Thursday, November 19, 2009

Presentations of violence and gender in the Twilight novels

Note: While I do not give a full plot summary, some of the analysis may touch on topics that reveal the plot.  Also, I embrace "the author is dead" perspective, since I do not know anything about the author or her motives.  This analysis is strictly an analysis of the novel in question, and is not a criticism of the author, though I do criticize the author's writing, which I consider to be two different things.

I recently finished Stephanie Meyer's vampire romance, Twilight.  While it wasn't the most fantastic novel (certainly it took a lot of reading before reaching anything remotely climactic), it wasn't all that horrible.  But it wasn't all that good, either.  I didn't have high expectations for a romance novel as it was (admittedly I have read few, not having acquired a taste for the genre--yeah, studying literature makes you elitist.  I'm no exception).  This post will examine gender roles and gender presentations in the novel, as well as other problematic themes.

I. Gendering Monsters
In Twilight, we are introduced to the world of vampires.  From the moment we meet the Cullens, we are made aware through Bella's eyes that they are special:
I stared because their faces, so different, so similar, were all devastatingly, inhumanly beautiful (11).
Though all of the Cullens are stunningly attractive, there's a clear gendered difference in their appearances.  The men are large, and strong, while the women are small and graceful.  Though the women are also impeccably strong, they do not look it.  Several times Alice is referred to as being lithe and graceful in her movements:
Alice reached for Emmett's hand and they darted toward the oversized field; she ran like a gazelle.  He was nearly as graceful and just as fast--yet Emmett could never be compared to a gazelle.
[Edward's] run was more aggressive, a cheetah rather than a gazelle (192).
The males are not only less graceful, but more aggressive.  The exchange between Edward and James when James first catches Bella's scent is a prime example, complete with "feral snarl," "bared teeth," and "aggressive poses" (197).  The females, all of whom obviously feed at some point, are not depicted as so aggressive even though they are (presumably) just as strong and capable as the males.  Even Victoria, who in later books hunts Bella out of revenge (posing an obvious aggressive threat), is described in more traditionally feminine terms:
[Victoria] was wilder, her eyes shifting restlessly between the men facing her, and the loose grouping around me, her chaotic hair quivering in the slight breeze.  Her posture was distinctly feline (196).
We are presented with clear-cut male and female roles.  Within the Cullen family there even seems to be a hierarchy, with Carlisle being presented as the head of the vampire family.  And even Esme, who's presented as the mother figure for the Cullens, seems to be ranked below Edward, though this is perhaps a combination of gendered leadership and seniority, since Carlisle created Edward prior to creating Esme.  We also have the whole creation of vampires.  In the case of most of the Cullens, Carlisle created them, yet it seems that it's in a godlike sort of way rather than a full embrace of the father identity.

II.  Violence is romance
If I were to ever read this book again (I won't) I would count how many times Edward tells Bella he's dangerous, or outright threatens her.  It's deeply disturbing to me that the stalking, the death threats, and the constant mentioning of Bella as food is somehow supposed to be romantic.  I suppose this is just another product of our rape culture, where we inextricably link sex and violence, and the threat of violence is somehow supposed to be endearing.

There's also the vast power disparity, which is also a threat.  In the meadow, Edward demonstrates his strength as further evidence of why Bella should be frightened.  This creates an obvious illustration of Bella's fragility: in any given moment Edward could accidentally crush her.

Bella is willing to accept the constant threat of Edward's presence, and even goes so far as to blame herself for tempting Edward to kill her.  In Twilight Bella even goes well out of her way to not implicate Edward should he kill her--and she willingly walks to her possible death.

There are several instances where Edward is committing criminal acts: watching Bella sleep (breaking and entering), stalking her, obsessing over her to the point where he views her as a possession.  All of which is filtered to us through Bella, who finds this type of attention flattering and romantic.  These are highly problematic, once again driving the point that romance irrevocably involves fear and violence (or at least the constant threat of violence).

These issues are also evident in the later books: hyper aggression in the male characters, Bella's inferiority and apparently fragile nature, traditional gender presentations for the female characters.  Women are consistently presented as a hindrance to the male characters (think of Leah, who seems to be this unwanted burden on the rest of the male pack in Eclipse).

This is all worsened when we think of this in hindsight--yeah, it's great that he followed her all those times.  I mean, think of how she would have been smooshed or raped or murdered, and if he hadn't followed her he couldn't have rescued her.  At one point he even forces her into his car when she tells him to leave her alone.  But later, she resolves to tell him to leave her alone and "mean it this time" (71), which effectively negates any previous sincerity, which in turn adds to the stereotype of women not saying what they mean, which is often twisted into an argument of a gray area concerning consent.  Yeah, it's all connected, okay?

III. Likes
Before anyone accuses me of being an angry feminist who finds joy in nothing, I will admit to some likes:
  • Bella is an awkward and clumsy teenager.  I can relate to that!
  • It's a decent enough story.  Unfortunately Stephanie Meyer isn't a great enough writer to make it more than decent.  
  • Bella's brief feminist moment: in Twilight she mentions writing a paper on female gender roles in Shakespeare's plays.  I really really wish there was more of this more.
  • Oh, at the end she mentions something about needing equality in relationships.  Thank you!!!
  • I did find it hilariously absurd whenever Jacob warned Bella (or whoever) not to make him anger.  LOL! JACOB SMASH!
  • Bella's dad's name is Charlie (which is pretty similar to Charles, who stares at you every time you visit this site--yes, I'm scraping the bottom of the barrel here.  It's not a great literary work.  What the fuck do you want from me?)

