Emphasized Femininity and the Fetishization of Purity in the Twilight Saga

In the main promotional image for Twilight, Bella projects innocence as Edward towers possessively over her.

Introduction:

The Twilight Saga was a major cultural phenomenon throughout the mid-aughts up until the mid 2010’s. The series follows the journey of the virginal human Bella as she is swept up into the mortally dangerous world of vampires. It begins with her instantaneous infatuation with the controlling Edward, and an overwhelming lust that he refuses to consummate until the end of the series, when they are finally married. Edward insists on this, forbidding the consummation of Bella’s sexual desire because he is “old-fashioned” (McEachern, 2020, para 21).

This essay will focus on two films: Twilight (2008) and The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn—Part 1 (2011). Both films exemplify the phenomenon we will discuss.

Twilight (2008) establishes and normalizes Edward’s murderous lust towards the vulnerable, mortal, passive, pure Bella, and marks the beginning of Bella’s quest for consummation, and Edward’s noble refusal to kill her, which is bound up in his refusal to consummate their relationship until marriage. Twilight (2008), while it does not feature sex, vampiric conversion, or marriage, features metaphorical versions of each in its conclusion. Edward saves Bella from the brink of death by sucking vampire’s venom from her, a test of his resolve and restraint, and a moment of dangerous intimacy that closely resembles the process of conversion. In a way, Edward is able to satisfy his own desire to consume and destroy Bella, at least in part, while Bella is left to lust until the conclusion of the film series. In a way, too, Bella’s purity has been partially tainted by this act, and this essentially binds her to Edward. The narrative concludes with Edward taking Bella to prom, a traditional heterosexual ritual.

In The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn—Part 1 (2011), Bella and Edward are finally married, and they are able to “ethically” consummate their relationship. Bella makes Edward promise to turn her, and insists on having sex with him for the first time while she is still human, for reasons unknown. Edward’s superhuman strength makes sex a genuinely dangerous prospect for Bella in human form. However, she chooses to be as pure and passive as can be until the moment of consummation. The power dynamics in this whole affair are strange—Edward gets exactly what he wants (sex within marriage) in exchange for giving Bella exactly what she wants (immortality) which essentially amounts to permanent ownership of Bella. This is what he wanted all along. The only sacrifice is her purity and her vulnerability. In many ways, Edward loses his favorite part of her.

We argue that the Twilight Saga follows a narrative trajectory that fetishizes purity and demonizes and simultaneously teases consummation. The series makes an argument for abstinence and male domination, and tantalizes its audience while admonishing their desires. The dialectic of emphasized femininity and hegemonic masculinity underpins this trajectory, in that Bella is characterized by her purity and passivity and Edward is characterized by his dominance and control of the relationship.

Part 1: Purity and Passivity

A girl and her father on the day of a purity ball.

The concept of purity, specifically Christian purity and virginity, is fundamental to a complete understanding of Stephanie Meyers’ text and the adaptations that followed. Within some extremely traditional Christian denominations, purity is valued and fetishized to the point that young girls pledge their virginity to their fathers and wear “purity rings” (McEachern, 2020). We must keep in mind that this is the mindset Meyers brings to her work.

Sumelius (2020) notes that “in Twilight, [abstinence] it is the focus of the story and the most defining marker of virtue. It propels the plot and defines who the Cullens are in the Twilight universe” (p. 17). Purity, specifically virginity and abstinence, are exemplified not only by the immense value placed upon Bella’s purity, both in the sense of her passivity and in the sense of her virginity, but by the virtue of restraint, emphasized above all else within the Cullen “family.” The Cullens are “vegetarian,” in that they only feed on the blood of animals. This takes away some of the monstrosity of vampirism, and puts restraint at the forefront of Edward’s motivations. His primary display of restraint is seen in his suppression of his violent urges towards Bella. Even though he is not directly violent towards her, he is entirely obsessed with her, stalking her and even watching her sleep.

Before his relationship with Bella begins, Edward stalks her on a shopping trip with friends, and revealed himself in order to defend her honor against a group of drunk predators. Bella does not respond in a way that makes sense. She should be alarmed that Edward was following her, but she takes it in stride, in so much shock that she can only process her proximity to an extremely traumatic event and Edward’s prevention of it.

