Books, Essays, Gender

A Gender-bent Bella: Damsel No More in Meyer’s Life and Death?

October 6th was already a big day for middle grade and young adult lit, from the illustrated re-release of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone to Magnus Chase, Simon and Baz, and the rest (of us who just live here). Then Little, Brown Books for Young Readers and Stephenie Meyer decided to Beyoncé the market by—with no advertising, no countdown, and no warning beyond “bonus content”—dropping a new book for the 10th anniversary of Twilight.

Well…kind of a new book.

After a decade of anti-Twilighters bemoaning Bella’s status as a damsel in distress and the unhealthiness of her relationship with Edward, Meyer decided to take a stand for her story. The 10th anniversary release of Twilight was published as a double edition, with the original book and a gender-bent retelling, Life and Death, which chronicles what happens when Beau Swan meets Edythe Cullen. According to Meyer, Bella isn’t a damsel in distress but a “human in distress,” and her story is one of a human surrounded by superhumans. Do Beau and Edythe flip the Twilight saga’s biggest criticisms on their heads?

Allow me to back up to when the world was in a frenzy over the Twilight saga. I was among the reading masses, after all, and the Life After Death, Stephanie Meyer, Hachette, 2015owner of a Team Jacob shirt. I’ve read all the books and seen all the movies, I’ve debated Bella and Edward’s relationship with friends and family, and as soon as I saw the announcement about Life and Death pop up in my feed, I said, “Seriously? A gender-bent Twilight? Pffft!”…and bought it.

My relationship with the Twilight saga is, I think, how many people feel about the series: it has its problems, particularly in regards to female and relationship representation in a book geared at young people, but the series also fascinates me. I get swept up in the intensity of teen love (lust?), indulge in analyses and fan interpretations of characters and choices, and reflect on the cultural impact the series has had. It’s kind of a unique fandom in that respect, since it’s equally vocal parts people who love it, people who love to hate it, and people who just can’t help themselves.

Twilight made a huge impact on the publishing industry as well. It expanded the demographic of young adult literature to the point where today you could argue a number of YA titles are published as much for adults as for teens, with darker themes and edgier romances. The minimalist cover design was sophisticated for 2005 teen books and revolutionized design and presentation in YA, making it much harder to judge on sight alone the target audience. Don’t judge a book by its cover indeed! Millions of copies sold gave rise to paranormal and romance writing, giving authors and readers of genre literature a huge boost. Love it or hate it, the Twilight saga has had a lasting effect on the literary landscape, much of it positive.

Now, as quickly as I read the books and as much as I discussed and dissected with other readers at the height of Twilight’s popularity, I wouldn’t call myself a fan. Guilty pleasure reader? Yes. The catalyst of developments in YA and/or genre publishing that I dig? Absolutely a fan of those. Narratively, though, I never clicked with Bella and found myself frustrated with her story, romance or otherwise. It wasn’t until a few years after reading that I was introduced to a different interpretation of the Twilight saga’s goals that I could get behind.

For many fans, Twilight is escapist fiction and thus Bella’s not-quite-established personality allows her to be an avatar for the reader; despite not being especially smart or pretty (in her own words as our unreliable narrator, that is), Bella outperforms her classmates with little effort, attracts the attention of every guy she meets, and is loved and embraced by all but the villains. Sure, you can label her a Mary Sue and have more than enough evidence to support it, but in the realm of escapist fiction, being adored, respected, and successful despite objective averageness is kind of the point.

Does it change the fact that Bella blows off a perfectly nice group of friends, her dad, and college for a guy who removes parts from her car so she can’t spend time with the friend he doesn’t like? No. However, I am a reader of romance novels, so I get the appeal of whirlwind love stories. Sometimes at the end of the day, you get on the subway, and, hey, you want to read something light about lavish vacations, dream jobs, and the occasional cowboy who’s secretly a millionaire and/or prince. The genre takes the fantasy of travel, romance, and excitement and builds a simple story for readers to slip into. Enjoying these books doesn’t necessarily mean you want to live on an island with a millionaire cowboy prince, simply that the idea, so far from everyday life, allows a break from 9-to-5 jobs and public transportation. If your cup of tea is a love triangle with a vampire and a werewolf who are both fiercely devoted to you, even to the point of starting a war, you do you.

Swapping Bella for Beau in Life and Death breaks that interpretation. Where the majority of Twilight fans are female, having a male protagonist automatically changes the escapist fantasy. The demographic that imagined themselves in Bella’s shoes, swept away in a forbidden love with a handsome guy, will inherently have a different experience stepping into the shoes of a gangly teenage boy in a relationship with a beautiful girl. Though most of the text remains the same from the original novel, the female experience becomes the male experience, and that forces the story away from a wish-fulfillment fantasy.

That said, does it work? Yes and no. It’s refreshing to see that Bella’s domestic role at home is maintained for Beau, since teenage boys aren’t often shown cooking or cleaning in mainstream media; on the flip side, though, the narrative maintains Bella’s commentary that she’s relieved her scatterbrained mother’s new husband can take care of her after Bella/Beau leaves, which has even more unfortunate implications coming from a male character. Bella’s clumsiness also carries over, with Beau being more defensive about it than she is; he’s also defensive about not being interested in things he feels he’s supposed to be, like sports. While Bella was often moved to tears by both positive and negative experiences, Beau only keeps a few of these instances, so opportunities to experience an emotionally vulnerable male lead also drop.

