“Becoming a perverse reader was never a matter of condescension to texts, rather of the surplus charge of my trust in them to remain powerful, refractory, and exemplary.” (Sedgwick 1993, 4)
Bella: ‘You’re out!’
Emmett: ‘Out! Whoo!’ [Rosalie glares at Bella]
When I first saw the film Twilight, I was enamored. I was at the theatre without really knowing what I was going to see, and this was before the franchise became a “thing”. When the angsty teen drama started, I was sucked in. I must have watched it a dozen times since then, and every time I love it more.
The tension between the main characters Edward and Bella is bizarre to say the least. When they first meet, Edward looks physically repulsed (fabulous acting from Robert Pattinson). There is an ever-present blue filter on the film to let us know that the town of Forks really is dark all the time, just so that we’ll believe the tenuous premise that vampires avoid the sun because they sparkle. Then of course there is Kristen Stewart (playing Bella), who I can’t tear my eyes off even though her delivery is strangely stilted as she wades through the script like mud.
Everyone in this movie looks like they’re in pain. Even though this is supposedly part of the storyline—Edward’s vampire family are “vegetarians” who only drink the blood of animals, so delicious humans cause them agony—you’ve got to wonder whether everyone thought they were just doing this film for a quick buck and wanted the whole ordeal to be over as soon as possible.
It wasn’t to be. Five films later and the series (based on the books by Stephanie Meyer) finally wrapped. Audiences it seems are a sucker for punishment. And obviously so am I.
Aside from the delightful atrociousness of the first film, there’s something to be said for the multiple meanings it carries in its depths. The best most enjoyable way of seeing Twilight, I think, is as a deeply queer film.
Hold up. I hear you say. Isn’t Twilight the most shockingly heteronormative film possible? Isn’t it the precursor to the abominable Fifty Shades series? Don’t ten percent of all Twilight profits go to the Mormon Church?
Here I am to make the case that only the latter statements are true.
Queer reading is a strategy employed by gender studies nerds to look at texts differently, to see the “queer” themes that lay dormant in them, that can be brought to the surface through applying this lens.
This method was popularised by queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in the 1990s. She spoke of the importance of “smuggling” queerness into stories, in order to rupture expectations and find sites of belonging.
Sedgwick explains, ‘I think that for many of us in childhood the ability to attach intently to a few cultural objects, objects of high or popular culture or both, objects whose meaning seemed mysterious, excessive, or oblique in relation to the codes most readily available to us, became a prime resource for survival’ (1993, 3).
Performing a queer reading of the Twilight film reveals deeply homoerotic tensions, themes around coming out, and issues of queering sexual and gender norms.
Homoerotic lust runs rampant in the Twilight saga. It has frequently been theorised that in love triangles where a woman is at the centre of two men, it is the woman who acts as a conduit for the amatory desires between the men. In Twilight we find the character Bella caught between Edward (the vampire) and Jacob (the werewolf, and her best friend).
Arguably Edward and Jacob have more on-screen chemistry than any other pairs in the film, and when they near each other something swells from within, typically expressed as anger at each other. We learn that these kinds do not mix—the vampires and the wolves—they are sworn “enemies”. Yet through their connection to Bella, Edward and Jacob cannot escape each other, and get drawn further into each other’s lives.
A quick search of the Internet reveals that I am certainly not the first one to notice the forbidden love of “Jakeward” (as they are affectionately referred to in fan fic space).
While the lust between Edward and Jacob doesn’t come to fruition (that is, until Jacob becomes betrothed to Edward’s daughter Renesmee in the final film), Twilight is still primarily a coming out story.
When Bella first gets to know Edward he make a big deal about showing her who he “really” is. He takes her to the top of a mountain to find sunlight, moodily strips off his shirt, and then stands in the sunbeams, sparkling.
Bella: ‘It’s like diamonds… You’re beautiful.’
Edward: ‘This is the skin of a killer, Bella.’
Here, Edward’s glittering skin acts as a revelation of his femininity, his subaltern masculine side that he is ashamed to show the world. That Edward connects his “beauty” to signifying himself as a “killer” references the idea that in the homosexual body reproduction is challenged. As queer theorists such as Leo Bersani have pondered, ‘is the rectum a grave?’
This reading is supported by the fact that many a joke has been made about the sparkly quality of the vampires in Twilight. The series is often compared to other vampire stories where there is less glitter and more gore, and memes have been created with slogans such as ‘real vampires don’t sparkle’. Substitute “vampire” here with “men”, and you realise that Twilight is offering commentary on contemporary standards of masculinity.
Edward is much happier once Bella knows his “true” self. But he remains tortured, as he is unable to fully express his longing. He must remain hungry, and his love can only be projected safely onto the medium for his desires, Bella.
Edward’s glistening masculinity queers gender insofar as it departs from dominant expectations. But as this side is also Edward’s “shame” we see this queerness of gender repudiated in his character, as he acts ever more aggressively and machoistically in order to control and suppress his desires. Control of his urges is carried out through control of his love conduit, Bella.
Similarly Edward’s family operates in tense relation within their own heterosexual pairings. Edward explains, ‘My family, we’re different from others of our kind’. Here he is referring to the fact that his family, the Cullens, do not eat humans. But this of course doubles as a metaphor for the unwillingness of his family to engage in their “blood lust”. They have urges; they just don’t act on them.
Commentators have remarked on the fact that Twilight allows no room for any gay characters. While this may be true on the surface, what we also find is that they are all queer. It’s just that they’re in a game of painful heterosexual pretense they are forced to play.
The heterosexual couples that constitute Edward’s family are constantly in agony. As Bella’s friend Jessica explains: ‘The little dark-haired girl’s Alice. She’s really weird. And um, she’s with Jasper, the blond one who looks like he’s in pain’. They cannot live authentically, and instead are stuck within the bounds of their heteronormative nuclear family.
When the “bad” vampires Victoria, James and Laurent enter the film, they are in stark contrast to the “good” Cullen family. They interrupt the family’s afternoon of baseball, signifying the threat that queer lust poses to the American dream. Bella has just gotten Edward’s sister Rosalie “out”, and suddenly the spectre of homosexuality is made real as the dark vampires enter. These are vampires that willingly give into their cravings.
In these ways, Twilight is abundant with queerness. It is haunted by its own homoerotic and genderqueer tensions, and as these are contained in the movie, so too do they spill out into further dramas of desire.
Twilight may not deliver openly gay characters, but it sure does give us meat for a lot of queer fantasy.
Hannah is a PhD student at the Australian National University, and recipient of the inaugural ANU Gender Institute scholarship. Her work focuses on the topic of feminine gender expression as explored in feminist writing and queer femme subculture. She has published on The Conversation, in Us Folk Magazine and the Australian Humanities Review. You can visit her blog at binarythis.com or follow her on Twitter @binarythis
Great queer reading of a pop culture icon.
On a side note, I’m definitely waiting for all three main characters to come out IRL. 🙂