Paige Schilt

Queering Twilight

Filed By Paige Schilt | October 28, 2009 6:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Media, The Movement
Tags: Bella Swan, Edward Cullen, feminism, genderqueer, queer, stone butch, Twilight

In edward cullen.jpgpreparation for the release of the latest Twilight movie, I've been thinking a lot about the series' leading man, Edward Cullen.

Edward is mysterious and masterful, chivalrous and cool. He decides when his lover can touch him and where. He rarely gives up sexual control. His chiseled chest is as hard as a rock.

In other words, Edward is a stone butch top.

In other words = totally hot.

I have to agree with my fellow feminist commentators who argue that Edward's ladylove, Bella, is a problematic heroine, always swooning and needing to be saved. And identification with Bella is over the top. We were both raised in Arizona and moved to the Pacific Northwest at age 17. We are both notoriously uncoordinated and pale. We both faint at the sight of blood.

Most importantly, as a femme dyke with a genderqueer butch partner, I'm familiar with the complex negotiation of physical boundaries that makes Edward and Bella's romance so agonizing, suspenseful, and sexy.

Some critics have taken issue with the series' emphasis on delayed sexual gratification. Pointing to author Stephanie Meyers' Mormon roots, they argue that Twilight is abstinence-only propaganda disguised as palatable pop culture. But while it's true that Bella and Edward delay penetrative sex, it's not entirely accurate to say that they don't have sex before marriage.

Like some queer sex, human/vampire relations don't necessarily fit the heteronormative paradigm of genitally focused sex. Check the scene in the first movie when Bella is bitten by the homicidal vampire Laurent. In order to save Bella's life, Edward must suck the venom from Bella's veins. It's the moment they've both been waiting for, and Edward gets carried away. Pushing the boundary is fraught with peril--he could accidentally kill her. But the film depicts Edward and Bella panting, moaning, and writhing, getting off on the exchange of blood and danger.

They're totally doing it.

When I saw the movie, I couldn't believe that boatloads of tweenage girls were getting to watch SM erotica with the blessing of their (possibly conservative) parents. And while I might root for Team Hermione over Team Bella in a battle of fictional heroines, part of me wishes I'd gotten to read the Twilight series as a teen, if only for its unabashed description of teen girl lust and kinky queer subtext.

So, as the opening of New Moon approaches, part of me hopes that the series will keep its undeserved conservative image...and that some queer kids will be able to find their desires between the lines.

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I remember when the Twilight series of books first became vogue that I read an ugly comment from a young gay man on a message board: Twilight pretty much caters to ugly girls and gay boys. It felt a harsh observation, but it keeps cropping up when I think of the series.

I've read the books. The religious overtones are ill disguised really. Lions laying down with lambs, ( So the lion fell in love with the lamb. What a stupid lamb. What a sick masochistic lion.), the near constant quest to answer the question if Edward has a soul, Edward's desire not to inadvertantly damn himself or Bella by having sex before marriage. All those "Family values" among vampires wear on my nerves.

Actually I'm really tired of the age of the anti-hero as hero. Why can't we just let the damned vampires kill humans and drink blood because its what they do and how they're designed. I don't understand the need to make vampires virtuous. I mean, if someone actually wrote the gay version of Twilight, there'd be a lot of exsanguinated republicans wouldn't there? And despite the fact that I hate seeing people die, I have to admit that I'd be cheering a bit.

Why are Anne Rice, Stephenie Meyers, and L.J. Smith (The Vampire Diaries) always bloody (pardon the pun) trying to shove souls into their undead? Why all the angst about having a soul? It hasn't mattered to the GOP for the last fifty years or more and people still think they're beyond reproach.

Oops. Did I say that aloud?

Oh well, whether we like it or not there's a New Moon rising. Bloody Mary anyone?

Paige Listerud | October 28, 2009 8:52 PM

Queering Twilight? Like, it wasn't queer before? What with all the bisexuals in its cast?

Okay, I get it. You're queering Edward in a way that's hot for you. And why not? Stone butch yummy!

I just hope you're not one of those queers who thinks bisexuals aren't queer--or aren't queer enough.

