This blog post is adapted from a longer essay on this topic that will be appear in an upcoming Psychology of Twilight anthology published by BenBella Books. For more racial analysis of news and popular culture, join the | Between The Lines | Facebook page and follow Mikhail on Twitter.
Let's face it: most of us living in Western countries would rather think about other things than our own certain demise. Yet, death is such a crucial part of life that existential philosophers and psychologists have sometimes described it as a gift1. In the words of novelist Paul Theroux, "Death is an endless night so awful to contemplate that it can make us love life and value it with such passion that it may be the ultimate cause of all joy and all art."
In other words, death is a gift, because our awareness of our own mortality gives our life urgency and forces us to find in it meaning. The specific meaning has to be determined individually, but existential psychologists Rollo May and Irving Yalom argue that confrontation with death persuades individuals to count their blessings, become more aware of how their relationships impact their life, and engage more fully with their life's purpose (290).
The Twilight series contains a variety of different encounters with death. As such, entertainment aside, it makes several statements about life, including what it is that gives it meaning.
For Bella, one crucial encounter with death occurs at the end of Twilight when she decides to sacrifice her own life in order to protect her mother, who Bella thinks is being held captive by James. After surviving this encounter thanks to a timely rescue, Bella decides she loves Edward so much that she wants to sacrifice her mortal life in order to be able to spend eternity with him. Moreover, because Edward was changed at 17, she wants the end (and the new beginning) to be immediate.
To Bella, the afterlife she yearns for is well worth the cost of her human life, and she doesn't seem to struggle much with the choice. She is, to be sure, saddened by the realization that it likely means never seeing her parents again, but there seem to be no other human relationships worth grieving or human experiences worth having2. For Bella, becoming a vampire (in order to be with Edward) quickly begins to be the primary, if not the only, purpose of her human life.
In Twilight, Edward doesn't just keep the poorly-coordinated Bella safe, he literally carries her on his back.
The message is clear: What gives life meaning and purpose is the ability to love, more specifically, the opportunity to be in a loving romantic relationship3
From an existential perspective, this is entirely acceptable. The meaning of life is, after all, something that every person must figure out for him/herself. To many feminist critics, however, Bella's interest in Edward to the exclusion of practically everything else has been a point of contention (see, for example, this treatment in Ms. Magazine). The feminist cultural critiques aren't anti-love or anti-men. They just argue that works of fiction should reflect the full richness of women's interests and abilities to contribute to society, rather than reinforce traditional gendered representations of young women finding personal fulfillment exclusively in a romantic relationship.
For her part, Meyer has denied that Twilight is an anti-feminist work. She takes the position that feminism is primarily about validating and respecting the full range of women's choices, including so-called traditional ones. She further points out that Bella is a fictional character in a non-realistic universe and that she never meant for Bella's choices to either reflect her own choice preferences or be the model for anyone else's.
Bella's choices are worth discussing - in a variety of contexts - including feminism and healthy relationships, but the dichotomous framing of the debate as feminist vs anti-feminist strikes me as highly counterproductive. Such a framing not only limits the richness of the discussion but creates tension and feelings of bad will that are not helpful to any person of group. If we want to use a feminist lens (and I do think such a lens is useful), it seems much more meaningful and useful to describe both the ways in which Bella's choices contribute to a feminist ideal and the ways in which they depart from that ideal.
Personally, I don't begrudge Bella her choices. To the contrary, I appreciate that Bella's choices are fully her own, rather than an internalization of her parents', and I admire her willingness to pursue what she wants on her own terms. At the same time, I wish for Bella the same as what I wish for my kids, a life filled with love (of course!) but not just love. I wish for Bella a humanist and spiritual consciousness, a desire to not only love but also to grow psychologically and to find ways to contribute to her community in a variety of different ways. I hope that having found love, she will now begin to focus on these other things that I think give life meaning.
All that said, it is also reasonable to forego a feminist analysis altogether, in order to focus on other aspects of their relationship. Feminist ideals aside, Bella's feelings of intense and passionate love and her choice to pursue this love at the cost of everything else are familiar to many of us. Bella provides a window into our own experience (or fantasy) of passionate love. For some of us, the experience is far removed but still accessible with the right catalyst. Bella is that catalyst and we embrace her, not only for who she is but for our own memories of passionate love that she awakens. This is entirely independent of feminism, which of course has its place in this discussion. From my perspective, the feminist critique and the corresponding dialogue are important and necessary. I'm glad these issues are being raised and discussed. But it's important to remember that the feminist critiques, like racial critiques, do not (cannot!) capture the totality of the series. They are merely (an important) part of the Twilight gestalt.
May, Rollo and Yalom, Irving. Existential Psychotherapy. In R.J. Corsini & D. Wedding (Eds.). Current Psychotherapies, 7th Edition. Belmont, CA: Thomson, 2005
Meyer, Stephenie. Twilight. New York: Little, Brown, and Co. 2005.
1. This notion is well examined in an alternate vampire universe, with Buffy, the vampire slayer, receiving some unexpected existential therapy from the spirit of the First Slayer, who following the death of Buffy's mother cryptically tells Buffy "Death is your gift" ("Intervention", season 5, episode 18)
2. Both Edward and Alice are taken aback by this attitude. Alice even scolds her "You don't get to be human again, Bella. This is a once-in-a-lifetime shot." (Eclipse, 311)
3. I recognize, of course, that Bella is a fictional character and, as such, does not necessarily speak for the writer. To the contrary, Stephenie Meyer has explicitly written that she would have made different choices than Bella. That said, a work of fiction may contain a life philosophy that the author did not intend. It is reasonable to examine and analyze this philosophy (as it is reasonable to examine any literary content), even if the author chooses to distance herself from it.