Having set out this week to write an article about Stephenie [sic] Meyer’s Twilight series of young adult vampire novels, I was determined to, for once in my life, do a legitimate reporting job and read at least one of the books. However, my foray into the teen section of the Princeton Public Library (never go there right after school lets out—it’s a madhouse) was unsuccessful. All seven copies of Twilight (the first in the series and the subject of a movie due out in December) were checked out, and six people were on the waiting list. So you’ll have to excuse me while I talk out of my ass about a book I’ve never read.
What I’ve amassed vicariously: all four books have at least four out of five stars on Amazon and have been featured on the New York Times bestseller list, in addition to being praised by Publishers Weekly and the American Library Association. Amazon reviewers compare Meyer to J.D. Salinger and Jane Austen. One “working professional mother” who calls herself “a literary snob” says that she was “mesmerized” by Twilight, and if Amazon is any indication, this is a pattern—the book captivating daughters nationwide is being read by their mothers too.
Apparently Meyer—a Mormon stay-at-home mom whose characters, she says on her website, came to her in a dream and dictated the story to her—is the new J.K. Rowling. But while Harry Potter characters are essentially normal kids thrust into a magical universe, Twilight characters are fantastical kids plopped down into a random American high school. The vampire character, Edward Cullen, is perfection personified—with flawless looks, fancy cars, an anachronistically courtly manner, and two degrees from, of course, Harvard—while the ostensible “heroine,” Bella Swan, exists only as a means by which Edward can be adored. For some reason, they fall in love at first sight in biology class; presumably it’s the same reason that a very rich young vampire with two degrees from an Ivy League university would wind up in a high-school biology class. Bella repeatedly insists that she is not good enough for Edward, yet pines incessantly for him, and he in turn swears eternal faithfulness to her. To make matters more improbable, he stands by it, even though they can’t have sex—apparently, you see, Edward’s superhuman strength (yes, he has that too) would kill Bella if he came in her. Or something like that. And so Bella and Edward, like the success story of an abstinence-only sex ed program, cuddle and talk. Their conversational gems include Edward saying, “It’s twilight… the end of another day, the return of the night. Darkness is so predictable, don’t you think?” to which Bella replies, “I like the night. Without the dark, we’d never see the stars.” Oh dear.
I gather that things go on in this vein throughout the series, as Bella begs Edward to turn her into a vampire so that she can be with him forever, and Edward refuses because it will ruin her soul. Edward leaves Bella because his presence is endangering her, and she tries to kill herself by jumping off a cliff. Yes, seriously: the protagonist of a pop culture sensation read overwhelmingly by teenage girls tries to kill herself because she has a mad crush on a boy.
If you couldn’t tell, this is where I have a serious problem with Twilight, Stephenie Meyer, and the whole shebang. Teachers, counselors, and right-thinking parents have spent the past couple decades teaching girls and young women that they are worth more than what some guy thinks of them, that they are distinct individuals who deserve to achieve their own goals and aspirations, and that their self-worth should not be determined by what their peers think and say. And now, at the end of the first decade of the 21st century, a New York Times bestseller is bucking the conventional wisdom to say that it’s perfectly all right for young girls to live only for a man—and that if he leaves you, it’s perfectly acceptable to try to kill yourself. How wonderful that girls not a whole lot different from my younger self are now devouring this message in the thousands.
Similarly disturbing is the way in which it seems that Edward and Bella’s chaste cuddling and chatting is presented as a more enlightened, pure, or moral option than if they were to actually get physical. To be sure, characters in young adult novels don’t usually get it on, but compare Twilight—where I am given to understand that the question of sex is actually discussed and then rejected—to Harry Potter, where by the end of the series the characters behave in a bizarrely restrained way for 18-year-olds, but younger audiences reading the books probably wouldn’t even notice. In Twilight, the chastity question is explicitly raised as a “family values” issue, and I’m going to make a wild guess that Meyer’s Mormon faith has something to do with that.
It’s great if girls aren’t getting pregnant when they’re in high school, but I don’t want anyone telling my 15-year-old sister that she should be pure and chaste and submissive like Bella is, or that her life should revolve around the guy she likes. Granted, I’ve never known a straight girl who didn’t fantasize about a perfect man of some description—Edward just happens to be an archetypical notion of perfection that appeals to girls and their mothers who don’t see a lot of courtly love in their day-to-day lives. I just think that there are so many ways to write that fantasy that would encourage girls like my sister to make their own choices and speak up for themselves.
On the other hand, cynic that I am, I have to wonder whether a book like that would make it onto the New York Times bestseller list.