Much has been written about sexism in the Twilight books and film. Here, Caitlin Brown puts the series in context of other popular vampire fiction
Warning: spoilers follow
Feminism and the vampire novel have not traditionally been particularly well-suited bedfellows. The prototype of the genre, the shadow which lurks behind each and every modern vampire novel, is of course Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a novel which combines a mastery of atmosphere and suspense with a decidedly misogynistic mythology.
In recent years, however, the vampire text has evolved to encompass a narrative structure and an attitude towards women which moves beyond the virginal victim/deadly whore dichotomy that characterised the genre’s precursors. All of which makes Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series and its retrograde take on the role of women all the more infuriating. The success of the Twilight books has wrenched the vampire genre out of dark obscurity into blinding publicity; but the books have also dispensed with many of the features which make contemporary supernatural literature so interesting.
Meyer’s response to accusations of sexism in her books is to claim that, “When I hear or read theories about Bella being an anti-feminist character, those theories are usually predicated on her choices.” However, the real reason Bella is not a feminist heroine is because Meyer fails to develop the role of women in the supernatural novel much beyond what Stoker achieved more than a century previously.
At the crux of sexism within the vampire novel is the paradigm of male vamp/female human, a framework which an overwhelming majority of vampire novels are based around. The consequence of this is to represent the male as virtually unassailable in terms of power, and generally intellectually superior due to the centuries of wisdom he has accumulated. It is also a rare vamp novel which features a male (anti)hero not in possession of dazzlingly good looks and the ability to persuade a mouldy carrot into bed with one devastating glance. The female human is physically weaker and, at least traditionally, unable to resist the lure of the dashing corpse. These are tropes which vampire narratives such as Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer have delighted in overturning, yet in one form or another they remain pervasive in the supernatural novel.
In Dracula, the women are faced with two equally unappealing alternatives: forsake their initial quasi-independence and embrace the status of victimhood which the men in the text (both supernatural and otherwise) combine to foist upon them; or give in to the seduction of the vampire and so gain power – but a power which is represented in the text as sexualised and therefore, according to the morality of the novel, demonic. (Much as all female sexuality is deemed demonic in literature of a certain stance, both supernatural and otherwise.) The same ‘choices’ which Meyer parades as being Bella’s own in the Twilight series, and therefore above criticism, are in reality almost as narrow.
For most of the series, she can choose only between relying on vampire Edward or werewolf Jacob for salvation from whatever big bad is gunning for her, or relying on Edward to allow her to become a vampire so that she too has access to the power which only he can bestow.
The imbalance of power between men and women in many vampire novels can also be attributed to the capability of the male vampire to completely subsume any independent desires or individuality on the part of the female heroine.
In Dracula, both Mina and Lucy are compelled by the Count to work against their allies. Their own opposing wishes and agency are completely overtaken by the control which he exerts over them. While Jonathan is subject to the same mind control, he manages to maintain a sense of his own identity, and eventually escape from Dracula. The women in the novel are represented as incapable of sustaining any individuality in the face of Dracula’s power.
Of course, this is a scenario which will be eminently familiar to ‘Twihards’, mirroring as it does Edward’s control of all Bella’s actions and restriction of her choices. Bella’s sense of self is so dependent on Edward that his absence in the second book of the series, New Moon, causes her to enter a state of near-catatonic depression. Some critics have termed Edward’s actions in the series emotional abuse and this is certainly apt, but it is also an extension of an attitude towards women that is hardly new in the vampire novel. Sherrilyn Kenyon’s series of vampire romances occupy a similar vein of literature, with their focus on submissive heroines who gladly relinquish their agency to the alpha vamps/shapeshifters/gods they encounter, despite initial protestations of independence and a bit of mandatory soul-searching.
Meanwhile, the representation of vampires has long been linked to fears of the foreign Other, since the Eastern European spectre of the Count. As other critics of Twilight have pointed out, Meyer substitutes this for what amounts to a fetishisation of whiteness. The translucent beauty of Bella and Edward’s pale skin is lingered on obsessively and contrasted unfavourably to Jacob’s “russet” appearance.
Her continued insistence that an extremity of whiteness is integral to beauty and superiority of character (which Edward represents) is nothing if not problematic.
Issues of race are on the whole not dealt with particularly well by the supernatural novel. The television series True Blood has been criticised for its insulting portrayal of black women, for example its use of the stereotype of the “sassy black sidekick”. Yet the depiction of black women – or indeed any women not in possession of snow white skin – in other vampire stories is most noticeable for its shocking absence. The paucity of such characters highlights the fact that the vamp novel may have worked out some of its issues with women but when it comes to race, Twilight is far from the only vampire novel which severely disappoints.
All of this is not to say that the vampire novel is inherently anti-feminist. The power dynamic of male vamp/female human is in fact uniquely set up for the possibilities of subversion and exploration of the nature of power in any male/female relationship. It is a preconfigured metaphor for the dominance of men within society and the varied responses to this power imbalance available open to women.
