Gender-Swapping Twilight

We had two Christian writers read Stephenie Meyer's latest offering. Here's what they had to say.

By Gina Dalfonzo and Leslie Loftis Published on December 20, 2015

On the tenth anniversary of her book, Twilight, Stephenie Meyer responded to her critics with a “new” story.

Meyer wrote in the foreword, “Bella has always gotten a lot of censure for getting rescued on multiple occasions, and people have complained about her being a typical damsel in distress. My answer to that has always been that Bella is a human in distress, a normal human being surrounded on all sides by people who are basically superheroes and supervillains.”

To prove that the gender of her protagonist didn’t matter, she released Life and Death: Twilight Reimagined, a companion novel in which the story is rewritten with the genders switched: clumsy and quiet human girl Bella Swan is now clumsy and quiet human boy Beau Swan and male vampire Edward Cullen is now female vampire Edythe Cullen.

Meyer’s gender swap is part of a larger trend. Ghostbusters is being remade with female Ghostbusters. Sandra Bullock has signed on to a just announced Oceans 11 gender swap remake. While our culture wrestles with many questions about gender, how one of the most popular young adult fiction writers presents gender assumptions to her hordes of female fans makes essential reading for anyone concerned about that culture war.

The big question first: did Meyer succeed? Does the across-the-board gender swap work, as a story?

Gina Dalfonzo: Well, I’ve always said the original Twilight didn’t work well as a story, so obviously I don’t think this version does either! You can’t build something good on a weak foundation. That said, I didn’t think the gender swap made a major difference as far as quality goes.

Leslie Loftis: That depends on which story we analyze. There are two very different ways to read Twilight. The first, and how most fans read it, is a tale of desire and good vs. evil. The second is Mormon allegory, a tale about God and Man.

Every fan and reviewer knows that Meyer is Mormon, but they don’t usually know what to do with that fact other than mention abstinence before marriage, one of maybe three Christian practices that secular culture has even awareness of.

For Meyer, however, religion is central to the story. Twilight is a Mormon Chronicles of Narnia. The missed notes that Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox readers hear in the story—most notability the celebration of Bella choosing an immortal life on Earth rather than remaining mortal and seeking God in Heaven—come out of the Mormon faith’s very different view of the Fall and seeking God. (For further reading on this point, I recommend John Granger’s article in Touchstone Magazine.)

Meyer’s Bella/Beau is the everyhuman seeking God. That story is not dependent upon gender. For all of us who read the book from a Catholic or Protestant perspective, however, Twilight is a story about human struggles in our imperfect world here. Since women’s struggles are different than men’s struggles the gender of the characters matters a great deal. The broad appeal of the original story laid in its presentation of differences between men and women’s psyches and vulnerabilities. It accepted the differences. We hadn’t seen that in a long time.

Think about the girl power stories that get the good press. Stories in the Sex in the City genre try to push women’s differences into talk of fashion and shoes, preferring to think the differences between men and women are superficial. Then there are the heroine stories that hide gender differences in either superpowers (e.g., Buffy Summers and Diana Prince with their supernatural strength or Hermione Granger with her wand) or in specifically controlled environments (e.g., Katniss Evergreen and Tris in violent dystopias which are paradoxically free from sexual violence).

Modern stories obscure gender realities. Meyer’s original novel highlighted them. This is the root reason why the books drew so much hatred, often from critics and commentators who did not bother to read them. Bella’s femininity made it impossible for people to see her as a strong woman because the popular conception of a strong woman is a woman who mimics men’s attributes and strengths.

(One of today’s great ironies: those who think women are equal because gender differences are merely a social construct end up setting men’s standards as The Standards. This idea has become the norm far more than we care to admit. Examine the assumptions under the distain of the term “housewife” to the preference for delayed childbearing—the right way to do things is the way men do them.)

Twilight’s intended audience of young women loved the books. Teenagers have a heightened sense of when they are being lied to or pushed off the big questions. They appreciated Meyer’s honesty. She was the one who told the truth about what they felt.

Meyer’s understanding of the female psyche drew women to the story. We had not seen an unaltered feminine heroine in a very long time. To us, Bella was the everywoman in a tale of desire and good vs. evil. If Meyer had maintained that understanding in Edythe and Beau, if we had seen the everyman struggle, then this version would be selling as well as the original, especially for the altered ending.

The original story was criticized for how Bella, the human girl, despised her appearance and felt always inferior to Edward, the male vampire. Did the changes “fix” or address any of these problematic elements?

