Good Vampires Don't Eat: Anorexic Logic in Stephenie Meyer's Twilight Series.
Following Anna Silver and Emma Dominguez-Rue, who have each unpacked the anorexic feminine ideal of the Victorian era through analyses of the period's vampire fiction, this paper elucidates the enduring anorexic logic that underlies current post-feminist constructions of ideal femininity through an analysis of contemporary vampire fiction, of which Meyer's Twilight novels are critical. During the peak of its success, from 2008 to 2009, the immensely popular YA series was a cultural phenomenon, selling over 100 million novels in 50 different countries (Moruzi 47), and inspiring an abundance of research on the texts and fandoms in turn. Although the series has been studied from a variety of feminist perspectives, its aesthetics and ideologies as they relate to anorexia have yet to be fully explored. With protagonist Bella Swan functioning as an exemplar of postmodern and post-feminist femininity, in which the body-as-text is meant to inscribe masculinized values (of will, autonomy, and control) and feminized values (of domesticity, passivity, and beauty) simultaneously, I argue that the Twilight series epitomizes the ways in which post-feminist ideology employs discourses of female empowerment and "choice" to mask the reproduction of long-standing anorexic gender norms. To make this argument, I draw on a selection of Twilight fan fiction in which young female authors rewrite Bella's character as anorexic. Through the participatory medium of fan fiction, the authors of these stories make explicit the implicit anorexic logic that is central to the canon texts of the Twilight series and to mainstream girlhood as a whole. At the same time, as they negotiate their conflicting positions as critics and subjects of post-feminist culture, their narratives epitomize the complex and contradictory nature of anorexic ideology itself.
Vampires and Western Cultures of Anorexia
As Nina Auerbach's foundational work has shown, vampires function as hyperbolic manifestations of the cultural values and anxieties of their specific generation. Because vampire mythology always hinges on the act of feeding, with the vampire's mouth acting as the paramount site of eroticism (Craft 218), it is a particularly rich arena for exploring cultural fears about consumption. This is the assumption that underlies Silver's and Dominguez-Rue's respective studies of Stoker's Dracula, which view the foundational vampire text as a reflection of Victorian anorexic culture. Although anorexic values date back to Cartesian dualism, as Silver outlines in Victorian Literature and the Anorexic Body, anorexia itself was not diagnosed until the late nineteenth century (27), (4) when changes in fashion, medicine, and gender norms reflected and reified an increased cultural valorization of female thinness, purity, self-discipline, and asceticism. In accordance with the anorexic feminine ideal of the period, "the evil Lucy feasts" in Stoker's novel while "the good Lucy, at least usually, does not" (Silver, Victorian Literature 126). Dominguez-Rue regards Lucy as a hyperbole of Victorian femininity, whose "apparently virtuous refusal of food hides a much more dangerous hunger, a voracious thirst for blood" (300). Both authors see anorexic logic as being central to Dracula, noting that the hypersexuality, lesbianism, and villainy that characterize the Victorian female vampire reflect cultural fears of female appetite and consumption that dominated nineteenth-century discourse.
On the surface, modern vampires seem a far cry from their Victorian counterparts. Modern vampire fiction, often associated with the release of Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire, replaced the monstrous, supernatural corpse of the Victorian period with a more sympathetic, glamorous, and sensual vampire figure influenced by the glam rock, Gothic, and fantasy subcultures of late modernity. (5) Vampire fiction has only increased in popularity since its modern reincarnation; the new millennium saw an unprecedented occupation with vampire narratives on a global scale, with particular interest among young females (Luksza 429). Although popular vampire characters have maintained their glamorous and sensual markers from the 1970s forward, the genial and domestic qualities of these figures have continued to amplify over time. As is the case with each new wave of vampire mythology, the defining characteristics of vampires today can be seen in portrayals of their feeding. Alexandra Frank explains that depictions of vampire "foodways" (339) have become more nuanced and genteel in recent years; "good" vampires from popular series such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, True Blood, The Vampire Diaries, and Twilight are deemed virtuous in their respective stories through their refusal to drink (live) human blood. While Frank ties this trend to growing cultural concerns about food and where it comes from, I argue that when analyzed in conjunction with the contemporary vampire's hyperglamorous and domestic nature, these ways of eating can be seen as reflective of a post-feminist ethos.
Although "post-feminism" carries with it a multitude of meanings, in current scholarship the term is typically used to describe a discourse or "sensibility" (Gill) that appropriates the language of feminism to promote a kind of depoliticized "proto-feminism" (Bullen et al. 504) that perpetuates elements of patriarchal, neo-liberal, and/or white-supremacist control. (6) The ideal post-feminist subject is characterized in popular media by her ability to stay financially and emotionally independent, and visible in the public eye, while remaining heteronormative, conventionally beautiful (with features such as white skin, long hair, a thin body), and domestic at heart. Mind/body dualism pervades post-feminist culture as body-modifying practices such as plastic surgery, aggressive workout regimes, and food restriction are seen as desirable avenues toward autonomy and self-actualization. Post-feminist emphasis on "the self as a project" (Tasker and Negra 21) masks its perpetuation of oppressive ideologies by framing these activities as personal triumphs of the "empowered" modern woman. Anorexic ideology thus lies within the challenging sets of contradictions with which post-feminism confronts women: that they must restrict (food) but also consume (products), embody the masculine (mind) but also the feminine (body), and make autonomous choices but also the "correct" choices. Like the post-feminist "superwoman" (Coppock et al. 4), who gains subjectivity by embodying aspects of ideal masculinity and femininity simultaneously, as Heywood notes, the individual with anorexia feels she can only "be" someone "if she is not herself"--that is, she can only be someone if she "identifies with the masculine while simultaneously maintaining the appearance of the feminine" (34). Like the quintessential post-feminist subject, she employs what she perceives as mental strength to escape the body's materiality, including its age, shape, and gender (Darmon 262). In other words, she strives to occupy what is typically coded as the masculine space of will, but in a way that is perceived as fundamentally feminine. Thus although a post-feminist vision of ideal femininity may appear discrete from the romanticized invalid aesthetic that epitomized the Victorian anorexic paradigm, post-feminist discourses of "empowerment" and "choice" are merely a guise concealing the propagation of deep-rooted gender norms valorizing female asceticism and body discipline.
