Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Twilight Essay

An essay I wrote for my pop culture elective in uni on the Twilight series, I thought it might be of interest.

Side note: I'm not anti-Mormon as that would be gross and bigoted! Mormonism (like any other faith really can be misused and misrepresented so we should not take Twilight as an accurate representation of Mormonism or anything else really!) I'm not anti-Twilight either for that matter I just think it's a fun topic to write about.

“I was not beautiful and probably looked closer to a zombie” : The Othering and abjection of Bella Swan in Stephanie Meyer’s ‘Twilight’ series

“The vampire is a voraciously sexual woman, and a hyper-sexual African, a hypnotic Jewish invader, an effeminate or homosexual man. The vampires of the West exist to frighten us into acquiescence, to reassert patriarchy, racial supremacy, family values and chaste heterosexuality.”[1]
-Milly Williamson

“Am I the only one who has to get old? I get older every stinking day!” [2]
-Bella Swan

The figure of the vampire has been traditionally used to embody the fear of the Other, presenting the viewer with an abject figure that challenges the fixed boundaries of hetero-normative and patriarchal ideals.[3] Stephanie Meyer’s teen vampire romance series ‘Twilight’ conforms to this notion of enforcing patriarchal values through fear of Otherness. Yet, in Meyer’s work, a crucial twist in the conventional vampire narrative can be found. For it can be seen that ‘Twilight’ reverses the traditional positioning of the vampire. This can be seen in her choice to present the character of the male vampire, Edward Cullen, and his patriarchal vampire family, as the hetero-normative ideal,[4] and, instead, portraying the protagonist, the human teenage girl, Bella Swan, as the Other. This can be identified in the positioning of the mortal Bella as the corpse, who in direct contrast to the immortal Edward, is in a constant state of ageing and decay.[5] To understand the significance of Bella as corpse it is necessary to refer to Julia Kristeva’s critical writing on the subject of abjection and Barbra Kreed’s notion of ‘the monstrous-feminine’. It is also appropriate to refer to Naomi Wolf’s ‘The Beauty Myth’ to position the themes of male and female beauty, ageing and abjection in the realms of contemporary feminist discourse. The focus of this essay is chiefly the four novels that make up Stephanie Meyer’s ‘Twilight’ series (‘Twilight’, ‘New Moon’, ‘Eclipse’, ‘Breaking Dawn’). However, an understanding of the resulting film adaptations of the ‘Twilight’ series may aid a reader’s critical understanding of this essay. In any critical work it is an egregious oversight to consider a work as ideologically neutral. Thus it is necessary to situate the ‘Twilight’ series in the context of Meyer’s Mormonist ideology.[6] As this essay is centred on the theme of gender, Mormon beliefs surrounding patriarchy[7] and heteronormativity[8] are critically important when dissecting the politics of Othering and abjection.   

The positioning of Bella as Other to Edward is clearly established from the beginning of the ‘Twilight’ series. Reflecting on her first conversation with Edward, Bella notes, “I was well aware that my league and his league were spheres that did not touch.”[9] Meyer’s choice of the word ‘spheres’ is critically important, invoking the Victorian idea, introduced by social philosophers, such as John Ruskin, that men and women operate in ‘separate spheres’.[10] This also supports feminist interpretations of the text, such as the feminist writer Lauren Rocha, who has criticised the work as a return to a Conservative Victorian standard of gender roles.[11] Thus in understanding Meyer’s use of gendered Othering it would be appropriate to consider Bella as sign value for woman and Edward for man.

For the figure of Bella, as sign value for woman, takes on an abject state of exaggerated proportions. Bella, the sole mortal female main character, becomes a vessel to embody all that is repulsive in the living female form. Bella as woman is the indecent temptress: provoking the saintly Edward’s bloodlust,[12] she is the visceral state of pregnancy: swollen and sickly,[13] the ageing woman, unlovable in her decaying features[14] and, finally, following childbirth, the literal corpse lying broken and bloody on the surgeon’s table;[15] and all of this from a character that does not pass the age of eighteen. In this respect Bella is a blank canvas for Meyer to paint her patriarchal ideology. Bella Swan may simultaneously lactate, menstruate and rot as a reminder of the abject state of womanhood. Thus Swan operates as a visceral reminder that it was Eve, not Adam, who brought forward original sin onto this earth.

