Fantastic Fangirls (Comic) Book Club: Twilight

Welcome back to the book club discussion of Young Kim’s adaptation of Stephenie Meyers’ TWILIGHT, Volume One. Yesterday we talked about the construction of the novel, today we tackle the content.

Jennifer: In a scene where Bella is talking about Edward’s “strange behavior” during their first lab session together, he literally does NOTHING in the art — it’s several pages of him just sitting there.

Anika: Jen, your capslock amuses me because that is a documented complaint about the books and movies as well: these characters never do anything! It’s not just Bella who is predominantly passive; everybody, and especially the Cullen family, spends a lot more time being than doing.

Which brings us back to something you’ve all mentioned: this is considered an explicitly female story. Sometimes I imagine the whole of Twilight is a secretly brilliant social commentary. Even taken at face value it brings up questions about why this is “coded feminine” and what that means for the audience.

But we can start with something simpler: what parts of the story or the characters do you like or dislike?

Caroline: Ladies, I’m going to level with you. Once upon a time, I was in high school.

I know, I know. I don’t admit to that a lot. A lot of people I know will tell stories about things that happened to them in high school — wonderful or things or traumatic things, but, whatever. Things that had an impact on them. Personal relationships that had meaning. I don’t do that, so much. I transferred to a new school at the beginning of ninth grade. It was a school that was small, and tight knit, and everybody who was there had these intertwined histories (everybody was somebody’s cousin). In four years, I never felt like I got to be part of that. I didn’t love high school, but I didn’t hate it, either. (That was middle school. Middle school is the worst.) My memories of high school are basically of four years that were just gray. Day following day, nothing ever changing, nothing mattering, nothing feeling like it was going to last.

During this time period, I had a recurring fantasy about, quite seriously, meeting a boy at the skating rink. (I probably got it from watching The Wonder Years. I didn’t even go to the skating rink but maybe twice.) The boy in the fantasy had no distinguishing characteristics that I can recall. The entire substance of this fantasy was that the boy thought I was special and he was from somewhere else. Before I make my younger self sound too pathetic, I dated in high school. Not a ton, but I had a boyfriend when I was in tenth grade, and I went to senior prom. I belonged to school organizations and I read and thought and talked to friendly people about intriguing things. I didn’t literally sit around leading a gray life and waiting for someone from somewhere else to make my life interesting. It’s just that, when I was at my most emotionally self-indulgent and, thus, in the memories that stick , that’s what sticks with me.

And that is why Bella Swan’s story speaks to me, even at the same time I’m embarrassed that it does. As Anika alluded, I think it’s (unintentionally) appropriate meta that Edward’s “intriguing behavior” consists of absolutely nothing. What resonates with me about Twilight is that Bella wants someone to be fascinated by her, wants to be singled out.

The details don’t matter so much. It’s the pure, visceral id-drippingness of the whole thing that gets to me. It probably helps, really, that nothing about Edward is particularly my type, that he’s kind of a square, that ‘golden eyes and marble skin’ don’t really say ‘sexy’ to me. It lets me focus on Bella’s gazing — and her wanting — more than who or what she’s gazing at. or what actions she takes.

Which is probably a good thing, because about all she’s done so far is google “vampire.” The plotting doesn’t quite live up to the emotional weight, is what I’m saying.

Sigrid: Oh my god, who does not want to be special? Moreover, it’s fine to want to be special for doing something awesome, for winning the race or fighting cancer or saving the kingdom or making your way back home. But sometimes a person just wants to be awesome in a hoodie and pajama pants on the couch at two p.m. What I’m saying is, it would be great to win the adulation of the kingdom, but wouldn’t it also be great to be adored without having to change anything about yourself?

If you have this fantasy, I recommend spending a weekend with a border collie. If you love the experience, get a border collie. If you don’t love your time spent with an animal that does nothing but gaze at you worshipfully and beg you for instructions, then you’ll know this is purely a fantasy for you.

If adult women get to have their problematic fantasies about Pretty Woman, girls and women get to have their problematic fantasies about Twilight. Bella Swan may not be taking a lot of actions in the story, but she most assuredly has agency. She has thoughts and opinions and views, and she reacts to the world around her in believable ways. She does not make the decisions and conclusions that I would make, but that’s not what agency is about. Agency lets a person make decisions that I think are terrible, because I am not controlling that other person.

Caroline: I, personally, would enjoy your version of the story wherein Bella considers devoting her life to either the vampire or the werewolf, but then decides to get a puppy instead.

I can see that being hard to stretch into four books, though.