Research in the field of neo-Victorian studies has begun exploring connections between post-feminist and Victorian gender ideals, with scholars such as Antonija Primorac asserting that the proliferation of neo-Victorian adaptations in contemporary media fills a void created by post-feminist nostalgia for a simpler time, free from the struggles and complexities stoked by current intersectional feminist movements. This cultural fantasy, what Primorac refers to as the "neo-Victorian imaginarium" (12), does not stem from a desire to understand the past, but rather a conservative impulse to "re-member" (Mitchell 7) traditional ideals for a safer--that is, more gender essentialist--future. As Katie Kapurch asserts, this "rippling out" (2) of Victorian culture is most evident in mainstream girl culture. Using the Twilight series as her primary example, Kapurch argues that, through their melodramatic conventions, Meyer's novels reinforce "rigid delineations" (15) of the Victorian era between good/evil, feminine/masculine, and virtue/vulgarity binary oppositions. Indeed, the neo-Victorian qualities of the Twilight series, specifically its intertextuality with Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, have been a prevailing theme in recent Twilight scholarship (Morey; Kapurch; Groper). The position of the series in the canon of post-feminist literature has also been well established, with Anne Helen Petersen describing it as "one of the most striking manifestations of postfeminist culture in recent years" (54). (7) As this scholarship suggests, the Twilight series epitomizes the convergence of post-feminist and Victorian values, both in contemporary vampire fiction and in mainstream girl media more broadly. What has been missing from the conversation up to this point is an exploration of how the post-feminist discourse of the series, combined with its valorization of Victorian "rigidity" (Kapurch), work together to perpetuate an anorexic value system, and how fans themselves respond to such logic. I argue that despite her use of the language of "choice" to frame Bella's realization of a monolithic post-feminist identity as an expression of female autonomy, Meyer's characterization of Bella's journey to self-actualization through body transcendence and restrictive sexual and eating behaviours exemplifies the same logic of anorexia that defined Victorian ideals of femininity. Like a post-feminist reincarnation of her predecessor, Lucy, the "bad" Bella feasts--both figuratively and literally--while the "good" Bella does not.
Bella's Humanity and the Horror of Female Embodiment
Prior to her vampire transformation, Bella epitomizes the horror of female embodiment that anorexic logic seeks to rectify. The Twilight novels illustrate the negativity of Bella's embodied life, in part through the metaphor of softness, as Bella's soft body is coded as a symbol of feminine weakness. The protagonist first introduces herself to readers through a description of her body--"I had always been slender, but soft somehow, obviously not an athlete" (Meyer, Twilight 10). This description emphasizes Bella's own inactivity and lack of self-discipline, two major transgressions for women in post-feminist culture. Although Bella refers to herself as "slender" here, within the anorexic paradigm "[s]imply to be slim is not enough" (Bordo 191)--one must achieve the solid, "flab-free, excess-free body" (191) in order to demonstrate control over the body's raw material. The negativity of Bella's softness extends so deep that it brings her close to death at many points in the series. In varying versions of the same message, Edward repeatedly warns Bella, "you are so soft.... You don't realize how incredibly breakable you are" (Meyer, Twilight 310). Within Meyer's novels, the soft body is fragile and vulnerable to attack, while the hard (vampire) body is externally "perfect" (Breaking Dawn 25) and seemingly invincible. The correlation between mortality and softness can also be seen in the opening dream sequence of New Moon, in which Bella looks in the mirror to see her aged self with "soft and withered [skin], bent into a thousand tiny creases" (Meyer 3). Bella's imagined softness--signifying age, decay, and the inevitability of death--represents the abject realities of embodied life that Bella, and proponents of post-feminist ideology at large, seek to transcend. Just as the logic of anorexia equates the raw female form with "the grave" (Heywood 46), in the Twilight novels, Bella's soft female body quite literally threatens her life.
In addition to this physical softness, the negativity of Bella's human body is also imagined through a metaphorical softness, as Bella lacks firm mental and emotional boundaries to contain her many appetites. One of these is sexual appetite, which persons with anorexia often suppress in addition to their appetites for food, each signifying the body's uncontrollable nature. Accordingly, the Twilight novels denigrate Bella's sexuality during her embodied life but celebrate her more controlled and "hardened" vampire sexuality. The texts begin to achieve this binary by equating sexual acts with acts of consumption. At numerous points in the series, Bella depicts Edward in terms of food: she describes herself "breathing in the smell of his skin" (Meyer, Twilight 313), notes the delicious "smell of his breath" (319), and frequently describes "the taste" (Meyer, Eclipse 44) of his skin. She must therefore suppress her sexuality to safeguard Edward--her object of desire/consumption--during moments of intimacy: "I wanted to turn toward him, to see if it was really his lips against my hair. But I had to be good; I didn't want to make this any harder for him than it already was" (Meyer, Twilight 308). By attentively restricting her sexual behaviour, Bella works to "save" Edward from experiencing an arousal that cannot be satisfied, thus reflecting post-feminist positioning of male heterosexual desire as the "cynosure" (Negra 48) of female self-definition. As the series, and Edward and Bella's relationship progresses, Bella exhibits less and less control over her sexual appetite, causing Edward to increase his dominant behaviour. Near the end of Eclipse, Bella loses control and overtly begs Edward for sex--"Just let us try... only try. And I'll give you what you want" (448). Instead of giving in to Bella's pleas, however, Edward merely emphasizes his jurisdiction over her: "silly girl.... I'm trying to protect your [virtue]. And you're making it shockingly difficult" (453). Scenes like this, which occur throughout the series, exemplify how Edward uses his male intellect and reason to manage Bella's voracious sexuality on her behalf.
