What Girls Want

A series of vampire novels illuminates the complexities of female adolescent desire.
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Twilight is fantastic. It’s a page-turner that pops out a lurching, frightening ending I never saw coming. It’s also the first book that seemed at long last to rekindle something of the girl-reader in me. In fact, there were times when the novel—no work of literature, to be sure, no school for style; hugged mainly to the slender chests of very young teenage girls, whose regard for it is on a par with the regard with which just yesterday they held Hannah Montana—stirred something in me so long forgotten that I felt embarrassed by it. Reading the book, I sometimes experienced what I imagine long-married men must feel when they get an unexpected glimpse at pornography: slingshot back to a world of sensation that, through sheer force of will and dutiful acceptance of life’s fortunes, I thought I had subdued. The Twilight series is not based on a true story, of course, but within it is the true story, the original one. Twilight centers on a boy who loves a girl so much that he refuses to defile her, and on a girl who loves him so dearly that she is desperate for him to do just that, even if the wages of the act are expulsion from her family and from everything she has ever known. We haven’t seen that tale in a girls’ book in a very long time. And it’s selling through the roof.

Bella and Edward meet on that unpleasant first day of school, in biology class. The only free spot in the room is next to Edward, a vacancy she initially falls into with a glimmer of excitement—like Dracula’s Lucy and Mina, and like every other young woman who has ever come to the attention of a vampire, Bella is enthralled. But Edward demonstrates none of the pickup-artist smoothness of his kind. As she glances shyly at him before sitting down, he meets her eyes “with the strangest expression on his face—it was hostile, furious.” As she takes the seat beside him, he leans away from her, “sitting on the extreme edge of his chair and averting his face like he smelled something bad.”

In short, Edward treats Bella not as Count Dracula treated the objects of his desire, but as Mr. Rochester treated Jane Eyre. He evinces the most profound disdain and distaste for this girl. Even after they have confessed their love for each other, he will still occasionally glare at and speak sharply to her. At the end of that long first day at Forks High, Bella goes to the school office to drop off some paperwork, and who is there but Edward—trying to get himself transferred out of the class they share.

Watch the trailer for the recently released Twilight movie

And yet they are such kindred spirits! They are both crackerjack biology students (Bella because she took an AP course back in Phoenix, and Edward because he has taken the class God knows how many times, given that he is actually 104 years old); they both love the arts; they share a dim view of the many young men who would be Bella’s suitors if only she would take an interest in them. All of these facts, combined with Edward’s languid, androgynous beauty—slim and feline, possessed of tousled hair and golden eyes—predictably anger and confuse Bella, although they do nothing to cool her awakening physical passion for her smoldering, obdurate antagonist. (This poignant aspect of the female heart proves once again a theory advanced by a high-school chum of mine, an improbable lothario who replied when I demanded that he explain his freakish success with the ladies: “Chicks thrive on rejection.”) Edward puts the young girl into a state of emotional confusion and vulnerability that has been at the heart of female romantic awakening since the beginning of time.

Bella is an old-fashioned heroine: bookish, smart, brave, considerate of others’ emotions, and naturally competent in the domestic arts (she immediately takes over the grocery shopping and cooking in her father’s household, and there are countless, weirdly compelling accounts of her putting dinner together—wrapping two potatoes in foil and popping them into a hot oven, marinating a steak, making a green salad—that are reminiscent of the equally alluring domestic scenes in Rosemary’s Baby). Indeed, the book, which is set in contemporary America and centers on teenage life and culture, carries a strange—and I imagine deeply comforting to its teenage-girl readers—aura of an earlier time in American life and girlhood. The effect is subtle, and probably unintentional on the part of its author, a first-time novelist, who was home with three small boys when she blasted out this marvelous book. Like the Harry Potter series, the Twilight books are ostensibly set in the present, but—in terms of the mores, attitudes, and even the central elements of daily life portrayed within them—clearly evoke the culture of the author’s adolescence. The Harry Potter series, feats of wizardry aside, is grounded in a desperate curiosity about the life of the English public school, which was a constant in the imaginative lives of middle- and working-class children in the Britain of J. K. Rowling’s youth, and was also a central subject of the comics and novels produced for British children. Stephenie Meyer has re-created the sort of middle-class American youth in which it was unheard-of for a nice girl to be a sexual aggressor, and when the only coin of the realm for a boy who wanted to get lucky was romance and a carefully waged campaign intended to convince the girl that he was consumed by love for her.

