Nineteenth Century Gender Roles in Stephenie Meyer’s "Twilight"

Term Paper 2015 19 Pages

American Studies - Literature



1 Introduction

2 Historical Gender Roles in the United States
2.1 Gender Roles in the Early Nineteenth Century
2.2 The Changing of Gender Roles until Today

3 Edward and Bella as the Ideal Nineteenth Century Man and Woman
3.1 Edward Cullen’s Characteristics
3.2 Isabella Swan’s Characteristics

4 The Relationship Roles of Edward and Bella1

5 Conclusion1

Works Cited List

List of Illustrations

Ill. 1: The Model Characteristics of Men and Women in the Nineteenth Century

1 Introduction

Upon its release in 2005, the novel Twilight by Stephenie Meyer became an instant success. Within four years of its publication, over 70 million copies of the saga have been sold (Morey 1), and the subsequent movies have broken box office records (Kay). Its biggest devotees, who are calling themselves Twi-hards, have founded an entire fandom community on the basis of the saga (Kay). Twilight is also part of a modern trend in bringing about a change in gothic fiction (de Bruin-Molé 18). It offers a new interpretation of the old myth of the vampire, changing some of the key features of it, for example by substituting the appetite for human blood with self-control (Morey 2).

The success of Twilight is undeniable, but the reason of why it became so popular is debatable. According to Ames, the vampire narrative has often been merged with the young adult romance genre and has always been met with interest (51). Meyer unites more than two genres in one novel, however: next to the vampire tale and the romance, the female coming-of-age story plays a major part as well (Morey 2). Even though the novel was aimed primarily at young girls who might be most concerned with the aspect mentioned last, also a more mature readership has since become part of the Twilight fandom (Morey 1).

Besides the obvious success, the series has gotten copious amounts of criticism from the day of its release, most regularly from self-proclaimed feminists for the gender representations exhibited in the books and for the relationship standards set out by Meyer (Ames 39). Jost (qtd. in Ames 40) expresses his disappointment that Meyer has created a story that “had the potential to be ‘a provocative piece of gothic fantasy’, but then marred it through the creation of unlikeable, anti-feminist characters and an anachronistic setting which forces modern readers into the mindset of a previous time”.

In this essay, this connection to the above-mentioned “previous time” shall be made clearer by comparing the gender roles displayed in Twilight to those of the early nineteenth century. In order to first gain an understanding of the way the perception of the differences between the sexes has changed in the course of the past two centuries, I will outline the gender roles of the nineteenth century and then briefly summarize what achievements have been made to erase these stereotypes in chapter 2. Next, in chapter 3, the respective personalities of the two protagonists, Edward and Bella, shall be separately analyzed and compared to the qualities of the ideal men and women in the early eighteen hundreds. In chapter 4, I will address the respective relationship roles of the couple, again pointing out the similarities to what a marriage was supposed to be like in the early nineteenth century.

Since the saga puts a vast emphasis on the romance between the two protagonists, it is crucial to understand it properly. The results of my analyses should answer the question of whether the two protagonist’s character traits and their relationship really correspond more to early nineteenth century standards than to the modern ones. I hope to gain an understanding of how and especially why the relationship between Edward and Bella works, and expect to find an answer in their character traits. The historical context, which will be discussed in the next chapter, might give me an insight into their motivations and their personalities as compared to what was expected of men and women in the past.

2 Historical Gender Roles in the United States

In order to class the character traits and relationship roles of Edward and Bella into a time period, it is necessary to understand the prevailing gender roles both of past centuries and of today. For this essay, the early nineteenth century has been chosen to serve as an example for strongly pronounced gender roles in the past, as will be explained below.

2.1 Gender Roles in the Early Nineteenth Century

The nineteenth century – the age of Romanticism right after the Industrial Revolution – brought with it the social changes that have shaped America into what it is today (Weisberger). Before these changes occurred, however, men and women seemed to grow even further apart than they were before, as will be discussed in the following.

In the early eighteen hundreds, gender roles were “more sharply defined than at any time in history” (Hughes). Whereas men and women worked alongside each other in previous centuries, they now lived in separate spheres: Men inhabited the public sphere, which was the world of politics and economy they worked in (Digital History). Women on the other hand, spent their lives in the private sphere, “the empire of the mother” (Theriot 17) and their duties included the raising of their children as well as doing all the household chores and cooking, to the point where it was considered as much as a job as the husband’s work was (Wayne 2-3). As more and more labor was needed in the industrial sector, men often left the home for work for the greater part of the day and sometimes – depending on their profession – even for days on end (Digital History). Due to their absence, fathers often did not spent much time with their offspring at all, leaving the child-rearing completely to their wife (Theriot 19). Within the relationship, men were supposed to assume the active part, which included all of the decision-making. Women, on the other hand, were expected to obediently fulfill the wishes of their husbands, thereby assuming the passive part (Radek).

