Though pretty much everybody in the Western world is by now familiar with the story, I’m going to give a brief rundown to ensure that any reader has enough information to understand the specific criticisms that follow. Obviously, there are spoilers below, but you probably know that.
Twilight: Bella and Edward meet. They love eachother forever. Edward’s a vampire and he promises to try really hard not to eat her.
New Moon: Edward decides Bella’s better off without him and wanders away. Bella’s friend Jacob tries to win her heart, but becomes a werewolf instead. Oops. Vampires and Werewolves are natural enemies, BTW. Edward returns and BellaEdward are back together forever. Edward continues to try really hard to not murder Bella.
Jacob continues to try to win Bella’s heart in Eclipse.
In Breaking Dawn, Bella and Edward wed and have a baby, Renesemee WTF Cullen. Edward turns Bella into a vampire immediately following childbirth so that she doesn’t die-for-real from the gruesome, difficult delivery that broke all her bones and left her disemboweled after Edward performed an emergency C-section with his teeth. Jacob finally gives up his romantic pursuit of Bella only after imprinting on Renesmee, which means that he loves her and they’re destined to TRU LUV 4 EVAR, despite her parents’ objections. The vampire police take a disliking to the size and power of the Cullen clan and come to kill them all, but then decide against it because Bella. Everyone lives happily ever after.
The tl;dr version (click for full-size):
In an oft’ quoted scene in Eclipse, Jacob kisses Bella against her will. She tries to fight him off, but when she realizes that’s futile, goes dead till he’s finished. It is very rapey. I am sure I’m not the only fan who, upon reading that, screamed “WHY STEPHENIE MEYER WHY????????” Bella decides to let it go for no apparent reason besides allowing the plot to advance, but in order for me to let it go, I pretended that Bella and Jacob had a long conversation that the reader isn’t privy to about consent and the importance thereof, Jacob grew as a person, and the world was a slightly better place.
You can imagine my frustration when Jacob force-kisses Bella a second time in Eclipse, not only continuing to be a rapey douche, but demonstrating that he learned nothing from the last time and apparently doesn’t think there is anything wrong with this strategy. I think the author doesn’t see anything seriously wrong with it either.
Later, when he imprints on Renesmee, all the vampires are enraged for no apparent reason. Latoya Peterson wrote an excellent summary:
However, the imprinting did appear to give the household new license to hate Jacob, call him dog and mongrel to his face, and this time, Bella joins in. Some friend she is. Jacob turned on his Pack, risked his life multiple times, revealed critical weaknesses for his tribe, maintained the flimsy treaty between vampires and werewolves, and went through immesurable pain in order to make Bella feel like a nice person – if he had asked to eat the damn baby, it would have been a fair request.
As a reader, you never find out why the vampires are so opposed to the pairing. They don’t seem to object on the grounds of pedophilia-but-not-really-but-yeah-really. Presumably the vampires are so used to hating werewolves that they disapprove out of habit. That explanation doesn’t make sense Bella, who’s so newly-undead that her body isn’t even cold before she disapproves. She only expresses feeling weird about having Jacob as a son-in-law.
After I got to thinking about it, I came up with the theory that Bella knows all too well Jacob’s trouble with consent. Although he may be chaste as a nun prior during Renesmee’s youth, he has her entire life to groom her. Even the book is clear that although she’s free to choose not to be with Jacob, she won’t. She has no reason not to choose to be with him. Jacobs desire to be with her will shape her entire life. She has no say in this matter.