To understand this abject state of womanhood it is necessary to consider the critical theorist Julia Kristeva’s writing on abjection. Kristeva argues that abjection lies in the body that disturbs the system’s orders, that ignores the invisible boundaries drawn out by the ruling ideology.[16] The abject body in the vampire narrative is conventionally attributed to the vampire itself. Vampire figures such as Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’[17] (1897) and the character of Count Orlok in ‘Nosferatu’[18] (1922) defile the boundaries of man and animal, living and dead.[19] For the horror of the vampire reflects the horror the corpse, for the corpse, defined by Kristeva, is the utmost in abjection.[20] Yet in Edward Cullen and his ‘vegetarian’[21] vampire family we find the very opposite. Whether enjoying the “great American past time”[22] of baseball or throwing graduation parties in their “beautiful home”[23] the Cullens operate as a utopian model of the white American patriarchy. This can be understood further through the body of Edward Cullen, who, in his fixed state of eternal youth and heteronormative masculinity, breaks no boundaries. For the body that is youthful is located furthest away from the corpse. Thus Edward who remains a teenage boy for all eternity may epitomise all that is pure and good in this world. For the vampire family, the Cullens, do not operate as a gruesome reminder of death, instead they offer salvation from it.[24] However, it can be seen that in utilising the vampire body as the boundary keepers rather the boundary breakers the same effect is still achieved. For the concept of the abject body is still being manipulated to enforce Meyer’s patriarchal  ideology. It is simply the human figure of Bella, instead of the vampire Edward, which has taken on this role.

In understanding the abjection of Bella it is appropriate to consider the cultural critic Barbara Kreed’s notion of ‘the monstrous-feminine’. In this work Kreed argues that feelings of horror lie intrinsically within the female form.[25] Thus in dissecting the character of Bella Swan it is appropriate to consider Swan as a “female monster”,[26] in the same manner as Kreed’s studies of Carrie[27] (‘Carrie’ 1976) or Regan[28] (‘The Exorcist’ 1973). This theory can be understood through the use of Bella Swan as vehicle for the, traditionally ‘monstrous’, theme of ‘body horror’.[29] This is a point most evident in the gratuitous nature of the birth scene in ‘Breaking Dawn’. For example, in a notably visceral scene prior to the birth, Meyer chooses for Bella’s back to break and then for her to vomit a fountain of blood. The exaggerated sense of horror and melodrama employed in this scene reflects the rigid sense of boundary keeping between male and female that the author so ardently employs in her work. This is evident in the fact that the powers of horror described in this scene are carefully confined to the woman, through Meyer’s concentration on the monstrous portrait of motherhood. For the maternal body is regarded by both Kreed and Kristeva as a state of life defined by its abject nature.[30]  

This concept of abjection and the ‘female monster’ is extended through Meyer likening Bella, not to the patriarchal ideal of the vampire, but instead to the rancid corpse state of the zombie. This again illustrates Meyer’s technique of appropriating and manipulating existing horror narratives to conform to her ideology. Consider this scene in New Moon, where Bella is reflecting on Edward’s impromptu departure. Meyer writes:“not that I [Bella Swan] hadn’t dreamed of being a mythical monster-once-just never a grotesque animated corpse.”[31] The choice of words such as “grotesque” for zombie in contrast to “mythical” for vampire is key, emphasing the Othered nature of woman to man. For it could be argued that in the world of ‘Twilight’ the sign value of man as Edward and woman as Bella can be extended further. For, in Meyer’s utilisation of abjection and ‘the monstrous feminine’, we can also infer that man equals vampire and woman equal zombie.

