A Condemnation of Sparkly Vampires

After decades of girls' fantasy novels featuring empowered, adventurous heroines, it's perplexing that the Twilight saga, featuring insipid Bella Swann, has so thoroughly captivated a generation of teenagers.

Twilight falls on the United States again today with the release of New Moon, the second movie based on Stephenie Meyer’s series about a benevolent vampire and the human girl he falls obsessively in love with.  Meyer’s novels have been a boon to booksellers and movie theaters, who have made hundreds of millions off the Twilight saga, and to cultural and social critics who have feasted on the series’ melodramatic language and convoluted sexual politics.   Much of that attention has focused on the story’s vampire mythology, launching a thousand trend pieces about screaming girls and their swooning mothers, and debates about whether vampire mania means teenagers want to have sex with gay men, or dangerous sex, or no sex at all.  But Twilight is essentially, and importantly, a fairytale.

The four-book series traces the transformation of Bella Swann, a competent, if clumsy and withdrawn girl, into a modern-day princess, complete with sports car, credit card, designer wardrobe and country cottage—though the route she takes from drudgery in her father’s kitchen to quasi-royalty includes a transformation into the undead.  And Edward Cullen, the vampire who is first Bella’s boyfriend and then her husband, initially believes that he is a soulless monster, but comes to realize “that he belonged here.  In a fairytale.”

Indeed, Twilight’s wild popularity is a testament to the power of fairytale stories—to the “true-loveism” that Salon’s Laura Miller has called “the secular religion of America.” It’s more than a little depressing that after decades of novels for girls in which authors have used magic as a powerful tool to expand the scope of fairytale heroines’ adventures beyond mere romance fantasies, it is Bella Swann—a modified princess in a tower – that’s succeeded in thoroughly captivating a generation of teenagers.

Like many fairytales, Bella Swann’s adventure begins with the unexpected discovery of a magical ability or fate: she learns that her blood is unusually appealing to a handsome boy in her biology class at her new school, a vampire who lives off animal instead of human blood. “You are exactly my brand of heroin,” Edward Cullen tells her, explaining both his attraction to her and his need to resist her. The vampire authorities in Meyer’s world, the Volturi, “have a name for someone who smells the way Bella does to me,” Edward says towards the close of the second novel, New Moon.  “They call her my singer—because her blood sings for me.”  Edward initially notices Bella and is intensely—if chastely—attracted to her not because of her looks or her (strangely sour) personality, but because of the scent of her blood.  She is not simply sexually delectable: she is literally delicious.

But Bella cannot use her blood to charm anyone else—in fact, she cannot use it at all.  She simply is.  And while its appeal is extraordinarily powerful (Edward has waited a century to react to someone as he’s reacted to Bella, and repeatedly insists that he cannot continue to live if she dies), in terms of advancing the story, Bella’s blood can only precipitate one event, Edward’s attraction to her.

Bella’s overriding passivity is in distinct contrast to other fairytales for teen girls that have been popular in recent decades—in which the protagonists’ encounters with magic open up much wider fields of play.

Take Cimorene, for example, the stubborn and independent princess who is the heroine of Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest series, which began publishing in 1990. She lives in a world where magic is a given: her official lessons include how to scream properly when kidnapped by a giant, while her unofficial ones include sessions with the court magician.  In the series’ first novel, Talking to Dragons, each small act of magic Cimorene performs or participates in takes her further from home, and from her duty to marry.  A frog provides her with suggestions on how to run away from a union with a deeply boring prince, and towards an eventual career as cook and librarian for the (female) King of the Dragons.  She makes her escape by means of an invisibility spell she casts herself, wins the right to bear a magic sword by killing a giant bird with it, and discovers that it’s possible to melt wizards with dish soap scented with lemon.

As for the man she marries, she falls for him not because she is magically attractive, but because of how well they work together on a quest to track down her missing large and scaly employer. And while he may be the love of her life, he’s far from the only purpose in it.

