Wednesday, August 12, 2009
So, I mentioned previously that having succumbed to curiosity about the Twilight phenomenon and actually read the first book, I'd blog about it.
The first thing to say is this: I'm not about to slam it. (Well, the first first thing to say is that the paragraph spacing in this post may be all over the place, in which case I'm sorry. Blogger has moods.) In general I'm not eager to attack fellow-novelists on this blog, but there's another reason too: Twilight has been panned all over the press and Internet, panned up hill and down dale, and if I bothered to dwell on its faults I'd only be repeating what's been said a million times. More than that, slagging off its literary infelicities is to some extent missing the point. Twilight is popular; oh boy, is it popular. When books are popular to this extent, there's usually something interesting about them. It isn't just popular with young adults either; adults are reading it perfectly happily. The best article on the subject is probably this one in Salon by Laura Miller, unless anyone can point me to a better one, which suggests a big part of its appeal is its foundation in the Gothic low-status-girl-elevated-by-marriage plot in which the inequality between the lovers is precisely the appeal, a plot popular with all ages; I can't say it better than Miller does, so I'd simply recommend you read what she says. But, as Miller points out, adult women are consuming the book avidly. Nor, I can verify from my own experience, are its adult fans necessarily victims of arrested development; I've seen one friend give a copy to another as a birthday gift, explaining that it's a wonderful book to relax with, and both women are among the most glamorous and successful people I know.
So there's something interesting going on with Twilight, more interesting than simply scoring points at its expense. What's the deal?
I don't think I'm the only person to make this comparison, but the more I think about it the more it yields: as a writer and a phenomenon, Stephenie Meyer bears a strong family resemblance to that other great doyenne of adolescent dreams, V.C. Andrews. If we lay Twilight alongside Flowers In The Attic, some intriguing parallels emerge.
The most obvious, and I suspect a big key to their success, is succinctly put by Lev Grossman in Time magazine: 'That's the power of the Twilight books: they're squeaky, geeky clean on the surface, but right below it, they are absolutely, deliciously filthy.' Grossman points out the obvious sexual tension that riddles Twilight, the way the limited physical interaction - our vampire hero restrains himself from canoodling with the heroine because she's so incredibly tempting that he doesn't trust himself not to bite her - leads to a permanent plateau of anticipation, much in the way that real-life romances are often at their most dizzyingly erotic when you're waiting for the moment when the clothes come off. Not to mention the fact that 'I don't trust myself' is a phrase that promises spectacular passion if you ever do get down to it.
So much, so evident, and Flowers In The Attic likewise displays that seductive mixture of apparent chastity and underlying eroticism. The best article I've read on that subject is Zoe Williams's in the Guardian, which again I'd highly recommend: the point she draws out is indeed one of Andrews's most curious elements: 'What makes her books so strange, however, is not the incest itself but Andrews's oddly wholesome, home-baked way of writing about it.' Our heroes in this case are wrested from their home by their beloved father's death in a car accident, only to find themselves imprisoned in the mansion of evil grandparents who have never forgiven their mother for marrying a man related to her by blood - a 'half-uncle' is how he's described in the first novel - and consequently find themselves all imprisoned in a single room with a door to the attic, forbidden to look at or touch each other, beaten if they do, with nowhere to turn their adolescent desires except each other, culminating in a sort-of rape of the sister by the brother (she fights, but says rather ambiguously that 'I loved him. I wanted what he wanted - if he wanted it that much, right or wrong,' an image of if-you-must sexual sacrifice that strikes rather peculiar in the context of sibling incest.) In general, the Dollanganger children wind up in a self-fulfilling prophecy of sexual paranoia of the kind that we generally see in porn movies more often than in literature for the under-sixteens.
As well as the structure, Flowers In The Attic pulls off a bizarre, inimitable trick of tone. Cathy, our narrator, is impeccably spoken - pushed to extremes, she may exclaim 'Golly-lolly!' - and ignorant of the workings of sexual intercourse, but at the same time, sexual fascination throbs through every scene. The idyllic father enters the house with a cry of 'Come greet me with kisses if you love me!', a curiously demanding piece of emotional dramatism that he follows up with murmurs to his wife of 'Did you think about me when I was gone? Every night? Did you toss and turn and wish I were beside you, holding you close? For if you didn't, Corrine, I might want to die...' which his wife answers 'with her eyes, with soft whispers and with kisses' - all of which seems like the kind of pillow talk you might expect adults to save till the kids aren't watching. But family intimacies mixed with sexual overtones are a Dollanganger trait. One of many, many examples: up in their attic, brother Chris comments approvingly on a picture they've found, 'Now... that is what you call an hourglass figure. See the wasp waist, the ballooning hips, the swelling bosom? Inherit a shape like that, Cathy, and you will make a fortune.' - only to comment a little later that their mother, who has a habit of drawing his head down on her breast when he needs cheering up, is even more beautiful.
The word 'bosom' in that context encapsulates a lot of what's distinctive about Andrews's tone: Chris is cheerfully letching to his sister with thoughts of his mother thrown in, but Golly-lolly forbid he use improper language in so doing. Sex is instinctual rather than verbal in this world. Cathy appeals to Chris for sexual information when they discuss the anatomy of birds: 'He floundered, his face turned deeply red, and he sought a way to say something delicately. "Male birds can be aroused, and that makes what is in, come out."' - but tells her to shush up when she asks for clarification. This tone doesn't change even as they're thrashing together on a mattress - 'that swollen, rigid male sex part of him' is mentioned, a euphemism so tortured it verges on the garbled. Even descriptions of small children have an odd sensuality: viewing her grandmother's violent handling of her younger siblings, Cathy laments that she doesn't care if 'tender flesh was bruised,' while the littlest sister 'adored skipping around the room, holding out her skirts so her ruffled panties showed.'
The combined effect is of a kind of innocent libertinism. Sex is rampant, in family chit-chat as much as in marital relations, but viewed through eyes so naive they don't grasp the difference between appropriate and inappropriate sexual expression - which means that sex expresses itself continually. It's also worth pointing out that Cathy retains a natural sexual curiosity that, despite her parents' making out in front of her, seems based on a genuine ignorance. Her grandmother is furious about her parents' incest, but she's also sexually puritanical in general: add the grandmother's wrath to Cathy's lack of information, and pretty much any kind of sex is a taboo. Incest, in this context, seems normal partly because sex itself is transgressive; incest is more or less being hung for a sheep as for a lamb - as Cathy rather indiscriminately says, 'I thought about my mother and that man, about Chris, about all boys, about men, about romance - and love.' Normal adolescent eroticism overspills, finding weird channels in every direction.
All of which adds up to a highly heated atmosphere. The popular science book Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely describes an experiment in which young men were asked twice over to answer a series of survey questions about what sexual behaviour they'd consider: once when they were in a normal state of mind, and once when they were close to orgasm. (Computers were lent them to take home for the purpose.) Ariely found that when aroused, 'they predicted that their desire to engage in a variety of somewhat odd sexual activities would be nearly twice as high (72 per cent higher than) they had predicted when they were in a cold state. In the five questions about their propensity to engage in immoral activities, when they were aroused they predicted their propensity to be more than twice as high as (136 per cent higher than) they had predicted in the cold state.' Arousal knocks conventional sexual boundaries askew. Were Flowers In The Attic a description of real people we might conclude that the Dollanganger children have been raised in an atmosphere where boundaries have been peculiar that they simply don't understand what appropriate behaviour is - but as a work of literature, it reads like a book so aroused that its boundaries have dissolved completely.
Obviously this is sexually transgressive - to an extent that Twilight seems fairly restrained in comparison, being, after all, a parable about the erotics of abstinence. This isn't all that's going on in it, though. Like Cathy, our heroine Bella is a virgin eager for experience, and consequently, again like Cathy, sex is a Big Deal for her. The analogy between being vamped and being deflowered is a classic one and Twilight certainly isn't the first work to play on it - but as Bella obsesses about the two Falls, presses Edward to bestow one or the other and preferably both and Edward endlessly insists that it's not in her interests whatever Bella might think, the interplay between them doesn't read quite as vanilla as it professes to be.
