True story: I’ve written Twilight fanfiction.
I am the first in line to criticize the plot, characterizations and anti-feminist nature of Twilight. I read the books while bored working in security, and treat the movies as a soap opera akin to Passions, creating drinking games for home viewings. I’m far more enamoured with Alice than Edward. It was my love of Alice – and anger at how Meyer shortchanged the character’s back-story – that led to my first fanfiction in the fandom. This in turn led to a random midnight musing of “What if the characters were in Empire Records?” and then, a one-shot that blew up to become an intricate examination of mental illness, and ultimately a revival of my original fiction writing.
You see, many fanfiction writers create their stories as a means of testing their skills, toying with a plot idea in a way that yields ample feedback, or simply amusing self and others “in on the joke”. I read fanfiction from multiple fandoms because I appreciate a good tale in any form. There are true talents in the fanfiction world, and I wish them well in original pursuits.
In discussing fanfiction based on Twilight as of late, a somewhat disturbing trend emerged that sparked a broader discussion. Specifically, several of us commented on the now-prominent trope of “Victim-ella”: a Bella that is battered/abused/raped as a key plot feature. Why the rampant storylines of this nature, we wondered. Were writers channeling their personal experiences, going for shock value, or romanticizing violence against women?
For me, to understand the phenomenon, there are two angles to appreciate. First, the canon story and characters of Meyer’s series are a breeding ground for victims. Consider the Cullen women and their back-stories: Rosalie Hale is gang-raped and left for dead when Carlisle finds her and turns her; Alice Brandon is committed to an asylum, abandoned by her family after realizing her father has hired an assassin to kill her, and stalked by James; Esme Evenson is beaten by her husband, and eventually attempts suicide when her infant child dies. Happy beginnings, huh?
As for Bella Swan, she is nearly gang-raped (rescued by Edward in Port Angeles), stalked and nearly killed by James (again rescued by Edward), must become a vampire or be killed by the Volturi, deals with Jacob forcing his advances on her (with her father congratulating him for going for her), is stalked by an army of baby vampires and a vengeful Victoria, and is the key player in a war bent on killing her daughter and imprisoning her and her family. Did I mention the fact that Edward creeps her, makes her decisions for her, leaves her to protect her and manipulates her friendships and relationships? I mean, he offers Jacob as a sexy baby-making playmate to convince her to abort Nessie!
At the same time, Bella has an unhealthy approach to their relationship. Edward is her life, period. She has no real interests or hobbies outside of him once she has him. Until she’s pregnant, she truly orbits him like Renee says. Her self-worth is tied into him loving her. Even at their wedding, Tanya makes her insecure, even though anyone with a brain can see Edward’s sole focus is Bella.
Is it any wonder then, given this canon, that All-Human (AH) Alternate-Universe (AU) fanfiction often spins off into the realm of violence against women? With that foundation, it’s no wonder that inexperienced fic writers – fans who simply have a whim of an idea and write it, figuring “anyone can do it” – will step in and create stories with Bella as a damsel in distress, escalating it further and further to the point where raped/beaten Bella is the norm. They continue to up the ante, exaggerating the core canon. I’m not immune to this, either: in one of my own AU-AH stories, Alice and Rosalie are survivors of sexual violence and deal with alcoholic parents; in another, Bella is struck by angry men in one scene. It’s not difficult to conceive of these female characters in peril precisely because each and every one has been in dire circumstances with devastating psychological effects.
The other angle to consider is the main demographic of fanfiction authors: women, 18-45 years of age. Given the statistics on violence against women, it is no wonder that women craft these stories. Many are, indeed, drawing from real life. Be it a cruel boyfriend or an abusive husband, a large percentage of women behind the computer screen are coping with their own pain.
But here I’d like to draw the distinction between Victim and Survivor: while a Survivor storyline traces the healing trajectory and has the character emerge stronger than ever, a Victim storyline centres either on the Damsel-In-Distress motif that’s been a constant for centuries, where only a man can save her and “fix her” with his love, or worse, it veers into Victim-As-Titillation, where rape and abuse are sexualized, romanticized and condoned, as our heroine “redeems” the Big Bad Man and lives Stockholm-Swooning Ever After.
