Stephenie Meyer’s new offering, Life and Death (2015), is intended to be a kind of addendum to her problematic series about teenage love in the age of vampirism, Twilight (2005). According to Meyer, the story is a kind of fictionalised response to the plethora of accusations of sexism that have been levelled at the Twilight series. By swapping the genders of almost all the characters in the original story, Life and Death is meant to show how problems with gender in the original series are actually problems that can be attributed to the main character’s humanity rather than her femininity.
Life and Death has been branded a lot of things: bungling, lazy, and just plain greedy. Most have greeted it with a rightful degree of cynicism, seeing it as a rather cheap way to make a bit of extra cash and rejuvenate a series that, ten years on, is beginning to look a little tired.
But let’s assume, for the moment, that Meyer’s re-write is a genuine attempt to prove that the imbalances in power between the two characters in Twilight are due to factors other than gender. Does she succeed? Is Twilight a credible story (inasmuch as a story about sparkling vampires living in twenty-first century Washington State can ever be credible) when it’s been almost entirely gender-swapped?
I want to begin with the epigraph, because it seems quite an appropriate place to start. Meyer substitutes the epigraph from the original novel (a quotation from the Biblical Book of Genesis: “But the tree of knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die”) with one from a more pleasing secular work by Jules Verne, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea: “If his destiny be strange, it is also sublime”. The differences in emphasis between the two passages are obvious. Twilight‘s epigraph emphasises struggle, pain, and death in language that is absolute and uncompromising; the words sound harsh, particularly in their archaic form (“thou shalt not”; “thou shalt surely die”). The quotation from Verne, in contrast, is milder in tone; there is a sibilance to the words ‘strange’ and ‘sublime’, softening the effect of the entire passage.
I don’t think it’s an accident that Bella’s story is prefaced with a reference to temptation, and to the Christian notion of ‘Original Sin’. It’s not surprising that this Biblical passage, which has been used to vilify women for centuries as weak and easily seduced, appears at the beginning of Twilight. Of course, Meyer would argue that the temptation referred to in the passage applies to both Bella and her lover, Edward; but there’s no getting around the fact that this is an ideologically loaded passage, and its use throughout history is a fact few are unfamiliar with. It is a passage dripping with condemnation for the human race.
Beau’s story is prefaced with a quotation from a (typically) masculine genre – the adventure story. It’s a book he later tells us is his favourite; in the same part of the narrative, Bella tells us her favourite authors include Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters (specifically, Emily Brontë). Verne’s words are mild and far from judgemental; they are, in fact, filled with hope and energy. ‘Sublime destiny’ for a man versus ‘assured death’ for a woman. It’s a bit of a bleak beginning. In these two passages, what emerges is a reflection on the major plot of both stories: awakening sexual desire. Female sexual desire is associated with a fall from grace, a succumbing to temptation that is tinged with a religious notion of ‘evil’. Male sexual desire is part of a man’s ‘destiny’, the experience perhaps ‘strange’ but also ‘sublime’. Beau’s story is not tinged with the notion of ‘Original Sin’; it is associated with a spirit of adventure, even beauty. One wonders why the change was necessary. After all, Beau surely does die at the end of the book; Bella doesn’t actually die until the fourth book, well after the quotation from Genesis is introduced in Book One.
Perhaps this was just one of the things that Meyer had decided, upon reflection, she would have liked to change in the original Twilight book. Perhaps Verne’s quotation could apply just as easily to Bella’s situation as it does to Beau’s. But somehow I’m a little doubtful; the gentleness of the Verne passage is in stark opposition to the berating, commanding tone of the Genesis extract. Bella, after all, suffers a lot more than Beau does before she finally reaches death and her conversion to a new kind of life. There is no adventure in store for her, and her experiences in Breaking Dawn are far from ‘sublime’.
The epigraph is just the first of some very major and noticeable changes made to the original text of Twilight. Although Meyer maintains that only about five per cent of the changes she made to the story were because of the switch in genders, this five per cent is incredibly revealing, and not a little disturbing.
