“Borrowing Bella for the Weekends”: Abusive Boyfriends, Paternalism, and Narrative in Twilight
by Tamara Watkins
Twilight tells the story of the relationship between Bella, a teenage human girl, and Edward, her sparkly, cold-to-the-touch, centenarian vampire inamorato. Jacob, Bella’s werewolf best friend, also prominently features in the saga’s plot. Interestingly, even in a world populated by mythical creatures and the humans who love them, romantic relationships are constrained by heteronormative expectations. For a book ostensibly about a twenty-first century teenage girl’s love life, considerable attention is given to conservative, patriarchal behavior that leaves Bella little room to explore her independence and cultivate a sense of self. Twilight is not just the story of an interspecies love affair; it is also the story of how individuals attempt to exert control over a woman’s body and life, and how women are stripped of their agency.
Bella is captivated by Edward from the first time they meet. She moons over him before they start dating (and after they become a couple), obsessing over his school attendance and what he thinks of her (Meyer, Twilight 31). She tries to figure out exactly what’s going on in that sparkly, handsome head of his. In short, Bella is a stereotypical teenage girl. Once they are a couple, Edward becomes a doting boyfriend. He compliments Bella and spends nights watching over her. It’s not like he has anything better to do, as the undead do not sleep (Meyer, Twilight 186). A teenage co-ed sleepover seems risqué for a book that has been called “abstinence porn”. However, Meyer keeps Bella and Edward’s courtship tween-friendly. Edward never acts on the carnal impulses he claims to have for Bella (Meyer, Eclipse 192), and later states that he chose to be abstinent to atone for his vampiric sins (Meyer, Eclipse 454). Handsome and not pressuring his girlfriend for sex, Edward is most teenage girls’ (and their parents’) idea of the perfect high school boyfriend.
Upon closer examination, Edward is not a perfect, sparkly boyfriend. He is a stalking, manipulative boyfriend who attempts to control Bella’s life through emotional and mental abuse. Edward silently watches Bella as she sleeps. This behavior might seem sweet, even romantic, as they are in love. Not so much. Edward began slipping into slumbering Bella’s room well before they became an item (Meyer, Twilight 293). This is the most persuasive evidence Bella’s relationship with Edward is entirely on his terms. He presumes that he is welcome in her home—in her bedroom—without the courtesy of asking her. Bella has the opportunity to tell Edward that this behavior is unacceptable (and illegal, as I’m sure her police officer father would point out), but doesn’t (Meyer, Twilight 303). Through this omission, Bella not only authorizes Edward to invade her personal space and access her property without asking permission; she also implies that her opinions are unworthy of consideration and are subordinate to his will. Every time Edward shows disregard for Bella’s thoughts, opinions, and property, Bella has the opportunity to voice her complaints and state that his conduct is unacceptable. However, she rarely does.
Stalking and breaking and entering aren’t the only bad behaviors Edward exhibits. Edward also shows an appalling lack of consideration for Bella’s property and autonomy. In Eclipse, Edward disables Bella’s pickup truck to prevent her from socializing with her friend Jacob, the Native American kid with the great abs who sometimes turns into a werewolf (and Edward’s romantic rival) (62). To justify this egregious act of car molestation, Edward states, “But can you understand why [not knowing where you are] might make me a bit…anxious?” (Meyer, Eclipse 63) Edward, under the pretense of protecting Bella, restricts her ability to see her friends and her ability to use her own property. Yet again, Bella does not tell Edward to pack sand; instead, she “opened the window as wide as it would go,” signaling to him that she wants Edward to watch her sleep that evening. (Three books into the series, and now Edward tells her to signal whether he’s welcome in her room when she’s unconscious?)
