Stephenie Meyer has jumped onto her own strange Twilight fan-fiction bandwagon again, releasing a surprise version of the first book with the genders of the characters swapped.
In 24 hours, I bit into, then devoured this new book, Life and Death, and I am ready to pronounce my verdict. Is it interesting experiment? Yes. Does it work to prove that the original Twilight wasn’t sexist? Sadly and not entirely unexpectedly, it does not.
You see, the paradox of Twilight is that both its appeal and its problems wouldn’t exist without stereotypical gender roles. The entire recurring motif of the books is a teenage girl saying, “Eat me! Kiss me! Sleep with me!” to her vampire boyfriend, and his refusing because he wuvs her sho much he doesn’t want to hurt her, eat her, or deflower her. It’s gross on a basic feminist level, but also very understandably compelling to teenage girls, who, by reading, get to variously inhabit a persona that incurs no risk by frankly acting on her very intense sexual desire.
Add in the fact that the heroine hates her clumsy, unruly human body (an obvious metaphor for puberty and hormones) and spends three books getting toted around by various graceful, strong, male supernatural creatures until she finally gets turned into a perfect, beautiful, immortal vampire — and you’ve got the formula for success that has made Stephenie Meyer a billionaire.
But clearly, the criticism Meyers’ books received for their retrograde content rankled her; that’s why this week, on the tenth anniversary of Twilight, she took a page from E.L. James (who has stolen every single one of her concepts from Meyer, so fair’s fair) and released her own fan-fiction special edition.
She gender-swapped (or to use the parlance of the kids, “genderbent”) the book, reintroducing it as Life and Death , a tale that features a near-identical romance between a gawky, clumsy human boy called Beau Swan and an impossibly beautiful vampire chick called Edythe Cullen. This was Meyer’s attempt, she explained, to demonstrate that her book is a human-in-distress story, not a damsel-in-distress story, She wanted to prove that her immortal and classic tale of teen-vampire love would work just as well if the genders were flipped.
In fact, the idea isn’t a terrible one. At Flavorwire, we were reminded of the Willis test for rock songs, which posits that a seemingly obnoxious song like the Rolling Stones’ “Under My Thumb” would work if the gender of singer and subject were flipped, but a gentler-sounding mansplaining ballad like Cat Stevens’ “Wild World” would not make sense. It’s not inconceivable that a tweaked Twilight would work with a male vehicle and a female vamp. Unfortunately, Meyers’ halfhearted attempt at a rewrite, which in part reads like she just switched a whole bunch of names and left pages of dialogue and action untouched, doesn’t get imaginative enough to work.
There are several intriguing opportunities Life and Death whiffs. For instance, like Bella, Beau is extremely clumsy even though he’s tall. Unlike Bella, awkward Beau is not endearing to many of his classmates. His male friends, jealous of the attention he receives from girls as the new kid, make fun of his fainting and falling. They sneer at him for not making out with Edythe on their first date. This is where I got temporarily hooked. “Making Beau a bullied kid who struggles with peer expectations for toxic masculinity? Brilliant!” I thought. But, of course, I was wrong; this thread frayed fast. And as readers have already pointed out, where Bella weeps or expresses deep self-loathing, Beau just kind of numbs out and distracts himself. The world may be ready for a sexy female vampire, but it’s not ready for a crying teenage male human, apparently.
And alas, without the tears, the snark, and the bitterness that make Bella marginally a character, Beau is mostly a nothing. All he does is clean the house, trip over his own feet, and mope. His blankness really shines a light on what a cipher Bella is as well. Quite frankly, it’s inconceivable that any of these girls would find him interesting, because the reader doesn’t.
Male teenage lust doesn’t carry the same whiff of subversiveness as the female version; take the way Beau thinks about his gorgeous vampire love interest, Edythe, which makes him seem a little like a Men’s Rights Activist or pickup artist in training: “She scowled at me, and I stared back, thoughts scattered by how beautiful her anger was,” he says, early on. And later: “For a second, I was actually angry — angry that she had to be so beautiful. Angry that her beauty had made her cruel. Angry that I was the object of her cruelty, and even though I knew it, I still couldn’t successfully walk away from her.” With thoughts like these, it’s a good thing that Beau ends up snagging Edythe and not joining the voluntarily celibate group Men Going Their Own Way.
There are interesting aspects of her novel that Meyer doesn’t change, and that do feel more challenging. Being a vampire, Edythe is stronger and wealthier than Beau. He rides on her back through the forest and stands behind her when the bad vampires attack. She picks up the tab at dinner and tells him not to be so invested in “antiquated gender roles” (I see what you did there, Meyer). Sometimes these moments read like poor Beau really needs a mom; sometimes they effectively draw readers’ attention to our gendered expectations.
If only there were more of the latter. Mostly, though, Life and Death reads like a paint-by-numbers rewrite of Twilight (albeit with a different, sequel-inhospitable ending). Even Meyers’ most ardent fans are furious with the book because they wanted her other auto-fan-fiction project, Midnight Sun, which retells Twilight from Edward’s perspective — and they got this warmed-over story instead. The aura of money-grubbing laziness around this project and James’ Grey has not gone unnoticed even by the fan community.
For us older critics, it’s crucial to point out the often-noxious underpinning of the Twilight books without insulting their millions of female readers and assuming that they’re going to immediately internalize the book’s message and go out searching for an overprotective stalker type as a boyfriend. Instead, the average reader of Twilight probably harmlessly dreamed about an existence where instead of having to fight for her own autonomy at every turn in a hostile world, she has a strong and handsome family of supernaturals who have her best interests at heart and protect her from danger, including the danger of her own ravenous sexual appetite.
But that means that Twilight is a novel whose tentpole isn’t its own story, but the larger patriarchy we live in. If teenage girls were encouraged to embrace their own, healthy sexuality and love their bodies, the books would make absolutely no sense and fail to find readers. What continues to boggle my mind is that their author seems not to understand this at all. Like a teenager experimenting with magic, Meyer has summoned to her side forces much bigger than herself, and she can’t really contain them.