At Its Core, the 'Twilight' Saga Is a Story About ________

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A field guide to the many, many intellectual movements that have laid claim to Twilight

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Summit Entertainment

TO THE NAKED EYE, IT MAY APPEAR THAT: The Twilight saga is a story about love. And vampires. And family. And abstinence. And racism. And the founding of the Mormon faith. And orphans, in a really weird way.

BUT ACCORDING TO SOME EXPERTS WHO THOUGHT REALLY HARD ABOUT THIS: Twilight is a story about all of these things. And more things.

Since the series' debut in 2005, multitudes of thinkers and scholars have claimed to know the real, profound meaning behind Stephenie Meyer's famous vampire-romance novel series. This tends to happen sometimes when books ignite widespread consumption and discussion: Just run a quick Google search on "The Great Gatsby is a story about" if you need further proof. But the degree to which Twilight has been analyzed, re-analyzed, reframed, and close-read makes it something of a lit-crit Choose Your Own Adventure story.

So because Breaking Dawn—Part 2, the final film in the mega-selling Twilight movie franchise, comes to theaters this weekend, it might be wise to decide just what strain of liberal arts-y interpretation you subscribe to. Take your pick: Twilight and its sequels are one big story about...

The power (and powerlessness) of women.

It's arguably the most notorious complaint about Twilight: That meek, indecisive teenager Bella Swan may be something of a sketchy role model for its largely teenage, largely female fan base. For instance, in 2010, David Cox of the Guardian expressed some concern in a story called (amazingly) "Twilight: the franchise that ate feminism."

"In a climactic argument, [Bella's two suitors Jacob and Edward] debate what's best for her," he wrote. "As they decide her future she sleeps between them, the epitome of submissive passivity. Bella's fate isn't only dispiriting; it's also deceptive. On the whole, beguilement by a teenage bad boy, however courtly his manner, doesn't lead to eternal love; nor is self-abnegation a reliable route to bliss. It's therefore understandable that some have questioned the merits of Twilight's message for womankind."

That was, of course, not the end of that conversation. Critics, fans, and feminist thinkers have continued to squabble among themselves over how to conceive of Twilight's all-consuming love story between Edward and Bella—as a cautionary tale about the dangers of unbalanced relationships, or as a commentary on the virtue of an unswervingly committed partner. In her essay "Bella and the Choice Made in Eden," from the 2010 essay collection The Twilight Mystique, Susan Jeffers characterized Bella as a quietly complicit abused lover:

[Edward's] behavior toward Bella for the first three books is frightening in many ways. Over the course of the series, he watches her sleep, constantly tells her she is absurd, and tries to control who she sees and who her friends are. This abusive behavior is rooted in his inability to recognize Bella's agency, his inability to acknowledge that she can decide for herself what she needs. His refusal to allow her to become a vampire is further evidence of that paternalism. The three later novels focus both on Bella's becoming a vampire and Edward's dawning recognition of Bella's status as an agent. ... Edward's controlling behavior continues in Eclipse, but he is able to make some meaningful compromises. At the end of Eclipse, he finally says, "I've clung with idiotic obstinacy to my idea of what's best for you, though it's only hurt you... I don't trust myself anymore. You can have happiness your way. My way is always wrong."

Later on, though, Jeffers asserts that Bella might be a somewhat feminist figure after all, in that she "rejects the violence inherent in a patriarchal system" because she "refuses to allow Edward and Jacob to remain rivals, and she engineers circumstances that require them to put their differences aside and work together."

Meanwhile, just a few pages away in the same volume, Lori Branch's "Carlisle's Cross: Locating the Post-Secular Gothic" cast the protagonist as a "post-feminist" heroine who revealed a few unforeseen effects of the feminist movement: "The remarkable phenomenon here is the recognition in Meyer's fiction... of the abjected 'Gothic' desires of our culture. Bella's popularity as superstar Gothic heroine reveals precisely that we as a culture have already travelled a feminist road, and that it has left apparently not a few readers with very particular unfulfilled longings and misgivings."