One of the more interesting changes was the scene where Edward saves Bella from shady men in Port Angeles. This is flipped to Beau walking past drug dealers who saw him with Charlie earlier and think he’s a cop, so Edythe’s Volvo roars in to save Beau from being shot. To be honest, I would have been curious to see the scene played out straight from Twilight, if only to acknowledge that assault is a danger that affects men just as it affects women, but the update has its merits. The tie-in with Charlie’s profession was a neat addition and the encounter provided legitimate concern after the fact that the criminals might go looking for Beau again.

My biggest questions going in were how gender-bending the text would change my perception of both Bella and Edward. Would seeing Bella as a guy make me reevaluate my opinion that she’s a damsel in distress? [pullquote]Would seeing a brooding lady vampire change my opinion of Edward as an abusive boyfriend?[/pullquote]

I think my perception of the story changed slightly, but I’m not totally sure it improved. I’m still not particularly fond of the main couple, and I’m still very fond of Jacob/Julie, the human students who adopt Bella/Beau when she first transfers to Forks High School, the other Cullens, and Charlie. Interestingly, Meyer noted that she gender-bent everyone but Bella’s parents because, based on when Bella/Beau was born, it was unlikely that primary custody would be given to the father. I feel like I could have suspended my disbelief on that one, but I was interested to see how the single dad and estranged teen relationship would go with the Swan men as opposed to father and daughter. It remained largely unchanged, less awkward in scenes that edited out Charlie’s original inexperience with having a girl in the house, and more awkward in scenes that changed so little it felt like Charlie was treating Beau as a daughter.

In changing her damsel to a dude, though, Meyer went about flipping Bella’s high school experience and romantic prospects in a way that got a little lost in translation. Both Bella and Beau generate a lot of interest from the opposite sex. In place of Jessica’s subtle jabs and simmering jealousy from Bella’s peers, Beau has Jeremy’s pushing for details on how far he’s gotten and open hostility from guy friends at the attention he receives. There’s enough change in the newcomer’s experience for a nod of approval, though Beau maintains Bella’s dismissal of anyone who isn’t exceptional, and so his treatment of “unwelcome fan[s]” like McKayla (Mike Newton) and Taylor (Tyler) isn’t particularly kind.

In Twilight, Bella’s laments that Edward was too perfect and out of her league can be interpreted by detractors as cripplingly low self-esteem, though fans might argue that Bella’s ordinariness makes it more romantic when Edward reveals that Bella is perfect to him. Beau’s laments that Edythe is too beautiful for him generally keep in line with however you interpreted Bella, but occasionally he teeters into entitled anger that the girl he likes might not like him back. After Beau and Edythe get together, Jeremy expresses disapproval for Edythe by saying he’d rather be with a “normal girl.” Beau replies that it’s “probably for the best…Keep your expectations low.” In a single line, Beau just put down the target demographic identifying with Bella and tore apart the fantasy of Twilight: apparently ordinary high school girls are only for guys with low expectations.

On that note, our leading lady is now Edythe, inescapably ideal in every way from Beau’s perspective. We’re treated to descriptions of her “bronze-y hair,” musical voice, and untarnishable beauty, just as with Bella’s view of Edward. The three words used most often to describe Edythe are beautiful, irritated, and, to my great concern, thin. In one scene where Edythe wears a tank top, Beau thinks about how he can’t believe such “thin arms” could be so strong, then notices “the ribs [he] could nearly count under the thin cotton” and immediately whips out one of his favorite labels for her: perfect. At the same time, when leaning close to one another during biology, Beau is hyper-aware of Edythe’s curves and dreams of her in a black gown with a plunging neckline. Bodies come in all shapes and sizes, of course, but Edythe’s appearance seems to fit the bill of a Photoshopped model, and since Beau is constantly describing her, that unrealistic expectation of perfect beauty hovers over the entire reading experience.

Upon meeting Julie (Jacob), Beau describes her physical beauty, then follows up with “however, my positive opinion was damaged by the first words out of her mouth.” Which, for anyone curious, were, “You’re Beaufort Swan, aren’t you?”

Maybe this is why Life and Death was such an odd reading experience. I went in expecting it to be a very basic genderbend, and it was—exactly as Meyer promised, so no complaints. She did a little cleaning up on general prose, and I smiled reading her note in the introduction that “it was glorious.” Yet the gender-bent version looks down on the kind of ordinary high school girl the original version revolved around.

Meyer hasn’t changed my opinion that the Twilight saga presents a problematic relationship between a damsel in distress and her manipulative boyfriend, but she has affected my opinion of Twilight as a work of escapist fantasy. Where the original book made it possible for readers to play out a fantasy that an ordinary girl and a supernatural boy could find forbidden love, the retelling puts down ordinary girls in favor of the idealized beauty, the same message Twilight’s target demographic sees in media and advertising every day. The book is less of a justification of “human in distress” and more of a just desserts for the fans whose book boyfriend was too “perfect” to be real.