Even when her sexual activity is ostensibly risk-free--that is, within the confines of traditional monogamy--Bella continues to face punishment for her desire. The morning after she consummates her marriage to Edward, Bella awakens to discover she has swollen lips and large purple bruises all over her body, from her ribs to her shoulders to her cheekbones (Meyer, Breaking Dawn 89); in her first and final sexual act as a human woman, Bella is physically brutalized by Edward, whose hard body and massive physical strength cause him to hurt her inadvertently during sex. Just as proponents of post-feminist ideology view mistreatments of women as individualized cases that are the women's own fault (Anderson 4), in this case Bella's assault seems to stem from her own insistence on sexual gratification rather than a larger injustice. After all, it is she who insists on having sex with Edward despite his reservations. Edward's assault on Bella's person thus works to naturalize masculine dominance over female sexuality without vilifying the male subject, a topic that has been explored by numerous scholars of the Twilight series already. (8) Of interest to this paper is how Bella's voracious, soft, and "breakable" body is framed as causing the physical harm she receives. In linking Bella's sexual appetite with an appetite for food, and then emphasizing the hazards of satiating that appetite from within a soft female body, the Twilight series reifies an anorexic paradigm that deplores the female form and mobilizes that hatred by advocating dominance over its many appetites.
In perhaps their most obvious conveyance of anorexic logic, Meyer's novels frame Bella's appetite for food, like her sexual appetite, as out of control. Prior to her vampire transformation, like that of many individuals with anorexia (Bordo 67), Bella's eating (or lack thereof) becomes a channel for expressing a range of negative emotions, specifically those involving her relationship with Edward. When Bella sees Edward in the cafeteria for the first time since their initial meeting, she consumes only a soda for lunch (Meyer, Twilight 40). Later, when Bella refuses to eat on her date with Edward, she tells the reader, "I didn't feel like mentioning that my stomach was already full--of butterflies" (91). Moments like these suggest Bella deals with her negative emotions through her food intake, a trend that continues throughout her human life: in New Moon, Charlie describes how Bella fails to eat or drink when Edward deserts her (396); in Eclipse, Bella's nerves prevent her from eating at her high-school graduation (359); and in Breaking Dawn, Bella describes herself as being "too keyed up to have any interest in eating" (39) on her angst-filled wedding day. Together, these instances suggest that food restriction functions as a kind of coping mechanism for Bella's feelings of anxiety, allowing the protagonist to gain a sense of control while remaining within the confines of acceptable feminine behaviour.
The scenes in which Bella does eat can be divided into two categories: those in which she eats because she must, which occur throughout the series, and those in which Bella eats for pleasure, which occur primarily in Breaking Dawn, during her pregnancy. In the former category, Bella's attitude toward food seems nonchalant; just as the ideal woman eats "without deep desire and without apparent consequence" (Bordo 102), Bella treats eating as a chore--as something she must do rather than something she enjoys doing. For instance, when Bella meets Edward in Port Angeles in Twilight, she resists the idea of going out for dinner and eats solely because Edward asks her to, with her indifference toward food reflected by her picking "the first thing" (169) on the menu. In another scene in the novel, as Edward speaks to Bella, she explains to readers, "I'd been so intrigued, I hadn't even noticed I was hungry" (291), and again eats only at Edward's insistence. Bella's cool attitude toward food in these scenes frames her restriction as both easy and natural. Like the ideal post-feminist subject who must achieve body perfection without complaint, Bella repeatedly demonstrates an ambivalence toward food; this ignores the work and turmoil that go into creating what Negra calls "one of the most distinctive features of the postfeminist era" (119)--the underfed and over-exercised female body. While Edward encourages Bella's appetite when it is modest and restrictive, in those scenes in which Bella eats for pleasure, he humiliates her. In accordance with the anorexic paradigm that correlates appetite for food with appetite for sex, once Bella loses her virginity and becomes pregnant, her nonchalant attitude toward food disappears, and her hunger increases. When Edward makes breakfast for Bella the morning after they first have sex, Bella describes her craving for the meal: "The scent of the food overwhelmed me. I felt like I could eat the plate and the frying pan, too; my stomach snarled" (Meyer, Breaking Dawn 97). This sensual description serves as a stark contrast to Bella's ambivalent discussions of food earlier in the series. Edward hence becomes suspicious of his wife and shames her for her hunger, asking, "Do you know how many eggs you've gone through in the last week?" (111), and "Do you want to swim with the dolphins this afternoon--burn off the calories?" (117). Edward's attitude shift emphasizes the increased wildness of Bella's appetite and the need to contain it.
As Bella's pregnancy progresses and her association with the female body strengthens, the dangerous implications of her appetite become even more explicit. Just as she reaches the height of her pregnancy in Breaking Dawn, the protagonist loses her narrative autonomy and Jacob steps in as narrator. Bella's character at this point in the series serves as a vehicle for the growth and nourishment of others' subjectivities, namely those of Jacob and her unborn child. (9) Accordingly, she becomes an exaggeration of the vulgarity and monstrosity of female embodiment, which culminates in her craving for human blood. When vampire Rosalie satiates Bella's bloodthirst for the first time, Bella admits in a "tiny voice" that the blood "smells good" and "tastes good," wearing an expression that Jacob describes as "apologetic. Pleading. Scared" (249). The protagonist's distress in this scene seems to stem less from the act of consumption itself than it does from her enjoyment of the act. Her facial expressions and "slumped" (252) shoulders characterize her appetite as both shameful and embarrassing. Bella's negative response to being fed also adheres to post-feminist rhetoric in which victimhood for women is associated with self-pity and a lack of accountability or personal drive (Anderson 5). As a pregnant and hungry woman engulfed by her body's needs, Bella lacks access to acceptable modes of self-empowerment at the end of her human life, and thus regresses to a primitive state marked by bodily functions, lack of control, and dependency on others. Only by following the logic of anorexia and reaching a realm of transcendence above her body's materiality can Bella gain complete control over herself and her destiny, ultimately emerging as the post-feminist "superwoman" she always longed to be.
