Until the year 2020, I had never seen the Twilight Series
To me it was the bane of high school and college existence. It was the culmination of a popular culture content to imagine men, rather than be inspired by ones right in front of us. It was heartbreaking to find Edward and Jacob as the definitions of the female imagination that I had to walk through in college. To be the strange coastlines I had to paddle through without any sign of hope.
I remember the intense jealousy I felt as the girls in our college choir would not stop talking about the Twilight series, not in soft whispers but in garish displays, signaling to others their constant fandom. I wanted desperately to understand and also wanted simultaneously to disengage myself from any idea that I was not good enough. Instead I turned towards Updike’s Rabbit novels and Mad Men and found myself in another romance all its own, which was the decadence of marriages falling apart.
So it would be a decade before I watched the films.
Yet with Stephanie Meyer’s new book Midnight Sun wafting through the air, along with…ahem…another virus, it seemed as good a time as any to investigate the five movies that stirred the pot of a phenomenon that now is looked back on with a sort of embarrassment or disgust. It is hard to find many women who I have talked to today who has not sighed with their firsthand accounts of scouring the internet for Edward and Jacob fanfiction (and we’ll come back to that too).
When I saw the movies on Amazon Prime, I had such a glowing realization that I said to myself out loud “It is time.” Time enough had passed in my life to see the movies with a better sense of judgment and open arms. It would not be the bitter resentment of an adolescent but the understanding ears of a dutiful parent. Granted, I would not be watching the “extended editions” no matter how little or much they promised to add: no parent can remain that stoic over teen angst for that long. But still, I felt compelled to undertake a mission of my own design. And that was:
What is there to say about Twilight that isn’t about abstinence?
Before we get into the movies, and my Marxist reading, we should clarify what I think has already been said and confirmed time and again. Twilight is predominately about abstinence.
In every conversation between Bella and Edward, and in each takeaway from scene to scene, once one has heard about the central thesis of the series, one cannot ignore it.
To be fair, the entire genre of gothic romance is as Mark Kermode describes it in his reviews of Twilight: “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” In some cases, the movies make complex the difficulty of being a teenager and wanting something (sex) that society describes as punishing on the woman if she is not careful.
But the movie has a careful throughline of “First comes love, then comes marriage…”
So while I attempt an alternative reading here, I do not want to detract from what is so obviously the real story behind Twilight.
My reading came out of once again a desire to see the films as something besides abstinence. Was there something else perhaps in the movies, and in the whole enterprise that so hypnotized the men and women around me, that could give some explanation for its popularity? Was there a way to read within the scope of 2020 that could help provide context for an American history on display without us knowing it?
It would have to be a reading that acknowledges the unspoken. For example, in a shocking realization, my fashion in high school and college is the exact fashion of the students at Bella’s high school in Forks (though not always, and we’ll come back to that too). The rolled up and untucked button-down shirts Edward wears in the first movie were things that I still have as a relic of those years in my closet. Sometimes we live history and do not know it.
Could there be a story (like my poor fashion sense) in the movie that needs to be told?
And in my opinion one does.
At first, I thought that when Bella fell in love with Edward, she was falling in love with…the internet.
Seeing her depression in New Moon, it looked like a young person does now who does not have their iPhone. It is sort of wretched and pitying to watch the morose way they constantly bring up the fact that their mom took their phone. The lack of Instagram or TikTok seems to so shock their system that when Bella finds herself screaming in the night, one imagines it’s because she forgot how to write a letter…
Is it really so hard to believe? Edward does not sleep, does not eat, and runs on…well…life. In the same way that the internet is produced by us, by our time and energy, so Edward feeds on life itself. When Edward recites iambic pentameter in New Moon, watching an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, I jibed at the television, “Thanks Wikipedia.” His agelessness and robust knowledge of the world doesn’t seem to stave off a sense of dick-measuring when it comes to his fight with Jacob, but his coldness and cutting-to-the-chase of making decisions before Bella is even aware of them, it all has this smell of what artificial intelligence claims to do now.
But it was a sort of unsustainable argument. A better writer of culture could take a stab at it (pun intended) but it was something that I had little…stake in.
What is much easier to find in the Twilight series is an economics argument. The central premise I’d like to make here is that Bella’s love for Edward is not so much a paranormal metaphor for sex and abstinence as it is just as much a quest to go from the working class to the ruling class. Her insistence that she is not normal and that she is meant to be so much more is the sign of a person who wants to rise the ranks of the social ladder and enter into the monied class of the aristocracy that is being a vampire.
