Happy tenth anniversary, Twilight! Yep, that’s right, ten years ago last month, young girls were flooding theatres to watch Robert Pattinson creepily stalk Kristen Stewart...in her bedroom...before their characters ever went on a date. In looking back on the films, it becomes impossible not to see all the backwards notions around sex and virginity the films and books were feeding our romance-crazed young minds. And now, ten years later, with the #MeToo movement and the Kavanaugh hearings beginning a national conversation around sex and consent, it’s a good time to unpack what exactly Twilight taught us about losing our V-cards. Nothing good, certainly.
Let’s first point out a double standard here: Twilight has the loss of virginity at the center of the story, like many coming-of-age stories about girls and young women (though not all; shoutout to Frances Ha, Eighth Grade, and others!). In Twilight, the entire story centers around Bella and Edward. Compare Twilight to Harry Potter and the dichotomy becomes clear: we never hear about Harry’s first time having sex—not in the books, not in the films. We don’t care. It’s Harry-frickin'-Potter! He’s a wizard, the only wizard who can protect the world from the evil-doing Voldemort. He has more important stuff to tackle than having sex with Ginny. Ginny is there, but her and Harry’s relationship doesn’t dominate the story the way Bella's and Edward's does in Twilight (or the way sex and relationships are centered in The Virgin Suicides or Easy A or An Education…). In movies, boys are allowed to have lives beyond girls. Girls, however, must spend quite a bit of screentime chatting it up about boys. That's why the Bechdel Test exists, after all.
This guy obsession certainly afflicts Bella in Twilight. The Twilight films have indoctrinated their largely teen and preteen girl audience with a “correct” way to lose your virginity, one that leaves you with a husband, a child, and love for all eternity. When you look past the sparkly vampires and the perpetual shirtless werewolves, Twilight promotes a harmful, hyper-conservative, abstinence-only message around sex.
Bella must not only first marry Edward before having sex, but she has to want to have sex so badly that she’s willing to die for the joy of breaking her hymen. Edward warns her (repeatedly) that he’s too dangerous, that he wouldn’t be able to control himself in the intensity of the lovemaking, and that he could accidentally rip Bella’s throat out. Oops. Bella understands this and still wants to have sex with him, which is stupid. If a guy ever tells you that he might kill you during sex, I think, just maybe, it might be time to find a new boyfriend.
This whole I-could-kill-you-when-we-have-sex thing also creates this crazy expectation around sex that ladies should be willing to die if they want to have sex, because that’s just what might happen. That’s a pretty clear and pretty f-ed up abstinence-only position to take, Twilight. And, personally, I got enough abstinence-only education growing up in rural Ohio. As my teacher told my 8th grade class, if we had sex, we’d probably get an STD and die. When he said this, it was a joke. It was 8th grade, and we had seen the sex ed scene in Mean Girls. But it’s only now, years after reading the Twilight books (which I admit, I loved) that I see that the abstinence-only message was not just coming from my teacher, but from my favorite books and films too.
And it’s not just Bella's character that promotes backwards, harmful notions around sex. It’s Edward, too. In the wake of Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court hearing, many people came out in defense of Kavanaugh saying, “boys will be boys"—that we can’t expect boys to do better than to drink excessively and then rape young women. Which is bullshit. We have to expect better of boys, if we are to expect better of men. And here’s Edward, 10 years ago, promoting that same stereotype—that once aroused, a guy becomes something like a feral animal until he becomes sexually satisfied. I repeat, bullshit. No guy should use the fact that he's aroused to pressure or force anyone else into doing something that they don’t want to, because that’s a little something called sexual assault.
Edward and Bella represent very traditional stereotypes for men in women, ones that seem in opposition to the growing sexualization of society. Edward is the old-fashioned gentleman who wants Bella to wait until marriage to have sex. He feels like he owns her and her virginity. Then, there’s Bella, this chaste opposition to our sex-obsessed culture. She is the perfect virgin. She agrees (because Edward asks her) to wait until marriage to have sex. She is willing to die in order to have sex. She cannot casually have sex, but must fully understand the implications of her choice—a choice that leads to a child.
Beyond just painting a portrait of the perfect virgin, Bella’s eventual transformation from virgin girl to vampire woman stresses how losing your virginity is a transition. Before having sex, Bella is “a passive, soft-spoken, plain, loner of a 17-year-old girl… hopelessly clumsy and incapable of physical coordination,” as described by Anne Helen Petersen in her article "That Teenage Feeling: Twilight, Fantasy, And Feminist Readers." Soon after having sex, though, Bella is transformed into a vampire, and as a result of her new vamp blood becomes “beautiful” (as described by Edward in Breaking Dawn: Part 2), a huntress, powerful (“Now it’s your turn not to break me,” comments Edward), and physically coordinated beyond belief. Bella undergoes the ultimate transformation. In losing her virginity and having a baby, she gains power in a very literal way. She goes from a chaste, weak, virginal girl to a powerful, vampire mother. The loss of her virginity becomes the point of transition from girlhood to womanhood: Bella can only become a woman through her relationship with Edward. Essentially, Twilight is saying that there’s no self-discovery, no growing up for a woman without a man, and that a transition into adulthood can only follow sex.
We’re a scrutinized bunch, us girls. Society especially seems to enjoy telling women what to do with our bodies— from if we’re allowed to have abortions to where to shave. Our dear president has made it a habit to comment on how women look, even making the weirdest comments about his own daughter. All of that noise can make it very, very hard to know what exactly we want, to hear our own voice. The greatest act of freedom is to do what we want, when we want with our own bodies: masturbate when we want to masturbate, have sex when we want to sex (with an enthusiastic, consenting partner), lose our virginity when we want to lose our virginity (ditto).
There is nothing wrong with waiting to have sex until marriage, or waiting until you fall in love to have sex—as long as you’re doing what you want. That’s what feminism boils down to: Allowing the space for women to choose what to do with their own bodies. (And also equal pay, and no more workplace harassment, and no more harassment in general, and no more discrimination, and the end of mansplaining…)
That said, it’s important to be aware of what the underlying messages are of the stories we read and watch. Because if we’re not careful, those messages can sneak into our minds without us even knowing they’re there. We have to do our best to turn away from all that noise and figure out a way to be happy with ourselves.
Also, fuck Twilight.
top photo: The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn: Part 1
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Sarah Durn is a professional actor, freelance writer, swashbuckler, filmmaker, and dark-chocolate lover. See the latest at sarahdurn.ninja.