Tags

, , , , , , , , ,

I found out recently that in her 10th Anniversary Edition of Twilight, Stephenie Meyer basically re-wrote it with everyone’s gender being reversed, and called it Life and Death.

So of course I had to read that.life and death cover

As you probably already know, I have had a few things to say about Twilight, especially when it comes to sexism.

So I was intrigued by the idea of a gender reversed Twilight.

if you imagine a domineering, aggressive female love interest and a pliable and clumsy male love interest, well… Twilight would still be badly written and promote abusive relationship models, but you couldn’t call it sexist any more.

So I picked up a copy. Used. Because I’m not giving money to the publisher of this drivel.

Aside: Yes, that’s right, it’s the publisher I blame. I don’t hate Stephenie Meyer, or wish her ill. She is a mom who wrote a book, just like me, and she struck the jackpot. Good on her, and I should be so lucky. It’s just the message of her books that I don’t like, and her writing style, and basically everything. But I wish her all the best and I envy her, I really do. 

Aside Aside: On that note, my non-sexist, body positive, zombie-romance rewrite of Twilight is almost ready to be published. If you visit my author website before it comes out, you can sign up to get a free kindle copy of the book when it comes out. It’s like a preorder. But free. I’m not looking to get rich, I just want people to read my book. 

“Why are you reading that?” my husband asked when Life and Death arrived in the mail. “Why do you torture yourself?”

“Because – I will bet you money that even with all of the genders reversed, Stephenie Meyer will still find a way to make this book sexist,” I told him.

“Well, if you go into it with that attitude, you’ll find something,” he said. “Confirmation bias.”

He was absolutely right. and it’s easy to assume that every change I spotted was made for sexist reasons. Take this one:

Twilight:

‘Well, Billy’s done a lot of work on the engine – it’s only a few years old, really.’

Life and Death: 

‘Well, Bonnie’s had a lot of work done on the engine – it’s only a few years old, really.’

What, women can’t do work on their own truck’s engine? WTF?

But here’s the thing: I really wanted to be wrong. I did. I wanted to believe that Meyer had produced something that really stood out. I wanted to believe that I was holding the cure to the ills of the original story.

And you know what? It sort of worked. I think. Life And Death is a vastly superior story to Twilight. It is also a vastly different story.

I had been led to believe that Life and Death was just Twilight, with the genders reversed. But it isn’t. The two books are wildly different. Meyer didn’t just go in and do word-replaces. She changed a LOT of stuff, and a lot of that stuff made for a better story.

However, I can’t decide whether she changed it because she knew that it would make things better, or if she changed it because she’s really freaking sexist. 

Let me describe the changes, then you can decide for yourself.

Comparing Characters:

Bella, meet Beau. Edward, meet Edythe!

Even people who are smart enough to have avoided reading Twilight or watching the movies will recognize this couple:

bella-and-edward

Bella Swan, the clumsy human girl, and Edward Cullen, the powerful and sparkling vampire.

I was hoping that the new characters (Beau and Edythe – I’ll give you a second to roll your eyes and we’ll continue on when you’re ready) would have nothing really switched except their genitals (although a transsexual character would be even more awesome). I wanted a tall, powerful, intimidating female character and a short and pliable male character.

But, no. I guess Meyer felt that the man has to be taller. So Beau Swan the human boy is very tall, and Edythe the vampire is small and delicate looking.

Twilight: 

You’re dangerous?” I guessed, my pulse quickening as I intuitively realized the truth of my own words. He was dangerous.

Life and Death:

You’re dangerous?” It came out like a question, and there was doubt in my voice. She was smaller than I was, no more than my age, and delicately built. Under normal circumstances, I would have laughed at applying the word dangerous to someone like her.

I’ll give you a minute to absorb that difference. It comes out repeatedly as you read Life and Death. While Bella is intimidated by Edward, Beau struggles to believe that tiny, frail looking Edythe could ever be dangerous.

In general, however, I quite like what a sex change did to these characters. Beau and Edythe are both more likeable than Bella and Edward.

beau swan

You see, Beau Swan may have a penis, but he still does the shopping and cooking, and I really like that. When it’s a boy cooking tacos for his Dad, it improves the depth of the character. It makes him unusual in a likeable way rather than tapping into a sad stereotype. When Bella cooked for her Dad and complained about how terrible her father was at cooking (despite spending the last 15 years cooking for himself), it came off as really sexist. But when you have two male characters, one who can cook and one who can’t, sexism doesn’t come into play.

Beau is generally more interesting. Bella wears a white lace top, but Beau wears a Monty Python tee shirt, for example. There is more detail to Life and Death.

