Which of us, in our impressionable teenage years, has not displaced an irrational horror of sex into a freaky emo crush on a moody vampire with sky-high cheek bones and taste for human blood?
Dear reader, today I am writing to you in hopes of answering a very pressing and existential question: Is the Twilight Saga feminist?
It’s a question I only started to take seriously, recently, as I was re-watching Breaking Dawn: Part I—a decision inspired by the recent release of Midnight Sun. (The companion novel to the saga’s first installment, told from the perspective of Edward Cullen.)
During the final scene, as the camera zoomed in on Bella, who was in a vampire bite induced coma and lying as still as Snow White, post-poisoned apple, I realized—as she opened her eyes to reveal that they were blood red—that there was something vaguely satisfying about watching her get everything she wanted, against all odds and contrary to all the other characters’ assumptions that she would be too fragile to survive.
It was then that I came to the conclusion that I was probably more inclined to criticize the Twilight Saga through a feminist lens as a teenager than I am now, as a twenty-eight-year-old adult. Subsequently, I asked myself: What changed? And, when I found that I had no clear answer, I decided to ask Google what other feminists thought about Twilight.
Much of what I found was predictable, the gist being: Bella is a bad role model for girls because she is selfless and complies with traditional gender roles, and Edward is an abusive boyfriend who stalks Bella and renders her incapable of making her own choices due to the intimidation that his superhuman strength naturally imposes.
Both of which, I thought, were very lazy criticisms—though I agree with them, and I’ve often expressed them myself.
It wasn’t until I came across a particular think piece, however, by a guy named David Cox—titled, “Twilight: the franchise that ate feminism”—that I finally found a “feminist” opinion that I wholly disagreed with. (Cox spends a majority of the piece ripping Bella to shreds; writing her off as a stupid, love struck teenage girl with no aspirations. And, then, he concludes the whole thing by writing off every young woman and girl who bought movie tickets to the 2008 Twilight premiere—the premiere that inspired record sales, and forced Hollywood to recognize the significant spending power of a female-identifying audience, I might add—as being incapable of identifying what’s good for themselves.)
In the piece, he said: “You can’t get away from a strange paradox. Women are using their regained power over the picture house to trash their hard-won independence. What mysterious creatures they are.”
And, after reading this sentence, I thought: Wow, what a weird thing for a grown man to write about a story created for teenage girls.
I contemplated what the books meant to me as a junior in high school, when I first read them, and how I’d feel if I’d read a statement like Cox’s back then. And I realized it probably would’ve been more damaging to my self-esteem, and general understanding of my own demographic, than any message I could’ve derived from Twilight.
I realized that—though I wholly embrace and accept the criticisms of Twilight that focus on its in-your-face heteronormativity, insensitivity to native American culture, and overall cringe-factor—when it comes to the question of whether or not Bella Swan is a “feminist” heroine, my response—at least for now, at this moment in time—is: Who cares. (I think a story about a girl, by a woman, that is widely beloved by a female identifying readership and audience should be exempt from that question. Which is an opinion that probably contradicts a lot of sentiments that I’ve expressed in the past. However, people change, and I’m at a point in my life where I’m tired of this question where we ask ourselves whether or not something is “good” for girls and women. Mostly because I’ve realized that we so rarely ask ourselves a similar question regarding forms of media and entertainment geared towards a male audience. Like, no one ever asks whether NFL players beating up women is “good” for men.)
Basically, what I’m trying to say is: I’m more interested in criticizing the feminist criticisms of Twilight than I am in criticizing Twilight itself, and so—here we are. Instead of determining whether or not Twilight is feminist, I think what I really want to know is: Why do I like Twilight? (Right now, I’m recalling an image of a dying, pregnant Bella, savoring a foam cup of blood as if it were hot chocolate, while Edward’s Volvo is parked out in the driveway of their suburban home, as if it were all some apocalyptic vision of the nuclear family that I had a nightmare about. Like, seriously: Why do I like this?)
I think the answer to this question can only be revealed by, first, answering yet another question: What did Twilight mean to girls and young women, at the height of its popularity, and what did its resonation with this demographic reveal about the society that surrounded it?
In the context of this second question, I think it’s important to recognize that the Twilight Saga—at least on a metaphorical level—is, first and foremost, an “orphan” story, driven by characters in search of a stable identity, sense of belonging and home.