These latter stories are the disturbing ones for me. They perpetuate dangerous beliefs about relationships and what women should tolerate, and also insult those who have endured violence by minimizing their trauma/making it romantic. Sadly, this is nothing new, particularly in crime thrillers and suspense stories: women in danger are “sexy” and sell. Men in danger, whimpering and begging, are an affront to our internalized notions of masculinity and femininity. Male readers dismiss them as weak and uninteresting, not worth saving via identification with the usually male hero; women cannot relate to their struggle and vulnerability, because it is women who are faced with danger so often in their lives. Men have privilege, and thus, we cannot sink into a world of men in peril. We can also look to the media and tabloids, finding a culture of women needing to be saved. Rihanna and Chris Brown. Whitney and Bobby Brown. Mel Gibson and Oksana Grigorieva. “The beat(ing) goes on…”
Even the strongest heroines fall prey to old themes: in season six of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Spike attempts to rape Buffy, proclaiming she loves him and will remember when she feels him inside her; in season seven, he is granted his soul and magically, through self-mutilation and pitiable demeanor, Buffy suddenly forgives, forgets, entrusts him with her sister and, in a way, loves him at last. In Veronica Mars, Veronica is nearly killed, raped and ridiculed for it, and puts up with psychologically unhealthy relationships with men – one of whom (her big love of the series) threatens her, controls her, then sleeps with the woman who roofied her.
Hell, even Disney trains young girls to have a dysfunctional view of love. Beauty and the Beast is one of my favourites, but seriously consider what’s going on: he threatens her, holds her hostage, threatens to starve her if she doesn’t obey… and she loves him anyway. The Little Mermaid? Gives up her voice and whole world for a stranger who’s cute. It’s a tale as old as time all right, Mrs. Potts.
Bringing us back to the fandom at hand, I took a wander through past reads on Twilighted, a site dedicated to fanfiction for the Saga that is “well-written”. In examining Twilight fanfiction, I present a few summaries of stories involving violence against women in the fandom – healthy and dysfunctional. This list is by no means exhaustive, but it’s a taste of what is out there, provoking ire and concern. In fairness, I’ll stick to completed or actively updating stories as much as possible.
In alphabetical order:
Beautiful Hitchhiker by emarroquin: In the opening chapter, Bella has James demanding sex from her in exchange for a lift in his car, Bella refusing and being assaulted, and in swoops Edward (a stranger) to pick her up from the side of the road. Despite the terrors of James and his knife and gun, Bella is screwing Edward in his car within the first few chapters, and they’re going at it non-stop throughout. In between, James and his serial killer/rapist partner stalk them etc. Oh yes, and they have a LOT of sex.
Break Even by TwiStar_Junkie: Another Bella in peril story, this one sees Bella tolerating beatings from James, her husband, for years, even as Edward picks up the pieces and cleans wounds. She tells him she’s pregnant and is beaten beyond anything before, and finally leaves him. Edward the rescuer engages, offering to raise the baby as his, move her in, etc. – as her best friend. He hasn’t revealed he’s in love with her, and she hasn’t revealed her love. That’s somewhat grating (and years of standing by respecting her decision to stay with him is hard to appreciate if you’re in love) but at least the emotional healing work is realistic and the love affair sweet.
Could Be Worse, Right? by Savage: In answer to the question posited by the title: not really. A tale of human trafficking, Edward purchases Bella as a sex slave, treats her as awful as that entails… and well, this scene happens and rage ensues:
I still didn’t understand her reasoning, and as much as that part of me wanted to just say “fuck it” and go with whatever the hell was happening here, there was the other, albeit smaller part that wanted answers. Needed answers. As much as it was physically painful to do so, I pulled back from her, kissing her lips softly just a couple more times before I looked into her eyes.
“Why?” I asked softly, just trying to make some kind of sense out of any of this, and figuring it was a hopeless task. I knew why I wanted her – it was far too obvious – but I didn’t understand why she wanted me. Not at all.
“Why…how can you…want this?”
The backs of her fingers brushed my cheekbone. She brought her mouth back to touch me briefly, gently running her lips over mine. I let my hand glide down her side until it rested on her hip.
“Because I can see the man inside of you,” she whispered back. “He’s not what he tries to show everyone else. He’s not even what he thinks he is. He wasn’t trying to do anything…evil.”
Even as I kissed her again, I didn’t believe her.
“That doesn’t make any sense,” I said with my lips still against hers. “I can’t make up for what I’ve done to you.”
“But you have tried,” she responded. Her fingers twisted into my hair and she pulled me hard against her mouth. I felt her tongue on my lips, and I welcomed it…craved it…longed for it.
I would never be able to refuse her again. It just wouldn’t be possible.
“I know what you really wanted,” she told me.
I felt that lump in my throat again.
“I wanted sex.”
“No, you didn’t, Edward,” she corrected me. “That’s not what you wanted at all.”
She slowly shook her head from one side to the other.
“You wanted someone to stay with you,” she said. “You wanted someone you could trust – who you knew wouldn’t leave. That’s not a bad thing to want, Edward. You just didn’t know how to find that without doing something stupid.”
