‘Twilight’ Sinks Its Teeth Into Feminism (Washington Post)

The Washington Post

(Read this article on The Washington Post website)

When the final book in the “The Twilight Saga” series went on sale this month, 18 area Barnes & Noble stores were among the shops hosting midnight parties. Fans have congregated en masse online, and all four books are on Amazon.com’s list of the top dozen bestsellers. The enormous wave of popularity that “Twilight” is riding shows no signs of abating.

Stephanie Meyer’s series is built around a love triangle involving Bella, a pretty teenage girl, the gentlemanly young vampire who adores her and the lanky werewolf who is her best friend. A megablockbuster of a fantasy book series is nothing new, of course. But while the “Harry Potter” series was read by a broad audience that included children, teenagers and adults of both genders, the “Twilight” books target a much narrower demographic: teenage girls and young women.

So why is a smaller audience providing such a solid fan base?

The allure of “Twilight” lies in its combination of modern sensibility and ambience with traditional ideas about gender. Bella has broad appeal; as many girls can appreciate, she likes watching reruns of “The Simpsons” while she nibbles on Pop-Tarts. But the twist is that Bella’s ideas about gender roles are decidedly unfeminist. The pairing of a modern setting and traditional gender roles is unusual in children’s and teen literature. More often, modern books communicate a modern view of gender: beginning in early childhood, for example, girls read the “Dora the Explorer” series and grow into adolescence with books such as “Esperanza Rising” and “The Breadwinner.”

Despite all the modern accouterments in the “Twilight” saga, the girls are still girls, and the boys are traditional men. More specifically: The lead male characters, Edward Cullen and Jacob Black, are muscular and unwaveringly brave, while Bella and the other girls bake cookies, make supper for the men and hold all-female slumber parties. It gets worse for feminists: Bella is regularly threatened with violence in the first three books, and in every instance she is rescued by Edward or Jacob. In the third book she describes herself as “helpless and delicious.” (Warning: Fans who haven’t read the fourth book should skip to the next paragraph.) Bella spends the first half of the final installment in the most helpless condition of all — pregnant and confined to bed rest. She is unable to leave the house and becomes capable of defending herself only after she becomes a vampire.

Little surprise that not everyone is a fan: Amy Clarke, who teaches an undergraduate course on “Harry Potter” at the University of California at Davis, asked The Post: “Do we really want our daughters reading books about a girl like Bella who is always needing to be saved?” [“Bitten and Smitten,” Style, Aug. 1]. In our enlightened era, some wonder, why would girls respond with rabid enthusiasm to books that communicate such old-fashioned gender stereotypes? Today’s youth, after all, have been told since earliest childhood that gender shouldn’t really matter, that girls and boys can and should do the same things, dream the same dreams, and indeed should be the same in every way that counts.

Yet on some level, it seems that children may know human nature better than grown-ups do. Consider: The fascination that romance holds for many girls is not a mere social construct; it derives from something deeper. In my research on youth and gender issues, I have found that despite all the indoctrination they’ve received to the contrary, most of the hundreds of teenage girls I have interviewed in the United States, Australia and New Zealand nevertheless believe that human nature is gendered to the core. They are hungry for books that reflect that sensibility. Three decades of adults pretending that gender doesn’t matter haven’t created a generation of feminists who don’t need men; they have instead created a horde of girls who adore the traditional male and female roles and relationships in the “Twilight” saga. Likewise, ignoring gender differences hasn’t created a generation of boys who muse about their feelings while they work on their scrapbooks. Instead, a growing number of boys in this country spend much of their free time absorbed in the masculine mayhem of video games such as Grand Theft Auto and Halo or surfing the Internet for pornography.

For more than three decades, political correctness has required that educators and parents pretend that gender doesn’t really matter. The results of that policy are upon us: a growing cohort of young men who spend many hours each week playing video games and looking at pornography online, while their sisters and friends dream of gentle werewolves who are content to cuddle with them and dazzling vampires who will protect them from danger. In other words, ignoring gender differences is contributing to a growing gender divide.

(Read this article on The Washington Post website)

Update from Dr. Sax:

My op-ed about Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series prompted many comments, mostly negative. Many of the bloggers seem to have read only the headline (written by an editor at the Post), and assumed I was attacking feminism, which I wasn’t. Other bloggers assumed that I didn’t like the Twilight books, and wrote about how great the books are. Please take a look at my response to the bloggers below.

He caught my face securely between his iron hands, ignoring my struggles when I tried to turn my head away.
Please don’t, I whispered…
His mouth was on mine then, and I couldn’t fight him. Not because he was so many thousand times stronger than me, but because my will crumbled into dust the second our lips met…
So I kissed him back, my heart pounding out a jagged, disjointed rhythm while my breathing turned to panting…

That’s a passage from New Moon, the second book in the Twilight saga by Phoenix author Stephenie Meyer (the Post copy editor erroneously changed the spelling of her first name to Stephanie). More than 80 million copies of the Twilight saga books have now been sold almost exclusively to girls and young women.

In my op-ed for the Washington Post, I asked the question: why are these books so phenomenally popular with teenage girls? In the week after my op-ed appeared in the Post, my article was picked up by many smaller regional newspapers, such as the San Jose Mercury News (California), the Austin American-Statesman (Texas), the Hartford Courant (Connecticut), the Daytona Beach News-Herald, and about forty other newspapers. Several hundred bloggers have commented on my article as well.

The negative comments in the blogosphere fall into two categories. Some bloggers think I am giving the Twilight saga books a negative review. Others think I am attacking feminism. But I wasn’t reviewing the books, and I am not making any comment about feminism. I am simply expressing puzzlement about the fact that these books which endorse very traditional gender roles are wildly popular.

Imagine going back to the 1940s, when the Nancy Drew books enjoyed huge popularity. Contrast the Twilight books with a typical Nancy Drew book, The Hidden Staircase. In The Hidden Staircase, Nancy’s father is kidnapped by three bad guys. Nancy tracks down the bad guys, has each of them arrested, and rescues her father from the dungeon where the men have been keeping him prisoner. Nancy’s boyfriend is a minor, peripheral character who plays no role in the rescue of Nancy’s father. In the Twilight books, by contrast, Bella’s boyfriends Jacob Black and Edward Cullen are always the central focus of the story, from start to finish. The teenage heroine Bella is not, technically speaking, a heroine at all, but rather a perpetual victim, at least in the first three books. In the final book, after becoming a vampire, she is able to use her new supernatural powers to protect her loved ones. But what’s the message there? That a girl has to become a vampire before she can be fully independent and self-reliant?

I’m not saying that the Twilight books are bad. I actually enjoyed all four of them. And I’m not saying that feminism is bad. I’m just trying to point out the irony that in our supposedly enlightened and hyper-modern 21st century, girls are flocking in huge numbers to books which are arguably less enlightened by feminist standards than the Nancy Drew books of two generations past. (For a comment on the Twilight series by a bona fide feminist, see Carmen Siering’s article “New Moon, Same Old Sexist Story”, Ms. Magazine, online at https://www.huffpost.com/entry/new-moon-same-old-sexist_b_367925.)

Incidentally, the New York Times recently had an article about the fact that Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sandra Day O’Connor, and Sonia Sotomayor, were all huge fans of the Nancy Drew books when they were growing up. The article, by Mary Jo Murphy, is entitled “Nancy Drew and the Secret of the 3 Black Robes”; it’s online at http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/31/weekinreview/31murphy.html.