For example: the Cullens—at least most of them—are a clan of immortal teenagers whose human lives were cut short by traumatic events like bear attacks, global pandemics and violent gang rapes. They can hardly remember their human parents, but there is an underlying melancholy about their past lives that seems to haunt them. When they share what they can remember about being human, they express a longing to go back to the “normal” domesticity of mortality, or, at the very least, to a life that doesn’t feel like a constant merry-go-round. (When Rosalie recounts her backstory in the movie adaptation of Eclipse, she reminisces about being human in a way that feels disjointed, like a dream. She longs to grow old with her partner, Emmett, saying: “That’s what I miss the most, possibilities. Sitting on a porch somewhere.”) While Bella—the teenage human—is a latchkey kid; the product of divorce and parents who—despite being loving—have a difficult time taking care of themselves. Ultimately, this creates circumstances that force Bella to form a personality around being as accommodating as possible to chaos and uncertainty. (In the first novel, she expresses being prone to dissociation, saying: “I do a good job of blocking painful, unnecessary things from my memory.”)
Furthermore, I think this common literary theme of “the orphan”—as it relates to Twilight—can be narrowed down into a sub-version that is more teenage girl-centric: Bella embodies the unique social isolation—and awkwardness—inherent to being a teenage girl, and Twilight itself is a rescue fantasy about being plucked from this mundane, painful existence by a benevolent force (a.k.a. Edward) that is determined to not let the world—a patriarchal world in which horrible things happen to women, no less—fuck with you. (I mean, Edward does save Bella from being attacked by a group of drunk men in a dark alleyway—a form of danger that could feasibly cross a girl like Bella in the real world, and has absolutely nothing to do with the fantastic world of vampires.)
This is totally regressive, and problematic for an arsenal of reasons: I’m not trying to deny that. However, what I am trying to point out is that rescue fantasies didn’t begin with Twilight, and instead of breaking these fantasies down into a list of reasons why they’re “bad” for teenage girls, maybe we should ask ourselves what it is about our society and culture that makes this form of escape and release feel so important, and maybe even necessary, to teenage girls in the first place. Because, personally, when I was a sixteen year old girl in the midst of a major, yet-to-be diagnosed depressive episode, Twilight was an absolute lifeline, a creature comfort—like Dr. Pepper or broccoli cheddar soup—and I want to understand why.
One night, in a haze of quarantine boredom, I found myself alone, in the dark at 3 AM—on a Tuesday—weeping as Cinderella gazed into sparkling water from a curlicue bridge with Prince Charming; they were illuminated by moonlight and surrounded by willow trees as the duet “So This is Love” droned on.
Up until that point, I hadn’t given princess narratives much thought beyond the fact that they made me kind of nostalgic, like: oh yeah, I remember being captivated by the cartoon blue birds and sparkly dresses and pumpkin carriages. I didn’t believe they held any significant meaning for me, but clearly I was wrong: I was obviously mourning something. And I think what triggered this onslaught of unforeseen emotion had nothing to do with Prince Charming—who is virtually faceless and inconsequential in my mind’s eye—or romantic love, per se. But a sinking realization, like: No one is coming.
Prior to the curlicue bridge, water-gazing, “So This is Love” scene, there was a scene where Cinderella came running down the stairs, beaming in a pink furry trimmed dress that some friendly mice and birds had stitched together, just in time for her to make it to the ball. And when her wicked step sisters—let me make it clear, I’m not down with the motif of demonizing “other” women, but in the context of fairy tales: it is what it is—realize that the dress is made from scraps of clothing that they’d discarded, earlier in day, they rip it to shreds in a jealous rage.
Of course this devastates Cinderella, and the next scene depicts her crying in her torn dress with her head bowed over a bench in the garden; she says to herself, “There’s nothing left to believe in, nothing.” And it made me think about how feminine adolescent pain and injustice so often occurs in the absence of an empathetic witness—from eating disorders and cutting, to bullying, objectification, sexual harassment and anything else you can think of.
It made me think about how this absence inevitably provokes a deep sense of social isolation, and to a point where any witness at all needs to be imagined. Hence: cartoon mice in little hats, fairy godmothers, etc.
