Twilight: Bring On The Shackles

[Content Note: Purity Culture, Rape]

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

Twilight, Chapter 14: Mind Over Matter

If I recall correctly, we last left Twilight with Bella coming back from the shower and her "human time" and Edward sizing her up in her nightclothes and pretending that he hasn't seen her in precisely those clothes night after night for, I believe, weeks. (Nothing to see here, move along.) Oh, and Bella has run up and down the stairs to breathlessly inform Charlie that, no really, she's super-tired and going to bed now.

   “What was all that for?”
   “Charlie thinks I’m sneaking out.”
   “Oh.” He contemplated that. “Why?” As if he couldn’t know Charlie’s mind much more clearly than I could guess.

This is an interesting point, actually, and one which isn't really used except in brief moments where Edward wants to be a smug ass by demonstrating that he knows more than Bella when it comes to the thoughts of her peers.

Edward can read Charlie's mind. What's more, he can probably understand Charlie pretty well in the "shared experiences" sense, given that Edward is 100 years old to Charlie's 41 years of age and presumably has shared some (if not a lot) of the same culture and music and history for a lot of Charlie's formative years. They also both share a love for cloudy Forks and a possessive interest in the life and choices of Bella Swan. Really, they have so much to bond over!

If Bella were closer to her father -- for instance, if she had the kind of relationship with Charlie as I have with my dad -- this could be a source of tension. Especially considering how Edward likes to lord his telepathy over people, I can see him smugly informing Bella that he knows Charlie way better than she does. (I remember young men in my own youth telling me that they knew my dad better than me, simply by virtue that they had shared sexual organs. This didn't go over well with me at all.) It will be interesting to see if Edward tries to pull this with Renee when we see her in later books.

But Bella doesn't know Charlie terribly well, and their relationship has historically been kind of rocky. Bella doesn't have an obligation to kindle a good relationship with her father, but if that were a goal of hers in moving up to Forks -- and how frustrating is this book that I don't even know if that is a goal of hers, in large part because Bella doesn't seem to have goals -- then Edward could help with that. At the very least, Edward could help with introducing the Edward/Bella relationship to Charlie in a way that will be most comfortable for him, since he's already decided to be the lord-protector of Bella's hymen.

To my recollection, Bella doesn't ask for this, or indeed much of any help from Edward's telepathy. She's not obligated to accept his help, and it would make sense to refuse his help if she sees telepathy as an immoral intrusion, but I don't get that sense from her actions. Like so many other vampire powers in this series, the telepathy seems largely relegated to non-plot-related parlor trickery except when the power is suddenly needed to propel the plot.

But I digress.

A larger question here is the loaded concept of "sneaking out". Bella has hitherto been almost an autonomous adult in Charlie's home: she drives herself to school, she comes home when she pleases (often stopping to shop for groceries of her own choosing), she cooks dinner and does the laundry, and she stays home by herself on the weekends while Charlie goes fishing. Apparently, without ever seeing it happen on-page, the two of them worked out some concept of "curfew" such that Bella is supposed to be home by it and not out-of-home after it, and such that Bella would be motivated to leave sneakily rather than openly in a "bye, Dad, be back later, don't wait up" sense.

I don't really have an issue with this -- it seems reasonable to me for a household to set basic boundaries like "everyone is in and the house is locked up by midnight at the latest" or whatever -- but it does raise a couple of interesting points. One, not all families do this (just as not all fathers obsess over their daughters' virginity), so the assumption here that this is a default normal points again to the conservative roots that Twilight is springing from and the conservative atmosphere that surrounds the characters for no adequately defined reason. Two, and somewhat more pressing to me, is that Charlie and Bella are dancing around rules that have never been openly communicated.

Bella doesn't have a set curfew. To our knowledge, Charlie has never asked her not to leave the house after he's asleep at midnight (or whenever). There's all these rules and boundaries which only make sense in the "default normal conservative atmosphere" sense that Charlie and Bella do not have an established history with. (Do either of them even mention "church" throughout this series?) And because these rules and boundaries have apparently never been communicated to each other, that makes Charlie's attempt to enforce these unspoken boundaries even more creepy to me. When he sneaks outside to sabotage Bella's car, he's not just making sure she Follows The Rules, he's making sure she follows rules which he's never actually bothered to communicate to her.