Then there’s Monica Furlong’s children’s novels, Juniper and Wise Child, about witches in medieval England.  Juniper learns she has extraordinary abilities when she discovers that she is magically able to divine the water that her father’s Cornish fiefdom needs.  Meanwhile Wise Child learns of her capabilities as a potential witch by playing with a deck of cards and arranging them into a meaningful pattern, an act that suggests she has magical abilities.  Another book, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s retelling of the Arthurian legend, The Mists of Avalon, presents a heroine, Morgaine, who experiences prophetic visions and confesses them to a priest who tells her that they are sinful.  All three women become seers, healers, and significant forces in the kingdoms where they live.  Magic does not simply change the ways Juniper, Wise Child, and Morgaine see the world: it enhances their power to act in it. And while all three women find love at various points along the way, it never becomes everything to them, or eclipses their dedication to their unique vocations.

In Twilight, magic is an inhibiting factor, rather than a catalyst.  Meyer’s vampires, in one of the series’ most pointless innovations (and incentives to flagrant over-use of the world dazzle and its variations), sparkle when exposed to direct sunlight, making it difficult for them to spend much time outside the cloud-ridden environs of Forks, Wash.  Questing is difficult when you’re stuck in the Pacific Northwest, but Bella does manage to get out of town a few times.  First, she flees to Arizona when a nasty vampire decides she’d make a tasty snack. But she spends most of the time in her hotel room or the hospital.  Next, she dashes to Italy to save Edward from a suicide attempt.  And finally, she gets a honeymoon.  But the vast majority of the action takes place in Forks, a limited canvass for Meyer’s limited plot.

In so much as the novel can lay claim to anything approximating a quest, Bella’s goals are narrow, and focused internally.  She wants to preserve Edward’s life and her relationship with him.  When she becomes pregnant in the final novel, she wants to protect her fetus, even as it begins to kill her.  And most of all, she wants to become a vampire, to become as magical as her boyfriend.  When that transformation does take place, Bella is essentially uninterested in the prospect of having a useful superpower, like Edward’s ability to read minds, or the healing and prognosticating abilities other vampires she knows possesses.

“I would probably never be able to do anything interesting or special like Edward, Alice, and Jasper could do,” she muses.  “Maybe I would just love Edward more than anyone in the history of the world had ever loved anyone else.”

Bella does eventually develop an unusual strength: the ability to block vampires’ powers.  But much as her blood only attracts Edward, Bella uses that strength only to protect her family in a wanly climactic confrontation with the vampire world’s authorities.  Cimorene, Juniper, Wise Child, and Morgaine have whole kingdoms to protect and justice and freedom to uphold.

It’s hard to imagine how even the most obsessive devotee of all-consuming love stories could be thoroughly absorbed by this saga. Meyer cuts even the romance buffs out of the equation in the end: after Bella becomes a vampire “with the dimming shadows and limiting weakness of humanity taken off my eyes, I saw [Edward’s] face,” truly for the first time Bella says. Her infatuation with Edward’s specialness may have given readers a sense of kinship with her in the first three novels, but by the fourth, Meyer is telling them they are literally incapable of seeing through Bella’s eyes.

I don’t imagine that I was alone when I was young in wishing there was something magical about me – or in reading Talking to Dragons until it became dog-eared or keeping The Mists of Avalon perpetually on renewal at the library.  What girl doesn’t wish she could discover some special attribute about herself that would smooth her way through the demons of junior high school and beyond—particularly if that something would get her noticed for the first time by a boy or girl with special attributes of their own?  But earlier this week, when I stumbled over the Twilight finish line, reaching the final page of Breaking Dawn, the series’ last book, it seemed clear to me that even in my younger days, Bella Swann would never have captured my imagination in the same way Cimorene, or Juniper, or Wise Child, or Morgaine had, and still do. Those heroines understand the joy of being loved by someone else.  But their stories make the case that being a witch, or a warrior, or a queen—even without a king—might be better than an eternity as a metaphorical princess in a metaphorical tower, no matter how much the vampire company sparkles.