“The pain is my only reminder that he [Edward] was real.” — Bella (Kristen Stewart)
In the dark fairy tale arc of the feminine psyche’s maturity (a la Little Red Riding Hood, Beauty & the Beast, Eros & Psyche), daemon lovers and the threat of being overpowered or “bitten” are constant. In Jungian terms, these daemon lovers are archetypes — symbolic figures representing unincorporated aspects of the psyche. They’re meant to be taken metaphorically – not literally except in basics — i.e., girls shouldn’t talk to wolves when alone in the forest. Some branches of feminism, however, read these tales literally and cite them as examples of patriarchal oppression — i.e., nature and even the unconscious psyche are subject to political correctness. It’s not Red Riding Hood who is entering the twisted woods of her subconscious and encountering her animus (the ego of the unconscious, which takes the form of the subject’s opposite gender) but Woman as victim, ravaged and destroyed by male lust and violence; it’s Woodsman propaganda to keep girls at home and afraid to go to grandma’s house without a male escort.
The Twilight Saga (and I’m discussing the films here, not having read the books) hits this same nerve, running counter to common feminist ideology and drawing flak as a result. But doesn’t this turn feminism’s original goal of liberating women from servitude to males, of being second-class citizens, back on itself? The choice to remain a virgin until marriage, or to supplant one’s whole life in favor of a crush on some older, dangerous vampire boy carries a subversive charge it never had before. In a way, the backlash against Twilight shows how feminism — in its zeal to deny the dark, twisted, violent roots of sexuality — has set itself up as what it once fought. In other words, the more you badmouth the third-wave feminist regression of the Twilight series, the more strength you give it. Whatever you’re morally against becomes subversive and therefore sexy by definition, even the complete refusal of sex itself, which is a cinematic trick that dates back to the silents and stars like Mary Pickford and Lilian Gish.
A classic example of this backlash “baby out with the bathwater” reaction can be found at a site called Women’s Rights, wherein Jen Nedeau notes:
Even without seeing the movies or reading the book, the Twilight narrative really disturbs me. From what I know about it, it is a story of a predatory vampire who essentially stalks a young woman named Bella. . . . Apparently, I’m not alone in my concerns. University of Victoria professor Janni Aragon is also warning parents and young Twilight fans that the series doesn’t depict healthy relationships between the sexes.
Aragon says that while she, a grown woman, understands the difference between fact and escapist fiction, the distinction might be lost on some of the young audience for the book and movie series. This is the main problem with Twilight for me. I’m afraid that this fiction will become fact for millions of young women influenced by the standards of subordination and stalking going on in the movie and books.1
I don’t mean to knock a very real concern that Nedeu and Aragon are right to voice, but as she admits absolutely no familiarity with the series, her concerns about young girls being unable to understand the difference between fact and fiction are absurd. Does she understand the concept of investigation prior to contempt? Her fears concerning “standards of subordination and stalking” seems a classic case of what Freud would term hysterics, as in the parental “Won’t someone think of the children!”-style panic that feminism once fought against. Nedeu posits herself as a feminist, yet presumes that anyone who is not like Professor Aragon — i.e., “a grown woman” — might need someone to let them know, in no uncertain terms, that vampires who watch over you while you sleep are not your friends.
Such moral colonialism is hardly feminist and in fact, in 1934, led to Hollywood’s own enforcement of a strict production code, which among other things made all women in films dress as cheerful, bland, automaton-nincompoops in aprons and short hair, shopping and fretting over husband’s breakfast and Billy’s school play, condescended to by everyone but too dumb to notice. The sudden and traumatic change from the pre-code portrayal of sexy, independent women struggling on the streets during the Depression doing “what they had to” to survive to these post-34 Stepford wives helped create the feminist movement, in a way, so it’s a case of that old proverb (attributed to Goethe): “Choose your enemies wisely, for they are what you will become.”
