When I teach the eighteenth-century seduction novel Charlotte Temple to my undergraduate students, they complain that all Charlotte does is swoon and cry. She isn't "a strong heroine" they protest. They don't get why her sexual affair with and subsequent pregnancy by a French soldier has to be such a big deal, or why the narrative seems to demand — spoiler alert — her death. The author of this epistolary novel, Susanna Rowson, predicted their reluctance way back in 1791. Toward the end, Rowson breaks the fourth wall and imagines how she would respond to a reader's complaints:
'Bless my heart,' cries my young, volatile reader, 'I shall never have patience to get through these volumes, there are so many ahs! and ohs! So much fainting, tears, and distress, I am sick to death of the subject.' My dear, chearful, innocent girl. . . I must request your patience: I am writing a tale of truth: I mean to write it to the heart: but if perchance the heart is rendered impenetrable. . . I expect not my tale to please.
Rowson's tale does not please my twenty-first century female students. They want Charlotte to stop hanging around this guy who's no good for her, to wake up and kick some ass. I point out to them that Rowson explicitly says that the tale is meant to elicit sympathy, to appeal to the heart and that this text — written by a woman, for women, about a young woman — might have something important to say about women's lives. They stare back, dubious.
My students' complaints about Charlotte Temple sound a lot like the complaints I hear about the Twilight Saga. And, as Part One of Breaking Dawn arrives in theaters this week, we all get to revisit just how very much Bella Swan is not "a strong heroine." Spending a lot of time in bed, on couches, and being carried around by burly boys, Bella is passive to the point of immobility. Her great love Edward is a controlling stalker, and the novels appear to extol the virtues of abstinence, teen marriage, and feminine "purity." Yet the Twilight Saga, I would argue, has the potential to revitalize a number of our larger conversations about feminism, especially those related to sex, pregnancy, desire, and autonomy.
The Twilight series challenges what I would call the "Buffy Summers Maxim": that teen heroines be physically empowered, oftentimes at the expense of emotional clarity. Bella Swan diverges from many of our more recent teenaged female heroines. The ones who appear in films — the feisty Olive from Easy A, the quirky ironist Juno MacGuff — often seem to be written by thirtysomethings seemingly desperate to revisit high school to work some alchemical magic: turning the abjection of it all into a badge of indie cred. But even the more complicated female heroines of recent young adult fiction — Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games or Katsa of Graceling — embody a suspiciously pleasing, "empowered" form of female adolescence. These girls go through a narrative arc, but for the most part, they are already-formed subjects with the "right" values (freedom, self-determination, physical strength) that simply have to navigate some growing pains.
Bella Swan, by contrast, is a much more honest (though cringe-inducing) representation of adolescence. She doesn't know who she is or what she wants. She's clumsy, obtuse, and aggravating in her helplessness. She is also entirely internal, almost alienatingly so. One of my favorite passages from the novel New Moon is when Stephenie Meyer inserts a series of blank pages to stand in for the months that pass while Bella mourns — out of any reasonable proportion — Edward’s desertion. Bella, kind of wonderfully, takes her time.
This is an uncomfortable place for feminists, because this heroine is not particularly good at actualizing herself. Bella waits, she wallows, she thinks, and feels, and worries, and wonders. She does not actualize in the sense we have come to expect from our heroines, an expectation that, I might point out, is quite often based on a masculinist understanding of what being effective in the world looks like. Lisbeth Salander, the heroine of the popular The Girl With a Dragon Tattoo series, is emotionally stunted but, damn it, she actualizes herself! She punishes the people who hurt her, she sleeps with whomever she wishes, she zips around on a motorcycle, and she’s a master computer hacker. In other words, our actualized female heroine might as well be a tiny man.
Though Bella's pregnancy in Breaking Dawn provides the final piece of the series' conservative triptych of marriage, sex, baby, it also (somewhat unfashionably) emphasizes just how much women's bodies matter. I might as well confess to you that when I began writing this piece, I was nine months pregnant with my first child. I read the Twilight novels before I found myself in such a state, but even then I felt like the narrative's representation of pregnancy and birth was somehow… real. Hopefully not real real, as in I hoped a vampire would not gnaw the baby out of my own womb, but "real" as in a masterful deployment of metaphor that somehow nails the simultaneous horror and beauty of gestation and birth.
Bella's gestation of the half-human, half-vampire fetus proceeds along nightmare-dream logic that will be familiar to anyone who has ever been pregnant: the fetus grows at alarming speed, impels Bella to unusual behaviors (in this case, drinking gallons of blood via cup and straw), and ultimately threatens to tear the girl apart from inside out. I want to reiterate here: this is not that unrealistic a representation of gestation and birth.
Now about two months post-partum, I can state with some authority that the gnawing and bleeding and horror of Renesmee's (heh) gestation and birth is one hundred percent on the level. The delivery of my child was of the sort that would have killed a woman a hundred years ago. Two weeks late and over 10 pounds, the child had to be cut by a team of doctors from my body, which in turn responded by hemorrhaging massive amounts of blood. I am still stunned by the experience; like any good thirtysomething Brooklynite, I had envisioned the glowing "natural" birth, the whole holistic bill of goods that has been sold to us strong, empowered, modern women. And while I believe that those sorts of births happen and are beautiful, they are not the only sorts of birth, nor have they been throughout history. Gestating and giving birth are dangerous physical pursuits, no matter how empowered a woman is.
It is perhaps telling that, in the books, the birth scene in Breaking Dawn is so much more riveting than the jokey sex scene (in which Edward's desire is released by … biting the pillows on the bed?). I have a feeling that Stephenie Meyer feels more comfortable exploring the gothic aspects of motherhood and parturition than she is with the throbbing softcore fulfillment of sexual desire. But this is not necessarily something for which we need to scold her. Gestation, birth, and motherhood are gothic emotional and physical states in which many of one's most carefully considered intellectual stances and commitment to autonomy are challenged and often dismantled. Even more importantly, these are topics not much talked about in young adult fiction aimed at teenaged girls, which means that, perhaps in the name of empowerment and feminism, we have omitted a major aspect of women's lives from the very narratives through which girls come to deepen their understanding of how to live in the world.
So, in the weirdest sense possible, the Twilight Saga is a pragmatist’s text; which is just another way of saying that while Stephenie Meyer doesn’t seem to be particularly interested in challenging or reshaping gendered realities, her ability to evoke what it's like to have a gender in the world — for Bella, for Edward, for Jacob — makes these novels surprisingly insightful on a number of issues feminists still have trouble addressing. If, as feminists, we believe in girls’ and womens’ autonomy, how do we understand the autonomy-shattering power of desire? Do we determine that some desires (to be dominated? to be beautiful? to get married?) are bad and others good? Because we want very much for girls not to get pregnant too young, do we bar them from even imagining what it would be like and what it would mean?
Bella holds up a cracked mirror and shows us some things we don't want to see. But she also reminds us that the imagination resists checklists of appropriate behavior. Teen girls resist checklists. The really interesting conversations start to happen when we stop circling the wagons against "bad examples" and "passivity" and start exploring not only what we want our heroines to be like, but why.
Sarah Blackwood professes about literary stuff in Manhattan and reads trashy novels in Brooklyn. She's had the same online blog journal, Drunken Bee, for seven years because she doesn't really understand Tumblr.