Stephenie Meyer’s ‘Twilight: Life and Death’ Doesn’t Break Gender Stereotypes—It Reinforces Them
New male protagonist Beau isn’t insecure or self-critical and he doesn’t think himself inferior to his superhuman lover, like Bella did. So much for challenging gender norms.
Over the last decade, Twilight has become famous for its loyal and ever-enthusiastic following, but fans of Edward and Bella got more than they ever asked for on Tuesday, as Twilight’s tenth anniversary brought a new, gender-swapped version of the vampire love story.
“You know, Bella has always gotten a lot of censure for getting rescued on multiple occasions, and people have always complained about her being a typical damsel in distress,” said Twilight author Stephenie Meyer in her introduction to the new reissue. “She’s also been criticized for being too consumed with her love interest, as if that’s somehow just a girl thing. But I’ve always maintained that it would have made no difference if that human were male and the vampire female—it’s still the same story.”
To Meyer’s credit, she puts her money where her mouth is. Less to her credit is the result of her introspection.
This tenth anniversary edition, called Twilight: Life And Death, is a scarcely rewritten version of the Twilight series, and that’s the point. Short of character descriptions (and an ending that closes off the possibility for three more books) everything that happens in Twilight: Life And Death is just about the exact same as in Twilight, with one obvious exception. Instead of being a story about a girl and her vampire lover, this is a story about a boy. Bella and Edward become Beau and Edythe, but Meyer doesn’t stop until she’s changed the genders of just about every character in the series, with the somewhat hilarious exception of Beau/Bella’s hapless single dad.
If Meyer was primarily interested in experimenting with the dynamic of her book’s action scenes, the fact is she just didn’t write a book with much action. Probably the most interesting switch of any of the main characters comes in changing big, tough Emmett to big, tough Eleanor, and realizing just how rare it is to imagine any female character as physically imposing.
But if Eleanor is a satisfyingly unsettling reminder of the biases we bring to fictional characters based on our gendered assumptions, Meyer’s book mostly stands as a testament to how facile experiments like this often are—Twilight: Life And Death feels like the kind of fanfiction that gets lost in the archives while readers search for more original content.
There’s virtually no difference between what’s the same and what’s different. What little has been changed feels at best like it’s fatally hampered by old writing that isn’t supporting new characterizations, and at worst, like a blatant cash grab for an otherwise unextraordinary tenth anniversary reprint.
And just like in Twilight, the problem begins and ends with Edward and Bella—or in this case Edythe and Beau.
The changes made in the transition from Bella to Beau are probably the most inexplicable. Bella is hardly Mrs. Dalloway, but you could count on her inner monologue to supply intimate thoughts. She was self-conscious, she had a chip on her shoulder, she didn’t have much in the way of self-esteem. Of course, these are the things that drew critics to Meyer’s work, but they’re also the traits that brought fans.
Bella wasn’t exactly a guilty pleasure to read about, but that’s because her adolescent mind is pre-guilt, before she understands that self-consciousness is something you can choose not to feel. In other words, Bella is a teen girl who hasn’t realized her own potential yet. The times Bella spent questioning Edward, demanding more from him, indulging that chip on her shoulder—those moments of self-advocacy felt exciting simply because so much of her inner monologue is so self-defeating.
But Meyer doesn’t extend Bella’s male version the same narrative courtesy. Beau’s inner monologue is sometimes embarrassed, but he’s not self-critical. He doesn’t cry, he doesn’t stare in the mirror and inspect his perceived flaws, he doesn’t imagine himself inferior to his superhuman lover with the intensity that Bella imagined herself inferior to Edward. Beau is in every way a less specific and less compelling protagonist than Meyer’s original (not particularly specific, not particularly compelling) Bella, and the reasons for the changes to his persona seem to be exactly the gendered assumptions that got her work criticized in the first place.
It’s possible for a teen boy to be insecure. Teen boys can cry, teen boys can feel inferior—but Meyer’s imagination is limited, and rather than upending the dynamic of her book, she simply translates the same conventions into a new scenario.
There’s a reason vampire stories—from Dracula to Buffy to Twilight to True Blood and beyond—focus on women’s affairs with the undead and not the other way around. The average teen girl is a complex and emotionally rich creature, capable of manipulation, introspection, and contradiction. Maybe it’s biological, or maybe it’s the process of socialization in a world where most people hold to the same gendered ideas that Stephenie Meyer does.
Vampire romances are popular because it feels plausible that a teen boy frozen in time forever by an invasive blood disorder might actually need a hundred years to reach the emotional intelligence of a teen girl. And unless you’re going to actually challenge traditional depictions of young men, a story about a teen boy offered the undying love of a super hot lady vampire feels like an annoying stereotype of how spectacular a woman has to be to hold a boy’s attention.