Thus it is terribly important to remember that for all its cultural influence, the Twilight series is intentionally unrealistic; it’s the teenage version of those bodice rippers with glossy cover paintings of Fabio in a torn pirate tunic clutching wenches on the bow of a schooner, available at drugstore counters. Rape is not called rape when it’s in romantic fiction; it’s “ravishment” and shouldn’t be compared with actual physical rape, which is by definition not “desired” by the victim. The erotic charge of setting a romance in a past era lies with the straitjacket moral code: the only way a woman can keep her honor is by resisting both the man and her own desire. She indirectly invites the overpowering on herself as a means of sidestepping issues of her feminine integrity and honor, and the uncertainty of responsibility over one’s actions. This is not weakness on her part, but an intrinsic understanding of what’s truly erotic about societal loopholes; she has the strength it takes to surrender and go limp in a man’s overpowering arms, and she gets exactly what she wants out of it and nothing more.
Feminists decry this as a dangerous notion that bears out the standard rapist defenses of “asking for it” and “no means yes,” etc., but just because it’s used as a rationalization for sexual violence doesn’t mean it’s always wrong. You can’t expect the fantasy to go away just because reality asks it to. Camille Paglia is one of the few feminist writers to accept and even celebrate this danger-courting aspect of female sexuality, critiquing feminism for its attempts to neuter the daemonic Edwards of our imagination, to turn the lights on in the room so we can all make sure the condom is on and everyone’s given their informed, sober assent for the action about to take place:
By such techniques of demystification, feminism has painted itself into a corner. Sexuality is a murky realm of contradiction and ambivalence. It cannot always be understood by social models, which feminism, as an heir of nineteenth-century utilitarianism, insists on imposing on it. Mystification will always remain the disorderly companion of love and art. Eroticism is mystique; that is, the aura of emotion and imagination around sex. It cannot be “fixed” by codes of social or moral convenience, whether from the political left or right. For nature’s fascism is greater than that of any society. There is a daemonic instability in sexual relations that we may have to accept.2
For a young woman navigating the sexual terrain of our day and age, PC feminist ultimatums of girl power and “sensible choices” can drain the mystery out of life while making it no easier to grow up or find a boyfriend. For among other things, fantasy is a respite from the anxiety of choice. If you consider that these books were written for junior high and high school girls, the Edward fantasy makes total sense; he’s a brooding figure of masculine power that is still revealed, like a Ken doll stripped of its pants, to have no sex organs.
The fact that the author Stephanie Meyer is a Mormon and the Twilight series is something of a bible for the new virginity spooks feminists as well; can fundamentalist restrictions against female reproductive freedom be far behind? Again, before you can criticize it helps to look back on your own adolescence and the terrible pressure you may have felt as a boy or girl in the swinging seventies or semi-swinging eighties, or sporadically swinging nineties to not be the last person to lose their virginity and face derision in your peer group. Perhaps even lying about it, to the point of pretending it’s not your first time when it is. In the fantasy of eternal virginity that Twilight presents, one can get married and probably even have children without ever “putting out” or facing the dread of penetration or childbirth. It’s the teen Gothic version of the stork delivering babies in baskets.
This fantasia is not limited to girls, though. In my own childhood there was Charlie’s Angels, for example, a huge TV phenomenon that was stealthily aimed at hooking both adults and pre-adolescent children. My pre-sexual fantasy was that I was the boyfriend of the smart angel, Sabrina (Kate Jackson), and we would sit on the stoop and hold hands, or walk down the street and hold hands. Or hang out at the school playground . . . and hold hands. That was as far as I could get, but let me tell you, it was hot, obsessive, and all-consuming. Despite bikinis and occasional risky jobs, Charlie’s Angels were notoriously sexless; they had no boyfriends, and whenever they were tied up by thugs, they were never sexually molested. It never even came up. Similarly, the constant threat of being bitten and killed by vampires or werewolves carries a charge of sublimation more than actual sex — i.e., Edward is a “dream lover” for girls not yet ready for intercourse but too old to just sublimate their desires into really, really wanting a pony for Christmas.
