My boyfriend isn’t happy. It’s a particularly chilly night and I’ve had him stand in the backyard in his jocks for an hour. I want his skin to become what Stephenie Meyer would describe as ‘wintry’ before I let him back into the bedroom. I’ve further suggested that afterwards he should let me throw glitter on him and that we shouldn’t have sex, but cuddle. The look he’s giving me implies that my Edward Cullen infatuation has morphed from a tolerable obsession to a Problem.
Edward Cullen, for those of you not keeping track of teenage girls’ must-kiss lists, is the broody vampire heart-throb in Meyer’s Twilight series. Comprising four volumes – Twilight (2005), New Moon (2006), Eclipse (2007) and Breaking Dawn (2008) – the books follow 17-year-old Bella Swan, a Bronte-obsessed butterfingers who falls in love with her biology lab partner, the ‘wits-scramblingly beautiful’ Edward. Bella spends the remaining two thousand-odd pages of the saga convincing Edward to turn her into a vampire. Twilight, as you may have gathered, is not exactly challenging or even vaguely original stuff.
I generally consider myself a rational, perspicacious person and in my reading habits I usually tend towards literary snobbishness. So why, my bewildered boyfriend asks, have I defected to Team Twihard? Why torture myself with yawning plot holes, befuddling syntax and thinly disguised, anti-feminist, religious dogma? My doe-eyed, breathless response: Edward.
Now before you roll your eyes, remember that I’m not alone. Millions of readers across the globe have been infected by a severe case of the ‘Cullen crazies’ – today you can buy a plethora of Team Edward merchandise (bookmarks, T-shirts, mugs, etc.), along with Twilight body glitter, sex toys, hand-painted shower curtains, pillow dolls designed for snuggling, and life-size wall stickers that give the impression Edward is watching you while you sleep. Supre produced a line of I Heart Cullen couture, and Scholastic published The Vampire is Just Not That Into You, a ‘helpful guide to wooing the undead’. But none of this really explains Edward Cullen’s appeal.
Much of it lies in the familiar (and traditionally popular) genre Meyer re-shapes to her own devices. Twilight conforms to the basic ‘rags to riches’ plot: poor girl meets wealthy man with dark secret; girl teaches man to confront secret; girl and man live happily ever after. This plot, found in so many Gothic/romantic novels is familiar to us all – think Jane Eyre (1847) or Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938), where the hero presents himself as a danger to both the heroine’s virtue and her life. It becomes her task to find the courage to quell this danger by enabling the hero’s redemption so that he and heroine may be happily united. Both characters set out on journeys of transformation, as romance novelist and critic, Linda Barlow, points out: ‘In the most traditional sense, the romance novel is an emotional coming-of-age story.’ The most successful and enduring of the genre, these novels are a thrilling, atmospheric read, filled with rich symbolism and compelling characterisation. In Twilight, it is Edward who remains the missing link in conformation to genre. As Bella successfully navigates the challenges of dating a vampire, she transitions from awkward adolescent to empowered adult, Edward no longer possess any of the hot-bloodedness of his literary predecessors. He may frequently cry, ‘I’ve killed a lot of people, Bella!’, but Bella never seems to care much, and Edward is therefore never made to suffer any consequences for his former bloodthirsty indiscretions. In fact, it is Bella, who in ‘changing’, must endure flames ‘chewing their way out from [her] heart’ before the pair can enter into their infinite happiness; Edward, unlike Rochester and Max, is ‘absolutely surreal’ in his perfection; any danger he poses is purely cosmetic.
As a vampire, Edward particularly fails as the monstrous hero. He may call himself a vampire, but he isn’t fooling anyone; next to him Count von Count is downright hardcore. Even on a basic level Edward lacks the distinguishing traits of the traditional vampire. He’s renounced his bloodlust and declares himself a ‘vegetarian’ – sustaining himself on animal, not human blood (he even lacks the fangs to pierce his beloved’s neck). He can’t stupefy his victims nor transfigure into a bat, fog, or other creepy form, and unlike most vampires, he’s immune to garlic, silver, stakes and crucifixes. Perhaps most disturbingly, however, is his reaction to the sun: rather than reducing him to a smoldering pile of ash, it ‘shatters off his skin into a thousand rainbow shards like he [is] made of crystal or diamond’.
