On Tuesday, Stephenie Meyer announced that she had released a genderbent version of Twilight. The tenth anniversary edition contained a retelling of the novel where every single character (minus Bella’s parents Charlie and Renee) had their genders switched. According to Meyer, she started the project to challenge the idea that Twilight is sexist because Bella is a damsel in distress. She is a human in distress, and this retelling was intended to prove that.
Before you get excited, or overly horrified, this isn’t a new story. This isn’t, as I originally thought, a case of Meyer wondering what the story would have been like if Bella were a guy and Edward were a girl and writing it. The vast majority of this retelling is a find-and-replace job, switching out the names and leaving the context intact, with a few bigger changes when necessary — most notably the ending, where Beau is turned into a vampire, avoiding all that messy “love triangle, half-vampire baby” stuff from the sequels.
Initially, I intended to read the new book, and maybe do a side-by-side comparison of the changes. But as I mused on it, I realized that such criticism is an exercise in pointlessness. No matter how Meyer has rewritten Twilight, no matter what she changed or left the same, the result is going to have incredibly troubling implications about gender and about relationships. The relationships and gender dynamics in Twilight are so flawed that Meyer’s experiment was doomed from the beginning.
First, let’s remind ourselves of some of the romantic moments in Twilight. Edward Cullen repeatedly climbing into Bella’s bedroom at night to watch her sleep, because he feels so protective of this girl he’s just met. Edward following her to an entire other city without her knowing, just to “keep her safe.” Edward terrifying Bella with his aggressive stance and his aggressive driving. Edward telling Bella he’ll literally drag her into his car when he senses that she wants to run away from him.
No matter what Stephenie Meyer did in Life and Death, this context means that the result was going to be offensive. If she changed the dynamic between the two characters to make it less stalkery and abusive, she would give the message that this is a romantic way for a guy to act toward a girl, but that obviously it would be creepy and unnatural if a girl acted that way toward a guy. The “overprotective” guy is romantic, but the same overprotective girl isn’t. But if she didn’t change anything, there would be two possible offensive readings. On the one hand, the abusive dynamic would become more obvious, as we don’t expect to see girls act that way in fiction without being “crazy ex-girlfriends” at the least. On the other hand, if this relationship was presented as romantic, it would reinforce the idea that guys can’t be in abusive relationships, and that girls can’t be abusive.
The actual book is a terrible combination of all possibilities. I haven’t read the whole thing, but I did check out a few key scenes, and the results were surprising. Take the “dragging into the car” scene, for example. In Twilight, Bella calculates if she can run to her truck, and Edward tells her that if she runs, he’ll “just drag her back.” In Life and Death, Edyth asks Beau if he’s “going to put up a fuss,” and when Beau says, “Is there any point in resisting?”, she replies, “It warms my cold heart to see you learning so quickly.” Then Beau stares at her swaying hips and decides that there’s no downside to spending time with her.
The original is more blatantly kidnappy, with the use of the word “drag” in particular, although it’s still meant to be somehow romantic. The new version, on the other hand, pretends to give Beau agency while actually showing a slightly subtler form of manipulation — no dragging, just him “deciding” not to resist as it’s pointless — and then suggesting he’s completely OK with that because Edyth is so hot anyway.
Similarly, when Edward follows Bella to Port Angeles, Bella wonders if it should bother her that Edward followed her, but Beau feels no such doubt: “It didn’t bother me at all that she was following me; instead I felt a strange surge of pleasure. She was here for me.” Both characters feel that pleasure at the vampire’s presence, but while Bella is more demure and aware of the danger, Beau is completely confident that this is a good thing. After all, how can someone be a stalker when they’re a hot girl who’s here for you? Edward’s behavior is presented as romantic, but Bella is still expected to show some hesitation (or at least awareness of that expectation) so she seems a proper damsel in distress. Beau is a guy, and therefore can’t possibly hesitate or doubt over how great this stalkery, abusive vampire chick is.
A less serious topic, but still one worthy of exploration, is how Bella and Beau’s personalities and flaws differ. Again, Meyer can’t really win here. One of Bella’s main personality traits is how ridiculously clumsy she is. She’s the sort of person who can claim she fell through a window while with her boyfriend, leading to a long hospital stay, and have no one really question it. That’s just how Bella is — a human disaster zone! Obviously, this is a pretty weak characterization, based on that rom-com idea that it’s adorable for a heroine to be clumsy to the point that it stretches belief. But if Beau did not inherit this trait, it would only highlight how this is a nonsensical “character flaw” that’s only seen as fitting for female characters, and only given to Bella because she’s a girl. And if Beau kept her clumsiness, the ridiculousness of it would only become more obvious, because we’re not used to seeing male characters act this way — again highlighting the problems with Bella’s characterization in the first place.
And again, Life and Death presents us with a mix of the two approaches. Beau is still as clumsy as Bella, and it still makes no sense. But while Edward comments to Bella that a normal person can make it through the day without so many catastrophes, Edyth clarifies further — Beau isn’t a magnet for accidents, as she originally thought, but for trouble. Which is far more manly.
I’ve also seen comments that Beau is far less self-critical than Bella is, although I can’t confirm this myself. I didn’t notice the change in the few scenes I pulled up, and I’m not going to do a side-by-side read and comparison for two 400+ page books that I hate (although I’m sure someone will do one, and it will be very interesting to see). But again, either way Meyer can’t win. If Beau isn’t as self-critical as Bella, it implies that it’s a totally feminine trait to have self-doubt — or else that such a thing is acceptable and realistic for a female protagonist, but not a male one. If Beau is as self-critical as Bella, it goes against our expectations for a hero, perhaps, but not in a good, gender-stereotype-revealing way. We’re used to seeing female characters written shallowly, but we expect male protagonists to have more depth that that. By putting all of Bella’s thoughts into a male context, we see precisely how poorly written Bella was.
And that’s the problem at the heart of this. If Twilight was a story about a “human in distress,” as Meyer claims, then the genderbend might have raised some interesting questions and challenged readers’ expectations about characters and gender roles. But this isn’t a story of a powerful vampire character and a weaker human character falling in love. It’s a story of abuse. It’s a story of a poorly written female character falling in love with her abuser, and thinking it’s the greatest love story of all time. And Twilight will always be that, unless Meyer does a non-abusive rewrite about Bella and Edward. So Life and Death can’t explore show Twilight‘s feminism, or reveal how the story is one of a “human in distress.” It can only make those troubling flaws even more plain to see.