Heteronormativity, Again; or, The Experience of Reading Twilight

I may have mentioned to you by now, dear reader, that my English professor lectured this morning on Stephenie Meyer’s novel Twilight, and that our discussion section in the afternoon also dealt in large part with that book. I read it (okay, most of it) earlier this week, after spending the past few years trying to avoid doing just that. As I read the reviews of Twilight, its sequels, and the ensuing movie, I remained profoundly troubled by something amorphous about the way the series portrays its protagonist’s relationship to sexuality and to other non-sexual interpersonal reactions. When talking to others, I repeated the reviews’ sentiments: Bella (said protagonist) is not a real character; she’s just a conduit for desire. The books push pretty hard some themes about chastity, traditional notions of feminine motherhood, male chivalry, and other aspects of a conservative construction of gender, sexuality, and family. I said again and again, particularly when thinking of girls I know who are in the books’ target age range: is this the sort of universe, with the sort of values, that we want to encourage our girls and young women to take pleasure in?

Being asked to take the books seriously for class this week, and to consider them as a work of literature and a social statement, did revise how I thought about them. Actually reading them did, too. My impression of Bella is not entirely that she is a conduit for male desire: in fact, her identity as a shy know-it-all, who becomes obsessed with not just Edward’s charm, but a smartness and quickness that can match her own, came perilously close to echoing my own adolescent experience. In fact, I became profoundly uncomfortable with just how much I could recognize my own teenage fetishization of that one kid in my classes whose maturity, exoticism, eccentricity, and wit would always stand out to me. The knowledge that I might have been like that, like the Bella the reviews demonized, was enough to make me stop reading at points.

By contrast, when my professor lectured this morning, I hung onto every word (she is such a brilliant woman). She had some interesting things to say about how race and class are represented in Twilight, but what really grabbed me (of course) was her discussion of sexuality. She dwelt on the way that bodily fluids and bloodletting play out in this novel about vampires: Twilight dwells on childbirth, but there is no mention of menstruation (which you would think would be a pertinent issue in a universe where blood is something of a sexual stimulant). My professor discussed moments of defloration, comparing Bella’s impregnation to the point at which she is turned into a vampire. She brought up a very interesting and kind of disconcerting point about what Bella’s “change” into a vampire could be saying about menopause and the loss of fertility. And, she said, Twilight is oddly hygienic, for a universe that should revolve around blood. There are no sexually transmitted diseases in Twilight—a fact that stuck out to me for the reasons this blog probably demonstrates. There is no threat of AIDS.

My professor went on to talk about the polymorphous perversity (best phrase EVAR) of vampiric sexuality, its infantile nature, the inherent necrophilia in loving a vampire (which Meyer describes as “a walking corpse”), the oral sadism of the vampire’s bite. But, of course, there is no homosexuality in Twilight. Despite the obvious ambiguity of Edward’s sexual appeal, there are no gay couples in Forks, WA. There are no explicitly gay vampires. Bella herself doesn’t experience same-sex attraction. My professor suggested (and I thought this was really interesting) that closeting a standard social construction of homosexuality and gayness in the Twilight world allows Meyer to be freer with the polymorphous perversity, and with the other transgressive aspects of vampiric sexuality.

But I still feel as if the degree to which key aspects of sexuality are omitted from Twilight problematizes the aspects which are left in. And that’s consoling, in a way, because it means I don’t have to fear relating entirely to Bella and her experience of sexual awakening. Bella has no crisis of sexual identity. Neither do her vampire friends and lovers (but maybe that’s just because they’ve had hundreds of years to construct an identity). There are no labels in Twilight. There are no communities of sexuality. And when my class was discussing this series of books, and some folks in my class were talking about how much they could identify with Bella, I didn’t—entirely—feel as if I could contribute. For all that it confuses clear-cut sexualities; for all that it builds upon and complicates our traditional notion of the innocent love story, it is still profoundly and aggressively heteronormative. It excludes those who acknowledge anti-heteronormativity, and only includes those for whom transgressive sexuality unravels along with the thread of Meyer’s plot by the time the fourth book comes along.

Some of my fears about what this book says about our culture were allayed by reading it. I think I might moderate my ranting against it from here on out. But in other ways, I’m still very confused and somewhat disconcerted by what aspects of human sexuality Stephenie Meyer has chosen to put in, and what she has chosen to leave out.