Many have criticized the series for being anti-choice, but even a cursory reading of the text or viewing of the movie dispels that notion. From the instant Bella realizes she is pregnant, it is obvious the pregnancy is extraordinarily dangerous for her puny, fleshy body. Edward makes plans for their immediate return from their honeymoon so Carlisle can perform an abortion. In spite of the knowledge of her certain death and the disapproval of her husband (who, she spares no chance to tell us, was her only reason for existing and the center of her life prior to becoming pregnant) and father-in-law, she chooses to continue her pregnancy. She goes so far as to enlist the aid of other family members to protect herself and her fetus from her husband (a major theme through the saga is that abuse = romance). Bella very actively chooses to stay pregnant. The book and movie are both very clear: Abortion is an option for her. We see no indication that she would suffer any ill consequence from choosing abortion. She took control of her reproductive choices. It doesn’t get any more pro-choice than that.
Another criticism, that has slightly more basis in the text/movie, is that it portrays birth control negatively by not even mentioning the possibility, and by having characters who have no apparent understanding of how reproduction works. This is partially true. They have no knowledge of any other human-vampire sexual relationships, but because many other human bodily processes stop when one becomes a vampire (sleep, digestion, menstruation), everyone made the not-unreasonable assumption that sperm production also stopped, rendering Edward infertile. From that assumption, the lack of birth control makes perfect sense. That happens to real-life humans. I had a friend whose mother was told she was sterile. Five years and four accidental children later, she got her tubes tied (aside to that lady: I love your kids, but you deserve better medical care). It is possible the author omitted birth control out of hostility, but Occam’s razor says it’s more likely she was setting up the plot for an unintended pregnancy.
The author absolutely could have gone out of her way to write about people behaving responsibly and having accurate knowledge about their bodies. She also could have shown her characters checking their oil and breaks before they drive anywhere. There are a lot of preventative measures humans should take that we don’t, or that don’t merit a mention in fiction because a work of fiction is not a public service announcement. I don’t think you can make the case – based on the material in the saga – to show the omission of these things indicates a malevolence toward birth control or automotive maintenance.
The author did choose to create a world with more restrictive view of sexuality than the world in which I live or would like to live. Based on the saga, masturbation and homosexuality don’t exist and we can assume that premarital sex is an absolute wrong because the series claims it’s frowned upon by most cultures throughout history (lol!). There is no discussion of what constitutes “sex” (oral? manual? vaginal? anal?), perhaps because all forms of sex but penis-in-vagina between a married man and woman is considered an absolute wrong. It may also be that everyone in this world is extraordinarily modest/ashamed. We don’t know. But we do know that after the author has spent 3 books describing the world this way, she cannot turn around in the forth book suddenly have Edward masturbate into a cup and check his ejaculate for signs of living sperm.
Over the course of Breaking Dawn, more and more vampires arrive in the area. Werewolves came to exist to defend humans from vampire predators. Jacob and pals became werewolves because Edward and family were in the area. Because there had not, until relatively recently, been vampires in the area, the disease-like symptoms associated with becoming a werewolf were unknown to the fictional Quileute people. As more vampires arrive over the course of Breaking Dawn, more and younger Quileute children become werewolves. Some insightful article I can’t find anymore noted how this process parallels whitey bringing disease to indigenous Americans: more colonists = more unknown diseases.
The lone-female werewolf contemplates her lot briefly during the final book. She reveals that the werewolf transformation has rendered her sterile. In GLOBAL MAMA: The Mommy Myth That Will Not Die, Heather Hewett notes the way this parallels the forced sterilization of American Indians.
I was talking to a friend recently about the movie Beauty and the Beast. We both love it, but it makes me uneasy because it describes a very abusive relationship, and instead of encouraging the heroine to get help, it shows her learning to tip toe around the things that show her beau’s more beastly side, and they are happy. I find this somewhat unnerving. My friend had no such reservations, and saw in the story a moral about how everyone learns to be their better self. I politely asked her how the abusive nature of the relationship (which starts when he takes her prisoner to pay her father’s debt) doesn’t bother her, and she asked me how the abusive nature of the Bella-Edward relationship doesn’t bother me. I have no good answer for that.
You should go read this fascinating and spot-on essay about how Breaking Dawn Part 1 is a horror film set to a romantic soundtrack.
