(Or: Why I Didn’t Like Twilight)
I’ve had this essay written for a long time (as in years), but I’ve been nervous about posting it. It’s intensely personal and I know once I tell a story like this in public, people will do whatever they want with it. I’m also aware that because this is the Internet, I’m probably leaving myself wide open to a surge of angry people who will call me a jealous hater, because that’s way easier than trying to understand what I’m saying and why I’m saying it.
But beyond that, I don’t want to come off like That Person, the one who likes crapping on popular things. People can like what they like, and hopefully they’ll give me the same leeway to dislike something.
Anyhow, I don’t like the Twilight books. I know I’m not alone there, but I’m vastly outnumbered by people who really enjoy them. And hey—that’s fine! We’re living in a fucked-up, relentlessly awful world; finding refuge in books is a Good Thing.
And I have nothing against Stephenie Meyer, who is by all accounts a lovely person. Whatever I think about her novels, she wrote stories that a lot of people wanted to read, and more power to her. Even if I wanted to bring her down, I hope we can all agree that little old me and my little old blog couldn’t do a thing to hurt her or the Twilight phenomenon at this point.
But my dislike of the Twilight series is due to a very specific issue with one of the novels. I’d keep it to myself, but over the years I’ve seen a groundswell of support for the idea that hating these books is anti-feminist. And that’s the kind of thing I can’t—and won’t—let go unchallenged. That’s why I’m finally coming out with this story.
Several years ago, I read the first three Twilight books. I’d seen publications I respected touting the series as the next Harry Potter. And geez, I just love vampires and Harry Potter, so the books would be perfect for me, right?
Wrong. To me, Bella was an insufferable Mary Sue, Edward the vampire was an annoying prat, and I never for a second believed that fifth wheel Jacob posed any actual threat to Bella and Edward’s true love.
I mean, I actually liked Jacob, way more than I liked that stuffy dolt Edward. But then he became a werewolf in the second book and blew that to hell. Human Jacob was a sweet kid, but the werewolves in Meyer’s world are stalkery assholes, and wolfy Jacob had no concept of respecting boundaries. He constantly invaded Bella’s space, trying to get her to kiss him and forcing kisses on her even when she’d haul off and hit him for doing it (and good for her).
And yet the book’s publishers put out lots of “Team Jacob” merchandise along with the “Team Edward” stuff, as if readers were expected to cheer on this kind of behavior. (And yes, I’m aware of the explanation the last book gave for why Jacob fixated on Bella. That whole “imprinting” business is outside the scope of this rant, but trust me: WOO BOY, DOES THAT NOT IMPROVE THINGS.)
Anyhow. I tried to stick with the series in case it got better. Honest. But the third book broke me.
In Eclipse, Jacob overheard that Bella and Edward were engaged, and he became suicidally upset. Bella finally gave in and kissed him, and when she did:
She realized that she’d been in love with Jacob the entire time.
And right there, whatever mental soundtrack I had playing while I was reading the book was interrupted by a long, loud needle scratch.
Oh no. No, no, no, no, no. That is so wrong. So fucked up. I don’t even believe I just read that.
Why did this upset me so much when everything that had preceded this scene merely made me roll my eyes?
Back in college, a guy I barely knew fixated on me. At that time, I was 20 and still woefully inexperienced with men. Jacob (not his real name, of course) was 25, and I got the impression he was even less experienced with women despite the five years he had on me.
Let me say right up front: Jacob was never violent. He never even threatened me. If I had been a more assertive person, this whole thing might never have happened. I know that my story is a little drop of nothing compared to the violent horrors that too many have experienced.
But you need to understand that when it was happening to me, it was terrifying. Nothing that’s happened to me since has frightened me in quite the same way that this man who decided that he was going to be a part of my life whether I wanted it or not frightened me.
We were both part of the same extracurricular activity, and one night during the fall quarter of my senior year, Jacob followed me out of a meeting and started talking my ear off. At first, he seemed funny and smart. He was reasonably attractive, but I wasn’t drawn to him that way at all, not even before I understood what he was.
Friends of mine who knew Jacob tried to warn me about him when he first latched on to me. “Uh, Nicole? That guy’s weird. Really weird.” They couldn’t get more specific than that. I’d already noticed that he was weird and somewhat socially inept, but told myself “Well, so what? I’m weird. I’m socially inept. Who am I to judge?”
I got a better sense of what those friends meant the night I left my apartment and found Jacob lurking in the hallway. The first time that happened, I thought it was kind of cute. Awww, he actually had to stand out there to get up the nerve to come talk to me? Hee.
Well, he kept doing it. And it stopped being cute really fast.
Despite that, I thought he might be fun to hang out with and went over to his house to watch a video with his friends one night, and that was when my alarm bells really started going off. Even though we’d never been on a date and I’d never shown the slightest sign of romantic interest in him, Jacob started talking about taking me somewhere for a weekend. Yeah, no.