Edward later changes his mind and decides that Bella should be allowed to see her lupine friend. He has rules for their interaction, though. Edward insists that he must drop Bella off and pick her up after her play date with Jacob (Meyer, Eclipse 231). Edward states that his primary objection to Jacob is that he is a werewolf, and therefore “utterly unpredictable” (Meyer, Eclipse 231). (Edward’s hypocrisy regarding the matter of Bella interacting with unpredictable, potentially violent people should be explored a bit more at this point. Jasper, Edward’s adopted (Caucasian) brother, loses control and attacks Bella after he smells her blood. One wonders why Jasper, with his superhuman strength and history of losing control around Bella, is more trustworthy than Jacob, who has never lost control of himself around Bella. One cannot help but perceive a racist element to Edward’s assessment of whom he considers “unpredictable” and threatening, but this matter is beyond the scope of this essay.) This protective paternalism, the idea that men are responsible for the protection and care of women, allows Edward to assume a parental role in Bella’s life and infantilizes Bella. Her judgment of whether her friend is trustworthy is unimportant; his judgment alone determines what she may do.
As Edward has existed since William McKinley was president (Meyer, Twilight 287), perhaps his extensive life experience gives him insight into why he should enter uninvited into homes and werewolves don’t make good friends (yet, we we’ll see later, he thinks werewolves could be appropriate lovers). Although he looks seventeen, there is a several decade age difference between Edward and Bella. The reader develops questions regarding the motivation and justification behind Edward’s actions. What on earth would an (undead) centenarian want to do with a (mortal) milquetoast teenage girl? If Edward feels as if he’s a father figure to Bella, as demonstrated by his paternalistic behavior, why does he seek out a romantic, and eventually sexual, relationship with her?
Edward is not the only male character in Eclipse who has little regard for Bella’s opinions, autonomy, and ability to be self-determining. Other characters see Edward as Bella’s father, despite the fact that she already has a biological, mortal father. Jacob feels unrequited romantic love for Bella, and he can’t seem to get over the fact that Bella chose Edward over him. Jacob and Edward sit in a tent and discuss Bella’s future as she rests a few inches away. Jacob begs Edward, “[G]ive me a year, ...Edward. I really think I could make [Bella] happy. .... [S]he could grow up, and have kids [with me]” (Meyer, Eclipse 501-502).
It is as if Jacob is asking Edward for Bella’s hand, much like a nervous would-be bridegroom would ask his beloved’s father for permission to marry her. Jacob petitions Edward for a chance to date Bella is creepy and inappropriate for a number of reasons. This conversation reinforces the idea that Edward is Bella’s creepy paternal figure, rather than her boyfriend. One wonders why Jacob asks Edward for this trial year with Bella when it is Bella whose opinion means the most in this matter. Bella is an object, not a person. She is something that can be traded or given.
Later in Eclipse, Edward proposes marriage to Bella. Despite her previous objections to marrying young (Meyer, Eclipse 275-276), she accepts his proposal. Likely because she wants desperately to be turned into a vampire (Meyer, New Moon 539) and lose her virginity (Meyer, Eclipse 452), both things Edward will not do until Bella becomes a married woman. During their honeymoon, Bella conceives a half-human/half-vampire/entirely life-threatening fetus. Edward attempts to convince her to have an abortion (Meyer, Breaking Dawn 133). Bella balks at this, determined to carry the fetus to term (Meyer, Breaking Dawn 134).
Edward will not be deterred from his goal, though. In an attempt to manipulate Bella into getting an abortion, Edward decides to use Bella and Jacob’s close friendship to his, Edward’s, advantage. He approaches Jacob with an offer he will have a difficult time refusing: Bella. Jacob narrates,
I couldn’t think about what he was suggesting. It was too much. Impossible. Wrong. Sick. Borrowing Bella for the weekends and then returning her Monday morning like a rental movie? SO messed up. So tempting. (Meyer, Breaking Dawn 181)
If Bella just agrees to have an abortion, she can conceive all the half-werewolf babies she could possibly want! Everyone wins, even poor, hairy Jacob, whose unrequited love burns in him like Nosferatu burns in the sun.
Edward’s assumption is offensive to Bella, and women, for a myriad of reasons. Edward assumes that Bella only wants to have children, and any children will do. Although Bella is indisputably committed to both her marriage and her pregnancy, her husband is willing to try to manipulate her and lend her out to whomever he chooses. Her husband, who tried to convince her to obtain an abortion, now attempts to lend her out to his rival. Edward sees Bella as something to be lent like a jacket or a book. As long as she’s returned to him, he has no objection what the borrower does with her. One questions Edward’s love for Bella. One wonders how a husband who supposedly loves his wife so much would be willing to strip her of her personhood and treat her as if she were a jacket or book, something that can be lent and borrowed, something without thoughts or emotions.