To help explain and provide evidence for this, I’d like to go film by film and find the overwhelming evidence to convince you that Bella’s choice is a calculating and economic one, rather than a romantic bout of passion.
One can spot some of the signs of a materialist argument right from the beginning. To Bella, Phoenix is the closest she will get to a cultural center. But now she is headed off to Forks, Washington, population 3,123. The relative obscurity of the American rural landscape, especially post-recession, is no joke. When since the recession the amount of job growth in rural areas has amounted to somewhere along the lines of 3%, Bella was being placed into a forgotten realm. The anger and resentment of the America between the coasts would not go full Godzilla until the 2016 election, but the seeds of foment were certainly planted here.
Bella arrives and is greeted by her father, the local sheriff of the town, a symbol of authority and a mainstay of the “community.” Yet despite her father’s awkward place as a bringer of justice, and one that has serious connotations in 2020, in the late 2000s, his involvement in the community is one of relative harmony. His closest friends, however, turn out to not be directly involved with Forks at all, but rather with the Native American reservation nearby. Early shots of Charlie, Bella’s dad, show him to be the kind of actor who knows he is in a teen angst film and seems to luxuriate in it. He is one of my favorites to me, and he is the closest symbol to the working class in the film. Charlie has no real awareness of Bella’s problems, and does not even possess the knowledge of the intelligentsia to provide therapy to her heart throbbing depressions as they arise. What Charlie mostly does is drink, fish, and watch sports with the boys. In Charlie we get a glimpse of what Bella’s life could look like, which is something that her mother (an explorer of the sunnier side of life) seemed to have patently rejected. Where Charlie embedded himself explicitly, Bella’s mother Renée chose bohemia.
But often in the movies one finds Charlie to be sort of worthless. Each time disappearances are made in Forks (so often that it’s any wonder why the FBI isn’t called in), Charlie finds himself so out of his depth that often his approach to the problem is ignored entirely. In reverence to the upper class, the vampires often have to solve the problems…even if it is a problem that their own class has orchestrated.
A Gift From Jacob
The first order of business is to welcome Bella to her lot in life, and that means working with the local reservation to buy her an old truck. That is not to say that it is a pathetic truck. Comparing vehicles later, the first thing we notice about the truck is the size, heft, and weight of the truck. Opening the doors, one can hear that metal clang that so many trucks now cower in fear of. To hit that truck is to take one’s life in one’s own hands.
Whether it is because of Kristen Stewart’s early acting, or perhaps it was an early scene, or perhaps due to a lack of understanding of perspective in giving Stewart a relative spectrum of emotional balance, Bella reacts in an irrationally exuberant way. She does that thing with her hands that we all used to do to show her excitement.
Edward’s car on the other hand is a zippy sporty car that goes fast and is meant for the city. A low riding car with good gas mileage and a quick acceleration.
Meeting Jacob for the first time does not quite carry that thrill. It is in their familiarity and relative ease that Bella finds herself slipping easily. Like Neville before reaching 100% Neville in the Harry Potter movies, Jacob is not quite TEAM JACOB yet. His hair is long, his attire is casual, his muscles are deflated, and his demeanor is carefree. He could honestly forget Bella the moment he turns his head. Of course that is not the case, as we know from the later iterations, but here his representation is similar to Charlie, which is to say that he is firmly embedded in the working class. They are mechanics (which comes up later), and they do things. Taking action, whether the situation warrants it or not, is the sort of John Wayne style of behavior that gives the local world their own sense of a moral code. Other movies like Winter’s Bone highlight the fact that, far enough away from civilization as we know it, tribal rules develop. We’ll see this more in New Moon.
School Politics Post-Mean Girls
Having Bella go to school is one of the strangest scenarios I have ever seen on film. There is the briefest moment at the beginning of the movie where she parks her old-as-shit truck in the parking lot, and she gets some looks from three or four teenagers (some 35% of the school) and a remark is made about her ride. That is the conventional route to take in a movie like this. Where Bella is the fish-out-of-water character, and like Cady Heron from Mean Girls (one of my favorites), she’ll have to figure out the rules of school the hard way.
That is not the case at all.