As far as the choices Bella does make — well, she basically has this guy telling her that he wants her because she is special. He also tells her that because of his essential nature (and through no fault of his own), the very fact that he wants to be with her is dangerous. Bella is a character with free choice, which is what all the talk about protagonists with agency wants her to have. She’s not being taken prisoner, she’s not in any way forced to be around Edward. Even when she understands he is dangerous and why, she keeps making choices to be near him.

Is that how we, as readers, want her to exercise that choice? Well, that depends. If I was her parent, I would be saying, “God, honey, get the hell away from this guy!” and I would start googling “Van Helsing” and “vampire slayer” to figure out how to drive this family out of town (Is that a story viewpoint we ever see? The parent of the kid dating the dangerous supernatural dude?) If I’m a young reader looking to Bella as a literal model for my future behavior, I hopefully am also saying, “Girl, get away from this guy!”

On the other hand, as somebody reading a fantasy that I recognize as a fantasy, it gets more complicated. I absolutely understand the viewpoint of someone who gets to this point in the story (“He is dangerous! But he sparkles! I am so conflicted!”) and wants nothing to do with that fantasy. For me, though, I can’t imagine making the choices Bella makes — I wouldn’t want to make the choices Bella makes because as I mentioned, Edward = kind of a bore — but I want to see what happens because I care about her.

I’m not reading this like a Jane Austen novel, in other words, where the heroine works through her personal struggles to end up with the right guy in the end. I’m thinking more of Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady. Isabel Archer, the heroine of that book, has money and freedom to make whatever choice she wants. She gets a marriage offer in the first few chapters, from a handsome lord who is a great guy who has his own castle. If I were the heroine of that book, it would be three chapters long and end with us partying it up in the castle. But Isabel decides she needs to go other places and experiences other things, and makes a long series of choices the reader suspects she shouldn’t be making. There is no happily ever after, but that wasn’t the point anyway.

Now, I should say that Stephenie Meyer is not writing a Henry James novel. Possibly she thinks she is writing an Austen novel. In a lot of ways, the reader has to take Twilight as a romance novel (which I’m defining here as a book in which the romantic resolution of the two main characters is the ultimate object of the plot) in order for it to make any sense at all. Yet, I personally have no interest in it as a romance novel, because I don’t much care about Bella and Edward ending up together. In that sense, I’m shooting myself in the foot because there’s no way the end of the story is going to be satisfying to me. The best I can hope for is that the ending will be totally crazycakes. Not to give too much away.

I should let someone else talk.

Anika: I’m fairly certain Stephenie Meyer thinks she is writing a Bronte novel. Just saying.

I have a teenage daughter. She read Twilight and a third of New Moon and she hated it. She hated it so much she stopped reading it and even though all of her friends, and I, have explained that after New Moon is when the story gets good, she refuses to pick it back up. Kiki can’t stand Bella Swan, she doesn’t want to relate to her or care about her — her favorite literary heroine is Luna Lovegood; she wants to be and actively tries to be like Luna. But Kiki and I have been able to have the same intelligent discussion we are having here with her Twilight-loving friends. The main criticism of Twilight I hear is that it is directly harmful to the teenage girls who read it, and the main reaction is that someone has to stop them from reading or liking it. That someone has to save them from themselves. Because obviously the best way to prove that a teenage girl needs to have and take control of her own choices is to take them away or make them for her. I over-care about the Twilight argument because I think that reaction is so much more damaging to teenage girls than any paranormal romance novel will ever be.

I like Alice best. Generally, I like the supporting cast better than Edward, Bella and Jacob. Unfortunately, we don’t get to know them in this first volume of the graphic novel.

Jennifer: After all this intelligent discussion, it would probably just be a jerk move at this point to rattle off the story’s flaws. We’ve all HEARD about the story’s flaws, after all — they’re what all the social discourse about this book makes so clear. In terms of storytelling, I mostly found this volume (which I realize is only half the first book) utterly boring. Bella and Edward have the same exact conversation fifteen times, and nothing at all happens. I expect either action or character development in my stories (and, ideally, both), and this had neither. Then there’s the fact that Edward repeatedly has to swoop in (literally) to save Bella’s life, which is tiring. We talk about Bella’s agency, and she may indeed have agency, but what she doesn’t have is autonomy. She literally would have died at least twice in this brief volume if not for Edward, because she is in no position to take care of herself. I don’t need all my female protagonists to be Buffy or Xena, but I’d like them to have SOME amount of self-sufficiency.

