Jarvis, Christine. “The Twilight of Feminism? Stephanie Meyer’s Saga and the Contradictions of Contemporary Girlhood.” Children’s Literature in Education, 45 (2014): 101-115.
As a subscriber of yalsa-bk, YALSA’s listserv about young adult books, I was interested to see a few months ago through messages posted to the listserv that we as professionals still struggle with what do about the Twilight series. Much has been written and discussed regarding the problematic themes in Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight saga, including (but not limited to) issues of abuse and power imbalance. At the same time, these books have proven to be wildly popular and have served as “the hook” that has opened the door to reading for many adolescents.
Jarvis acknowledged the problematic themes inherent in this series in her introduction to her own research, in which she attempts to make sense of the enormous appeal of these books by a population of girls whose cultural context no longer reflects the stereotypical gender norms of the early-mid 20th century that Jarvis and others claim are portrayed in this series. Jarvis researches the transformative nature of literature at the University of Huddersfield in the United Kingdom where she also serves as the dean of education and professional development and professor of teaching and learning in higher education.
In her research, Jarvis identified and examined two tropes she found in the Twilight series – the beauty makeover and the runaway heroine. She analyzed these tropes through the lens of research conducted by education scholars that has examined social and academic pressures that girls face today in schools. Such research suggests that girls experience a great deal of tension in their lives. Girls today understand that they’re not supposed to be defined by their appearance but by their success in academics and, later, in the job world. At the same time girls seemingly judge themselves and others by their appearance and their abilities to attain unachievable standards of beauty. As Jarvis noted, “Girls are in charge of their own destinies – they can be anything. They are in charge of their own bodies – they can make them slim, smooth, and immaculately groomed and fashionable” (p. 105).
Jarvis noted that the trope of the beauty makeover is one often used in Western popular culture; however, with regard to the Twilight saga, Jarvis explained that Bella experiences multiple beauty makeovers, which she rejects as someone who does not care about physical beauty, but ultimately receives anyway. This allows readers to enjoy both the character’s feminist perspective and her acceptance of the importance of feminine beauty standards.
Jarvis also examined the trope of the runaway heroine in the Twilight novels. In various episodes in the books, Bella places herself in danger when she experiences anger toward Edward at times in which he takes actions that prevent the couple of being together or furthering their relationship. Bella has placed her relationship with Edward above all other concerns and thus feels extreme pressure to succeed. Jarvis argued that the kind of self-harm that Bella enacts serves as both acts of revenge for Edward’s actions as well as reminders to Edward of the preciousness of Bella’s life. In other words, you’ve learned your lesson: don’t do it again.
Jarvis argued that understanding the contradictions girls feel today may help us better understand how Twilight serves as a fantasy vehicle by which girls can mentally resolve the pressure they feel to reject traditional gender norms while also succumbing to them. While the Twilight series may (or may not) be losing popularity with young adult readers, the issues Jarvis presented exist in other, more recent YA books. Jarvis’ research may help us better understand how series like Twilight appeal to readers and better help practitioners look for other YA book recommendations that can help girls make sense of this tension.
Robin A. Moeller is an assistant professor of Library Science at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina where she researches visual representations of information as they apply to young adults.