For one thing, despite her dad being the chief of police in Forks, the characters give her a warm welcome. They encourage her to sit at their table, though their relative standing in the school is not made clear (unlike Mean Girls). And what is strange about Bella’s interactions at school is that her friends and acquaintances look to provide every opportunity to include her in the conventional high school experience. They offer her a chance to go dress shopping with them. They ask her to prom and Bella instead plays matchmaker, which for some reason the other characters respect despite the fact that she has been there for the shortest amount of time. Bella seems to reject their advances at every turn, and despite one brief acknowledgement from Anna Kendrick in New Moon, the other characters seem to have no problem being looked down upon by Bella in either thought or action. She could not be less interested in these plebeian students and what they hope to provide.
It is only when the Cullen clan enter the cafeteria that the school hierarchy is made clear.
First of all the group is dressed immaculately. This is about as far as I got in the book, but one thing that always bothered me about the first book was how poorly Stephanie Meyer described them. Her most used word, “perfect,” was so unspecific that I could not formulate that in my mind. But I can see to some degree now that the word “perfect” is a rejection or opposite of the word parochial. To me, parochial is a negative connotation to mean “narrow-minded” or “limiting” or lacking universality.
Unfortunately, in a movie, they have to make the Cullen family look like something, and so they make them look like a JC Penney catalog. The style on hand is matching, layered, austere and yet extravagant. They all probably spent more time on their hair than Anna Kendrick spent on her entire outfit.
The key line is when Anna Kendrick and the gang sigh that Edward Cullen has not been interested in any girl on campus. “Apparently he’s too perfect for anybody here.”
As such there is an ambiguity here, where when we see Bella stare for an inappropriate amount of time at Edward (and vice versa) we cannot really tell why. Is Bella staring because she has an internal affection on her own? Or is she staring because everyone else is staring? In other words, is Bella staring only because she is envious and desirous of the looks that other people give? Unfortunately, in a capitalist society, one cannot help but have both together all of the time.
This is not a small thing to quibble at as it is the second explicit value statement made in the film. The first is when Bella laments leaving Phoenix and missing “the sunlight” for the dour environment of the Pacific Northwest. In a “shit hole” town (to quote Donald Trump) like Forks, to have the Cullen family at all is a rare treat, one that the rest of the school wishes they could take part in, but the entire group seems so separated as to be not there at all. Sometimes, literally, they aren’t. On sunny days they take absences from the school, and the energy level that Bella feels is noticeably depleted.
The first time Bella encounters Edward in a close way is lab class, which is not an accident. Edward’s father, a doctor, is clearly a highly skilled professional, and the sterile and clean look of the biology classroom has similarities to their modern house in the woods. Compared to Bella’s homey look of her house, with all the windows curtained up and plenty of old and comfortable furniture, Edward’s environments that he interacts in are usually austere, modern, and difficult to sit in for too long. His inability to read Bella’s thoughts makes her “special” only in the sense that Edward can determine the value of the assets in any environment. Like a salesman or a sophisticate, he knows the desires of those around him, and he can either exploit them or surpass them.
But with Bella what follows is strange and hilarious. You cannot watch this scene and not laugh. I dare you.
Bella’s reaction is more enlightening. She smells her hair.
Bella perceives his intensity as disgust, and she questions her own value. Do I smell? Is that why he is holding his nose? Is it a product? Is he allergic to something? At no point does she attempt to communicate what his problem is, or stand up for herself, but instead gives in to whatever value statement he makes. Oftentimes it is the rich who decide what is worth anything…
Him leaving the lab in that first moment gives way to another, second scene in the lab, and here Edward is far more gentlemanly, the kind of polite socialite you want to take to your father. His deeply instinctive reactions to the lab homework indicate a brilliance that Bella eventually takes for granted to get the class work done.
Shine Bright Like a…
Much has been discussed about Stephanie Meyer’s changes to the vampire canon, but one of the strangest is the way that vampires, rather than disintegrate in a charcoal mess of fire when exposed to the sun, instead glitter.
Bella’s reaction is that he is beautiful and that he shines “like diamonds.”
Diamonds of course being a precious gem of high value, usually used for jewelry, notably ones in matrimony.
Comparatively, in order to discover that Edward is a vampire, Bella has to plunge the darkest depths in order to find this truth. In a retelling of a story by Jacob, and by investigating a bookstore (one that looks as if it is run by another Native American man) rather than going dress shopping, Bella learns the darker truth about vampires.
The family’s reaction to Bella’s discovery is mixed. Like many of the elite, aloofness and privacy, almost to the point of absurdity, is not uncommon. Desperate to redraw lines of private and public, the elite attempt to build ever bigger establishments and hire security and remove themselves from the world in order to have some peace and quiet. The vampire secret here is no different than Bella performing as some paparazzi, digging into affairs of the upper class for some smut.