Edward Cullen is obviously some variation of that witness for Bella Swan, albeit a more mature, sexually charged and potentially dangerous one—like a debonair Peter Pan. And, in a lot of ways, Twilight is about never having to grow up or enter a harsh reality where women are abused, or treated unfairly; it’s about never having to work through trauma, or overcome the deep rooted insecurities that result in abandonment issues or cyclical self-destructive behavior. And all because you have a spiky haired boyfriend who can help you skip all that by gifting you with eternal beauty, superhuman strength and immortality. (In other words: not only will Edward Cullen prevent the world from fucking with you, he will also eradicate your need for any protection whatsoever by making you virtually indestructible.)
This theory was echoed back to me, while researching for this post, by a critical analysis of Twilight by Janice Hawes, titled, “Sleeping Beauty and Avoiding Adolescence.”
In the essay, Hawes interprets Twilight as a modern, regressive re-telling of “Sleeping Beauty.”
She argues that Bella spends most of her time dreaming throughout the saga, and only becomes self-actualized once Edward has bitten her—in lieu of a kiss—and then concludes that these details prove her thesis that Bella is a lazy princess who just doesn’t want to engage in the emotional labor that is being alive. She says: “Just like [Sleeping Beauty] whose sleep isolates her from the rest of the world, Bella’s feelings of inadequacy and helplessness isolates her from the real challenges of everyday maturation. When she is not passively awaiting her prince Edward, she is actively avoiding the dancing, dating, shopping, and bickering of the social whirl that is high school. Her sleep is symbolic of her own avoidance of the everyday rituals associated with adolescence and of a desire to escape rather than confront her insecurities.”
As an adult who was once a mentally ill teenager who left every school dance after five minutes, abandoned every friendship at the first hint of conflict, only went to graduation to appease her parents, and had a therapist who sent her mother home with a book about acedia and subsequently gave up on her—apparently I was a lazy princess, too—I read this statement and felt personally attacked.
It’s not that this criticism is wrong, because it’s the furthest thing from it: it’s totally accurate and applicable to both Bella, and that distant, disengaged teenage version of me. It’s just that this criticism is so relatable, and why is that?
I once read in a book-length essay by Trisha Low—Socialist Realism—that the mass, manic and tear-strewn fandom surrounding the appointed heartthrobs of teenage girls and teenie boppers is the only outlet they have for the emotions and thoughts that they are either deemed too vapid to understand, or are denied agency and control over, by society. (Some examples: rage, violence, deviance, existential dread, desire, lust, sexuality, etc.) She discussed an article by Rachel Monroe about the 60’s Beatlemania, and applied Monroe’s observations to the postmodern teen girl’s love for One Direction, saying: “Beatlemania was not unlike the One Direction fandom, but it emerged earlier in the political movement of the sixties… it is an example of how teen girls instinctively felt that there was something wrong in the world, but lacked access to a vocabulary or knowledge to accurately describe it. Instead, they performed fangirlishness as a socially acceptable mode of resisting and expressing their frustration, their dissatisfaction.”
I was struck by this passage, because I have a clear memory of the moment when I first experienced the teen-girl “something is wrong” feeling that it describes.
When I was thirteen, I was a “hostess”—along with two other girls—for a baseball team that came into town for a little league “world series.” (Basically “hostess” was just another word for a girl who was assigned a baseball team of boys to hang out with.)
Anyway, me and the other hostesses went on a field trip of sorts and all I remember is that, while we were on the school bus, I was tying a boy’s hair up into multiple pigtails with rubber bands that were supposed to be for my braces—because we were dumb middle school kids who thought something like this was peak comedy, and also because he asked me too. And, suddenly, one of the coaches was demanding that I relocate to another seat on the bus because he thought I was becoming a “distraction” to the boys’ ability to win baseball games. (That little league world series was really going to make or break those boys’ careers, apparently.)
Of course, I resisted the whole thing because it was fucking humiliating, and none of the adults were providing me with an explicit explanation for what it was, exactly, that I was doing wrong. However, this was to no avail: I was eventually forced to sit next to a woman that I didn’t know—completely exiled from the team and my friends, like I was a witch on a bus full of puritans or something.
