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FEATURES | spring 2009

Talking Back to Twilight

By Carmen D. Siering 

In Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight saga, a wildly popular four-book series of young adult novels, the protagonist Bella Swan—by all accounts a very average human girl—has two suitors. One is the unimaginably beautiful vampire, Edward, the other a loyal and devoted werewolf, Jacob. Fans of the books, and now a movie version, often break into “teams,” aligning themselves with the swain they hope Bella will choose in the end: Team Edward or Team Jacob.

But few young readers ask, “Why not Team Bella?” perhaps because the answer is quite clear: There can be no Team Bella. Even though Bella is ostensibly a hero, in truth she is merely an object in the Twilight world.

On the surface, the Twilight saga seems to have something to please everyone. Moms are reading the books and swooning over Edward right alongside their teen and tween daughters. Librarians and teachers are delighted to see students with their heads tucked into books, and since Twilight’s romantic sensuality is wrapped up in an abstinence message, all the kissing and groping appear to be harmless.

But while Twilight is ostensibly a love story, scratch the surface and you will find an allegorical tale about the dangers of unregulated female sexuality. From the very first kiss between Edward and Bella, she is fighting to control her awakening sexuality. Edward must restrain her, sometimes physically, to keep her from ravishing him. There are those who might applaud the depiction of a young man showing such self-restraint, but shouldn’t the decision about when a couple is ready to move forward sexually be one they make together?

Meyer insists that she sees Bella as a feminist character, since the foundation of feminism is being able to choose. What Meyer fails to acknowledge is that all of the choices Bella makes are Meyer’s choices—choices based on her own patriarchal Mormon background. In Breaking Dawn, the latest book in the series, Meyer finally allows Bella’s subordination to end as she takes her proper place: in the patriarchal structure. When Bella becomes a wife and mother, Meyer allows her to receive her heart’s desire—to live forever by Edward’s side, to be preternaturally beautiful and graceful, to be strong and be able to defend herself.

Director Catherine Hardwicke’s film version of Twilight remains true to the novel, but there are subtle changes that make it much more feminist-friendly. Kristin Stewart’s Bella is more outspoken and forthright, and Robert Pattinson’s Edward is much less condescending and overbearing. Their relationship seems to be built on equality and friendship, and includes scenes of mutual sexual frustration and restraint. Here is a Bella we can root for.

Excerpted from the Spring 2009 issue of Ms. - join the ms. community at www.msmagazine.com.

Carmen D. Siering is an assistant professor of English and women’s studies at BallStateUniversity in Muncie, Ind. One of her research areas is popular culture and its influence in the lives of girls and women.