No, I'm one of those queers who's bisexual--at least some times. Thanks for the link, I really haven't followed the cast.

You must be a damn good writer and a damn intelligent one, because I liked this article despite the fact that it was about Twilight, that godawful series that I had to read recaps of in order to make sure I was up on all the pop culture and references and all, because I wanted to throw the actual book across the room within 20 pages of trying to wade through Bella's obnoxious, whiny, emotastic, unclever, unfunny, uncompelling and overall limp narration.

I actually have read a little of the brief parts that are in someone else's narrative voice - such as Jacob's bit in the fourth book and that half-finished "Midnight Sun" draft that the author is foolishly putting on "indefinite" hold because of some hurt feelings over its premature leakage (er, that really wasn't intended to sound dirty, I swear)... their voices are much, much more interesting. So were the voices of the dual protagonist in her other, less well-known book The Host, which I've read and will guiltily admit to liking despite its silliness and flaws (the aliens don't make sense; plot holes the size of Alaska; the deux ex machina variant of happy ending she gives it; the borderline creepy tendency for her characters to always pair up, and heterosexually so of course, with about 99% of her female characters apparently unable to be 100% happy without a guy to be her soulmate and/or a baby in her future... and yet I couldn't stop bloody reading it).

So, yeah. I'm going to be charitable and assume it's Bella's voice that kills Twilight for me, since supposedly (or so I'm told) if you can get past the narration it's like written crack.

I think the thing that bugs me story-wise about it isn't even the relationship (which, if you interpret it through the "kinky" lens, ok, whatever)... it's the fact that the author is so very, very defensive of her "Feminist" protagonist (well, that and she's admitted to being too chicken to ever kill off a character, ever, going so far as to basically build up steam for an entire book towards a climax that fizzles because they talk it out instead of actually having a war. But that's a whole other kettle...).

She claims that because Bella "chooses" love, "chooses" to settle down with Edward, "chooses" to pursue him, and "chooses" to become a vampire, and "chooses" not to get an abortion when her pregnancy is literally killing her (fourth book, for the curious), that she's automatically "feminist" as a character because to Meyer's mind, the only requirement for Feminism is "it promotes women having choices". AND YET the entire damn series makes a huge deal out of Fate and soulmates and the like and basically insinuates that Bella and Edward and really ANY of the supernatural characters, have no emotional choice over their Fate in terms of who they fall in love with. You not only have a soulmate, you only have ONE, and they're going to be hetero, damnit.

That, and she fails to realize that feminist criticism of the series goes to something far more subtle: that Bella's portrayal actually ENCOURAGES young women to a.)settle down with the first borderline abusive stalkerazzi who wants them, b.) become attracted only to wealthy hotties and thus not worry about a career because he can support you dontchaknow, c.) choose literally killing yourself over getting an abortion even when your conservative lover encourages you to do it because they want you to live(!), and d.) choose to get married and have kids at age 18, whilst never even ONCE considering college or a career or anything of the sort... because your hubby's rich, dontchaknow.

Is Meyer technically right to point out that a woman simply wanting to be a wife and mother, or choosing her unborn's life over her own, or deciding that college isn't for her, is perfectly morally OK? Well, yes. But that doesn't mean she's going to be the perfect model for girls everywhere, and as much as Meyer may claim, "oh, I never meant her as a role model", she still is, and that, of course, is where the series' messages get problematic, something she seems unwilling to recognize.

That, and I'm getting annoyed with how many people, the author included, try to argue that Twilight's embedded themes and motifs of women as ideally hyperfemme and submitting to a male "soulmate", are like, totally made up for by the fact that Bella randomly gains the deux ex machina superpowers in the fourth book. Um, yeah, about that, Meyer? When your heroine requires BECOMING INHUMAN to gain and recognize her "power", then she never really had much to speak of. Especially when, unlike girls in the real world, she never really has to struggle for it.

