I think I came to “Twilight” the same way I came to the “Harry Potter” series: the kids my friend was babysitting read them. And if the kids were engrossed, reading under blankets with flashlights long after bedtime, swapping paperbacks at school like back-to-back lunch swaps, the books had to be good, right? Shortly after acquiring my own library copy of Stephenie Meyer’s first vampire book, that anticipation turned to dread.
Oh no. What did we teach the children?
The bestselling books, a quartet of vampire romance novels aimed at teens that sold 120 million copies worldwide, soon got the movie treatment. The first movie was released in 2008, with sequels every year until the finale, a two-part movie that ended in 2012. “Twilight” was elevated by its stars like Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson and Anna Kendrick , and director Catherine Hardwicke gave the first film a moody, rich feel. It was a decent film, which I enjoyed watching visually, but its message was unsettling.
Hardwicke was removed from subsequent films. The story has become more ominous in the books and their adaptations and more ridiculous, with young characters moving from teenage love to teenage marriage and parenthood. The last film in the story, “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2”, turns ten this month and its theme is still terrible. That’s what happens when you don’t let young women choose themselves.
If you weren’t a kid or babysitter or someone who loved children’s fiction in the early 2000s (yes, young adult fiction is and should be wonderful and read by adults, but it’s not isn’t it), let me break it down for you: Bella Swan (Stewart) is a high school student who has just transferred to the foggy little town of Forks, Washington, when her life is saved by Edward Cullen (Pattinson), a handsome, pale but mysterious classmate who lives with his super-rich parents and four adopted siblings in a modern mansion in the woods. Bella and Edward fall in love.
Complication? He’s a vampire, just like his found family. Additional complication? Bella is also somehow in love with Jacob (Taylor Lautner), an aboriginal character and also a werewolf. Yes, it is already problematic. But Edward wins, I guess, in that Bella marries him when she’s barely 18. She gets pregnant on their honeymoon like poor Lane Kim in “Gilmore Girls.” Spoiler: Bella dies in childbirth but Edward turns her into a vampire and saves her. Plus, their child is a weird human-vampire hybrid, and as such, ages rapidly and for some reason known only to Satan, is rudimentary CGI for a good chunk of movies – perhaps the worst artistic decision since this woman tried to restore a 19th century Fresco of Jesus.
The story behind the story? Meyer is an observant Mormon and, in her own right, devout. It would be hard not to read her particular faith in this story of marriage and teenage pregnancy, given both the tale’s anti-abortion leanings and what Meyer herself has said in interviews, such as “Unknowingly , I put a lot of my core beliefs into the story.”
Teenagers in love (well, Edward is 104 when the story begins) wait to have sex until marriage, which Edward insists on. He may be itching to settle down, being three decades older than the average American human lifespan, but Bella is actually a teenager. When her mother receives the wedding invitation, she is excited in a way few parents would be if their 18-year-old married a centenarian. Or marry anyone.
Bella goes to college is joked about as an abstraction from the start. No one is ever serious about it. She is also not expected to get or be interested in getting a job. She has no interest, other than Edward/Jacob. Stewart’s performance brings an intelligence to the role that isn’t really present on the page, and as such, her character feels oddly disconnected. Won’t she be bored, just zooming around the mansion with no job, no education, no hobbies even? At least Edward plays the piano.
If grueling, violent childbirth and death weren’t enough punishment, Bella is punished with creepy Renesme (and the child is punished with THAT NAME).
In a sense, Bella catches the guy. And she gets what she wants: to be a vampire and to be rich. But in another, his entire existence is one giant punishment. Separating her from her family, the Cullens will first tell her father Charlie that she is dead. And Bella doesn’t seem broken about it. She eventually decides, after clever interference from Jacob, to keep her father in her life, albeit at a distance.
Her vampire family spends most of the last film (and those before it) fighting for her, defending her life against theirs. Not letting Bella choose more for herself, choosing herself, punishes them all. They are all swept away and changed forever by its disorder.
But Bella’s punishment goes on and on. She gets pregnant the first time she has sex, as Gen X’s fearmongering sex ed classes have always warned. The fetus is growing at record speed and destroying her, sickening her and turning her into a a scrawny shell. The scenes of Bella’s late pregnancy with her legs like twigs and her face hollowed out like a skull are truly garish, and the childbirth scene would rival “House of the Dragon” for its exploitative and heartbreaking shock value. . A friend who saw “Breaking Dawn – Part 2” in theaters described it as essentially bloody performance art.
“IIt was so bad that the production team named it “Chuckesmee”, thinking it looked like the Chucky doll.”
If the grueling, violent childbirth and death during childbirth were not enough punishment, Bella is punished with Renesmee (and the child is punished with THAT NAME). A half-vampire, half-human child would be fine, but the filmmakers’ decision to computer-animate the baby makes for a character beyond nightmares. Originally a mechanical doll was apparently meant to be young Renesmee, but Screenrant writes: “It was so bad that the production team actually named her ‘Chuckesmee’, thinking she looked like the doll. Chucky from “Child’s Play”. They kept getting pissed off by this and couldn’t get through their scenes in the presence of the unholy child.
Continuing the disgusting penance, Jacob imprints on baby Renesmee. The newborn will grow up to be her companion, which irritates Bella at first, but how did she think her daughter would escape her inheritance? The mistakes of the mother will affect the child.
Vampirism is not like an ankle tattoo. You cannot turn it off with the laser.
This moment also underscores a sickening theme of “Twilight”: the preference for children’s beauty above all else. Bella stops aging at 18 (why couldn’t they wait for marriage/vampire-dom until she was at least 22, a young adult with some education?). His daughter will reach maturity and stop the aging process around 17, when the older Jacob will probably marry her. This is not a beauty fantasy. It’s just creepy and patriarchal and rude.
Bella maintains that she was “born to be a vampire” (sounds a lot like “I was born to love you”, but OK), and says that she “always felt out of step. Literally trying to stumble in my life”. But she’s 18 when she says that. Who doesn’t feel bad or confused when they turn 18? The thing about making a lasting decision when you’re too young to know yourself is that you’re forever stuck in that self. Vampirism is not like an ankle tattoo. You cannot turn it off with the laser. Neither does parenthood.
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At the height of the “Twilight” fervor, fans lined up in camps: Team Edward or Team Jacob, the two supernatural suitors vying for the hand of the child bride. But it was never about that. If your only choice is which man to marry, that’s no choice at all. It was Bella against Bella. And she didn’t choose it.
Happy birthday, “Twilight”. Bella Swan always deserves better. And justice for Lane Kim.