The Anorexic Logic of Bella's Vampire Transformation
Upon sacrificing her female flesh and transforming into a vampire, Bella gains the ability to dominate all aspects of her previously unruly body, including its appearance, abilities, and desires. Employing her mental strength, Bella endures days of agony to transform into a post-feminist and anorexic dream of ageless perfection, free from the abject realities of embodied life. Indeed, her vampire body is so far removed from nature that it literally sparkles in the sunlight. Bella's vampire self thus exemplifies the late modern concept of the "self-as-project," (10) or the "achieved self" (Negra 19) in post-feminist culture, both of which equate masochistic self-discipline with self-actualization. A stark contrast to her soft and plain human form, Bella's "achieved" vampire physique is awesomely beautiful and physically hard. Just as the hard body in western culture stands for purity, hyperintellectuality, and transcendence of the flesh (Bordo 148), Bella's new body seems to work in seamless congruence with her mind--"[t]he instant I'd considered standing erect, I was already straight" (Meyer, Breaking Dawn 391)--allowing her to overcome all of the bodily limitations that previously inhibited her from reaching her full potential.
Not only does Bella's mind gain total control over her body's physical abilities, it also dominates those bodily appetites that restrict and burden her as a human, including her sexual appetite. Although Bella's body is "sexier" as a vampire, and the protagonist does have more and better sex post-transformation, her new sexuality is fundamentally different from that exuded by her human self. In accordance with Bordo's work on muscles, Bella's hard body expresses a kind of controlled sexuality that is "not about to erupt in unwanted and embarrassing display" (195). With her limitless physical potential, the protagonist manifests the kind of performative sexuality that is valorized in post-feminist culture, where women use their sexual "liberation" to perform male heterosexual fantasies that centre on feminine beauty and youthfulness (Negra 48). Bella explains her new-found prowess in the bedroom the first time she and Edward have sex as vampires: "I was never going to get tired, and neither was he. We didn't have to catch our breath or rest or eat or even use the bathroom; we had no more mundane human needs.... I was always going to want more" (Meyer, Breaking Dawn 482-83). In this way, Bella is the model post-feminist subject: an ever-young, hard-bodied, and beautiful woman who can (literally) have sex forever. Significantly, though, Bella is only able to engage safely in this kind of sexual activity after destroying her female flesh. As Anthea Taylor notes, Meyer's novels posit a utopic, yet nihilistic eroticism, one that links young female sex with death (31). Just as the individual with anorexia views her sexuality as a symptom of her own abjection, the Twilight novels frame Bella's enhanced sexuality as dependent on her own annihilation: Bella is only able to have sex when her body is safely hardened and safely dead. In constructing Bella's character as a male heterosexual fantasy and then linking her sexuality with death, the Twilight novels posit an anorexic view of female sexuality that assumes the body's disposability and fetishizes its death.
With increased control over her body and sexual appetite, Bella also gains power over her appetite for food as a vampire. The protagonist becomes the ultimate restrictor figure as her ability to resist consumption increases along with her desire to consume. From the start of the Twilight series, vampire eating is presented as hyper-sensual and hyper-pleasurable. Explaining the vampire hunting experience, Edward tells Bella, "we give ourselves over to our senses" and "govern less with our minds" (Meyer, Twilight 225). Although Meyer's novels portray vampire feeding as euphoric and uncontrollable, they simultaneously condemn the satiation of that very hunger. Like persons with anorexia, who often experience the battle between will and appetite as one between good and evil (Bordo; Warin), in the Twilight series, "good" vampires (the Cullens) restrict their appetites, while villainous vampires (James and Victoria) indulge. (11) In fact, the Cullen family is rarely shown eating at all. At her first impression of the Cullens, Bella notes their uneaten lunches: "they weren't eating, though they each had a tray of untouched food in front of them.... As I watched, the small girl rose with her tray--unopened soda, unbitten apple--and walked away with a quick, graceful lope..." (Meyer, Twilight 18-19). From their first moments in the series, the Cullens are characterized as angelic figures marked by their ability to transcend the body's needs and appetites, garnering Bella's attention and admiration.
When Bella becomes a vampire herself and legitimizes her place in the Cullen family, she too becomes a virtuous restrictor. Indeed, she becomes the ultimate restrictor: as a "newborn" vampire, she faces the most temptation to consume, yet exhibits the strongest ability to resist. In her first moments as a vampire, Bella exhibits a fear of food typical of anorexia. (12) Awakening from her painful coma, the protagonist articulates the dread she feels upon discovering her insatiable hunger: "I was the monster now. I had to keep away from scents that might trigger my wild side" (Meyer, Breaking Dawn 408). Despite her desperate newborn appetite, Bella demonstrates an uncanny ability to push her hunger into a "separate part of [her] brain" (397), a skill that continues to grow with practice. This phenomenon is dramatized during Bella's first hunting trip, where she briefly loses her mental focus while face to face with her greatest temptation, human blood. Bella proves unable to resist the scent of hikers in the woods, and her worst fear comes true when the "monster" inside her comes to life: "The scent ruled completely. I was single-minded as I traced it, aware only of the thirst and the smell that promised to quench it" (417). As Bella's craving threatens to take over her intellect and reason, she lets out a "feral snarl" (417), symbolizing the animalistic nature of her desire. Despite the euphoric essence of her appetite, Bella employs the tenets of mind/body dualism to control herself in this dangerous moment. She describes how her commitment to the cause and mental strength help her through the difficult task of restraint: "I'd known it was going to be hard. That was why I'd been so on guard" (420).