When creator Stephenie Meyer was asked whether the heroine she'd created was a feminist or an anti-feminist one, she responded on her website with the following:

In my own opinion (key word), the foundation of feminism is this: being able to choose. The core of anti-feminism is, conversely, telling a woman she can't do something solely because she's a woman—taking any choice away from her specifically because of her gender. ... One of the weird things about modern feminism is that some feminists seem to be putting their own limits on women's choices. That feels backward to me. It's as if you can't choose a family on your own terms and still be considered a strong woman. How is that empowering? Are there rules about if, when, and how we love or marry and if, when, and how we have kids? Are there jobs we can and can't have in order to be a "real" feminist? To me, those limitations seem anti-feminist in basic principle.

Mormons.

Other thinkers have identified elements of the Twilight series as clear allegories—and apologias—for the Mormon faith, to which Meyer belongs. According to John Granger's Touchstone magazine article "Mormon Vampires in the Garden of Eden: What the Bestselling Twilight Series Has in Store for Young Readers," the series is a thinly veiled retelling of the formation and survival of the Church of Latter-Day Saints.

While most of Meyer's vampires are dangerous—heartless, blood-atonement-driven religious believers who prey on non-believers—this is not true of the Cullen family, who are the Celestial-life Mormons of the story. (The Volturi, on the other hand, the ancient vampires in Italy who lead and police vampires everywhere, are a thinly disguised Roman Catholic Church, the "Whore of Babylon" to Joseph Smith, Jr., and his nineteenth-century followers.)

Carlisle Cullen was born in the mid-1660s, the same period when historic Mormonism was born in Europe. He became a vampire when he was bitten but not slain by a weakened vampire. His heroic choice to turn away from vampirism and to eat animal rather than human food turns his eyes golden rather than blood red. Over the next two centuries, he learns all he can about medicine and in the mid-1800s becomes a doctor, saving rather than taking human lives. By placing the birth of the Cullen "vision" in the same time and place as the birth of Mormon beliefs (see Refiner's Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1640-1844, by John L. Brooke) and by having Carlisle take up medical practice in the 1840s, the same time as Joseph Smith's "restoration" of the gospel in America.

All three books paint the Mormon faith as inherently bloodthirsty, violent, secretive, and abusive to women and non-believers. The Twilight novels, especially Breaking Dawn, can be understood as a response to the challenge they posed to Mormon believers like Mrs. Meyer. In brief, Meyer was inspired to write works in which she addresses and resolves in archetypal story the criticisms being made of Mormonism by atheists and non-believing gentiles.

Twilight is essentially an allegory of one gentile seeker's coming to the fullness of Latter-day Saint faith and life. Bella, though, as Mrs. Meyer's stand-in, is also a modern American woman who struggles with Edward's patronizing misogyny and over-protectiveness. Her mind is the only one in the book not open to him, which serves both as an indication of her reverential reserve towards him as God or prophet and her resistance to being totally subject to him. Though devoted to and in love with him, she sounds notes throughout the series that reflect something like feminism.

Bella's life works out happily ever after, but that of another character, Leah Clearwater, the lone female werewolf in the story, stands as a reminder of the isolation and emptiness experienced by an intelligent, gifted woman not tied to a man in this community of believers.

"Orphans" in search of parent figures.

According to still others, Twilight is about abandoned kids in search of families. Edward, an orphan after losing his mortal parents to a rare strain of the Spanish influenza, cobbles together a family from a traveling pack of fellow vampires. Bella, daughter of a long-absent father and a newly absent—as well as "loving, erratic, [and] harebrained"—mother, arrives in Edward's life with little to no strong connection to either parent. According to Anna Silver's Studies in the Novel article "Twilight Is Not Good for Maidens," "Although Edward and Bella are the center of the novel's narrative, the series is equally concerned with the contemporary American nuclear family, and a woman's role within that family. ... Twilight is a series very much concerned with the practice of mothering."

"Meyer depicts Bella as inappropriately mothered," Silver writes, and in the wake of Bella's mother's departure to follow her baseball-player husband around the country, "Meyer provides room for Edward's adopted mother Esme to become an alternate mother figure.­"

Mothering solves a few of Bella's problems in another way, too:

In the final book of the series, Breaking Dawn, Meyer allows Bella to become the kind of mother that she never had, the apotheosis of the self-sacrificial, selfless mother, who is willing to die for the good of her unborn vampire child, and the warrior-mother who successfully protects the integrity and survival of her family. Meyer thus proposes that marriage and motherhood provide women with equality that they do not possess as single women. Motherhood becomes a location not only of pleasure and satisfaction but also of power.

