The girlie-wolf—good for nothing: Twilight and the Anti-Feminist She-Wolf
by Stephanie Gallon
Abstract: [page 24] Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight saga has been an international phenomenon, yielding much debate about the agency of the heroine. Though a minor character, Leah Clearwater is a character worth studying and an ideal lens through which to examine the series, as she occupies a unique space within the world and narrative: she is the only she-wolf in the Quileute pack. This essay argues that an analytical focus on Leah Clearwater reveals that the Twilight saga, by cultural and authorial definitions, fails as a feminist piece.
Keywords: Gothic, female werewolf, feminist post-colonialism, Twilight
It has only recently become popular to pit werewolves against vampires. In the folkloric tradition, they were interchangeable, sharing much of their origins and crossovers with their mythos. When studying their genesis, it becomes apparent that “vampire lore is intermingled with werewolf lore,” with vampires turning into wolves and relying on moonlight, or wolves transmitting their curse through bites, a 20th-century addition to the mythos (Guiley xiii). Brian Frost notes an interesting piece of Eastern European superstition, which states that a “man who had been a werewolf in his life becomes a vampire after death” (14). Despite this close link between the two creatures, this rivalry marks a large cultural shift in Gothic fiction. In an interview with Professor William Hughes, he posits that “[t]he dichotomy between werewolves and vampires is a recent phenomenon because it couldn’t exist when both were creatures to be despised” (Gallon). He credits the new-found conflict to the surge of sympathetic vampire characters and the intimacy that this creates between vampires and humans. In lieu of the predatory vampires that previously dominated Gothic fiction, the werewolf took the mantle of beast, and the battle of vampires versus werewolves began. [page 25]
At the forefront of this trend, capitalizing in a multimedia-spanning phenomenon, is Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight saga. The Twilight saga is a four-book young adult series with related media, and is predominantly a tale of paranormal fantasy and romance between a vampire and a teenage girl. Wolves play no part in the first book in the series, Twilight. From the second book onwards, however, wolves play not only the role of rival and foil to the vampires, but represent a viable second love interest to the protagonist, a young girl named Bella Swan.
The vampires and the wolves are in most respects direct opposites. To take the example of the main vampire, Edward Cullen, and the main wolf character, Jacob Black, they are placed in stark contrast throughout the series. Edward is cold, pale, and European, and is both rich and upper class. Conversely, Jacob is warm, dark-skinned, and Native American. He is poor by comparison, and working class. Edward and Jacob are representatives of their respective families; no one deviates from these set markers. Susannah Clements, in discussing the sterile perfection of Edward, draws a distinction from Jacob, a character “who clearly possesses testosterone—he has all the heat, virility and body hair that Edward doesn’t” (116). They are polar opposites, cast in a fantasy version of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. In this world, Edward is the Edgar Linton character—pale, aristocratic, and gentle, but wholly lacking in fire and passion. Jacob is the virile and othered Heathcliff, who is passionate and dominant but domineering and cruel. Both are racially othered; Heathcliff is a gypsy, and Jacob is Native American. Bella has the choice of both, and ends up with the aristocratic, European Edward.
The wolf of interest in this article, however, is not Jacob; it is Leah Clearwater, another member of the pack. Leah plays a minor role in the Twilight saga and is only a secondary character, but she occupies a unique position. She is the only female werewolf in the pack’s history. Whilst other, more noticeable she-wolves in literature (such as Clemence Housman’s White Fell and Angela Carter’s Wolf-Alice) were emblems of European mythology, Meyer’s background is American, and her wolf is representative of the mythology of her continent. Interestingly, Meyer draws a [page 26] distinction between the Quileute werewolves and traditional werewolves of European folklore, which she names Children of the Moon. Quileute werewolves are “actually shape-shifters who take the form of a wolf,” though those with the genetic potential to shift may never get the ability (Meyer, Joffs, and Byrne-Cristiano 302). Their monstrous puberty is dependent on the number of vampires in the area. As Jacob says, “[i]t’s the reason we exist—because they do” (Meyer, New Moon 309). As the name “Children of the Moon” indicates, Quileute wolves are not bound by full-moon rules, and may shift whenever they choose after their first phasing. The difference is an important one in the series, as it prevents Caius—a member of the vampire coven The Volturi—from declaring war on the Quileute wolves because they are not the true European werewolves. Though Meyer, the surrounding pop culture, and various critics refer to the pack as werewolves, according to the definition set in The Twilight Saga: The Official Illustrated Guide, they are shifters, and will be referred to as Quileute wolves.