Having heard so much about how idealised the Bella-Edward story was, what struck me most was how seldom they're actually nice to each other, at least in the first book. Edward takes her home to meet his family - another odd family arrangement, in fact, where his quasi-brothers and sisters are in fact two couples masquerading as adopted siblings under the protection of their quasi-parents, and as with Andrews this mix of the familial and the sexual is taken surprisingly in stride (a point I'll be returning to later). The Cullens make a pet of Bella, include her in their activities and go to some lengths to protect her when outside danger threatens - but between Edward and Bella themselves, the dialogue tends to follow a pattern rather removed from sweet nothings: Edward tells Bella she doesn't know what she's talking about, she rolls her eyes, tells him not to push his luck and refuses to do as he wishes, and then they go and do it anyway.
On the face of it this looks like tension between a supposedly modern and assertive girl and a patriarchally controlling man, but there's another interpretation: the BDSM tradition of the 'brat', defined in the Urban Dictionary as 'a person of a submissive nature who acts up or causes trouble in order to attract attention'. Considering that Bella actually accepts every decision Edward makes and considers herself besotted with him, her continued resistance reads less like a girl genuinely trying to maintain parity in a relationship and more like deliberate backchat, ambivalently provocative, the verbal equivalent of pulling against a fetter to test whether it's secure. The key factor is this: she sometimes doubts whether it's wise to let him take over her life, to let him creep in her bedroom window and spy on her while she sleeps, to make decisions for her, but she doesn't maintain her objection to these acts of control. She protests, and then accepts. The only objections she's steadfast about are objections to his refusal to consummate the relationship - to sleep with her, to bite her, to take her over completely.
For instance, dragging her to the prom, Edward finds Bella exlaiming 'in horror' and 'mortified' - which he responds to with a masterful, 'Don't be difficult, Bella.' This would sound like genuine objections on her part if her real protest was at being taken to a dance she wants to avoid. But making her dance is merely a lily-white way of pressing her limits; when they get going it's like this:
"Edward." My throat was so dry I could only manage a whisper. " I honestly can't dance!" I could feel the panic bubbling up inside my chest.
"Dont worry, silly," he whispered back. "I can." He put my arms around his neck and lifted me to slide his feet under mine.
And then we were whirling, too.
"I feel like I'm five years old," I laughed after a few minutes of effortless waltzing.
Bella is scared, but when skilfully pushed over the edge she finds herself having a wonderful time; this is an interplay of dominance and submission, Edward making Bella do things she discovers she actually wanted, rather than serious coercion. Words like 'gulped' and 'pouted' keep coming up, which is hardly the language of genuine resistance. The real reason Bella was upset is not that he's ignored her insistence that she doesn't want to go, it's that she thought tonight might be the night he vamped her and he's disappointed her 'half-fearful hopes'. She doesn't mind Edward making her do stuff; what she minds is when he won't make her do it. And in fact, as I'll mention later, when they finally do get down to business, Bella seems quite capable of erotic pain as well.
In this context, Edward's chastity starts to look less like self-denial and more like a variant of erotic domination: they kiss and touch when he decides, he retains the power to deny Bella any sexual satisfaction as a key element of their relationship, and in fact on the few occasions when they do kiss and she gets carried away with mad desire she ends up apologising for it - which might be seen as old-fashioned female sexual guilt-tripping, but might equally be seen as an apology for trying to push for more than he's decided to dole out in a way that breaks the dynamics of their unspoken sexual agreement. I have no idea w,hat Meyer's sexuality is and it's none of my business anyway, but the elements of sadomasochism have long been a crucial part of the Gothicism vampires depend on, so they're certainly present in the tradition. In the light of this, the easiest way to see Bella's relationship with Edward as fulfilling - which she insists it is - is to cast her not as a controlled victim, but as a sometimes ambivalent, consistently cheeky submissive.
Sexual practicality has its limits in this situation. Edward's other reason for restricting his contact with Bella is that he's worried he'll squash her: 'If for one second I wasn't paying enough attention, I could reach out, meaning to touch your face, and crush your skull by mistake. You don't realize how incredibly breakable you are. I can never, never afford to lose any kind of control when I'm with you.' (An interesting note of instructiveness creeps into his voice in such scenes not that different from Chris's awkward assumption of the role of sex-ed teacher to Cathy; Edward blushes less, but he's still the one doing the teaching.) In practical terms the simple solution would be to find some heavy chains and make out with his hands tied down, but this is utterly unthinkable. One might argue that this is because bondage has no place in an abstinence romance, but Twilight is a book where forbidden desires creep in at all corners and there's no reason why some poker-faced, this-is-just-so-I-don't-hurt-you chain play mightn't manage to slip under the wire if it fitted with the sexual ethos.
But it doesn't, of course: Edward can never, ever afford to lose control, not just because Bella is breakable but because the dynamics of their relationship are even more so. Edward is continually emphasised as 'perfect' and his vaunted 'control' is part of that. It's ostensibly self-control, but as Bella drives him so wild it's clear he can't control himself without exercising some control over her too, and that's part of the thrill. Were Edward to assume anything like a submissive position, even temporarily, his perfection would be destroyed.
All of which, of course, is far from explicit in the text, and doubtless I can be accused of having a low mind for remarking upon it. But given that both Twilight and Flowers In The Attic are books aimed at the young adult, the blend of innocence and experience has a definite edge to it. Both feel like books addressed to a virginal state of mind - which is obviously not the same as a chaste state of mind: a state of mind whose experience of ordinary sexuality is too limited for it exert much gravitational pull, and to which wild transgressions seem all the more natural because there's no first-hand knowledge of the mainstream sexuality the books are transgressing. Sexuality in these books is so innocent, it doesn't know how far from innocence it strays.
Incest is of course more transgressive than sadomasochism - though it may be different in Mormonism, the faith from which Twilight notoriously hails - but at the same time, I've heard a lot more anger at Twilight for its political retrogresssion than any anger with Flowers In The Attic. No, I'm not saying it's brave and revolutionary to challenge the feminazis. It's more that there's a tension in Meyer's writing between feminine assertiveness, which is clearly recognised as a good thing in Bella's attitude, and the temptations of the submissive role she assumes towards Edward, and casting the relationship as somewhat sadomasochistic is the simplest way to reconcile the two. In sex-positive feminism there needn't be any incompatibility: feminism means women should be allowed to have whatever kind of sexual relationship they find satisfying, and negotiated sadomasochism is a perfectly consensual relationship - in fact, some argue that the power rests with the submissive as everything is dependent on their consent, which fits quite well with Bella's obvious centrality and importance in the novel - but the problem is the blurring of lines. What's consensual sadomasochism in one context is oppressive abuse in another: the difference lies in the consent and the communication ... and in order to keep the ostensible chastity of the book, such communication is out of the question between Edward and Bella. Were they to sit down and say, 'Okay, so we agree I'll obey you in all things even if I put up some verbal resistance, unless I say the safe word, which we agree is "Garlic"', the vital element of danger would be removed, and worse, so would the innocence. Bella wouldn't be swept off her feet, or at least, the sense of danger would have to be confined to more overtly sadomasochistic encounters, which are clearly not Twilight's ballpark. Their relationship is the stuff of dreams, not just because it's idealised, but because its power dynamics remain unspoken - but work anyway.
