Wed, Bed and Bruised–But Certainly Not Equal

As today is the 40th anniversary of Women’s Equality Day, it’s an appropriate moment to consider the continuing inequalities women face. As a scholar of popular culture who tracks the way it grapples with changing conceptions of gender and sexuality, I am struck by the profound difference between Bella Abzug, staunch supporter of women’s rights, and today’s most popular Bella: Bella Swan.

The upcoming November release of Breaking Dawn: Part 1, the first half of the two-part film adaptation of the final book in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight saga, will include the much anticipated wedding and honeymoon of Bella and vampire Edward Cullen.

Given previous reactions to leaked photos of the vampire-human honeymoon scenes, fans will likely clamor for these racy scenarios. Parents, depending on their views of appropriate sexuality and relationship ideals, will be variously delighted by the “happy ending” in marriage or dismayed by the film’s sexualized content. Traditional vampire aficionados will scoff at the idea that lead vampire Edward is able to impregnate a human–something that goes against typical vampire lore. But I, as a women’s studies professor, will be viewing the film with an eye to how it romanticizes sexual violence.

From where I sit, Twilight wrestles with gender norms, abstinence imperatives and that age-old message foisted upon females: True love conquers all. No Sookie Stackhouse or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Bella is instead a rather weak damsel in distress, traipsing after the two leading men–one a domineering vampire, the other a prone-to-violence werewolf.

The bruised body of post-coital Bella that will be seen in the opening sections of Breaking Dawn should concern anyone who cares about violence against women. But Bella’s battered body, like the bodies of so many women, will likely be largely forgotten in between frames. As such, the saga begs the question: “Is sexualized violence acceptable?” And why don’t images of battered women give us more pause, especially on a day like today?

Bella shares her first name with the initiator of today’s 40-year old holiday, Bella Abzug. But any similarity stops there. One Bella was famous for saying, “This woman’s place is in the House—the House of Representatives,” while the other promotes the idea that a woman’s place is in the domestic home (whether she is cooking for her father, in the first three books, or bedding her beloved vampire husband in the last). Sure, Meyer’s Bella gets a superpower at the end, but it is the power to cocoon others in a protective mind shield–a sort of virtual womb space. Yes, you got it: She is allowed the power to mother.

While the Twilight saga has other hints of female power–a Wall-Street savvy female vampire and a smattering of female vampire leaders–the overwhelming undercurrent of romance, sexual violence and female subordination (as well as the “happy” ending of Bella wed, bed and bruised) suggests the best path for  women is not the one to equality but to true love, a myth as enduring as vampires.

To be sure, the film is hardly the only one to render females as the second sex and depict violence sex as proof that true love is in the air. But given the rabid popularity of the saga, and the highly anticipated depiction of the sex scenes, we should take a human moment  and consider what the other Bella would make of Bella Swan’s treatment in the film. Is the type of equality we seek that in which we can choose to romanticize hot, abusive vampire sex?

I, for one, think we’d be better off wearing wild hats, as Abzug did, and insist as she did that women not be treated as second-class-citizens, in life or in film. From the onslaught against reproductive freedoms to the rape-blaming that frames women as at fault for the violence done to them, evidence that Women’s Equality Day is here in name only abounds, and not only in headlines, but also in representations of domestic violence in the pages of the rabidly popular Twilight saga and its film adaptations.

Though it’s been 91 years to the day since Congress ratified women’s right to vote, women’s place in the House of Representatives is still far from equal [PDF]. And, more pervasively, a woman’s body is still not her own.

LEFT: Photo of Bella Abzug from Wikimedia Commons user Howcheng under Creative Commons 2.0. RIGHT: Promotional poster for Breaking Dawn.


  1. Pamela Jennelle says:

    Great article, but I’m disappointed to read that true love is a myth. I guess my relationship of 30+ years is a mirage.

    • True love as depicted in fiction is a myth because it is always portrayed as effortless. Effortless love is complete and utter crap. Love requires work, respect, loyalty, and acceptance. Love as romanticized by countless authors and supported by the media is a kind of “magic” that just causes people to bemoan their lives when they don’t fit the ideal. Instead people should be realistic about what it takes to truly, unconditionally partner with another human being. Frankly I’d rather more artists go back to creating art that reflects reality rather than idealizing it into a standard that is ill-conceived and impossible to achieve.