The Twilight saga has been a series of contention in regard to its female characters and its place in feminist empowerment. One defender is Mary Ryan, who in “‘Feminists Kick Butt’: Feminism in the Work of Three Urban-Fantasy Authors” outlines an argument for the feminist reclamation of the Twilight saga. While she makes an interesting argument for the vampires, Ryan does not provide a satisfying argument for the Quileute wolves. She admits that “the Twilight saga has earned more of an antifeminist reputation for a number of different aspects, such as its depiction of a male-dominated werewolf pack in which women are largely relegated to a somewhat silenced role” (52). However, she amends at the end of the article that “the once-male-dominated werewolf pack eventually welcomes Leah as the first female werewolf—the first, we can hope, of many,” and, thus, Leah is considered a feminist success (66).
Ryan does not take into account fundamental antifeminist features of Leah’s conception, some gendered and some related to her lupine status. Being a Quileute wolf, Leah, by her very biology, has no free will. Her initial change is dependant not on her readiness, but simply on the condition that the number of vampires near her is too great. After this, she is passive to this new life. [page 27] When her boyfriend of three years, Sam Uley, leaves her for her cousin, Leah is expected to accept this because of this in-world notion of imprinting.
Imprinting is a bond in which a Quileute wolf becomes “unconditionally tied to a human of the opposite sex” (Meyer, Joffs, and Byrne-Cristiano 310). Furthermore, “the werewolf automatically becomes whatever the human wants him to be, at the loss of his personal free will” (311). In cases where the human is significantly younger—as is the case with Jacob and the Cullen daughter Renesmee—the relationship is platonic and protective, not sexual. Regardless of this, it is made clear that previous relationships do not matter, and just as Jacob instantaneously resolves his feelings for Bella in favor of Renesmee, Sam breaks up with Leah in favor of her cousin, Emily. This is a phenomenon that the Quileute wolves have no influence over. Whether they wish to imprint or not is irrelevant, and this kind of romance does not exist outside the pack. Bella looks upon the imprinting of the two year-old Claire by the Quileute wolf Quil as something fascinating, though she understands why some may be revolted, and is in fact revolted herself when it is her own baby being imprinted upon. While the pack is aware of how it may seem, its members regardless do not try to resist it when it happens, and it is this “indifference to social sanction [that] makes it exotic, foreign, and inferior in the vampires’ eyes” (Borgia 169). In other words, this apathy to public appearances is new and also lesser.
Leah’s first phasing leaves her burdened with guilt and responsible for a sudden shift in her family dynamic. Leah was experiencing mood swings, and during a confrontation with her parents, she “exploded in to a werewolf” (Meyer, Joffs, and Byrne-Cristiano 332). The temper of wolves is a recorded phenomenon in lycanthropic literature. One of the outlined tropes of werewolf characters is their “terrible fury” (Creed 126). This focus on mood swings links to Leah’s oncoming puberty, where mood swings are commonplace and expected. The sudden phasing is not. Her father was prepared for Seth, her younger brother, potentially phasing, but Leah’s position as the first female Quileute wolf catches him off-guard, and the shock results in his heart attack. The pandemonium then causes Seth to experience his first phasing, far [page 28] younger than is expected. In a matter of moments, her world shifts from a traditional nuclear family to suddenly being the monstrous daughter of a single mother, and her last words to her father were words of anger. The weight of this is not felt by Seth; Leah must shoulder the guilt alone.
Leah forfeits her free will from that moment on. Not only must she accept the relationship and upcoming nuptials between her ex and her cousin—a union which she is forced not only to bless but to be a part of as the bridesmaid in the wedding ceremony—but she must also accept that her thoughts are not private. The thoughts of the Alpha, in this case Sam, mandate the thoughts of the pack, and his will is theirs to carry out, regardless of their own feelings and thoughts. Her every thought is shared in a literal pack mentality, where all hear the thoughts of the one. Her only female space, her mind, is constantly available to her male pack brothers, and there is nothing that she can do to save her privacy. This is what drives Leah to join Jacob in his new pack: to make it so that her thoughts are not accessible to Sam anymore. This does not free her from the pack telepathy, though, and it only signals transference from Sam to Jacob. She has no mental autonomy and must “share her most intimate thoughts with the unsympathetic and, occasionally, cruel males around her” (Priest 142). She is a member of a pack, and a pack that operates with a singular mind. Her gender is a hindrance; it is not an identity.
