You may remember guest-blogger Kara (a.k.a. Filmi Girl) from her great post on the whittling waistlines of Bollywood actresses. Now she’s back with a guest post on the body image struggles inherent in the popular Twilight series, specifically Bella’s desire to rid herself of her human body and the disturbing descriptions of physical sensations and appetite. I’ve read a lot of feminist critiques on the Twilight series, mostly concerning the books’ not-so-subtle messages of abstinence and the unbalanced relationship dynamic between the main characters, but Filmi Girl’s is a new take I haven’t yet seen before. It is, to say the least, food for thought.
Filmi Girl writes:
Imagine you’re reading a story about a girl starting over a new high school. As she enters the cafeteria, her eyes are drawn towards a certain group of kids – all physical perfection and effortless cool.
“They weren’t talking, and they weren’t eating, though they each had a tray of untouched food in front of them…As I watched, the small girl rose with her tray – unopened soda, unbitten apple – and walked away with a quick, graceful lope that belonged on a runway.” (Twilight, p. 18-19)
To me, this doesn’t say ‘vampire’ as much as ‘pro-ana.’
While I don’t think that Stephenie Meyer, author of The Twilight Saga, was deliberately encouraging young women make an unopened soda and unbitten apple their lunch of choice, the scene is an early indicator of the twisted relationship with appetite that runs through the whole series. There are plenty of disturbing facets to The Twilight Saga, from Edward’s abusive behavior towards Bella and the imprinting which seems more like child grooming, that have been looked at in depth but I haven’t seen much on appetite – or rather, Bella’s desire to rid herself of her appetites.
For those gentle readers unfamiliar with the tragic tale of Bella Swan, resident of Forks, Washington, let me give you a crash course. Bella, age 17, moves to Forks, Washington at the beginning of Twilight. At her new high school, she meets and develops a crush on a mysterious student – a student who finds being around her intolerable and yet won’t leave her alone: (the pale Adonis) Edward Cullen. In a fit of self-loathing, Edward reveals his true self to her. He takes off his shirt in a patch of sunlight, his chest sparkling with the glittery skin of a Meyer-verse vampire. But while Edward is a predator, built to feed on the human race, he has adopted a lifestyle referred to as “vegetarianism.” Edward only eats non-human animals and compares the experience to a human living on tofu, keeping their hunger at bay but never being fully satisfied (this is Meyer’s take on vegetarianism, not mine). Bella gradually moves into his world, getting to know his “family” of like-minded vampires (the Cullens), until one day she catches the attention of a particularly vicious vampire named James who is moving through the Cullen territory and decides to make a meal of her. Bella flees to Phoenix under the protection of Cullens but despite their best efforts, is still captured by James. Edward and his family rescue her and kill James but not before James has a chance to deliver a giant bite to her arm, that will kill her. Edward bravely sucks out the vampire “venom,” knowing that he will kill her if he cannot stop himself in time. He does. Bella lives and returns to Forks, still infatuated with Edward.
In the second book, New Moon, Edward leaves Bella – telling her that he no longer loves her – and Bella works her way into a deep depression. She emerges from it with the help of her good friend Jacob Black, a Quileute Indian boy who lives on the local reservation. Jacob and Bella develop a genuine friendship, although it’s hinted that Jacob feels something more, but are interrupted from furthering their relationship by Edward, who under the false assumption that Bella has died, is going to kill himself by provoking the Volturi, a sect of vampire nobles – the vampire drama queen equivalent of “suicide by cop.” Bella, still feeling the pull of obsession towards Edward, goes to stop him. Edward is saved and reveals that he had left Bella for her own good and that he never stopped loving her. Bella forgives him and returns to Forks with Edward. Jacob isn’t so quick to forget and vows that he will not let her throw her life away. Eclipse, the third book, follows the love triangle and Bella’s desperate attempts to become a vampire, which at times sound chillingly like preparations for suicide. At the end of Eclipse, Bella discovers she loves both men – but Edward more and ends with Bella still human but engaged to be married to him.