I say this not to belittle Edward or lay down some pseudo-psychological trip. I think this pre-sexual object of desire is very important and incredibly erotic. It’s the whole virginity/purity thing that fascinates me about this series and its popularity. The idea of chastity being hot is not just some Mormon conspiracy — it dates back to the age of King Arthur and courtly love. It’s not just a mask for fear of sharing bodily fluids; it’s a spiritual act, a renouncement.
With this idea of the “dream lover” at our disposal, we can turn to the actual plot of the film, and Kristen Stewart as Bella, the human and central figure in the Twilight mythos. It is her gaze — not that of the “dangerous” males who compete for her — that defines the action, after all. She’s a stand-in for the reader, and as such not meant to have much actual personality or interests outside of her need for Edward. Her body is never sexualized or posited as an object (she never goes shirtless, unlike all the boys) — only her eyes, hair, face, and signature pout are eroticized, like Greta Garbo. And if it seems to some critics that she’s too passive, they miss the point. You can’t doubt that a woman is in total control in her lack thereof; she likes all the macho posturing, dueling, and head-butting; you can tell by the way she dilates her eyes and bites her lip once her initial shock, fear, and outrage subside. And why not? It’s in her DNA: apes, lions, crickets, frogs, ladies of the court — every girl likes to see men fight over her. The act by which you can tell, at the end of the second film, that Bella’s grown a bit more mature is when she actually steps in and breaks up a fight for a change.
Edward is an excellent dream lover/animus because he’s not projected onto some other man, like a father or teacher, but on, essentially, a tree, a wall, a window shade, the waves of the Pacific. Jung notes:
Not all the contents of the anima and animus are projected . . . many of them appear spontaneously in dreams and so on, and many more can be made conscious through active imaginations. In this way we find that thoughts, feelings, and affects are in us which we would never have believed possible. Naturally, possibilities of this sort seem utterly fantastic to anyone who has not experienced them himself, for a normal person “knows what he thinks.” Such a childish attitude on the part of the normal person is simply the rule, so that no one without experience in this field can be expected to understand the real nature of the anima and animus. . . . Those who do succeed can hardly fail to be impressed by all that the ego does not know and never has known. (19, 20)
The feminist backlash in this case would be something I’d classify in the above as the normal person “knowing what he thinks” and refusing to acknowledge all that he or she doesn’t know. This is, according to Jung, the result of an assimilated animus, the mark of an adult, mature, integrated female, rather than the unassimilated and therefore dangerously external, daemonic animus that haunts Bella. (In this definition Bella and Edward are essentially the same character, the conscious and unconscious split apart and separated by the boundary between waking and sleeping, or in this case, being grounded.) Jung notes that the animus in an adult, integrated female consciousness
expresses itself in the form of opinionated views, interpretations, insinuations, and misconstructions, which all have the purpose (sometimes attained) of severing the relation between two human beings. The woman, like the man, becomes wrapped in a veil of illusions between her demon-familiar, and, as the daughter who alone understands her father (that is, he’s eternally right in everything), she is translated to the land of sheep, where she is put to graze by the shepherd of her soul, the animus.3
This idea of “opinionated views” and “misconstructions” works beautifully as a critique against the critics of Twilight’s perceived feminist backsliding, or indeed of all censorship and public hysteria. Jung notes that expecting the “normal” person to understand the full workings of the anima/animus is akin to “expecting the average citizen to recognize himself as a criminal”4 . Interestingly, criminal violence is often just what these “normal” people resort to rather than admitting all it does not know and has never known.” I don’t mean this as an attack on feminists, but more on a knee-jerk feminist reading of the Twilight series. It’s merely an interesting look at how lack of objective distance from oneself can lead to a sort of dour rigidity of thought — one sees it all the time with college professors, politicians, and “experts” in scientific fields when they’re confronted with something that doesn’t fit into their world view — and also as an example of what Bella, as a split subject, is not . . . not yet.
