NOTE: This post discusses Twilight, the movie, and the Twilight book series (particularly the latest book, Breaking Dawn), and is SPOILER HEAVY. If you've not read the books and don't want to read spoilers, do NOT read this post until you've read them. It's also longer than my usual column, as I had a lot of ground to cover, so if you hate reading long pieces, skip it. Thanks.
You're probably aware, even if you're not into books about vampires and clumsy, average teenage girls falling in love with one, that there's a popular book series called the Twilight Saga, and the first book in the series, Twilight, is being adapted for the big screen by director Catherine Hardwicke. What you may not be aware of is the little undercurrent of female writers decrying the series as inherently anti-feminist.
The Twilight series grew in popularity, mostly off the radar of the feminist set, until it got so popular that the feminists started to take notice -- and offense. I first became aware of this anti-feminist backlash when Meg Cabot, author of The Princess Diaries (among other girly books) responded on her blog to readers writing her to ask what she thought of the series, thusly: " I didn't take my husband's last NAME when we got married. Do you honestly think I'd like a story about a girl considering changing SPECIES for a guy? No offense to any of you, but as a feminist, I just can't go there... "
I found Cabot's take interesting because I'm a feminist myself, who also didn't take my husband's last name when we got married, but I don't happen to find the series inherently anti-feminist. Nonetheless, since the release of the fourth book in the series, Breaking Dawn, on August 2, the feminist mutterings have started to escalate to a dull roar.
Over on Jezebel.com, in a spoiler-laden piece titled "What to Expect When You're Expecting a Vampire," they jump all over the book for having a "creepy anti-abortion allegory," promoting teen motherhood ("In the Breaking Dawn universe, teen motherhood just makes your life rad."), idealized relationships, the heroine's dominant personality trait being low self-esteem, and the books in general promoting "a fundamentally conservative ideology."
I've seen the books flamed in a various places, being called "a how-to manual for an abusive relationship," derided for the character of Bella having low self-esteem and obsessing over a control-freak vampire, and more. I just finished reading Breaking Dawn, which has, interestingly, proved to be very divisive even among hard-core fans of the series; in fact, I can't recall when I've seen any book that's a continuation of a popular series generate such ire among its fan base. (For the record, I fall pretty squarely in the camp of not being crazy about Breaking Dawn, but not for the reasons most of the feminists seem to have with it.) I want to discuss here the main beefs the feminist camp seems to have with the series in general and with Breaking Dawn in particular:
1) The Twilight series is inherently anti-feminist, because Bella is willing to become a vampire to stay with Edward forever.
One of the key things that the critics of the series seem to be overlooking is that series author Stephenie Meyer is a devout Mormon. While it's certainly possible for authors to attempt to leave their religious views out of their writing, I would submit that Meyer's Mormonism has shaped her world-view, and that influence has, necessarily, framed the male-female relationships in the series, particularly the Bella-Edward relationship.
Bella repeatedly describes herself throughout the series as plain, fragile, boring, and imperfect, while she idealizes Edward as "dazzling," perfect, eternal, and God-like. While Meyers has not, to my knowledge, ever explicitly stated that her books are intended to embody her Mormon faith, I think that looking at the series without that context is to ignore a big piece of the ideas underlying the entire series.
I am not a Mormon, so my understanding of the Mormon belief system is derived largely from my own informal study of the religion and conversations with Mormon friends. Generally, what I've gleaned is that Mormonism teaches that its doctrine is the only path to eternal salvation, and that marriages "sealed" in a Mormon temple are believed to unite a couple (and children born of that union) not just "until death do us part," but for all eternity. This understanding becomes particularly important in the Twilight series in the fourth book, where Bella and Edward's marriage vows very closely mirror Mormon marriage vows.
Looked at from the context of Meyer's faith, one could, perhaps, conclude that Bella's relationship with Edward is a metaphor for the relationship between an individual and her (or his) faith: Edward -- and by extension, Bella's desire to become a vampire herself -- represents physical perfection, a healing of all bodily human "flaws," and eternal life. Bella wants to become a vampire to stay with Edward forever, yes, but her desire really runs deeper than that; she idolizes not just Edward, but the entire Cullen family and their vampire way of life.