When Bella does, finally, decide to eat, she hunts for mountain lion, a supposedly more ethical, but less pleasurable meal than her initial choice. Even so, Bella still feels repulsed by herself after the act: "The thirst flared again when [the mountain lion] ran dry, and I shoved his carcass off my body in disgust. How could I still be thirsty after all that?" (423). Discomfort with her strange new eating habits would be expected in Bella's circumstance, but here, the protagonist's "disgust" seems to stem less from the hunt itself than it does from her own seemingly insatiable appetite: "How could I still be thirsty?" (423, emphasis added). Bella's participation in consumer culture at large is celebrated in the series; vampires are exceedingly wealthy in the Twilight universe, and accordingly, Bella obtains a new sports car, designer wardrobe, and seemingly unlimited bank account upon transformation. It is only her consumption of food that is portrayed as excessive and potentially hazardous. Bella's self-loathing after her first hunt is therefore not a commentary on consumer culture generally, but rather on food consumption in particular. Her relationship with food, as both Heywood and Megan Warin note about that of the individual with anorexia, involves a simultaneous attraction and repulsion. It is Bella's ability to ignore her strongest cravings despite this dichotomy that frames her as a model restrictor and therefore an icon of post-feminist womanhood.
The protagonist's exemplary self-control continues to grow as she gains more practice restricting. When Bella returns home from her hunt, she employs a methodical mental process to manage her cravings as she advances toward Renesmee--her delicious-smelling daughter with half human blood--for the first time: "I thought about every step before I took it, analyzing my mood, the burn in my throat, the position of the others around me" (Meyer, Breaking Dawn 443). In contrast with her "compulsory" reaction to temptation on the hunt, here, Bella's "slow procession" (443) and careful focus make her hunger easier to ignore; pointedly, she tells the Cullens, "I'm in control" (462). Her final test of self-control, however, comes with the arrival of her (human) father, Charlie, at the Cullen family home. Bella describes meeting him for the first time post-transformation: "Charlie smelled more delicious than anything I'd ever imagined. As appealing as the anonymous hikers had been on the hunt, Charlie was doubly tempting. And he was just a few feet away" (507). Although Bella's description of Charlie in this passage rivals the most enticing of food advertisements, she is nonetheless able to ignore the "pain and longing of the thirst" (507). By resisting what she desires so deeply, Bella highlights her ability to distinguish between good and bad forms of consumption. This is a fundamental practice that women in post-feminist culture must learn in order to navigate the cultural landscape in which some types of consumption (like that of retail products) are valorized while others (like that of food products) are vilified. In this final test of willpower, Bella shows complete self-awareness and control over her desire to consume, suggesting that, by the end of the series, the protagonist has become master over her own hunger.
Rather than causing her pain or frustration, Bella's efforts to be a "good vampire" provide her with deep personal gratification. The protagonist describes the challenge as "worth it" to feel "in control" (Meyer, Breaking Dawn 425), highlighting the mental and emotional reward that comes with overcoming her body's desires. The Cullen family's responses to Bella's transformation extend the protagonist's sense of fulfillment. When Bella stops herself from devouring the hikers in the woods during her first hunt, Edward declares, "I am in shock because I am completely amazed" (420)--feelings, he reveals, that stem from Bella's extraordinary willpower:
You shouldn't be able to do any of this. You shouldn't be so... so rational. You shouldn't be able to stand here discussing this with me calmly and coolly. And, much more than any of that, you should not have been able to break off mid-hunt with the scent of human blood in the air. Even mature vampires have difficulty with that--we're always very careful of where we hunt so as not to put ourselves in the path of temptation. (420)
Edward's remarks frame Bella's self-restraint as being beyond the limits of possibility; her "calm" and "cool" attitude toward her food cravings, as Jasper claims later in the same scene, is "not natural" (Breaking Dawn 442). Although Edward explains that, after much practice, mature vampires can learn to "prioritize and manage" (485) their desires, Bella's superior mental strength helps her secure this achievement right from the start of her new vampire life. At times, Bella and the Cullens struggle to determine whether her extraordinary capability stems from a supernatural gift or from her own will and determination. When Bella discovers her true gift (in the Twilight universe, vampires can only have one)--her ability metaphysically to shield others from assault--she confirms that her advanced self-control is "just a product of good preparation--focus and attitude" (598), suggesting that anyone can achieve the same result, given the right disposition. Against seemingly insurmountable odds, Bella uses sheer willpower to restrain her wild and insatiable newborn hunger, forcing her mind to overcome her body's deepest desires, thereby solidifying her status as the ultimate post-feminist restrictor who, despite her mental/masculine strength and willpower, remains essentially feminine at heart.
