During the criticism of the Twilight Saga over a decade ago, one criticism was remarkably absent. The critics focussed on literary quallity but that’s purely subjective and I am against trashing the honest effort of a writer who invested energy and pride into their work. Stephanie Meyer did not earn my cynicism for her low-quality prose. The finger painting of an intellectually disabled person at a group home I would afford the same respect and dignity to, on one level, if not others, as any Florintine masterpiece. It was rather the message of her work that was concerning. Namely, the lack of altruism and the presence of extreme narcissism.
Let’s begin with the fact that Bella Swan is literally named Bella Swan. She is a beautiful swan. Like Harry Potter, the saga is about a normal person who enters an occult world (occult as in ‘hidden’, although magic, too) where the protagonist discovers they are the chosen one. Unlike in Harry Potter, Bella nor her peers possess any noble or heroic traits. Now, Bella is not the chosen one in the strictest sense but she is the fish out of water who is regarded as particularly noble owing to her being fully human. Similiar to how in Islam, the angels bowed before Adam, seemingly for being non-magical which made him really special. Or like in Buddhism where despite the devas being magical and superhuman in their abilities are unable to reach enlightenment and are morally inferior to mortal humans who can do that.
She is a chosen one of a story that’s not a fable. The reason she is chosen is just because… She doesn’t need a reason. Except a warped chivalry that is only about making women feel very, very, special. People adore her for her specialness absent any clear ethical or moral virtues. Bella Swan is the proverbial trying to make it big in LA. When I was growing up, my pipe dream was to be the spiritual leader of a resistance movement like Gandhi or MLK or Desmond Tutu. Just as quixotic as wanting to get a break in Hollywood but vastly better because, unlike becoming a pop culture celebrity, my fantasies of fame involved being famous for being a good person who spread love.
I read a conservative Christian mother’s review of Twilight and she saw nothing wrong with it because it lacked any stereotypical vice. It was clean. She was right, it did lack any metonymic sex, drugs, and rock & roll, but it also lacked any compassion for anyone less fortunate than themselves. There is no charity, there are no social causes, and in a world with immense suffering and depravity, the affluent Cullen family and their adoptee, Bella, could not care less. Reading Dickens, the cruelty of the class system is on-the-nose but in Meyer’s franchise, one must make a point to remember that people with power spend neither a second or a penny in the direction of people without it.
The only way Bella Swan lives a good life is if you use John Rawls’ thin-good. She does respect the negative liberties of her fellow citizens and lives a life ostensibly conservitive enough to satisfy the pallets of a culture warrior of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority. She, however, falls miserably behind the expectations of any major religion or code of secular honor or chivalry or any system of utilitarian or virtue ethics. As does everyone else in her world. Edward has no interest in defending the weak or the powerless, all of the downtrodden are worthless extras in his peripheral vision to him, only his beloved and precious obsession: Bella.
Twilight is usually analyzed in a feminist context and I think what it does to girls’ expectations of relationships is to make them believe in an anachronistic system where the responsibilities fall largely on the male partner. Not only unrealistic expectations of a partner but immoral ones since these would entail feeding the narcissistic traits of the female partner. Furthermore, that failing to met these expectations amounts to abuse. Like in earlier articles, I point out that the arc of Taylor Swift’s canon is her self-pity over non-abusive relationships to the point of burning her exes in effigy and enaging in character assassinations on a global stage. Again, against people who did not abuse her.
Twilight is not only a narcissistic fantasy but the moral vindication of a narcissistic fantasy. In presenting Bella a princess-figure, the homage paid to her is seen as chivalric despite nothing else about chivalry other than adoring a woman and treating her accordingly being present. Stephanie Meyer was the philosophical polemicist who laid out the supposed moral validity of female fantasies by tying them to a modified chivalry. Bella is not a princess, she is a goddess. A princess has a code of honor and is supposed to be a lady of virtue and grace. Bella’s behavior is not constrained by such considerations and is permitted, by her conscience and society, the full latitude of late 20th century liberalism. No, she is, according to herself and her percieved subordinates, a goddess.