Perhaps it takes someone who has struggled with her own appetites to view Bella’s quest for vampire-hood (if that is the correct term) in quite this way. Vampire stories have traditionally mined crevices of human desire that are not socially acceptable, substituting blood lust for passions unnamed, such as homosexual desire (Carmilla, 1872) or, more recently, general teenage restlessness and ennui (The Lost Boys, 1987). But the Meyer-verse vampires Bella is infatuated with actively battle their own unacceptable hungers – living off of non-human animals instead of allowing themselves to be physically satisfied. The life of a Cullen is filled with self-deprivation. As Edward himself says, “I can’t be sure, of course, but I’d compare it to living on tofu and soy milk; we call ourselves vegetarians, our own little inside joke. It doesn’t completely satiate the hunger – or rather thirst. But it keeps us strong enough to resist. Most of the time.” (Twilight, p. 188)
Leaving aside Meyer’s views on vegetarianism, we are clearly meant to find Edward’s heroic resistance to his own physiology to be admirable. It is never suggested that the Cullens could eat donated human blood, either from willing victims or from the hospital. Human blood is a forbidden food. And Edward’s morbid pull towards Bella seems, at times, less like romance and more like a dieter eyeballing a particularly delicious slice of cake. He gets a perverse satisfaction from abstaining. “‘Just because I’m resisting the wine doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the bouquet,’ he whispered. ‘You have a very floral smell, like lavender… or freesia,’ he noted. ‘It’s mouthwatering.’” (Twilight, p. 306)
And Edward’s thirst appears to be his only physical desire. All evidence in The Twilight Saga points to Edward being a 100+ year old virgin. Bella is the one pushing their sexual relationship and Edward keeps her from pushing too far. In Eclipse, Edward does initiate some sexual touching with Bella but it is only as prelude to his marriage proposal and he gets more aroused by the sight of Bella wearing his engagement ring (although Bella feels it weighing heavily on her hand) than by Bella herself. Edward is master of his physical desires – more superego than vampire.
Bella is constantly comparing herself to Edward and finding herself lacking. She is uncomfortable in her own body, a feeling extremely familiar to this former 17-year old girl. It’s made more painful to the reader because everything is written from Bella’s point-of-view. In the first book, especially, the reader is treated to endless descriptions of Edward’s physical beauty contrasted with Bella’s self-loathing descriptions of her own clumsiness or her plainness or her fragile human body. Edward is described as a statue of Adonis come to life – cold and hard to the touch, but physically perfect. Bella wants nothing more than to be just like him. She is already asking to be turned into a vampire by the end of Twilight and Eclipse has her begging and pleading with Edward to perform the deed.
Through the course of the three books, Bella tries and tries to rid herself of her human desires. She rarely eats. Although she cooks dinner for her father, she doesn’t take any enjoyment in it – it’s a duty and one she dispatches with little thought. In one memorable scene, to me at least, her father takes her out for a celebratory dinner and not only is Bella ungrateful for the gesture, she doesn’t actually eat her food. She waits until her father isn’t looking and then tucks bits of her hamburger into her napkin. Perhaps she is unconsciously echoing Edward, who spends his time at the school cafeteria doing exactly the same thing. She is not yet a vampire but is already abstaining from food and physical pleasure.
Bella’s sexual desires are another thing she is made to feel ashamed of. While the supposed erotic chastity is a big selling point, I never saw it. Instead a mutual desire to take things slow, Edward withholds his physical affections. He explains to Bella that he might devour her if he allowed himself to go too far but that doesn’t stop Edward from chastising Bella for wanting to explore her sexual drive. In one particularly vile scene in Eclipse, Edward snuggles up to her on a giant bed only to pull away when she begins to reciprocate he tells her, “I was just trying to illustrate the benefits of the bed you don’t seem to like. Don’t get carried away.” The benefits of the bed being only available after marriage, which she does not want.
This shaming of Bella just makes New Moon, in which the character of Jacob Black takes the forefront in the narrative, more frustrating, as the book shows the reader what Bella would be like free from the influence of Edward. The chapters of New Moon are filled with food and physical pleasures. Bella eats muffins and enjoys an outdoor spaghetti party. Bella holds hands with Jacob and accepts warm and friendly bear hugs. She goes hiking with Jacob and walks. Edward would literally carry her when they went places. Under the calming influence of Jacob, Bella begins interacting with her school friends and the pages of New Moon show a Bella much more sympathetic and human than in any other book in the series. The tragedy of The Twilight Saga is that the promise of this Bella, who grows up and accepts herself, is thrown away as soon as Edward enters back into the picture.
The final scenes of Eclipse show Bella having a vision of her happy, human life with Jacob. She turns it down in favor of a life of constraint and prohibition with Edward. Bella will never be full again.