Gina: Beau wasn’t quite as down on himself as Bella was, so that was good. On the other hand, the gender swap brought new problems with it—chiefly, Beau’s obsession with Edythe’s “perfect” physical appearance. The words perfect and perfection were used to describe her over and over and over again—her hair, her skin, everything was “perfect.” I can’t see how hammering away on that theme is any better for girls—particularly teenage girls, who are often not happy about the condition of their skin and hair!—than Bella’s denigration of her appearance. Either way, you’re absorbing unhealthy ideas.

Leslie: That complaint often bugged me because in all the discussions about his stalking and controlling behavior, few reviewers noted that Edward considered himself vastly inferior to Bella.

Edward thought he was a monster who didn’t deserve her but who stuck around from his own weakness. He desired her too much to leave. He thought himself a damned and selfish coward. While Bella’s insecurities centered on physical things, his were about his soul. But men’s insecurities are too absurd to even consider, so reviewers glossed over Edward’s concerns.

In fact, this is probably why Meyer toned down both Edythe and Beau’s insecurities. She couldn’t have the girl vamp be as insecure as the boy vamp because now people would notice and assume sexism. Also, she had probably taken some of the criticism that Bella was too insecure to heart. That bugged her, so she “fixed” it. Yet, when she trimmed some of Bella’s extreme insecurities off of Beau, some took that as Meyer believing boys are inherently more confident than girls.

There is really no winning this point, but that isn’t Meyer’s fault. It is our culture’s empathy gap, our habit of assuming that boys’ insecurities are not worthy of notice.

Some feminists defending the original book noted its emphasis of “the female gaze” in how rarely Bella was described and how often Edward was. In this version, Meyer’s repeated descriptions of Edward’s perfect appearance have now been translated to Edythe. Did this change anything in the story?

Gina: See my answer above. Beau is really focused on Edythe’s outward appearance, to the point where he’s actually worshipful (we get descriptions of him falling on his knees, and referring to her as a “goddess”). It’s hardly a bad thing to admire the beauty of the person you love, but here I think there’s really more emphasis on it than is healthy. It’s not balanced with admiration for who she is as a person.

Leslie: It should have changed something but didn’t. What this story looks like from a male character’s perspective intrigues. Hence fans’ disappointment that the 10th anniversary release wasn’t Midnight Sun, that is, Twilight told from Edward’s point of view.

But maleness is more than a few superficial hobby changes that Meyer gave us. While it might be true that generally men prefer Jules Vern to Jane Austin, that preference is the result of some underlying difference in thinking, a “why” that would ripple out to the story.

Beau’s gaze should be more physical and more intense. Instead, Meyer edited it. She didn’t let it linger on the physical as much as Bella’s did. Perhaps she was afraid of really reaching the sexual intensity of the male gaze. As an author she prefers to infer sexual situations. She also might have wanted to avoid an uncomfortable exercise of getting into the head of a teenage boy since she has three teen sons.

I assume that she also wanted to preserve one of the few positive feminist critic points, so she diverted back to the female gaze by having Beau ask Edythe what she was thinking at various points. (Fans, see the virgin confessional scene.)

So, this version did not present male gaze. In fact, while reading, I got a glimpse of why the original’s detractors hated it. For those who harbor the dominant cultural assumption that women think like men, Bella was a nonsensical character. Little of the story made sense because the concept of feminine that Meyer presented does not exist for them. Similarly, the gender-swapped tale with a girl’s mind dropped in a boy’s body came to me alternatively disjointed and forced, even though I knew the story basics. If this had been the original offering, I would have hardly made three chapters.

The original story features a vampire whose attitude toward women was developed in the 1910s, and who maintained a sort of chivalry toward the human girl, and a strong possessiveness. How are these elements translated to a story when the female vampire is older and from another time, or do they translate at all?

Gina: In a way they’re still there; Beau still feels protective of Edythe even though it’s frequently stated that she’s strong and able to take care of herself. In other ways, things are reversed, like Edythe grabbing Beau’s jacket to stop him, instead of Edward grabbing Bella’s. Somehow the former doesn’t seem as bad as the latter, even though we know Edythe is stronger than Beau. The male-female dynamic does seem to come into play in this and other similar incidents. And this may be why Meyer emphasizes Edythe’s dangerous side, and her temptation to feed on her human lover, even more than she did with Edward. I believe she was aware that she would have to push harder to make that seem real to us.

Leslie: Except in language, she didn’t bother to translate them this time.

I saw many comments that the story read as a fan fiction offering. It felt that way because one of the writing tics found fan fiction is the casting of every heroine–no matter her age, situation, or the time in history–as a modern idealized everywoman.