It's worth thinking of Wuthering Heights in this context, a book Twilight is explicitly influenced by. I've discussed in a previous post, Misremembering The Brontes, that there's a common tendency to romanticise and soften the Cathy-Heathcliff relationship into a tale of passion rather than what it is, a story of conflicted aggression between two equally selfish people that spreads its damage outwards. (To avoid confusion: when I'm talking about Wuthering Heights, which will be for the next four paragraphs, 'Cathy' means Cathy Earnshaw. I'll identify Cathy Dollanganger when we get back to her.) As I pointed out, Bronte's actual Heathcliff is not as virile as he's remembered: the child he fathers is sickly and his violence is never successfully directed against men - he beats women, children and animals, but his one fight with a man is with Edgar Linton, who punches him in the throat and Heathcliff doesn't punch back. Cathy Earnshaw may feel 'passion' for him, but it doesn't stop her coldly deciding to marry Linton because he's a wealthy gentleman, and from assuming that Heathcliff ought to recognise this is what's best for her and accept it. Which he does: he suffers, he plans vengeance, but he can't stop her, and he can't stop caring about her either. There is, in short, a degree of emotional sadomasochism between Cathy and Heathcliff - but it's Cathy who's on top. Heathcliff takes out his pain on others, but he's as incapable of cutting himself off from his tormenting beloved as any courtly lover.
Bella is just as reckless as Cathy Earnshaw when it comes to endangering others - by the end of the book she's drifted away from her relationship with her mother, lost interest in any friends she may have, deliberately wounded her father's feelings so he won't oppose her running away, and involved Edward's whole family in a dangerous mission to protect her; both are something of a whirlpool, though Bronte is much more willing to blame Cathy than Meyer is to blame Bella. But the attributes of Bronte's characters get moved around to make a more convenient path for Bella to tread. Edward encompasses Heathcliff's physical presence and outsider glamour and Edgar Linton's wealth and status; while more or less every boy in the book seems to want her, there's no romantic rival who can seriously offer Bella anything Edward can't offer her more.
I'll be talking more about the issue of choice later in the post, but it's a key element here: Edward, to Bella, is a choice that involves no sacrifices. Technically he's worried about her sacrificing her connection to the human world, but Bella isn't very connected to it in the first place - she doesn't seem to like any of her friends, for instance, and she's absolutely clear she won't miss her humanity. And why would she, when vampirism offers you just about all the advantages of humanity plus magical powers and immortality thrown in? Heathcliff as a suitor presents a serious problem for Cathy Earnshaw: he's far below her in class at a time when this matters a great deal, while Linton gives her a chance to marry upwards. Edward, on the other hand, is a member of the coolest clique on campus as well as the 'son' of a wealthy doctor; yes, he's a vampire, but not one who drinks human blood or for whom sunlight presents any serious problems, so his vampirism is largely a matter of superpowers rather than difficulties. Faced with a choice like this, Cathy Earnshaw would have found her life a lot easier.
But, importantly, added to his wealth and physicality is another factor: Edward also manages to encompass Cathy Earnshaw's dominance, removing it as a factor from the story. Bella has some of Cathy Earnshaw's verbal assertiveness, but it doesn't have her force behind it. In Wuthering Heights it's Cathy who gets her way while Heathcliff fumes in the background, while in Twilight it's Edward. Appropriating Linton's weath, Heathcliff's sexiness and Cathy's power, Edward becomes a Brontean all-you-can-eat buffet. Echoes of Cathy's aggression remain in Bella's tone, which is probably another reason why she protests so much; her literary grandmothers Cathy Earnshaws and Jane Eyre are ringing in her ears, and neither of them will let a man tell them what to do. But Bella has other yearnings. She makes token protests, and then can give in with honour satisfied. The power dynamics of Wuthering Heights have swapped genders.
Gothicism and sadomasochism going together like feathers and chicken, Flowers In The Attic has its share too, and being a wilder book it's more explicit. Cathy Dollanganger's grandparents set the family tone by whipping their naked mother from nape to ankles (offstage) to punish her for her sins, an experience she seems accustomed to (Cathy later hears of her being allowed, as a child, to play with a previously encased dollhouse 'just so she COULD touch the objects inside so she could be punished - when she broke something,' a sadistic set-up if ever there was one, and the threat hovers over the children for some time before finally landing on Cathy and Chris for talking back. The experience unites them in a weird intimacy: Cathy exlaims while Chris is under the stick that 'Chris and I had become as one in the past year ... He felt the whip, and I let loose his cries of pain,' while Chris explains later 'When she was lashing me, I heard you screaming - and I didn't have to. You did it for me, Cathy, and it helped; I didn't feel any pain but yours...' at which point the two cuddle naked together (naked to spare their cut backs, we're told, not for any other ostensible reason) and kiss like lovers until Cathy whispers protest at feeling Chris's erection, in a scene that is thoroughly uncomfortable in context but might read as Gothically romantic between two unrelated characters - which rather neatly encourges the reader to manage their own discomfort by blotting out the inappropriateness, forcing them to some extent into collusion with Cathy and Chris. Where one locates oneself on that scale of discomfort and collusion is a matter of reader choice, but one thing is certain: it's all very kinky.
Things aren't this physical in Twilight, at least in the beginning. However, I see from Amazon-search (I've only read the first book in either series through) that their relationship is eventually consummated on their wedding night in a fade-out scene that leaves Bella covered with bruises, none of which she regrets; she remarks that 'I tried to remember this - to remember pain - but I couldn't. I couldn't recall a moment when his hold had been too tight, his hands too hard against me. I only remembered wanting him to hold me tighter, and being pleased when he did...', and finds her post-coital stiffness, soreness and loose-jointed 'jellyfish' sensations to be 'not an unpleasant feeling', which suggests a definite masochistic streak, especially when she snaps 'You are killing my buzz, Edward,' a few pages later as he wallows in guilt. The interaction reminds me of nothing so much as Maggie Gyllenhaal's mounting frustration in Secretary when her lover-boss succumbs to guilt and withdraws his sadistic attentions.
This may be particularly appealing to the budding kinksters in the audience, but it's also rather clever in keeping the appeal broad. The thing is, it's difficult to imagine sensations one hasn't felt, but bruises and sexual frustration will both be familiar to a young reader. Bella's tense relationship with Edward, rather than being made up of regular sexual encounters, is assembled from component pieces that even a sexually inexperienced reader can picture. Feeling post-coital is something you have to have done to know, but feeling post-exercise and a bit bashed up, as Bella does, is an experience available to all. How many women find being 'held tight' the most erotic part of foreplay, come to that? This is pre-sexual foreplay-as-cuddle rather than a Song of Experience. Bella's reactions look like happy masochism through the deflowered eyes of hindsight, but her bruises and longings, through the eyes of inexperience, can stand in for simple vanilla intensity writ large. It may not be the most realistic sex scene in the world, but you can't fault its catch-all ambiguity.
So Twilight and Flowers In The Attic are both rather naughty in their implications, which explains a big part of their success. But I think it's also worth looking at their apparent niceness more closely as well, because parallels emerge here too, that combine with the sexuality to produce a distinctive frisson that, I suspect, may be essential to their popularity. The world is full of naughty books, but few of them manage to combine wholesomeness to such alchemic effect.
Cathy and Bella are both basically girl-next-door types. Bella is clumsy but beautiful, Cathy is a ballerina and beautiful, but both have something rather distinctive about them. Both are very much a proper girl of their time.
Cathy exists in a somewhat timeless space. Flowers In The Attic was first published in 1979 and is set in the fifties; with her tutus and her 'Golly's and her long blonde hair, Cathy is to some extent an amalgam of all the pink-ribbon girlyness one can find between those years. Bella is a noughties girl, the responsible daughter of a feckless yet charming single mother who determinedly joins her father in Forks, Washington for a while to let Mom have some fun on honeymoon; back with Dad, she takes over the cooking and tells him she doesn't need to be fussed over - which is to say, she's independent, at least until Edward enters her life. Cathy tries to get her vitamins and sunlight and loves her arts and crafts, Bella eats vegetarian and believes in speaking her mind. Stylistically they're rather different, but what they are is what a girl of their time is supposed to be. In this context, Cathy's 'Golly-day' is the equivalent of Bella's rolled eyeballs: a period tic denoting appropriate femininity.