It's not just about moms, though. In Silver's reading, finding a real dad figure is just as crucial.

Edward's appeal is, throughout the novel, paternal. Edward is the father that Bella never had ... Edward is not just lover but father. Edward frequently refers to or treats Bella as a child. When he first met Bella, Edward tells her later, he considered her "an insignificant little girl." Later he calls her "little coward" and "Silly Bella." These infantilizing endearments are underscored by the fact that he saves the perpetually clumsy and unlucky Bella again and again. ... The reader can be forgiven for viewing Edward as Bella's father after reading repeated scenes in which Edward cares for Bella as if she were a child rather than a young adult. She is, for example, habitually carried around by Edward (and later by Jacob).

Prejudice.

Other analyses suggest that the Twilight saga is a story about racial prejudice; about the "good white people" versus the "bad dark-skinned people." In a Psychology Today article titled, "Is Twilight Prejudiced?," Melissa Burkley points out that Edward and his extraordinary family are described as possessing impossible beauty characterized by pale white skin. Their skin sparkles in the sunlight; their bodies as solid, perfectly carved, and smooth, like marble statues—which are white. Just as the Cullens exude purity and kindness, they're also strongly associated with this whiteness. "When Bella is hurt, she even mistakes Edward for an angel, the ultimate symbol of virtue," Burkley points out. "Stephenie Meyer's use of such imagery capitalizes on the reader's already entrenched association that white is good. It is simple math: if white equals good, and vampires equal white, then it must be that vampires equal good."

So it would only follow that the Cullen clan's mortal enemies, the Quileute werewolf pack, would be characterized with similarly alarming color coding. Sure enough:

First, consider the juxtaposition between Edward and Jacob. Whereas Edward has pure white skin, Jacob is Native American and therefore is described as having dark features: copper skin, black hair, and dark eyes. Not only does Jacob have dark skin, his last name, Black, clearly associates him with darkness rather than light. Although Jacob does not necessarily represent badness or evil, he is described in a way that suggests he is more associated with dark than light.

Secondly, consider the character of Sam Uley. He is an even better example than Jacob of how the werewolves represent the "black equals bad" association. Like Jacob, Sam is Native American and has dark skin and dark hair. However, the description of Sam's wolf form is even more telling. Jacob and the other clansmen have brown or red fur, but Sam has dark, black fur. In Eclipse, we learn that the wolf's physical appearance is a reflection of what the man inside is like. By making Sam's fur black, Meyer tells the reader that Sam is the blackest of the black creatures. Quil Ateara says it best when he states, "So that's why Sam is all black . . . Black heart, black fur." In addition to his appearance, Sam also has dark sides to his personality.

Sex.

Yep. Even though the principal lovers don't even make it past second base until they're legally wed, Time's Lev Grossman called it in 2008: Twilight is pretty much all about sex. Except without, you know, the sex.

What makes Meyer's books so distinctive is that they're about the erotics of abstinence. Their tension comes from prolonged, superhuman acts of self-restraint. There's a scene midway through Twilight in which, for the first time, Edward leans in close and sniffs the aroma of Bella's exposed neck. "Just because I'm resisting the wine doesn't mean I can't appreciate the bouquet," he says. "You have a very floral smell, like lavender ... or freesia." He barely touches her, but there's more sex in that one paragraph than in all the snogging in Harry Potter.

It's never quite clear whether Edward wants to sleep with Bella or rip her throat out or both, but he wants something, and he wants it bad, and you feel it all the more because he never gets it. That's the power of the Twilight books: they're squeaky, geeky clean on the surface, but right below it, they are absolutely, deliciously filthy.

AND THUS, WE CAN CONCLUDE THAT: No one reading of Twilight's underlying message can be declared the correct one, because Stephenie Meyer clearly wrote her bestselling series with all of these strains of logic in mind. Clearly.

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Ashley Fetters is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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