At the end of the story, Meyer makes a minor twist which she claims was giving background characters a coup rather than a swap: she makes two of the wives of the vampire baddies the new vampire society rulers, and she says in the afterword that she thinks this leads to “a more benign, less corrupt organization.” What does this say about Meyer’s view of female leadership? Does she contradict herself?

Gina: That sounds to me like a bone thrown to the “life would be so much more wonderful if only women ran the world” crowd. Frankly, I’ve never believed that. Now, I don’t want to go to the other extreme and sound like one of those women who loathe their entire sex — I don’t like that attitude either! — but let’s face facts: Women are not sinless creatures, any more than men are. Given the opportunity, we can be just as ruthless as men (exhibit A: Cecile Richards). The organization would be different if the leadership were all female, I can see that, but would it be better just because they were female? Not necessarily.

Leslie: The Athena Doctrine. The world would be a better place if the kinder, gentler, more peace loving female sex ruled it.  Someone dusted it off for a book about it about three years ago, but it is an old idea, popularized most by Wonder Woman. The comic used erotic imagery to prepare men for the coming domination of the superior woman. It is why the character is Diana.

Mainly, the idea is nonsense. They say Athena, I say Medea. Or to exit mythology, I offer the real examples of Queens Isabella or Mary. Anyone who thinks female leadership is naturally more benign or less corrupt simply doesn’t know much history.

But Meyer is at least being consistent, or reasserting consistency really. One of the many ironies of Bella hatred: she is the kinder, gentler, non-violent peacemaker that Athena Doctrine fans complain we do not see often enough. Bella has a superpower of the mind that allows her to protect the bonds and strategies of her family and friends when the vampire law comes to destroy them all. Bella saves her family and community not with violence but her peace-loving mind. At least, she does it the books. In the movie, Meyer allowed screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg to alter the ending to allow a full-on war scene in which Bella fights. Men’s standard of strength is physical, so female heroines have to physically fight in order to get the Strong Modern Woman Seal of Approval from the pop culturati.

It seems that Meyer allows criticism to annoy her regardless of its merits. She wants to please her critics who think her female characters are weak. So when Bella was slandered as weak, she allows the change to have her fight like a man in the show. Now, the rewrite submits her characters to her critics and encourages her pronoun swap rather than a true gender swap, even while she still holds onto the idea of the more peaceable woman theme in secondary characters.

It gives the impression that she doesn’t have confidence in her characters.

Let’s talk about the one exception to Meyer’s gender-swap rule in this story: Charlie and Reneé. Leaving Charlie as the head of the household in Forks when Beau moves there changes the dynamic from a daughter being protected by her long-absent-but-not-by-choice father to a son trying to adjust to life with another male head-of-household. Does something change with the family dynamics there? That is to say, are sons and fathers different than daughters and fathers?

Gina: Something definitely does change, and not for the better. Although Beau seems protective of his parents—to an extent—he and his dad barely have a relationship at all; they mostly just seem to greet each other in passing. While Charlie is very fond of his child in both versions, he seems to get on much better with a daughter than with a son. Their relationship here seemed rather stereotyped, and not in a good way. As for Reneé, she’s just as fragile and hopeless as she always was.

I said Beau was protective “to an extent” because — SPOILER ALERT! — the way he deals with his parents’ grief after they think he’s dead is troubling. His attitude while watching his parents mourn him at his own funeral seems pretty cavalier. Meyer tries to portray him showing concern a few times, but those attempts fall flat, because even when he’s feeling bad for his parents, he’s never more than a few minutes away from basically going “Oh well, that’s just how it had to be” and making out with Edythe again. (Technically it’s not his fault that he had to fake his death, but still, he just comes across as far less concerned than he should be.) I thought Meyer’s happy fairy-tale solution to all Bella’s family difficulties was too forced in the original Twilight series, but this is a really unsatisfying alternative.

In both stories, the human protagonist longs to join the vampire lover in an exalted but troubled vampiric life. The implications are that humanity is not so great, being so frail and clumsy and mortal. What do these books miss about the nature of being human and made in the image of God?

Gina: They miss the fact that it’s a good thing! As you say, both Bella and Beau disparage their own humanity (and by extension, humanity in general), and when they lose it and essentially become the walking dead, that state of being is really glamorized. They’re the beautiful walking dead, not the gruesome kind you see on AMC. But in any case, to take this condition and place it so high above ordinary human life shows a worldview that fails to grasp the wonder and goodness of the Imago Dei.

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