Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


November 18, 2009

Feminism's New Moon

The new book Twilight and Philosophy discusses Bella and Edward in the context of violent stalkers, Sarah Palin, and 'What Women Want.'

David Downs

New Moon, the second film adaptation of the incredibly successful Twilight book series, hits theaters this week. It’s expected to gross hundreds of millions of dollars, largely from ticket sales to tween and teen girls. But some feminist scholars have taken issue with the series, decrying it as a dangerously romanticized fantasy about a possessive, violent stalker.

In one of the more stinging takedowns, contributors to the recent pop-culture philosophy book Twilight and Philosophy conclude, among other things, that protagonist Bella Swan is a victim of domestic abuse.

"Looking for Edward will only lead to black eyes, rape, torture and possibly even death"—Twilight and Philosophy contributor Rebecca Housel

Twilight and Philosophy co-editor J. Jeremy Wisnewski attributes part of the series's success to the ability to read it as can either completely supporting or negating feminism, depending on the perspective of the reader. As the editor of Family Guy and Philosophy and the soon-to-be-released Arrested Development and Philosophy, Wisnewski is particularly proud of Twilight and Philosophy. "Not only do I think this book is good, it's also the most important book I've done in the series—and not just because it's going to such a wide audience. I legitimately think there's a lot philosophically that's very interesting in Twilight and the series in general."

While early chapters deal with the philosophical implications of vegetarianism (Twilight's good vampires don't kill people for blood, only animals) and immortality, Twilight and Philosophy really crackles in the feminism section's four chapters.

Rebecca Housel's chapter, "The Real Danger: Fact vs. Fiction For The Girl Audience," retells the Twilight series the way a newspaper would: that of an 18 year-old girl first brainwashed by a blood-drinking cult and then killed by her 100 year-old husband and former stalker.

Housel—a victim of domestic violence herself—goes on to write that young girls wishing for their Edward don't understand that 76 percent of women killed by their intimate partners were also stalked by them. According to Housel, one-third of all women murdered in the US in 2005—the year Twilight was published—were killed by an intimate partner. The film will make some young women buy into the idea that there are "good" abusive relationships, she states.

"Looking for Edward will only lead to black eyes, rape, torture and possibly even death," she concludes. "Take it from a real-life Bella who found a 'real' Edward—you don't want that."

But Wisnewski says Twilight's message is never that clear-cut. "So there's all this weird misogyny, but I don't think there's a simple account of what's going on there when it comes to questions of feminism and women's liberation and so on," he says. "I also think there are differing, coherent interpretations of feminist messages. One way to read the books is to think of Bella's development in those books as presenting us with a history of women's liberation."

"Because she moves from a position of powerlessness to one of total power, you can regard her coming-of-age story as a history of what women have historically been through," he says. He adds that women broadly have moved from being objects to being masters of their own destiny.

Indeed, in the chapter "Bella Swan and Sarah Palin: All the Old Myths Are Not True," Naomi Zack writes that Swan fulfills many of the modern ideals of love and success. "She marries the vampire she loves and thereby joins a rich, cultured, loving extended family after which she skips through pregnancy in a couple months, becomes a vampire to save her life and attains the powers of a super-heroine," Zack writes. "Talk about 'what women want!' "

She then compares Swan's success to Palin's, noting that "serious feminist scholars seem to not be aware that these three things are very important to a majority of young American women: practicing heterosexuality in the form of fulfilled romantic love and fertility; looking good according to the prevailing beauty norms of consumer culture; and attaining power in the world as it is, rather than the world as it should be."

Zack sees lessons for feminists in the appeal of the Twilight series. "Young women do want it all; and unless they are painstakingly taught that all the old myths are not true, they will all too willingly suspend their disbelief and escape into a fantasy in which eating animals is vegetarianism and endless death is endless life."

Wisnewski notes that Twilight author Stephanie Meyer, a 36 year-old Mormon, had no say in Twilight and Philosophy, but adds that she didn't need to. Wildly popular media function as a way to ping the collective subconscious of the culture and resonate back the topography of our inner desires and conflicts. Meyer has (possibly inadvertently) done that here. "Who knows if Stephanie Meyer had any of this in mind?" Wisnewski says. "It's all there in the text anyway."

David Downs

David Downs is a journalist based in San Francisco.

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Article by David Downs

David Downs is a journalist based in San Francisco.

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