What is she worth?
One awkward trend of the series concerns the question of value, most notably Bella’s value. Bella having an unreadable mind (an exception that Edward must acquire) is what is called “use value” which is a term to indicate that she (like a bottle of coke) has something that is immediately apparent and valuable at a bodily level. Edward is weighed down by the petty thoughts of others (“sex, money, and cat”). But Bella is an enigma.
The more concerning question is that of “exchange value.” I’m sorry for all the jargon here, but this was a super important distinction to Karl Marx. Exchange value is the social monetary value of items and objects in the world. Without civilization, a dollar bill is worthless. It’s just a piece of paper. The Weimar Republic in Germany suffered inflation to such a large degree that people had to use wheelbarrows to bring in enough money to buy a loaf of bread. That is one example of exchange value when it is broken.
Bella finds herself so often in a game of exchange value.
Evil vampires James and Victoria, other members of the upper class, are decidedly more hedonistic and are social playboys and girls on a quest for enjoyment at all cost. One could say that the Cullens are New Money while James and Victoria represent Old Money. They have little concern for inserting themselves in highly skilled pursuits like becoming a medical doctor (like the Cullen father or like Bruce Wayne’s dad) but they are far more interested in pleasurable activities like horse riding and croquet. Sensing Bella’s “scent,” James sees no reason why he cannot take from the working class to suit his needs. The Cullen family decides, for whatever reason, to protect her.
This sort of thing happens time and again, and compared to other films in the 21st century, it is something that does not hold up at all. Bella seems to need saving or protecting. Weirdly, sometimes that protecting hurts Bella a lot. Hopefully I’ll come back to this with New Moon. The point to make here is that another ambiguity arises where Bella seems to be valuable because other upper class people seem to think so. And that is cat nip for the upper class, as status is just as much who one is as what one owns. In fact later, when they dismiss Bella as being a human “pet,” it is not entirely inaccurate.
Just a couple remarks on the end of the film before I wrap up here. When Bella and Edward arrive at prom, Bella takes a look around inside and sees Forks at its most embarrassing. It is a bunch of people she sees all the time already, participating in weird picture taking scenarios. The dollar store lighting in the venue hopes to provide a “rave” atmosphere that falls flat.
Instead, Bella and Edward advocate for decorum, and leave for the rather beautiful and quiet gazebo, a sort of timeless slow dance that has Bella participating in a highly sought after pastime among the upper class, dressed in fancy attire. Bella’s earlier rejection of dresses somehow seems to hardly matter at all when Edward is watching…
I will remark here an interesting moment when Edward hoists Bella’s feet on his toes while dancing, which is a very paternalistic gesture (which occurs again with a kiss on the forehead). This is a detail for another reading that someone else can do, but it seemed interesting to note it.
In the gazebo scene, Bella admits that she wants more than just Edward. But Edward debates what should be standard. “Is it not enough to have a long and happy life with me?” Bella says, “For now.” She’s bargaining. Bella has a desire, not just for Edward in some carnal way, but also to participate in a group. Her self-actualization (culminating in Eclipse) is based on the decision between “who I am and who I was supposed to be.”
Before going to prom, Jacob stops Bella and relays a message to break up with Edward. The inevitability that Bella flirts with of joining the ruling class is different than, say, Lily Bart in House of Mirth. While Lily continues to hedge her bet between the upper class and her close friend who loves her but is impoverished, Bella makes no illusions on what she’s after. We may all say that we are TEAM EDWARD or TEAM JACOB, but for Bella the inevitability of her pursuit is abundantly clear.
To be in a relationship with Edward is a lot like Tom Buchanan having an affair with Mrs. Wilsonin Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Tom as a member of aristocracy derives a lot of pleasure in coming to town and picking her up whenever and wherever. Yet had Mrs. Wilson lived long enough to continue the affair, she might have resented it. In time she may have wanted to have the carrot, rather than eat it, and take Daisy’s spot in the luxurious home. Bella’s terms are institutional rather than romantic.
My wife told me of a moment in the book where Bella is described as something like “a score of 6/10 in Phoenix, but a 9/10 in Forks” which means she has jumped up in relative prettiness. To score her is an act of apportioning value to appearances, and if Bella can leverage that well enough, she can move up a class.
The conflict that she has to face in the later films is not whether to fall in love, but rather how she can best leave her working class upbringing and still carry that “wisdom” with her as she escapes into the ruling one.
Along the way she will have to deal with strange rules, traditional customs, and violent displays.
[End of Part 1]