'Twilight' Sinks Its Teeth Into Feminism

By Leonard Sax
Sunday, August 17, 2008

When the final book in the "The Twilight Saga" series went on sale this month, 18 area Barnes & Noble stores were among the shops hosting midnight parties. Fans have congregated en masse online, and all four books are on Amazon.com's list of the top dozen bestsellers. The enormous wave of popularity that "Twilight" is riding shows no signs of abating.

Stephanie Meyer's series is built around a love triangle involving Bella, a pretty teenage girl, the gentlemanly young vampire who adores her and the lanky werewolf who is her best friend. A megablockbuster of a fantasy book series is nothing new, of course. But while the "Harry Potter" series was read by a broad audience that included children, teenagers and adults of both genders, the "Twilight" books target a much narrower demographic: teenage girls and young women.

So why is a smaller audience providing such a solid fan base?

The allure of "Twilight" lies in its combination of modern sensibility and ambience with traditional ideas about gender. Bella has broad appeal; as many girls can appreciate, she likes watching reruns of "The Simpsons" while she nibbles on Pop-Tarts. But the twist is that Bella's ideas about gender roles are decidedly unfeminist. The pairing of a modern setting and traditional gender roles is unusual in children's and teen literature. More often, modern books communicate a modern view of gender: beginning in early childhood, for example, girls read the "Dora the Explorer" series and grow into adolescence with books such as "Esperanza Rising" and "The Breadwinner."

Despite all the modern accouterments in the "Twilight" saga, the girls are still girls, and the boys are traditional men. More specifically: The lead male characters, Edward Cullen and Jacob Black, are muscular and unwaveringly brave, while Bella and the other girls bake cookies, make supper for the men and hold all-female slumber parties. It gets worse for feminists: Bella is regularly threatened with violence in the first three books, and in every instance she is rescued by Edward or Jacob. In the third book she describes herself as "helpless and delicious." (Warning: Fans who haven't read the fourth book should skip to the next paragraph.) Bella spends the first half of the final installment in the most helpless condition of all -- pregnant and confined to bed rest. She is unable to leave the house and becomes capable of defending herself only after she becomes a vampire.

Little surprise that not everyone is a fan: Amy Clarke, who teaches an undergraduate course on "Harry Potter" at the University of California at Davis, asked The Post: "Do we really want our daughters reading books about a girl like Bella who is always needing to be saved?" ["Bitten and Smitten," Style, Aug. 1]. In our enlightened era, some wonder, why would girls respond with rabid enthusiasm to books that communicate such old-fashioned gender stereotypes? Today's youth, after all, have been told since earliest childhood that gender shouldn't really matter, that girls and boys can and should do the same things, dream the same dreams, and indeed should be the same in every way that counts.

Yet on some level, it seems that children may know human nature better than grown-ups do. Consider: The fascination that romance holds for many girls is not a mere social construct; it derives from something deeper. In my research on youth and gender issues, I have found that despite all the indoctrination they've received to the contrary, most of the hundreds of teenage girls I have interviewed in the United States, Australia and New Zealand nevertheless believe that human nature is gendered to the core. They are hungry for books that reflect that sensibility. Three decades of adults pretending that gender doesn't matter haven't created a generation of feminists who don't need men; they have instead created a horde of girls who adore the traditional male and female roles and relationships in the "Twilight" saga. Likewise, ignoring gender differences hasn't created a generation of boys who muse about their feelings while they work on their scrapbooks. Instead, a growing number of boys in this country spend much of their free time absorbed in the masculine mayhem of video games such as Grand Theft Auto and Halo or surfing the Internet for pornography.

For more than three decades, political correctness has required that educators and parents pretend that gender doesn't really matter. The results of that policy are upon us: a growing cohort of young men who spend many hours each week playing video games and looking at pornography online, while their sisters and friends dream of gentle werewolves who are content to cuddle with them and dazzling vampires who will protect them from danger. In other words, ignoring gender differences is contributing to a growing gender divide.

Leonard Sax is the author of "Why Gender Matters" and "Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company