When Twilight first came out, and captured the hearts of teenage girls across the world, I flat-out refused to read it. I mean, it was a story about vampires—and I was trying to be one of the cool kids at school. My friends had to literally hold me down and dangle the book in front of my face before I deigned to read a word of it. (Of course, I then got totally hooked on it, read all four, and attended midnight screenings of the movies wearing a “Team Jacob: the Cullens don’t come here” t-shirt—but if you tell anybody that, I’ll have to kill you.) So trust me, I had zero interest in buying the 10th anniversary edition. That is, until Stephenie Meyer surprised us all by announcing that this time… the vampire was the girl.
Over the last decade, Twilight has been on the receiving end of a ton of criticism. Partly, that’s because it’s a terribly written book. But partly, it’s because it’s pretty sexist. This is the book that inspired Fifty Shades of Grey, after all; it was never going to be empowering.
Stephenie Meyer, however, has always disputed this. She claims that Twilight is not the story of a typical “damsel in distress”, but of a human in distress. The obsessive love that Bella is accused of is not gender specific, she argues—and by gender-swapping Twilight in Life and Death: Twilight Reimagined, she can prove it. But has she? I’m not so sure.
Look, I really wanted to love this book. I’m a huge fan of anything that plays with perceived gender roles, and I really liked Meyer’s claim that “there isn’t much difference between a female human in love with a male vampire and a male human in love with a female vampire”. So going into this, despite the fact that she ridiculously renamed Edward and Bella as Edythe and Beaufort, I was rooting for her. But now I’ve read it, I’m not convinced she actually subverted gender stereotypes so much as she did reinforce them.
If you were being generous, you could attribute some of this to a deliberate attack on gender prejudices. I have to admit I don’t think this is what Meyer intended, but let’s give her the benefit of the doubt. So when Beaufort arrives in Forks, and his father claims that he had a responsibility to look after his mother (something that he never suggested to Bella)—perhaps this is Meyer challenging our cultural expectations that men are always responsible for women, no matter which one is the parent. And when Beau is reluctant to take Edythe’s scarf before she specifies that it’s “not a lady’s scarf” (an issue that was never raised when Bella accepted Edward’s jacket)—perhaps Meyer is mocking the way femininity is seen as embarrassing. And the scene where Beau expresses his surprise at a boy being comfortable dating a strong, muscular girl (a brand-new scene that definitely didn’t need to exist)—perhaps Meyer is questioning our societal definition of beauty. Perhaps.
But when that muscular girl is described as someone that “not even The Rock would dare to whistle at”, the scene does take a rather dark turn. Essentially, this quote means “she was so far from being conventionally attractive that even a pro wrestler would hesitate to sexually harass her”, and presents that as a negative. I think you could have just skipped that bit, Stephenie.
And then we have the moment Beau first sees Edythe. Bella and Beau both ogle the beautiful vampires they spy across the dining hall, but it’s only Beau who adds that Edythe’s beauty is “upsetting” and “disturbing”. In a culture where male bitterness towards attractive women fuels MRAs, sexual harassment, and often even more violent crimes, this kind of language is more than a little unsettling.
Both Bella and Beau attract a host of admirers from the opposite sex, but the different ways they are allowed to handle this (while still remaining a likeable hero) is pretty stereotypical stuff. Where Bella is shown constantly worrying about how to fend off this male attention, Beau is allowed to entertain thoughts about the girls being good-looking, and even enjoy the feeling of being fancied—behaviour never granted to a woman being portrayed as anything other than the “whore”. This highlights a pretty clear difference in Meyer’s opinion of an “innocent girl” versus an “innocent boy”.
And it only gets more obvious. After Edward rescues Bella from attackers, he commands her to “prattle about something unimportant” while he controls his own temper. Beau is, of course, not degraded with such an effeminate command; instead, he steps up and controls the situation, forbidding Edythe to fight unless he is allowed to fight alongside her.
Despite her admirable claims, Life and Death makes it pretty clear that Meyer thinks there is a lot of difference between “a female human in love with a male vampire and a male human in love with a female vampire”. But in the end, despite feeling like she reinforced the very criticism she was trying to refute, I’m still glad she wrote this book. Because no matter how clumsily it’s done, playing with gender roles always at least starts a conversation. Edythe’s odd, possessive behaviour highlights that this never should have been idolised in Edward in the first place. And Meyer’s compulsive need to insert justifications for Beau and Edythe’s actions just proves that we do expect men and women to conduct themselves differently.
So thanks, Stephenie Meyer, for gender-swapping Twilight and proving quite how sexist the world really is. And thank you for not saying the word “chagrin” so much this time around.
What did you think of gender-swapping Twilight?