On Reading Life and Death: Twilight Reimagined
In a bout of nostalgia, and prompted by sheer boredom, I recently found myself re-reading Twilight. Well, that’s not exactly correct. After reading online that Stephenie Meyer had released a special tenth-anniversary edition of her debut novel, I decided “why the hell not.” This new edition comes with bonus material (Meyer has been reluctant to call it a book) entitled Life and Death: Twilight Reimagined. All the characters have been recast with their genders swapped, with only a couple of exceptions, but the story is essentially the exact same (spoiler alert: there is one significant change). So instead of Bella and Edward, Meyer repackages her protagonists as Beau and Edythe. It’s an alleged attempt to prove that her story is about “the frenzy of first love” and not about a perpetual damsel in distress, since Stephenie Meyer has been so heavily criticized for writing a weak heroine. According to Meyer, the gender swap proves that it doesn’t matter if the human protagonist is male or female, since they will undoubtedly find themselves in distress when introduced into the world of vampires who have superhuman strength and sometimes supernatural abilities.
That all sounds well and good, but how does the new story actually stack up? Well with an inordinate amount of free time on my hands I decided to take a crack at the 400+ pages of new material to find out. Now it’s been years since I read Twilight and back when I was thirteen I was obsessed with Edward Cullen, which is embarrassing beyond measure to admit. But I do so because Twilight set me up for unrealistic and unhealthy relationship expectations and probably did so for many other teen girls as well. So after re-immersing myself in the world of angsty teenage vampires that sparkle, I decided to write this to give my younger self a sense of closure, because I can’t believe I ever enjoyed this
steaming pile of trash book so thoroughly. But I’m getting off topic now, back to the story.
In my opinion, I could see what Meyer was trying to accomplish by switching the genders of the characters. Although it didn’t seem necessary to change the gender of every single character, that just seemed like a lazy way of trying to make the story seem more different than it actually was. But anyway, I got her point that regardless of gender, the human in a human-vampire relationship is inevitably going to be in constant danger, since her vampires endlessly struggle with their bloodlust and are inhumanly strong. I get it, we all get it Ms. Meyer, I don’t think that was really the main issue with Twilight. When people criticized Bella for being weak, they didn’t just mean physically in comparison to inhumanly strong vampires.
Resultingly, Edythe and Beau only maintain Meyer’s notion of gender equality to a marginal degree. Beau still struggles trying to maintain mainstream heteronormative ideals. Though does cook and clean when he lives with both his mother and his father, Meyer implies that it stems from deep-seated obsessive compulsive tendencies, as if a boy can only be neat and tidy if they are obsessive compulsive, whereas it would be the natural tendency for a girl. I may be nitpicking here since that’s not a very damaging example, but Beau also feels uncomfortable letting Edythe pay for his dinner or carry him on her back and he stumbles over himself to always open doors for her or carry her bag. On her part, Edythe scoffs at all this, except for the door opening, encouraging Beau to let go of his attachments to these antiquated gender roles.
While I’m sure this is meant to be empowering for girls, it really comes across as Meyer heavy-handedly prodding the reader to see that she’s “all into gender equality.” She tries a bit too hard to prove that she believes women can be strong and powerful and in control, while her story remains firmly rooted in the gender roles she makes a big show of scoffing at.
For example, let’s unpack a couple of significant and troubling plot devices used in Twilight: the one instance of rape (against Rosalie) and one instance of attempted rape (against Bella). In Twilight, these horrific encounters are used to drive the story or add character backstory, while in Life and Death, however, these instances are turned into nonsexual assaults when Rosalie becomes Royal and Bella becomes Beau. As at least one reviewer on goodreads also pointed out, referencing Maggie Stiefvater’s blog post on literary rape, the only reasoning behind this change is simply because they are now male characters. Since the author could so easily remove the sexual nature from these scenes and still use them for the progression of the story, it seems clear that sexual violence wasn’t needed at all. It didn’t change the characters’ profiles or their storylines.
So why create characters and explicitly subject them to sexual assault (attempted or actualized) just because they’re women? Is it meant to make the reader pity them, or see them as more vulnerable in order to more deeply empathize with them? Men are susceptible to sexual assault just as women are susceptible to nonsexual assault as well. However, Meyer decided to alter these scenes of sexual violence for her male characters, likely because of the stigma against male survivors of sexual assault in our mainstream heteronormative culture, which perceives these male survivors as having diminished masculinity, even though this is not true at all. Both male and female survivors of sexual assault are no less masculine or feminine (or anywhere in between) than those who have not been subject to the same trauma. However, by shying away from and even erasing the traumatic occurrence of rape and attempted rape for her male characters and enlisting it only for her female characters’ storylines, Meyer complicitly engages in furthering rigid gender norms and harmful stigmatizations.
Returning to the main storyline, the relationship between Beau and Edythe remains equally as unhealthy as was the one between Bella and Edward. The only caveat being that the young woman is the abuser in their relationship, rather than the young man, but I’m not sure if that counts as a progressive step for gender equality. Beau marvels at Edythe’s physical strength and fawns over her beauty, basically worshiping her. Even after their disastrous first meeting, he becomes obsessed, as he readily admits, with just the thought of Edythe. Later on after she rescues his life and then promptly ignores him for a month his obsession/fascination only increases, just as Bella’s did with Edward.
