Recently, in honor of Twilight’s 10th anniversary, Stephenie Meyer released a genderbent version of the book called Life and Death: Twilight Reimagined, which I have not read and will only read if I find myself really desperate for new material to write about. But considering that Star Ocean 5 is almost out, I just watched Gotham Season 2, and Game of Thrones’s latest season is about to finish up, that’s not going to be a problem for me anytime soon.
Since I haven’t read Life and Death, I only know about it through what other people have told me—and it’s been nothing good. Part of the reason Stephenie Meyer wrote this book was to address the complaints people had about sexism. Almost immediately, I knew she wouldn’t be able to succeed in her endeavor and that Life and Death would just be another rehashing of the same sexist garbage. This is because, from reading Twilight, I’m going to guess that Stephenie Meyer clearly has no idea why Bella’s role in the story is sexist, especially because the sexism could have easily been fixed without changing any genders at all.
For the ten of you not quite sick of reading Twilight summaries, our story begins when Bella Swan decides to move in with her dad in the town of Forks, leaving her mom Renée and Renée’s new boyfriend free to travel around the country together. Bella’s father Charlie is happy to have Bella around, but is unused to being a parent, since Renée has had custody for so long. Bella in turn, is used to caring for Renée, not the other way around, and so when she moves in with Charlie, Bella immediately takes up doing chores. She buys the groceries, cooks dinner, etc.
What I will say about Twilight is that this should have been a great story. The family setup between Charlie, Renée, and Bella is wonderful—within the first chapter, there’s a lot going on between them. From Renée’s inadequacy as a mother, to Bella’s guilt over moving away, to Charlie’s uncertainty with being a parent, to name just a few things, Meyer laid the groundwork for some great internal and external conflict and character development, but the book doesn’t capitalize on this or take the characters to places it could have. Instead, the series makes a lot of shitty choices and its characterization suffers. Even if I could excuse the series painting abuse and coercion as true love, romanticizing depression and suicide, and literally everything else that happens, we don’t have to look far past Bella’s relationship with Charlie and the role she plays to see the sexism at work.
When it comes to being a housewife, or a house-daughter in Bella’s case, a story doesn’t have to be sexist or even unfeminist. After all, I most assuredly identify as a feminist, and yet one of my goals is to be a housewife, and there are a lot of reasons for that. Not only do I have physical and mental issues that would make a full-time job more than a little difficult for me, the thought of having a career has never been appealing. It became even less appealing when my mother returned to work when I was in 5th or 6th grade and came home every day angry and screaming, and I bore witness to my parents fighting about their jobs and saw the stress it caused, which at one time nearly ended their marriage. Another reason is that I actually enjoy housework. Washing the dishes, vacuuming, etc., is relaxing to me (except for laundry, because it’s the devil)—and a few months ago, after my job somehow accidentally fired me for a couple weeks, I got to experience being a housewife for a while, and for me, that was a lot of fun.
The point that I want to make here is that there are lots of reasons why a person would choose to give up a career and be a housewife. I get emotional satisfaction out of it and it’s a way to deal with my anxiety. Bella gets… nothing. She does it because she’s a girl, and that’s the problem. The setup for great characterization is there for Bella. She’s used to taking care of Renée, because Renée is a bad mother who is irresponsible, to the point that Bella feels guilty for leaving her. This could easily be relatable for many readers in Bella’s situation.
After her first day in her new school, Bella goes out and buys groceries to make dinner, and then what happens? Charlie comes home and eats the dinner like it’s the most natural thing in the world and there’s no conversation about it. He never fights with her to go be a normal teenager, reminds her that she doesn’t have to take care of him, because he’s been feeding himself for the past seventeen years, and that he is not Renée. Instead, Bella and Charlie immediately fall into a routine that is never addressed, and there’s so little dialogue about it that one has to wonder how Charlie fed himself before Bella arrived. Maybe Charlie can’t cook and always eats out. We could have had a scene of him bringing home fast food for the both of them and seeing Bella preparing a meal instead. Maybe he could see her vacuuming and try to stop her, because for the love of God, she’s a near straight-A student who never misbehaves and he wants her to just go out with some friends to see a movie.
Bella, in turn, could then have problems of her own. If Charlie doesn’t want her to do chores, what should she do with her day? Maybe then she insists she has to do them, because she simply feels she has to. Maybe she has anxiety issues of her own—doing chores helps her deal with them. Maybe she’s not used to a self-sufficient parent and gets scared if she can’t cook him dinner. Bella starts the books off as a victim of circumstance. She’s someone who was forced to grow up much too fast, and that right there is the perfect setup for internal conflict and characterization.
This is just one way in which the books could have subverted gender roles while not changing what Bella does in the story, and all it would have taken was a little more characterization to do so. Instead, that doesn’t happen. Bella just does all the chores and Charlie accepts it, as if having a daughter is the same thing as having a built-in maid.
Unfortunately, it’s not just Bella relegated to these roles. Almost every character has some kind of gendered backstory. Esme Cullen, Edward’s adoptive mother, once attempted suicide after losing her baby. She was then turned into a vampire by Carlisle in order to save her life. The two later fell in love and got married. Esme’s role is rather flat and it is most certainly a stereotypical role to give a female character. Unfortunately, she never really breaks from that role either. Much like Bella, it’s not a problem that she’s in this role—it’s a problem that this role defines her character. Esme never becomes anything more than a mother. If she did attempt suicide after losing her baby, why? Did she suffer from post-partum depression? Does losing that child still affect her? If it does, does the memory of that first child conflict with how she interacts with her new children? I’m going to harbor a guess that one of the reasons she and Carlisle fell in love so quickly was due to Esme’s emotional pain at the time.
Esme just ran away from an abusive husband in order to save her baby, only for that baby to die, attempted suicide, and was brought back. Carlisle and the other vampires probably filled a void for her. So after time had passed, and Esme was able to move on from the tragedy, did she and Carlisle start to have relationship issues they needed to work though? Did she worry she only used him to fill that void? What kind of person was Esme before all this? After all, she wasn’t born a mother. These are not questions that should be hard to answer, and for some of them Meyer has once again already laid the groundwork. What we know about Esme is that she always wanted to be a school teacher, and that she’s very kind. It’s also not hard to extrapolate that her kindness could be a direct result of the abuse she suffered and her unwillingness to give into that cycle. Unfortunately, the story focuses so much on Bella and Edward that its side characters are lost in the process, and they never feel like real people. If Esme always wanted to be a school teacher, why is she not teaching when the books start? Esme’s a housewife when the little we do know about her goals conflict with that career. When we first see her, she’s even in the kitchen preparing food, even though she and the other vampires have no need to know how to cook. Being a good mother doesn’t have to come at the expense of other goals and dreams.
The problem with Twilight is not that characters are in traditional gender roles—the problem is why they are in those roles. From what we know about both Bella and Esme, these roles are not for them. Esme might receive emotional satisfaction from running the Cullen house and taking care of her children, but for some reason, that came at the expense of her teaching. And for Bella, she gets nothing out of it at all. Her goal is Edward and nothing more. She even forsakes going to college, and why? She’s a bookworm who loves classic literature, and considering that her boyfriend and future husband is rich, she could have easily gone for fun, but she doesn’t.
Twilight teaches us that being in those traditional roles is the endgame to happiness for women, when that’s just not true, and it does it by stripping away any other hopes and dreams the characters had. It is possible to have female characters in these roles and not be sexist, but that is not possible when those roles define the characters.