Let’s consider the scene where Bella/Beau must be saved by Edward/Edythe in Port Angeles. In the original, Bella loses her way and is stalked by some dangerous-looking men until she is cornered and, the scene implies, is about to be sexually assaulted. Beau, meanwhile, wanders away, but instead of being stalked by strangers, stumbles upon a group of drug addicts in the middle of a drug deal. One of them recognises him as the Forks Chief of Police’s son. They threaten to kill him with a gun. Ignoring for a moment how ludicrous this scene is in and of itself, what’s striking about the way this event is re-written in Life and Death is the nature of the threat that the protagonist faces. The female version of the protagonist doesn’t need to be threatened with a gun – it is enough that she is alone, and female. Her would-be attackers need no weapons. Though Meyer never reveals exactly what would have happened to Bella if Edward hadn’t showed up, the truth is she doesn’t really need to. The reader knows, because the realities of sexual violence are so very real, so very mundane and everyday.
Beau must be recognised as a specific threat – the son of a policeman, a unique feature of his life – Bella only needs to be recognised for what she as a woman is, intrinsically, perceived as: a victim.
There are, obviously, glaring differences in the two characters. But they are not so much the result of gender as they are of gender expectations. Take, for instance, the little facts about Bella/Beau that are so central to the definition of their characters. First, the clumsiness: Bella is famous for her clumsiness, which is just one of the reasons that she has been branded a ‘damsel in distress’. Yet in Life and Death we are given a reason for Beau’s clumsiness: his growth spurt (Chapter I). Clumsiness, which is considered charming in a woman because it emphasises her helplessness, is somehow not palatable in a man – or, at the very least, it must be attributed to a specific cause (in this case, to his burgeoning masculinity, the famous teenage growth spurt that makes him physically taller than many of the people he meets). Beau’s clumsiness is something he will grow out of. It is not a part of his very nature, as Bella’s is.
Next, we could consider Bella’s self-critical approach to life, the assumption that she is inferior to everyone she meets, which makes her appear extremely neurotic, given how obsessed her classmates and newfound vampire friends are with her. Beau has these concerns too – but they’re somehow much less obvious than in the original, perhaps because Bella’s sense of inferiority is given time to run wild over the course of four books, becoming increasingly more irksome as time wears on. Beau’s neuroticism tends to manifest less as a belief in his own inferiority and more in what Meyer calls in her Foreword ‘OCD’.
Bella cooks and cleans for her father without even being asked. Beau does too – but Meyer implies several times throughout the story that it is because he’s obsessive-compulsive (and as a former psychology student, can I just add how much the abuse of the term ‘OCD’ in popular culture irks me?). We’re not really told why Bella is such a good homemaker, or even why all the irritating domestic details are necessary (do I really need to know every time Bella/Beau does a load of laundry?). The implication is that women naturally tend to develop an inferiority complex, particularly when surrounded by people who are all prettier, smarter, and stronger than them. Boys are apparently less unhinged (or just more pigheaded?).
Moreover, many of the changes in the book can be attributed to a similar cause: men cannot be portrayed as too emotionally and physically weak. When Edythe saves Beau from being crushed by a car, he struggles in her grasp but cannot break the hold of her strong arms. He immediately assumes he is “traumatized”, and wonders, “Was I weak with shock?” (Chapter III). Unsurprisingly, in the original there is no such thinking from Bella, only a description of Edward’s “iron grasp” (Twilight, Chapter III). There’s no earthly possibility that Beau could ever beat Edythe; yet Meyer is reluctant to state this fact outright.
As a love interest, Edythe is more constrained than Edward in many ways. Not only does she have to work hard to disguise her obvious strength and speed when around humans, she has an added layer of restraint imposed upon her: she must act like a girl, though she is clearly a superhero (the underlying assumption being that girls can’t be superheroes). So when she and Beau go out to dinner, the “half-filled room of watching people forced her to act like she was one of them” (Chapter IX). The (debateable) appeal of Edward for young women is that he is a ‘gentleman’; he acts like he is from another time. Yet Edythe cannot do the same thing, because gender roles (both the ones she grew up with at the beginning of the twentieth century and contemporary ones) constrain her behaviour. She must maintain the façade that Beau, the paltry human, is actually stronger than she. That it is he, not she, who is in charge when it comes to their relationship.