Miscellaneous Complaints:
  • Jacob was likable up until he turned werewolf.  He was happy and sweet to Bella.  For a time I was rooting for him because Bella could have been with a great guy.  Then he got all hairy, aggressive, and just as possessive as Edward.  Which means she then had a choice between Douchebag 1 and Douchebag 2.  And Jacob was actually worse in my mind because it seemed like he thought he deserved Bella, like she owed him something, which is totally creepy.  And the forced kiss between her and Jacob clearly lacks consent (and her father laughed and was all cool with it.  You can bet if I went home with the same scenario, Mommy and DaddyGrandeur would be kicking someone's ass--hint: not mine).  
  • After Jacob's monsterization, so-to-speak, any description of Edward and Jacob is entwined in aggression.  Their issues with anger become so central to their characterizations, it's disturbing.  
  • Bella's hearing Edward's voice scolding her like some errant child in New Moon.  God, even when he's not there his hold over her is totally creepy.  And she willingly (again) put herself in danger just to hear that voice--and relished the imagined anger.
  • Stephanie Meyer's writing is...lacking.  Had she not tapped into a provocative premise (human girl falls in love with a vampire--sounds pretty sweet) she probably would never have had anything published.  Her writing is pretty substandard.  I mean, does she really have to have a character say the book's title in every fucking book?  If you have to have your characters explicitly state the name of the book, it kind of kills whatever metaphor you think you were going for (which speaks volumes of the anticipated thinking capacity of the intended audience).  Speaking of metaphors, did anyone else want to do a *headdesk* every time Bella mentioned the damn "hole" in her chest in New Moon?  Okay, we fucking get it--you got dumped, it hurts.  Think of some other way to describe that pain.  Fuck.
Well, that's all I got.  But here are some other fun Twilight links.  If anyone else has written or come across any other good Twilight links, analyses, open threads, etc., drop them in the comments.

Third Twilight Flick to be Guy-Friendly  (okay, not so fun in terms of it's failtastic assumption that women don't get into action and men can't find joy in romance, but every now and then we gotta add logs to our fires, right?).

Works Cited:

Meyer, Stephanie.  Twilight.  New York: Little Brown and Company, 2005.



DalalN said...

Also under "Violence is Romance", I think him taking the engine out of her car just to keep her from talking to someone else is veeeery problematic. It's basically an abusive behavior.

FilthyGrandeur said...

absolutely. i was very upset by that, and the other examples of his controlling behavior.

Shifting said...

Well, you mention in the beginning of the blog about femininity and how the female vampires are portrayed as graceful, while the males are portrayed as agressive. I find nothing at all wrong with that. It seems that you don't equate femininity with stregnth, but in my opinion, femininity is equal with masculinity. Although there are differences between the male and female sexes, there is equality. There is nothing wrong with being graceful, and the female vampires are portrayed as having an equal amount of stregnth as the males. As long as both sexes are portrayed as equally strong, there is nothing wrong with females being more graceful, and males being more aggressive. But I completely agree with you on your other points, such as the fact that Edward is stalkerish and frequently threatens her. Also, another point you can add to your analysis is the traditional gender role of Bella cooking and cleaning for her dad. He goes hunting and fishing, while she cooks and cleans for her. That traditional role I find oppressive and horrible, but I don't find that being feminine is in any way being weak.

FilthyGrandeur said...

interesting points. however you'll notice that all i did was point out the differences between the masculine characters being masculine, and the feminine characters being feminine. men being stereotypically aggressive and portraying even powerful women as graceful are over used cliches.

also, i find it interesting that you were able to parse the gender roles and relationship of Bella vs. Charlie, but not those of the vampires.

Anonymous said...

love this post! i'm actually writing a paper for grad school right now on violence against women in the twilight saga. it's encouraging to find critical reactions to the books - most of the major fan sites out there hardly mention some of the problems you mentioned, let alone discuss them intelligently.

FilthyGrandeur said...

thanks! and i notice also in regards to the fan sites that any criticism of the novel is misconstrued, and the twilight fans work themselves into a frothing frenzy to defend it (here's a post which you might find amusing:

stufflikemikans said...

Very well said. All of this. I agree with everything, and I had very similar thoughts when reading these books. (I'm reading the 4th book right now. I needed a break from good books, I guess). Some more thoughts:

- I was also really disapointed with Jacob turning into a douchebag. I got extremely pissed when he sexually assaluted Bella. (The forced kiss). He was my favorite character until that part. Her dad approving of it was even more disgusting, and I'm glad you pointed it out. It was probably the most disapointing part of the books for me.

- As many other critisisms have pointed out: the books are basically just like bad fan fiction. Bella is a Mary-Sue. Every other character is madly in love with her even though she has no idea why. (As a reader, I have no idea why either.) She never developes as a character throughout the entire series. (but I still need to finish the last book, so maybe I'm being unfair). The only character who developes is Jacob. As already stated, he turns into a douchebag.

- The things I do like about this book kind of make me more angry about it. It feels like wasted potential of a good idea. Like you said, the story is decent. I also like the idea of vampires trying to live like normal people. (Like all of them playing baseball. That was amusing to me). But her writing is so bad that it ruins it.

-The 4th book...what I've read so far...WTF?!?! I didn't plan to read this book, but then I read spoilers for it. The spoilers seemed so outrageous and unbelievable that I had to read it for myself. Yeah...they were all true. WTF?!?!

As for links, have you watched the "Buffy vs Edward" video on youtube? I highly recommend you do.
You should also check out the explanation from the creator of the video:

(Sorry if you've read this already!)

vromance said...

Read or watch Let the Right One In if you need/want any proper "vampire romance".

At times touching, melancholy, tender, sweet, chilling, and tragic, it is everything Twilight is not, and never could be.