Time to Set Bella Down: A Feminist Critique of Twilight
While feminism is not necessarily an uncomplicated subject, according to literary critic Robert Dale Parker, “at its most fundamental level, feminism is a simple concept; it is about taking women seriously and respectfully” (148). Despite this easily understandable idea, the portrayal of women in literature and media continues to be highly problematic, and Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight is no exception. The female protagonist, Bella, is a self-deprecating girl written with a slew of stereotypical attributes. She suffers from low self-esteem, cooks and cleans for her father, is physically small and weak, is consistently portrayed as the “damsel in distress,” is obsessed with Edward and loses all interest in any other activity once they meet, (thus fulfilling the unfortunate stereotype that women need a man to “complete” them and experience true happiness) and in general fails to exhibit any personality traits that could mark her as a strong female character. Also, despite being in love with a man who literally wants to kill her, Bella refuses to worry about her own welfare, and on multiple occasions expresses the desire to sacrifice her own well-being and happiness for the good of those she loves. This unfortunate perpetuation of stereotypes is important to acknowledge because of the novel’s intended demographic. Although the books have become extremely popular and are now read by males and females in all age groups, according to critic Melissa Ames “the intended demographic was always much narrower and more gendered; the books specifically target teenage girls and young women, and that is predominantly who reads them” (Ames 40). If these readers accept Bella as a role model to be emulated, society will be looking at a generation that perceives the aforementioned stereotypes as an acceptable, or even positive, way to view women.
Early in the novel we are introduced to Bella’s role as cook, housekeeper, and grocery shopper. When Bella first moves to Forks to live with her father Charlie, she quickly realizes that he can’t cook (another stereotype):
Last night I discovered that Charlie couldn’t cook much besides fried eggs and bacon. So I requested that I be assigned kitchen detail for the duration of my stay. He was willing enough to hand over the keys to the banquet hall. I also found out that he had no food in the house. So I had my shopping list and the cash from the jar in the cupboard labeled FOOD MONEY, and I was on my way to the Thriftway. (Meyers 31–32)
I do not single out this passage in order to imply that women should not cook, clean, or partake in grocery shopping; the issue here is that Bella feels forced to place herself in those roles because her father is apparently unable to fulfill them himself, despite having lived on his own for several years. For those who view Bella as a role model, this implies that they should be all too willing to step into these stereotypical roles whether they wish to or not because, as women, we should not expect men to be able to care for themselves. Later in the same chapter, Bella describes her first weekend in Forks: “I cleaned the house, got ahead on my homework, and wrote my mom more bogusly cheerful e-mails” (38). While it would certainly be reasonable for Bella to take part in housework as part of her share for living there, this situation seems similar to the cooking situation. There is no mention that Charlie asked Bella to be in charge of keeping the entire house clean, so we can infer that Bella feels it’s necessary to place herself within that role. Again, the issue here is not that she cooks and cleans, but that she feels it’s essential to fulfill that role since there are no other females living in the household.
There are some who defend Bella’s character, arguing that she has agency over her own life and choices. I contend that there isn’t much of an argument regarding whether or not Bella chooses to place herself within the aforementioned stereotypical roles of housekeeper and cook; however, her ability to choose in many other instances is questionable, particularly once she and Edward are firmly entrenched in each other’s lives. Early in the relationship Edward’s power over Bella is notable, and he is clearly in the dominant position while Bella is submissive.
For example, in the lunch room one day Bella’s friend Jessica notices Edward staring at Bella, and tells her so. Her response was immediate:
My head snapped up. I followed her gaze to see Edward, smiling crookedly, staring at me from an empty table across the cafeteria from where he usually sat. Once he’d caught my eye, he raised one hand and motioned with his index finger for me to join him. As I stared in disbelief, he winked . . . “Um, I’d better go see what he wants.” (Meyers 87).
This passage is problematic right from the beginning. Bella’s head “snapping” up shows eagerness and a feeling of amazement in response to finding out that Edward is looking at her, thus emphasizing Bella’s lack of self-esteem and immediate willingness to conform to Edward’s wishes, even though at this point he hasn’t expressed them yet. When he does, he actually had the gall to summon her with his index finger. Is there a reason why he couldn’t walk over to her and politely request her company? A summon is a command, not a request. Clearly Bella understands this, because her response, “I’d better go see what he wants,” indicates a lack of choice on her part. While technically she is not physically being forced, in her submissive role it’s clear that she doesn’t think she has a choice.
Later in chapter ten, once Edward and Bella have become an item, Edward shows up at her house and offers to bring her to school. According to Bella, “there was uncertainty in his voice. He was really giving me a choice — I was free to refuse, and part of him hoped for that. It was a vain hope” (Meyers 197). Bella’s surprise at actually being given a choice at this point should not be surprising to us, considering that it is likely the first choice Edward has offered her in the book.
While all this is telling, the most poignant examples of Bella’s lack of choice in regard to Edward and his vampire family occur toward the end of the novel when Bella is being hunted by James, and Edward and his family are desperately trying to get her to safety:
“Where are we going?” I asked.
No one answered. No one even looked at me.
