Rob Bittner is a graduate of the MA in Children’s Literature program at The University of British Columbia in Vancouver, BC. He is currently a PhD student in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University, and he is an advocate for increased LGBT visibility in books for children and young adults. He also likes wine.
A Review of Life and Death by Stephanie Meyer; Or, Save Yourself Twenty Dollars
Let me begin this review with a few disclaimers. First of all, I am not a huge Twilight fan, from the start, so I’m not going to be particularly kind to the original text. I read the first book in the series because I was teaching a unit on it for a YA literature course, and I read the second book because my Kobo battery died in Chicago and it was on sale at the bookstore for $3. I then had to read the last book because, well, I had to see the ending that everyone was talking about, including the incredibly disturbing first-time sex scene between Edward and Bella (yes, it is as bad as they say.) I have since done a significant amount of research on gender and representation within the series, and YA lit in general, and also read a lot on the influences of the series in evangelical Christian circles (yes, believe it or not, Edward is considered to be the ideal man after whom all other men should model themselves.) Needless to say, I’m not just writing this as a disgruntled reader, but also as a scholar and concerned human being. But I digress.
When I first heard about the release of Life and Death as a part of the 10th Anniversary celebration of Twilight’s initial release, my first thought, based on my appreciation (or lack thereof) of Twilight, was to cringe. But then I thought, maybe I shouldn’t be so quick to judge. So I took a deep breath, cashed in some credit card rewards, and went to pick up the book. When I flipped open to the Foreword, I was confronted with a four page justification for having written this new reimagining with swapped genders. Meyer notes, Bella’s “been criticized for being too consumed with her love interest, as if that’s somehow just a girl thing. But I’ve always maintained that it would have made no difference if the human were male and the vampire female—it’s still the same story.”
First of all, Bella was not criticized just for being consumed with her love interest. She has been criticized for her lack of depth, her complete disregard for her own worth, her low self-esteem, and for the fact that she is entirely unable to make a single decision on her own without a male figure stepping in and being decisive. Secondly, the idea that simply swapping genders will make for the same story is overly simplistic and completely disregards to the changes in relational dynamics based on gendered expectations in a patriarchal society. But hey, what do I know, I’ve only been studying gender for over a decade.
Further into the Foreword, Meyer goes on to say, “Fortunately, this project was not only fun, but also really fast and easy.” Now, I know a lot of authors, and I can tell you that none of them have ever called a project “fast and easy” unless it was a rough draft or a blog post. The fact that Meyer says this phrase specifically is rather foreboding. After this comes the list of changes (no, she couldn’t let her readers discover the changes for themselves, she created an entire list of things that were reimagined. Bella is now Beau, Edward is now Edyth, Jacob is now Jules, and various other characters have been changed throughout.
But just as I was getting worried that Beau and Edyth would be exactly the same, just with new names, I saw this note: “Beau’s personality developed just slightly differently than Bella’s. The biggest variations are that he’s more OCD, he’s not nearly so flowery with his words and thoughts, and he’s not as angry—he’s totally missing the chip Bella carries around on her shoulder all the time.” First of all, there is absolutely no excuse for giving a character a mental disorder for no reason, and with so little regard for all the complexities that such a disorder implies. Secondly, I’m not entirely sure what “chip” Meyer is referring to with regard to Bella, unless she is referring to the fact that Bella is, you know, female. But I’ll try not to go too far in that series of speculations. Also of note is the way in which Life and Death further misrepresents Native characters throughout the series (for an excellent discussion of this, look no further than Debbie Reese’s blog.)
Notice how many issues there already are just from the Foreword? But I can assure you, after reading the rest of the book, that no matter what Meyer originally intended with this reimagining, she did nothing more than continue with her gender stereotyping and the total disregard for the different ways that women are discriminated against and treated differently in so many societies. Swapping genders does not account for the whole history of gendered oppression and traditions of the damsel in distress. You can’t simply escape that history in your characters just by switching Bella to Beau. Meyer herself said in a Good Morning America interview that “I wanted to do something fun for the 10th anniversary.” The fact that this is just a fun thing for her to do in response to the many valid critiques of the original book shows that she lacks a full understanding of the stakes.