As Bella's mastery over her appetites is confirmed at the end of the series, so too is her self-actualization. Near the end of Breaking Dawn, Bella makes a narrative statement that serves as a climax to her transformative character arc:
After eighteen years of mediocrity, I was pretty used to being average. I realized now that I'd long ago given up any aspirations of shining at anything.... It was like I had been born to be a vampire.... I had found my true place in the world, the place I fit, the place I shined. (523-24)
Like the person with anorexia who ironically discovers "a way to become safe, to rise above it all" (Bordo 179) through her restriction rituals, Bella rises above her own humanity and finds her "true place in the world" as a virtuous restrictor. Regarding Bella's transformation from life to "undeath," Anthea Taylor argues that the Twilight texts privilege a feminine subjectivity in which undeath correlates with the utopic acquisition of multiple forms of capital (41). This undead subjectivity that Taylor points to mirrors that of the individual with anorexia, for whom life transcends the body. Heywood argues that "[t]he denial of feminine flesh makes [the individual] godlike both in her difference from other female corpses invoking death and decay and in her ostensible participation in the 'eternal'" (48). While anorexia involves the slow and painful process of self-starvation, and up to 15% of those affected do in fact die as a result of their illness and its complications (Canada 10), a common experience throughout the illness is a feeling of invulnerability (Bordo 153). Accordingly, in disciplining, erasing, and ultimately transcending her body, Bella gains entry into the privileged world of the "eternal" in which she can ostensibly rise above it all, including death. This fact is highlighted in the final lines of the Twilight novels, which leave readers with an image of the protagonist living on in undead bliss, "[f]orever and forever and forever" (Meyer, Breaking Dawn 754).
Reading Meyer's novels through the lens of anorexia therefore offers new ways of understanding the neo-Victorian qualities of these texts, shedding light on how the Victorian culture of anorexia, expressed through the valorization of female asceticism and body discipline, continues to pervade contemporary post-feminist vampire texts and, more broadly, mainstream media for girls. As the Twilight series exemplifies, while the sympathetic and self-controlled female vampire today may appear antithetical to her vulgar and monstrous Victorian counterpart, her character's heroism and virtue merely mask the reproduction of feminine gender ideals that are rooted in anorexic logic. However, just as Chris Vanden Bossche claims of Jane Eyre that it matters less which ideologies constitute the novel than which ideological subjects are created through its consumption, in the case of the Twilight series, attention must also be given to how readers interpret the problematic messages. As scholars such as Petersen have shown, Twilight fans are not all passive victims of potentially damaging ideologies; female, and even self-identified "feminist" Twilight readers experience tension between their love of the series and their discomfort with its gender politics. Penelope Eate further asserts that female authors of Twilight fan fiction operate "critical dexterity" (21) in their readings of the canon texts, and "rewrite/right" the "gender wrongs" (23) through their stories. Building on Petersen's and Eate's respective investigations of gender politics within the Twilight fandom, the final section of this paper examines how young female fans gain varying degrees of agency by actively engaging with the anorexic discourses constructed in the series, specifically through fan fiction writing.
Twilight Fan Fiction's Anorexic Heroine
Since its emergence, the Twilight series has inspired an abundance of fan fiction, with a growing body of authors rewriting its protagonist as anorexic. This section employs three of those stories as a case study: "Transcend into Descent" by Australian user Rho-xx, "Disappearing Act" by American user krumpingxballerina, and "When Losing Is Winning" by British user sacha-lee. These texts, selected from leading fan fiction site FanFiction.Net, were chosen for their substantial lengths (over 10,000 words) and similar authorial backgrounds. Each author self-identifies as young (high school or college age), female, and from a western cultural background, reflecting the target demographic of the Twilight series, as well as the demographic most often diagnosed with eating disorders. (13) As my analysis of these stories reveals, through the dialogical medium of fan fiction, young female fans gain agency in making explicit the implicit anorexic ideologies that are central to both the Twilight canon texts and post-feminist girl culture as a whole. However, through their contradictory and sometimes problematic depictions of anorexia, these fan narratives also epitomize the dichotomous nature of anorexic logic itself, highlighting each author's position as both critic and subject of the post-feminist climate in which she exists.
In accordance with Kristen Schilt's argument that zine networks give adolescent females a safe place to expose and critique the "cultural devaluation of women" (71), the medium of fan fiction, which encourages interaction between authors and readers, fosters conversations about difficult topics, such as eating disorders, among its users. In opposition to a post-feminist cultural emphasis on individual modes of empowerment, forums like FanFiction.Net promote modes of "c/overt resistance," Schilt's term for purposeful coalition-building that retains participants' anonymity (81). Many fan fiction authors write about topics that are personal to themselves, and the writers in my case study are no exception to this trend; all three self-identify as having, or having experienced, mental illness, and two of them self-identify as having had an eating disorder specifically. These writers use the "Author's Notes" section of the FanFiction.Net forum to call on readers explicitly to interact with their texts, exemplifying Janice Radway's notion of "intersubjectivity," wherein girl writers gain agency through communication and coalition-building with other female subjects (148). The Author's Notes function therefore affords writers and readers the opportunity not only to interact with one another, but to build empowering narratives together by working through challenging topics--in this case, eating disorders --dialogically, a phenomenon that is exemplified in Rho-xx's Author's Notes to her readers:
for some that suffer an eating disorder it happens and others it doesn't but for Bella and a lot of other people (such as myself and others I have known), [an inner voice speaks to you] like an intense feeling that drives thought into words.... Eating disorders can be confusing as hell to understand if you haven't had one so comment and ask anything you want. (Chapter 3)
As comments like these suggest, publishing stories about the stigma attached to anorexia and eating disorders can help young authors, and those affected by eating disorders more broadly, gain confidence and agency as they see others within the interactive forum sharing, listening to, commenting on, empathizing with, and attempting to understand the experience of having an eating disorder.
Of course, what separates the medium of fan fiction from other new media is its relationship to already published--and presumably popular--texts. Authors are thus doubly empowered, not only by their ability to converse dialogically and c/overtly with other young women about issues that affect them, but also by their capacity to speak back to the problematic messages and dominant ideologies that pervade particular texts and mainstream media at large. In their exposure of the Twilight series' anorexic ideologies, the writers under discussion employ three primary strategies of fan (re)interpretation defined by Henry Jenkins:
1) Recontextualization--providing missing scenes that fill in gaps of the canon text concerning plot and/or character motivation (165-66);
2) Expanding the Series Timeline--providing hints about characters' backgrounds not fully explored within the canon text (166-69); and
3) Emotional Intensification--emphasizing moments of narrative crisis within the canon text (178-79).