A noted feature of the Twilight saga is that only Bella seems to be a fertile woman. The three vampire women cannot have children. Esme lost her baby as a human, and this is what drives her to commit suicide. As a vampire, she cannot have children, but as matriarch of the Cullen family, she acts as the adoptive mother for the other vampires. Rosalie is shown to want children, only showing kindness to Bella when she is pregnant. Alice is also unable to have children through virtue of being a vampire. Monstrous women in the Twilight saga are forbidden from having children, and Leah is no exception.
Her menstrual link to lycanthropy is that her transformation forbids her from becoming pregnant. Menstruation and lycanthropy are linked in their symbolism, and Walter Evans highlights this parallel, writing that “the werewolf’s bloody attacks—which occur regularly every month—are certainly related [page 29] to the menstrual cycle which suddenly and mysteriously commands the body of every adolescent girl,” though this argument is not elaborated or expanded upon in his article (357). Menstruation is a compelled event in a young woman’s life, one that she cannot control but only predict after the initial rite. Similarly, after the first time, a werewolf can predict its next transformation but do nothing to stop it. In this way, the werewolf and the woman are related figures, tied by monthly rituals and the spilling of blood.
Leah has complete control over her transformations after her first. In exchange for this control, though, she relinquishes control over her fertility. Leah does not bleed, perpetually stuck at an infertile age, and this is the core of one of her main character conflicts. She calls herself menopausal and frustrated by her fate: “There’s something wrong with me. I don’t have the ability to pass on the gene, apparently, despite my stellar bloodlines. So I become a freak—the girlie-wolf—good for nothing else” (Meyer, Breaking Dawn 318). That she is specifically the girlie-wolf is telling. Her gender is what makes her a freak to the others, and her infertility makes her a freak to herself. Ryan submits the notion that in the werewolf pack, “the sole purpose of women similarly seems to be reproduction” (55). In this case, Leah is not a successful woman to the pack. Upon this assumption of womanhood, Bella is the only woman who has fulfilled her purpose, and the assumption itself is antifeminist, reducing the characters to the state of their biology. Leah degrades her own existence to a “genetic dead end” (Meyer, Breaking Dawn 260) and makes an unlikely connection with another sterile monster, Rosalie. To combat such degradation, third-wave feminist activists have argued that feminism should start “refusing to equate menstruation with womanhood” (Bobel 12).
Though most of the Twilight saga is from Bella’s perspective, parts of Breaking Dawn are told from Jacob’s point of view. The conversation about Leah’s sterility takes place during one of these chapters. It is an interesting juxtaposition, as Bella does not narrate during her pregnancy; her fertility silences her until Renesmee is born. The reader only learns about Leah’s woes because Bella does not share in them; she is allowed to carry a child and take up the mantle of motherhood. It is literally the silence of another woman that allows Leah’s character to be displayed, but only through the [page 30] focal point of a man.
The first introduction to Leah’s personality comes from Edward and Bella discussing the pack. Bella initially feels sympathy towards Leah’s imprinting dilemma, but Edward reacts in a condescending manner: “Edward snorted. ‘She’s making life exceedingly unpleasant for the rest of them. I’m not sure she deserves your sympathy’” (Meyer, Eclipse 276). He calls her “malicious” because she uses the telepathy to hurt the pack (276). She thinks of painful facts that she should not, such as wondering which of her pack brothers has the illegitimate half-brother.
In a way, this is her only mental autonomy. Within the confines of the telepathy, she can only exact revenge on the whole and not the one, and she chooses to do this. It comes at the cost of the respect of her pack brothers, though, and warrants judgement from the outside eyes of Edward, who does not even like the pack. The men in her pack do not like her either, and offer no sympathy or empathy towards her situation. Even Jacob, whom Meyer claims on her website “has become the reliable friend that [Leah has] been needing for quite some time” (“Frequently”), thinks that she “brought it all on herself” (Meyer, Breaking Dawn 211) and offers no sympathy for her situation despite his somewhat similar feelings for Bella.
Leah makes other choices later in the series, such as the choice to leave the pack, but this is the only choice that she makes for mental individuality. The notion of being able to choose is a keystone of feminist theory. “The feminist movement has espoused the idea of choice,” says Jane Bartlett in her discussion of the choice women make in having children (36). Were Leah a free character, she would have freedom of thought and privacy. But as Leah tells Jacob when she aligns herself with his new pack, “My choices are limited. I’m working with the options I’ve got” (Meyer, Breaking Dawn 210). She can only choose the least painful option, an option predetermined and not all that free.