2) The Bella-Edward relationship is abusive and controlling.
Quite a few of the critics of the series have derided Bella's willingness to forever give up her relationships with her parents and friends in order to be with Edward, but if you read the books closely, Bella says often that she believes she'll be able to control the "newborn vampire" killing urge over time and be able to find a way to sustain those relationships while also having her vampire dreams come true.
Bella never believes that she'll be giving up her parents, or even her friends, forever. She wants to have it both ways, and her strength of will is strong enough that in the fourth book, when she does become a vampire, the Cullens are amazed at her ability to control the newborn blood-lust. This doesn't speak to me of a female character who's inherently weak and controlled by others -- she's not even controlled by her new nature, as the rest of them were; rather, she controls it, through the force of her will to make it so.
Further, throughout the series, Bella pursues Edward as much as he pursues her. It's Bella who repeatedly makes the sexual advances, and Edward who restrains himself out of fear that he'll hurt her in her fragile human state. Edward doesn't force or coerce Bella into becoming a vampire; quite the contrary -- he resists making her a vampire repeatedly, because he thinks she'll lose her soul, and it's Bella who finally coerces Edward into agreeing to her plan to join him in eternal life. She may have self-esteem issues, but she's hardly weak.
3) The fourth book in the series, Breaking Dawn, is particularly anti-feminist because Bella gets pregnant with a half-vampire child that nearly kills her during the pregnancy, but she refuses to have an abortion.
Now this one really gets my ire up, but before we delve into these murky waters, a little defining of concepts is in order. For me, a big part of my feminist beliefs have to do with the concept of choice; that is to say, I believe that feminism is about being pro-choice, which is not the same as being pro-abortion. The idea of pro-choice means supporting women in making the choice that's right for them around a pregnancy -- not proselytizing abortion as the only "right" choice.
In Breaking Dawn, Bella refuses to have her pregnancy aborted, even though the pregnancy and birth may kill her; she believes that even if she comes close to dying, the Cullens will "save" her by making her a vampire before it's too late. As many mothers can attest, the maternal drive of a woman to protect her unborn child can be very strong, even to the extent that a woman would sacrifice herself to protect her child.
Since when is motherhood and maternal impulse inherently anti-feminist? Some women choose to be mothers, some do not, and that's part of the feminist ideology of freedom of choice. But freedom of choice has to work both ways, not just your way; the right of women to choose to abort a pregnancy has to, on its other face, include the right of a woman to carry a pregnancy to term, even if it endangers her life. Flip it around -- what would these feminists say to a male doctor forcing an abortion on a pregnant woman who didn't want one? You can't have your freedom of choice one way.
4) The fourth book promotes and idealizes teen pregnancy.
I find it insulting to the many excellent, nurturing younger mothers I know to imply that a pregnancy when you're an older teen (or even in your early 20s) is the End of the World. I had my oldest daughter when I was 17, and I survived and thrived. Is it the easiest path, or one that I would choose or recommend to my own daughters? No, not necessarily, but then again, my life today wouldn't be what it is without my oldest daughter as a part of my life-path, so neither would I consider it a ruination of their lives.
And frankly, I know some women in their 30s and 40s who are far worse moms than some of the younger moms I've crossed paths with. The ability to be a good mother and grow as a person from the life-changes that motherhood inevitably brings has far more to do with a woman's character and support system than the number of years she's lived on this planet.
So no, I don't believe the Twilight series is inherently anti-feminist. I also don't expect the feminist backlash to negatively impact the box office returns of the first film. I expect the series' fan base will support the movie; even those fans who didn't like the fourth book aren't going to stay away from the film version of the first. As to whether Breaking Dawn, with its gory birth scene and overall lack of action, could ever be made into a movie? Well, that's a question for another day.