Through an amalgamation of these three methods, users Rho-xx, krumpingxballerina, and sacha-lee all work to build coalitions with fellow Twilight fans, converse with these fans about the challenging and personal issue of eating disorders, and expose and critique the anorexic logic that is central both to the Twilight series and broader western ideals of femininity.
The authors accomplish this, in part, by emphasizing the invisibility of Bella's eating disordered behaviour, thereby calling attention to the insidious nature of anorexic ideology and its underlying presence within the canon series. In krumpingxballerina's story, Charlie remains oblivious to Bella's self-harming behaviour, as Bella tells the reader, "He wants the best for me. Yet, he isn't very observant" (Chapter 1). Charlie fails to notice as Bella skips meals, over-exercises, and drops down to the dangerously low weight of 93.6 pounds. User Rho-xx takes this commentary further by framing Charlie as an enabler of Bella's disordered behaviour; Bella employs the post-feminist rhetoric of female "health" and "productivity" to convince Charlie to accept and encourage her (secretly obsessive) pursuit of weight loss. Charlie even tells Bella that her body shows signs of "obvious improvement" (Chapter 5), and ironically, tells her how proud he is of her for using a "healthy coping mechanism" to deal with her negative feelings (Chapter 2). Rho-xx's story therefore suggests a connection between post-feminist rhetoric and the perpetuation of eating disorders, as Bella's emphasis on personal "improvement" works to assure her father easily that his daughter's behaviours are "normal." The author also highlights the normalization of problematic dieting discourse among girls and women by situating the shallow behaviour of Bella's school friends in the original Twilight series within the context of weight loss; when Angela sees Bella in an "extra extra small" netball uniform, she tells her friend: "Wow you are tiny Bella but the uniform fits perfectly and you look great in it" (Chapter 5). Jessica and Ms. Cope also compliment Bella on "how gorgeously slim" she looks (Chapter 4), and family friend Leah explicitly tells Bella that she "look[s] great!" because she is "so much fitter now" (Chapter 5). By recontextualizing pre-existent relationships between characters in this way, these fan fiction narratives emphasize the normalization, and consequent invisibility, of problematic body discourses both within and outside the series itself, and their high level of influence on eating disorder development.
In addition to calling attention to the invisibility of eating disorders, these stories also expose how the tenets of mind/body dualism feature prominently in Bella's self-actualization in the canon texts. All three narratives demonstrate the ways in which Bella's human identity equates her character with the realm of the body--the realm of female "negativity" (Bordo 5)--by recontextualizing the protagonist's "weak" characterization in the canon series within the context of anorexia. In Rho-xx's story, just as in the canon text, Bella blames her body for any discomfort or pain that she feels. While in the shower, Bella explains, "I nicked myself and flinched.... Stupid weak skin" (Chapter 3); likewise, when she begins to feel cold all the time--a common side effect of anorexia--Bella's inner voice tells her: "You are weak" (Chapter 7). Rho-xx employs the language of "weakness" used in the canon series to show how the internalization of such discourse may contribute to the development of an actual eating disorder. User krumpingxballerina also recontextualizes Bella's "weakness," but does so within the context of sexual assault. The author expands the original timeline of the Twilight series to reveal that Bella was assaulted at a party after Edward's departure in New Moon. Just as anorexia, which often manifests after an episode of sexual assault, can be seen as "a defense against the 'femaleness' of the body" (Bordo 8), in "Disappearing Act," Bella's anorexia develops after the assault takes place. By highlighting the physical weakness and vulnerability that are central to Bella's character in the original Twilight series, and then aligning those aspects of female "negativity" (Bordo) with the development of an eating disorder, fan stories such as these expose the covert anorexic logic of the canon text while resisting the dualistic mind/body discourse that is central to post-feminist ideology.
In both the canon and fan fiction texts, Bella works to transcend her female "negativity" through modes of body discipline; however, while the Twilight series ultimately celebrates Bella's hard work by idealizing her vampire identity, the fan fiction texts emphasize the dangers inherent in her masochistic behaviours. Writer sachalee highlights Bella's disregard for her own physical wellbeing by reimagining Bella as a cigarette smoker. Bella ruminates on the toxicity of cigarettes, but tells readers: "I'd found cigarettes had curbed my hunger months ago" (Chapter 3), demonstrating her willingness to punish her own body for the sake of gaining control over its appetites. In Rho-xx's story, Bella's propensity for bodily self-punishment is more explicit as she repeatedly scalds herself in the shower to "teach [her] pathetic body a lesson and to wake it up" (Chapter 3). In contrast, in krumpingxballerina's adaptation, Bella uses cold water in the shower to "assault all of the fat covering [her] body, wishing every inch would just melt away" (Chapter 2). Later in the story, as she reaches a breaking point in her weight-loss obsession, Bella cuts herself with a razor, "savoring the pleasant empty feeling.... the only way to empty [the] mind of the stress of living" (Chapter 8). Just as Bella eradicates her female flesh in the canon series in order to gain complete self-control as a vampire, here Bella cuts her human skin in order to gain a sense of control over the otherwise uncontrollable events in her life. In appropriating the masochistic mindset that is central to Bella's character within the original texts, and showing how this characteristic contributes to self-harming and eating disordered behaviour, these fan stories unveil the problematic logic of the Twilight novels while promoting understanding of the various ways eating disordered behaviour can manifest within adolescent females.