      • Well, true love as depicted in most fiction is just romantic idealism, the way I see it. Really, what’s wrong with that? It gives people the hope that love is possible. It may give them the false hope that love is, indeed, effortless, but if you read so little into a book’s meaning that you can’t see the implied hardships or the differences between your real life with all its flaws and the fictional character’s made up life, then I’d say you could stand to read the book again or read a different book. Try The Hunger Games series. That’s YA fiction as well, but our heroine’s love life is anything but effortless.

  2. I couldn’t agree more that true sexual violence is to be abhorred but, in the case of Twilight and Breaking Dawn, we’re really talking about a hormone-fueled overzealous teenager, here. Oh, and yes, I’m talking about Bella. Had she the super-human physical strength to leave Edward bruised and battered as a result of the throes of their passionate lovemaking, I have no doubts it would have been him waking up feeling sore the next morning (if he wasn’t, you know, a vampire, and could actually be bruised and could actually sleep). Having read Breaking Dawn multiple times, I have never understood the sex to have been violent towards Bella. However, considering the notion that Edward’s hands are not those of a human with soft skin and forgiving flesh but more like hard marble, you can see how him touching her as she asks and holding her more tightly when she orders him to would cause the soreness and bruising. As far as Bella being allowed to be a mother, you know, as anti-feminist as it sounds, for some of us, we reach a point in our lives when that’s what we want to do and it does become an uphill battle to do just that. I don’t see anything negative about that. Being a mother isn’t the only thing that Bella is but she would have done anything to achieve that goal. How many people can truly say they want something that much and that they have actually achieved their goal? 🙂

  3. Wow! I love the article! My co-workers have had to listen to me about how much I can’t stand Bella and Edward and their toxic relationship.

    I also want to say that Josh and Jenny both bring up good points. True love is not a myth. My parents were wed for 54 years. To my father’s dying day he referred to my mother as his bride. Never did I hear my father say wife. She was always his bride. He always held doors open for her and tucked her into tables where they sat and shared a meal. My own marriage is based on true love. My husband loves me so intensely. The first time I realized just how much he loved me I felt bad because I thought I didn’t love him back enough. Now years later I love him in a most profound way. Does true love exist? Yes. But like Josh says it is hard work. It is not the romanticized love that the media puts out there for our kids.

    Jenny’s right about the sex scenes in Breaking Dawn. The sexual violence is only reflecting Edwards strength and physical attributes. In fact, in the book Edward refuses to have anymore relations with Bella for fear of hurting her more and so he sets out to make her a tired as possible so that sex is not an issue… except that it is. Maybe we should put more emphasis on the way Bella’s sexual needs are protrayed. Like… “Girls like it rough; hard; etc.” In that regard Bella is cliche; of course, as the article evaluates Bella Swann, she is nothing but a cliche that is old and worn out.

    As a mother of 4 girls between 11 and 2, I won’t be letting them read the Twilight saga. At least not for a while and not without a lot of interjection from me because I simply abhor the story. I’m almost considering watching the movies with my kids so I can point out where all of this relationship stuff is wrong.

    Ok. No great ideas from me and nothing eloquent. Just that this has been a very hot topic with me this summer since I read all the books this summer to decide whether my kids should/could read them.

  4. Well, I agree that violence against women in any form should not be tolerated. I hate that Bella is bruised, but throughout the books, Edward and Jacob were all about keeping Bella safe. Edward loves Bella to the exclusion of any other female, vampire or human. He goes out of his way to protect her from the moment they meet and their relationship is not consummated till marriage. I like the marriage part, and since my 16 year old grandson is the epitome of feminism, he knows how to treat women. He introduced me to the series and knew I would approve because he knows my uncompromising attitude towards how men treat women. I feel as if Bella is fragile and helpless in much of the story thus far, and that concerns me. But she fights for her life and her child and everything that is important to her, and to me that is strength. I love that a modern day love story has had such tremendous appeal.

