‘Twilight’: The S&M fantasy for teens

The Yahoo! home page streamed the red-carpet premiere of Twilight: Breaking Dawn, Part 2, the final film adaptation of Stephenie Meyer's series of teen vampire novels (now on South African screens). The novels sold more than 100-million copies and are considered so significant that the Vatican, ever in search of devils, has attacked them – as it had earlier attacked the more benevolent Harry Potter novels. But this is only partly a story about the power of marketing, even if a group of Boston schoolchildren decided that vampires did exist and, in a strange and tiny re-enactment of the Salem witch trials, accordingly looked for a victim to punish.

This is a story about the swelling of female masochism in popular fiction. Like Fifty Shades of Grey by EL James, which Meyer's novels inspired, Twilight is a loving-slave fantasy – Fifty Shades of Grey for teenage girls, except with vampires, because teenagers are too young for shades of grey and prefer their disempowerment fantasies to look like fairytales. Older women, I think, like them to look like expensive hotels or adverts for Audis.

Some women have said Fifty Shades of Grey is a feminist novel in disguise, but this is nonsense: If so, why doesn't the heroine, Anastasia Steele, like so many masochists, switch and give Christian Grey a kick in his cable-knit jumper? I was momentarily happy to see women reading explicit pornography on the London underground, but then I realised it was S&M – he S, she M. Why would it be anything else?

Twilight is equally reductive. Bella Swan falls in love with vampire Edward Cullen, who is very rich – if you aren't rich in trashy teen fiction, you're not worth loving: Meyer is not Thomas Hardy. The more wholesome suitor, who is a werewolf, obviously has no money at all.

Work is an irrelevance for Bella because this is princess fiction too: in one passage, Edward tells her: "No, you don't!" – as in "You don't want to go to college!"

Bella is rescued from a buffet of terrible fates, including a nest of Italian vampires who look like fashion designers. Whole tracts of the movie's scripts consist of repetitions of the line "Bella has got to be safe!" – which is not only offensive but also incredibly boring.

The most terrible fate, however, has already befallen her: she cooks, she cleans, she does not have sex with Edward before marriage – because nice girls don't in abstinence porn, which, if Twilight has a genre, is surely the one.

Two of Twilight's themes are particularly disturbing. One is the sexual violence of the central relationship. In a fascinating blog, the anonymous LiveJournal user Kar3ning detailed 15 signs of an abusive relationship, as named by the American national domestic violence hotline, and found many of them in Twilight. Angry fans pounced online, but Kar3ning is right.

There is the controlling male, the female with low self-esteem, the threats of suicide and murder, and so on. The day after her wedding night Bella examines the bruises on her body with something like aroused awe: "There was a faint shadow across one of my cheekbones and my lips were a little swollen … the rest of me was decorated with patches of blue and purple."

The other is the anti-abortion agenda. Bella conceives a vampire child on her wedding night. She resists all pleas to remove it: it breaks her ribs, her pelvis and, in an unconscious homage to early Ian McEwan, her spine. Then it kills her. (Spoiler? I care not.)

All this is noble, because Bella is a good mother and dies for her child as a loving martyr to the weakness of her own body. The star of the movies, Kristen Stewart, is also rather unlucky in real life: she was photographed kissing a married man last year and, because abstinence porn can bleed into life, she is now talked of as "unbankable". Her personal morality is, in ways the actresses of the 1950s would recognise, a public issue.

Because Bella becomes a vampire and can, by the end, jump off cliffs and wrestle with mountain lions, it has been said that Twilight is a story of female empowerment. Some women can convince themselves of anything. – © Guardian News & Media 2012


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