This positioning of Bella Swan as Othered and abject through the idea of the corpse is first introduced in the second book of the series, ‘New Moon’. The text opens with a nightmarish vision of an aged Bella, corpse like, decaying and repulsive in her “ancient, creased and withered”[32] state. In the dream the figure of Bella as corpse is dramatically contrasted to Edward who, despite being over a century old, remains “forever seventeen”.[33] Thus in understanding the role of Bella as abject and corpse-like it is crucial to consider the positioning of beauty within the ‘Twilight’ series. For Meyer locates the currency of beauty, not in the woman, but in the male.[34] The third wave feminist writer, Naomi Wolf, in her work, ‘The Beauty Myth’, argues that images of female beauty operate as a political tool, brutally used against women to counteract the advancements of women’s liberation through feminism.[35] Thus on an artificial level it could appear that Meyer’s work, and the resulting film series, through their emphasis on male beauty, take on a transgressive quality, subverting the doctrine of patriarchy and pre-supposed gender roles rather than rigidly enforcing them. The feminist critic, Bidisha, asserts this point arguing that the figure of Edward Cullen acts as a “defiant articulation of the female gaze and female desire…He is the object, she [Bella Swan] the boyish beholder. "[36] However, whilst the texts certainly may appease the desires of its pubescent audience, its position as sexually liberating or subversive should be critically contested. For male beauty’s chief role in the ‘Twilight’ saga is to assert the abjection of the woman. A strong example of this can be found in ‘New Moon’. In the following scene the writer is describing Bella’s emotions when looking at a photograph of her and Edward. Meyer writes: “He looked like a god. I looked very average, even for a human, almost shamefully plain. I flipped the picture over with a feeling of disgust.”[37] This scene acts as a strong example of how the writer alters the structure of Wolf’s ‘Beauty Myth’ whilst still creating the identical effect, the repression of women through the idealised beauty of images. For the derogatory language of “even for a human” can logically be interpreted as coded language for “even for a woman” illustrating the Othered nature of the female within the ‘Twilight’ series.

The positioning of ‘The Beauty Myth’ is clear in Meyer’s utilisation of what Wolf sees as the Western woman’s “terror of ageing”.[38] In utilising the dialogue of commercial Western beauty, alongside the appropriation of the unsettling powers rooted in the horror genres, Meyer produces a powerful effect. For in the ‘Twilight’ series the “terror of ageing” is not restricted to the realms of high fashion and anti-ageing cosmetic commercials. Instead it becomes a literal physical terror through the abjection of the female corpse, the undead and the corpse being a popular trope in the language of horror. The positioning of an ageing woman as corpse offers a striking message to its teenaged readers. This is the message that an older woman holds no value, that her intellect or character is not of interest.[39] The older woman is a merely putrid shell, a shuffling corpse awaiting burial. It is critical to emphasise that Bella’s “black event”[40] is not her eightieth birthday but her eighteenth. This again illustrates how Meyer’s ideological eye distorts the female form, transforming a youthful teenage girl into an ageing monster. It is crucial to remember that Edward in his immortal state does not lose ‘value’ with age, thus his immortality takes on a potent symbolism of the unshakable positioning of patriarchal supremacy.

Thus Wolf’s ‘Iron Maiden’[41] model of beauty repression can be clearly applied to the ‘Twilight’ series. The singular alteration to the Iron Maiden is that it is not images of female beauty, but images of male beauty, that encloses the character of Bella Swan. In this use of male beauty to fuel the abjection of women, Meyer critically breaks away from the existing culture surrounding beautiful boys. There is a potent irony in Meyer’s appropriation of a group rooted in queer sexuality,[42] erotic taboos[43] and the romantic desires of the older woman[44] to fuel the ideas of the very opposite: the abject state of female sexuality, the repulsive nature of the ageing woman and the enforcing of heteronormative and patriarchal ideologies.

For in Meyer’s exaggerated sense of gendered boundary keeping it is clear that she is creating the very opposite effect, boundary breaking. For the ‘Twilight’ series breaks the traditions of the Gothic and vampire genre, as well as the traditions of male beauty. This sense of literary boundary breaking is most evident in Meyer situating the corpse-like figure of Bella Swan as abject and monstrous. For the Gothic horror writer Edgar Allen Poe famously declared that “the death of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world.”[45] The “beautiful corpse”[46] of Lucy in Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ (1897) is another strong example of the female corpse figure being intrinsically linked, not with abjection, but with beauty. Thus, in conforming to Kristeva’s argument that abjection lies within the individual that has no respect for boundaries or borders, it could be said that Meyer, in her refusal to accept literary and cultural borders, is the abject one.