Remember that this being a fantasy, the boys here are not necessarily “real” so much as animus projections. In the Jungian (or Buddhist or Lynchian) conception, all the characters in a film are aspects of one psyche, moving, like the backwards big bang of the universe, from scattered individuated aspects back into a unified whole (represented by the circle). Even so, the romantic relationship in the Twilight series is a very unhealthy one, as befits a Gothic novel wherein for there to be any action, various dysfunctional psychic splits must be instigated and preserved until the end. I know firsthand that women — lesbian or straight — sometimes harbor fantasies about being overpowered, abused, or taken, possessed totally by some debauched marquis, slavering rapist, Angelina Jolie, or rabid wolfman. These violent, invasive, dominating figures are dream projections, and the fantasy — were it to be carried through in real life — would undoubtedly have a safeword. Plus, one must understand that the fantasized sex with these figures ends with the alchemical transference of power: the werewolf goes into the encounter snarling and biting but ends whining like a needy puppy. The beast becomes tamed by beauty’s capitulation and becomes a handsome prince. In surrendering to the beast’s lust, the woman gains all his strength and leaves him drained by the side of the road, bloodless. This is why, for example, women become much stronger and bossier once they’re married, once their animus is firmly projected and allowed to reflect its own anima on the unconscious of her husband, who in turn gives up the reins and starts saying “yes, dear” a lot, a complete reversal of their courtship where she perhaps capitulated as completely as he does now.
So if this line of thinking is correct, Twilight fans won’t get into abusive relationships for the very reason that they have already been in one, via Twilight. Their unconscious animus daemon already has an outlet; it doesn’t need to project itself onto some abusive thug in a leather jacket. A woman who enjoys being dominated is not necessarily going to choose the most dangerous man she meets as a lover; instead, she’s going to go for the best actor, the best man able to recreate her fantasy scenario. Maybe she likes to be tied up in her stockings and threatened with a whip, but not actually whipped, at least not hard. She wants a man who can perform this threat to her specifications but not beyond them. The fantasy will always be more “real” than its expression in the real, where it can seem faintly ridiculous.
The mistake of “boy fantasies” is often that they presume more is not less. If boys like explosions and hate character development, then give them exactly that, and watch them squirm in depressed boredom at the overkill. Women’s movies are more mature in that they understand the fantasy revolves around absence. Give the boys exactly what they hate — lots of character development and promised explosions that come only at the very end, if at all. It would be just as easy to make a movie where Bella becomes a vampire and sleeps with Edward and lives happily ever after, right from the beginning, but even though that’s just what the Twilight viewer dreams of, hopes for, waits for — they know it can’t actually happen if the the dream is to continue. Happily ever after means the exit sign, and back into the cold gray world of school, parents, and curfews.
The concept in the end carries a longing that is aware of its futility. Did you ever know a girl whose parents actually broke down and bought her a pony as a girl? And now she’s in college and completely over it and the pony’s still alive, whiling away in the backyard? Twilight is meant to be left behind just like that pony. People who complain Meyers’ novels are badly written perhaps mean they are not written badly enough.
The Twilight films meanwhile are great for what they leave out — endless dull fights, objectification of women, vulgarity, duplicitousness — than what they leave in — longing, rescues, moping, comforting words like “I’ll always protect you and keep you safe” repeated over and over like a mantra. What’s weird is that leaving out all the fights and putting in all the nurturing has somehow made the series subversive! Ironic! Compare how in their second life on DVD, the decadence of seventies Eurosleaze auteurs like Rollin, Franco, and Vadim seems almost quaintly nostalgic compared to the ferocious enjoyment — the nearly unbearable jouissance — caused by Twilight’s total chastity. Who in the early 1970s would have thought that abstinence would one day be sexier and more revolutionary than freeform drug-fueled debauchery? The New Virginity is the culmination of the third-wave feminist’s right to refuse to be free, to not grow up, to live forever in perfect love without ever having to learn the messy truth of where babies come from.