Fridays At Noon by followstrouble1017: Classify this one under “tolerates abuse far too much”: Edward is a rich, controlling asshole. Bella is his waitress at a posh restaurant, where he treats her like garbage. When she retorts, he’s turned on. He pushes his way into her life, refuses to respect her opinions on accepting his money, keeps secrets but demands she tolerate his boorish behaviour… and she does. Even when she’s in danger of being killed out of spite towards Edward by James. There’s far too much “I can fix him” tolerance here to be healthy.
Love and Obsession by michelly: The entire plot of this one centres on Bella’s abusive relationship with James, who is also an Italian mobster’s relative, Edward rescuing her (along with her entire family) after she finally admits everything (she’s knocked up and said abusive love affair has been completely secret), and then makes stupid mistakes in Bella fashion to “spare” everyone else’s lives. Grows more confabulated by the chapter towards the end. I blame canon for this one. That and apparently blind family and friends for not noticing months of relationship including sex in a room down the hall.
Mental by MaraPore321: Not updating often, but worth noting if only for how disturbing it is. Amplifying the canon notion of deadly Edward and enraptured Bella, the story takes place in a mental hospital. Edward is confined for the murder of 14 women, at the behest of a voice in his head. Bella, a new employee at the hospital, quickly becomes the object of Edward’s affections, even as the voice wishes her dead. Edward beats an orderly who sexually harasses Bella; she swoons despite herself. Edward orders her to say she belongs to him, that she won’t have sex with her husband anymore; she agrees and does not find cause to change jobs or report Edward. Disturbing as hell, and not in a dark romance fashion.
Sins of the Father by bethaboo: I’m conflicted about this one, but enjoy it overall. Edward is the troubled son of an IRA member who is kidnapped by his Irish side; Bella is inadvertently dragged in as a fan disillusioned with his loss of musical direction. While primarily a story of Edward’s reconciliation with his history and family, his behaviour towards Bella can be emotionally abusive and worse, Bella tolerates it a little too much for my liking. It’s hard to imagine why she’s fallen for him at times, but ultimately, it seems intent on not excusing Edward, which is a huge plus.
Speak Now by SaritaDreaming, wmr1601: Irksome shock value usage of sexual assault here. Plot is kicked off by a plan conceived by Tanya to drug Bella, have Mike mack on her to send Edward running into Tanya’s arms, and Bella finding out years after marrying Mike, sending her to break up Tanya and Edward’s wedding. The plausibility of Mike recording the conversation, let alone having to have drugging involved, grates deeply.
Teenage Dirtbag by palewhite_n_icecold: This one decidedly falls under the umbrella of dismissive towards violence/thrown in to spice up plot. Bella is dating super-popular jock, Jacob. One day, Bella decides that Jacob is an asshole and tries to break up with him. Jacob decides to try and rape her. Lucky for her that Edward swoops in with Alice and Jasper and saves the day. Of course. Jacob spins the story to make Bella into a tramp. Rather than march into a police station with her bruised arms and get some justice, the foursome concoct a weird scheme of Bella and Edward fake-dating to get Jacob to snap and reveal his douchebaggery in front of everyone, thereby saving Bella’s reputation. You know, because that’s what really matters here. Also, Bella has no problem macking on Edward after this trauma.
The Letter – changed_by_edward: In the opening chapter, Bella recounts being nearly date-raped by a drunken Jacob, her father blaming her for the assault, and then marrying verbally abusive Mike Newton (who also rapes her within the marriage if she refuses sex). These plot points fade fairly quickly – Mike re-emerges for mild drama during a court case – but these traumas are quickly set aside to deal with child-neglecting Tanya (Edward’s ex) and Edward’s borderline-abusive rap persona. No matter, though: Bella loves EC Velvet anyway. She changes him, softens him and all is magical.
The Ride by aylah50: One of my favourite fanfiction stories of all time, hands down. Written by a survivor of sexual violence and it shows in the raw honesty, emotion and journey Bella takes throughout the story. Edward is no rescuer; Bella saves herself. She heals herself through her own strength. There are stumbles and falls along the way. Haunting and beautiful.
30 Days of Darkness by Mkystich: Ever seen or read Kiss The Girls? Then you know the plot of this one. Brutal, graphic violence against women. Women fight back. Women struggle to heal. Not a pretty story, but not titillation either.
Turn To Stone by nikkipattinson: This is one of the stories that is centred on sexual assault, but is realistic and of the “healthy” variety. One of my favourite stories, it centres on Edward and Bella’s relationship, her first since a violent sexual assault that nearly killed her. The twist: Edward defended Bella’s rapist on a previous charge, getting him acquitted days before he attacked Bella. Heartbreaking, raw and a tale of mutual redemption, Edward doesn’t just save or rescue Bella; they work together.
I will have more to say on this topic in general in the future, but for now, what are your thoughts? Is violence gratuitous in fiction? Is it more so in fanfiction?