A couple of blog posts have crossed my desk recently related to the new film adaptation of Stephanie Meyer’s novel Twilight, the first book in a series of ragingly popular young adult fantasy novels featuring a high school girl (Bella) who falls in love with a vampire (Edward).
Back when I was working at Barnes & Noble, I read the first three books in the series (a forth is due to appear this fall). It’s easy to see why they’re popular with young teenage girls, since the central themes are classic gothic romance and adolescent sexual desire, supernatural peril and adventure, all wrapped around a modern teenage girl who is far from a fainting beauty.
At the same time, I share the reservations voiced by some feminist bloggers about the way in which the central romance — and particularly the issue of sexual intimacy — is treated. An overarching tension between Bella and Edward throughout the first three novels is Bella’s impatience to be sexually active which is frustrated by the fact that Edward, as a vampire, can’t ever lose control of his physical self because then he’ll hurt Bella — really hurt Bella. Like, kill her.
So what can be made of a romance where one member of the couple is capable of murdering the other member–a threat which is never far from the surface? Blogger Jessica, over at go fug yourself, points out that Edward’s “romantic” behavior is really more like that of an obsessed stalker than anything else. “Listen,” she writes, “you just should not be okay with it if you find out that this dude you’re seeing has been sneaking into your house unbeknownst to you and watching you sleep all night, every night, even if it’s under the guise of ‘protecting you’ or something . . .” At the same time, pp-ed columnist Gail Collins of the New York Times muses in a recent column that “maybe the secret to her success is that in her books, it’s the guy who’s in charge of setting the sexual boundaries,” suggesting that Edward’s ability to both harm Bella and his willingness to police himself strike a cord with Meyer’s readers.
On the one hand, I agree with Collins that it’s refreshing to see, in Bella, a teenage girl who is frank about her sexual desires and impatient to explore sexual intimacy with her boyfriend. And to be clear I enjoyed reading the books and will probably read the forth one when it comes out, if only to find out what happens next. In the end, though, my position on Twilight is closer to Jessica’s: despite Edward’s superficial willingness to “set boundaries” (which is a strangely one-sided way of describing how sexual negotiation takes place anyway), Meyer’s formula for abstinence is really nothing but a variation on the theory that men are sexual animals whose bestial impulses must be controlled — either by their girlfriends or their own willpower — or else. If the couple in Twilight have premarital sex (and yes, without giving too much away a future marriage IS held up as the solution to this problem), Bella will die. I don’t know how much more creepily anti-female sexuality you can get than that: have sex and you will die.
Neither of these messages about human sexuality — that men are beasts and women who have sex outside of marriage put themselves in mortal danger — are messages I want being perpetuated in our culture, among people of any age.