Also a non-dominant male, which is nice to see in a romance story. Edythe may look delicate, but Meyer let her keep the vampire iron strength, and Beau doesn’t mind the fact that Edythe is stronger than him.

Although he spends a lot of time explaining why he doesn’t mind, which annoys me a little bit.

In fact, Beau spends a lot of time explaining why his character doesn’t fit into a stereotype, and it significantly lengthens the book. Life and Death is a lot longer than Twilight, and much of that extra length is made of Beau monologuing about the things that clearly struck Meyer as being weird coming from a male character and felt the need to explain away, like why a guy would like a girl who is physically stronger than him.

…Because three dimensional characters are confusing, apparently.

Anyway, my point is that I like Beau a lot better than I like Bella.

Edythe is also a lot more likeable than Edward, although possible for a really sexist reason…

Hey Edythe, Where’s The Abuse?

Edward is abusive to Bella. Let’s just be frank about that.

3-reasons-why-twilight-was-awful-498216

After all, he:

  • Orders her around as if he is a parental figure. “Get in the car, Bella.”
  • Physically compels her to do things she doesn’t want to do and go places she doesn’t want to go, including physically dragging her around or threatening her with consequences if she doesn’t obey. “Now relax before I call the nurse back to sedate you.”
  • Shuts down her concerns and worries with phrases like “Don’t be ridiculous, Bella” or “don’t be difficult, Bella.”
  • Enforces low self esteem with phrases like “Ordinary people seem to make it through the day without so many catastrophes” and “it’s not my fault that you are exceptionally unobservant”.
  • Controls when she eats and even what medications she takes.

(If you don’t think any of these things qualify as abuse, I strongly recommend you spend some time here.)

Edythe, on the other hand, is a drastically different character.

edythe cullen

  • Edythe asks and coaxes Beau to do what she wants him to do, rather than ordering or compelling.
  • Edythe uses her strength to stop Beau by holding his hand but uses her words to convince him to follow her advice.
  • Edythe is more likely to engage in prolonged debate over disagreements rather than shutting them down.
  • Edythe still teases Beau about his accident-prone nature but because of all of the above, it comes off as playful teasing instead of potential abuse.

I can’t show you every scene with a difference, but here are some prime examples. Let’s take the infamous “get in the car, Bella” scene, where Edward orders Bella out of school and then refuses to let her drive herself home, instead physically dragging her to his own car and insisting on driving her.

From Twilight:

We were near the parking lot now. I veered left, toward my truck. Something caught my jacket, yanking me back.

“Where do you think you’re going?” he asked, outraged. He was gripping a fistful of my jacket in one hand.

I was confused. “I’m going home.”

“Didn’t you hear me promise to take you safely home? Do you think I’m going to let you drive in your condition?” His voice was still indignant.

“What condition? And what about my truck?” I complained.

“I’ll have Alice drop if off after school.” He was towing me toward his car now, pulling me by my jacket. It was all I could do to keep from falling backward. He’d probably just drag me along anyway if I did.

“Let go!” I insisted. He ignored me. I staggered along sideways across the wet sidewalk until we reached the Volvo. Then he finally freed me – I stumbled against the passenger door.

“You are so pushy!” I grumbled.

“It’s open,” was all he responded.

Charming, right? What a catch that guy is. Now, let’s look at Beau’s experience with his love interest:

“Beau?” she asked, and I realized I hadn’t answered her question.

“Uh, what?”

“I asked where you were going.”

“Home. Or am I not?” her expression confused me.

She smiled. “Didn’t you hear me promise to take you safely home? Do you think I’m going to let you drive in your condition?”

“What condition?”

“I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you have a weak vasovagal system.”

“I think I’ll survive,” I said. I tried to take another step toward my truck, but her hand didn’t free my jacket.

I stopped and look down at her again. “Okay, why don’t you tell me what you want me to do?”

“He smile got wider. “Very sensible. You’re going to get into my car, and I am going to drive you home.”

“I have two issues with that. One, it’s not necessary, and two, what about my truck?”

“One, necessary is a subjective word, and two, I’ll have Archie drop if off after school.”

I was distracted by the casual reminder that she had siblings – strange, pale, beautiful siblings. Special siblings? Special like her?

“Are you going to put up a fuss?” she asked when I didn’t speak.

“Is there any point in resisting?”

I tried to decipher all the layers to her smile, but I didn’t get very far.

“It warms my cold heart to see you learning so quickly. This way.”

She dropped her fistful of jacket and turned. I followed her willingly.

[I FOLLOWED HER WILLINGLY!!]

Yeah. I’ll just let you absorb that.

When you’re ready, here’s another example, from when Edward saves Bella in Port Angeles from the rapey men.

