“My Head is Sort of Private”: The Twilight Saga as Privacy Parable
Celebrate Freedom to Read Week (February 21-27) by exploring the history of book bannings and burnings, catching up on the latest freedom of expression news, or curling up with a hot beverage for a re-read of your favorite banned or challenged book.
One of my go-to contemporary banned authors is Stephenie Meyer. Meyer’s Twilight series entered the Office of Intellectual Freedom’s Top 10 Banned and Challenged Books in 2009. The YA vampire-romance saga ranked fifth on the list that year, with challengers citing the books’ religious viewpoint (Meyer is mormon), sexually explicit content, and age-inappropriateness. Twilight also appeared in OIF’s 2010 list of banned and challenged books, when it was flagged for violence.
Other critics fault Twilight for depictions of relationship abuse, anti-feminism, failed parenting, prejudice, eating disorders, and poor writing. But these criticisms can’t keep Meyer’s work, past or present, from blockbusting onto best-seller lists.
And it’s not just a legacy of bans and challenges that keep the Twilight series at the top of my guilty pleasure title list. Personally, I prefer to think I enjoy the series for its nuanced exploration of privacy in emerging adulthood.
On one level, Bella and her human friends enjoy ‘the secret life of teens,’ gossiping over household landline phones in coded language. On another level, the very existence of vampires and shapeshifters is kept secret, concealment of the former enforced by the absolute authority of the Volturi, and of the latter as a matter of indigenous knowledge and history of the Quileute tribe.
At a deeper level, consider the unique abilities of many of the Twilight characters. From Edward’s mind-reading, Alice’s foresight, Jasper’s sentiment manipulation and Renesmee’s telepathy, to Chelsea’s ability to weaken social ties, Alec’s sense-numbing, Jane’s pain-infliction and Aro’s ability to absorb every memory from one’s mind, the most powerful Twilight characters exert their will through invasions of privacy.
Privacy is central to a pivotal plot twist in the fourth book, Breaking Dawn, when readers learn that the seeming ‘glitch’ in Bella’s brain that renders her immune from Edward’s prying mind is actually a game-changing latent defensive ability. Bella learns to project her shielding power beyond her instinct for self-preservation in order to envelop the vampire-shapeshifter coalition formed to defy the authoritarian Volturi, nullifying the mental powers of the attacking coven.
A discerning reader will find frequent references to Bella’s preference for privacy throughout the series. She revels in her alone time, frequently conceals her face behind her hair, engages in secrecy, tactful deception and white lies, and acknowledges a reticence to articulate her deep-seated desire to become immortal, “even in my own head.”
As partners, Bella and Edward establish their relationship through playful interrogations, and navigate the complexities of intimacy through spoken and unspoken negotiations. Late in the series, an act of sacrificial love finds Bella exerting her bodily integrity to preserve her unborn baby’s life in the face of certain death.
Perhaps this reflects some of Meyer’s own privacy values. When a draft manuscript of spin-off title Midnight Sun leaked online, Meyer described the sense of betrayal that put the project on hold:
“I think it is important for everybody to understand that what happened was a huge violation of my rights as an author, not to mention me as a human being.”
Meyer goes on to discuss copyright and intellectual property considerations, but the injury to her rights “as a human being” is the violation of her intellectual privacy, the disruption of her creative process by a revelation of “an incomplete draft” in which “the writing is messy and flawed and full of mistakes.” It’s how one might describe the vulnerability of having one’s thoughts, feelings, or body exposed to unwanted intrusion: I never wanted to be seen like this.
Each summer, I schedule a staycation, stretch a hammock between two towering oak trees in my backyard, drink sun tea, and read the Twilight saga from cover-to-cover. There are few ways I’d rather spend the heat of the day —after tackling chicken chores and garden weeding in the cool of the morning — than gazing up at sunlight filtering through the leaves and escaping to the mossy forests of Forks, WA, to a time before high-speed internet, smartphones and social media, and to my own memories of the intensity of first love and the intoxication of newfound independence. In recent years, I’ve come to appreciate how Twilight makes me think about privacy and its role in both intimacy and autonomy.
If it seems like a stretch to pull that level of meaning from a supernatural teen romance series, then perhaps Harvard Lampoon’s “pitch-perfect” parody, Nightlight, is more your style. Reading parody is an apt way to celebrate Freedom to Read Week, as parodies are often the subjects of bans and challenges. And if you want to take your Freedom to Read Week observances to the next level, you can even dive into a parody on the topic of book banning.
Sarah Hartman-Caverly, MS(LIS), MSIS, is a reference and instruction librarian at Penn State Berks, where she liaises with Engineering, Business and Computing programs. Prior to her current appointment, Sarah was a reference and instruction librarian at a community college, and was an electronic resources manager and library system administrator in both community and small liberal arts college settings. Sarah’s research examines the compatibility of human and machine autonomy from the perspective of intellectual freedom. Recent contributions include “Version Control” (ACRL 2017), “Our ‘Special Obligation’: Library Assessment, Learning Analytics, and Intellectual Freedom” (ACRL 2018), and “Human Nature is Not a Machine: On Liberty, Attention Engineering, and Learning Analytics” (Library Trends, forthcoming). She earned her MS(LIS) and MSIS from Drexel University in 2011.