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.

  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.

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