After we returned home from the field trip, I was left alone—waiting for my parents to pick me up—with a “host mother” (someone from the community who housed boys from the team), and she used this time to privately chastise me.
I can’t remember exactly what she said, but the general rhetoric was “you know what you did”—once again, no explicit explanation for what that was exactly—and I remember experiencing an intense inner-gurgling, saying: Something is wrong. She should not be saying these things to me.
I began my defense, which was quickly halted when she held up her hand, like: Enough, case closed. I went home feeling completely disconnected from myself, because truth be told—for whatever reason—I couldn’t allow myself to feel what I was actually feeling, which was furious. (To this day, I’ve never forgotten how she held up her hand, silencing me, and the shame that came with it. I remember understanding in that moment—albeit unconsciously—that the rules were different for girls.)
Unfortunately, that wouldn’t be the last time an adult who should’ve known better—who had no idea what they were doing—would project their own fears and prejudices about how a young lady ought to conduct herself onto me. (In high school I had a male teacher who took digs at what he perceived to be my lack of intelligence, relentlessly—despite my obvious discomfort—and once made me turn in a circle for him and another male teacher after telling me that my outfit was “inappropriate”—a humiliation that, to this day, I refuse to believe didn’t bring him some kind of sadistic satisfaction.)
Basically, my point is: teenage girls are often judged and treated as if they are adults—even though—it shouldn’t need to be said—they are not adults. (Think of how Jeffrey Epstein’s victims were represented in the media as “child prostitutes,” how the reality that these were normal school girls—arbitrarily plucked and lured away from their classrooms—was casually omitted from the narrative, for years. Think about how a fifteen year girl was abducted by her teacher, and every headline about the story claimed they “ran away” together—as if a fifteen year old girl can consent to any proposition made to her by a man with decades on her. Think about how high school dress codes can enable teachers of all genders to body shame, and prey on the insecurities of teenage girls—and all while some male teacher in the science wing is well-known for intentionally seating bustier girls at the front of his classroom, at that.)
In retrospect, I understand all the Regina Georges of my past: as a teenage girl, if you wanted to make it out of high school unscathed by all the creepy injustices you endured, but didn’t totally understand, you kind of had to be a pit bull of a person. Like, there’s so much stuff that I look back on from when I was a teenager that leaves me wondering: how does any girl graduate from high school without a shattered identity that they have to spend the duration of their early twenties piecing back together? (It was truly Lord of the Flies out there.)
Maybe I’m wrong, maybe this is just me trying to paint over my own painful adolescence, but I do believe that all teenage girls, at one point or another, get this “something is wrong” feeling—like, it doesn’t matter how mean or mousey or popular or sporty or bookish or funny or pretty you were: you felt it. And that feeling is the reason why teenage girls need their manic, heartfelt obsessions, like the Beatles or One Direction—obsessions, like how Bella needed Edward Cullen.
Trisha Low concluded the segment of her essay on this teenage “something is wrong” feeling, with: “Without projecting our impossible illusions upon our objects of desire, without a constant falsification of the world through other human beings, we probably could not live.”
I like this idea because it suggests—especially in the context of teenage girls who are trying to comprehend an adult world of double standards that they aren’t quite ready to enter—that escape through obsession is a valid survival mechanism; that it’s a relief, sometimes, to have our thoughts and dreams invaded people and things, other than ourselves.
In fact, I’d be willing to argue that obsessions with heart throbs and rescue fantasies about being chosen by aloof guys who are dangerous—but *in my best valley girl voice* not really—are a rite of passage; I think believing in the all-consuming romance of the Edward/Bella variety is something that serves a purpose in adolescence, until it doesn’t anymore—kind of like Santa Claus.
Rescue fantasies make adolescence feel bearable, and in this way they’re a good thing! However, they can become problematic when they endure beyond a developmentally appropriate age and begin to result in self-destructive or antisocial behavior. (Kind of like what Janice Hawes was describing, in her essay, when she argued that Bella’s obsession with Edward was pathological and synonymous with “a desire to escape rather than confront her insecurities.”)
The most extreme real-life example of a rescue-fantasy-gone-too-far, that I can think of, is the infamous Slender Man stabbing. (The one where two twelve year old girls—Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier—stabbed their friend—Payton Leutner—nineteen times as a sacrifice to Slender Man—the faceless bogey man that is photo shopped into images of children playing on playgrounds—in hopes that he’d adopt them as his “proxies” and take them away to live in his mansion.)
