Sunday, September 25, 2011

Martyrdom and Misogyny in the Twilight Franchise

Author Stephanie Myer’s gift of capturing the essence of an insecure, perceptive teenage girl in the Twilight novels, while simultaneously offering readers idealizations of feminine self-sacrifice, is both an enormous waste of talent and a grievous injustice to young women. Via the rationalizations of teenage Bella Swann, reinforced by several themes and events in the Twilight novels, Meyer conveys the idea that it is fine to subvert your true nature-- even giving up your life to become a predator as does Bella-- as long as you can spend eternity with your true love. The fact that Bella will ostensibly become a “vegetarian” vampire—not eating people-- like the rest of the Cullen clan seems to justify the psychological conflict and sanitize her plight.
In addition, there are many significant elements of unchecked abuse of females and /or “accidental” victimhood in the book, such as Bella’s “good buddy” Jake forcing a kiss on her, as well as repeated occasions that Bella is the victim of others to the point of suffering broken bones, such as when she tries to defend herself against Jake, who callously laughs at her injury. With friends like that, who needs enemies? All of this victimhood is conveniently eradicated by her achieving the physical immunity and beauty of a vampire, as if her puny natural state was truly destined to be extinguished and replaced by the more rarified, eternal flame of a vampire.
The character of Edward Cullen, Bella’s boyfriend, is ironically the one most resisting Bella’s, “becoming a monster,” in his own words.  Perhaps the most profoundly poignant quote in the book is Edward’s earnest plea to Bella, “Isn’t it enough to spend one lifetime with me?” as he attempts to get her to see everything she will be losing as a human in her emotional greed to spend forever with him as one of the undead. From a literary perspective, this character’s resistance, besides providing necessary dramatic tension, provides an obfuscation of the other underlying message of the book supporting Bella’s decision.  Edward’s unwavering opposition to her self-sacrifice helps to paint her decision as a healthy act of self-will.   His chivalric refusal to bite her with his vampire venom until they are married seems to mask the sadomasochistic nature of the act, and at the same time to put the act of being bit by a vampire on a parallel with sexual intercourse.
Like Bella, most teenage girls are confused, allured, and held captive by the dichotomy of violence and extreme tenderness that they may see in their partners.  Yet this dichotomy of tenderness and violence is exemplified--almost personified-- by the character of Edward Cullen.  Edward’s repeated excuses for his often curt, abrasive, and controlling behavior of her have an eerie ring of similarity to the excuses offered by many abusive boyfriends and husbands. (Think of the mantra “I’m just doing it to protect you, it’s for you’re your own good,” words often spoken by Edward.)  Examples of this behavior, glossed over by Myer, are Edward’s stalking her daily activity, invading her room at night to watch her sleep, and his repeated habit of forcibly steering her around by the arm with his “iron-like grip,” which is mentioned often in the novels but left out of the movies. The director decided wisely that repeatedly seeing a man steer a woman around or physically restrain her would look just like what it is: controlling abuse.
First love never wants to die, which is compellingly human and natural, and a very few of us mere mortals are lucky enough to sustain a first love into adulthood happily. Yet Myer is preying on that undying wish of immature teenagers, and perverting it into something not just literally undying but emotionally unhealthy: propelling them to that dangerous concept of becoming a martyr for her man. This very martyrdom fantasy is what keeps many women in physically and emotionally abusive relationships, according to countless mental health experts, such as Dr. Robin Norwood, author of Women Who Love Too much.  What  Dr. Norwood explains of the psyche of the abused female sounds like a dead-ringer for Bella’s affinity for Edward and Jake: “ The situations and people that others would avoid as dangerous, uncomfortable, and unwholesome do not repel us, because we have no way of evaluating them realistically or self-protectively.  We do not trust our feelings, or use them to guide us. Instead we are drawn to the very dangers, intrigues, dramas… that others with healthier and more balanced backgrounds would naturally eschew.”
Most interestingly, as a blatant departure from the historically subliminal connotation of vampires as being sexually predatory, in Myer’s series vampires are portrayed as just the opposite: the knight in white armor saving women from sexual violence. This is established through three important events in plot: Edward saving Bella from would be kidnappers/ presumed gang rapists in the first book, Twilight; the aforementioned instance in New Moon of Bella’s only mortal male friend Jake forcibly kissing her, only to be warned by Edward; and the third event coming full circle with family patriarch Carlisle “saving” Victoria after she has been brutally gang raped by her own fiancĂ© and his friends and left to die.  Yet Edward the vampire gallantly adheres to the look but don’t touch rule:  though he unapologetically admits to watching her sleep, he never violates her sexually.
Myer may be sending this message to teenagers subconsciously, seriously believing that it’s all quite romantic and that she’s doing no harm.  Perhaps she is unconsciously reflecting her own martyrdom scenario from a situation she witnessed or absorbed in her childhood. Tellingly, the admission of Myer that the well spring for these novels came from a dream she had may well account for the subliminal and irrational mixed messages in the Twilight saga.  Yet perhaps she is also simply reflecting the many internecine themes, Jungian archetypes, and social paradigms in society that insidiously whisper, “Stand by your man,” even if he beats, rapes, or kills you.
Unfortunately, the cinematic use of actor Robert Pattinson has led a cult-like popularity to the Twilight machine, which now consists of innumerable franchised goods in addition to the movies themselves.  With his undeniable beauty, natural elegance and expressive face, Pattinson lends an exquisite sensitivity to the now iconic role of Edward Cullen, making it almost impossible for the average teenager to clearly see the issues through the nebulous flush of first love and onscreen chemistry of costar Kristen Stewart and himself.  Indeed, both actors seem like a director and author’s dream, as if they were made for those roles. Their reported off-screen romance only adds to the appeal of Twilight, and helps to obfuscate its true message that happiness can be found through descents into darkness and denial of self.
Further maddening is the fact that Myer openly advertises her books as high school reading material by offering possible study questions in the appendices of some editions. These  questions compare it to the love found in  Romeo and Juliet, and of course do not even hint at the trenchant themes of misogynistic belittlement and glorified feminine martyrdom that are ubiquitous throughout the Twilight  saga. If  Myer feels that her novels are on a par with  literary  fare such as  Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story,  she is deluding herself not just on her works’ literary quality but on its message: in those great works the young lovers were victims of outside social restrictions, not misogyny masquerading as virtue.
Having used all of the critical plot elements of star crossed lovers throughout history, Myer has added a toxic dose of glamorized, feminine self-annihilative fantasies to create a lucrative literary franchise, while doing a serious injustice to young women around the world.