“Get in,” a furious voice commanded.

It was amazing how instantaneously the choking fear vanished, amazing how suddenly the feeling of security washed over me – even before I was off the street – as soon as I heard his voice. I jumped into the seat, slamming the door shut behind me. {…}

“Put on your seat belt,” he commanded, and I realized I was clutching the seat with both hands. I quickly obeyed.

Now, here’s the same scene in Life and Death, where Edythe turns up just in time to save Beau from being shot by gangsters.

“Get in,” a furious voice hissed.

I dove into the Volvo’s dark interior, not even questioning how she’d come to be here, relief and a new panic swamping me at the same time. What if she got hurt? I yanked the door shut behind me while I shouted.

“Drive, Edythe, get out of here. He’s got a gun.”

But the car didn’t move.

“Keep your head down,” she ordered, and I heard the driver’s side door open.

I reached out blindly toward the sound of her voice, and my hand caught her slim, cold arm. She froze when I touched her. There was no give, though my fingers wrapped tight around the leather of her jacket.

“What are you doing?” I demanded. “Drive!”

Beau doesn’t just go where Edythe drags him or blindly obey her. He actually, like, participates in the relationship. So I don’t think there can be any argument that Life and Death has a much healthier relationship model, and doesn’t romanticize abuse nearly so much.

Which is great.

From Deviant Art

From Deviant Art

But why?

Did Stephenie Meyer change all of that because she only thinks that abuse is sexy when a man is in charge? Did she think Beau would look weak if he just collapsed into the car and let Edythe whisk him away from danger? Did she think that Edythe wouldn’t seem charming if she dragged Beau around while barking orders in an angry voice (which is true, but why is that okay for Edward, then?).

…Or has she realized how messed up Twilight is, and did she just take this chance to fix it?

Were those changes made for the right reasons?

I really want to believe the latter. I want to believe that Meyer realized that Edward is an abusive dirt-bag and that she wanted to fix the relationship in this new version. I don’t want to believe that the changes were made just because of the gender switch, because that is so appallingly sexist that I can’t even.

The Good News

There’s a lot of room for hope that Meyer edited this version of Twilight with an aim to fixing the abusive, stereotypical mess that is her first book.

edythe_likes_fast_cars_by_thesearchingeyes-d9knib8

In a preface, she tells us that only 5% of the changes are because Beau is a boy, and that 70% are because she was finally able to get her fingers in and edit the text of the book, fixing “every word that has bothered me since the book was printed, and it was glorious”.

I love editing my stuff too so I totally get them feels. Then again, she talks about words that bothered her, not over-arching relationship models and abusive behaviour. So she could just mean things like “dust moats” getting changed to “dust motes”.

However, she also says that an additional 5% of the changes were due to Beau’s unique personality, which she describes as “not nearly so flowery with his words and thoughts” which is odd because he certainly rambles a lot more than Bella does.

She says that 10% of the changes are “things that I wished I had done the first time around but that hadn’t occurred to me at the time”. Like what? Like maybe changing abusive behaviour?

5% she claims were fixed mythology issues, as well as ways in which Alice (or Archie, I guess) handles visions.

Which leaves 5% left over as a “catch all” for “miscellaneous changes”.

So, what do I take from this? She says that the changes aren’t made because of the gender switch, but because they were things she wanted to change. Does that mean that she really wanted to change the dynamics of the relationship? More specifically, does that mean that she wants to change the dynamics of Edward and Bella’s relationship, and not just Edythe and Beau’s?

Did she remove the abuse because it didn’t seem right for Edythe and Beau, or because she recognized that it is unpleasant and messed up in either version?

edward bella

I went looking for interviews with Stephenie Meyer to try and figure it out.

I did find articles that reported that Stephenie Meyer is “so over Twilight”.

I get further away every day. I am so over it. For me, it’s not a happy place to be.

This raised my hopes.

Was it because she realized it had a bad message? Was it because she felt she could do better now? After all, it was her first book. What author doesn’t read their early work and groan?

But of course there was a huge outcry from the Twihards over it, and so she explained further. Did she say it was because she feels the writing was lacking? That she feels responsible for promoting unhealthy relationships?

Nope.

The Bad News

I cannot find any evidence, from any interviews with Stephenie Meyer, that she is troubled by Edward and Bella’s relationship.

This is a 2013 interview with The Guardian:

“You know, it’s so funny,” she says. “I never decide to put a message in anything. I decide on a story that I think is exciting, and I entertain myself, and then some of it obviously reflects my personal experience … What I think says true love is different than what a lot of other people do, so it’s just what my subconscious puts out there.

In the same interview, she explains that she wasn’t prepared for the amount of criticism that was levelled at her when the Twilight came out.

