“Dear, you should not stay so late, Twilight is not good for maidens; Should not loiter in the glen In the haunts of goblin men.”—Christina Rossetti, “Goblin Market”
Although I regularly teach children’s and young adult literature to undergraduate students, it took my son’s babysitter to alert me to the phenomenon of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Saga, the now ubiquitous quartet of novels about 17-year-old Bella Swan and her vampire beau, Edward Cullen. My babysitter, who suffers from dyslexia and therefore reads quite slowly, had nonetheless made her way through texts whose lengths rival the great Victorian novels. Indeed, this young woman’s passionate investment in these stories brings to mind nineteenth-century readers clamoring at the docks for the latest installments of Dickens’s work, and makes her one of a large community of girls and women who have made the Twilight series among the best selling young adult novels of all time. Over 50 million of the books have been sold, the first two of scheduled four film adaptations have been released, and the number of self-admittedly obsessed “Team Edward” fans continues to grow. Meanwhile, Meyer, the erstwhile unknown Mormon housewife who wrote the first installment of the series after dreaming about a vampire and a young girl in a meadow, was named one of Time magazine’s most influential people of 2008.
The tremendous success of the novels has surprised some critics, especially those feminist media and literary critics who argue that the series perpetuates outdated and troubling gender norms. Edward, these critics claim, is frequently controlling and domineering, saving the hapless Bella time and again from danger; Bella suffers from low self-esteem and seemingly has no close friends except for Edward, his family, and Jacob, a suitor-turned-werewolf; and, at the end of the series, she foregoes college in order to marry Edward and bear, at great risk to her own life, a half-human and half-vampire child.
Elizabeth Hand is representative of feminist critics when she argues in The Washington Post that “there’s something distinctly queasy about the male-female dynamic that emerges over the series’ 2,446 pages. Edward has been frozen at the age of 17. But he was born in 1901, and he doesn’t behave anything like a real teenager. He talks and acts like an obsessively controlling adult male” (7). Numerous blogs and groups such as Feminist Mormon Housewives and the Facebook group Twilightmoms have also analyzed the gender dynamics of the series, even from inside the sometimes rabid fan community. Chelsea, writing on Feminist Mormon Housewives, posts, “I find the message to young girls disturbing. That love is an irresistible force that precludes making any rational decisions. That it’s OK (even noble) to sacrifice your personal safety if you ‘really’ love someone” (n.p.). Claims such as these reveal the concern that many critics and readers feel about the books’ tremendous popularity and the messages that they impart to girls about romance and women’s roles in sexual relationships. Do the books promote retrograde ideas about female submission to male authority? Are the books particularly troubling in the genre of young adult (YA) literature, whose readers might not yet have developed the critical apparatus of the adult reader?
The criticisms leveled against the series in the press indicate that it deserves a more in-depth discussion than it has yet received. The novels’ gender ideology is ultimately and unapologetically patriarchal. However, focusing merely on Edward and Bella’s romance obscures larger themes that the novels also explore, and that add to the series’ appeal and cultural significance, particularly within the genre of young adult fiction. Although Edward and Bella are the center of the novel’s narrative, the series is equally concerned with the contemporary American nuclear family, and a woman’s role within that family. Identity, in the series, occurs within the context of group identity, particularly family. Bella’s desire for eternal life as a vampire with Edward is closely connected with her longing for a stable family, which she has been denied after her parents’ divorce, and which the archaic Cullen family offers. Edward becomes...