In HBO’s documentary about the stabbing (Beware the Slender Man), images of girlhood are emphasized by the camera zooming in on the contents of the girls’ rooms: painted roses on the walls, colorful ceramic “my room” signs, dress shoes that look like cats, a green hair tie… This is done, presumably, to heighten the stranger-than-fiction quality of this particular crime, and just how uncanny it is: little girls, doing violently cruel things for their own selfish gain.
From what I gleaned from the parents’, teachers’, law enforcers’ and experts’ descriptions of Morgan and Anissa: these were two girls with no solid connections to other children, other than each other. They were considered “different” and bullied at school—in short, they were as socially isolated from their peers as two average middle school girls can be. And yet, the thing that many of the experts and parents and teachers chose to demonize—to blame, essentially—wasn’t whatever lack or mental illness (Morgan was diagnosed with Schizophrenia shortly after the stabbing was committed) that caused these girls to experience such distress that bringing a rescue fantasy to fruition felt necessary, but their close one-on-one friendship. (At one point, a psychologist—Abigail Baird—even said: “Those two girls in a tight group of friends, I don’t think this would have happened.”)
I’m not saying that the girls’ crime is excusable, or that their close one-on-one friendship isn’t partially to blame, but that something about presenting it as the primary issue feels wrong to me. Especially when something as powerful as a rescue fantasy is at the heart of a crime committed by two incredibly young, very vulnerable, minds that were not yet capable of completely differentiating between fantasy and reality.
Another psychologist who was interviewed for the documentary (whose name escapes me) was one of the few people who said something that made any sense to me. He said: “Slender Man is the grim reaper, but with a heart. These pictures are not so much him showing up on the playground to snatch kids away, but to rescue them. Stories like this can be a powerful aphrodisiac for somebody who is lonely or troubled or is trying to find their way in the world.” (Slender Man might seem like an odd choice for a savior, but let’s take a moment to appreciate the overlap between Slender Man and Edward Cullen’s primary descriptors: hangs out in trees, very pale, stalks you, watches you sleep, might kill you but also might save you from the boredom of everyday life…)
The point is, these girls were isolated from other girls their age and they could only find solace in this joint fantasy of being saved by Slender Man, and each other—one suffered from schizophrenia, which she knew nothing about, while the other was a product of divorce and (this is just my own hunch with no research to back it up, whatsoever) had parents that gave off a very emotionally repressed vibe—and this combination of circumstances created a teenage dream run amuck. Both girls wanted to get away from something, and however elusive and slippery that thing was, one thing is certain: this crime couldn’t have been prevented with something as simple as “more friends.”
At some point, Anissa’s mother expressed concern about the fact that, once Anissa is released from incarceration, she won’t know how to be an adult, or how to navigate everyday interactions and situations (like going to the supermarket) due to having been locked up in a mental health institution ever since she was a child.
Aside from the fact that Payton was arbitrarily attacked and almost killed by her best friend, this is what makes the Slender Man stabbing so tragic: Morgan and Anissa got what they wanted.
They’ll never grow up or come of age in the traditional sense, they’ll be stunted by incarceration, mental illness and their own choices. In this way, the Slender Man stabbing is like a real-life cautionary tale about rescue fantasies—the anti-Twilight, in other words—that concludes not with “happily ever after,” but, “be careful what you wish for.” And, furthermore, I’d be willing to argue that it’s a cautionary tale about what happens when girls cling too desperately to their “otherness” or “sameness”—in relation to their own gender identification—and subsequently play into a patriarchal script that would rather peg girls against each other—whilst in the pursuit of some faceless man—than have them realize that the lines they draw or disregard between themselves and their own demographic are, in fact, the result of internalized misogyny.
When Morgan was interrogated after stabbing Payton, she told the detective: “Truth be told, I wanted to be locked up so that I couldn’t hurt her, but I really didn’t want to make Anissa mad. It’s hard enough to make friends.” Implying, to me, that to go back on the plan, to opt out of the fantasy, would’ve been a betrayal to Anissa. And, in Morgan’s world where friendship was scarce, backtracking just wasn’t an option.