  5. Being a survivor of domestic violence, I abhore sexual violence, but I disagree with these views on twilight. Edward never intentionally hurts Bella, and is apalled at the damage he unwittingly caused to her body, to the point where he refuses to make love to her again. Also, Bella cooks for her father because his cooking is downright awful. In the books, Bella is portrayed as a beautiful, intelligent, mature young woman who never intends to fall in love, but does. And the deal with her loving two different men is simply because when Edward leaves, Jacob becomes her “sun”, and helps her move past her grief. She is her own person. While the movies failed to show this, the books did a great job.

    • How totally disturbing these comments defending Twilight are on a feminist magazine;s site!

      In this very good long academic study by Diane McDaniel of university of Texas from 2013 called,REPRESENTATIONS OF PARTNER VIOLENCE IN YOUNG ADULT LITERATURE DATING VIOLENCE IN STEPHENIE MYER’S TWILIGHT SAGA

      She mentions that the best selling Fifty Shades trilogy was based on it and rewritten with a different name to avoid plagiarism which is what so many people said in bad reviews on and on feminist blogs,that E.L.James copied Twilight and made an even worse more violent woman-hating version. She also discusses how Edward leaves Bella badly bruised on her body after they have sex for the first time after they get married and this violent sex gets her pregnant with her daughter.She says that Edward throws Bella through a glass table!

      And she said that Twilight romanticizes and sexualizes dangerous partner violence as romantic and sexy just like Fifty Shades does! She says that even she herself read all 4 Twilight books in the summer of 2008 and at first liked the love story and this is when she was working at a domestic violence center and she said her colleague and the director there also said they loved the books and there was a copy of the first book there.She explains how upset she was and how startling it is when she realized that she and they hadn’t even recognized all of the domestic violence of Bella by Edward in it! And she says the same thing about the huge popularity with so many fans who don’t see it either.

      She also says on page 68 of this great dissertation, that Bella still swept up in pleasure of the previous night’s love making,(it’s actually really woman-hating and violent abuse making!) Bella sees herself in the mirror and says that she stared at her naked body in the full-length mirror behind the door and says’s she definitely had worse and that her lips were a little swollen and says that there was a faint shadow across one of her cheekbones, but other than that her face was fine.

      Very disturbingly and sickly Bella says that the rest of her was decorated with patches of blue and purple.She describes Edward’s bad bruises as her decorations! Bella then says that she concentrated on the bruises that would be the hardest to hide- her arms and her shoulders.And then Bella says they weren’t so bad.Then Bella says that her skin marked up easily and that by the time a bruise showed she had forgotten how she had come by it.Bella then says of course these were just developing and that she’d look even worse tomorrow.This came from the fourth best selling Twilight book,Breaking Dawn page 95.Diane says that while Edward had tried to be as gentle with her as possible he had injured Bella while making love and that Edward is unhappy and remorseful in the face of her injuries.And that Bella has become pregnant which is another circumstance which puts her life in danger.

      In her summary on page 74 Diane says that a critical examination of popular texts such as this study can reveal much about the contexts in which people manage their intimacy,as well as provide insights into the place of violence in romance and intimacy and she has the last name(Wilson 2011) as one of her many research references,who have done research and criticism of the domestic abuse and sexism in Twilight and other popular media.Diane then says that a single text has a multitude of meanings and that readers can construct multiple meanings from text.And are capable of multiple simultaneous readings of a single text.She then says that when a culture is swept up by a story that begins to permeate the social awareness of readers and non-readers alike,that story can give us answers to the basic concerns of the culture and that Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight saga is such a story.She then says that considerable attention is being payed by women’s studies scholars and says much of it focused on what the story can tell us about the current state of feminism and refers to researchers,(Ames;2010,Bode;Silver 2010.

      Diane then says that it has been established that the male protagonist in the romance exerts insistent dominance and violence on the female protagonist and refers to researchers (Collins & Carmody 2011,;Kokkola,2011;Michel 2011.and says thus Twilight saga also has important messages for domestic violence advocates and service providers about the role of violence in intimacy.She then says that horror stories and melodrama,which she says Twilight both are in addition to romance can be viewed as functioning as fairy tales for grown-ups teaching people what is or is not permissible in sexual relationships.Diane then says that since it’s debut of the first novel in the four book series,Twilight has been a prolific and profitable purveyor of instructions about romance to young women and men.Diane then says that Bella’s attraction to abusive men encourages readers to translate male violence into gestures of love.She then says that the Twilight popular fandom has produced t-shirts that say,”Edward can bust my headboard,bite my pillows and bruise my body any day.” and Diane says which certainly sends a dangerous message to the real life young men trying to woo them.

