Catherine she ain’t

The thing about fantasies is that you get to concentrate on all the exciting, fulfilling parts without worrying about consequences. Picture Woman A: she’s grown up, independent, successful and in a normal, healthy relationship. But every life, every reality has its downside. Maybe her job is a bit boring. Maybe her husband leaves wet towels on the floor and chews with his mouth open and occasionally forgets her birthday.

Vicariously Woman A can experience the thrill and excitement of a relationship with someone who’s perfect (as Stephenie Meyer describes Edward ad nauseum). He’s beautiful. He’s polite. He’s exciting and a bit dangerous, but so completely committed to his intended and her well-being that he’s willing to neuter himself (ok, not literally) to be with her. And since it’s a fantasy, that’s all Woman A needs to think about. She never gets to the part where her life has essentially been taken over by someone who controls everything she does and steals away her freedom and independence. So the fantasy is perfect because it’s a fantasy. You don’t need to think about anything else.

I suppose that’s fair enough. I admit to a certain lascivious fondness for Heathcliff, whose complete bastardliness (bastardity?) is only slightly redeemed by his love for Catherine. But then again, Catherine is a total bastard too. She has depth and passion and while Heathcliff and Catherine are both obsessed with each other, as Bella and Edward are, unlike Bella Catherine could exist as a character without Heathcliff; it would diminish her, because so much of what makes her interesting is her passion for him, but she’d still be. Their love is complex and complicated, but it’s between equals: only Heathcliff can match Catherine and only Catherine can match Heathcliff.

That equality is what’s missing from Edward and Bella’s relationship. While he claims to be as possessed with her as she is with him, it’s in the way of an abusive husband instead of a partner. He knows what’s best for her and voices repeatedly that she needs someone to take care of her. She never feels worthy of him and is made to feel less so with his manipulative, “I’m leaving because I don’t love you anymore but really because I love you too much” mind game.

The one thing Bella wants more than anything is to be turned into a vampire by Edward (because God knows she would never want anything that doesn’t absolutely center around Edward) and this is what Edward refuses her “for her own good”. He doesn’t want to take away her soul.

OK. Let’s call a spade a club or whatever. Obviously, being bitten is a metaphor for sex. Hundreds of years of vampire fiction have taught us that. So in plain terms, what Bella wants is to have sex and what Edward wants is to keep her chaste so she doesn’t lose her soul, because premarital sex is a sin. It’s hinted that Edward’s bitten other people before (i.e. isn’t a virgin) but now that he’s found Bella he wants them both to abstain because he wants to save her.

One of the reasons for the witch scares in the middle ages was the stereotype of the licentious female. Women were wanton and sensual and men had to steer them into the path of righteousness, even if that path led to a stake in a pyre. Even now we’re still reminded that good girls don’t because they’re told not to, and they’re told not to because female sexuality is power that can subvert authority. Medusa was originally the most beautiful handmaiden of Athena, the chaste goddess, in certain versions of the myth. She was raped by Poseidon in Athena’s temple and her transgression (because obviously her beauty forced Poseidon to rape her) caused Athena to transform her into a monster whose very glance turns men into stone. You really don’t need Freud to tell you what that’s about.

So I don’t believe that women should wait until after they’re married to have sex. I also don’t believe that women should have sex before their married. I don’t think there’s any should in it. If women could own their own sexuality, in the same way that men are taught to own theirs, there’d be no shame in sex. Women would do it when they were ready and not when they were told to. Because being coerced to wait until you’re married is in many ways no different from being coerced to have sex before you’re ready; it’s allowing someone else to control something that belongs to you.

You wouldn’t think we’d even be talking about this in 2010, but Twilight’s popularity suggests that this is still an issue (oh, and please don’t even get me started about promise bracelets). Bella completely surrenders her own power to decide when she’s ready to Edward. And by extension, she gives up part of herself.

This is why the fervor for the series worries me. Even if mature, sophisticated women indulge purely for escapist fantasy there is still an insidious message that the road to happiness lies in surrendering your own choice, your own control, to not only patriarchal societal pressure but specifically to the object of your (thwarted, until you convince him to marry you) desire. I’m wary about the “truth” being peddled in this fiction.

Oh, and by the way, Buffy really would so kick Edward’s ass.

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~ by kellly333 on August 2, 2010.

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