Over Christmas break, he sent me several letters (this all took place in the dark ages before text messaging and email), leaving me detailed instructions on where he could be found on certain days if I wanted to call him. I mean really detailed. “I have a part-time job in the afternoons on Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday from 2 to 6, so here’s my number there. I’ll be at my mom’s house from the 15th through the 30th, except for the 23rd when I’ll be at my grandmother’s — and here’s her number if you want to call me there, but we won’t be there until 3 pm so don’t call until then …” I’m not making this up.
Strangely enough, this overbearing approach did not make me want to write or call him, and his last letter was somewhat pissy because I hadn’t been in contact. I admit to not being the world’s best correspondent, but all those letters over one school break creeped me out.
We resumed our odd friendship in January. I didn’t do much to encourage it, but I’d talk to Jacob if he stopped by to visit. One night, he did the “lurk in the hallway” trick and caught me as I was heading out to the library. (Don’t ask me why the fuck he’d knock on my door like a normal person on some nights but lurk in the hallway like a creeper other nights; I don’t know.)
He trailed after me, insisting that I tell him when I was going to be home so he could come over to see me. I didn’t want company that night, but as we walked it became clear that he didn’t really care what I wanted.
Me: “Look, I don’t want to hang out tonight. I’m tired and I have a lot of work to do. I have an early class tomorrow. And a quiz.“
He wasn’t having any of that. “Just for an hour. C’mon. Tell me when you’ll be home.” And he wouldn’t be deterred no matter how many times I said no. He was a stuck record. “C’mon. Just for a little while. C’mon.”
Finally, just to get him to go away, I invented a time when I’d be home. I spent most of that night wandering around town, dropping in on everyone I could think of, wondering if he’d still be lurking outside my apartment when I finally got back. He wasn’t, but he’d left a note telling me how long he’d waited.
Why didn’t I just tell him “I don’t want to see you, now or ever again”?
I don’t know. I think there were a few factors at play.
1. I’m not an assertive person in general and was significantly less so in college, and some people figure that out and take advantage of it: Here’s someone who won’t tell me to piss off if I push too hard.
2. In addition, I had been taught from a very early age that I overreacted to everything and took things way too seriously. Tell someone that enough times and when she’s really in trouble, she’ll be fully-trained to dismiss what her intuition is trying to tell her. “Oh there you go, making a big deal out of everything AGAIN. He likes you, and he obviously hasn’t had much experience with women so he doesn’t know how to act. Stop turning everything into such a crisis!” I don’t remember if people were using the term “drama queen” in the late 80s, but if it was around, I’d definitely have been calling myself that.
3. And just in case Jacob really was a socially inept but harmless nerd, I didn’t want to be mean to him or hurt his feelings. I kept giving him the benefit of the doubt. Never mind that he was starting to scare me.
When he didn’t stop the intrusive behavior, I tried to fight back the only way I knew how: passively. One night when I heard his knock at the door, I just didn’t answer. Screw him. 21 Jump Street (the original Johnny Depp TV show, not the Channing Tatum movie) was on, and I didn’t want him sitting there blabbing through it. I hadn’t invited him over, and hence I had absolutely no obligation to let him in, right?
I hadn’t thought about the fact that I was in a ground-floor apartment. The knocking at the door stopped, and I felt relieved. But a moment later, I happened to glance outside.
Jacob was out on the sidewalk, looking right in at me.
Since he’d seen me see him, I waved him over and made some lame excuse about being in the bathroom when he’d knocked. (Trust me—if you’re reading this and saying “Oh, come ON,” so am I, dear reader. So am I.) From then on, my blinds stayed pulled down.
Which was pointless, because whenever he knocked at the door and I didn’t answer, the next thing I’d hear would be him hammering on my window, and that made my heart leap into my mouth. To this day, sudden loud knocking at the front door can leave me shaking. I’d listen to that loud, insistent knock and hear “I don’t care what you want. I want to see you, and what I want is all that matters.”
Let me be really clear about this: Jacob’s behavior was not exciting. It was not romantic. I was not moved by this show of devotion towards me, not at all. I didn’t give in and renounce my prideful, stubborn ways and realize I’d loved him all along, the way that women in popular media too often do when they’re subjected to this type of pursuit. By now, he was scaring the shit out of me.
Why didn’t I just tell him to leave me the fuck alone? Well, hell: I thought the way I’d ignore his knocks on the door and the window, in addition to my never making any effort to call or visit him, would make my lack of interest in him perfectly clear. I’d given up on guys for far less than that; surely I’d done more than enough for him to get the hint.
But I was wrong. As long as I eventually gave in and opened the door or the window or otherwise acknowledged Jacob’s existence, that was enough fuel for him to keep up this bizarre “relationship.” He didn’t give up for weeks.
Whenever the word “stalking” floated through my head, I thought of Rebecca Schaeffer, an actress who was murdered by a stalker the summer before all this happened. I told myself that because Jacob hadn’t shown up on my doorstep with a gun and indeed had never turned violent, I wasn’t being stalked, so I needed to stop being so melodramatic.