Beyond the unsound expectation this originally set up for young readers of Twilight (i.e. that teenage girls, and I guess now boys too, should hold out for dating beautiful, but aloof and patronizing classmates and refuse to settle for anyone approachable or god-forbid nice or unassuming), Meyer sends another clear message: when you meet someone attractive and unattainable, subvert your entire persona and submit to fulfilling the other’s desires. Everything in your life should become secondary and eventually fall by the wayside so you can please your (supernatural) significant other. This is what Meyer considers to be the frenzy of first love. It was the most harmful message she sent to young fans of Twilight, and also the only real theme of her entire series. It made her characters more needy and selfish with each book and after ten years of criticisms from readers, she still doesn’t get it.
There’s a part of me that can understand that, as a writer, Meyer has the artistic license to write her characters however she pleases, and that includes creating weak characters. There’s a part of me that’s even fine with that notion; not all characters have to be strong, it’s even realistic not to have all of one’s characters be emotionally and physically strong, because everyone has flaws. However that would also mean that Meyer’s choice in writing such a one-sided relationship was for creative purposes only and not an attempt to convey any sort of personal beliefs. It would mean she had not been considering her target demographic (mostly tweens and young teens) at all, and how this type of relationship would impact those impressionable readers, which I just don’t believe. Besides the fact that Meyer still fails to perceive the harmfulness of the central relationship she’s crafted, it seems clear to me that her crafting Bella as a submissive heroine and Edward as a dominant hero was less about creative expression and more about sneaking in her own values, and even her own personality into the book to create her own tailor-made fantasy.
Let’s start with one of the most obvious markers of this. Meyer’s central characters refrain from having sex, which she claims is because it would just be logistically impossible. The bloodlust in conjunction with the physical pleasure would be too overwhelming, but I don’t fully buy that. In Breaking Dawn Meyer introduces a new breed of half-human half-vampires, which result from human-vampire sexual relations. This is also the book in which Bella and Edward are themselves finally intimate, only after getting married. So obviously it’s not logistically impossible, Meyer just doesn’t want to condone sex before marriage, which Edward even blatantly states to Bella. Again this could just be artistic license with the characters, but I don’t find it believable that Edward, a century-old, moral-relativist vampire who time and again seems to reject the idea of God and religion is going to start abiding by Judeo-Christian commandments. He claims he does it solely to protect Bella’s virtue, but that implies that he still believes in that specific, religious standard of virtue.
I also find it hard to believe that Edward, and Edythe too, had never been with anyone before Bella or Beau, throughout a century. In fact, I think previous relationships would have given Edward/Edythe more depth and backstory, but Meyer seems to think the lack of relationships/experience makes the love more pure. Again, this comes off to me as quite obvious posturing about her own set of values. So by this logic it’s shameful to have multiple partners, or at least less pure, but virtuous to be subsumed by an oppressive relationship as long as it leads to marriage. Is that really the kind of message anyone should be sending to young readers? Readers who are likely just on the cusp of discovering their own sexual identities no less.
In addition, the characters are really quite flat when you look past their melodrama and angst. As other bloggers have pointed out, even years before, Bella is a textbook example of the Mary Sue stereotype in writing fiction. She is given “unwarranted preferential treatment and unearned respect” (“What’s a Mary Sue Anyway?”) as we see she gains immediate and unexplained attention from a number of male suitors. Edward also points out that he finds her to be unlike anyone he’s ever met before, somehow exceptional in her kindness. This holds true for Beau as well (and also even for Wanderer in The Host – Meyer’s characters are really just one character).
In reality, I don’t think I would consider either Bella or Beau remarkably kind, certainly no more than the average teenager. They’re both completely focused on themselves, which is fairly normal, even if they choose to move in with Charlie to give Renee space with her new husband. Bella/Beau seem at first relatable, but that’s really because they’re one-note characters, bland enough for anyone to find even a remote similarity.
As a result they never undergo any real character development (unless you count becoming more and more singularly focused on a love interest development). For their part Edward/Edythe are also Mary Sue types, rigid characters that don’t evolve or change, but are endlessly fawned over and praised. At one point in Eclipse Bella even notes that she loves Edward because he’s the most decent person she’s ever met. Even at the peak of my tweenage fangirl stage, I remember reading that and thinking, “really? I’ve never noticed his decency before.” That’s because he doesn’t really have any. It was clear to me even then that Bella’s love (read: infatuation) was prompted by Edward’s attractiveness, and perhaps also his mystique. He appeared to her as the epitome of male beauty and was matured by a century of existence. As a result he was more refined than human boys Bella’s own age and that’s exciting I’m sure, but that doesn’t necessarily make for a loving partner.
What this ultimately boils down to is Meyer’s projection of her own personality, layered with her own moral values and passed off as a novel without a plot, solely driven by a sick “love” affair. The whole thing is just – gross, there’s not really a better word for it (at least not one that her lazy writing deserves). And on top of all of that, the writing is flat and monotonous. There’s no fluidity or vibrancy or sentences that make you stop and think for a minute (in a good way). It says something really sad about our reading culture that enough people latched onto this book series and made it into a phenomenon and a series of even worse films. I can understand reading it as a guilty pleasure, sometimes a book is so bad it’s good, and other times you just want to read something simple without thinking, but that doesn’t mean it should be turned into a social extravaganza.
Good fiction is supposed to make us think and reflect. At the very least it should keep us entertained with an original story. But Twilight is just lazy, and this newest novelty of switching the genders is an even lower writing achievement. I almost feel bad for being so visceral in this post because I know it’s really easy to critique something and really hard to create something, but I don’t think writing Twilight or Life and Death was really much of a challenge at all. It certainly has done a disservice to a generation of young readers, to both their romantic and literary standards. But by all means, if you’re looking for something bad to read go ahead, you’ll enjoy every last boring sentence.