      She shows a picture of a long sleeve t-shirt that has what she described written on it,but the words bust,bite and bruise are in capital red letters.She then says that Bella,as the story’s narrator and heroine,views abusive behaviors by men as desirable and that she likes Edward’s treatment towards her.Diane then says,yet in addition to stalking her through the story,Edward scares her by driving too fast,orders into confinement,dictates who she can see,physically controls her by carrying or restraining her,calls her ”silly” and a ”coward” and refers to her as ”mine”.

      She says he also throws her through a glass table,repeatedly exposes her to other vampires intent on killing her,abandons her in a forest,and badly bruises her during sex.She says that at one point in the narrative he marks her with his scent to deter Jacob as a suitor. And she says that Bella responds with utter dependence on him for her happiness,safety and future.And she says without exception,the narrative presents dangerous abusive behaviors as sexy and that readers are encouraged to translate Edward’s behaviors as desirable,protective and romantic.Then she says Genre and voice work to support reader’s resistance to a sub-plot of violent behaviors as a reflection of abuse.

      She demonstrates that Edward’s abuse described towards Bella matches the descriptions and criteria for domestic violent abuse by web sites from The National Domestic Violence Hotline, National Crime Victims Center,the Stalking Center, and the Love is Respect.She also explains the power of having the story told in Bella’s voice as enjoying and accepting Edward’s abuse of her,makes readers identify with this as romantic,sexy and acceptable. Just like Ana’s voice does in the even more horrible abusive violent woman-hating,Fifty Shades of Grey!

    • Here is another academic study on the romanticization,normalization,and sexualization of Edward’s domestic violence against Bella gender inequality,and harmful gender roles and stereotypes of ”femininity” in the unfortunately disturbingly extremely popular Twilight books.

      Vampires,Werewolves,and Opprossion:Twilight and Female Gender Stereotypes by Zoe Snider Transylvania University

    • Here is another feminist study about this called,”I Could kill You Quite Easily Bella,Simply By Accident”:Violence and Romance in Romance in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Saga

      by Smantha Amber Oakly minnesota State University

    • Here E.L.James is admitting what so many feminist strong criticisms and bad reviews have said that she based the horrendous Fifty Shades books on the horrible twilight books and they said she made an even worse more violent woman-hating version!

      E.L.James says here that she saw the Twilight movie when it came out and she loved it and then read all of the books and loved them and then decided to write her own version.

    • And here is feminist Rebecca Hayes-Smith from the department of sociology and anthropology at Central Michigan State University

      She also explains and rightfully criticizes the harmful gender roles,gender stereotypes,and physical,emotional and sexual violence of Edward towards bella that is romanticized and normalized in it. Including the violent sex (as she says if that’s what you can call it) on their honeymoon after they wait until they’re married.

    • This is *another* study Twilight:The Glamoration of Abuse,Codependency,and White Privilege by professor Danielle N. Borgia Loyola Marymount University department of American Cultures

      • Actually Danielle Borgia is a Women Studies professor too and in her study I linked above in it she has the heading The Antifeminist Subtexts of Twilight

    • A Conversation between Twilight and the feminist World by Rendell Hendricks

      Is also about how Twilight is dangerous because of the violence against women it romanticizes and normalizes and the harmful sexist gender roles and gender stereotypes

  6. Excellent article! I, for one, really don’t like Bella Swan as a feminist model, and I’m glad that I’m not the only one.

  7. Terry Pratchett does vampires AND werewolves in a much more interesting and far less problematic way. He also writes a convincing, complex but ultimately heart-breaking/moving human (well, human by biology and dwarf by adoption) and werewolf relationship. It is a loving relationship, but not a Mills and Boon-type romantic one. There’s also a loving marriage between an older couple who have a young baby. Heck, Pterry does great female characters full stop. Try the Witches books (Wyrd Sisters, Witches Abroad, Lords and Ladies, Maskerade, Carpe Jugulum), the Tiffany Aching/Nac Mac Feegle books (Wee Free Men, Hat Full of Sky, Wintersmith, I Shall Wear Midnight) or the City Watch Books (Guards Guards, Men at Arms, Feet of Clay, Jingo, Fifth Elephant, Thud, Snuff). All in the brilliant Discworld series of course.