In the hierarchy of the pack, Leah sits at the bottom. Her own father prepared for her younger brother becoming a wolf, never considering that his elder daughter might inherit the shifting abilities. “Werewolves are pack animals, and werewolf men will always sooner or later be drawn into pack politics. The pack’s homosocial community is controlled by its own laws and rules” [page 31] (Lindén 231); thus, Leah does not enter the politics as anything other than Seth’s sister, further indicating that she exists only in relation to the men of her life. She sees herself as a possession. Her argument for staying with Jacob is “I have to belong to someone” (Meyer, Breaking Dawn 210). She abides by these set rules because her body dictates that she must, and thus degrades herself to possession. This choice is not presented in the same way that Seth’s is, as Seth is eager to be a part of the Black pack; she is reluctant, making the best of a bad situation.
The Quileute wolves are Native American and stand in contrast to the vampires. The vampire mythos is European, but with their large home, hip, vegetarian lifestyle, and love of baseball, the Cullen family is the picture of the all-American family. Contrary to this, the pack stands in a less privileged place; its members are poorer, darker skinned, and more animalistic.
The pack’s status as representative of Native Americans has been a subject of much debate. Despite Meyer’s claims of her myths’ authenticity, “representatives of the Quileute Nation have clearly articulated that, although wolves are a part of traditional mythology, there is no mention of werewolves or wolf-based supernatural creatures in Quileute lore” (Siegel 80). This distinction is important to make, especially when discussing the violent tendencies of the Quileute wolf men: “In the werewolf world there is domestic violence. Sam once lost control and tore up the face of his wife Emily. Since then she is heavily scarred. But Emily with the ruined face is still sweet and kind and cooks for all the werewolves” (Lindén 232). The vampires are not portrayed as intentionally abusive. They are more aware of their own strength and temper, and thus are able to control themselves more. Danielle Borgia outlines the differences in portraying abuse between the two species. It is, she writes, ultimately a race issue, and not one of fictional supernatural beings. The vampires as representatives of European culture are written as champions of self-control once they age, or mature. The Quileute wolves are unable to exercise that control. They are “portrayed as largely controlled by their bestial nature,” which both infantilizes the Quileute wolves and provides an excuse for their actions (Borgia 167). Sam may scar his wife, and Jacob may force himself on Bella, but neither faces [page 32] consequences. Emily must understand that Sam cannot control his emotions, and even Charlie Swan, Bella’s father and the town’s sheriff, finds it amusing that Jacob kissed his daughter without her consent. Quileute wolves are not held to the same standards as the vampires because they do not measure up—boys will be boys, and they cannot help that. In fact, “the wolf-men continue to have outbreaks of uncontrollable emotion after they mature” (167), indicating they are not ruled by the restraint and self-awareness that the vampires are, but instead by untethered emotions that dictate when they phase and how they react. The male wolves are volatile, and what this means for the women of the pack is unfortunate: they are subordinate. Emily continues to play the role of wife, and Leah is subjected to the same urges. It is worth noting, however, that Leah never acts upon her desires. Her emotions are not as valid as Sam’s or Jacob’s, even if her heartache is stronger.
