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Screwing up your daughters, the Twilight way

Julia Armfield reads Twilight and is totally calm and measured about it

The other day, I read an article so asinine that it made me spill coffee down my dress (although saying that, I don’t generally need an asinine article to spill coffee down my dress. All I need is coffee.). I happened to be trawling the Empire movie website, as you do, when I came across an article by movie blogger Helen O’Hara, entitled The Case for Twilight’s Bella Swan, Feminist. When I regained consciousness, some forty-five minutes and an exorcism later, I found that I had not, alas, hallucinated and that there was, in fact, someone out there willing to make a case for the heroine of Stephenie Meyer’s phenomenally popular Twilight books’ right to stand alongside Mary Wollstonecraft and Hermione Granger and give us the womanly word.

The gist of O’Hara’s argument, from what I could make out through bleeding eye sockets, was that: “Bella’s relationship with Edward, while starting from a place of (unhealthy) obsession, evolves into something that’s still obsessed (on both sides) but actually rather balanced between give-and-take. He may try to control her life, but she simply doesn’t let him.” Well step back, Mrs Pankhurst, there’s new money in town.

Let me just hark back a bit here. The Twilight novels, for those of you who have been living on Mars (in a cave, with your eyes shut) tell the story of a girl, Bella, who falls in love with a vampire, Edward, whose only defining characteristics appear to be bouffant hair and an incurable thirst for her blood. Over the course of the series, the two argue interminably over Bella’s desire to be changed into a vampire so they can be together forever and make mixtapes of My Chemical Romance songs or whatever, whilst peppering their bickering with intermittent battles for their lives and scenes in which they compare themselves to Heathcliff and Cathy without, I’m fairly certain, even the most basic knowledge of what Wuthering Heights is about, who wrote it or where England is. Also, there are werewolves and everyone talks about their cars. All pretty clear so far. As far as Teen Fiction goes, Twilight exploded in a style unheard of since Harry Potter. The books have sold over 100 million copies worldwide and three movies have already been made, with the final instalment set to be released in two parts. Twilight fans, or “Twi-hards”, are certainly not age-specific, ranging from preteens to the faintly disturbing “Twi-Moms”, who make me yearn for the days when nobody’s parents could even pronounce “Dumbledore”. Age discrepancies aside, however, there are still two incontrovertible facts to be gleaned about Twilight, the first being that its fan demographic is almost exclusively female and the second being that, whoever happens to have latched onto it, its target readership has always been teenaged girls.

Teen fiction, as a genre, is endlessly problematic. The fact that the word “teen” can encompass anything from Upper Fourth to the end of university creates untold problems in terms of appropriacy and relatability and the highly gendered lines along which youth fiction is divided are certainly no help. Fiction aimed at those aged thirteen to nineteen is, as a general rule, aimed either at girls or at boys. The Alex Rider books and anything to do with sports or underpants are aimed at boys. Twilight is aimed at girls.

Now, let’s wander back to that Empire article for a second. O’Hara claims that Bella Swan makes “wise decisions” and “follows her own path”, surely the founding tenets of feminism. This is, I should point out, the girl who obsesses so continually over her undead bf that she contemplates suicide when he leaves her; who is so near-mute in his presence that almost all her dialogue is followed by the words “I mumbled”; who allows him not infrequently to carry her around; who loses all interest in family and friends when in love; who tries to forgo college in the name of said love; who marries at age nineteen (oh yeah, spoilers); who has some seriously questionable violent sex afterwards; who gets pregnant with what I can only assume, from six-hundred pages of vomituous description, to be some kind of human incarnation of a Saw movie; who willingly has the thing; who loves it because she’s a lady and who waltzes off into the sunset with Saw baby and her Abusive Vampire Hottie like that’s all just how she rolls. Neat.

O’Hara argues that “Feminists don’t – or shouldn’t – demand that every woman on screen live up to some feminist ideal when the population as a whole doesn’t”. Well, this I absolutely must contest when it comes to Teen fiction. A while ago, I wrote an article on how children’s books help fashion whoever we turn out to be and I would argue now that books aimed at teenagers carry just such a social responsibility. Admittedly, readers of thirteen up have a more rounded view of the world and a more fully-developed ability to interpret what they read, but the fact remains that at fourteen/fifteen, you’re a gibbering mess. Hormones, peer pressure and stress combine to create the Perfect Storm that is adolescence, and it is at this point more than ever that you start looking around for anything to latch onto that gives you a tangible identity. That’s why people become Goths (that’s why I joined Greek Myth Club). Literature, during adolescence, is a touchstone and Teen Literature is a means of searching for identity through relatable characters and issues. The importance of Twilight purveying a positive, empowering message for teenaged girls, however “idealised” O’Hara might think that, should consequently be pretty apparent. Teenaged girls are a vulnerable lot and frankly, the last thing they need is the most popular book in the world dangling a dream-scenario of perfect, vampire love over their heads as the way to opt out of a dreary life. Bella is made infinitely happier, prettier and more appealing by and marrying Edward, and if you have any problems with your sad teen life, then you should just get yourself a boyfriend too. One who carries you up stairs and fills in your Dartmouth applications, because it’s always best if you let the man take charge of the really important things, like college applications and motor skills (though obviously you don’t really want to go to college). Don’t worry if he slaps you around a bit, either, or randomly takes the engine out of your car – it’s only because he loves you. For all its inherent pull upon the sparkling escape fantasies of teenaged girls, Twilight is so woefully backward in its approach to essential teen issues that it is difficult to see how it could be more damaging. Opportunities to approach domestic violence, self-image and suicide as anything but the trials of young love are sorely wasted, whilst abortion, as an issue, is as good as outright lambasted. An abusive boyfriend is presented as the absolute ideal (he sparkles, kids) and female characters are defined almost solely by the men who surround them.

Bella Swan, for want of a better closing statement, is not a feminist. She’s a teenaged girl in dire need of a book to show her the way. And that book is most definitely not Twilight.

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