What Girls Want

A series of vampire novels illuminates the complexities of female adolescent desire.
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The erotic relationship between Bella and Edward is what makes this book—and the series—so riveting to its female readers. There is no question about the exact nature of the physical act that looms over them. Either they will do it or they won’t, and afterward everything will change for Bella, although not for Edward. Nor is the act one that might result in an equal giving and receiving of pleasure. If Edward fails—even once—in his great exercise in restraint, he will do what the boys in the old pregnancy-scare books did to their girlfriends: he will ruin her. More exactly, he will destroy her, ripping her away from the world of the living and bringing her into the realm of the undead. If a novel of today were to sound these chords so explicitly but in a nonsupernatural context, it would be seen (rightly) as a book about “abstinence,” and it would be handed out with the tracts and bumper stickers at the kind of evangelical churches that advocate the practice as a reasonable solution to the age-old problem of horny young people. (Because it takes three and a half very long books before Edward and Bella get it on—during a vampiric frenzy in which she gets beaten to a pulp, and discovers her Total Woman—and because Edward has had so many decades to work on his moves, the books constitute a thousand-page treatise on the art of foreplay.) That the author is a practicing Mormon is a fact every reviewer has mentioned, although none knows what to do with it, and certainly none can relate it to the novel; even the supercreepy “compound” where the boring half of Big Love takes place doesn’t have any vampires. But the attitude toward female sexuality—and toward the role of marriage and childbearing—expressed in these novels is entirely consistent with the teachings of that church. In the course of the four books, Bella will be repeatedly tempted—to have sex outside of marriage, to have an abortion as a young married woman, to abandon the responsibilities of a good and faithful mother—and each time, she makes the “right” decision. The series does not deploy these themes didactically or even moralistically. Clearly Meyer was more concerned with questions of romance and supernatural beings than with instructing young readers how to lead their lives. What is interesting is how deeply fascinated young girls, some of them extremely bright and ambitious, are by the questions the book poses, and by the solutions their heroine chooses.

Bella’s fervent hope—one that will not be realized until the final novel—is that Edward will ravage her, and that they will be joined forever; the harrowing pain that is said to be the victim’s lot at the time of consummation means nothing to her. She loves him and wants to make a gift to him of her physical body—an act fraught with ambiguous dangers (the Twilight series so resonates with girls because it perfectly encapsulates the giddiness and the rapture—and the menace—that inherently accompany romance and sex for them). The ways in which his refusal and her insistence are accommodated are at the heart not only of this novel but of the entire series, and that inspires the rapture young girls feel for the books. This is not your seventh-grade human-development teacher passing around a dental dam and thereby making you want to send a plume of fifth-period taco salad and Gatorade into her outstretched palm. This is sex and romance fully—ecstatically, dangerously—engaged with each other. At last, at last.

As I write this, I am sitting on the guest-room bed of a close friend, and down the hall from me is the bedroom of the daughter of the house, a 12-year-old reader extraordinaire, a deep-sea diver of books. She was the fourth person through the doors of the Westwood Barnes & Noble the midnight that the series’ final volume, Breaking Dawn, went on sale, and she read it—a doorstop, a behemoth—in six hours, and then turned back to page one as though it were the natural successor to the last page.

Posted on this girl’s door—above the fading sticker of a cheery panda hopping over a pink jump rope, and one of a strawberry and a lollipop (their low placement suggesting the highest reach of a very small child), and to the right of an oval-shaped decal bearing the single, angry imperative STOP GLOBAL WARMING—is a small, black, square-shaped sticker that reads My Heart Belongs to Edward. In the middle is a photograph of a pair of shapely female hands proffering a red Valentine heart. Also taped to this girl’s closed door is a single piece of lined paper, on which she has written, in a carefully considered amalgam of block letters and swirly penmanship and eight different colors of crayon:

Edward’s Fan Club
You may only enter if you know the password

That she had made her declaration for Edward on such a pretty, handmade sign was all-girl—as was her decision to leave up the old stickers from her childhood. One of the signal differences between adolescent girls and boys is that while a boy quickly puts away childish things in his race to initiate a sexual life for himself, a girl will continue to cherish, almost to fetishize, the tokens of her little-girlhood. She wants to be both places at once—in the safety of girl land, with the pandas and jump ropes, and in the arms of a lover, whose sole desire is to take her completely. And most of all, as girls work all of this out with considerable anguish, they want to be in their rooms, with the doors closed and the declarations posted. The biggest problem for parents of teenage girls is that they never know who is going to come barreling out of that sacred space: the adorable little girl who wants to cuddle, or the hard-eyed young woman who has left it all behind.

Years and years ago, when I was a young girl pressing myself into novels and baking my mother pretty birthday cakes, and writing down the 10 reasons I should be allowed to purchase and wear to the eighth-grade dance a pair of L’eggs panty hose, I knew that password. But one night a few years after that dance, I walked into a bedroom at a party and saw something I shouldn’t have, and a couple of months after that I unwisely accepted a ride to the beach from a boy I hardly knew, and then I was a college girl carrying a copy of Hartt’s History of Renaissance Art across campus and wondering whether I should take out a loan and go to graduate school, and somewhere along the way—not precisely on the day I got my first prescription for birth control, and not exactly on the afternoon I realized I had fallen out of love with one boy and had every right to take up with another—somewhere along the way, I lost the code. One day I was an intelligent girl who could pick up almost any bit of mass-market fiction that shed light on the mysteries of love and sex, and the practicalities by which one could merge the two, and read it with a matchless absorption. Valley of the Dolls had been so crucial in my life not because of its word to the wise about the inadvisability of mixing Seconal and Scotch, but for the three sentences that explained how to go about getting undressed before the first time you have sex: go into the bathroom, take your clothes off, and reemerge with a towel wrapped around yourself. One day I was that girl, and one day I was not, and from then on, if you wanted to tempt me to read a bit of trash fiction, I was going to need more compelling information than that.

Midway through Twilight, after Edward and Bella have declared their feelings for one another, she emerges from a classroom with a pal, uncertain whether she will eat lunch with Edward, or whether he will once again have vanished into the air, as he has a tendency to do. “But outside the door to our Spanish class, leaning against the wall—looking more like a Greek god than anyone had a right to—Edward was waiting for me.”

It’s a small moment in the book, but it lit aglow some tiny room of memory, if only for a maddening moment. I thought about how romantically charged high schools are for their young inmates. In 12th grade, I had a class next to the student parking lot. As I sat there one grayish day, I saw my boyfriend emerge from a side door of the massive school, along with half a dozen of his friends. They were clearly in the grip of some new plan, and they stood around their parked cars for a few minutes, talking. Where were they going, and why couldn’t I go along?

The boy I was dating leaned against his car and listened to them, and he laughed, but then something happened—I could see he had changed his mind, and as the others drove away, he stood there for a while, looking after them, and then he pushed away from the car and disappeared back into school. Maybe, at long last, he was taking seriously his father’s warnings that he might not graduate if he kept ditching school.

The bell rang, the room emptied—and there he was, in the hallway outside my class. “Let’s ditch,” he said.

I was in worse academic shape than he was; my graduation and college admission depended on passing—as a senior!—my eighth-period geometry class (many trusted souls had assured me that I’d have a bright future, provided that I passed that damn course). And standing in front of me was a boy who had just abandoned his friends to spend the afternoon with me.

I can’t remember a thing about geometry except the useless phrase side-angle-side, but for the rest of my life I’ll remember the bottle of red wine we bought at a package store a mile from school, and the certainty (since proved) that in the scheme of things, I had made exactly the right decision.

Caitlin Flanagan is the author of To Hell With All That (2006). She is at work on Girl Land, a book about the emotional life of pubescent girls.
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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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