Oh, some people will probably argue that she does emotionally struggle as a general rule... but since I consider her to be unnecessarily whiny and woe-is-me and self-absorbed - yes, self-absorbed, I don't care how much she would give her life for Edward, she also pursues him when he tells her to go away because she wants his bod, and cares not a whit it seems for the friends and family that could be hurt by, say, her randomly leaving the country to get married at 18 without telling anybody, or trying to practically kill herself at age 17 - this makes a lot of the suffering self-inflicted and, really, just selfish, and therefore not particularly compelling to me.

Not to mention, the number of times when she's a human that she requires saving is just annoying. And when she finally does vamp up, she doesn't even have to go through the hideous primal struggle with violent instincts that every other vampire does when freshly-turned does. The author seems to want us to think that this is simply Bella Being Strong, so strong that she doesn't have any trouble controlling herself in the face of the impulses that others struggle with; coming into her own at last and saving the day, cue dramatic swell of inspirational music.

But considering there is NO real indication that she's anything but a somewhat wishy-washy, passive aggressive, impulsive idiot before then, this "character growth" seems... well, deus ex machina. It seems ill-placed, random, and... well, the only word I can think of for it is, in fact, deus ex machina. It seems not so much a natural part of her emotional growth and psychological development, as a tacked-on way of trying to get around the fact that she's not a very strong character before then.

In other words: we are to believe that Bella, because she doesn't struggle with vampiric impulses (and never gives up on love, blah blah), is "strong"... yet her strength, according to the author, comes from the same paranormal ability that gives her telepathy resistance! Which itself supposedly stems from her "strong" mentality, but... she shows no other signs of this. All of the paranormal crap just seems random, if you are actually familiar with her (again) passive aggressive personality. And because of this, I can't really help but feel that Meyer wanted a "Feminist" character for the sake of it, not because she actually wanted a strong heroine... and that actually makes it quite a bit less "Feminist" than Meyer would like to admit, and goes a long way towards explaining why I hated Bella's character so much.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer is also a little masochistic and passive aggressive at times, but HER moments of emotional strength never seem random to me... and on top of that, her author is the farthest thing from hetero-obsessed and actually (despite being a hetero male!) grasps what it's like to be a woman in a world that requires you to be "strong" and demands hell of you, but doesn't like it when you're "too butch". (I love how gender-blendered the whole series is, seriously. Buffy's even had a brief girl-and-girl romance that despite the initial criticism was IMO every bit as emotionally powerful and psychologically screwed up as her hetero romances have been.)

Because of this, honestly? Give me the worst episodes or chapters of Buffy over any chapter of Twilight, any day of the week.

But... that said, and all rants aside, believe it or not, I can kind of comprehend that other people can sometimes like things that I just, you know... don't. So I don't begrudge you your kinky little book (especially because you can recognize the kink, in fact). Which I suppose is why, despite reaching critical mass when it comes to tolerance for hearing about this series about oh, every week.... I don't find it hard to commend you on this article. ;)

I recently saw the second part without knowing the first part. I am told the second part is much worse than the first. Even the hordes of teenage girls in the cinema couldn't take it seriously and were giggling all the time. The film was interesting because of its display of male flesh though. I can't recall any scene where there was not nude male bosom heaving. And even the werewolves wore eye liner. I guess I have to watch the first part now *groans*

Sue Lefkowitz | December 17, 2009 11:34 AM

If you want a human heroine interacting with loads of vampires, werewolves, and other creatues who also has a mysterious "supernatual" side, try the Sookie Stackhouse series of novels. The are the basis of True Blood on HBO. Sookie is very much in charge of her life and probably in love with two very different vamps. True the vamps in this are slick and rich like the Cullens and the weres like to fix motorcycles like Jake and his posse, but this is a true comedy and not to be taked seriously. It also could be seen as a political forum to attack bigotry as there are fundamentalists out to ban human-vamp marriage and deport the vamps. I read every book and want more. I wouldn't mind hooking up the Vampire Eric

Bill Perdue Bill Perdue | June 1, 2010 2:20 AM

Stake the vampires. I like the werewolves.

Why are ANY gay folks reading this, when a Mormon wrote it as an ode to celibacy and anti-feminism? You're basically donating to the supporters of Prop 8 by buying these books and seeing these movies.