Bonnie Mann on how The Second Sex negotiates the 21st century in Twilight
My 13-year-old daughter was unusually insistent in her pleas to be allowed to attend the midnight release party for the last volume in some book series she was reading. Remembering to thank my lucky stars for her literary commitments, I grudgingly drove her to Borders at about 10pm, expecting to see ten or twelve bookish adolescents drinking hot chocolate while they waited for the clock to strike twelve. The crowded parking lot was my first indication that I was walking into a world everyone knew about, except me. My second was the store packed wall to wall with teenage girls in the full bloom of an almost frighteningly incandescent excitement, many of them dressed in low cut black gowns with their faces shining like floodlights through pale white paint. I stopped in the doorway of the store, turned to Dee Dee, whose normally beautiful human eyes were already radiating the luminescence of another sphere. I grabbed her arm and held her back, “Just what is this book about?” I asked.
What she gave me to understand with the twenty-five or so words I got out of her before she pulled away was that the glowing faces, the black gowns, had something to do with the possibility of being loved by a bloodsucking man.
I later learned that I had delivered my daughter to the release party for Breaking Dawn, the fourth and final book of the blockbuster Twilight Series, by Mormon housewife turned literary millionaire, Stephenie Meyer. These stories of an all-consuming romance between a human teenage girl named Bella and a vampire frozen in time named Edward, have sold over 40 million copies worldwide, and have been translated into 37 languages.
What did it mean that millions of girls were fantasising about men who could barely repress the desire to kill them? When I opened the first novel, Twilight, my impression was that I had gone back in time. The female protagonist struck me as a representative of the idealised womanhood of my mother’s generation, transposed into 21st century circumstances. A child of divorced parents, the 17-year old Bella has chosen to go live with her father in the small town of Forks, Washington on the Olympic Peninsula, leaving Phoenix to give her mother a chance to enjoy her new husband. She loves Phoenix and hates Forks, but self-sacrifice is Bella’s specialty. In fact, other than her penchant for self-sacrifice and the capacity to attract the attention of boys, Bella isn’t really anyone. She has no identifiable interests or talents; she is incompetent in the face of almost every challenge. She is the locus of exaggerated stereotypically feminine incapacities and self-loathing. When she needs something done, especially something mechanical, she finds a boy to do it for her and watches him. Her only areas of skill are cooking and doing laundry, which she does without complaint for her father who is incompetent in the kitchen in spite of years of living alone (he must have been near starvation when she showed up). When she draws the attention of the stunningly handsome and hyperbolically capable vampire, Edward, her response is disbelief. “I couldn’t imagine anything about me that could be in any way interesting to him,” she reports.
Edward, in contrast to Bella, is masculine grandiosity writ large. Beautiful beyond compare, the rock-hard 17- year old body Bella comes to worship belongs to a 100-year old vampire. He knows everything, having had 100 years to learn it. He reads most people’s minds and is strong enough to break a mature tree in two like a matchstick. He runs as fast as most cars drive, and rescues the accident prone Bella over and over. Chivalrous to a fault, he is as deeply concerned to protect Bella’s virtue as he is to keep her alive.
The strong sense I had, of having gone back in time to an old fashioned world where women were seen as empty conduits of masculine desire and valued for their propensity to self-sacrifice alone, drove me to take another look at The Second Sex, a founding text for feminist philosophy written by Simone de Beauvoir half a century ago.
For Beauvoir in 1949 France, the tragedy of adolescence in the feminine was its demand that the girl give up both herself and her hold on the world. As she enters womanhood, she learns that she is destined to be a “relative being” whose existence has meaning only in relation to the man who loves her. As if Meyer wished to provide the perfect literary illustration of Beauvoir’s claim, when Edward leaves Bella for a time in the second book, she describes herself as “like a lost moon—my planet destroyed in some cataclysmic disaster-movie scenario of desolation—that continued…to circle in a tight little orbit around the empty space left behind.”
Throughout her childhood, the girl learns that “the world is defined without reference to her,” Beauvoir claims. Men make history, fight the wars, and produce the great works of art. What she is offered in exchange for her world-making and value-creating capacities is the love, if she is lucky and pretty enough, of one of the world-makers.
According to Beauvoir, the adolescent girl relinquishes her younger self’s dominant mode of bodily being, which Husserl described as the “I can,” the body as the center of living action and intention. When the young girl internalises and assumes the masculine gaze, she takes up a perspective on herself as prey. As in the fairy tales she becomes “an idol,” a “fascinating treasure,” “a marvelous fetish,” sought after by men.
In Meyer’s books, the masculine gaze confers meaning on Bella’s otherwise empty existence by giving her a place in the story as the very location through which masculine action instantiates meaning. Of course, if ever that spotlight should be removed, her very existence is at stake. Indeed, when Edward leaves Bella for much of the second book, she sinks into a kind of living death, and it is only the gaze of a virile werewolf that begins to bring her back to life.
When I saw that what Beauvoir wrote six decades ago seemed so relevant to Meyer’s story, my parental panic became dull depression. For Beauvoir, however timeless the myth of the “eternal feminine” claims to be, it arises from and points back to a total concrete situation, specific in time and place. But surely the situation of girls in the U.S. at the dawn of the 21st century couldn’t be the same as that of girls in 1949 France?