But ultimately, my issue is just that this isn’t the fantasy for me. Sigrid asks, “Who wouldn’t want to be special?” and I raise my hand and say, “Me.” My high school fantasies involved my group of friends and me pitted against the world, working as a team. I never wanted to be a chosen one; I wanted to be a sidekick, or a member of an ensemble, inter-reliant on a group of people I loved. Even my romantic fantasies never involved a stranger — they were more likely to be about a male friend, or a celebrity. My high school experience was full of highs and lows, not endless grays. Bella in this volume has tons of potential friends banging down her door, and she persists in ignoring or dismissing them to focus on this one dude she finds inexplicably appealing. She’s having an IDEAL time as a stranger in a new town, yet all she can do is mope and whine. This is impossible for me to relate to, and nearly impossible for me to understand. And coupled with truly awful writing in the captions and dialogue, this story just… does nothing for me.

I don’t think it’s wrong for anyone else to like it. I don’t think it’s single-handedly destroying our youth, and I think young girls should be allowed to read whatever they like. But I think the criticisms are more than valid.

Caroline: Oh, it’s totally valid. The decision to divide the book into two parts, besides being an obvious cash grab and an example of the comic’s structural problems, is particularly egregious because most of the prose novel’s plot happens in the second half.

Besides that, Jennifer is right on the money to observe that, while Bella subjectively feels isolated and out of place in her new school, the narrative doesn’t support that with any good reasons. She has no conflict of note with the other students, and they’re not doing anything to exclude her. I don’t demand a narrative where Bella is constantly being oppressed by her classmates (I often find “everybody picks on the hero(ine)” to be one of the less attractive features of “chosen one” stories), but there ought to be something to make her feel this way. I think you get a little bit more of that in the prose novel (like, I didn’t mind her liking Edward so much because all of the guys in the school seemed to be possessive jerks who made him look good in comparison). But I think it’s fair to say that the narrative largely validates Bella’s self-centeredness, and that’s a problem.

I don’t find the part of me that identifies with Bella to be particularly attractive. It’s fair to say that I relate to this book because, when I was sixteen, I was kind of an elitist asshole. I don’t think all books have to be morally instructive, though, not even books for teenagers. For that matter, I recognize that my reading of Twilight is idiosyncratic, and so I assume that there are readers who get something out of it that is totally different. Maybe there’s someone who benefits from reading about Bella’s determination to follow her own heart. I’m sure there’s someone who can’t identify with Buffy or Xena’s personal and physical strength, and needs the reassurance that a powerless girl in a world of more powerful people still has a role to play.

And I’m sure plenty of people are sure the story sucks, but find it fun to read anyway. As a reader who can skew to the elitist side (that paragraph about Henry James up there, y’all? I’m so sorry about that), Twilight is a good reminder that sometimes I get a visceral kick out of stories, even when my brain tells me they are terrible.

Anika: I think Twilight is difficult to discuss without feeling defensive no matter what side we fall on. Which is ultimately why I over-analyze it myself (and to myself!), and bring it up to these kinds of discourse. Reading a book is a personal experience, what we get out of it is what it is. The movies and the chatter and the fanworks and the merchandise and the rest of the shared experience fascinates me as much as Edward fascinates Bella. So thank you for the discussion. I hope it continues.

  • Caroline

    I keep getting distracted from the message of that graphic because I think Kristen looks so stunning. Bad feminist forever.

    Also, I went in to edit a couple details because I realized I got information about my own personal history WRONG. That is either meaningful or not.

  • Anika

    Ha ha ha…well, I don’t agree with the graphic and I made it so what’s THAT say?

  • I’m glad that the books exist, if only for this conversation. Seriously.

  • DaveCarr

    This has made my week, my month, perhaps my last two months. Anyway, my biggest problem with people I know who have read and love the Twilight series is that I can never get them to admit just how large its flaws are, or even that it has any. It’s the same “don’t get your reality in my fantasy” mentality that prevents meaningful discussions of say sexism in mainstream superhero comic from the people who would probably benefit most from that conversation..

    Also, Jen hit the nail on the head. I want a posse not a parade for me

  • Jo

    My favorite parts of the Twilight books are the Volturi, the Cullen clan (and their back stories), & the mythology of the werewolves. I have had three male friends read and like the series. I’m not saying its the best thing in the world, but it *does* remind me of how I felt when I was 16, wishing some guy would like me.

    That said, I really hate the Bella/Edward relationship, yet I find Edward as a character fascinating. He’s a stalker, he’s controlling, he’s pretty frakked-up… He isn’t the hero. Having read the unpublished Midnight Sun (everything from his POV), it makes me really like HIM as a character, without Bella. The need to hurt and kill that is inside of him all the time makes (to me) a very interesting character that I’d like to learn more about pre-Bella. Bella herself with her friends, her father… Much more interesting than once she meets Edward.