Bella sits in the passenger seat of Edward's car with a shocked expression after he has saved her. He says "I should go back there and rip those guys' heads off" in a subtitle.
Edward expresses his violent urges, and the film paints them as masculine heroism. The audience should be enamored with Edward’s protectiveness and strength, and Edward seems to adhere to his virtue ethic prioritizing restraint.

One of the key aspects of Edward’s heroism is his actions against a threat not just to her safety but to her purity, which is one of her most important traits. The film implies that the men he saves her from would have sexually assaulted her. The predatory behavior of the men he overtook threatens a virtue he actively fetishizes. He has already laid claim to her and her purity, as evidenced by his decision to give into obsessive behaviors. In portraying this characterization and this event, the film co-signs the importance of Bella’s purity, emphasizes her helplessness, and justifies a predatory variety of hegemonic masculinity.

However, Edward’s desire to keep Bella “pure” is not entirely unlike the underlying logic of purity balls. Silver (2010) notes that “Edward’s appeal is, throughout the novel, paternal…. and [he] frequently refers to or treats her as a child” (p. 125). After his questionable heroics, he “makes sure Bella gets something to eat” (Rosenberg, 2008, p. 43), and in an explanation of the night’s events, he says only that he “feel[s] protective of” (Rosenberg, 2008, p. 44) Bella, echoing the language of a father. Thus, Bella’s purity and passivity within the film is extreme, likened to that of a child, and the patriarchal nature of Edward’s domineering hegemonic masculinity is made near literal. This child comparison has an uncomfortably pedophilic undertone, and calls up the kind of hegemonic masculinity and emphasized femininity in purity-fetishizing films like Taken, released the same year as Twilight, in which a father defends his daughter from depraved sex traffickers using ultra-violence (Kelly, 2014). Bella’s actual father is also concerned for Bella’s pre-marital purity, specifically “that Bella will become pregnant out of wedlock” (Silver, 2010, p. 128). It seems that the whole cast of characters is obsessed with Bella’s virginity.

Part 2: Consummation and Domesticity

Domesticity and marriage has been the narrative’s goal for Bella since its beginning. This intention is embedded in the Christian idea of consummation, and prescribed by Edward’s insistence on marriage as a precondition for sex. Bella is resistant to the idea of conforming to the role of wife, and the ceremony of marriage itself, but she ultimately coalesces, again “choosing” passivity, to the extent that a fiction could have agency beyond an author’s will, and to the extent that a partner within a controlling relationship can choose freely.

Edward and Bella at their wedding
Edward and Bella look at eachother with comfort and satisfaction, having finally fulfilled the path of a traditional Christian romance
Edward and Bella embrace while dancing at a prom.
Edward looks with pain and longing at Bella, who has a similar expression of lust without the pain, which is likely Edward repressing violence.

The shot of Edward and Bella just after their marriage mirrors the shot of the couple at prom (see second slide), but without their typical stoic, pained expressions. Bella wears the expression of a woman fulfilled. Instead of the tacit, shared desire for a denied consummation, the traditional heterosexual ritual can result in the fulfillment of mutual desire.

Even after Bella and Edward are married and have sex that conforms to his traditional values, it comes with dangerous consequences: Bella is covered in bruises, and more importantly, Bella is impregnated with a half-demon child whose gestation and birth almost kills her, almost as if she is being punished for having sex. McEachern (2020), who grew up within purity ring culture, notes that “the consequence of pregnancy and the addition of physical pain and danger tied to sex and childbirth are… inescapable,” and that “Bella played by the same rules [her] purity ring wearing peers did, which kept us on the brink of expressing sexuality for fear of the consequences” (para. 22).

The horrific effects of the pregnancy on Bella.

