When I heard the news that Stephenie Meyer had re-written Twilight with (nearly) all the characters’ genders swapped, about three things I was absolutely positive; first, this publication would be an immediate target for pop culture ridicule. Second, there was a part of it–and I didn’t yet know how potent that part that might be–that I myself would mock. And third, I was unconditionally and irrevocably committed to reading that book in full.
Look, I’ve had as much fun as anyone making fun of Twilight in the past, but I’m also willing to defend certain aspects of the series and I definitely don’t think it deserves the amount of ridicule and scorn it gets. I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment expressed in articles like this one by Daniel Kraus, and even the widespread (and totally deserved) criticism of Edward and Bella’s relationship is I think in a way very positive, because the message of how to identify signs of an abusive relationship reached a huge audience through that common frame of reference, and it gave many young readers a context to push against as they grew. I put myself in this category, too–I devoured the entire series one winter break, and thoroughly enjoyed it even as I recognized it had flaws. Later I read more analyses and deconstructed it further and became more demanding and critical of relationship portrayals in new stories that I encountered, thanks to what I had learned from and rejected in Twilight. I’m not saying that was Meyer’s intention, I’m saying it’s a legitimate result for me and I believe for many others that was born out of the series.
Gender-reversing fictional characters is nothing new to fandom. The internet is full of genderbent drawings and cosplays and fanfics for pretty much every currently active fandom, often exploring themes from the original canon by displacing plotlines to a different context, shifting character dynamics by altering age/gender/sexuality/nationality/abilities/etc, or hypothesizing how the characters would react to new scenarios. Meyer’s gender-flip turns out to be disappointingly unoriginal against the rich backdrop of actual fanfiction, since it is largely a straightforward find-and-replace of name changes and doesn’t really seem to explore very deeply the thesis she outlines in her foreward (that Bella is not a “damsel in distress” but a “human in distress”), but the significant alterations to characters that she did make are fascinating. Every decision reveals something about the way Meyer (and society?) perceives gender roles, and every criticism of Life and Death that enumerates aspects of the gender swap that “fail” (such as this one or this one) reveal something about the way the critic (and society??) perceive gendered social norms as well. In the same way that I think the numerous posts analyzing Bella and Edward’s unhealthy relationship all over the internet is a good thing to come out of Twilight, I think Life and Death, even if it ultimately does not exemplify the gender equality purportedly meant to, has potential to fuel a great collective discussion on these issues. The book has barely been out a full week and there are already dozens of articles on mainstream platforms discussing gender and sexism and we have Stephenie Meyer to thank for that.
Here are my initial thoughts on notable aspects of the gender swap, arranged by my emotional reactions:
The description of women’s physical appearances in this book is a HUGE PROBLEM. The paragraph introducing Dr. Carine Cullen is identical to it’s Twilight counterpart introducing Carlise, except where the later is simply “handsomer than any movie star I’d ever seen,” Carine is “more beautiful than any movie star I’d ever seen. Like someone sliced up Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, and Marilyn Monroe, took the best parts, and glued them together to form one goddess,” (emphasis added). Um, WHY are we figuratively chopping women up, and how does reducing three successful individuals to their aesthetically “best parts” promote gender equality, and why was this not necessary when Dr. Cullen was a man??
Much more disturbing is the portrayal of Edythe. I haven’t done a thorough comparison of Edythe vs. Edward descriptive passages, but my general sense is that Edythe is described less superfluously than Edward was. The passage that stood out to me the most takes place in chapter 12, when the vampire/human couple hike up to the meadow, where the human will see the vampire’s skin sparkle in the sun for the first time. Here is the passage from Twilight describing Edward:
His white shirt was sleeveless, and he wore it unbuttoned, so that the smooth white skin of his throat flowed uninterrupted over the marble contours of his chest, his perfect musculature no longer merely hinted at behind concealing clothes. He was too perfect, I realized…
And here is the Life and Death counterpart describing Edythe:
I’d never seen so much of her skin. Her pale arms, her slim shoulders, the fragile-looking twigs of her collarbones, the vulnerable hollows above them, the swanlike column of her neck, the gentle swell of her breasts–don’t stare, don’t stare–and the ribs I could nearly count under the thin cotton. She was too perfect, I realized…
I literally swore out loud when I read this part. Speaking as a person who has struggled like so many other young women with disordered eating and an unhealthy body image, we need to DESTROY THIS IDEA that ribs you can “nearly count” and twig-like collarbones are physical “perfection” for a woman. DESTROY IT!! DON’T PERPETUATE IT BY UNNECESSARILY MAKING YOUR CHARACTER ‘DELICATE’ AND ‘TINY’ JUST BECAUSE SHE’S A GIRL NOW!! Edward gets “perfect musculature” but Edythe gets “Her arms were so thin; it was hard to believe they contained the strength that I knew was in them” (two paragraphs earlier in the same chapter). Edythe–DEADLY, SUPER-STRONG MIND-READING VAMPIRE, gets “vulnerable hollows” above “fragile-looking twigs of her collarbones”, or so says the puny and clumsy human narrator with male genitalia. SET THIS WHOLE TROPE ON FIRE AND BURN IT TO THE GROUND!