[1] Milly Williamson, ‘The Lure of the Vampire: Gender, fiction and fandom from Bram Stoker to Buffy’ (Wallflower Press 2005) p.1
[2] Stephanie Meyer, ‘Eclipse’ (ATOM 2008) p.119
[3] “Vampires have epitomized the fear of subversion of the social rules, representing in this sense patterns of behavior to be avoided.” In: Fernanda Sousa Carvalho, ‘Breaking Codes of Sexuality: Angela Carter’s Vampire Women’ (UFMG 2008) p.2
Available at: http://www.letras.ufmg.br/poslit/08_publicacoes_pgs/Em%20Tese%2016/16%203/fernandasousa.pdf [last accessed on 4/12/11]
[4]As immortal vampires the Cullen family can be understood as the embodiment of the eternal marriage and familial bond idealised within the Mormon faith.”
Kirsten Stevens, ‘Meet the Cullens: Family, Romance and Female Agency in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Twilight’, Slayage the Journal of the Whedon Studies Asso
ciation, Issue 8.1 [29], (Spring 2010) p.11
Available at:
http://slayageonline.com/PDF/Stevens.pdf [last accessed on 4/12/11] p.11
[5] See: Stephanie Meyer, ‘New Moon’ (ATOM 2007) p.6-8 and Stephanie Meyer, ‘Eclipse’ (ATOM2008) p.119
[6] Stephanie Meyer is a member of the Church of the Latter Day Saints. She acknowledges the influence of her ideology on the text stating:  "I do think that because I'm a very religious person, it does tend to come out somewhat in the books, although always unconsciously.”
Quoted in: Department, ’10 Questions for Stephanie Meyer’, Time Magazine (August 21 2008)
Available at: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1834663,00.html#ixzz1faTv4jk8 [last accessed on 4/12/11]
[7] Bruce. R McConkie, the church of the Latter Day Saints Leader highlights this point. Stating: "A woman's primary place is in the home, where she is to rear children and abide by the righteous counsel of her husband"
Quoted in: Jessica Longaker, ‘Women and Mormonism’ (CAIC 1995)
Available at: http://www.caic.org.au/lds/mormwomn.htm [last accessed 4/11/2/11]
[8] For more information on Mormonist attitudes towards queerness in the 20th century see ‘Prologue: An examination of the Mormon attitude towards homosexuality’. This highlights issues such as queer aversion therapy and persecution of queer individuals within certain parts of the Mormon community.
 Cloy Jenkins et al.Prologue: An examination of the Mormon attitude towards homosexuality’ (Prometheus Enterprises, 1978)
Available at: www.affirmation.org/history/prologue.shtml [last accessed on 4/12/11]
[9] Stephanie Meyer, ‘Twilight’ (ATOM 2006) p.46
[10] The notion of ‘separate spheres’ holds further relevance due to Meyer’s Mormonistic ideology. Note the historian Catherine Hall’s point that: “division between male and female worlds had a religious connotation, for the marketplace was considered dangerously amoral. The men who operated in that sphere could save themselves only through constant contact with the moral world of the home, where women acted as carriers of the pure values that could counteract the destructive tendencies of the market"
Catherine Hall, ‘The Curtain Rises’ In: Phillipe Aries and Georges Duby,‘A History of the Private Life IV: From the Fires of the Revolution to the Great War’ (Belknap Press 1987) p.74
[11] Lauren Rocha argues “in Twilight, the female is not shown as empowered, but rather a regressive figure akin to the Victorian ideal of womanhood, creating a backlash against the empowered feminist ideal.” In: Lauren Rocha, Bite Me: Twilight Stakes Feminism’ In: The Undergraduate Review: A Journal of Undergraduate Research and Creative Work (Bridgewater State University 2010-2011Volume VII) p.148
Available at: http://smtp.bridgew.us/UndergraduateReview/Undergraduate2011Final.pdf#page=149 [last accessed on 30/11/11]
[12] Consider this statement by Edward Cullen to Bella: “You are utterly indecent-no one should look this tempting it’s not fair.”
From: Stephanie Meyer, ‘Twilight’ (ATOM 2006) p.279
[13] Consider this description of Bella’s pregnancy: “Bella’s body was swollen, her torso ballooning out in a strange, sick way.”
From: Stephanie Meyer, ‘Breaking Dawn’ (ATOM 2010) p.160
[14]Jennifer L. McMahon, ‘Twilight of an Idol: Our Fatal Attraction to Vampires’ In: Rebecca Housel, Jeremy Wisnewski Twilight and philosophy: vampires, vegetarians, and the pursuit of immortality' (John Wiley & Sons 2009) p.195
[15] Consider this description of Bella’s corpse: “This broken bled out, mangled corpse. We couldn’t put Bella together again.” Stephanie Meyer, ‘Breaking Dawn’ (ATOM 2010) p.326
[16]The corpse, seen without God and outside of science, is the utmost of abjection. It is death infecting life. Abject.”
Julia Kristeva, ‘Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection’ (Columbia University Press 1992) p.4
[17]Claire Sisco King, ‘Imaging the Abject’ In: Steffen Hantke, ‘Horror Film: Creating and Marketing Fear’ (University of Mississippi Press 2004) p.24-25
[18] Ibid. p.25
[19] Ibid.
[20] Julia Kristeva, ‘Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection’ (Columbia University Press 1992) p.4
[21] The Cullens are ‘vegetarian’ vampires in the sense that they abstain from human blood feasting only on the blood of animals. This highlights Meyer’s emphasis on controlling ones urges and abstaining from ‘sinful’ vices.
[22] Stephanie Meyer, ‘Twilight’ (ATOM 2006) p.303
[23] Ibid. p.283
[24] This idea is projected through the behaviour of Carlisle (the vampire father figure). Carlisle changes humans to vampires only if they are on the brink of death. They then join the Cullen family. The characters of Edward Cullen, Esme Cullen, Emmett Cullen and Rosalie Hale were all transformed by Carlisle into vampires when at the brink of death.
[25] Barbara Kreed,  ‘The Monstrous Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis’ (Routledge 1993) p. 1-2
[26] Ibid p.1
[27] Ibid. p-73-86
[28] Ibid. p.31-43
[29] Body horror is a sub-genre of horror that centres on the subversion, destruction or decay of the body. David Croenenberg is a notable film director of this genre.
[30] Barbara Kreed,  ‘The Monstrous Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis’ (Routledge 1993) p.12
[31] Stephanie Meyer, ‘New Moon’ (ATOM 2007) p.106
[32] Ibid. p.6
[33] Ibid.
[34] There is a definite sense of melodrama and exaggeration in the description of Edward’s beauty, thus polarising the male and female further. Consider this quote: “I couldn’t imagine how an angel could be any more glorious. There was nothing about him that could be improved upon.” Thus Edward goes beyond mere beauty and moves into the realms of angelic perfection.
In: Stephanie Meyer, ‘Twilight’ (ATOM 2006) p. 212
[35] “We are in the midst of a violent backlash against feminism that uses images of female beauty as a political weapon against women’s advancement.”
Naomi Wolf, ‘The Beauty Myth’ (Vintage Books 1990) p. 10

