“I wanted the complete experience before I traded in my warm, breakable, pheromone-riddled body,” Bella reflects in Breaking Dawn, the final book of the Twilight series, prior to having sex with Edward. Edward has not previously fulfilled Bella’s carnal desires because he is worried about destroying her supposedly frail human body (although this reasoning mysteriously evaporates after marriage). Then shortly after their lovemaking session – which results in a half-vampire half-human baby that threatens to tear Bella’s body apart from the uterus out – he turns Bella into a powerful vampire. The harm of this narrative extends beyond Stephenie Meyer’s excessive use of adjectives to describe the fragility of her protagonist’s quivering “pheromone-riddled” form, and the accompanying smarmy lines from Edward, such as “Are you still faint from the run? Or was it my kissing expertise?”.
Firstly, Meyer only permits the long-lusting Bella and Edward to have sexual intercourse after marriage, while the first-person perspective of Bella explicitly states that she is incomplete until she has had sex. Meyer promotes a highly repressive virginity narrative by only rewarding Bella with a sense of fulfillment and self-actualisation after she has had intercourse within the specific context of a monogamous heterosexual marriage. Secondly, throughout the entire romance arc of the Twilight series, the balance of power in the central relationship is skewed by the fact that Edward is a super-powered vampire with creepy (as in actually illegal – think stalking and home invasion) tendencies, such as watching Bella in her sleep from her bedroom window. Edward’s most disturbing qualities, such as being frustrated he cannot read Bella’s mind, randomly appearing and disappearing, and being overprotective to the point of violence, to name a few, are all portrayed in a romantic light. This amounts to the fetishization of a romantic relationship which is unhealthy at best, and borderline abusive at worst.
While one does not expect a four-novel saga extrapolating a young woman’s choice between necrophilia and bestiality to carry much depth, Twilight has had a huge impact on how we think about sex. From 2005 when Twilight was first published, to 2011 when the fervour surrounding Twilight had the screeching of fangirls reach an ecstatic crescendo, the entire franchise had become a game-changing commercial success:
- The series had spent 235 weeks (approximately 4.5 years) on the New York Times Bestseller list for Children’s Series Books
- Over 100 million copies of the books had been sold
- In US theatres, Eclipse broke the record set by New Moon for biggest midnight opening, grossing $30 million in one night
It began to seem as if anybody willing to touch the franchise with a ten-foot pole would discover a magic pot of gold. This sent a clear message to the publishing industry: Sex (in an ethically dubious context, rife with supernatural creatures) sells.
Other YA novel series first published in the wake of Twilight’s success, including The Mortal Instruments by Cassandra Clare, Evernight by Claudia Grey, and Hush, Hush by Becca Fitzpatrick, all include three key ingredients:
- A romantic/ pseudosexual relationship between a human and a supernatural creature, usually with the power balance dramatically skewed in favour of the male love interest, because he possesses mystical powers.
- A purity narrative in which the protagonist will inevitably always remain faithful to her one true love, regardless of any plot complication (including but not limited to death, incest, and/ or domestic abuse).
- A romance arc within which either sex or a serious relationship development directly or indirectly completes, empowers, or supernaturally charges the otherwise inane female protagonist.
While all of these books have been written by women, and a significant portion of our generation has either grown up reading them or consumed their narrative in another form, such as film or television, they do no favours to gender parity in the literary community, or in society overall. The commercial craving for stock young adult romances puts pressure on female authors to write them in exchange for getting their name out into the public sphere and attaining the dream of being able to live off their writing. It also leads to an oversaturation of misogynistic plotlines and themes in young adult fiction directed towards women.
Unfortunately, this phenomenon has aged with its readership and slithered into the realm of adult fiction. Fifty Shades of Grey is a perfect example. Although it is aimed at an older readership than the than the aforementioned texts, it was originally a Twilight fanfiction called Masters of The Universe and draws on the same themes and plot points as the original text. While many of the juvenile trappings of Twilight, such as vampires, werewolves and other supernatural paraphernalia, have been cut from Fifty Shades of Grey, the more sinister features of the stock young adult novel formula remain. Rather than being an overpowered vampire, Christian Grey is a CEO with significant financial clout. Rather than being a mere human who works in a sporting goods store, Anastasia Steele is a mere literature student who works in a hardware store. Christian’s abuse of power is palpable throughout their relationship as he constantly crosses boundaries, through acts such as triangulating the location of Anastasia’s cell phone after she drunk dials him, showing up in her apartment – no, not at, in – without invitation, and selling her car without her permission. Similarly to Bella and Edward in Twilight, Anastasia always returns to Christian (eventually marrying him), even after all the horrible things he does; the contract; the wok scene; the beatings; buying the business where Anastasia works; et cetera. However, Fifty Shades of Grey spreads its sickening depiction of romance further than a young adult novel ever could. While Twilight has only spawned additional movie and graphic novel franchises, you can now live out the Fifty Shades fantasy by sharing a bottle of Fifty Shades of Grey Red Satin Wine ($16.29 AUD) with your partner before trying out a painful contraption from the franchise’s bondage and sex toy line (prices ranging from $10 – $130 AUD). The type of grape used in the wine remains unknown, however one can only hope that sales will drop faster than the average person’s brain cell count after reading the book.
As the Fifty Shades Freed is being screened in cinemas throughout March, you may be wondering: “what can I do about this?” Nobody would suggest you should boycott the film. It would be unpragmatic (some of the more incoherent aspects of the narrative are rather amusing after all). While we can’t do anything to stem the tide of our generation’s craving for stock romance and smut, we can embrace it with strings attached. This requires an acknowledgment that Fifty Shades of Grey and other similar franchises, in all their smutty (and silly) glory, do not explore healthy relationships or provide realistic depictions of sexuality. Once you take the first step in recognising the superficial and unrealistic nature of young adult romance, the sooner you will be snaffling popcorn and indulging in woeful one liners like “I fuck… hard” with a healthy dose of self-awareness (and glee).
In conclusion, while our love affair with young adult novels and smut is “fifty shades of fucked up”, it is still a better love story than Twilight. Just remember to only take what the characters do with a grain of salt. After all, whips and chains might break your bones, but words should never hurt you.
Gender parity has not swept through the publishing industry since you last read my column. I am as personally shocked as you are. Fortunately, you can rely on me to deliver the goods on the best texts by women authors you know you’ll love.
- If you like The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler, you will love Cocaine Blues by Kerry Greenwood
- If you like Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, you will love North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
- If you like The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, you will love The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
- If you like(d) Naruto by Misashi Kishimoto, you will love Fullmetal Alchemist by Hiromu Arakawa
- If you like Sabrina the Teenage Witch by George Gladir and Dan DeCarlo, you will love W.I.T.C.H by Elisabetta Gnone
- If you like Josie and The Pussycats by Dan DeCarlo, you will love Jem and The Holograms by Kelly Thompson
- If you like Amiri Baraka, you will love Nikki Giovanni
- If you like Dick Higgins, you will love Yoko Ono
- If you hate Gertrude Stein, you love Gertrude Stein (stop lying to yourself)