If Dracula set in place many of the more sexist features of the supernatural novel, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, also designed to have real-world relevance, paved the way for more intimate relations between the vamp text and feminism. In the world of Buffy, the male vampire with his supernatural powers is countered by a woman with powers of her own, continually underestimated by her opponents.
In Buffy’s battles with vampires she does not always succeed, but what it is important is that the outcome is not predetermined – she will not inevitably give in to her male opponent’s superior strength and power. By the end of the series, Buffy’s slaying aptitude and strength develop to the point where her once threatening foes are increasingly represented as irritants rather than equal opponents. The vampire novel with aspirations of equality will generally give the female heroine some sort of power of her own with which to counter the vampire. Karen Chance’s heroine Cassandra Palmer is a clairvoyant; Sookie Stackhouse, of Charlaine Harris’ Southern Vampire Mysteries, made into the TV show True Blood, is a telepath; Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake can both kick ass and raise the dead.
The sparkly vamp aficionados will now point out that Twilight’s Bella too has powers; her mind acts as a natural shield against any kind of telepathic interference. Yes, but Bella’s power is one of negativity. She has the ability to not have her mind interfered with, although for most of the series not even the ability to choose to use this power. Bella’s power gives her no agency, no possibility to redress the power imbalance which exists between men and women in the novel. The dynamic of male vamp vs. human female which characterises many supernatural novels is not necessarily anti-feminist, as the examples above demonstrate, but Meyers chooses to disallow her heroine access to the power accorded to the male protagonists of the series.
The vampire novel is suffused with desire, defined further by this miasma of fantasy which imbues its language and its narrative. The act of biting a victim, of transforming a human to a vampire, is inevitably linked to sex. This transformation is generally either explicitly linked to sex, as in Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire, or is used as a thinly veiled metaphor for the sexual act, as in Dracula. Both Charlaine Harris and Karen Chance imagine the acts as mingled in their series of books. The ability to turn someone into a vampire is usually the prerogative of the male, and so sexual power in the vampire novel tends to reside with men.
The female heroine is often represented as yearning for the vampire to exercise his sexual power over her, yet in the best contemporary vampire novels the writer uses this desire to explore the nature of fantasy and equality within relationships. Anita Blake, Sookie Stackhouse and Cassandra Palmer each become increasingly assertive in achieving the fulfilment of their sexual desires, as at times several of the books in these series become less about the bloodlust, and more about the lust to bang anything without a pulse. But crucially, the misadventures of these female heroines do not compromise their independence or their integrity. The fantasy of submission to the vamp lover is fulfilled, but this is not the end of the story; the balance of power can change, and this desire in itself need not lead to a fundamentally unequal power dynamic between men and women in the novel.
In Dracula, Lucy’s linked experience of sex/vampirism results in new supernatural, physical and sexual powers. However, once in possession of these powers, Lucy is represented as divested of the attributes of both humanity and femininity which characterised her previously. Power and femininity are not mutually compatible in the world Stoker created. In Twilight also, Bella gains power only through becoming a vampire, which is a result of her much-awaited sexual liaison with Edward. This vampiric power of Bella’s ultimately comes to her due only to Edward’s decision to grant her with it.
This reluctant bestowal of power is linked to the denial of the fulfilment of desire within the text. Twilight throbs with sexual longing, and this tension is part of what makes the books so compelling. (I admit it; whatever scruples I may have, I was gripped.) Yet, whatever intentions Meyer may have had with regards to the abstinence storyline, desire in the context of the vamp novel is a means by which the female heroine can explore power and fantasy, and so the abstinence within Twilight signifies a denial of the power that comes with the fulfilment of sexual fantasy. Authority over both the sexual experience and access to power remain with Edward.
The modern vampire novel is overwhelmingly a text written by women, and featuring female heroines. The narrative voice within in the vampire novel is usually female and this in itself lends a certain power to the heroine: the power to tell the story from her point of view, a power not accorded to the male vampire. Certainly, Bella is the narrator of her own story for most of the series, but she loses this agency just before her transformation into a vampire and consequent gain in power. Any advances the fourth book could be seen to make in terms of equality – the introduction of several strong, powerful female characters, Bella’s new abilities which in some ways exceed Edward’s – are negated by the images of the preceding chapters. Bella as helpless vassal, stripped of agency and voice, and devoured from within as a result of the clash between Edward’s power and her own feeble, female humanity cannot be easily rendered equal in the chapters that follow. Meyer’s insistence on perpetuating a power imbalance in her novels means that any claim she may eventually have to feminism in the texts is entirely shot to hell.
The feminist vampire novel is certainly possible, although when it comes to equal representations of a wide spectrum of different women the choices narrow significantly. With regards to Twilight, not only does the treatment of race leave much to be desired, but in many other ways it fails to measure up to its supernatural counterparts. While other contemporary vampire novels use the power dynamic of the vamp novel as a way of exploring the nature of power, desire and fantasy, Twilight’s denial of the importance of these means that in this eminently popular modern novel, little has changed in terms of the relative roles of men and women since the publication of Dracula in 1897.