No, There Are No Vampires in My YA Novel.
Editor’s note: A version of this article appeared in the NAM EthnoBlog.
The Twilight phenomenon has pervaded media chatter for way longer than I want to hear about it by now, and while many have vetted, bemoaned, and dissected the complicated sexuality of the ballad of Bella and Edward, few have done so in the greater context of Twilight’s paramount position in popular young adult fiction. Twilight, and the vogue of vampires that has produced an entire YA subgenre, “paranormal romance,” reveals a subtly toxic sexual messaging still being slipped into the literature young American women are consuming en masse.
Full disclosure: I am a recovering teenage girl with a YA novel, Sister Mischief, coming out on July 12. In the early stages of conceptualizing SM, I realized that writing the book was a way of putting my money where my mouth was: giving young people access to candid, high-quality literature is important to me, so I figured I should try to produce some.
Inevitably, at least once a week, I’ll provide a description of my book (“It’s an interracial gay hip-hop love story for teens,”) to a stranger and they’ll ask, “Does it have vampires in it?”
“No,” I’ll reply. “It has suburban Midwestern lesbian rappers in it.”
It’s possible that Sister Mischief sourced from a frustration, amidst the furor of Twilight, of wondering where the queer YA heroines were, or the Black or brown ones, or the ones willing to call themselves feminists, or to aspire, or achieve. These were the dynamic, whole heroines I would have loved to—needed to, in fact—discover at 14 and 17, and the ones I’d want my younger sisters and daughters to find. I didn’t believe that becoming vampire bait was the best aspiration we could offer them.
Even before Twilight, though, I witnessed a particular lack of great books for smart girls, with some notable exceptions: Judy Blume, Rita Mae Brown, Maya Angelou, Lois Lowry, Anne Frank, and Betty Smith first come to mind. The ranks of smart, strong heroines have swelled in the decade or so since I was a young adult reader—a decade in which YA fiction has consistently outsold Grownup fiction—but Twilight has eclipsed the massive strides in candor and breadth YA has made in the 2000s.
Since Twilight’s first movie release in 2008, the most prominent, visible YA heroine in the world has been a lily-white, painfully thin, virginal, kind of limp-looking victim type, and I’m pretty effing sick of her. Teenagers in America today are surrounded by (tortured, sunken-eyed, carnivorous) images of sex, but too few of them do anything to educate teenagers about positive values surrounding sex: how it might make them feel, how to identify and fulfill their desires, what constitutes safety and safe experimentation.
And in that, I feel, the Twilight phenomenon fails at a high-stakes game. I’m a believer that sex education, whether it comes in classrooms, on screens, or in paperback form, should provide a lot of information and no judgment. Aimed at young female readers poised on, or perhaps who have already stepped off of, the precipice of sexual discovery, Twilight preaches mixed messages: you’re free to desire, girls, but you oughtn’t fulfill it. It’s dangerous down there.
The desperation by other publishers and authors to generate undead material–the “paranormal romance” phenomenon–speaks to the YA literature and film industry’s eagerness to feed girls these images of usurped agency and physical weakness—which could be construed as a backlash to women’s recent, forceful surge into the workforce. In a way, Twilight’s model of torturous love strikes me as a new method of self-mutilation: a compulsive, exaggeratedly romanticized need to be rescued, or the 21st century’s answer to corsets and fainting couches. It also seems a particularly white, suburban sensation, which resounds with an undercurrent of self-mutilation which, though increasingly less so, has historically also been primarily white and suburban.
There is one non-subversive subversion Twilight makes amidst its thinly veiled abstinence-only education: rather than positioning its romantic leads in the traditional sexual struggle of boy doggedly pursuing and girl piously resisting (though it does frequently require Bella to be threatened by violence and saved by Edward), Meyer gives Bella an open infatuation with Edward the vampire, and tasks him with resisting her advances. They can’t have sex for fear he’ll lose control, induct her into his undead ranks and she will, in turn, become a sexual villain without control over her own desire.
Gail Collins of the New York Times has rightly noted, “Maybe the secret to her success is that in [Meyer’s] books, it’s the guy who’s in charge of setting the sexual boundaries.”
It’s every adolescent girl’s paradox of a fantasy: the safe predator. Edward tries to save Bella by denying her, but then, later (SPOILER ALERT), they finally have sex, and she is rewarded by confinement to bed rest while pregnant with her precious little half-succubus.
Maybe there are ways to reconfigure the power complex of America’s vampire fascination: YO! reports, for one, that one 18-year-old author has written a vampire series with a fanged female. But Twilight’s popularity suggests that the biggest teen phenomenon in America is intent on fetishizing young women and their virginities, preaching the same purity myth in new pale-faced package.
It’s a resistance to this mixed messaging that led to my choice to include sex (and drugs and profanity, in the further interest of realism) in my YA novel. Its two protagonists, a white and a South Asian girl, are in love and sexually active with each other, and two supporting characters are a butch, sexually aggressive straight girl and a self-described “thinking Christian” who has chosen to wait until marriage to have sex. How the book will be received remains to be seen, but it was important to me to write one in which every character wasn’t white, straight, Christian, or rich.
I made these choices because I think they more accurately reflect a spectrum of sexual lives, especially, among teenage girls—and because I wickedly wanted to write a book that girls would read with flashlights under their covers. I wanted to be a woman in her twenties telling women in their teens, directly and candidly, that female sexual desire is healthy to feel and explore, in their interior lives and with partners they trust.
In by far the best cultural analysis of Twilight so far, Caitlin Flanagan wrote in the Atlantic Monthly:
“The salient fact of an adolescent girl’s existence is her need for a secret emotional life—one that she slips into during her sulks and silences, during her endless hours alone in her room, or even just when she’s gazing out the classroom window…This means that she is a creature designed for reading in a way no boy or man, or even grown woman, could ever be so exactly designed, because she is a creature whose most elemental psychological needs—to be undisturbed while she works out the big questions of her life, to be hidden from view while still in plain sight, to enter profoundly into the emotional lives of others—are met precisely by the act of reading.”
There is a permanent sanctity to those books that mean the most to us in the early moments of realizing who we are; it was a clarifying moment when I discovered that every book I loved as a child featured a little girl who wanted to grow up into a woman writer. As we imagine those young figures poised with flashlights under the covers, stealing reading moments in the backs of buses and cars, pondering, wondering, those of us who supply their material must imagine them wholly—as vivid, diverse creatures with complex ambitions and desires, who deserve to be presented with choices about who they might wish to become.
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