Sexual coercion abounds in Twilight
- Published: 09 October 2010
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10 October 2010
In the opening scene of the third Twilight film (Eclipse), vampire Edward is trying to convince human Bella to marry him:
“Marry me,” he says.
“Change me,” she replies.
“Hmm, I’ll change you…if you marry me. It’s called a…compromise.”
“That’s called coercion,” she astutely responds. Kissing him, they smile at each other.
Coercion here appears to be set up at odds with “love.” That is, because these two people love each other, even the possibility of coercion makes no sense: it’s a lark.
But a closer reading of the text reveals that really love (or the façade of such) figures as precisely the basis on which sexual coercion takes place, and takes place repeatedly with almost all of characters and most of their relationships.
Even the title “Eclipse” can be seen as a veiled reference to coercion; meaning figuratively ‘loss of power or significance’ or, as a verb, ‘to deprive.’
This idea of deprivation makes little sense to the plot: the conflict surrounding Bella’s transformation into a vampire (being deprived of her human life) is deferred to the following installment (Breaking Dawn), and the deprivation that makes up Edward and Bella’s sex life is a constant theme in the entire series.
Rather, the main plot thrust of Eclipse is a territorial one: Victoria vs the Forks community/Bella, the werevolves vs the vampires and, of course, Edward vs werewolf Jacob.
The focus is very much on possessiveness and control, aspects of relationships which are at best unseemly, and at worst abusive.
In this way, the idea of ‘deprivation’ can be read as a comment on power and the interplay of the ways in which persuasion moves to coercion, and the differences between pressure, coercion, harassment and abuse.
Throughout Eclipse, all three of the main characters: Edward, Bella and Jacob exert force - whether physical or emotional - over each other in ways which are coercive. That is:
• Coercion: the practice of forcing another party to behave in an involuntary manner (whether through action or inaction) by use of threats, intimidation, trickery, or some other form of pressure or force. Such actions are used as leverage, to force the victim to act in the desired way.
Jacob to Bella: The most obvious example of Jacob's use of coercion takes place after he discovers Bella's engagement to Edward: he threatens her with his own life (that he will endanger himself unless she "gives him a reason to stay") and none of her pleas that she loves him and doesn't want to lose him suffice. He wants her physically, and clearly cares more about getting what he wants then the fact that it’s not what she wants.
This is exacerbated by the narrative cornerstone that Bella loves both Edward and Jacob (but Edward more), and that Jacob knows she loves him, while she ‘refuses to admit it.’ This works to reaffirm the adage that women don't know what they want (which in itself suggests that when women say no they mean yes).
Sexual ‘misconduct’ is hinted at when he kisses her after she has told him explicitly to “stop.” This occurrence problematically attempts to differentiate “actual sexual assault” (visible and unacceptable) from “sexual coercion” (invisible and acceptable); while their first kiss is “wrong,” their second kiss is somehow less so.
Edward to Bella: As the opening of this article – and the film – suggests Edward’s proposal to Bella is, at least in part, coercive. Throughout the film, and even after she agrees to marry him, it is implied that he will still refuse to turn her.
Furthermore, Edward’s stalking is a fairly classic way of exerting control over another, and one which much has been said about.
That this way of behaving is diagetically justified further represents control and coercion as acceptable. His stalking results in his "saving her" twice (Twilight) from situations in which we are lead to believe she would not have been able to protect herself (from a car crash and a group of young men).
Bella to Edward: Bella’s initial pitch to Edward as to why they should have sex seems an argument in persuasion rather than coercion: she reminds him that after she becomes a vampire she’ll want blood more than him.
Perhaps because we are so used to seeing teenage boys pressuring teenage girls into sex, it seems as though the reverse is impossible. But Edward makes it clear that he doesn’t want to have sex with Bella, and that doesn’t stop her from trying to coerce him into it.
Various minor characters, too, work to focus the narrative on possibilities of sexual coercion: Jasper’s origin story reveals that he was turned into a vampire after being deceptively sexually enticed; Rosalie’s flashback depicts the exertion of social pressure by her fiancé, which quickly turns to rape and murder; and Riley is clearly sexually coerced by Victoria into creating and organizing her army through promises of her love.
As I said previously, the way in which vampire violence is justified comments on how we think about power (and its abuse).
The depiction of coercion (a type of violence though it fails to be portrayed as such) in Eclipse is troubling because it is well and truly tolerated, justified and, rather straightforwardly, accepted.
Suffice to say, sexual coercion should really not be a part of the way we relate and communicate with each other, and especially not with people we love.
Max Attitude is an associate editor at The Scavenger.