That's problematic, and it demonstrates how much effective power Charlie has over Bella, despite the more common reading that Bella 'walks all over' her father. For all that Bella keeps secrets and has a snotty attitude, the fact remains that Charlie can physically compel her to follow unspoken rules; Bella can't physically compel Charlie to do anything he doesn't want to do. (That she could ask Edward to do so doesn't make Bella herself powerful, but rather just demonstrates how both her handlers are more physically and socially powerful than she.)

   It was very difficult, while he was touching me, to frame a coherent question. It took me a minute of scattered concentration to begin.
   [...] I pulled back; as I moved, he froze — and I could no longer hear the sound of his breathing.
We stared cautiously at each other for a moment, and then, as his clenched jaw gradually relaxed, his expression became puzzled.
   “Did I do something wrong?”
   “No — the opposite. You’re driving me crazy,” I explained.

I skipped over a lot of breathing and longing and exhaling and quivering, but this passage caught my eye. When Bella draws back from Edward in order to, basically, clear her head so that she can either look him in the eye and/or pounce on him for sexy times (I'm honestly not sure which), there's Cautious Staring and Jaw Clenching. Um.

I recognize that a lot of the appeal of vampire romance is the fact that Edward desires Bella so viscerally much that he's on the edge of self-control and about to leap on her at any minute. I get that the sub-text is that she is so desirable that her appeal overrides his conscious choice. I understand why that is thematically sexy even if it's not subjectively sexy for the individual reader.

But while it may be thematically appropriate for Bella-drawing-back to (apparently) trigger Edward's hunting instincts to go after the yummy-fleeing-prey, I find it more than a little strange to suggest that his predatory gaze is as "cautious" as her "oh shit, did I move too fast, is he gonna eat me" gaze. I guess if I contort my brain around to a place where his gaze is "cautious" because he's being cautious while gazing at her, but this reads more like the bizarre continued insistence that this relationship is between equals who are risking roughly the same thing. It's not.

I hate to keep harping on this, but it's very frustrating to me because it aligns with a lot of Rape Culture narrative that being a murderer/rapist is Just As Bad (or worse!) than experiencing murder/rape. It's not okay, in my opinion, for S. Meyer to equate Bella's risks in this relationship ("being killed") with Edward's risks in this relationship ("killing someone he cares about, as opposed to all the other people he's killed") as though there's the same level of risk there.

I realize that there's an implicit disagreement there between S. Meyer and me -- that Edward isn't risking killing "someone he cares about" but rather that he is risking killing his One True Love -- but that doesn't cut it for me in terms of equating his risk with Bella's. And in fact the canon backstory of the Denali sisters (one of whom is a half-hearted rival for Edward's heart) brings this home even more, that no matter how much a vampire likes hir victim, the vampire can still go on with life in a way that their victim cannot:

The sisters often amused themselves by romancing local human men. Such trysts usually ended in a meal; their lovers never survived long. After a few centuries, the sisters began to regret their actions. They felt real affection for some of these men, and losing them was depressing. They tried to spare the men they associated with while hunting other humans, but this didn’t work; the human blood was too hard to resist in such close proximity, and eventually they would slip up. The longer one of them spent with a man, the more devastating it was when the man died. Finally Tanya devised a plan to give up human blood altogether.

And it seems like I'm always hitting into this True Love / One Chance excuse in real-life Twilight conversations (yes, I have those!) where someone insists that Edward has to override Bella's agency in order to protect her because she's his One Chance! for True Love! and I have to explain that even if that were true, it still doesn't excuse overriding someone's agency and it still doesn't mean that your risk of life-without-love is equal to the risks they are taking by living their life in the ways they see fit.

I think it speaks to the culture we're steeped in: a culture which values the overriding of women's (and other marginalized people's) agency and a culture which centers men's (and other privileged people's) concerns as paramount. So we see Edward's pain at being a murderer (of someone he's fond of) as fundamentally worse than Bella's pain at being murdered (by someone she trusts). And we see Edward's risk of being deprived of his One Chance at True Love as fundamentally more important than Bella's risk of being deprived of her choice and agency. This choice of centering is telling... and problematic.

