Stephenie Meyer, author of the “Twilight” series, announced last week her intention to publish “Midnight Sun,” a “a retelling of her bestselling series from vampire Edward Cullen’s perspective.” But does anyone in 2020 really need an even-more-detailed account of how a 100-year-old man pretended to be a high schooler to stalk a 17-year-old girl because her blood “smelled sweet?”
Meyer published the first “Twilight” book in 2005; by 2009, the series was a full-fledged phenomenon. Today, it looms so large in young adult fiction and fantasy that it’s easy to forget the ubiquity of its premise — which is that, apparently, only provincial 17-year-old girls can save male vampires from certain despair after centuries of debauchery, and thus tame the beast within.
From “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”(both the movie and the television show which aired from 1997-2003) to “The Vampire Diaries,” pop culture seems determined to believe that romances “just happen” between teenage girls and supercentenarian men.
If you didn’t grow up on a steady diet of vampire fiction, you might be blissfully unaware of the genre obsession. Take “Buffy,” often celebrated for its female protagonist, and binge-watching it through a haze of adolescent nostalgia, it’s easy to forget “Innocence,” or Season 2, Episode 14: That is the episode in which Angel, Buffy’s 240-year-old vampire boyfriend, loses his soul after having sex with Buffy, then a junior in high school.
Buffy had turned 17 in the previous episode, which is both the general age of sexual consent in many states and the magic age in Hollywood at which it apparently stops being weird for a high school girl to start a sexual relationship with someone 14 times her age.
That is the age of “Twilight” protagonist Bella when Edward begins grooming her. Mysteriously, it is also the same age as Elena Gilbert was when 171-year-old Stefan Salvatore hypnotizes the registrar so that he can share Elena’s entire class schedule in “The Vampire Diaries,” which aired from 2009-2017 — just as Twilight frenzy was peaking.
Of course, by the time the “Twilight” books (let alone the movies) debuted, vampire lovers were already well-socialized to overlook the inherent power asymmetry of a romance between a high school student and someone who has already lived the equivalent of multiple human lifetimes.
Like many of the genre’s readers, I cut my teenage vampire teeth on Anne Rice, whose sexual pairings violate the principles of consent in ways that make “Buffy” appear unproblematic by comparison. But the more you see and think about it, this trope of much, much older vampire and underage girl reveals gross, but pervasive, beliefs about children, men, power and sex.
These high school vampire stories suggest to younger viewers that we as a culture agree that it’s “romantic” for a much older man to pursue an underage girl, as long as he uses his (centuries of) hard-won wisdom to show her the ways of the world, while protecting her from the dangers he both represents and can alone anticipate. And they normalize the logic that abusers use to groom their victims in real life — the idea an adult can be powerless to forgo the affections of one impossibly unique and headstrong teenage girl, who alone is worthy of his special affections.
The vampire boyfriend trope further dismisses the implausibility of true consent when one party is drawing upon centuries of life experience and supernatural powers the other party lacks in determining the relationship’s boundaries.
Finally, age-appropriate boys are drawn as too childish and incompetent for the intrepid female lead, vesting vampire boyfriends with near-fatherly authority to “manage” their partners rather than be equal to them.
“Twilight” author Meyer has frequently been critiqued for the troubling relationship dynamics between the ancient vampire, Edward, and Bella, the teenage girl with whom he is obsessed. Both Edward’s and Bella’s character development depend on the tension created by his precarious ability to control himself around her. And he frequently solves the problem of her being in danger because of her connection with him by kidnapping her. (He even fights with a 17-year-old boy about Bella’s “virginity.”)
What work, then, does rewriting “Twilight” in 2020 from the perspective of Edward Cullen do, other than revive a fading franchise? For one, it further valorizes Edward, framing his marriage to an 18-year-old after two years of dating as the capstone achievement of his fantasy life.
Meyer has previously explained that the apple on the front cover of her books is a reference to the biblical Garden of Eden, framing “Twilight” as a story about choosing between good and evil, and that Bella “successfully” navigates said garden by marrying Edward at age 18 before losing her virginity to him. Critics have argued that Meyer essentializes the relationship between marriage and sex — which is true — but the bigger issue here is about power and consent, and about characterizing a sexual relationship between an old man and a young girl he’s groomed for that purpose as “forbidden fruit.”
Meyer’s new book, though, may fail to recapture the audience that once felt more free to ignore the strange power dynamics at play in her novels, as other, more modern properties are doing a better job at retiring this trope. “Shadowhunters,” which aired from 2016-2019, did an excellent job of capturing the drama, romance and thrill of the YA supernatural genre without pairing 18-year-old protagonist Clary with a supernatural father-figure for a romantic relationship. Instead, the show explores the diversity of teen relationships. (Unfortunately, the central queer relationship pairs Magnus Bane, who is likely centuries old, with 22-year-old Alec Lightwood, somewhat undermining that.) Even the “Vampire Diaries” spinoff, “Legacies,” is doing a great job of writing age-appropriate relationships for its teenage characters.
Or authors and showrunners might even follow the lead of SyFy’s “Wynonna Earp” whose titular character proves that there is life after high school. She gets her calling to “revenant” hunting on her 27th birthday, rather than in her teen years, making her burgeoning romance with the immortal Doc Holliday steamy instead of cringey.
Maybe the latest generation of vampire romances have, rightly, put stakes in the Edwards, Angels and Stefans of the fantasy world. It would be about time.