Twilight is a 498-page novel about teenagers in which a cell phone appears only toward the very end, and as a minor plot contrivance. The kids don’t have iPods; they don’t text-message each other; they don’t have MySpace pages or Facebook accounts. Bella does have a computer on which she dutifully e-mails her mother now and then, but the thing is so slow and dial-up that she almost never uses it, other than on the morning that she decides to punch the word vampire into her wood-burning search engine to learn a thing or two about her squeeze. But the world of the past is alive in other, more significant ways: Bella’s friends, all in search of “boyfriends,” spend weeks thinking about whom they will invite to a Sadie Hawkins dance. After a friend (toward whom Bella has gently been directing one of her own admirers) finally goes on a big “date” (a lost world right there, in a simple word), she phones Bella, breathless: “Mike kissed me! Can you believe it?” It was a scene that could have existed in any of the books I read when I was an adolescent; but in today’s world of Y.A. fiction, it constitutes an almost bizarre moment. (Few things are as bewildering to contemporary parents as the sexual mores and practices of today’s adolescents. We were prepared to give our children a “sex is a beautiful thing” lecture; they were prepared to have oral sex in the eighth grade.)

Think, for a moment, of the huge teen-girl books of the past decade. The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants is about female empowerment as it’s currently defined by the kind of jaded, 40-something divorcées who wash ashore at day spas with their grizzled girlfriends and pollute the Quiet Room with their ceaseless cackling about the uselessness of men. They are women who have learned certain of life’s lessons the hard way and think it kind to let young girls understand that the sooner they grasp the key to a happy life (which essentially boils down to a distaff version of “Bros before hos”), the better. In Sisterhood, four close friends might scatter for the summer—encountering everything from ill-advised sex with a soccer coach to the unpleasant discovery that Dad’s getting remarried—but the most important thing, the only really important thing, is that the four reunite and that the friendships endure the vicissitudes of boys and romance. Someday, after all, they will be in their 50s, and who will be there for them—really there for them—then? The boy who long ago kissed their bare shoulders, or the raspy-voiced best friend, bleating out hilarious comments about her puckered fanny from the next dressing room over at Eileen Fisher? Gossip Girl, another marketing sensation, replaces girls’ old-fashioned need for male love and tenderness—these chippies could make a crack whore look like Clara Barton—with that for shopping and brand names. Notoriously set in an Upper East Side girls school that seems to combine elements of Nightingale-Bamford with those of a women’s correctional facility after lights-out, the book gives us a cast of young girls whose desire for luxury goods (from Kate Spade purses to Ivy League–college admissions) is so nakedly hollow that the displacement of their true needs is pathetic. Prep—a real novel, not the result of a sales-team brainstorm—derives much of its pathos from the fact that the main character is never sure whether the boy she loves so much, and has had so many sexual encounters with, might actually constitute that magical, bygone character: her “boyfriend.” The effect of Prep on teenagers is reminiscent of that of The Catcher in the Rye: both books describe that most rarefied of social worlds, the East Coast boarding school, and yet young readers of every socioeconomic level have hailed them for revealing the true nature of their inner life. In Prep, the heroine wants something so fundamental to the emotional needs of girls that I find it almost heartbreaking: she wants to know that the boy she loves, and with whom she has shared her body, loves her and will put no other girl in her place.

Bella, despite all of her courage and competence, manages to end up in scrape after scrape: finding herself in the path of a runaway car, fainting at school, going shopping in a nearby city and getting cornered by a group of malevolent, taunting men. And over and over, out of nowhere, shoving the speeding car out of her way, or lifting her up in his arms, or scaring the bejesus out of the men who would harm her, is Edward. And at last, while she is recuperating from the near-rape, with a plate of ravioli in a café near the alley, he reveals all. Not since Maxim de Winter’s shocking revelation—“You thought I loved Rebecca? … I hated her”—has a sweet young heroine received such startling and enrapturing news. As he gradually explains, Edward has been avoiding and scorning Bella not because he loathes her but because he is so carnally attracted to her that he cannot trust himself to be around her for even a moment. The mere scent of her hair is powerful enough that he is in a constant struggle to avoid taking—and thereby destroying—her. This is a vampire novel, so it is a novel about sex, but no writer, from Bram Stoker on, has captured so precisely what sex and longing really mean to a young girl.

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Caitlin Flanagan is the author of Girl Land (2012) and To Hell With All That (2006).  More

Caitlin FlanaganCaitlin Flanagan began her magazine-writing career, in 2001, with a series of extended book reviews about the conflicts at the very heart of modern life—specifically, modern domestic life as it is lived by professional-class women. Flanagan has quickly established herself as a highly entertaining social critic unafraid to take on self-indulgence and political correctness, and her reviews provide penetrating and witheringly funny observations about the sexes and their discontents.

Flanagan's Atlantic articles have been named as finalists for the National Magazine Award five times, and her essay "Confessions of a Prep School College Counselor," which ran in September 2001, was included in the 2002 compilation of Best American Magazine Writing. Her work has also been included in Best American Essays 2003 and Best American Magazine Writing 2003. She is the author of the book To Hell with All That—an exploration, based on her Atlantic articles, of the lives of modern women.

Born and raised in Berkeley, California, Flanagan earned a B.A. and an M.A. in Art History from the University of Virginia. She now lives in California, where she spends her time writing and raising twins.

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