some clothes in the washing machine or am I the only one who does that??) or sitting on the toilet with the bathroom door open or something. It's a way of saying "I'm here" without sounding like Mr Banks,

and a way of asking if it's okay to come in and/or if Bella is there and okay without using lots of words or otherwise obliging a specific answer. "Bella?" "In here." flows more naturally than "Bella, are you home and decent and safe?" "Yes, and yes, and yes. I'm also in the kitchen." So at first glance this seems like another example of Bella being either clinically depressed or extremely uncharitable in her interactions with others.

Except! Bella's interpretation that Charlie expects to find her in flagrante delicto may not be entirely off the mark. Due to her acting "suspicious" tonight, Charlie will assume not that she's ill or upset or depressive over something; instead he will firmly believe that she has made likely plans to either fuck a secret boyfriend in her bedroom or climb out the window trellis and drive off in her truck, presumably with intent to fuck someone along the way. So in light of this later characterization, it seems that maybe Bella isn't being unfair at all in assuming that the nightly Bella? is more than just a human bat-sonar call.

So once again I'm frustrated by not being able to divine the intent behind the text.

   “In here.” I hoped he couldn’t hear the hysterical edge to my voice. I grabbed my dinner from the microwave and sat at the table as he walked in. His footsteps sounded so noisy after my day with Edward.
   “Can you get me some of that? I’m bushed.” He stepped on the heels of his boots to take them off, holding the back of Edward’s chair for support.
   I took my food with me, scarfing it down as I got his dinner. It burned my tongue. I filled two glasses with milk while his lasagna was heating, and gulped mine to put out the fire. As I set the glass down, I noticed the milk trembling and realized my hand was shaking. Charlie sat in the chair, and the contrast between him and its former occupant was comical.

This passage is noteworthy for several reasons.

One, I believe this is the second time we see Bella eat anything substantial, with the first time being the restaurant in Port Angeles. As before, she doesn't enjoy the food or savor it in any way; she wolfs it down without pleasure (and in this case, with accompanying pain) because she's in an agitated mental state. I'm pretty sure we're never going to see Bella actively enjoy food, and while this isn't a problem limited to the Twilight novels, it is still especially noticeable here because food (and the enjoyment thereof) is one of the few advantages that human Bella has over vampire Edward. In order to be with him forever, she has to give up two main things she (theoretically) receives enjoyment from: sunlight* and food. So it is particularly jarring that Bella never enjoys food in front of us.

* Except when on Isle of Esme, because the Volturi do not care about people of color or people with binoculars. 

Two, this is a good example passage for why so many people find Bella an unpleasant character: in short succession, she twice compares her human father unfavorably with Greek God Edward. The text doesn't outright say that she's laughing at Charlie on the inside -- "comical" could be a reference merely to the situational disparity, or might reasonably be residual irrational laughter** from a stressful day of being nearly murdered by your first love -- but many readers will interpret the passage that way, especially given Bella's historical willingness to disparage the humans around her in preference to the Cullens.

** The best possible word here is "hysteria", which I will not use. We need new words, please. 

And this is a particularly frustrating example to me because by making the choice to apply the modifier of "comical" to the situation and/or person of Charlie, the narrative has once again tried to preemptively defuse a situation which could be read very differently. Over the course of the evening, Charlie will grill Bella about her romantic suitors (bringing up Mike Newton for what is now the second or third time) and then he will secretly remove her ability to escape the house via vehicle. Whut. If you remove "comical" from this equation, you might end up at Holy Fuck Shit Abusive Father Junction, with a direct ride without layovers to the Terrifying Reproductive Coercion Villa.

Twilight pisses me off so much sometimes, because it wants to be morally gritty so much you can hear it straining with the effort -- Rosalie killed her rapists! Sam scarred his girlfriend! Edward eats humans! The Cullens don't try to stop the vampires who prey on humans! Jacob commits sexual assault! -- but then immediately tries to dial it back and jam everyone into Good and Evil boxes anyway. Jacob couldn't help it because the magic werewolf gods made him imprint on one of the eggs in Bella's ovaries. The Cullens would really like to stop the Volturi but just can't because flurble-wurble-gobbledy-bits. Edward only preys on rapists, so he's basically Batman. Sam didn't have any control over his fursplosion. Rosalie ... well, Rosalie is blonde and was intended for Bella's precious Edward, so you're allowed to hate her.

