Three women—each a scholar of media and gender, married, and a mom in her thirties—wanted to better understand how, despite their age and intellect, were also bitten by the vampire romance bug that has overtaken our literary world by storm since its first publication in 2005. Intrigued by Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight literary success and its effect on not only teenage girls but adult women also, Melissa A. Click, Jennifer Stevens Aubry, and Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz edited Bitten by Twilight (Peter Lang, 2010), bringing to the forefront a discourse on gender, feminism, and sexuality in Twilight presented through the lens of feminist scholars. This is a most unique book that brings scholarship and mainstream fiction to the same table in an attempt to analyze the overwhelming influence that this vampire series has had on girls and women of varying ages.
Why do women—older women, intelligent and independent women—gravitate to the likes of a tepid romance novel wherein the protagonist is a teenage girl who falls in love for the brooding bad boy? This is the question that a significant number of feminists and scholars attempt to resolve, not only in this book, but also wherever the discussion of Twilight comes up. The essays compiled in Bitten by Twilight focus their discussion on exactly this issue, and although the answers vary dependent on the expertise of the author, the dominant reason is that Meyer’s book “creates a world where fairytales come true, a world where myth and everyday reality mingle…where the mundane and supernatural overlap” (Toscano 31).
Margaret Toscano’s essay reflects on Meyer’s Mormon beliefs and how she uses the Twilight series to demonstrate its power and dispute some of its major tenets. Some central themes in Twilight that appeal to the readers include family—perhaps not the nuclear family that most of us are familiar with, but a supernatural one—especially in that Bella Swan, the female protagonist who originally comes from a broken home, finds herself enveloped and protected by a family of vampires, wolves, friends, and loving parents that refuse to give her up despite her choosing to forge a life with a vampire. Most of us spend our lifetime searching for family—somewhere to plant our roots—someone to cling to for comfort, protection, and a sense of belonging. Twilight seems to explore this inherent search for home, nuclear and spiritual. This is quite realistic because most of us find this sense of family in the men and women we align our life and hearts to. Bella finds a man that gives her love and a family she can belong to and help grow.
Most of the criticism that follows the craze of Twilight comes from the traditional perspective that Meyer draws upon in telling this love story, easily equated with Wuthering Heights and Romeo and Juliet. Melissa Ames’ essay focuses on the criticism Meyer’s series has received. Critics respond with great dissatisfaction to the fact that the young female audiences of this series are exposed to “traditional gender stereotypes…[wherein, according to Sax] the ‘male characters…are muscular and unwaveringly brave, while Bella and the other girls bake cookies, make supper for the men and hold all-female slumber parties’” (41). The criticism extends to Meyer’s insistence on abstinence, male power versus traditional feminine meekness, anti-abortion ideologies that cater to the welfare of the unborn child while ignoring the welfare of the mother, and violence that—at least in this story—results in sex.
Carrie Ann Platt extends this analysis further by emphasizing the lack of power that is given to Bella. Although Meyer awards this female protagonist with free will, she chooses the danger that comes with her love and life with vampires over the simplicity of a 17-year-old’s existence; she chooses to have sex with Edward even though he cannot suppress his violence against her; she chooses to have a baby that breaks her ribs and sucks the life out of her—Bella is otherwise portrayed as “a child who is too slow or too clumsy to be trusted on (her) own two feet…is picked up and carried by various characters, both male and female, throughout the series” (75). Her vulnerability is reinforced by Edward, who refers to her as a “kitten, soft and harmless” (Twilight 74). Steeped in patriarchal ideas of romantic love, it is Edward who dominates the relationship; he calls the shots, tells her who she can see and when, acts like a father towards her, and is always there to save her from the dangers of his existence. The proverbial damsel in distress, Bella chooses a life wherein she is a constant victim, physically harmed by the man she loves and all he stands for. According to Platt, “Meyer’s writing equates physical attraction with danger and the loss of female innocence with death, reinforcing the message that young women must be protected—from both themselves and the outside world—at all times” (77). As this book falls into the YA genre, geared toward an audience of young girls, Platt is justly concerned with the messages that the Twilight series is sending young women reading these romance books in order to discover the secrets devoted to love, sexuality, and relationships as they will one day apply to them.
Whereas young women look to such romances as a guide towards the future—a superficial and hopeful glance at how to find true love—it is Tricia Clasen’s article on the myths of romantic love that ponders the issue on why older women have been gripped by the romance between two love-struck lovers in the Twilight series. Romance-reading among women is an interesting pursuit as it allows them to escape the reality of their own lives—their mundane relationships that are no longer new and thriving with passion and lust and destined love. Romances bring back the spark middle-aged women have lost. Clasen points out that “romance reading is fueled by dissatisfaction; female readers seek a kind of care and tenderness that they are unlikely to experience in traditional, patriarchal marriages” (120). It seems here that both young girls and adult women seek out romances—and have been “bitten” by Meyer’s vampire series—because they long to be saved, protected, and loved by a strong and virile man.
And this is most interesting in the contradictory nature of where women are headed culturally. We are moving outside of the home, seeking jobs and independence from the traditional and patriarchal norms that used to oppress us because of our gender. And yet, the success of Meyer’s books—and the movies that have resulted from them—tell a different kind of story. The response her love story has received reflects a culture of young and adult women searching for the same thing: a fairy tale.
Marina DelVecchio is the author of The Prostitute’s Daughter, a memoir in which she shows how she has used literature to combat a life of abuse and poverty. She blogs about female agency and the necessary empowerment of our daughters at http://marinagraphy.com. Her work can be found at the Huffington Post, The New Agenda, the WM Parenting Connection, and BlogHer. She teaches writing and literature on the college level.