(cross-posted)

7 thoughts on “Heteronormativity, Again; or, The Experience of Reading Twilight

  1. I’m no expert in gender/sexual theory much less it’s application to literature so I won’t comment on the whole analysis, as much as the English major in me would like to. Only wanted to throw out one thing.

    While Twilight is (presumably, I haven’t read them) heteronormative, It’s interesting that she didn’t adopt the fairly ambiguous sexuality of Anne Rice’s vampires, considering that I’ve been given to understand that just about everything else from the novels is lifted damn near straight out of her work.

    Maybe we should give her a little bit of credit for not entirely ripping off the Vampire Chronicles?

  2. But it’s because of her Mormonness, right?

    American social-conservative sexuality is quite sexual, really. Penetration is the only barrier–as long as you’re operating within the realm of heterosexual monogamy. It’s a highly sexualized realm, but it’s also a highly limited realm.

    What actually makes less sense to me is the necrophiliac, oral fetishistic, etc. overtones. Is Meyer aware of how those things are working in this story? Or is it just that they’re okay because they’re operating in a heterosexual, monogamous context?

  3. Hmm. Having not read the books I can’t really comment with regards to the Mormonness and like I said, I don’t really have a background in gender/sexuality theory.

    On the other hand, I am pretty interested in intersections between texts, so I’ll take a stab at your second paragraph.

    Most of what you highlighted about vampire sexuality (and if that’s not a thesis worthy sounding topic, I don’t know what is) seems pretty consistent with what I’ve read of vampire literature from Bram Stoker onward.

    My personal tastes run towards political meaning in literature (with my preferred reading of Dracula being a commentary on the dangers of a parasitic Aristocratic class feeding off of the productive middle class while simultaneously seducing them), but the sexual elements of Dracula in particular, and vampires in literature in general, are impossible to miss.

    Much like with Edward (here I’m going from the movie, which I did see), vampire bitings are pretty consistently a parallel for penetrative sex. Hearkening back to Anne Rice, most every description of her feedings combine the obvious penetrative imagery with an intense, euphoric joining that culminates in death or close to it. Compare that to when Edward sucks out the poison from Bella’s wound at the end of the movie and it seems to me that Meyers is simply carrying onward the traditional themes of vampire sexuality established by other writers.

    Obviously the most interesting thing though is where Meyer deviates from traditional vampire sexuality. As far as I understand it, her real innovation is the re-inversion of the inversion that is vampire sexuality.

    Looking at the vampire lit I’m familiar with it strikes me that vampire sexuality is an inversion of human sexuality. Where the sexual act for humans is (traditionally) procreative, for vampires it is destructive. Anne Rice does some really interesting things with this, such as the self-annhilative nature of vampire fetishism (the character of Jesse and many others) and explorations of chastity (Louis) and rampant libertinism (post-awakening Akasha) in the vampire mode.

    I suspect there is none as interesting as Claudia however. A child vampire, she seems to serve two key functions. One, she is an attempt by Louis (and somewhat Lestat) to defy the destructive nature of the sexuality by creating a child (and I’m not even looking at the dynamic of her having two fathers and her relationship with them). Two, she is sexually fascinating in that she does not age. Since she was made when she was a pre-pubescent girl she is perpetually trapped in that body and rages against the denial of the physical signs of her sexual being (thus raising the question of what it means to be both a sexual and immortal being).

    Meyer is different though – and I don’t know that I care much for it. From what I’ve been told of her stories and what I saw in the Twilight movie, I feel that Meyer has grossly unbalanced vampires as a literary device by removing all their weaknesses (sunlight, silver, garlic, blessed objects, etc.) but letting them keep all their strengths (immortality, faerie-like glamour, superhuman speed, strength, invulnerability, etc.). The same holds for their sexuality. As Bella and Edward are proof of, in Meyer’s universe vampire sexuality is also procreative.

    Now, looking back over this, I can’t say I’ve actually responded to any of your points. I hope you’ll forgive me that though, and please feel free to indulge in any further explorations on the topic. I don’t have nearly enough good analytical literature discussions now that I’ve graduated.

  4. So glad I found this post! The lack of analysis out there of homophobia in relation to Twilight (as well as of race analysis) surprises me… Most critical discussions seem to focus only on gender and sexuality.

    I would love to know more about your prof — and if she is writing or presenting on the series… I am co-editing an anthology she might be interested in contributing to. The call for papers can be found at my blog, Seduced by Twilight.

    Thanks for the great post!

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