And because Twilight refuses to actually commit to moral grittiness and because everyone has to wear their Good Guy hats whenever the camera is on them (excepting possibly Jacob since the fans must not be allowed to like him more than Edward), we "know" that Charlie isn't going to physically or sexually assault Bella tonight while she sleeps, so therefore we "know" that Charlie is merely  preventing her from leaving the house simply because he's just So Darn Concerned about what she puts in and out of her vagina. LIKE YOU DO, AMIRIGHT? As though aggressively policing the sexuality of a seventeen year old to this degree and in this context isn't a warning flag for all kinds of controlling behavior and abuse.

But we don't have to worry about any of that, because the narrative assures us that Charlie is merely "comical". (I guess an interesting point could be made that readers who hate Bella for thinking Charlie is "comical" would, I hope, turn around and support her if Charlie were instead "ominous" or "threatening" or otherwise showed signs of overt abuse. There might be an interesting thread to pull in there about how we are more comfortable with women who are victims as opposed to women who are emasculating. Something akin to that Margaret Atwood quote: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”)

Anyway. Three, I note that Charlie doesn't say "please" when he asks Bella to serve him. We could perhaps infer one hidden in the "could you", but as my mother used to say, "Yes, I can. Now ask me if I will. And ask nicely." Charlie isn't "bushed", by the way, because he's been at the precinct all day earning FOOD MONEY; he's bushed because he's been fishing all day, which is something he apparently does for sport as opposed to out of necessity. Yet he doesn't politely ask Bella to serve him, nor does he ask about her or her day until after she has brought him food and she has politely inquired about his day. Once again, we see how thoroughly Charlie centers the activities of the house around himself. This isn't necessarily bad, but it does tie into the reasons why Bella might yearn for something to take an interest in her, even an unhealthy one

   Finished with the last bite of lasagna, I lifted my glass and chugged the remains of my milk.
   Charlie surprised me by being observant. “In a hurry?”
   “Yeah, I’m tired. I’m going to bed early.” [...]
   “No plans tonight?” he asked suddenly.
   “No, Dad, I just want to get some sleep.”
   “None of the boys in town your type, eh?” He was suspicious, but trying to play it cool.
   “No, none of the boys have caught my eye yet.” I was careful not to over-emphasize the word boys in my quest to be truthful with Charlie.
   “I thought maybe that Mike Newton . . . you said he was friendly.”
   “He’s just a friend, Dad.”

You will all remember, for the record, that Bella Swan claims to be a bad liar, and that that claim is itself a lie. You will all note the irony that Bella Swan considers this exchange with Charlie to be a truthful*** one when, uhm, it's pretty much not. (Whether she means Edward Cullen is a man or a vampire is largely immaterial in my opinion.)

*** You may also keep in mind, because it should be said, that there are non-heterocentrist and non-cissexist ways in which Bella's statement here could technically be true. Which is a shame, because there are a lot of possibilities there that could make Twilight an infinitely better novel in the right hands.

And, I think, once again the Deflective Narration strikes again; if Bella were to openly admit to the reader that she is lying, we would be justified in wondering why that is and why she feels the need to lie -- which she claims she doesn't like to do -- to Charlie. Because he's nosy? Because he's abusive? Because he's controlling? Because she's just being cautious? What taught her to be cautious -- Renee or Phil or someone else in her past? I want to scratch the narrative with my fingernail to see what backstory shines out from underneath, but instead it's just a blank, as though no one involved in the development of this book considered why Bella Swan is doing something she openly doesn't like (or so she claims) and then they suddenly did notice and so they quickly covered it up by saying that, no really, she's being truthful.

This is especially strange in light of the fact that the last time Bella brought up the Cullens in passing, Charlie practically declared Carlisle a living saint and sang the praises of his well-behaved children. Wouldn't it seem easier to Bella to just say, "I dunno, Dad, I kinda like that Edward Cullen guy in my biology class, but then again all the girls do, so." Of course, it actually won't be easy for Bella to do this when she finally does have to say something: Charlie will initially mistake Edward for Emmett and bellow about the HUGE AGE DIFFERENCE (which is, um...1 year apart? 2 years, at max? Isn't Bella a junior, so therefore Emmett would have to be a senior?) before then correctly gauging that Edward is SO VERY HOT and switching to full-on policing of Bella's vagina because obviously no vagina is safe when a hot guy is around *headdesk forever* So clearly Bella is vindicated for her caution here. Yet it seems strange that Bella would correctly intuit this so soon.

Then again, Bella has been secretive about Edward from the beginning -- hoarding him from Jessica and Renee as much as possible -- so maybe she just wants to treasure something that is only hers and no one else's yet. ("For once I can say, this is mine -- you can't take it." - Stevie Wonder) But even that opens up a whole 'nother possible can of characterization worms -- not all girls would react this way, so why does Bella?