  8. Wow, this is a great article, very eye opening, especially from a Twilight fan. The problem with the Twilight Saga are not the male characters (Edward, Jacob and the other males are pretty much the ideals of most women), but how Bella’s character was conceived. I never liked her. She’s weak, passive, full of cliches, and has no other pursuits than having her man, and later becoming a mother. I hate the fact that after she sees the bruising of her body, she’s the one who insists to have sex, enforcing stereotypes that no woman can resist to carnal pleasures or say no to her man. I don’t care how good the sex is, if it would bruise my body I wouldn’t want that male to touch me no more. And that’s the type of attitude Bella should’ve had to make her a strong role model for young women. And yet, we have a weak, bleak, pale character, who becomes easily overpowered by the charms of a man.

    • It’s very disturbing enough for non feminists to say that abusive dominating men like Edward and Jacob and the other males in the story are not the problem and are the ideals of most women,but even much more so and incomprehensible on a feminist magazine site!

  9. And this,The Romanticism of Teen Dating Violence:The Twilight Series As A Case Study by Kyrie McCauley Bannar honors in sociology
    American university,%20Kyrie%20-%20Spring%20%2710.pdf?sequence=1

  10. This reviewer Neena says how misogynistic Fifty Shades Of Grey is in reviewing the second Fifty Shades book in the 3 book series and she wonders why more women don’t realize it.She likes the woman-hating,sadistic violent sex Christian does to Ana though. At least she doesn’t say anything against it here.

    She says Ana has been given so many of the negative traits that women are accused of and says that they are thinly veiled and says I wonder why more readers haven’t noticed? She then says that it’s ironic that a book full of misogynistic stereotypes should be popularized by women. Another customer says in response to her bad review (though it’s not nearly bad enough!) that surprisingly the author E.l.James is a woman,and that women can be misogynistic too.

    So this reviewer Neena says back that she realized that E.l.James is female after she wrote her review and said you’re right though women are not immune to misogyny.

  11. Youtube poster Rene Wright says Yeah the LOVE story that if you stay with a psycho man controlling man one day you will change him and it all ends with everyone rich and happy. She said that’s an insult to any woman in an abusive relationship.She then says re-read and realize she doesn’t have room to even take a breath without permission like a true slave and she says oh so sexy and the characters don’t change ,she says I mean he beats Ana’s pregnant stomach with a belt! He could have killed the baby and this is in the last third book.

    in response to another poster inaccurately claiming that Christian and Ana evolve later in the story.She says they do not evolve and that he continues to control every aspect of her life.She says he might say he wants to change but he never really does he buys the company she works for to better stalk her and she says he puts welts all over her body for disobeying him like a dog.

    She then says what is the real issue is a female character who has such self deprecation that she does not think she deserves to be treated with mutual respect and allows a man to treat her this way .She said that is what sets women back decades!
    This is comments to a video bad review of Fifty Shades of Grey by a woman who disturbingly doesn’t have a problem with the S&M but called the way the books portray Ana the most misogynistic bullisht* she’s ever read.
    There are many young women very disturbingly,sickly saying they like or love the books.One of them who hated it is only 15! but her mother disturbingly,sickly liked it!

  12. Here is a song on youtube The Monster You Have Made

    about how Fifty Shades romanticizes, and normalizes a man’s domestic violence of a woman and how the author E.L.James refuses to see and admit it!

  13. This is also an excellent powerful radical feminist justified criticism and analysis of the horrendous Fifty Shades

  14. Powerful interview with Clare phillipson director of the domestic violence organization Wearside women in Need about her protests against Fifty Shades of Grey and how the level of sexual violence by Christian grey is shocking.

  15. From feminist activist Sunsara Taylor and her organization End Pornography and Patriarchy:The Enslavement & Degradation of Women she explains how Fifty Shades of Grey is Bad for women bad for Sex and it promotes and normalizes violent and degrading sex of a woman by a man

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