Edward is unfazed by these vampiric shortcomings. In the film adaptation, he asks a bewildered Bella: ‘What did you expect, coffins and dungeons and moats?’ Well, yes, actually. Back in the good old days when vampires had capes, widows’ peaks and severe vitamin-D deficiencies they were also symbols of perverse sexual desire. As Ken Gelder explains in Reading the Vampire: ‘This often highly attractive monster may combine terror with an erotic awakening, drawing out latent inner desires.’
Edward is not only squeamish about sex and hesitant to penetrate Bella (fangs or otherwise), he insists on remaining a virgin until his wedding night: ‘This is the one area in which I’m just as spotless as you are. Can’t I leave one rule unbroken?’ A pillar of restraint, and a literal knight in shining armor, Edward is singlehandedly destroying the vampire’s hard-won reputation of Gothic villainy and attraction.
So how does such an appallingly ill-conceived, poorly executed character reduce an otherwise canny, literary girl to a blushing, giggling wreck? Surely there’s more to it than his ‘liquid topaz eyes’, ‘perfectly tousled bronze hair’ and swoon-inducing kisses? While Edward’s conservatism sees him fall short in terms of the traditionally ‘adult’ genres of the romance and the Gothic, he does appeal vastly to Twilight’s (intended) readership of young adults. But Twilight, it must be said, is more than just Jane Eyre-lite for the txtspeak generation.
While I have no doubt the average teenager is capable of tackling the heightened language and symbolism of du Maurier and Bronte’s novels, Rochester and Max de Winter are still our garden-variety Byronic bad boys. Rochester keeps his first wife locked away in a secret room in his mansion. Max takes a more direct approach and murders his. Additionally, both are married, middle-aged men – hardly high-school formal, dream-date material.
While Edward may be a far cry from the blood-lusting fiends of Bram Stoker, Anne Rice and even Charlaine Harris’s novels, he is still superficially a vampire. Meyer’s labeling him as such marks him as ostensibly mad, bad and as dangerous to know as Bronte and du Maurier’s heroes, offering young readers an illusion of danger. In reality, however, he’s a guardian angel, calmly teaching Bella to control her ‘impatient human hormones’. If my own high school years are anything to go by, there are the nine circles of hell, and then there’s adolescence. The idea of being guided through that awkward period by a ‘dazzling’ boy, who has enough of an edge to protect you, is much more appealing than being bullied through it by the tyrant Rochester or the stubborn, secretive Max.
For many girls, one of the most frightening rites of passage in the coming-of-age process is losing their virginity. No matter how you dress it up, sex is essentially a primal, animalistic act – and one that can render you vulnerable. As we mature, this loss of control can be incredibly liberating; as teenager such vulnerability can be frightening. Unlike the heroes of ‘adult’ romances, the morally stoic Edward shields younger readers from the frightening unknowns of sex while still making them feel desirable with his icy embraces and frequent, dramatic declarations of ‘You are my life now.’
Sexually non-threatening but romantic figures, such as Edward, appeal to teenagers because they offer a ‘safe’ avenue through which girls can explore their sexuality. These figures are not only ‘wholesome’ but also they exist largely as a series of simulacra: words on a page, images, film, actors portraying characters, and are therefore essentially unattainable. This leaves girls room to construct their own romantic fantasies, fantasies that will never be challenged by encounters with the ‘real thing’.
This is all very well, my boyfriend informs me, but it doesn’t explain why I, at 24, am still mooning over some sexually repressed, vampirically-impotent vegetarian. Perhaps it is a little pathetic, but sometimes I’m not in the mood to contemplate being ravished by a murderous, adulterous, sardonic brute. Sometimes I just want to don my daggiest flannel pyjamas and crawl into bed with the world’s best cuddle monster. And if you think about the masses of other Twihards about the globe, so do many other women. So when my boyfriend grumbles that this really wasn’t what he had in mind when he suggested a little role play, I just reply: ‘Glitter up, gorgeous.’
Margot McGovern is a PhD candidate at Flinders University. She researches Young Adult literature, has been published in Viewpoint and is currently working on her first novel. Visit her YA book review blog: www.firefliesinthelabyrinth.blogspot.com.
‘All that Glitters: Decoding the Edward Cullen Effect‘ appears in Issue Five of Kill Your Darlings. Purchase the issue here.
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