“Dammit, Edward! Where are you taking me?”
“We have to get you away from here — far away — now.” He didn’t look back, his eyes on the road. The speedometer read a hundred and five miles an hour.
“Turn around! You have to take me home!” I shouted. I struggled with the stupid harness, tearing at the straps.
“Emmett,” Edward said grimly.
And Emmett secured my hands in his steely grasp.
“No! Edward! No, you can’t do this.”
“I have to, Bella, now please be quiet.” (Meyers 381).
This passage contains many issues, but first and foremost it is an excellent example of how Edward frequently treats and speaks to Bella as if she were a child. According to literary critic Carrie Anne Platt, “Edward’s behavior highlights her childlike qualities. Bella speaks of Edward cradling her in his arms ‘like a small child,’ treating her in the same way ‘as a misbehaving child’ and [in a later book] handing her over to her friend (and his romantic rival) Jacob Black ‘like a child being exchanged by custodial guardians’” (Platt 75). Just as Platt asserts, Edward is treating Bella as a child by ignoring her pleas, refusing to answer her, and dismissing what she has to say as trivial and unimportant. In essence, Edward is holding her captive in the car, as is evident by the fact that he asks his brother Emmett to physically restrain her. Later, when they return to Edward’s house to make plans to get Bella to safety, they’re all in such a hurry different members of the family continuously pick Bella up and carry her to various parts of the house, without asking her permission. Bella, being submissive, never complains about this treatment.
Typically, rather than being concerned for her own welfare, Bella is upset at Edward’s plan because she fears he and his family will be exposed and have to leave their home. In response to Edward’s reassurances to Bella that his family will be fine, Bella screams, “‘not over me, you don’t! You’re not ruining everything over me!’ I struggled violently, with total futility” (Meyers 382). This stereotype of females being inherently sacrificial is continued through to the end of the novel when Bella decides to escape her vampire “babysitters,” Alice and Jasper, in order to meet James and attempt to save her mother. She can’t tell them her plan because they would physically restrain her to keep her from going, so she tricks them by running through a bathroom in the airport that she knows has two exits. She has to run as fast as she can and grabs a van going to a Hilton Hotel in order to get away from the airport and keep Alice and Jasper from tracking her scent. Bella successfully escapes and is able to meet James, the sadistic “tracker” vampire who has been hunting her. When she arrives, it turns out that James tricked her into thinking he had her mother, and when he asks her, “isn’t it better this way” instead of being angry, she’s relieved that her mother is safe in Florida…yet another example of Bella’s sacrificial nature:
And suddenly it hit me. My mother was safe. She was still in Florida. She’d never gotten my message. She’d never been terrified by the dark red eyes in the abnormally pale face before me. She was safe.
“Yes,” I answered, my voice saturated with relief.
“You don’t sound angry that I tricked you.”
“I’m not.” My sudden high made me brave. What did it matter now? It would soon be over. Charlie and Mom would never be harmed, would never have to fear. I felt almost giddy. Some analytical part of my mind warned me that I was dangerously close to snapping from the stress. (Meyers 444–445)
This perpetuation of the stereotype that a woman’s willingness to be sacrificed is a “good” thing, is highly problematic. While those who read the book will likely never be attacked by a vampire, it’s dangerous to teach young women that their own happiness should come second to the well-being of those they love. Such a lesson combined with the other stereotypes represented in this novel is a formula for abusive, unhealthy relationships.
Finally, it must be noted that Bella is punished for disobeying the vampires in her attempt to save her mother. James almost kills Bella in his vicious attack, cutting open her head, breaking her leg, and biting her before Edward arrives (again) to save her. According to literary critic Sarah Summers, “Meyer’s books are anti-feminist because whenever women make choices that set them outside of traditional roles, they get hurt, killed, or are unable to have children” (320). Indeed, the scene with James is the first time Bella disobeys the vampire’s wishes, and because of that she nearly loses her life. Such sexualized violence is the epitome of negative female stereotyping.
Ames, Melissa. “Twilight Follows Tradition: Analyzing ‘Biting’ Critiques of Vampire Narratives for Their Portrayals of Gender and Sexuality.” Bitten by Twilight: Youth Culture, Media, & the Vampire Franchise. Ed. Melissa A Click, Jennifer Stevens Aubrey, & Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz. New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., 2010. 37–53. Print.
Meyer, Stephanie. Twilight. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company, 2005. Print.
Parker, Robert Dale. How to Interpret Literature: Critical Theory for Literary and Cultural Studies. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2011. Print.
Platt, Carrie Anne. “Cullen Family Values: Gender and Sexual Politics in the Twilight Series.” Bitten by Twilight: Youth Culture, Media, & the Vampire Franchise. Ed. Melissa A Click, Jennifer Stevens Aubrey, & Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz. New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., 2010. 71–86. Print.
Summer, Sarah. “‘Twilight is So Anti-Feminist that I Want to Cry:’ Twilight Fans Finding and Defining Feminism on the World Wide Web.” Science Direct 27 (2010): 315–323. Literary Reference Center Plus. Web. 25 Nov. 2012.