Which has the compelling effect that these girls seem so normal that it's easy for a normal girl to put herself in their shoes. It's something of a literary demerit that both of them react to their bizarre situations with such conventional language (though Andrews is a curiously arresting stylist in her freewheeling way), but I suspect it's a marketing plus: rather than being changed to something Other by the otherness of their experiences, they remain a one-size-fits-all pair of shoes that a normal girl can don to try, vicariously, the thrills of transgression with none of the penalties.
It isn't just their language that's ordinary, though. There is, in their disturbing mutations of family values, something pre-sexually domestic - and that, I think, is the real key to both.
Bella hates Forks - so much so that she keeps saying it in her sleep, according to Edward - but she doesn't leave. Cathy hates the attic, unsurprisingly, but she can't leave because the door is locked - and later, when they forge a key, she makes brief outward forays but keeps returning. Both of them are stay-at-home girls physically, even while their emotions and experiences careen all over the map. This is an introverted dream of transgression: your internal life and your domestic relationships go wild while your body can stay within a manageable set of boundaries. Limits in these worlds are geographic rather than behavioural.
And more than that, and crucially, there's an element of homeward-bound destiny in their sexual choices - or, at least, the sexual options that are imposed on them. Cathy has no man in her life except her brother; she sneaks out around the rest of the mansion and kisses a sleeping young man, but as he's her stepfather her sexuality remains held within the family crucible. Bella, curiously, seems to have left no social life behind in Arizona: she misses the weather and the landscape, but despite her homesickness she never pines for absent friends or boyfriends, never mind calls or e-mails anyone except Mom, the only person she reminisces over. Both, once settled in their confinements, assume the role of little mothers - Cathy's baby brother actually takes to calling her 'Momma', while Bella's cooking is ostensibly a bid for independence from her father but has a certain hausfrau quality to it as well. Little Motherdom is a traditional form of feminine virtue, of course, a way of getting the merits of Madonnahood without having to sully oneself with sex - not that sex is off the agenda in either of these books - but it's also a way of assuming power in the domestic sphere. And, crucially, it's getting power in a domestic sphere you're born into, rather than having to strike out and create your own.
Here's the thing about normal sexuality, sadomasochistic or otherwise: you have to leave home to find a partner. You have to measure up options: who you want, who wants you, and the horrible occasions when those two things do not overlap. You have to risk rejection. You have to risk something even worse: making the wrong choice. Adults can wind up in bad sexual relationships, or can pass up good ones, or settle for adequate ones and wish they hadn't. You have to make your own decisions in a world of billions, and if you don't have an arranged marriage set up you have to use your own charm and your own judgement to do it. If you don't feel quite grown up or sure of yourself, that's not a comforting thought.
Family, on the other hand, is fate. You're tied together by blood. You don't choose your siblings: they're there by birth, a law of nature, inevitably present and, through childhood, the world in microcosm. They're supposed to protect you, to shape your ideas of people, to be loyal to you. You can swap one boyfriend for another, but you can't swap brothers and sisters: nobody else can replace them. As an adult you have to choose who to start your new family with, but the family you're born into is your destiny.
Which is why, despite its wild taboo-breaking, there's something curiously cosy about Flowers In The Attic. Cathy and Chris don't have to look far to find a destined partner: they have each other. They don't have to look far for high drama, either: there's plenty of that in their family background. Break with normality just enough that incest seems an option, and it's melodrama that can happen without having to leave your safe space. They don't have to step outside the microcosm to get a world of experiences.
It's why, too, the Cullen menage seems such an odd mixture. The age differences between the paterfamilias Carlisle and his charges are surely, after a hundred-odd years together, negligible, and in fact Edward's 'mother' was vamped after he was, and is physically twenty-six to his seventeen, hardly a workable childbearing gap - but they seem to live together as actual parents and children rather what you might expect, which is housemates who pretend to be a family to avoid attention while relating to each other as adults. Carlisle brings new members into the family in the hopes of them finding romance with each other; Edward actually doesn't click sexually with the 'sister' intended for him and remains celibate for the best part of a century (whether this puts him ahead of Chris in normality or behind him in sex drive is debatable), but all of them benefit from this benign matchmaker presiding over their lives - and to whom Edward introduces his new girlfriend quickly, like a respectable boy. Bella is in fact desperate to be vamped, and in this domestic-destiny ethos it's easy to see why: once she's vamped, her options will be closed down. Edward sees this as something of a problem, but in this context it's a perfect solution. She'll never have to worry again: they'll be bound together, literally, by blood. Destiny, sex and family cosiness are all hers for just one little nibble.
A reflection from later books in the series is key here. I gather that werewolves in this universe are revealed to find love by instantaneously 'imprinting' on their future beloveds, sometimes when those beloveds are mere babies, whom they tend to babysit and caretake until the girls reach an appropriate age for more lover-like overtures. As I haven't read further than the first book there's a limited amount I can say in detail, but the idea fits precisely with the pre-sexual sexuality of both these books. You get the supposed protection of the perfect brother-father, sexual initiation with someone you know is safe, and the problem of finding a partner all solved in one fell swoop. As someone says - Jacob the werewolf, I think - 'You become whatever she needs you to be, whether that’s a protector, or a lover, or a friend or a brother' - a quote I just found after typing the previous sentence and was a little surprised to find so explicitly echoing what I'd said. The idea seems to be that the man is adaptable, moving from role to role as the girl's needs change.
Rather than assuming she'll need more than one person in her life, picking a role and sticking to it, it seems the ideal relationship is with someone who does everything at once - almost in the way that a mother fulfills all a baby's needs for its first few months. You don't have to accumulate your own life: it's solved at a stroke. One man is literally everything to you. If Chris was an unrelated lover who had imprinted on Cathy, their relationship would make a lot of sense.
And let's not forget something: by vamping her, Edward would be assuming a quasi-paternal role for Bella. Why is Carlisle Edward's 'father'? Primarily because he's the one who vamped him, and is sufficiently older than Edward in vampire years to act as a mentor. Bearing in mind that Edward's nearly a century older than Bella and does keep trying to mentor her - insofar as he keeps making decisions for her, at least - and that the act of vamping her would put her through a rebirth, biting Bella would be familial as much as sexual. (Especially considering that the Cullen 'family' are all genetically unrelated; vampirism itself reads as a kind of family dynasty, at least in the first novel.) It's less explicitly incestuous than Flowers In The Attic because vampirism is a shifting metaphor, family one minute, sexuality the next, outsiderdom and clanship and anything else you want to project, which means the reader can comfortably ignore the more difficult implications at any given moment, but there's a certain combining of roles in the act of vamping Bella that has a mildly Andrews-like ring.
Chris and Edward's shared roles as instructors fit in here. Chris may be a little uncomfortable explaining what's 'possible to do', but he's in good company with Edward's explanations of how vampirism works. Both are sexual initiators, initiators to knowledge as well as sensation, keepers of secrets who have 'all the answers'. Edward's vampire explanations come into play here: he has to be the keeper of more esoteric knowledge than Chris because Bella is a modern girl who already knows how It is done, but both combine the guardian-of-innocence role with the knowledgeable-deflowerer role, a cocktail that disturbs many readers but clearly intoxicates many others. Like brother-fathers, they enlighten and strive to protect; like lovers, they deliver new experiences. Roles that in reality are generally kept separate are combined. It's more problematic for Cathy, but we can see why Bella keeps calling Edward 'perfect', and it's not just his model looks: he provides for her in a single package what one normally has to look in multiple places to find.