   “Well, you’re too good for them all, anyway. Wait till you get to college to start looking.” Every father’s dream, that his daughter will be out of the house before the hormones kick in.

I just cannot convey how contemptuous I am of this sentence, both for its normalization of harmful gender stereotypes and for the fact that it just does not seem in character for Bella. Since when does Bella dwell on anyone's dreams, let alone her own, let alone Charlie's, let alone what she imagines to be Every Father Ever? I'm tempted to just set this aside as out-of-character fluff from S. Meyer that should never have made it off the editor's desk, but I cannot in good conscience because this is really endemic anti-feminist stuff and it needs to be talked about.

I cannot count how many friends and relatives I have had over the years -- both when I was a girl child and later now that I am an adult -- who have used jokes to police their daughters' sexuality at the supposed "expense" of young boys/men. "Such a nice boy," they would always say of my friends to their parents, always when they thought I couldn't hear. "But in five / ten / fifteen / whatever years keep him away from my daughter," they would say.

I know they always thought it was a harmless joke. I know these men were trying to be funny. I do not seriously think that these men were Charlie Swans, sabotaging cars in the middle of the night. (Though it is worth pointing out here that we can never really know, which is why it's very crucial to believe victims rather than in our own flawed assessments of others. But I digress.) And I know why my father and my friends' fathers all told the same jokes.

I also know that those jokes are harmful.

These jokes -- that every father wants his daughter not to become romantically involved with someone, at least until she's out of his home -- hinge on an agreement that female sexuality must be policed by men, and specifically by their older fathers or brothers. These jokes also reinforce the idea that female sexuality is shameful or uncomfortable; that Good Girls either don't engage in it or only engage in it furtively so that no one has to see or hear it. Good Girls don't talk openly about sexual attraction and they don't plan for safe sex or go to their parents for contraceptives because then they would be shattering their father's dreams. And so we are told, from an early age, that our sexuality doesn't please our loved ones -- and that is a terrible burden to bear.

Men are hurt by this too, and are told -- by other men like Charlie, and by narratives like these -- that they have to fear their daughters more than they love them, and that when their daughters hit puberty there is a mandatory gulf of communication and understanding that slams down in between them because of these Magical Female Hormones. And so families are split apart by these stupid, shitty patriarchal narratives which were instituted as a way to control women and their bodies and which too many good men perpetuate mindlessly without considering the harm it does to their daughters and their relationship with them.


Some daughters will have sex. Some will not have sex. Your job is to be open and supportive and kind so that if they are hurt in the process of exploring the world around them, they will know they can come to you for support. And it is your job to start that right away, from the day they are born. Because we can observe your interactions with your peers just fine, and you need to be pushing back instantly and immediate on any peer pressure to police our sexuality just because that's what Bob from Accounting says you need to do. Why do you give a fuck what Bob thinks? Stop that. Now.

   “’Night, honey,” he called after me. No doubt he would be listening carefully all evening, waiting for me to try to sneak out.   “See you in the morning, Dad.” See you creeping into my room tonight at midnight to check on me.


For the record: Charlie totally does exactly this.

We are lead to believe that Charlie has never done this before -- checking on Bella at midnight is not his nightly routine. So he's doing this now because he thinks Bella is acting suspicious and he believes it must have something to do with furtive boy-fucking and he believes it is his job to prevent that because his status as Father means he must protect the vagina from all would-be intruders.

And Bella correctly intuits all of this in advance based entirely on a single conversation around the kitchen table. She has zero experience with this sort of situation. She has very little experience with reading Charlie and his moods and his actions. Yet she still nailed it as thoroughly and completely as if she had Edward's telepathy power.

In here.
Can you get me some of that? I’m bushed. Thanks.
How was your day?
Good. The fish were biting ... how about you? Did you get everything done that you wanted to?
Not really -- it was too nice out to stay indoors.
It was a nice day. In a hurry?
Yeah, I’m tired I’m going to bed early.
You look kinda keyed up.
Do I?
It’s Saturday. No plans tonight?
No, Dad, I just want to get some sleep.
None of the boys in town your type, eh?
No, none of the boys have caught my eye yet.
I thought maybe that Mike Newton ... you said he was friendly.
He’s just a friend, Dad.
Well you’re too good for them all anyway. Wait till you get to college to start looking.
Sounds like a good idea to me.
’Night, honey.
See you in the morning, Dad.

Less than one hundred and fifty words, but still she knew. Bad writing? Probably. And yet. Total immersion in the patriarchy, both for the in-text characters and the out-of-text authors? Probably that, too. 


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