    I like the series, but my favorite parts are any that are NOT Bella/Edward together (which makes the films less like able since that is what is focused on). I don’t see the harm in the books (other than Book 4 possibly?). Let people read & decide what they like or don’t like. I don’t like Harry Potter books myself, but that’s just me. I don’t think liking one or the other is what can or won’t make you a feminist.

  • Caroline

    Dave, you make a really good point about context. I don’t KNOW any Twi-hards. I know skeptical feminists who sheepishly admit to finding the value in the books anyway. It’s easy for me to say I don’t judge anybody for taking them seriously, but in reality I doubt I’d last five minutes in civil conversation with anyone who was trying to convince me Edward and Bella’s love was a forever thing.

    And you and Jennifer are absolutely right about the ‘posse’ thing, I think it just takes longer for some people to realize that than others. (The ‘posse’ mentality would have been way MORE depressing to me in high school b/c I didn’t have one. But that’s at least partly because being part of a group of friends involves effort on your own part in a way that being singled out by a mysterious stranger DOESN’T, so it’s a lot easier to fantasize about things that don’t call attention to your own failings as a social creature.)

  • Caroline

    @Jo — yeah, unfortunately almost NONE of that fun stuff is featured in this graphic novel, which is just the first half of the first book.

  • Anika

    Jo, I haven’t read Midnight Sun, but I’ve thought that the idea that the Twilight series is a vampire book written from the point of a view of the victim instead of the vampire is interesting — that yes, Edward is not the hero, he’s the monster he always says he is. The story themes throughout the books revolve around inner struggles (Edward’s, Bella’s , Jacob’s, Jasper’s, Sam’s etc.) and that always interests me.

  • Jo

    As a follow-up… Adaptations can really make or break a story. I find the Teilight adaptations to be worse than the books when I compare them to The Vampire Diaries or True Blood (which also feature a female protagonist “in love” with a vampire who is dangerous, etc). The TV shows have changed the books and made them superior (IMHO) than the source material. I haven’t had a chance yet to read the True Blood comics, but I have a feeling they are tonally similar to the show rather than the books.

  • The main criticism of Twilight I hear is that it is directly harmful to the teenage girls who read it, and the main reaction is that someone has to stop them from reading or liking it. That someone has to save them from themselves. Because obviously the best way to prove that a teenage girl needs to have and take control of her own choices is to take them away or make them for her. I over-care about the Twilight argument because I think that reaction is so much more damaging to teenage girls than any paranormal romance novel will ever be.

    I think that’s an oversimplification of the “anti-Twilight” (which is way too strong a phrase anyway) argument. I only read the first book, and I defer to both Anika and Carrie’s superior knowledge of the franchise, but what I read romanticized a relationship with all the warning signs of abuse. There’s a huge difference between saying, “Yikes, this book is problematic and contains unhealthy messages” and saying “DON’T LET TEENAGE GIRLS READ IT EVER.” Teenage girls aren’t stupid, but they’re often not very critical thinkers and they don’t have a lot of life experience. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with saying to a 14-year-old who thinks Edward is the perfect man, “Okay, but why? Would you want someone to treat you the way he treats Bella?” And not just the fantasy of being special, but the physical restraints and exclusion from her friends.

    (Sorry, this is my push-button Twilight issue. Blame it on too many comments on my Twilight review accusing me of censorship.)

  • Anika

    Right before the passage you quote I said But Kiki and I have been able to have the same intelligent discussion we are having here with her Twilight-loving friends. Those discussions would be along the “Okay but why…” lines you suggest. And my argument is more with the “DON’T LET TEENAGE GIRLS LIKE IT EVER” attitude that has personally been my main encounter with Twilight critics. I like a whole lot of things with problematic and unhealthy messages. But I don’t mean to accuse you or anyone of censorship (and I don’t think I’ve read your review).

  • Caroline

    I notice Anika’s quote is talking about people trying to stop girls from “reading it or liking it.” And I agree with Jess that there is a BIG difference between those things. “Stop girls from reading it” wades into censorship, which is an argument that I’ve never heard anyone make (whichi is NOT to say no one is making it; I’m not a parent and I certainly know people have tried to ban books with much more merit for much stupider reasons.)