Of course families can chafe as well, and both Cathy and Bella get a bit of adolescent defiance thrown in. Cathy's mother turns out to be a proper bad hat, sneakily poisoning the children to rid herself of their burden, so Cathy righteously usurps her position as mother, defies her grandmother as well and establishes herself as the new junior matriarch. Bella resists any intervention by her dad while enjoying the protection of Edward's, a traditional form of teenage experimentation: freedom-with-safety-net. (Altogether healthier than incest, of course; millions of people remember their teen best friend or boy/girlfriend's house as a haven from the tensions at home, and being kind to the waifs your son or daughter brings back is the action of a responsible adult. It's one of the more ordinary aspects of the novel.) Rebellion is an essential part of the teen experience, and Cathy and Bella both get to do it - but it's their sexuality that's the real rebellion. Would Cathy have slept with her brother if it wasn't forbidden so obsessively? Heck no; she leaps to kiss an unrelated man the first chance she gets. Would Bella break with her father over anything except Edward? Probably not; before Edward, her aim is mutual tolerance. Sex is the great disruptor of family frustration. But other families are waiting, better families - the kind of family you normally get by striking out. Only Cathy and Bella don't have to, or at least not very far.
All of which points to Cathy and Bella's experience as immature, a failure of one kind or another to properly grow up. This makes the deficient as role models, of course, but not every fictional character has to set an improving example, and those that do aren't necessarily the multi-million sellers. Writing immaturity is something of a tricky business for the mature writer: once you know, you can't unknow, and that knowledge often puts some kind of perspective on the experiences of the immature protagonist. But Cathy and Bella aren't just young, they live in a young universe. So extreme are their circumstances that they're travelling without maps: in the peculiarity of their relationships is a literal form of that mixture of the childish and the transgressive that can possess the half-matured sexual self. As I've said, it's not a realistic depiction of human behaviour, but it is an excellent rendering of the kind of unrealism with which naive eyes can invest the dark and mysterious world of sex. To see things through those eyes without pulling away in discomfort, one has to become naive oneself, to enter into their drama and fevered curiosity and confused understanding of boundaries, their longing for adventure and their fear of leaving the nest.
This is, as I've said, a fundamentally virginal form of sexuality. Experience isn't present enough to counterbalance it; sex is safely contained within a domestic sphere while revealing thrilling depravities. It's like making out in your bedroom with the boyfriend your parents approve of while they enjoy a tranquil drink downstairs, unaware that he's shockingly good with the ropes and blindfolds. Pitched at a teenage audience, it's really not surprising that it's such catnip. Nor is it that surprising adult women enjoy it either; virgin sexual fever is one of the most intense of life's experiences and it's not remarkable that many readers enjoy reliving it. (Cards on the table: I rather enjoyed Flowers In The Attic's wacky melodrama - it was so strange I ended up mentally reclassifying it as outsider art, but it was certainly page-turning - while Twilight didn't much hold my attention as anything other than a phenomemon. But they occupy a similar cultural position, and I do think they come out of the same psychological stable.)
The safety of home, the thrill of rebellion and the breathless fascination of sexual transgression, all in one book? And anyone's surprised they sell well?
Wow, there's a lot to think about here!
there's a tension in Meyer's writing between feminine assertiveness, which is clearly recognised as a good thing in Bella's attitude, and the temptations of the submissive role she assumes towards Edward
This wasn't a perspective I entertained whilst reading Twilight. Bella came across to me as a doormat - no, not even that, a blank space for readers to insert themselves. She seemed so carefully undeveloped as a character it was hard to read her as anything other than a wish-fulfillment tool. That said, the submissive-dominant roles make a lot of sense in retrospect, and lend a new fascination to the novel (for me). I enjoyed the film far more than the book because I felt more was done with Bella, and I can see her as the innocent temptress far more easily than I could whilst reading the book.
Flowers in the Attic - read that last year after a long time of hearing how appallingly transgressive it was. I suppose having read the hype, there wasn't much chance the book was going to shock me. Anyway, what I found most interesting about that was the "sins of the fathers" concept I felt pervaded it. The grandmother was certain that Cathy and Chris would follow in their parents incestuous footsteps - that it was in the blood - and her efforts to stop them via puritanical teachings against sex, physical punishment etc, only propelled them closer together.
In contrast, I see Bella's relationship with Edward as a reaction to her mother's fecklessness. By securing a long, fulfilling relationship with Edward, she's doing what her mother couldn't do with her father. Either consciously or subconsciously, she's striking out at the circumstances that have sent her to Forks.
It could even be read as an inversion of the typical teenage rebellion in which the young girl choses an inappropriate boyfriend who her parents don't approve of, just to rub their noses in it. From what I understand of the later books, her relationship and marriage to Edward is met with no resistance by either of her parents.
Wow, someone actually read the whole thing! My compliments on your stamina. :-)
Bella came across to me as a doormat - no, not even that, a blank space for readers to insert themselves.
In many ways she is, I think, and while I can't know Meyer's intentions I think the ease of donning Bella's shoes is probably one of the book's selling points. But on the other hand, when she does have opinions they're usually trenchant. Her comments on her Forks friends are quite acid, for instance, and she protests and gripes to Edward about almost every move they make.
I think the reason she comes across as so blank despite this apparent forthrightness is that she doesn't act on her opinions. She doesn't much like her friends, based on what she says about them, but she drifts along with them anyway, at least until she has the opportunity to drift into the Cullen clan instead. She protests about a lot of what Edward says and does, but she lets him do it. In terms of assertiveness she talks a better game than she plays; her independence is tell more than show.
This, combined with Meyer's not-especially-distinctive writing style, makes the details of the book, at least in my experience, interestingly unmemorable except in its broad outlines. The exact details of who says and does what tend to lift off, leaving behind an open matrix into which the reader can project whatever they like.
I think the basic Bella-position the reader can imaginatively occupy is basically a consensually submissive one, emotionally at least. But there's a lot of flexibility within such a position, especially when it's full of token protests, which may explain the wideness of its appeal.
Meyer's not-especially-distinctive writing style
Oh yes, the one thing I can say in Twilight's favour is that it was an easy read in a time when I needed it! I wonder if that's part of the appeal too - it's fluff. And that's not a criticism; fluff is good and essential every now and then. I can't imagine what the world would be like if everyone was reading Serious Literature all the time, but I expect I wouldn't like it.
Twilight is a fantasy book in every sense, providing a dream man who adores to the point of distraction a woman who could be any one of us. The appeal of that is seen and used in romance books everywhere (including in my much-disliked "fated to mate" books, which Twilight sort of falls into the category of).
I understand the original idea came from a dream Meyer had, and while I think it's ultimately futile to dwell on her intentions or desires in writing the book, I do wonder how many of Twilight's themes and ideas are influenced by that nebulous, subconscious beginning; it's a world where anything is possible for Bella because of Edward's love for her. So there's all the excitement, drama, and passion a young woman could crave, but as you pointed out, it's all safely contained. I may be stretching it a bit here, but isn't that the function of our dreams according to some schools of thought - the safety to act out desires and goals that might in reality be harmful to us?
I may be stretching it a bit here, but isn't that the function of our dreams according to some schools of thought - the safety to act out desires and goals that might in reality be harmful to us?
I've certainly heard it argued so. I don't think it's how my dreams work; they feel more like my mind is telling me what it wants or fears as a kind of commentary rather than a catharsis - kind of, 'Yay, wasn't that fun?', or 'No, horrible scary person!', or 'Oh, want this want this...' So they feel more to me like feedback than catharsis, but that might just be me.
I suspect that a lot of people who hate Twilight (it stirs up strong passions on both sides, I think) feel that its dreaminess is part of the problem - that the Edward-Bella relationship is unhealthy, which either expresses unhealthy desires on Meyer's part or encourages dangerous ones in young readers, or both. I'm not sure where I stand on that. I found Bella herself hard to like - she's very dismissive of everyone she meets except Edward - so it wasn't a fantasy experience for me, which means I can only guess. Where do you stand, would you say?