We are accustomed to thinking of women’s subordination as a thing of the past. And truth be told, the legal and formal barriers to women’s equality have been eroded. Yet contemporary philosopher Susan Bordo argues that in a media-saturated culture, as gendered power retreats from law and policy, it is even more intensely concentrated on women’s bodies and the processes by which they come to think of themselves as persons. Psychologist Mary Pipher agrees. “Something dramatic happens to girls in early adolescence…” she writes, “they lose their resiliency and optimism and become less curious and inclined to take risks. … They report great unhappiness with their own bodies.”
Lynn Phillips’ studies confirm that these conflicts are not resolved for most young women just by surviving adolescence. Women in college face “an environment filled with tangled messages.” A good woman is both pleasing in the traditional sense: passive, pleasant, childlike, and subordinate, bent on self-sacrifice; and together, meaning she knows who she is and what she wants sexually and professionally, and goes after it.
What young women learn about male sexuality is equally paradoxical. On the one hand, batterers and rapists are pathological exceptions to normal guys. On the other hand, male sexuality in general is dangerous, men’s “natural sex drive is inherently compelling and aggressive,” and young women should not start what they aren’t willing to finish. Even today, young women report “a sense of responsibility to go along with and even fake being excited by whatever a male partner [does] in order not to interfere with his arousal.”
From these contemporary thinkers we learn that as subordination has unraveled in arenas of the public sphere, it has retained its hold on the private sphere. Cultural messages about womanhood are fraught with paradox. And the imaginary domain in which young women negotiate these realities has become a messy place indeed. Stephenie Meyer’s genius is to clean up that imaginary domain, and give girls a story that seems to hold all the contradictions together. The most surprising thing about Bella’s romance with Edward is that he, not she, puts the brakes on their erotic encounters. Knowing that any loss of control spells death for his beloved, Edward’s restraint allows Bella to be the one consumed by desire.
In Phillips’ interviews with young women in college, she notes that what is missing from the stew of discourses about sex, love, and sexuality are stories of male accountability and female pleasure without penalty. Meyer offers her readers the first of these missing narratives, but she doesn’t offer her young readers a clear story of female desire without penalty. For a moment she seems to be providing us with the most brutal critique of heterosexual pleasure and motherhood that we’ve seen in 30 years. First sex with the vampire leaves the bed in splinters and Bella covered with bruises. She becomes pregnant with a vampire child who threatens destruction from the inside; every fetal kick causes internal bleeding. Rather than letting the little beast chew its way out, the doctor performs a cesarean and as Bella plummets toward death, Edward drinks just the right amount of her blood to transform her into his vampire wife.
However, deeply buried, there is a subtle feminist subtext to the Vampire Love Quartet. We discover that Bella wants to be a vampire, not only to avoid out-aging Edward and live with him in immortal bliss, but because in the vampire world, all bets are off when it comes to gender. Vampire women show no particular deference to men. They are endowed with superpowers just like the guys. Rosalie, Edward’s vampire sister, is the best mechanic in the family. The female vampires are clearly the answer to the helpless Bella’s lament at the end of Book I, “A man and a woman have to be somewhat equal,” she says, “as in, one of them can’t always be swooping in and saving the other one. They have to save each other equally… I can’t always be Lois Lane,” she continues, “I want to be Superman too.”
And though her transformation is a trial by fire, it does not disappoint. Bella steps back into her “I can” body with a vengeance. She is faster and stronger than Edward. Instead of being carried through the woods by Edward like a baby, she runs with him. More than anything, this physical prowess signals an existential change, “Now I was in the story with him,” Bella says triumphantly. In the final horrific encounter, between good and evil, life and death, it will be Bella, not the boys, who saves the day.
What is heartening about Bella is that her story doesn’t end the way the fairy tales do, with the kiss that brings the princess back to life, or the wedding at the palace. Finally, a self-destructive love bleeds its way into the kind of love Beauvoir would have described as authentic, a love between two liberties, lived in equality. The tragedy of feminine self-alienation is overcome by journeying through it. Meyer sorts the paradoxical narratives of female passivity and power, purity and desire, innocence and responsibility, dependence and autonomy, into a story where one leads, finally, to the other.
What is disheartening about Meyer’s book is her reinstatement of this old promise: assume your status as prey, as object, and you will gain your freedom as subject, as the center of action and meaning. Seek your existence in the eyes of a sovereign masculine subject, and you will find it. There is a slippage between the promise to the reader and the activity of the writer here. Meyer doesn’t come to celebrity life out of the purgatory of feminine nonexistence by letting the blood be drained out of her. It takes a hard-working self-authored creative act to resurrect a woman’s life. But how does one open the door of the feminine imaginary for young women so that they might trace paths to themselves that don’t pass through traditional feminine annihilation? Is the only way to do this through the use of our traditional misogynistic metaphors? If so, Meyer is to be congratulated. But in her insistence on resurrecting the promise that a meaningful life comes through self-annihilation in the interests of others, comes through appending oneself to one of the special creatures who lives the adventure of life first hand, she promises our daughters the same things our mothers were promised. In that sense, the wild success of Twilight might be cause for despair.
Extracted and edited from Twilight and Philosophy: Vampires, Vegetarians, and the Pursuit of Immortality edited by Rebecca Housel and J. Jeremy Wisnewski, part of of the Blackwell Philosophy and Popular Culture series.
Bonnie Mann is associate lecturer in philosophy at the University of Oregon.