For reasons too depressing to explain, I spent a few hours last night reading Twilight, the first installment in Stephanie Meyer’s teenage vampire series. It is, dear reader, a deeply strange book. Ok, there’s been a lot of press about Meyer’s Mormonism and how her social conservatism informs the novels. Sarah Seltzer puts it like this:
Meyer, a practicing Mormon, has said she draws a line at premarital sex for her characters. But, as Times columnist Gail Collins noted last month, boyfriend Edward holds the line, not heroine and narrator Bella. Bella, after all, is so hot for Edward she tells him she’s going to “spontaneously combust” and frequently forgets to breathe when he kisses her.
Meanwhile, he is equally besotted with her, so much so that he trains himself to ignore his thirst for her blood, which has an aroma that could make even a good vampire (Edward and his coven have forsworn munching on humankind) go bad. Yet Edward still won’t go all the way because he doesn’t want to get carried away and hurt Bella with his superhuman strength. Her physical safety becomes a symbolic substitute for her virginity, and Edward guards it with overprotective zeal.
Now that’s a real fantasy: a world where young women are free to describe their desires openly, and launch themselves at men without shame, while said boyfriends are the sexual gatekeepers. Twilight‘s sexual flowchart is the inversion of abstinence-only/purity ball culture, where girls are told that they must guard themselves against rabid boys, and that they must reign in both their own and their suitors’ impulses. But even while inverting the positions, Meyer doesn’t change the game. Purity is still the goal. Men, or vampires, are still dangerous and threatening while females are still breakable and fragile. Intercourse still has the potential of resulting in “death,” just as it once relegated women to a social death. The only difference is the controls are handed over from the teenage girl to the guy–who happens, in this case, to be totally responsible and upright.
Having read such articles previously, the weird gender dynamics of Twilight didn’t surprise me. But two other things did.
Firstly, there’s almost no plot at all. Like, in most mass-market YA fiction, plot matters a great deal. Think of Harry Potter. JK Rowling’s not a great wordsmith (mind you, she’s a zillion times better than Meyer) but, right from the start of Harry Potter, there’s an unfolding mystery, both in each individual book and the series as a whole. In Twilight, nothing happens at all. For the first half of the book, the narrative drive comes from Bella trying to work out what Edward actually is. Given that anyone who buys the damn thing presumably knows it’s got something to do with vampires, the puzzle about Edward’s identity doesn’t exactly make for a page-turner.
So what’s going on? Well, I guess it’s a reflection of Seltzer’s point. Given that the appeal of the book lies in what we might call the thrill of the chaste, any actual action (if you pardon the pun) would detract from the central dynamic between Bella and Edward: the ongoing angst about whether he like me, whether he really, really likes me.
The second piece of weirdness about Twilight is the extent to which it foregrounds class. The book begins with Bella moving from a big city to a hicksville town and right from the start, she regards her schoolmates with amused condescension. The other kids are a collection of backward bumpkins — they drive old cars, dress badly and struggle with their schoolwork. Edward and his posse of vampires a million times better looking than all these hillbillies. Besides, they have better cars (Edward’s a Volvo driver) and clothes. Indeed, Bella and Edward first bond over a shared contempt for the yokels, with Edward using his vampiric abilities to belittle and humiliate his slack-jawed schoolmates.
Now, there’s always an element of this in fantasy, which sells so well to teenagers precisely because its basic narrative appeals to every pimply adolescent’s secret sense of unacknowledged superiority. Think of the typical sub-Tolkein swords-and-sandals novel: invariably, the protagonist begins as a lowly pig herder before gradually discovering that he’s the greatest wizard there ever was and the whole future of the universe hangs on whether or not he can complete some asinine quest or another.
The difference with Twilight, however, is that the distinction between Bella and Edward and the risible kids surrounding them is explicitly social, measured in Bella’s superior knowledge of fashion and Edward’s impeccable manners and commanding (literally: he specialises in bossing around teachers and other minor authority figures) presence.
Again, one wonders how much this reflects Meyer’s religion. That is, contemporary Mormonism is, as I understand it, overwhelmingly middle-class, yet it’s still seen as something of a fringe by mainstream America. That sense of being socially superior to those around you and yet still an outcast pervades Twilight, giving it a quite peculiar form of nastiness.