How Could Someone Who Writes About Lovesick Teen Girls Be a Feminist?

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Twilight and Host author Stephenie Meyer claims the word, for good reasons.

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Feminists often express frustration when female celebrities refuse to adopt the label. So when one of the most famous writers in the world proudly and publicly declares herself a feminist, you would think feminists would express enthusiasm, or at least satisfaction.

That is not what has happened when Stephenie Meyer, the author of the phenomenally popular Twilight series, embraced feminism in an interview with The Guardian.

Meyer says she is a feminist, and that this is really important to her. "I think there are many feminists who would say that I am not a feminist. But, to me ... I love women, I have a lot of girlfriends, I admire them, they make so much more sense to me than men, and I feel like the world is a better place when women are in charge. So that kind of by default makes me a feminist. I love working in a female world."

As Meyer anticipated, the reaction among feminists has been mixed at best. Twitter was awash in skeptical tweets explaining that Meyer doesn't understand what feminism is. Madeleine Davis at Jezebel said that, given that Bella in Twilight is such a poor role model, it is "strange" that Meyer would call herself a feminist. She added:

I don't know about you, but this leaves me feeling intensely ambivalent. On one hand, good for her for taking on a label that, sadly, so many women in pop culture seem hellbent on shying away from. [...] Meyer does vocalize a lot of feminist principles. On the other hand, walk the walk, girl. If the world's a better place when women are in charge, why not give them a little bit of agency between the covers of your books?

Davis, like many feminists, believes that Meyer's female characters are too weak, too passive, and too boy-crazy. Be that as it may, I think Davis is wrong to say that Meyer doesn't "walk the walk" in her writing. On the contrary, Meyer's writing is quite consistent with the vision of feminism that she puts forward. Again, here's Meyer's quote.

I love women, I have a lot of girlfriends, I admire them, they make so much more sense to me than men, and I feel like the world is a better place when women are in charge.

Meyer says that women make more sense to her than men. Her books are consistent with that. Twilight and The Host are pretty much entirely devoted to exploring women's feelings and women's relationships in the context of genres—romance, soap opera, fan fic—overwhelmingly associated with and consumed by women. In Twilight, Bella eventually becomes a super-powered vampire whose special abilities prevent a war. In The Host, Wanderer's special knowledge and abilities transform the lives of those around her. In both cases, women are the protagonists, the central point of identity, the saviors, the heroes—and, not incidentally, the targeted consumers. All of that seems to fit quite well with Meyer's feminist commitments.

It's true as Davis says that feminism these days tends to be defined in journalistic settings as female autonomy—which is why hyper-competent warriors like Katniss or Buffy are seen as feminist icons. But feminism also has a long tradition of valuing women and, with that, of valuing sisterhood—or, as Meyer says, "I love women, I have a lot of girlfriends." Meyer is the kind of feminist who sees romance and relationships as important, who sees motherhood as important, who has fantasies in which your best friend (male in Twilight, female in The Host) can read your mind and loves you the more for it. Carol Gilligan would approve, I'm pretty sure.

In some ways, it seems (again, as Davis suggests) that Meyer's vision of feminism is in tension with autonomy. The intense focus on relationships, as Meyer says, comes out of her valuing of women and sisterhood, and is surely what so many women value in her books. But to be invested in relationships can easily compromise autonomy. If you're willing to do anything for your lover or child, that puts limits on what you're willing to do for yourself. (Which is why women in their 20s who want careers sometimes feel conflicted about wanting relationships as well.)

But valuing women doesn't have to be in conflict with autonomy. In fact, as Amanda Marcotte points out in a recent piece about opposition to abortion, attitudes towards women's autonomy and attitudes towards women as women can be hard to separate.

Despite all the focus on fetal life, by and large the support for abortion restrictions comes from internalized misogyny that's hard to avoid in a culture that rags on women non-stop for roughly everything that they do. Subsequently, most ordinary people focus on assuming the worst of women who have abortions—the trifecta of believing women are "fickle, foolish, or lazy"—and see restrictions as a way to make sure women who are getting abortions for the "wrong" reasons don't get them.

If restrictions on women rest on the assumption that women are bad people, then Meyer's arguments that women are good people and worth paying attention to seems like it has to have positive implications for women's autonomy.

Indeed, in her Guardian interview, Meyer has this to say about abortion:

I ask whether she's anti-abortion, and she says: "You know what? I never talk about politics, because that is one of my pet peeves, when people with any measure of celebrity get on their soapbox and say: 'You should vote this way.' First of all, celebrities don't know anything about real life. They live in an ivory tower ... I lived in the real world for 30 years, enough to know I'm not in it now."

On the surface, that's a refusal to answer the question. But on a second reading, there's more going on. Meyer won't state her position out of respect for "real life"—which in the context of an abortion discussion, means a respect for the real lives of women. Because she values those lives, she refuses to dictate what women should do. In other words, valuing women leads her to respect women's lives and women's choices—even if she won't come out and say in the abstract whether she is pro-choice or pro-life.

None of this is to say that feminists must agree on all things with Meyer, or that feminists have to like her books. Feminists disagree with each other all the time, and there is plenty to criticize in Meyer's books, from poor prose to weak plotting to dicey gender politics. But I don't think that those disagreements, or those criticisms, should be allowed to lessen the significance of one of the most popular authors in the world standing up to say she's a feminist. It seems, anyway, like Meyer's declaration is an opportunity for her critics to think about whether they might not share some feminist common ground with her—and with all of those tween female fans as well.

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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