Bella’s nearly fatal pregnancy forces Edward to convert her, which has been her desire all along. Throughout the series, sex is conflated with danger, dehumanization, and death. Bella wants to be with Edward forever, in the sense that she wants him to end her human life and make her an immortal, secluding her from her family and friends and grounding her reality exclusively within his world. This desire is inextricable from her lust. Taylor (2012) notes that “pre-marital sex is rendered dangerous and the links between eroticism and death are made explicit; Bella seeks both sex and (un)death, conjoined desires which Edward works throughout to manage” (p. 32).

Bella noticing a baby bump soon after she loses her virginity.

When Bella “loses her purity” and immediately becomes a mother, the narrative forces her into domesticity in the sense of both motherhood and the role of wife. The argument seems to be that this is the natural progression of an ideal woman’s life, privileging a “reproductively-oriented, monogamous heterosexuality” (Charlebois, 2014, p. 54) as part of its perpetuation of hegemonic gender ideals.

Esme and Carlisle (right) and the Cullen family, made up of several heterosexual relationships under one roof collectively masquerading as normal.

It is plain to see that the traditional, domestic view of gender was not only in the author’s head, but in the heads of the characters around Bella, specifically Edward’s mother figure, Esme, who became a vampire after trying to kill herself when her baby died a few days after birth (Twilight 368) … [and] says that she ‘never got over her mothering instincts’” (Snider, 2012). Her relationship with Carlisle and their establishment of an idyllic domestic space mirroring a traditional family serves as a model of the kind of femininity Bella (and women at large) ought to strive for.

Esme immediately demonstrates her role as a domestic goddess and mother figure when she welcomes Bella into their traditional home by cooking her a meal. Ironically, vampires don’t eat, which means she performed this domestic ritual specifically for Bella’s benefit. She takes care of Bella as if she is already a mother, because she was never able to be. Esme’s characterization carries the implication that the ideal woman’s purpose is motherhood. She has spent an eternity as nothing but a loving mother, and unlike the rest of the family, has no special abilities beyond this.

Conclusion:

Twilight forwards a repressive narrative of femininity and expectations for women through its emphasis on Bella’s purity. She goes from virgin to mother in an instant, never not occupying a traditional female archetype. The series is an argument for abstinence, submission, and tradition. However, many repressed teenage girls existing within Christian cultures of purity were able to find a fictional place to explore their sexual desires through these stories, because their chaste Christian ethics were acceptable enough to mothers (McEachern, 2020). The function of the Twilight series is dialectic–it both perpetuates the fetishization of purity and advocates confinement to the domestic sphere, and it gives its audience an imaginary space within which to explore their own desires, in a similar fashion to the Twilight fan fiction “Fifty Shades of Grey” (Al-Mahadin, 2013).

Bibliography

Films

Condon, B. (2011). The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn—Part 1. Summit Entertainment.

Hardwicke, C. (2008). Twilight. Summit Entertainment.

Articles

Al-Mahadin, S. (2013). Is Christian a sadist? Fifty Shades of Grey in popular imagination. Feminist Media Studies, 13(3), 566-570.

Charlebois, J. (2014). The Construction of Gender in the Twilight Saga.

Kelly, C. R. (2014). Feminine purity and masculine revenge-seeking in Taken (2008). Feminist Media Studies14(3), 403-418.

McEachern, S. (2020).  Sex, lies, and vampires: Rethinking ‘Twilight’ and Purity Rings. Catapult. https://catapult.co/stories/sarah-mceachern-sex-lies-vampires-rethinking-twilight-purity-rings

Snider, Z. (2012). Vampires, Werewolves, and Oppression: Twilight and Female Gender Stereotypes. Young Scholars In Writing, 9, 128-136.

Silver, A. (2010). ” TWILIGHT” IS NOT GOOD FOR MAIDENS: GENDER, SEXUALITY, AND THE FAMILY IN STEPHENIE MEYER’S” TWILIGHT” SERIES. Studies in the Novel42(1/2), 121-138.

Sumelius, P. (2020). Managing Hunger and Desire: Self-Restraint and the Body in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Series.

Taylor, A. (2012). ‘The urge towards love is an urge towards (un) death’: Romance, masochistic desire and postfeminism in the Twilight novels. International Journal of Cultural Studies, 15(1), 31-46.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s