Furthermore, while following this story, I remember detecting notes of rivalry between Anissa and Payton, with Morgan at the center. In a recent 20/20 interview with a high school-aged Payton, I remember her expressing an unforgiving disdain (and rightfully so) for Anissa, and compassion (surprisingly) for Morgan.
“Morgan’s schizophrenic!” she told the interviewer, and—I swear—I detected a note of defense.
I once read that people with schizophrenia often express their paranoia through acts that reflect the collective anxiety of the society and culture that surrounds them—for example, American people with schizophrenia are more likely to become violent, while Indian people with schizophrenia are more likely to clean obsessively.
When I think about this in the context of Morgan stabbing Payton, her best friend, in order to maintain her joint-fantasy with Anissa, it’s almost like she was acting out this idea that says teenage girls have to morph into stereotypes of cattiness in order to be accepted socially; that they must conform to, and mimic, whatever the girl next to them—i.e. Anissa—is doing, and at the expense of girls who deviate from this pattern—i.e. Payton. (This idea is reflected in an essay by Alice Bolin called “Just Us Girls.” She says: “When girls are cruel and manipulative to their sisters and best friends, when they contract secrets and compulsions and disorders from them, they are acting out another script authored by a sexist society. And it is not only that sisters are expected to share dysfunction, but that our culture encourages female intimacy while also despising women without men and suspecting that they are wild and sinister. This contradiction produces shame and anger in girls, who take out their rage on the only people who are vulnerable to them, by punishing and policing their sisters but also themselves. I recognize this quick-burning, misplaced anger in my own [female friendships], which [involved] a kind of closeness where any boundary was a betrayal.”)
When I think about this whole dynamic of jealous tension between two girls trying to share a mutual friend—within this very, very, fucked up situation—I realize that an unwillingness to relate to other girls, or resenting other girls for having their own identities separate from the whole of a friendship, social group or clique, is its own form of refusing to grow up—just like avoiding one’s own insecurities and traumas is a refusal to grow up. And Bella Swan is no exception to the former refusal, the same way she is no exception to the latter; like Morgan or Anissa, she also struggles with the double bind of needing to assert “otherness” while also desperately craving sameness.
In Twilight—the first novel—she says: “I didn’t relate well to other people my age. Maybe the truth was that I didn’t relate well to other people, period. Even my mother, who I was closer to than anyone else on the planet, was never in harmony with me, never on exactly the same page. Sometimes I wondered if I was seeing the same things through my eyes that the rest of the world was seeing through theirs. Maybe there was a glitch in my brain.”
All of the other human girls, through Bella’s eyes, seem so sure of themselves, so free of inner torment and insecurity. And this perceived isolation leaves Bella longing for a “niche” as she puts it; for a twin in the shape of Edward Cullen. (They both feel detached from their own kind: Bella doesn’t relate to other humans, and Edward doesn’t relate to other vampires. They understand each other wholly, and resolutely: it’s an emo kid’s wet dream.)
It’s interesting, because as a teenager I didn’t really consider Bella all that much; I didn’t think about having anything in common with her, or admire her, or hate her, or have any opinion about her at all. But now, I realize that I am more like her than any of the other (perhaps more admirable) heroines from the YA series that defined my generation; that I am more likely to be considered a Bella Swan than a Hermione Granger or Katniss Everdeen. (To resist this fact any longer might just be one more way of maintaining my own internalized misogyny; it would imply that there is something inherently wrong with being a girl and being ordinary, which there isn’t.)
When I look back on my own teenage years, I think my biggest regret is ever believing—like Bella—that I was the only one who was depressed; that I was the only one who got left out and bullied; that I was the only one who suffered discrete sexist injustices that occurred in the absence of an empathetic witness; that I was the only one who dreamed of finding someone who could wholly understand me and save me from the burden of trying to understand myself; that I was the only one who felt completely crushed when she realized that no such person was coming, and that growing up meant becoming that person for herself.
I think I understand it now: the reason why I like Twilight is because it made me feel connected to other girls during a time when I felt particularly disconnected from them. (Or maybe it was just the fire soundtracks, who’s to say.)
As one YouTube video, featuring meme-like commentary over clips from the Twilight movies, jokingly proclaimed: When Edward left Bella in the woods, he abandoned all of us.