…The massive amount of fans that I hadn’t expected, and the massive amount of people who hated it, which I also didn’t expect.

Yes, she had a lot of fans. But she also had people like Stephen King saying “she can’t write a darn”, not to mention all of the feminists accusing her of writing abusive abstinence porn.

Unlike JK Rowling, who meets people head on when they want to critique her books, Meyer hid herself away from it. Meyer is easily hurt, I can tell, and she responds to pain by hiding from it. I’m not saying that this is wrong. She is not obligated to explain or publicly defend her work, although that is what I would be tempted to do. I would be horrified if prominent writers like Stephen King hated my writing – not my subject matter, not my genre, but MY writing, personally. I would be horrified if I were accused of perpetuating abusive relationships or setting back women’s rights. I would also feel motivated to examine my writing, to ask myself the difficult questions, and to use that criticism to grow as a writer.

But Meyer is very easily hurt and she hides from that hurt. When her rough draft of Midnight Sun was leaked, she was so hurt by this that she has refused to finish writing it ever since, despite a constant clamour from her fans.

On her website, she says

I feel too sad about what has happened to continue working on Midnight Sun, and so it is on hold indefinitely.

Obviously I am not judging this choice. It is the writer’s choice to decide what to work on. But it shows me that hurtful experiences like that quickly tainted a work that she and her fans were excited about. So I can only imagine how she feels about the series as a whole after all of the criticism that gets lobbed around about it (deservedly in my opinion). I think that is why she is so “over” Twilight, not because she genuinely understands what everyone is so upset about it.

And maybe, behind the scenes, she has. The writing in Life and Death is generally better overall than in Twilight. She has definitely grown as an author.

But I can’t find any public evidence that her personal ideas of romance have really changed.

Edythe-Cullen-and-Beau-Swan-twilight-series-39054714-500-500

My Verdict

I don’t think that Stephenie Meyer has had any great revelation about Edward and Bella’s relationship. I don’t think she was trying to repair Twilight by writing Life and Death. I think that when she switched the genders of the characters, that the interactions struck her as weird in a way that they didn’t before.

And this is a problem, because it turns out that her whole reason for switching genders was to prove that she wasn’t sexist.

In an interview with Hollywood Reporter, she said of Life and Death,

I’d always said “If Bella had been a boy, which would have been the exact same story, this isn’t about, you know, her being a weak female, it’s about her being a human being.”

If her point in writing Life and Death was to prove that Bella wasn’t a weak female, then she has failed. She made Beau so much stronger, and she made Edythe so much less aggressive, that she fundamentally shifted the balance of power.

Beau chooses to get into the car, instead of being dragged. Beau physically stops Edythe from walking into danger. Beau does what he is asked to do, instead of just doing what he has been told.

Beau likes Edythe despite the fact that she is strong, not because of it.

life and death quote

Let’s go back and consider that “reason for changes” list that Meyer gives us. She says 5% of the changes were “because Beau was a boy”. But how many changes were made because Edythe is a girl? 

Edward is tall and scary. Edythe is small and delicate. Edward orders grimly, while Edythe teases and gently insists.

This changes the story. This CHANGES THE STORY.

You cannot prove that Bella isn’t weak by making her male alter ego stronger. You cannot prove that you aren’t sexist  if you make a feminized character smaller and less scary and less bossy.

You cannot prove that you aren’t sexist if you make changes to the story line that fall better in line with gender norms.

Because while Life and Death has a better relationship model, and is better written, it is also less wildly outside-of-the-box. A straight-up gender switch might have perpetuated abusive relationships, but it certainly would have been an unusual story – the dominant, bossy, frightening woman and the adoring and cringing man-slave. It would have bucked gender stereotypes with a vengeance if she had actually kept the story the same.

She didn’t.

It is not the exact same story (actually, the ending is quite different and way better). Furthermore, the changes that she made disproved her point by actually improving the story. She actually proved herself wrong.

Life and Death has a better message. It contrasts a more balanced, more healthy relationship with the messed-up garbage that is Edward and Bella’s relationship. Edythe’s reasonable behaviour actually highlights Edward’s abusive tactics. It shows him how it should be done.

If Stephenie Meyer had set out to “fix” Twilight, I would call Life and Death a resounding success.

But she didn’t. She set out to prove that she wasn’t sexist. And she ended up proving herself wrong.

But, on the bright side, she wrote a story that won’t teach your teenage daughter that abuse is love, and that will show her that some men like a strong woman.

And that’s great.

…Even if she did it by accident.

**I wrote a book! Twilight annoyed me so much that I decided to write a story that was the exact opposite. You can check it out here.**

Advertisements