Now, as much as I want to engage in a page by page critique of this incredibly problematic retelling, I simply do not have the time, energy, or space in which to do that. What I can do, however, is talk at least a bit more about how problematic this supposedly less stereotypical version of Twilight really is. Let’s start with the more general inner monologue that is at the core of both versions. In the original, Bella is self-deprecating, critical, and often self-defeating. But, as a recent article on The Daily Beast noted:
Meyer doesn’t extend Bella’s male version the same narrative courtesy. Beau’s inner monologue is sometimes embarrassed, but he’s not self-critical. He doesn’t cry, he doesn’t stare in the mirror and inspect his perceived flaws, he doesn’t imagine himself inferior to his superhuman lover with the intensity that Bella imagined herself inferior to Edward. Beau is in every way a less specific and less compelling protagonist than Meyer’s original (not particularly specific, not particularly compelling) Bella, and the reasons for the changes to his persona seem to be exactly the gendered assumptions that got her work criticized in the first place.
Then there are the terribly sexist descriptions that occur throughout the book. For instance, in Twilight, Meyer writes, regarding Billy Black, “He used to go fishing with us during the summer,” (5) but then in Life and Death, she writes, regarding Bonnie (Billy’s female iteration), “She and her husband used to go fishing with us during the summer” (6). Why is this troubling? Because when Billy is Billy, he can do things on his own, but when Billy is Bonnie, suddenly she is only a person in relation to her spouse. Later, Bella/Beau’s dad says, “Well, Billy’s done a lot of work on the engine…” (5) but in Life and Death, the sentence reads, “Well, Bonnie’s had a lot of work done on the engine” (6). After being gender-swapped, the character is suddenly stripped of agency, having to rely on others (likely men).
There is also the fact that Beau needs to be rescued while in Port Angeles, just as Bella did in the original, however the stakes are lessened, and the fact that Beau is no longer Bella, creates a much less urgent dynamic, one that leaves out the fear of sexual violence that the original novel contained. In the original, Bella is being threatened by a group of men (I believe four, if my math is correct) who are easily read as sexual predators.
“Stay away from me,” I warned in a voice that was supposed to sound strong and fearless….
“Don’t be like that, sugar,” he called….
I braced myself, feet apart, trying to remember through my panic what little self-defense I knew. (Twilight 109)
In the reimagining, however, Beau is being threatened by three gang members (one of whom is a woman) who mistake him for a plain clothes cop.
“You think I’m stupid?” the woman asked. “You think your plainclothes getup fools me? I saw you with your cop partner, Vice.”
“What? No, that was my dad,” I said, and my voice broke.
As soon as the gun was down, I was going to bolt…. Zigzag, that was what my dad had told me once. It was hard to hit a moving target, especially one that wasn’t moving in a straight line. (Life and Death 118-9)
Why change the dynamic to such an extreme degree? Why fewer gang members in the second case? And why make one of them a woman? Why allow Beau to be mistaken for a cop, thus giving him a greater hierarchical positioning, even while he is being threatened, while Bella was seen simply as an easy target because of her femaleness. This difference in fear and urgency is a direct result of social perceptions of violence against women versus violence against men, and it is something the Meyer seems unable to acknowledge or suitably engage with, as is evidenced in Life and Death.
In the end, Meyer does end up changing part of the story. Beau becomes a vampire at the end of the book instead of three books later. Meyer claims that this does not have anything to do with the fact that the character is now male instead of female, and yet this change would not have happened if a gender swapping had not occurred to begin with. So even if the change is not related to Beau being male within this new reimagining, the reimagining itself caused Meyer to make a change that was different from Bella’s original experience.
In the end, unless you are a die-hard Stephenie Meyer fan, it is unlikely there will be anything enjoyable to be found in this reimagining, unless a headache is your idea of a good time. Some fans have noted that it’s so good it’s bad, but as a gender studies scholar, I find Life and Death to be, at best lazy, and at worst dismissive of the history of gendered difference, violence, and disrespect toward women that is so ingrained in our society. And even worse, Meyer does it with the ease of Microsoft Word’s “Find and Replace” function and considers it “fun.”
I would suggest giving these “400 pages of new content” a miss.