In Twilight, Charlie is protective of Bella and treats Edward with some patriarchal hostility when he finds out they are dating. Charlie demands, “You take care of my girl, all right?” In the Life and Death counterpart scene, instead of a gruff fatherly interaction, Charlie is literally swoony over his son’s girlfriend. “She unleashed the dimples, and his face went blank. It took him a second to recover.” Also, “Charlie ran a hand through his hair self-consciously. I didn’t think I’d ever seen him so flustered.” It’s very…awkward…
WORTHY OF FURTHER ANALYSIS
In Twilight, Edward rescues Bella from a group of men that it is heavily implied intended to rape her. In Life and Death, Edythe rescues Beau from drug dealers who decide they are going to maybe shoot him because one of them saw him with Charlie when he arrived at the airport and they therefore mistakenly assume he is an undercover cop and that he is going to bust them even though he barely witnesses an unclear transaction from afar and is basically just walking by. I think there is a LOT that can be dissected here, in comparing the way the threat to Bella is so apparent just from the fact that she finds herself alone and accosted by strange men that she is mentally preparing to physically defend herself, versus the contrived circumstances necessary to put Beau in some sort of equivalent danger, and even with a gun pointed at his head he does not react as strongly as Bella does when she is at the other end of the street from her would-be attackers. Similarly, Rose’s backstory (her human death was rape and murder at the hands of her fiance and his friends) becomes not-really-synonymous Royal’s “my fiance was the daughter of a mob boss and she tricked me into getting engaged because i wanted power but then she had her lover from a rival criminal syndicate beat me to death.” Are these differences more attributable to straight/white/male privilege, or rape culture?
Also, Beau, like Bella, has several human admirers as the new kid at school. However I don’t recall Bella so actively manipulating her suitors into dating other girls the way that Beau does with both McKayla(/”Mike”) and Taylor(/”Tyler”). I think Beau in general is written as a more active character than Bella, who tended to be more passive, but this particular behavior felt like it had an extra layer of negativity somehow.
After their Port Angelos impromptu dinner-date, Beau tries to protest that Edythe is picking up the tab and she says, “Try not to get caught up in antiquated gender roles.” I found this particularly hilarious because just a few pages earlier she loaned him her scarf and assured him, “It’s not a lady’s scarf, if that’s what’s bothering you. I stole it from Archie,” and furthermore the whole Life and Death dinner date starts with Edythe asking Beau’s friends, “Will it ruin your night if I make Beau take me to dinner?”, whereas in Twilight Edward simply states “I’m taking you to dinner.” This type of switching is littered all throughout the book; when Bella tells Charlie she has a date with Edward, he asks “where is he taking you?” but when Beau tells Charlie he has a date with Edythe, the question becomes “where are you taking her?” So it’s not just a gender swap, it’s a gender swap plus a role reversal so that everything still lines up with the “antiquated gender roles” that we are supposedly not meant to “get caught up in.”
When Bella is killing time, she flips through the collected works of Jane Austen, but Beau reads Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and and specifies that what usually catches his interest is “a giant squid or a narwhal.” This just seemed like a very silly and unnecessary change, perpetuating the myth of GIRL books vs BOY books.
Life and Death’s vampiric chill bothers humans significantly more than Twilight‘s; twice Beau narrates that his hands are numb after holding hands with Edythe. Does this change mean–**SPOILER ALERT** the altered ending of Beau becoming a vampire after the tracker bites him is more necessary, so that he and Edythe can comfortably consummate their love, whereas it was important for Bella and Edward to do the do before she transformed so that she could have a baby? Like, was the changed ending a side-step of the fact that Beau couldn’t birth a baby if he wanted to, or was it motivated by an assumption that having a baby is not a definitive part of the male human experience or necessary for his happily ever after the way some have argued the original series implies it is for women? Probably the changes to the ending were motivated mostly by a desire to definitively end the story in one book, but it’s doubtful Beau’s gender wasn’t a significant factor in Meyer’s narrative choices as well.
Bella has often been criticized for being too bland, but Beau is worse, literally describing himself as “the kid who was too quiet and too pale, who didn’t know anything about gaming or cars or baseball statistics or anything else I was supposed to be into. Unlike the other guys, I didn’t have a ton of free time for hobbies,” (emphasis added.) Not just no socially sanctioned “gender-appropriate” (?) hobbies, but NO hobbies at all! Never mind that he clearly likes to read and cook. Those couldn’t possibly be considered hobbies! (?!) Ridiculous.