I’m not proud of the way I handled any of this; I’d love to say that I finally had enough and told him to leave me the fuck alone or else I’d call the police and then never saw him again, but that’s not how it happened. Basically, I withdrew. I’d sit in my apartment with the lights out and the blinds drawn. Friends of mine learned to stand outside my door and call out who they were when they came over, or else I wouldn’t answer the door. (Or the window.) I dropped out of the activity we’d both been involved in; I felt bad about letting other people down, but it wasn’t worth risking another Jacob encounter.
Jacob sent me a series of condescending letters mocking me for being so afraid of him. He’d loaned me a pile of books that I’d never wanted in the first place (seriously; I told him “I’ve already read that, you don’t need to lend it—” “Oh no, here, read it again, it’s really good.” Notice a pattern?), and now he wanted them back. As rotten luck would have it, I was in a class with his brother that quarter and Jacob made him ask me about them, although the poor guy sounded embarrassed to be doing it. I snuck over to Jacob’s house very early one morning and dumped his books on the front porch.
Jacob started “just happening” to walk by my classrooms as I was leaving them, but that was a last gasp. He stopped bothering me, and I eventually found out why. Weeks later, he plopped down opposite me in a coffee shop and breathlessly told me all about this amazing woman he’d met and how they’d stayed up all night talking. Oh boy, I thought. I felt sorry for this girl, but also thankful that he was obsessing over someone who wasn’t me.
A while after that, I ran into him and his new girlfriend at the grocery store. She made a big point of hanging all over him as he talked to me. I had no idea if she was doing that to send me a message; I wanted to tell her “Trust me, you have absolutely nothing to worry about from me.“
And that was where things ended—in college. As time passed I wondered yet again if I hadn’t overdramatized things. Maybe he really was just a well-meaning oaf who didn’t know how to act around women.
Two years after I graduated, he called me out of the blue one night at my apartment in DC. He was in the area and wanted to know if we could get together.
Ohhhhhh shit fuck goddammit to hell.
Even though I’d talked myself into thinking he wasn’t so bad, I hardly had fond memories of our time together, and I didn’t want to see him. But he’d caught me utterly off-guard and I couldn’t produce a good lie. I agreed to meet him for lunch in a very public, busy, touristy food court; no way in hell was he coming to my place.
At first, Jacob and I actually had a pleasant time catching up, and I wondered yet again if I’d just been too hard on the poor guy. And then he brought up that woman he’d been seeing after he finally detached from me.
They’d moved in together for a time … until she got a restraining order against him and had the police remove him from their home.
He, of course, had no idea why she’d done that. But I did. If he’d behaved so inappropriately with me when we were never even a couple, I hated to think what he must have been like when a woman he’d actually been involved with decided to break it off.
As he told me all this, I felt like the floor was dropping out from under me. His girlfriend had thrown him out and called the cops on him and now he knew where I lived and had my number and I’d been right about him all along goddammit and why the hell had I allowed this to happen? Why the hell hadn’t I listened to myself?
Outwardly, I did my best to remain calm. We parted ways and as I left, I resolved to never, ever, ever answer his phone calls or respond to him in any way again, and I wasn’t going to give a fuck if it offended him or hurt his feelings. He has not tried to contact me again that I know of, so my newfound bravery came too late to make any difference.
Years after all this happened, I picked up a paperback in the bookstore: The Gift of Fear, by Gavin de Becker. I ended up devouring the entire book in one sitting.
I cannot tell you how much I wish I’d had this book back in college. Finally, a professional with a wealth of experience in these kinds of situations was verifying what I’d always known on some level but kept talking myself out of believing: No, that was not normal behavior. You were not a drama queen. You’d had guys you weren’t interested in pursue you before Jacob did, but they didn’t scare you like that; you were right that something about him was off. You were right to be alarmed.
It’s OK to trust yourself.
If only I’d had that book back in college, I might have better understood the mindset I was dealing with and found the strength to tell Jacob to get lost well before things escalated.
Anyhow, that’s it. I had plenty of other issues with the books, but after the Jacob/Bella storyline in Eclipse, I was done giving that series my money. I know Twilight is far from the first bit of pop culture to reward a male character for relentlessly pursuing a woman no matter how many times she turns him down until she gives in and returns his “love”, and it certainly won’t be the last. And in all honesty, there were times when I’d get caught up in stories like that. That particular trope was a staple of the afternoon soaps I grew up watching; no wonder I didn’t know how to handle it when it happened to me in real life.
But that was in the 80s, and dear God, am I tired of seeing this kind of thing presented as acceptable—even romantic—behavior, particularly in media that’s marketed to teenage girls. It’s the 21st century; we should all know better by now. In the last few years I’ve finally started seeing some serious pushback against narratives like this, which heartens me a bit. It isn’t even just that I think it sends a horrible message (though it does); it’s that I’ve lived through something like this, it’s the opposite of romantic, and portraying it as if it’s an acceptable way to court someone is incredibly irresponsible.
And yet some would maintain that I’m a bad feminist for objecting to storylines where the woman is relentlessly pursued by a man until she gives in and accepts that what he’s been doing to her is somehow true love.