Anyway. There's then a bunch of stuff about how Edward can touch Bella now because of willpower and how happy he is to not only find love after all these years but also to find that he's "good at it", which okay, I can legitimately see being happy about that but which I also think is interesting in terms of centering Edward's ego: in this case he's less "relieved" that he's less likely to hurt Bella than he previously thought and more "excited" that he's even more awesome than previously thought. But none of it bugs me enough to pick apart, so.

   And then his face was abruptly serious.“I’m trying,” he whispered, his voice pained. “If it gets to be . . . too much, I’m fairly sure I’ll be able to leave.” 
   I scowled. I didn’t like the talk of leaving.
   “And it will be harder tomorrow,” he continued. “I’ve had the scent of you in my head all day, and I’ve grown amazingly desensitized. If I’m away from you for any length of time, I’ll have to start over again. Not quite from scratch, though, I think.”
   “Don’t go away, then,” I responded, unable to hide the longing in my voice.
   “That suits me,” he replied, his face relaxing into a gentle smile. “Bring on the shackles — I’m your prisoner.” But his long hands formed manacles around my wrists as he spoke. He laughed his quiet, musical laugh. He’d laughed more tonight than I’d ever heard in all the time I’d spent with him.

And then there's this.

I've said before that while I think this chapter is still unhealthy-as-fuck in the usual Twilight way of being unhealthy-as-fuck, that I do at least think the chapter is understandable. Relateable. That a lot of it, a whole lot of it actually, speaks to me as genuinely similar to my own feelings and past experiences.

I so totally and wholly get that rush of first new love where you never want to be out of the other person's presence. And some relationships with some people are very much like that throughout; I know people who are comfortable spending time from their significant others, and I know people who aren't, who prefer to be with their sweetie as much as possible, even if they're doing different things in the same room. I'm not calling proximity unhealthy. Not by a long shot.

But at the same time, there's a context here that Bella is very young and Edward is very inexperienced and I'm not at all sure how I feel about a setup where they not only want to be together all the time, but where it's canonically safer for them to be together all the time. Were I in a place where I felt comfortable offering advice to these two, I'd be suggesting some regularly scheduled time apart to make sure that this is what they really want. Edward probably isn't going to feel right breaking up with Bella a year or two after he takes her mortal life away. Bella should probably make a "still human" bucket list of things she'd like to do before she turns. And so forth.

At the same time, I have to pause for a moment and reflect that spending constant time together is actually a relatively subversive thrust against the traditional purity doctrine that Twilight seems otherwise determined to embrace. Couples are generally discouraged from spending alone time together, especially at night or in bed, because that's when sexy times are perceived to usually happen. And in the context of Twilight and Edward's blood-lust, it would make sense for them to keep closeness to a minimum or maintain chaperones at all times. That S. Meyer didn't make this choice is interesting.

I've said before that I think Twilight fulfills its stated goal of being liberating and feminist -- but only, I think, for a very narrow subset of women. Specifically, I think Twilight is liberating for white straight cis middle/upper-class women raised in deeply conservative and/or oppressive homes who still yet anticipate or desire (and note those two things are not the same thing) a conservative lifestyle with the relative freedom bestowed by deep spousal love, familial respect, and monetary comfort.

To a certain extent, it may be possible to see this canonical insistence that Edward and Bella must spend sexy alone times together as an extension of this "liberating conservatism": a conservative purity message where sex can't be had, but liberating in the sense that cuddling can be had. And, indeed, the liberation that comes with the insistence that Bella and Edward can handle themselves and their purity decision on their own, without the prying intervention of their parents or peers.

And if that is the intent, I'm not sure how I feel about that. On the one hand, I do think that any pushback against traditional purity culture is valuable, especially a pushback which insists that we empower girls with their own sexuality rather than demand that they hand over their sexuality to others. On the other hand, I'm still distracted by the analogy between premarital sex to fatal vampire bites and I can't shake the feeling that Edward and Bella are stupidly and unnecessarily putting her life in danger while ensuring that neither of them will have a free moment to rethink whether this is the crackerjack idea that it seems to them right now. So there's that.

In other news: MY GOD THIS IS A LONG CHAPTER. More next time.


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