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Females as the Second Sex in Twilight, or, Vampires are Made, Not Born

December 10, 2009

As contemporary females, we still experience the deleterious effects of being constructed as what Simone de Beauvoir calls the “second sex.”

Creatures of survival that we are, we often turn to stories that romanticize our second class status so as to render is exciting and fulfilling.  Such a “fantasy resolution,” as Janice Radway calls it, can supply us with the happily-ever-after that real life often does not (Reading the Romance, 14).

Twilight offers a happily-vampire-ever-after, allowing female readers escape from a world that labels them sluts, hoes, bitches, etc.

The fact Bella sees herself as ordinary and average in the Twilight series also appeals to us as females – we can identify with feeling awkward and clumsy in a society designed for men. Yet, the wish fulfillment narrative ultimately serves to uphold the message that females are, by their very nature, less capable.

Through the vampire/human dichotomy, it echoes the gender binary dominating our world, which constructs men (or vampires) as superior and women (or humans) as the Other (or second sex). Bella internalizes messages of her inferiority and Otherness, referring to herself as “a curiosity, a freak.” (T)

As the following quote reveals, she chastises herself for not fitting into the norms of femininity:

“physically, I’d never fit in anywhere. I should be tan, sporty, blond — a volleyball player, or a cheerleader, perhaps — all the things that go with living in the valley of the sun. Instead, I was ivory-skinned, without even the excuse of blue eyes or red hair, despite the constant sunshine. I had always been slender, but soft somehow, obviously not an athlete; I didn’t have the necessary hand-eye coordination to play sports without humiliating myself” (T)

She then goes on to relate that she does not fit in anywhere, ending with the suggestion she is crazy:

“…if I couldn’t find a niche in a school with three thousand people, what were my chances here? I didn’t relate well to people my age. Maybe the truth was that I didn’t relate well to people, period. Even my mother, who I was closer to than anyone else on the planet, was never in harmony with me, never on exactly the same page. Sometimes I wondered if I was seeing the same things through my eyes that the rest of the world was seeing through theirs. Maybe there was a glitch in my brain. (T)

A surface analysis of these quotes reveals Bella as a self-effacing female. However, further consideration of the constant references Bella makes throughout the series about not being capable, about her feelings of estrangement, and of her sense of inferiority can be read as her internalization of the negative messages patriarchal culture offers to women. Her only outlet in such a culture, as the series reveals, is to ally herself with a more perfect, more powerful specimen, a male.

Yet, while the books seem to indicate self-effacement is a necessary and normal component of being a ‘good’ female, one can also argue the texts represent such norms in order to condemn them. The fact that male characters are shown to require no such self-deprecation to be perceived as likeable furthers this claim. Edward’s self-assurance, Jacob’s cocky confidence, and Emmett’s jocular ultra-masculinity are not presented as overtly problematic, but as appealing. In contrast, assertive females, such as Rosalie, Leah, and Lauren, are all demonized. While such characterizations have been used as proof of the series’ anti-feminism, I suggest that they can also be read as representations of the gender binaries that bind. While the texts celebrate these bindings in ways, they also can be said to represent them as problematically compulsory.

In fact, Bella’s accordance with many of the traditional attributes of romantic heroines can be read in light of arguments put forth by critics such as Janice Radway and Tania Modleski. As their works suggests, romance heroines offer women ways to resist patriarchal conceptions of gender in a ‘safe’ way. Bella, in accordance with this read, is a good daughter who follows the patriarchal path to marriage and motherhood. Yet, she is also an intellectual, a rule-breaker, and a thrill-seeker who acts on her desires, sexual and otherwise.

However, as the series representation of man as hunter and woman as prey reveals, Bell must capitulate to patriarchal rules or she will be destroyed. In terms of the narrative, this destruction is threatened through the various male ‘hunters’ that keep her in her good girl place: Edward, Jacob, James, Laurent, Charlie, etc. Reading this same meme in relation to the role of the author, we can surmise that the rebellious Meyer, writing vampire stories when she should be tending to her children or teaching bible study, is similarly ‘hunted’ by the male codes of her religion and kept in her place by the strictures of patriarchy.

The representations the texts offer of Bella as prey substantiate this reading, suggesting that females have no choice but to be preyed upon by males. They must accept this role, as Bella does at the very beginning of the series, as “a good way to die.” (T) Given what the texts suggest is the inevitability of this paradigm, Bella, and Meyer by extension, might as will make the best of their status as prey. Thus, as in the first reference to herself as prey, Bella depicts the hunter as looking at her “pleasantly”, noting he “smiled in a friendly way as he sauntered forward to kill me.” (T). Later, when a different hunter tells her “I bet you’d taste good,” she thanks him (NM).Here and elsewhere, there is no sense that Bella is insulted by being viewed as prey, rather, she seems to quite like it, referring to herself as “helpless and delicious” (E).

The fact Bella is represented as a pawn or prize for various males –not only Edward and Jacob, but also Mike, James, Tyler, Laurent, and Eric suggests she is indeed the hunted. This status is particularly apparent when she sits between two ‘hunters’ at the movie theater, noting their hands are “Like steel bear traps, open and ready.” (NM). When Jacob later shares that she is “a classic martyr….She should have lived back when she could have gotten herself fed to some lions for a good cause,” the predator/prey symbol is furthered (BD).  As she seems to have no choice but to be treated like a conquest, she acquiesces to it, and particularly with her most handsome hunter, Edward.

Yet, might we see her reaction as making the best of a bad situation? Might we read Meyer’s depiction as suggesting (even if unconsciously) that patriarchy cannot result in equal relationships between men and women (or vampires and humans), that, instead, it results in a society of the hunter and the hunted? Patriarchy, according to this read, is inescapable — the only way females have any chance at equality is via becoming vampires. They are born into their status as the 2nd sex, but can be made into vampires – a switch that allows them access to all the privileges maleness brings.

**Please note, as I have a Kindle, (and the damn thing doesn’t have page numbers!!!) I have only cited which book the quotes are from, designated as T, NM, E, and BD.

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