Thinking about it, actually, one of its elements seemed to be 'making an exception for love.' Like I said, Bella has something critical to say of pretty much everyone she meets until Edward swans along; in the same way, Edward has apparently never looked at another girl till Bella tips up. Both are kind of misanthropic, except with each other.
It was something that struck me in the movie, which I also rented the DVD of. (The things I do for blog... though I reckoned the post was quite long enough, in the end.) What stood out in the performances was how cheerful everyone except Edward and Bella is. The scriptwriters had added quite a few fun details - the Cullens taking the opportunity to use their kitchen and cook with a chef show to guide them when Bella visits, the Black family patriarch happily embarrassing his son with daft hip-hop slang and trying to run over his mate's feet with his wheelchair, Bella's friends fooling about with a worm in the schoolyard... Everyone except the lovers was playful. It made Forks seem like a rather charming place despite the rain; personality-wise the only damp spots were Edward and Bella, because everyone else was a ray of sunshine.
That was drifting off the subject a bit, but Twilight grabs and runs hard with the 'I've never felt this way about anybody' ball, to the extent that sometimes it felt like Edward and Bella had seldom felt more than grudging tolerance for anyone except each other and their families. A writ-large version of the trope, I guess.
Part of me thinks I would have loved Twilight, had I read it as a teenager, but most of me finds it absolutely appalling.
I just don't feel comfortable with Bella's abject inferiority; although Edward tells her from time to time that she's special (which she refuses to believe anyway) nothing in the book gives the reader that impression - it's tell, not show. The only 'special' thing about Bella is the way she smells - big deal! Considering that the reader is being constantly beaten over the head with how gorgeous, perfect and special Edward himself is, and that he treats her in an amazingly patronising and condescending way, it's clear who has the power in the relationship. I don't necessarily consider that BDSM, because it's not turned on and off as required, it's not a choice that either of them makes with informed consent. Instead, it's constant, the status quo - Edward is superior, Bella is inferior and she's lucky, blessed even, that he deigns to spend time with her. What a healthy attitude towards relationships! God only knows what the teenage girls who love this series take from it as far as their own self-worth and what they consider to be a healthy relationship are concerned.
Where do you stand, would you say?
After reading the book, I was left feeling rather uncomfortable about their relationship, simply because of the extent to which Edward dominated it. The part of the story that I always remember is Bella's reaction to finding out he had watched her sleeping - she finds it flattering. To me that said so much about her. It suggested a lack of attention and affection from other sources that I found sad, and a lack of self-awareness that I found worrying. Let's face it, in the real world, this would be highly disturbing. Perhaps I'm projecting here; I have an ex-boyfriend who, after I left him, would show up at my house in the middle of the night to bang on my window. So... yeah. That to me was creepy.
I don't know if the message of Twilight itself is healthy or not. I think (or would hope) that Meyer had no intentions beyond writing a dreamy first-love-true-love novel with a vampire in it to ramp up the intensity level. I know that she's been lambasted for suggesting women are useless without men to guide them, or that women should sacrifice everything for the sake of a man. That wasn't exactly the impression I was left with. I felt that Bella had nothing else of worth in her life (in her view), so Edward became her life.
Like you say, I think that's a trope writ large, rather than a dangerous example. And hey, feminism is about choice, right? Bella makes the choice to devote herself to Edward, just as Cathy Dollanganger makes the choice in the end to be with Chris, and Cathy Earnshaw makes the choice to marry Linton.
Oh and re: the film. I felt it was given more of a coming-of-age twist than the book had, and Edward and Bella were serious because their love was serious and they'd made serious choices and sacrifices in their lives. Their friends hadn't and didn't need to, so they could be sunny and childlike in their concerns.
I don't necessarily consider that BDSM, because it's not turned on and off as required, it's not a choice that either of them makes with informed consent. Instead, it's constant, the status quo
Well, some people do live the lifestyle constantly. As to informed consent, we're in the realm of fantasy here; I'm not so much saying that their relationship is overtly sadomasochistic as that it rests on sadomasochistic dynamics. I very much doubt Meyer deliberately wrote it with sadomasochism in mind; it's more that vampires are heavily saturated with that ambience to begin with, and the unequal, push-and-pull-consent issues between Edward and Bella tend to fall into that pattern. 'Consciously vanilla with a kinky undertow' is closer to what I'm trying to describe.
Obviously in the real world informed consent would be a crucial factor, but one of the advantages of wish-fulfillment fantasy romance is that the characters can come to an understanding without the discussion and effort real relationships involve, and I'd expect that to apply to a sadomasochistic dynamic as much as a more mainstream one.
Their friends hadn't and didn't need to, so they could be sunny and childlike in their concerns.
It's not just the young characters who were sunny, though; the adults were too. And one of them was a werewolf. You'd think he had some stuff on his mind.
I really wouldn't agree that levity is necessarily a childish quality; maintaining good humour when you have responsibilities and problems as well is a mark of maturity - but then, the Twilight world runs on adolescent understanding, and many teenagers do equate gloom with maturity for a while.
It suggested a lack of attention and affection from other sources that I found sad
How would you square that with the fact that every boy she meets develops a crush on her? It doesn't seem to me that she lacks for attention; she positively attracts it wherever she goes. And as far as I recall, her father is doing his best to be nice to her too, and her relationship with her mother is affectionate if not conventional. I just don't see Bella being starved of attention; it's more that she rejects attention from every source except the Cullens.
How would you square that with the fact that every boy she meets develops a crush on her?
From Bella's POV and from what I recall, (damn, I wish I still had a copy of the book, lol) she doesn't see their attention as flattering or exciting, only confusing and even a little unnerving. She's very quick to push them off on other people even before she meets Edward. I think she mentions that in Arizona she was unremarkable in terms of social status and popularity. That, combined with the fact that she mentions no friends or boyfriends from her old school, suggested to me that she's never had male attention before and doesn't know what to do with it. That might also have contributed to her initial attraction to Edward, perhaps: he was unreachable and determined to avoid her - maybe in some ways that made him safer than the boys who actively sought her out? She could indulge her fantasies without the risk of them being crushed by his rejection. And then of course he doesn't reject her and her fantasies come true anyway.
I think that ties into numerous adolescent concerns and fantasies in and of itself. The quiet, shy, unremarkable girl who suddenly blooms into a desirable one is fairly common.
It doesn't seem to me that she lacks for attention; she positively attracts it wherever she goes.
She constantly refutes it though on the basis that she's just a clumsy, boring, normal girl. Again, based on my recollections, I think perhaps we were supposed to view Bella as so socially awkward and reserved that she couldn't cope with positive attention until it came from Edward, for whatever reason.
The reason it struck me as sad is that Bella seemed to respond with such instant, over-the-top devotion to Edward that it was as if she'd been living off scraps all her life and was suddenly offered a feast. That, to me, certainly seemed her view; I don't think she can be classed as a reliable narrator however, so there's plenty of room for interpretation!
I really wouldn't agree that levity is necessarily a childish quality
No, definitely not. But in the context of the film, I think we were supposed to see Bella and Edward as the only characters with real passions and anxieties. Everyone else was background noise, a framework for their Very Serious Love, and a method of highlighting how serious it was. The levity of other characters, adult and youngster, was a sharp contrast to the all-consuming and rather gothic melodrama of their relationship, and I believe that was a deliberate directorial choice that set the film apart from the book.
The levity of other characters, adult and youngster, was a sharp contrast to the all-consuming and rather gothic melodrama of their relationship, and I believe that was a deliberate directorial choice that set the film apart from the book.
Hm. One that rather backfired on me, at least. :-) The trouble was that Bella seemed withdrawn and gloomy before she ever met Edward. If she'd been lighter in mood before he showed up, I would have bought it, but as it was ... Well, it's not much work to sulk. It takes more energy to try to make other people feel good.
She constantly refutes it though on the basis that she's just a clumsy, boring, normal girl.