I’d say the agony of adult sexuality, now hopelessly square, is a matter of not knowing what to say or when to bust a move, to reach in for a kiss, to be a little more insistent or a little less, when hooking up. It’s so much more relaxing and safe to just make a vow of silence. This is what the psycho-philosophy of Freud via Lacan via Zizek would refer to as die Versagung, in short, the “sacrifice of sacrifice.” As examples Zizek cites the Stalinist era’s “monster trials” in which “the accused finds himself in an absolute void insofar as he is compelled to display his devotion to the communist cause by confessing his betrayal5 ” and the soap opera sacrifices of women’s pictures (which Twilight certainly qualifies as), wherein the sacrifice and renunciation of your beloved is exactly what validates that love. Without its sacrifice the love is worthless, but at the same time you can’t do it for that reason. Zizek also uses the Barbara Stanwyck soap classic Stella Dallas as an example, noting that the mother’s sacrifice for her daughter’s happiness must necessarily go unappreciated if it is to have value:
When, at the very end of the film, the mother (Barbara Stanwyck) observes the marriage ceremony, anonymous near the crowd at the church fence, and then leaves with a blissful expression on her face, we find ourselves at the delicate point at which what appears to be the lowest level of patriarchal subordination of the woman turns into its opposite . . . what is at work here is so radical it is brought to the extreme of self-negation: the mother has to renounce the very effect of renunciation, the big Other (the public) does not perceive her gesture as a noble sacrifice, i.e., she is compelled to present it as its opposite, as an act of loathsome corruption, so that she is deprived of the minimal narcissistic satisfaction.6
This necessary renunciation of renunciation is what gives virginity its kick; thus abstinence really requires an all-consuming desire in a passionate relationship to be genuinely heroic and sexy. If the fruit isn’t ripe, its sacrifice (rotting on the altar) carries no weight. Like art, its value is based only on what someone is willing to pay.
Eternal virginity via sacrifice in the Twilight-verse thus equals the preservation of youth, of sparing a beautiful creature the passage into the world of cruel, devouring nature. This is essentially what Edward works towards in refusing to punk Bella out to the vampire way of life, to prevent her from having any traumatic or otherwise significant experiences, to keep her isolated from “the real.” Yet the imaginary level he exists in hinges on promises of danger, sex, and being turned into a vampire for it to hold any interest at all. For Edward to, in a sense, “exist” in Bella’s life, she must stay virginal; the blood he drinks is supposedly from animals or something, but it’s clear his spiritual power is derived from keeping Bella sustained in perpetual adolescence. In proper female maturity, Bella would realize she don’t need no ruby slippers; Edward lives in her heart (awww) or in any swingin’ dick that strikes her fancy. But he’s lived 119 years and knows by now how to make the thrill of love last. And don’t even think this is something new in vampire lore, because the original ultra-cool vampire victim/lover/human/virgin chick is Mina Harker from Bram Stoker’s original 1897 epistolary novel Dracula, and her chastity and humility wows all the men around her.
The bad side of this eternal virgin thing can be found in long-running TV shows that keep audiences hooked in via romantic friction between two characters. Chemistry between two characters slowly catches on and is great for a couple seasons; then the network suits realize they have something and suddenly you can’t get away from the “will they or won’t they” hooplah of, for example, Ross and Rachel (Friends), Mulder and Scully (X-Files), or Sam and Diane (Cheers). Finally, if enough seasons go by, it becomes a “put up or shut up” situation, and there is no successful way out. It can only end and inevitably leave the audience feeling vaguely ripped off. Is this not also the way we may feel when we wait too long to have sex? Can you not imagine the unbearable pressure and inevitable crushing disappointment for someone who waits, like the aforementioned sitcoms, even a season too long?
Then again, you could just watch movies. Like Benjamin Button, the agelessness of the vampire makes him the perfect metaphor, the perfect myth, the ideal fantasy lover for a growing female psyche only beginning to realize that in merely existing she has become inextricably harnessed to the wheel of age, school, work, loss, and death, not to mention the agonies of childbirth, the discomforts of monthly periods, and the terrifying threat of actually getting what she wants.
- http://womensrights.change.org/blog/view/twilight_a_feminist_nightmare [↩]
- Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990), 13. [↩]
- Jung, Carl, Aion (Princeton University Press,1951), 16. [↩]
- Jung, 19. [↩]
- Zizek, Slavoj, Enjoy Your Symptom (Routledge, NY, 1992) p. ??. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]