It might be unfair to fault Bella for not speaking up and challenging her beau’s actions, and for not interpreting them as signs that Edward is abusive. Bella is a (fictional) seventeen-year-old girl with little romantic experience; flesh and blood girls and women often miss these signs, leading them to become involved in unhealthy relationships. However, Stephenie Meyer is blameworthy for creating a story with these themes as the basis of a romance and never exploring how Edward’s behavior is inappropriate and harmful to Bella. By making Edward’s behavior the basis of a romance without ever exploring its more negative aspects and results Meyer normalizes this abuse and stalking, making it seem romantic rather than threatening.
Bella narrates the first book of Breaking Dawn (and nearly all of the rest of the books in the Twilight series, except for a few pages in Eclipse). After they return from their honeymoon, Bella’s pregnancy continues, but her narration does not. Jacob abruptly becomes the book’s narrator. This change of narrator is the clearest representation of how little control Bella has in her own life. Edward tells her that she must leave her father’s house and accept his protection, lest she be harmed by another vampire (Meyer, Twilight 387). Edward decides that she will to go prom, despite the fact that she states that she does not want to attend (Meyer, Twilight 484). Edward determines when she will become a vampire—not until after she becomes his wife, despite her misgivings about being a young bride. Edward even tries to convince Bella to have an abortion; when Bella refuses, her recalcitrant behavior costs her the privilege of telling the story of her own pregnancy.
The Twilight series’ tenor is clear: An obedient woman will be cared for by the men in her life, but a disobedient woman will be silenced. The narrative shift in Breaking Dawn also implies that a woman’s perspective—even on inherently feminine activities like pregnancy and childbirth—is less valuable than a man’s perspective on the same topic. The reader wonders why Jacob narrates this part of the story. He had nothing to do with the pregnancy’s conception. His perspective gives no insight into the emotional, mental, and physical challenges Bella experiences during her pregnancy. His narration adds no value to this aspect of the story, which is arguably one of the most important events in the book. The narrative shift illustrates Meyer’s philosophy on gender relations: Heteronormativity means never having to be in control of one’s life (if one is a woman). Some man will be always be available to help a woman interpret and catalog her life experience, tell her what to do, or “protect” her.
Meyer seems pathologically determined to strip Bella of her agency and subordinate to Edward and Jacob. Bella cannot be an active participant in her own life or a woman whose opinion matters when she is no longer the narrator of her own story. A woman can attempt to assert herself and make her desires known (for example, Bella repeatedly states that she wants to be a vampire and have a more physical relationship with Edward), but these desires will only come to fruition if or when a man vouchsafes it. Meyer defends Bella as an example of feminism in contemporary fiction, but many readers remain unconvinced.
One wonders what impression these books will leave on the psyches of young readers, and how they will inform readers’ expectations for their own romantic relationships. Young American women (and men) who read the Twilight series grow up in a culture that repeatedly reinforces heteronormativity. They live in a culture that privileges women who conform to traditional gender roles and shames women who assert their independence. They live in a culture in which men attempt to assert control over women’s reproductive rights. Twilight reinforces these cultural values that force women to be submissive and subordinate their needs and wills to those of the men in their lives. One wonders whether a generation of girls who grow up reading about Bella and Edward’s relationship will seek out their own Edwards, or be able to understand that not all that sparkles is a good boyfriend.
Meyer, Stephenie. Breaking Dawn. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2008. Print.
Meyer, Stephenie. Eclipse. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2007. Print.
Meyer, Stephenie. New Moon. 2006. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2008. Print.
Meyer, Stephenie. Twilight. 2005. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2008. Print.
Tamara Watkins teaches college classes and spends her free time getting riled up about stuff. She insists that her interest in Twilight is purely academic.
Image © Tamara Watkins 2012