I just finished Stephenie Meyer’s gender-swapped Twilight and I. Am. Frustrated.
Meyer wrote the newly-titled Life and Death to commemorate Twilight‘s 10th anniversary. Life and Death reimagines Bella Swan and Edward Cullen as Beau and Edythe. Meyer wanted to prove that Bella was not a “damsel in distress” but a “human in distress,” and claimed that switching the genders left the story unchanged.
Only it didn’t.
Meyer and I have history. Like many people, I jumped on the anti-Twilight bandwagon when I was in high school and all the cool kids were mocking it. I spouted a lot of opinions that weren’t my own in an effort to fit in. Because of that, I’ll avoid any outright meanspiritedness.
My real opinion of Twilight is this: it’s BORING. I’ve read the original two or three times now. My first read-through didn’t leave much of an impression, which is why I was baffled when I heard people exclaiming over the book like it was something special. Bella commits the literary sin of being dumb, the love story isn’t very compelling, and the first 3/4 of the book can be summed up as “Bella falls in love with a vampire.” NOTHING ELSE OF NOTE HAPPENS.
As a comparison, I’m reading Marissa Meyer’s Winter right now, the 800-page capper to The Lunar Chronicles series. In the first 250 pages, plans are made, things go wrong, blood is spilled, and stakes are raised.
Twilight has no stakes until about page 300, when the hasty arrival of some bad vampires causes everyone to freak out.
You could say the pacing is uneven.
All of these things carry over to Life and Death: Beau moons over Edythe, they fall suddenly in love, and the barely-foreshadowed climax drops 3/4 of the way in and lasts over 100 pages.
Strangely, I found myself liking Life and Death a little bit more. I wondered if changing the relationship dynamic made the story better. Beau, compared to Bella, was less dramatic, though still prone to moodiness. Edythe, meanwhile, came off as less controlling and, unlike Edward, was understandably beguiling. For part of the time, I actually enjoyed my reading experience.
Then I started thinking: how much of my enjoyment was due to the gender switch and nothing else, and why did I like it so much?
After that, Meyer’s claim that the switch changed nothing started to fall apart.
I don’t know whether Meyer believes biological sex has no bearing on personality or thinks it does, in fact, have an impact.
I’m of the latter view. Due to Meyer’s insistence in the foreword that the story was exactly the same after all the changes, I would guess she leans toward the former.
Oddly enough, Meyer writes her gender-swapped characters differently, which she admits in the foreword: Beau is less descriptive and, compared to dour killjoy Bella, is almost happy-go-lucky.
The biggest impact on the plot, however, is the light the characters’ genders cast on their actions.
I haven’t read Twilight in a while, so I wasn’t aware while reading Life and Death which details were kept the same and which were changed to fit the characters. I’m only aware that during the restaurant scene, Beau grabs and/or touches Edythe multiple times knowing she neither likes nor wants the physical contact. While his intention is not to hurt her, he does it without caring about her feelings.
Now, Edythe is physically stronger than Beau, as is pointed out multiple times in the narrative. Technically, she is more of a danger to him than he is to her.
Even knowing this, I’m still angry that he touched her. It doesn’t matter how strong the woman in question is–you do not force physical contact on anyone, and the fact that it was a man forcing contact on a woman made me extremely uncomfortable.
In later scenes, Meyer’s gender swap made for some unfortunate implications. I’m sensitive to portrayals of women as overly emotional while men are always rational. Such portrayals simplify gender differences and invalidate emotions.
I doubt Meyer intended to portray Edythe as hysterical and Beau as levelheaded solely based on gender. Unfortunately, during Beau’s escape from hunter Joss, Edythe can barely function while a calm Beau spits out great idea after great idea. It doesn’t help that fellow passenger Eleanor keeps goggling at Beau in awed surprise. Again, none of this is intentional (I hope), but it unfortunately proliferates gender stereotypes.
I kept checking my attitudes toward the characters as I read. In the original, I felt Bella was a pathetic, hopeless, lifeless cliché pining for a bad boy. Somehow, Beau made sense to me. After all, a self-deprecating teenage boy mooning over an older girl who’s out of his league isn’t pathetic, but normal.
The gender swap also necessitated a change in ending. Meyer takes the “what if?” idea too far; her characters have a different choice forced on them due to changes in the narrative. I have mixed feelings about it. On one hand, I feel agency was taken away from the main characters. On the other, I know I just want to hate the ending because it’s different.
The last 40 pages are the most egregious. Meyer makes the mistake of trying to push a sweeping moral with insufficient evidence. In this case, the moral was, “True love [defined, of course, as romantic love] is the most important thing.”
Some people will bend over backwards to argue that this sentiment is biblical. Unfortunately for Meyer, the message rings false. As a reader, I’m being asked to accept an uneven relationship and gloss over the pain and heartache any normal person would have felt because “true love” outweighs all negative consequences. Worse yet, Beau claims the ending was inevitable in any case. Logically, he might be right, but having that explained to me at the end of the novel is different than deciding that same thing–however resignedly–for myself. Beau’s argument sounds more like an attempt to ward off criticism than anything else.
In the book’s afterword, Meyer again asserts that the story hasn’t changed. The fact that it has isn’t in and of itself a bad thing; not acknowledging that it has is. Meyer missed an opportunity to start a conversation about perception, stereotypes, feminism, and responsibility. It does no one any favors to act like nothing is different when your protagonist thinks nothing of grabbing his female companion even knowing she doesn’t like it. More telling is the fact that Meyer’s dangerous, liberated, strong female vampire doesn’t think to speak up.