[36] Bidisha, ‘Bitten by the female gaze’, The Guardian, (Monday 19 January 2009)
Available at:
www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/jan/19women-gender [last accessed 4/12/11]
[37] Stephanie Meyer, ‘New Moon’ (ATOM 2007) p.65
[38] Naomi Wolf, ‘The Beauty Myth’ (Vintage Books 1990) p.10
[39]Being human and aging do not ensure a future; it ensures losing value in society as an old woman. Being a vampire means having a future and more importantly, value.”
Lauren Rocha, Bite Me: Twilight Stakes Feminism’ In: The Undergraduate Review: A Journal of Undergraduate Research and Creative Work (Bridgewater State University 2010-2011Volume VII) p.151
Available at: http://smtp.bridgew.us/UndergraduateReview/Undergraduate2011Final.pdf#page=149 [last accessed on 30/11/11]
[40] Stephanie Meyer, ‘New Moon’ (ATOM 2007) p.8
[41] Naomi Wolf applied the concept of the Iron Maiden (a medieval German instrument of torture) to the beauty industry. Just like the original Iron Maiden slowly encloses its victims, Wolf feels that contemporary Western women are similarly trapped in the rigid cruel nature of beauty.
Naomi Wolf, ‘The Beauty Myth’ (Vintage Books 1990) p.17
[42] An example of this can be found in the Spartan prince Hyacinth. He was first pursued by the poet Thamyris, and such was his beauty the writer invented same sex copulation invention just for him.
Germaine Greer, ‘The Boy’ (Thames and Hudson 2003) p.196
[43] See Caravaggio, ‘Love Triumphant’ (1599)
[44] See chapter five: ‘The Passive Love Object’ of Germaine Greer’s ‘The Boy’ (Thames and Hudson 2003)
[45] Edgar Allen Poe, ‘The Philosophy of Composition’, Graham’s Magazine, vol. XXVIII, no. 4, April 1846
Available at: http://www.eapoe.org/works/essays/philcomp.htm [last accessed 09/12/11]
[46] Bram Stoker ‘Dracula’ (Vintage Classics 2007) p.180

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