Although in each case under discussion, the author can be seen gaining agency both in her exposure of the underlying anorexic logic of the Twilight series, and in her dialogue with fellow fans about eating disorders generally, these authors' depictions of and approaches to eating disorders are multi-layered and contradictory. For example, while sacha-lee's story offers an insightful critique of how anorexia pervades Meyer's novels and mainstream girl culture at large, it simultaneously reinforces existing stereotypes about the disorder, as Rosalie describes Bella as a "selfish brat" (Chapter 13) who refuses to get better, and Edward characterizes his sick girlfriend as both a "child" (Chapter 9) and "broken angel" (Chapter 11). Both characters' points of view go unchallenged in the text, positing anorexia as simultaneously selfish--that is, the individual's "fault" or "choice"--and as desirable: a way to canonize oneself and gain male attention. In a similarly problematic move, krumpingxballerina portrays Bella as an apathetic and passive victim of circumstance, removing all sense of agency from the protagonist. The author connects Bella's eating disorder to the fact that she is brutally bullied at school; this is portrayed in a series of events to which Bella responds apathetically: "It doesn't matter that they hit me, and kicked me, or whatever. I got what I deserved" (Chapter 6). Although the narrative does well in resisting tidy solutions to the causes and effects of eating disorders, it simultaneously negates individual agency and leaves little room for conversation about potential solutions to the problem. Thus, even fan fiction stories that work to expose and resist the logic of anorexia may simultaneously reproduce problematic stereotypes of the disorder, demonstrating each author's conflicting position as both critic and subject of the post-feminist climate in which she exists. While proponents of post-feminist ideology may implicitly encourage the adoption of anorexic values, like their Victorian predecessors, they simultaneously deplore the vulgarity associated with anorexia's external manifestation. Twilight fan fiction centred on eating disorders is therefore emblematic of the contradictory nature of anorexic ideology, which paradoxically calls for resistance against, and conformity to, idealized feminine virtues; after all, it is one thing to be able to point to the perpetuation of anorexic ideologies within our favourite texts, but it is another entirely to be able to break free from the shackles of these ideologies ourselves.
Despite its enormous success, Meyer has been dismissive of the impact of her series on its audience. On her website, the author claims: "I never meant for [Bella's] fictional choices to be a model for anyone else's real life choices. She is a character in a story, nothing more or less" ("Frequently"). However, as has been proven time and again, through literature young people "construct and reconstruct" (Christian-Smith 1-2) their subjectivities, gender identities, desires, and worldviews. Reading Twilight through the critical feminist framework of anorexia reveals new ideological implications behind the neo-Victorian qualities and problematic gender dynamics it features, and demonstrates the insidious ways that anorexic logic continues to permeate post-feminist media for girls. The growing body of Twilight fan fiction depicting Bella as anorexic indicates how young female fans are reading anorexic ideologies and negotiating these values within the context of their own embodied struggles. While fan fiction narratives may not--and need not--offer the kind of thoughtful and robust critique necessary to provoke widespread understanding of, or change in, eating disorders, these stories are productive in their capacity to empower writers--especially those suffering from eating disorders --through acts of self-expression, community building, and cultural critique. Feminist eating disorders scholarship may benefit from further attention to fan fiction as a relatively untapped site of study, especially considering the recent proliferation of eating disorders discourse and community building online. Further research in this arena can help us understand how girls and young women internalize and resist the problematic discourses related to gender and the body that pervade popular postfeminist texts. Fan fiction's ability to foster intersubjective dialogue between girls and young women about their favourite stories and how these narratives intersect with their own embodied experiences offers a unique avenue of resistance against the internalization of anorexic values, which, as the Twilight series demonstrates, continue to feature prominently in the neo-Victorian imaginarium.
(1) See the prominent works of Susan Bordo, Leslie Heywood, and Helen Malson, whose early theories of eating disorders and the female body were influential in developing a critical feminist framework of eating disorders.
(2) In addition to the works of feminist theorists listed above, see also the more recent studies of Peter Churven, Megan Warin, and Muriel Darmon, whose research with individuals with anorexia corroborates earlier feminist theories.
(3) The individual with anorexia referred to in this paper is for all intents and purposes female. Although up to 20% of individuals with eating disorders are male (Canada 9), these disorders often manifest in different ways among boys and men; the overwhelming majority of persons with anorexia are girls and women.
(4) Anorexia nervosa was first formally diagnosed in 1873 Britain (Silver, Victorian Literature 27).
(5) For further contextualization of Rice's influence on "modern" vampire fiction, see the works of Margaret Carter, Gail Zimmerman, Lynne Hume, and Joan Gordon and Veronica Hollinger.
(6) For notable takes on post-feminism in contemporary culture, see also the works of Diane Negra, Yvonne Tasker and Negra, and Kristin Anderson.
(7) In addition to Petersen, see the works of Agata Luksza, Natalie Wilson, and Anthea Taylor for post-feminist readings of the Twilight series.
(8) See the works of Frann Michel, Jessica Taylor, Lydia Kokkola, Victoria Collins and Dianne Carmody, and Renae Franiuk and Samantha Scherr.
(9) For analyses of Bella's pregnancy concerning its perpetuation of conservative/pro-life values, see Anna Silver ("Twilight") and Merinne Whitton.
(10) See Anthony Giddens and Chris Shilling, who each helped establish the concept of "self-as-project" in their respective sociological works.
(11) Bella refers to "vegetarian" vampires--those who choose to drink animal instead of human blood--as "good vampires" in both Eclipse and Breaking Dawn.
(12) Fear of food among persons with anorexia has been well documented by eating disorder scholars from the early work of Bordo to the more recent works of Carrie Arnold, Warin, and Darmon.
(13) While estimates vary, most studies place the mean age of onset for anorexia in late adolescence (Canada 8).
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Emma Dunn is a PhD candidate in Ryerson University's Communication and Culture program. Her research interests span the fields of feminist studies, YA literature, and youth cultures. Supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, Emma's doctoral work focuses on questions surrounding anorexic and post-feminist ideologies in literary franchises for youth.
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|Publication:||Jeunesse: Young People, Texts, Cultures|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2018|
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