Along with separate spheres and relationship functions came separate gender roles. Before women became more emancipated, the two sexes were thought to be opposites on both a physical and a mental level (Radek). The physical differences were the most apparent: the idea of imperial motherhood had its origins in the early nineteenth century and it influenced the perception of women by placing a higher emphasis on a women’s reproductive ability (Theriot 17). In order to guarantee the offspring’s well-being, women were supposed to differ from men on a mental level as well: They were believed to be more nurturing, emotional and altruistic than men, caring for their children no matter their own needs (Theriot 18-19). This phenomenon was often called the sentimentallization of women and the home, emphasizing the softness of the women’s world in contrast to the tough world that was inhabited by men (O’Malley). This implies that the ideal women in the early nineteenth century should find her true calling in her own suffering and self-abnegation, giving up her own dreams for the home, the husband and her children (Theriot 114). Sherwood (75) puts it like this:

The happiest women are those who can lead the ordinary life […] be early married to the man of their choice, and become in their turn domestic women, good wives, and mothers. There is no other work, no matter how distinguished, which equals this.

Women were not the only ones who had to deal with these sorts of expectations and societal norms. Both sexes were pushed to opposite ends of the spectrum, not allowing anything in-between. This way of thinking had major effects on the perception of both men and women: The specific differences between men and women in the early nineteenth century are visualized in the following chart. The illustration and the elucidations below are based on the findings of Radek.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Ill. 1: The Model Characteristics of Men and Women in the Nineteenth Century

All of these character traits convey the image of the perfect man and woman according to the societal norms and ideals and are no accurate representation of what both sexes were actually like during those times.

Men were thought of as brave, powerful beings, referring to both their physical strength and their power. Next to men, who were the ones in command, women were typically weak and timid, often even called the ‘weaker’ sex (Marsh). Strong men were supposed to be able to maintain and uphold the order much better than “potentially disorderly women” (Barker-Benfield 46). The belief in strength versus weakness widens the gap on the matter of dependency as well: Men were expected to be independent and individual, whereas women should always be dependent on a man and in need of social or familial settings to feel at ease. As explained above, they were expected to give themselves up for their family, whereas men always strived for something new and better and were supposed to self-advancing (O’Malley). Never considering themselves satisfied and being greatly ambitious was a man’s quality, whereas women were believed to be content in their own home. It was acceptable for them to study “as long as it did not interfere with their housework”, because their emphasis remained on their domesticity. Men, who spent more time away for work than at home, were supposed to become worldlier through their experiences, meaning that they had a lot of practical knowledge about how the world worked. In contrast to women, men were believed to be able to resist their temptation due to a much more established self. Women, on the other hand, had trouble controlling their emotions and therefore became a slave to their desires much more frequently. These desires did not necessarily include a high craving for sex, making it a virtue for women to be pure, while men were often thought to be tainted and impure due to their heightened sexuality. Before they got married, men sometimes had premarital sex with prostitutes or servants. Furthermore, men enjoyed the status of logicality and sober rationality. Women’s emotiveness was in part what made them good mothers, but they were also believed to be susceptible to madness and hysteria and had trouble forming rational and logical thoughts, which made it much more usual for the man to be in charge of the decision making.

2.2 The Changing of Gender Roles until Today

The following assertions are made in reference to the Constitutional Rights Foundation. Starting in the middle part of the nineteenth century, women’s rights movements developed and gradually changed the gender roles that had existed for centuries: with the first formal feminist convention in 1848, women’s rights movements have formed and have existed to this day, making enormous achievements in the field of gender equality.

In 1920, women gained the right to vote. This shows that they, too, are worldly as well as capable of making logical decisions, without leaving the important issues to their husbands. With Alice Paul as one of the chief representatives of the Equal Rights Amendment, feminists have pushed for women’s rights in the areas of employment, education, credit, housing, and pensions – all of which have been improved today.

During World War II, women were forced to fill the former positions of the men who went to war. This represented a breakthrough for women’s rights, because it symbolized a turning away from the separate spheres and the belief in female domesticity prevailing in the early nineteenth century. Betty Friedan even called women prisoners in their own homes in her book “The Feminine Mystique”. Today, childcare and homework are often shared and in most marriages, both partners work and contribute to the family budget. Women have historically been paid less than men and this is an issue that is not solved, even today, when they still only earn about 76% of what men make, even though there has been an Equal Pay Act in 1963. Furthermore, there has been major progress in the education. By now, women have caught up with men in college attendance. There are slightly more females leaving high school and since 1979, there have been more female college attendees than men. This may contradict the notion of the early nineteenth century society that men are more ambitious and more capable of logical thinking than women.

Overall, the formation of women’s rights movements in and of itself is already an indication against the idea of weakness in females. Even after all those achievements, however, some of the beliefs held in the nineteenth century still prevail today. Depending on the part of the country, some gender stereotypes have not changed, even if women’s opportunities and employment patterns have changed considerably (Rhode 21). As mentioned above, complete gender equality has not been achieved, as there is still considerable progress to be made, for example in wage and employment equality, insurance policies and health care.



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Title: Nineteenth Century Gender Roles in Stephenie Meyer’s "Twilight"