Edythe, like all women, is always being observed, her behaviour shaped by the “watching people” surrounding her, in ways that are arguably more complex and restrictive than Edward’s. No matter how much she seems to desire it, she cannot persuade Beau to be frightened of her. Later in the novel, Edythe asks Beau whether he is scared of her; he quickly replies, “Nope, sorry” (Chapter XIII). In the same scene in Twilight, Bella replies to the question, “I don’t scare you?” with “No more than usual” (Chapter XIII).
Finally, one other seemingly insignificant change: when Beau sees the Cullen family for the first time, he is told by his friend that Dr and Mr Cullen adopted their children because Dr Cullen can’t have children. In the original, it is Esme, Carlisle’s wife, who is presumed to be the reason for the couple’s childlessness. It’s a small detail, but it’s interesting to note that in both cases the blame for not being able to have children lies with the woman. It’s not unexpected from a series that ends with an affirmation of the importance of the family – mother, father, and child – and which stresses woman’s primary function as the bearer of children. As it turns out, the one ‘human experience’ Bella absolutely cannot be deprived of is having a child, the function her body was, after all, ‘designed for’. She can only die once she has completed this process, no matter how much it threatens her life. Childbearing wrecks her body completely (I’m sure I’m not the only person who doesn’t relish the thought of the gruesome childbearing scene in Breaking Dawn), as Christian tradition tends to stress it should. Once she has borne the child, her body completely destroyed, she can die.
It’s perhaps partly for this reason that Life and Death can end with Beau becoming a vampire; fatherhood doesn’t have the same importance for male identity as it does for female. An eternally childless woman is, the story suggests, an eternally unhappy, unfulfilled one. With a man it isn’t nearly so important. Interesting, too, is the fact that Meyer, in her Afterword, says that unlike Beau, Bella had a chance to “put her house in order” before she became a vampire. She was able to say goodbye to her parents, and plan for the future, and have a baby. But why the gendered phrase “put her house in order”? Why couldn’t Meyer have used the more common, ‘put her affairs in order’? Perhaps it’s just nitpicking, but the use of this phrase seems telling to me. Meyer uses it to suggest that Beau regrets the speed with which he becomes a vampire. But she’s vague about what, specifically, he regrets; mostly, it seems to be regret at not being able to say a proper farewell to his parents (they, unlike Bella’s parents, think he is dead). Yet Meyer is quick to reassure her readers that Beau is nevertheless extremely “happy”. Whether there’s a veiled suggestion that he regrets not having a family is almost impossible to determine. Bella, right up until the end, is perpetually putting somebody’s house in order.
Gender-swapping can be a feminist act. It’s been done in the past, and done well. But what Life and Death reveals is that while the act of gender-swapping could be considered feminist, it does not necessarily guarantee the production of a feminist text. This is particularly true of this book because Meyer set out to prove that criticisms of misogyny in the original series were unjustified. The two texts are meant to be read together. Yet what reading Twilight and Life and Death together reveals most of all is how the changes Meyer makes in her re-write actually emphasise the issues of gender inherent in the original series. Most of these issues, to be fair, stem from the way that social expectations of gender impact on us without our even realising it. From that standpoint, inasmuch as Life and Death highlights problems with gender throughout the entire Twilight series, albeit inadvertently, it could be seen as a feminist text.
But herein lies the problem: Meyer doesn’t re-write to draw attention to problems of gender; she does it in a bungled attempt to mask them, to convince readers that the defining feature of the story is not gender but humanity. In this she fails utterly. The self-consciousness of Life and Death makes for an unenjoyable read, and the changes made to the text in order to accommodate Beau’s masculinity are glaringly obvious, more obvious than if Meyer had simply left the entire text as it was and just changed a few names and pronouns. Life and Death did not ‘solve’ Twilight‘s problem with gender. It only succeeded in making that problem more obvious than ever before.