In the last eleven days I have read 2500 pages of teen vampire drama-romance. What started as an electric devouring of young-adult escapist fantasy ended in a feminist rage. No worries, though; I’m not going to go full-tilt into a feminist rage here.

I’ll start on the escapist-fiction front. Stephenie Meyer can spin a good tale. Reading the four books in her Twilight saga in such rapid succession gave me great respect for her talent as a writer. Given that Twilight was her first novel and that she had little writing experience before she wrote it, it was inevitable that her technique would evolve with each subsequent novel. To my surprise and delight, she added to her initial panache for writing about teenage (any age, really) infatuation quite a prowess for action-adventure. With the unfortunate exception of her protagonist, she developed her characters beautifully. She has a true gift for showing human emotion without gooeyness or its foil, irony.

SPOILER ALERT: I might ruin stuff for you below. Proceed with caution.

Twilight was by far the best in the series. New Moon, its sequel, was fairly mediocre; it didn’t manage to develop the characters (with the exception of werewolf best friend Jacob) nor the universe in any significant way. Eclipse started out slow but built into quite a page turner. And, ah, Breaking Dawn. Quite a news-maker, Breaking Dawn. The first half of the final book is one of the oddest I think I’ve ever read. Kudos to Meyer for letting her imagination run to some truly gruesome places unfettered. Edward chewing his baby out of Bella’s dying body? Gross doesn’t really cut it. Best-friend werewolf Jacob imprinting on the vampire-human hybrid baby? It didn’t even smack of Jerry Springer. Let me be perfectly clear: Some seriously weird shit goes down in the first half of Breaking Dawn.

The second half of the book returns to the style and pacing of the first three installments. It’s as if the film of gore was removed from the lens. I was very happy to learn much more about what it’s like to be a vampire. These are some way cool undead. And that’s about all there is to say about it. The bad guys were bad, but not, like, overwhelmingly eviiil. Which brings me quite nicely to the second front: all the other aspects of these books that drove me absolutely crazy.

First, for an epic saga of teen love in a mythical world, there was a glaring absence of evil that was in any way evil enough. This saga is extraordinarily heavy on good. It adds to the books being so damn easy to read, but it significantly detracts from overall development. In a world where the bad guys are quite clearly the good guys, you need some serious evil to balance it out.

Before I move into only a wee feminist rant, I must explain something about how I usually read fiction. I usually just read it. I have no agenda. I have no bar against which I measure it. I don’t often compare books to other books; I don’t often compare characters to other characters; I often overlook obvious parallels to other literary works (even things as knock-you-over-the-head as biblical allusions). So take that into account when you try to understand what I mean when I say that these books threw me into a feminist RAGE.

Bella Swan is a hysterical, confused, and confusing character. I admire her stubbornness, but never understood where it came from. She behaved as if she knew what the hell she was doing, but then you realize she never really did. She was impulsive but also broody; stubborn but also a doormat. And by god, she had the most impenetrable low self esteem of any teen character I can remember ever encountering.

I ended up hating her as much as I ended up hating Anna Karenina. That’s a lot of loathing.

That’s not a feminist rant, though. Here’s where the feminism comes in.

Bella Swan never believed in herself, and Meyer managed not to make it apparent that the reader is supposed to believe in her anyway. She was a damsel in near-constant distress, and the only ones to ever save her (till the very, very end of the series, at least) were her perfect knights in mythical armour. These men/boys, who had truly admirable abilities to know themselves and to express their emotions, protected her to the point of stifling her very autonomy. And when she would manage to get by them, they’d swoop in and save her from the peril that ensued. She didn’t progress or grow as a character until, wait for it…

… Until she became a mother. And then she became what mothers are apparently supposed to be. Utterly selfless and concerned only with the welfare of her baby; strong only when the baby is threatened; clever, only when it comes to helping the baby. At no point is Bella any of these things when it comes to herself. (Note: I don’t think Bella’s refusal to abort the fetus is anti-feminist. That was her choice. A stupid one, considering it almost killed her, but hers to make all the same.)

And in the end, when she finds her power (a power, note, that she had from the very beginning; one that was always a part of her but she never knew it), when she’s able finally to save the day, it’s because she had to protect everyone else and then afterward she still doesn’t believe she’s anything special.

There’s humble, and then there’s the poor sot who is Bella Swan.

And now to the sex. I have no trouble with the theme of holding off on sex. Not having sex till you’re damn well ready? Good for you. And I absolutely rejoiced in the frank treatment of sex in these books. Bella talks about it quite freely, and with her intended partner, to boot. I do, however, take issue with marriage being in any way a part of that theme. Accordingly, I smirked that it ended up that Bella’s primary motivation to marry was to finally have sex with Edward (despite, oh lovely metaphor, that his undead strength could potentially kill her if he were to lose control in the throes). Major life commitment entered into when fully unsure and uncomfortable: Apparently okay. One bout of potentially deadly intercourse when all dangers are understood: Apparently to be avoided until coerced into marriage.

(Note: I take no issue with the characters of Edward and Jacob, aside from the bits where their true love stifles Bella [and I actually think that’s ultimately a problem with Bella’s character]. ETA: What I mean here is that it’s a failure of Meyer’s not to have made Bella stand up to these guys. I think the guys would have respected her.)

As a once-disastrous teenager, and as an adult who has worked with teen girls of all sorts, I became quite severely angered that these books might influence teen girls in any way. Either to dream after the perfect man who would solve all their problems, or to expect that becoming a finally beautiful vampire would make their lives easier. It would suck to wake up one day in early adulthood and realize you have to work at relationships and fight for what you want in life.

But at the same time, I must certainly keep in mind that I turned out okay. Teenagers are a tough bunch. On the one hand, they are so vulnerable; so quick to make judgments, so often against themselves; so impressionable. On the other hand, and at the very same time, they are smart, capable, and curious. Will the Twilight series damn them to a life of submissive conservatism? No. But hopefully they have some strong women around to talk to them about the books as they read them. Because it would suck for them to lose even a few weeks to imagining having a life as impotent as Bella Swan’s.

Further Reading