    “Stop girls from liking it” is a thornier question — because what some people may mean by that is what Jess means, which is to publish critical reviews and ask people to think critically about it (which, as Anika notes above, is exactly what she’s described doing with her daughter’s friends.) But the way it manifests on other fronts is bullying and mocking people for liking the story, or for liking it the wrong way. And this often comes not from critical reviewers like Jess but from people who haven’t engaged with the text, and haven’t bothered to find out. (I’m not really sure what the “physical restraints and exclusion from friends” that you’re referring to is, which might mean *I* am a bad reader who didn’t pick that up b/c I was interested in the other stuff. There is a point in the later books where Edward tries to keep her from seeing Jacob, but in my view this is explicitly presented as bad/wrong behavior, which Bella consistently calls him on, and which he eventually stops doing and apologizes for as part of HIS personal growth. But that’s really getting afield. The point is that I wouldn’t be as — tenuously — supportive of the books as I am if I thought they were actually supporting abusive relationships.)

  • Caroline

    And looking at another of my comments above, I don’t mean to shortchange stories for teens that do focus on teamwork or friendship (the ‘posse’ approach). Those are my FAVORITE stories, and I would be way more likely to recommend something like Karen Healey’s “The Shattering” (which was my favorite new book of last year, and which is a great complicated look at the formation of different kinds of friendships; I wish there were way more ‘friend-mances’ like this, to help young readers model effective friendships, than the many many models of romance that we get) to an actual teenager, than I would ‘Twilight.’ I’m also pretty sure I would not have wanted anything to do with Twilight during the ‘Bella’ period of my life. It’s only the sort of anti-nostalgia for my teen years, filtered through a LOT of distance, that makes it resonate now.

  • @Anika: My comment was more general – you, Kiki, and her friends are clearly having critical discussion about the books! I think too often these arguments get misrepresented on both sides as “no one should read this book” or “no one should criticize this book,” and I think we’re agreeing that the answer is somewhere in the middle. I don’t like Twilight on a personal level, but I find the discussions it inspires fascinating and important. (Also I think it was in yesterday’s post that you mentioned your defense of Twilight fans, which I am 100% behind. Let teenage girls like what they like!)

    My review is here, but be forewarned: it’s very negative, it’s from before Twilight became quite the phenom it is now, and I think I’ve become a more balanced, mature reviewer since I wrote it. I still agree with the grade I gave it but I would phrase my arguments very differently now.

    @Caroline: Again, I only read the first book, so though I’m distinctly uncomfortable with the “you can’t see Jacob” angle (and the fact that Bella has to cut ties with her parents to marry Edward, though that’s not exactly Edward’s doing) I concede your superior knowledge as to whether it’s problematized. But I distinctly recall several instances in the first book where Edward carries or drags Bella places, hauls her into a car and straps her in and drives her somewhere against her will, grips her wrists with hands that are likened to manacles, etc. From what I recall her protests always melted in response to his butterscotch eyes. I also don’t think they are deliberately trying to support abusive relationships, or that Edward’s behavior quite crosses that line (and when it does cross into WTF territory, like sneaking into her bedroom to watch her sleep, she’s basically down with it); I’m saying his behavior dovetails with a lot of early warning sign checklists for abuse, and that’s true regardless of Bella’s response. (Which is to say, she may be okay with him invading her privacy while she sleeps and not okay with him cutting off her relationship with Jacob, but they’re both warning signs. Edward may be a 146-year-old gentleman; some kid in your math class who breaks into your bedroom probably isn’t.)

  • Caroline

    @Jess — Okay, I understand what you’re referring to. There’s a whole other conversation about what’s going on in those passages (partly related to the conflating of kink and abuse in ADULT relationships that I’ve seen in some of the discussion of the series — granted that’s more the later books — which I know is affecting my reaction), and modeling real life behavior versus fantasy, that is potentially really interesting. I don’t have good answers or the brainpower for it right now, but those are definitely fair points.

  • @Caroline You know, it’s funny what you say about the “posse” thing only being possible if you have any social skills, because… I had NONE in high school. I was a lonely kid with few real friends other than a series of abusive “friend” groups who I cut ties with. And then, in 6th grade, I met an incredibly magnetic boy who started talking to me of his own volition and somehow thought I was cool enough to introduce to his group of friends — and every friend I made afterward was through more people being brought (by others) into that group.

    All of which is to say I may have actually HAD Bella’s experience, in a non-romantic context, which complicates my criticisms even more.

    (All this other discussion is fascinating, but since I have not read the books I will refrain from entering the fray.)

  • Caroline

    @Jennifer — I probably phrased that badly — I’m not sure ANYONE has major social skills in high school — but it does seem to me it’s hard to have the fantasy that’s based on being one of a tight knit group of friends if you’ve never had a tight-knit group of friends. Whereas the ‘mysterious stranger thinks you are special and wants to love you forever’ is divorced enough from reality that it doesn’t matter as much. But the whole point is, that’s my perspective and I shouldn’t try to project it on anyone else.