I have something embarrassing to admit…
I started reading the Twilight series (yes, the one about teenage vampires) and I can’t put it down.
Admittedly, the books aren’t so far outside my normal fiction-reading wheelhouse. While I mostly consume non-fiction book these days, I’m a passionate lover of stories, and I’ve always bent toward YA (young adult) speculative fiction featuring a female lead.
This means that magic, fantasy, some sci-fi and a fuck-ton of dystopic futures have set the scene for the many hundreds of my favorite characters to discover that they’re far from ordinary, and end up saving the world in my reading history.
So, reading about teenage vampires isn’t that weird to me, and the writing itself is cheesy, but not actually bad. (Like some books I’ve read, lemme tell ya.)
The fact that I’m totally addicted and obsessed with these books is really only embarrassing to me because it’s so… cisheteronormative.
More than that, actually. It actually plays into heteronormative romantic fantasy tropes that I find unbearably problematic.
Note: I won’t give much in the way of spoilers here, but I might ruin the book for you. Also honestly if you’re not familiar with the books or movies this is probably gonna be super boring and confusing for you, so you might just wanna skip it this week lol. Also yes I know I’m like a decade late to this party. Whatevs. This is my blog and I do what I want. 😉
So! Let’s start with the ridiculous and problematic power differential between the main characters. Edward is this uber-strong and graceful hundred year old wealthy zaddy vampire trapped in a teenager’s body, who is the only one to ever “see” Bella’s true special-ness and worth.
Bella on the other hand is a frail, clumsy, seventeen year old who seems to be barely above the poverty line, has no idea she’s pretty, and can’t walk across a room without falling down. Oh, and she’s completely willing to literally give up her entire human life for Edward within like five minutes of dating him.
I mean. Are we seeing the problems yet?
Then there’s the giant red flags for emotional abuse. Edward is extremely controlling (somewhat justified by the fact that he needs to control himself around her constantly or he might kill her) and jealous, he shuts down and stonewalls her whenever he doesn’t want to talk about something, he withdraws emotionally on a regular basis and even ghosts her, he bosses her around and tries to control her life “for her own sake,” and he’s constantly dismissing and disrespecting her thoughts, questions, and ideas as if she is a stupid little girl. But this is supposed to be ok because he’s so over-the-top in his romancing of, obsession with, and commitment to Bella… nevermind how that’s exactly how most abusive men begin things.
But that’s not all, folks.
There’s also the not-at-all-subtle rape culture undertones in the dynamic, where she’s “too alluring to him” and he “can’t help himself,” so he must fight constantly to do the right thing and be a good man despite every fiber of his being wanting her (to drink her blood, but still). This constant red flag is, of course, framed as a compliment to Bella, and proof of their connection.
All of this is to say that the patriarchy is so present, it may as well be another character in the book.
Edward is supposed to be basically the perfect guy with all the masculine traits men *should* have according to the patriarchy, but exaggerated: strength, speed, money, confidence, a massive libedo but also massive self-control, and an ability to equally dominate and coddle his female partner. We, the female readers are supposed to ignore all the red flags and find him irresistible.
Another thing I take issue with is the advanced-level anxious-attachment red-flag co-dependence being held up as true love
Once Bella and Edward find each other and fall in love it’s like… welp, I guess I’d better surrender literally everything else in my life now for all eternity because I am yours and you are mine and who needs hobbies or a career or friends or a support system all I need is you.
People in our culture are so obsessed with romantic love and the concept of how it “completes us” that this completely insane cult-of-two behavior is considered sexy instead of terrifying.
Which brings me to the real reason I’m writing this: I can’t stop thinking about how this story worked.
People love this kind of obsessive love dynamic, and get super turned on by it. People eat this dynamic up, especially women. And I can’t help but wonder why, what effect this kind of story has on us, and what we can learn from it all.
Interestingly, there was a time (before I dismantled the patriarchy inside myself for decades, thought endlessly about the gender binary and traditional gender roles, leaned heavily into my own queerness, learned a ton about trauma and the cultural pattern of abusive dynamics, and became a clinical sexologist) when I would have eaten this kind of story up too.
There was a time when I took my sense of self worth and validation from men that I would have fantasized about exactly this kind of dynamic.
It would have been sexy to imagine a guy being 100% supernaturally obsessed with me because it would have proven how special I was, how attractive and perfect and worthy of love I must have been. The way he couldn’t stand to be away from me, and could barely stop himself from consuming me when I was around, this was the stuff of my old fantasties, because my sense of self-worth was all knotted up with how men saw me, what effect I had on them, and how worthy I was of being “chosen.”
None of this was conscious of course. I was just fantasizing about stuff I thought was hot.
But looking back, I can see that I never fantasized about two humans communicating and experimenting with trial and error as they dealt with baggage and history and triggers together.
Nope. I, like everyone else who read YA love stories, learned that really epic sex happened between sexy, co-dependent, trauma-free virgins who could ride the wave of being chemically love-drunk on each other forever and never need or want anything else to be completely satisfied.
So I fantasized about men who were strong, muscular, and masculine, who could read my mind, who knew what I wanted better than I did, who wanted to cuddle and coddle and spoil me, and who most of all chose me above everything else and continued to prove how obsessed they were with me.
In some ways I think this fantasy is a reaction to the pathetically low engagement and attention women get from their male partners after the wooing period wears off. (My ultimate fantasy for the longest time was a guy who would choose me over video games, sports, and time with his friends. I wanted to be his obsession because I was never made to feel important enough.)
In other ways I think this fantasy is a reaction to the cultural myth that a woman’s value comes from being special, perfect, better than other women, and more “worthy” of being chosen by a high status man. We can’t just be good; we have to be the best. We can’t just be sexy, we have to literally be so sexy that men swear their devotion and never leave us. Only then will we be good enough; only then will we be safe.
I think I’ll leave it there for today. Obviously this post isn’t really about vampires— although I’m very curious if you too read these books, and if so what you thought of them. Really this post is about what we learn to code as sexy and romantic, and why.
Until I went deep-diving into queer culture and got away from cisheteronormative narratives and assumptions, my imagination was restricted to the same problematic, unsatisfying, and dangerous shit as everyone else.
And now I find myself wondering… what effect does reading stuff like this have on us as we’re growing up?
And more importantly, where TF are all the blockbuster books written about gay and bisexual vampires, non-binary witchxs, transgender wizxrds, gender non-conforming werewolves, polyamorous fairies, non-monogamous gnomes, sex positive deities, and asexual royal families?
Where are all the queer teenagers in dystopic futures discovering that they’re far from ordinary, who end up saving the world while exhibiting healthy boundaries in their relationships, or demonstrating the transformative power of non-romantic love?
Because that’s the kind of shit I wanna read. I just want my indulgent fiction to also be pushing us culturally forward, is that so much to ask?
If you know of any, let me know.
And if we don’t find any… maybe I’ll just have to write some. 😉