As I recall - and I don't have a copy to hand either - she actually refutes a lot of attention on the grounds that it comes from tiresome people. I remember the first student who tries to be nice to her she classes as 'one of those overly-helpful, chess club types', which sounds judgemental rather than self-doubting. And he's certainly not the only person she makes a cutting remark about. On the whole, her classification of Unworthy isn't generally directed at herself, but at others.
The reason it struck me as sad is that Bella seemed to respond with such instant, over-the-top devotion to Edward that it was as if she'd been living off scraps all her life and was suddenly offered a feast.
It's a possible interpretation, certainly, but I can't think of much in the text that supports it. Not much that contradicts it either. I think that's one of Twilight's literary weaknesses and commercial strengths: one can posit all sorts of explanations to suit our own understanding and it won't contain much to contradict them. (Whether that means I'm stretching a point to suit myself by calling the Bella-Edward relationship sadomasochistic is a debatable question, of course, but I do think there's a certain support for it in the text.)
Lol, I can't tell you how much I want to run out and buy a copy of Twilight and re-read it with all this in mind now! I'd forgotten about the chess-club type.
Well, Amazon.com has a 'search inside' feature on the books. (Which is where I found some of my quotations.) You could have a peep at some of it, at least... :-)
I probably should refresh my memory before engaging in further debate! (I have thoroughly enjoyed the debate, mind you) :)
Fascinating, and wonderfully thought-out - which I am beginning to recognize as a hallmark of your 'casual' writing.
I can't say you've increased my desire to read the book - the contrary, really - but you hint at depths that I never suspected were there, and given me clues about the reasons some of my acquaintances are so fond of the series.
Your reference to Bella's "failure [...] to grow up" interested me. That seems to be a common theme with today's vampires: not only are they immortal, but they exist in a perpetual state of adolescence, Lost Boys / Girls forever, ruled by their id. (Whether on can include classic vampires such as Dracula in that theme is something I'll have to consider, as his character is novel is far less defined than those of the people fighting him.)
As I recall, Bram Stoker presented Dracula very much as an adult, but an adult who shuttled up and down the age span. His youngest manifestation seems to be 'prime of life', but he can visit other conditions. (I've blogged about that here, actually: http://www.kitwhitfield.com/2007/05/scary-versus-sexy.html)
I can't say you've increased my desire to read the book - the contrary, really
I'd say that it's one of those interesting books where reading it isn't actually the best way to consume it. Those who like it consume it by fantasising about it, I suspect, taking the basic scenario and moulding it a little so they can enjoy it vicariously; from reading the comments of people who enjoyed it, they seem to attribute to it things that aren't actually in it, so I suspect creative misremembering is an important aspect to Twilight enthusiasm. I, meanwhile, found it more interesting to analyse than to read. (I very much doubt any of the echoes I've attributed to it were deliberate; I just think they're there.) Others, I think, find it more enjoyable to laugh at than to read.
As I say, I found Flowers In The Attic actually gripping in a freaky sort of way, but Twilight feels like a written-down fantasy that works as a jumping-off point for other fantasies (or jokes, or analyses). So I don't think it's really a book that's meant to be read, exactly. You do other things with it.
I would like to agree.
You're an amazing writer. (I feel like giving up writing, so many people are finally saying what I want to say.)
But here: I figured this was what "Twilight" was about. Sexual chastity/denial in sadomasochistic fantasy, I mean. I remember being virginal and shocked at "Flowers in the Attic," but titillated and fully engaged in the story. I didn't think of it at the time, but I fully understood "Twilight" to be of that ilk the moment it was described to me.
My niece turned 11 in January, while swearing that she wanted to remain a 'little girl' and not grow up too fast. In April, her Newest Big Thing was Twilight. I was amazed at how quickly that switch of budding sexuality was turned on, but at the same time I nodded. Being a 'good girl,' she can't have sex or even think about it, really, yet, and that's why the "Yes, yes"/"No, no" game of Bella and Edward should (and apparently did) hit her right where she lives.
I need a little good deprivation fantasy... maybe... I could borrow someone's copy....
Wow, that's the first thing I've read about Twilight that's given me an idea of why the books might be so drat popular. All I could get out of the other stuff I read about it was either "Edward's So Dreamy!" or "Edward's So Creepy!".
CAPTCHA: Spondog - A dog bred for cuddling.
This is, as usual, a brilliant bit of analysis. I also resisted taking the plunge into Twilight, but finally submitted to its charms on a trans-Atlantic plane journey - I devoured the whole thing between Boston Logan and London Heathrow!
Kit's take was spot-on, but I think there's one more element that makes the book(s) so resonant, and that is how good Meyers is at capturing the tone of total complete obsessive longing that I imagine most people have felt about a boy or girl while in the hormonally-enhanced emotional thrall of adolescence. I sure did. I feel the echos of that kind of no holds barred desire sometimes still, but as an adult it's not as all-encompassing, as profound ... I miss that sensation sometimes, the pain and the joy and the sheer intensity of it. I think this rings true for young women and reminds adult women of those feelings that they remember from being sixteen or eighteen and SO IN LOVE. Bella gets to realize that desire because Edward is so much more perfect than your basic teenage boy (or grown-up boy, for that matter), but the reader gets to go along for the emotional ride with her, which is quite irresistable.
(oussist: fr. 'ousse', a frothy confection used in sensual play; one who demonstrates a proclivity for sex-play involving chantilly, whipped cream, souffle or similar; one who derives pleasure from whipped cream; also the person making glissando noises related to the trituration of frothy creamed items and bare skin.)
The fine and clever Hapax from Slacktivist put up a very clever contrary analysis here: http://slacktivist.typepad.com/slacktivist/2009/09/vampires-crosses/comments/page/9/. This is what she says, part 1
I know that the discussion has moved on here, but I did promise to give my take on the Dom / Sub dynamic in the Twilight series. I’ll try to keep this short, but succinctness isn’t my forte, so please skip if you aren’t interested. A lot of points I refer to become more explicit in the later books and online side stories, but I do think they are present in the first book as well (not so much the movie.) FWIW, all of the teenage girls I have talked to in depth about the topic pretty much agree with my take on this; they are also in unanimous agreement that they would find the Real Life enactment of such a relationship incredibly creep and wrong. Maybe I’m just lucky in the young women I know, but that might be some comfort to folks who find the whole Twilight phenomenon somehow harmful and damaging.
As I see it, Bella’s romance is, in the end, a Power Fantasy of a type particular to some adolescent females. In adolescence, girls-become-women see (usually) themselves caught in the Biblical curse: the object of their desire shall “rule over them” – men are generally bigger, stronger, and (in our society), have more choices, are more free and economically powerful than their mates. I think we can all agree that the last ones suck, but that’s how many young women see it – especially young women who are raised with a very conservative, traditionalist understanding of gender relations which is probably quite alien to most of the people who post here regularly. So what kind of wish fulfillment can these girls hope for?
There’s the Buffy fantasy – to be even bigger, stronger, and more empowered, and gain power that way. Or there’s the Beauty and the Beast fantasy – to find a mate who loves you so damn much that he voluntarily cedes power to you – that he is transformed by, not your love for him, but his for you.
Yes, this is all a very passive fantasy, maybe (in the great cosmic scheme of things) an “unhealthy” fantasy, but it’s a tremendously attractive fantasy. And that’s what the books in the Twilight series look like to me – a delicious wallowing in this dream, of being ordinary, weak, powerless, but having the Biggest Baddest Beautifullest Beast of All absolutely helpless and subservient beneath the uncontrollable power of his love for me.