Also, everything else that author wrote on Twilight. Highlight:
I will say this: when they return home in the book, her dad hears that Jacob kissed her against her will and high-fives Jacob, which is pretty much the worst thing I have heard from these books, which is saying something. In the movie, when Edward is waiting to beat the crap out of Jacob and her dad comes out to break it up, Jacob says he kissed Bella, and Bella’s dad gives everyone a look like he cannot imagine how all of these worthless people entered his daughter’s life. Upgrade.
At the end of the movie version of New Moon, Bella tells Jacob says something to Jacob along the lines of “Don’t make me choose, it will always be Edward.” To me, that really gets at the heart of the saga. Bella, a lower-middle class white woman, is choosing between Edward – a rich, white, forever youthful, conventionally attractive man – and Jacob – a poor person of color from one of the most marginalized communities in the country. Basically, it’s a story about a disadvantaged person with opportunity (her white privilege and temporary youth and good looks) choosing between having status or not. Bella is trying to impress upon Jacob that she will always choose status (money, power, privilege) over other intangibles.
One of the frequent criticisms of the series is that Bella has basically no character. She shows no ambition, no sign of any special talents or interests. Her only ambition, the only thing she works toward, is being with Edward. In light of the above paragraph, this means her only ambition is to have status. The kind of status she wants, she can only marry into. Edward is clear in his requirement for matrimony – there will be no premarital sex or vampiring. Bella is making the career choice many of her grandmothers likely made before suffrage and bra-burning: she’s going to marry well.
Bella is well-suited and trained for the career she has chosen: in the book we see her taking care of the house she shares with her father. She cooks, she cleans, she does the laundry. She has additional qualities seen as ideal in a wife: she’s conventionally attractive, she doesn’t gossip, she doesn’t shop for fun and she’s a virgin.
Some have speculated that she has as few distinguishing qualities as possible so the reader can project him/herself onto the character. This makes the status-view of the novel doubly insulting: The author is not only insinuating that Bella will always choose status, but that you, the reader, will too.
She will always choose privilege because she doesn’t know how to function without it. This makes it easier for me to stomach all the statements she makes in Twilight – after she and Edward have been an item for apparently 10 or 15 minutes – where she talks about being unable to live without him, having no purpose without him, etc. It’s not that the reader is expected to really believe an 18 year old girl’s life is truly over after the departure if her boyfriend of less than a year, it’s that, as a person who was raised to be socially-conscious, she doesn’t know how to function without that next level to climb to. Without conventional power structures (like money, beauty, morality) to guide her, she is lost.
Fascinating as that is, it helps set up why I love the following graphic so much:
I think I’m the only Twilight fan who didn’t hate Breaking Dawn. Not only that, I LOVED it. I loved every page. I loved that everybody got what they wanted. There were hundreds of pages that just describe Bella and Edward being happy together, no plot to get in their way.
Many fans hated the ending: The vampire police decide against slaughtering the entire Cullen clan when they discover that it will be harder than expected. It never bothered me, and years after finishing the books, it suddenly dawned on me why: at it’s heart, Breaking Dawn is a story about female power. From the first book, Bella knows exactly what she wants: she wants to become a vampire and spend eternity with Edward. She also wants to have teh sex sooner rather than later. Over the course of three books, the men in her life thwart her at every turn. Despite their objections, in Breaking Dawn, she ultimately gets what she set out to have: eternity (and sex) with Edward as a vampire. In the final book, Bella gets exactly what she’s always wanted and experiences all the things that culturally signify adult womanhood: she experiences marriage, sex, childbirth. As a result, she is able to realize her own power. She saves the day because the men in her life finally got out of her way.
While the above point manages to turn the final book into a feminist triumph, it can’t be de-coupled from the rest of the series. Bella represents a person who aspires to – but doesn’t yet have – access to conventional power structures. In the end, she wins because she works with the kyriarchy, rather than fighting against it.