Early this year, I was overcome with this unrelenting urge to read the entire Twilight series over again. I’d been a casual fan when I was in high school, hated the movies, and then found myself defending them against people who really hated Edward and Bella. And while their points are valid, it also made me ashamed of liking them. More on that here.
So when Life and Death was announced, the book that promised to clear up any notion that the series is sexist, I was more than intrigued at the possibility of reading about a “weak” human male who falls in love with a “strong” female vampire. I was tickled by the idea.
And then the reviews started rolling in: that Stephenie Meyer, far from shattering gender roles, reinforced them instead. And certainly, there are many instances in the book that that proves true, but when I read it, the message Meyer was trying to send, even though it was flawed, came through.
In this updated version of the first Twilight, Edward is swapped for a female vampire named Edythe, while Bella becomes a gangly, awkward teenage guy named Beau (terrible, terrible names, I know).
In some points in the book, gender roles are reinforced in small, subtle, but important ways. Like when Beau shows up on Charlie’s doorstep, Charlie seems to imply that Beau is responsible for taking care of his mother, but it was never implied that Bella was similarly responsible. In another scene, Beau says something is “beautiful, I guess” while Bella spoke without the qualifier. And then there was the moment when Edythe gives a cold Beau her scarf and tells him not to feel weird for taking it, because it’s “her brother’s” scarf—not a girly one.
There’s definite stuff like that, which seemed to me like Stephenie Meyer was deliberately calling attention to gender stereotypes. There’s an interesting scene in which Edythe pays the check for her and Beau (even though she ate nothing) and Beau’s reaction is to object, acting like the guy should pay for the first date. Edythe laughs at his reaction, saying, “Try not to get caught up in antiquated gender roles.”
And then there is the actual relationship between Beau and Edythe, and the fact that each of them has very nearly identical characteristics, personality, personal history, and behavior as the originals. Read: Edythe is self-assured, confident, physically strong, and somewhat self-loathing. Beau is shy, clumsy, terrible at sports and completely disinterested in them, very responsible, and wholly obsessed with a beautiful vampire.
Edythe does the same things Edward does: follow Beau to protect him, watch him sleep at night, all the things that Edward was called creepy for (with good reason), but when Edythe does it, it doesn’t come off as creepy. Edythe is just protecting someone she loves, who’s physically weaker than she is. She’s also very much in love with him, and feels best when she’s around him, just like Edward did.
Similarly, when Edythe constantly saves Beau’s life, it does not read as Beau being weak or submissive, two things Bella was constantly charged with. Also, he’s arguably even more obsessed with Edythe than Bella was with Edward; strikingly, Beau never gets mad at Edythe in this book the way Bella got mad at Edward. He never stands up for himself against Edythe’s behavior. You can read this two ways: Beau is taking the traditional masculine role, not getting mad at Edythe because he’s treating her like a lady. But you can also read it as a defense for Bella; she’s not half as submissive as Beau is.
This book, at the end of the day, is not free from gender stereotypes, and perhaps doesn’t subvert them so neatly as Meyer had intended. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all, because it’s making people think about their own prejudices, and opening a dialogue about gender roles.
In this book, it’s inarguably the woman who is the stronger being, the woman who has a very dark past. It’s the man who takes on her way of life, and chooses to follow her wherever she goes. He doesn’t feel like his masculinity is threatened by her strength and self-assurance. But there’s also no doubt that gender roles are still active here, that the characters are aware of them. I think that makes it more effective: gender roles do exist here; they’re not ignored. The characters find their ways around them. This is like actual life: gender roles exist, and it’s up to us to be aware when they’re asserting too much control.
And then it made me think about my own gender prejudices. As feminists, I think we tend to hold female characters to a higher standard than male ones. Any aberration is seen as weakness, and that character is dismissed as a poor role model, and the author labeled as sexist. This is counterproductive.
Beau said and did everything the same way Bella did, but Beau does not come off as weak. In fact, his behavior is endearing. This is proof that the criticism leveled at Twilight for a decade is gendered. We are more comfortable with a “weak” male than a “weak” female, and more congratulatory of an assertive, self-assured female, while an assertive, self-assured male receives vilification. Understanding that our activism sometimes carries its own kind of prejudice is important to effect real change.
Rant over. Bottom line is that I really enjoyed this book, and will not apologize for it.