As someone who read a lot of “rape fantasy” romances in the Seventies, I’ve always thought that they fell into two distinct classes. There was of course the “classic rape fantasy”, in which a woman could freely experience sexuality without being responsible for it, subjugated beneath an Alpha Male. But there was also a a definite trend of ... maybe “passive dominance”, in which women *who had no other conceivable access to power* could revel in the fact that they could use their very “feminity” to literally crack and destroy what makes men “masculine” – their dominance, their control, their rationality. I always think of the archetype of this model as Margot in THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL, who in one scene literally drives her husband to his knees to kiss her footprints through the sheer “madness” of his devotion for her. (There’s a lot of other nifty D/S subtext in that book, btw, but I’m talking about Twilight here, so...)
Bella is very much a Dom of this type. From the very first, she expresses love through controlling and infantilizing the objects of her affection – look at her weird relationship with her parents, the way that she is literally incapable of understanding her fellow classmates outside the context of power exhanges. In her entire romance with Edward, she is *always* the one in control, always the pursuer, always maintaining power by tantalizing and withdrawing. She is never more fulfilled than when she makes Edward lose control – by kissing her, by following her, by being forced to cater to her whims, above all on her infamous wedding night. When she “loses” Edward in the second book, her fantasies of him are not about their physical relationship, let alone of happiness or mutual pleasure; they are always about forcing him to worry about her, to come to her against his will.
Which is why criticisms of Edward as “controlling” and “abusive” always crack me up. Edward is the ultimate *submissive.* He’s ALWAYS looking for someone to submit to – duty, honor (remember how he wanted to join up and fight in WW I before he died?), Carlisle and his mission, even Esme. For all the talking about how he stalks and orders about Bella, he is NEVER seen as successful in dominating her. Bella always gets exactly what she wants, how she wants, in matters large and small, and almost always causes Edward maximum shame and pain in the process. And Edward adores that about her.
I also think he’s a classic masochist – I truly believe he deliberately seeks out things that degrade and punish him, not just because he thinks he “deserves” it, but because he also derives great satisfaction from it. (Realize I’m not condemning him here – who knows what made him this way? – but merely trying to understand him) How horrible for him to end up as a creature that is inherently dominant, and pain-dispensing!. As such, human Bella is indeed his dream mate – her very scent is inexhaustible torment to him, her will is adamantium, her mental shield negates his overwhelming advantage over any other possible being, yet her fragility and “ordinariness” make his total helpless devotion to her even much more “monstrous” and thus deserving of punishment.
This is especially obvious in the side stories that show Edward’s POV. His mental powers (and remember, vampiric powers are supposed to be amplifications of human personality) are all about being dominated, invaded, buffetted helplessly by others’ thoughts and feelings. And he HATES that most of the stray thoughts about himself that are at all admiring or positive or affirming; he dwells on, revels in, wallows in those that humiliate and pain him. When he leaves Bella in the second book to look Victoria, he doesn’t take the sensible comfortable anonymity that he can easily afford and give him best access to his quarry; he seeks out filth, rats, suffering. When he submits himself to Jacob in the fourth book, the orgasmic subtext is almost embarrassing – it sure makes Jacob uncomfortable.
Which is why I find a lot of the criticism (by the diehard fans, not the quite legitimate “Awful writing and ZOMG Death Baby!” type) of the last book very interesting. Because in Breaking Dawn, a lot of what is subtextual and unhealthy in this relationship becomes overt, consensual, and even joyful – and the biggest gripe of many of the fans is that Edward and Bella’s relationship becomes *boring.*
The earliest, more popular sections have a lot of these same lovely squicky fantasy elements. Bella totally gets her Cinderella fulfillment, her handsome Prince utterly at her feet in the first book. In the second,we get to see Edward suffer as much, or even more, than even he would want – my Lord, he even grovels to *Jacob*! He gets totally pwned by *Rosalie*.
But, awhile remaining true to their essential character – both of them managed to eventually learn to, well, “own” their fantasies. Whatever you may think of the whole “motherhood is a woman’s destiny”, trope, Bella discovers through her pregnancy that there is more to love than validating her own sense of worth by proving someone else is willing to suffer for her. Throughout the series, the times I have liked Bella best – when risking her life to save Rene, when going to Italy, when acknowledging how she hurt Jacob was selfish and wrong – is the times not when she obsessed about how her actions might hurt someone else, but when she acknowledged that, went beyond it, and said, “I’m going to do the right thing anyways.” With Renesmee, Bella finally grew out of her equation of “love” with “trading power points” and needing to prove herself “worthy” of being loved. (There is also the whole factor of how Renesmee serves as Bella’s Mary Sue, much as Bella serves as Meyer’s, but this post is already way to long.) When she is transformed into a vampire, the thing that struck me most is the gradually evolution away from being pretty enough, strong enough, “good” enough *for Edward* – and she finally focusses on becoming worthy *of BELLA*. And I loved to see that.
As for Edward – well, let’s just say that I think he really really enjoys the fact that newborn Bella is stronger than him, both physically and in her “talent.” I suspect in a decade or so, Bella might want to start investigating the vampiric equivalents of handcuffs and leather. But I also think the strength that Bella finds in accepting herself, helps Edward also make the distinction between being submissive and *requiring* domination; between enjoying pain and *deserving* punishment. To put it simply, Bella becomes a vampire and does NOT become a “soulless monster” – not in his eyes, not in Jacob’s eyes, not in Nessie’s eyes, most importantly not in her own eyes. Only once he has accepted and loved the VAMPIRE Bella, is Edward truly able to accept and love the vampire Edward. And that is why Bella cannot drop her shields for him until the last two pages; because until then, he wasn’t able to drop his own.
So yeah, I think there are a lot of interesting psychosexual subtext in the whole series that is not being acknowledged, especially in the context of the cultural mores in which the books were written and best loved. I’m not sure that the fantasies indulged here are necessarily empowering or healthy, but they are a good deal more complex and understandable than “Omigosh, I so totally wish somebody would stalk me and order me around!”
Hapax, that's a fascinating theory. I've pasted it onto the comments of my own blog piece, hope you don't mind but it was just so interesting.
I've only read the first book so I can't much comment on the later books. Certainly I can see your point. I still think my theory works as well - the thing about Twilight is that because it's flexible and metaphorical it lends itself to a lot of different theories without having much to contradict them.
I think it's also possible you could argue that Bella is emotionally dominant without being sexually dominant; they're two different things, and Edward wouldn't be the only self-hating dom out there. (Again I'm thinking of James Spader's Edward in Secretary: he may be sexually dominant but there's no question of who the stronger personality is, or indeed who the sexual pursuer is: it's Lee all the way.) 'Passive dominance' doesn't seem that incompatible with the sadomasochistic dictum that the power in a relationship ultimately resides with the submissive, as their consent is required for absolutely everything that happens.
And again, the fact that Bella is assertive to other people in her life doesn't necessarily make her sexually dominant. There's the stereotype of the captain of industry who regularly visits a dominatrix, after all: sexual submissiveness can go with a forceful and powerful personality in the wider world.
As to forcing him to come to her against his will - well, I can see your point, but just to be contrary, if his will is to stay away from her and she wants him with her, then I'm not sure what else her desire for him to come to her could be classed as whatever their sexual roles. He isn't doing what she wants, she doesn't like that. That seems like a human thing rather than a dominant one.
I do agree with you that in fantasies like this one there's a strong element of power: women dreaming of ruling over those around them because those they desire are overwhelmed by love. It's a power fantasy just as much as James Bond. But I think I'd separate emotional dominance out from sexual dominance, and class Bella as the former.
As I said, I've only read the first book, so I can't say much about the later ones. It's an extremely interesting theory, anyway. I'd like to hear any others you have, if you have some time to kill, either here or on the blog thread - you have many intriguing things to say. :-)
Hm. Reading over the thread I see that I've described Bella's position as submissive 'emotionally at least' earlier on, so did I just contradict myself? I suppose when I said 'emotionally at least' I really meant 'sexually in subtext but acted out in other things such as whether they dance or where they go.' Which isn't emotionally. Should make myself more clear, evidently.
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