"Twilight" taught us the dangers of young women not choosing themselves

The final film "Breaking Dawn - Part 2" turns 10 but its gross patriarchal message is timeless

By Alison Stine

Staff Writer

Published November 12, 2022 3:30PM (EST)

Taylor Lautner and Kristen Stewart attend 'The Twilight Saga: Eclipse' photocall at De Russie Jardin on June 17, 2010 in Rome, Italy. (Elisabetta A. Villa/WireImage/Getty Images)
Taylor Lautner and Kristen Stewart attend 'The Twilight Saga: Eclipse' photocall at De Russie Jardin on June 17, 2010 in Rome, Italy. (Elisabetta A. Villa/WireImage/Getty Images)

I think I came to "Twilight" the same way I came to the "Harry Potter" series: kids my friend babysat were reading them. And if the kids were absorbed, reading under blankets with flashlights long after bedtime, exchanging paperbacks in school like covert lunch trades, the books had to be good, right? Soon after I acquired my own library copy of Stephenie Meyer's first vampire book, that anticipation turned to dread.

Oh no. What were we teaching the children?

The successful books, a quartet of vampire romance novels aimed at teens, which went on to sell 120 million copies worldwide, soon received the movie treatment. The first film was released in 2008, with sequels yearly until the finale, a two-parter that ended in 2012. "Twilight" was elevated by its stars like Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson and Anna Kendrick, and director Catherine Hardwicke gave the first film a moody, rich feel. It was a decent film, one I enjoyed looking at visually, but its message was troubling.

Hardwicke was dropped from subsequent films. The story grew more worrisome in the books and their adaptations and more ridiculous, the young characters turning from teen love to teen marriage and parenthood. The final film in the story, "The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2," turns a decade old this month and its theme is as terrible as ever. This is what happens when you don't let young women choose themselves.

If you were not a child or babysitting a child or someone who enjoyed childish fiction in the early 2000s (yes, young adult fiction is and should be wonderful and read by adults, but this isn't it), let me break it down for you: Bella Swan (Stewart) is a high school student who just transferred to the small, misty town of Forks, Washington when her life is saved by Edward Cullen (Pattinson), a handsome, if pale, mysterious fellow student who lives with his super rich parents and four adopted siblings in a modern mansion in the woods. Bella and Edward fall in love. 

Complication? He's a vampire, as is his found family. Additional complication? Bella is sort of also in love with Jacob (Taylor Lautner), a character who's Indigenous and additionally a werewolf. Yes, it's problematic already. But Edward wins, I guess, in that Bella marries him when she's barely 18. She gets pregnant on their honeymoon like poor Lane Kim in "Gilmore Girls." Spoiler: Bella dies in childbirth but Edward turns her into a vampire and saves her. Also, their kid is a weird human-vamp hybrid, and as such, ages rapidly and for some reason known only to Satan, is rudimentary CGI for a good portion of the movies — possibly the worst artistic decision since that woman tried to restore a 19th-century Jesus fresco.

The story behind the story? Meyer is a practicing and by her own account devout Mormon. It would be difficult not to read her particular faith into this story of teen marriage and teen pregnancy, given both the tale's anti-abortion leanings and what Meyer herself has said in interviews, like "Unconsciously, I put a lot of my basic beliefs into the story."

The lovestruck teens (well, Edward is 104 when the story starts) wait to have sex until marriage, which Edward insists on. He might be anxious to settle down, being three decades older than the average life expectancy for an American human, but Bella is actually a teenager. When her mom gets the invitation to the wedding, she's excited in a way that few parents would be if their 18-year-old were marrying a centenarian. Or marrying anyone at all.

Bella's going to college is bantered about early as an abstraction. No one is ever serious about it. Neither is she expected to get or interested in getting a job. She has no interests, other than Edward/Jacob. Stewart's performance brings an intelligence to the role that isn't really present on the page, and as such, her character feels weirdly disconnected. Won't she be bored, just zooming about the mansion with no work, no education, no hobbies even? At least Edward plays the piano.

If grueling, violent childbirth and death weren't punishment enough, Bella is punished with creepy Renesme (and the child is punished with THAT NAME).

In one sense, Bella gets the guy. And she gets what she wants: to be a vampire and to be rich. But in another, her whole existence is a giant punishment. Separating her from her family, the Cullens at first are going to tell her father Charlie that she died. And Bella doesn't seem broken up about it. She finally resolves, after Jacob's smart meddling, to keep her father in her life, albeit at a distance.

Her vampire family spend most of the final movie (and the ones that came before) fighting for her, defending her life at the threat of their own. Not letting Bella choose more for herself, choose herself, punishes all of them. They all get dragged down and forever changed by her mess.

But Bella's punishment goes on and on. She gets pregnant the first time she has sex, like Gen X's fear-mongering sex education classes always warned. The fetus grows in record speed and destroys her, making her ill and turning her into a gaunt shell. The scenes of Bella's late pregnancy with her legs like twigs and her face hollowed-out as a skull are truly garish, and the childbirth scene would rival "House of the Dragon" for its exploitative, harrowing shock value. A friend who saw "Breaking Dawn – Part 2" in the theater described it as basically bloody performance art.

"It was so bad the production crew actually named it 'Chuckesmee,' thinking that it resembled the Chucky doll."

If grueling, violent childbirth and death in childbirth weren't punishment enough, Bella is punished with Renesmee (and the child is punished with THAT NAME). A half-vampire, half-human child would be fine but the filmmakers' decision to computer animate the baby make for a character that is beyond nightmares. Originally a mechanical doll was apparently supposed to be the young Renesmee, but Screenrant writes, "It was so bad the production crew actually named it 'Chuckesmee,' thinking that it resembled the Chucky doll from 'Child's Play.'" The actors couldn't stop being unnerved by it and couldn't get through their scenes in the unholy child's presence.

Continuing the icky penance, Jacob imprints on baby Renesmee. The newborn will grow up to be his mate, which angers Bella at first, but how did she think her daughter would escape her legacy? The mistakes of the mother will be visited upon the child. 

Vampirism is not like an ankle tattoo. You can't laser it off.

This moment also underscores a queasy theme of "Twilight": the preference for child beauty above all else. Bella stops aging at 18 (why couldn't they wait for marriage/vampire-dom until she was at least 22, a grown young adult with some education?). Her daughter will reach maturity and stop the aging process at about 17, when older Jacob will probably marry her. This isn't a fantasy of beauty. It's just creepy, patriarchal and gross. 

Bella argues that she was "born to be a vampire" (sounds a lot like "I was born to love you," but OK), and says that she "always felt out of step. Literally stumbling through my life." But she's 18 when she says this. Who doesn't feel wrong or confused when they're 18? The thing about making a lasting decision when you're too young to know yourself is that you're forever stuck in that self. Vampirism is not like an ankle tattoo. You can't laser it off. Neither is parenthood. 

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At the height of the "Twilight" fervor, fans aligned themselves in camps: Team Edward or Team Jacob, the two supernatural suitors vying for the child bride's hand. But it was never about that. If your only choice is between which man to marry, it isn't a choice at all. It was Bella vs. Bella. And she didn't choose her.

Happy birthday, "Twilight." Bella Swan still deserves better. And justice for Lane Kim. 

By Alison Stine

Alison Stine is a former staff writer at Salon. She is the author of the novels "Trashlands" and "Road Out of Winter," winner of the 2021 Philip K. Dick Award. A recipient of an Individual Artist Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), she has written for The New York Times, The Guardian, and others.

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