Leah is Native American in blood and in appearance. She has “perfect copper skin, shiny black hair and long, thick eyelashes” (Meyer, Joffs, and Byrne-Cristiano 330). In her wolf form, she is “the smallest of the pack,” the literal runt of the litter despite her brother’s youth, though she is endowed with enviable speed because of her size (330). She contrasts greatly with Bella and the vampires, who are varying shades of pale. She is in every respect an Other. These physical differences help to “sustain certain conventional stereotypes about these racial groups by maintaining traditional Western binaries between self and other” (Chappell 29). Her monstrosity is different from and inferior to that of the vampires, and her physicality marks her as different from the humans of Forks and her pack brothers through her size. Despite the claims of critics such as Rhonda Nicol, who say that the Twilight saga creates “a persistent fetishization of female as sex object,” Leah is not a sexualized creature (114). She is beautiful, but her otherness comes not from her sexuality, but from her gender. She is not a love interest for anyone, and no one views her as a sex object, or indeed as a separate entity from the pack. Her identity is part of “an otherwise exclusively male group identity” (141), and she is often collectively referred to as “the pack,” as Bella does when she says “the pack is fascinating” in reference to Leah’s telekinetic predicament with Sam (Eclipse 276). Leah is also not an individual, and she is not sexualized because she is a woman. [page 33]
The sexualization in the series is in fact focused predominantly on the Quileute wolves as a species, with particular mind paid to Jacob. He is the object of lust for Bella’s eye when Edward leaves her, and he is endowed with “the sexiness and physical superiority attributed to the nonwhite exotic other,” which make him both alluring to Bella and, by extension, the audience, and threatening to Edward (Willms 149). Siegel highlights that Jacob—like Taylor Lautner, the actor who portrays him, in the media surrounding the release of the film—is fetishized for his masculinity, especially in comparison to non-Quileute characters. This is explained as a matter of audience: “the fan base for the Twilight series is predominantly female, perhaps because Meyer’s books are often viewed as romances, a genre that has traditionally appealed almost exclusively to girls and women” (Ryan 51). Because it is a heterosexual romance for a female audience, the male characters are the fetishized characters, with particular mind paid to the bestial and animalistic appeal of the Quileute wolves. In a rare chapter from Jacob’s perspective, he narrates that the “primitive core of my wolf-self tensed for the battle of supremacy” (Meyer, Breaking Dawn 211). He is primitive and he is pure animal strength. His soul is purely wolf and is ready for battle, and “this innate ‘primitivity’ often overrides the Native American werewolves’ conscious attempts to exercise their free will that is championed as such a virtue through the character of Edward” (Borgia 168). The Quileute characters are inherently inferior to the vampires because they cannot exist as autonomous creatures. They can only make predetermined choices, and must conform to the choices of one strong mind.
Leah is not a man of the tribe, so she is not objectified in the same way. Though she too is naked upon returning to her human form, which is “a sign of inferiority in colonial eyes,” the narrative has no interest in describing her or her reactions to this exposure (168). Her sexuality and bare form are shameful and disregarded, while her male companions are objectified for their exotic beauty. It may be the “perspective of the male, particularly of Edward Cullen, that is prioritized” in the Twilight saga, but when it comes to the Quileute wolves, Leah is of little interest because she is not a muscular, naked, non-white man (Ryan 51). She suffers from the [page 34] same primitivism and the same animal instincts that they do, but she is of little interest because she is not a sexual object.
At the end of the series, Jacob has established his own pack as the rightful Alpha, and he names Leah his Alpha Second, or his second-in-command. Unlike the vampire and human women of the series, she is given a role of authority. However, like the vampires, her role is not outside the surrogate and literal family of the pack, and she remains subservient to a male leader. Her role, while military in the form of its ranking, is comparable to the role of a mother, like the role of Esme in the Cullen family. Georgina Ledvinka makes note that “the Native American werewolves are blessed with family bonds that are very strong, and this is how Meyer upsets the surface privilege hierarchy in Twilight” (209). However, this is only a surface analysis of a small section of the Quileute pack. She references that Jacob has a strong bond with his father, but does not reference that he potentially has a half-brother whom he does not welcome as family. This is the problem with the familial bonds in the pack: they are surface only. Family in the Twilight saga transcends blood, shown in the surrogate family of the Cullens and in Bella’s own willingness to leave her mother in the beginning of the series and her father at the end in order to be a member of this new family. The Quileute wolves do not have this luxury, and thus they remain at the bottom of the hierarchy, upsetting nothing in Meyer’s world. Leah may feel strongly protective over Seth, following him to a new tribe so that he does not become a “vampire chew toy,” but even this is a façade that she later admits to be a false reason (Meyer, Breaking Dawn 209). The bonds that she is meant to feel for the others in her pack, her wolf family, are weak, and even Jacob dislikes her, despite her position in his pack. They may be referred to as brothers, but she is with them out of necessity, and she sacrifices her own feelings about these people for the good of the pack.
Sacrifice may well be in her blood. A final and minor character worth noting in the series is not a traditional character, but a piece of fictional history, told as a campfire story during the events of Eclipse. The blood feud between vampires and werewolves has an origin, and its origin starts with the sacrifice of a woman. The third wife of Taha Aki is never given a name, but is instead remembered for her actions. When her husband is attacked, she stabs herself in [page 35] the chest in order to distract a vampire known only as the Cold Woman so that he may kill her and save their family. Her sacrifice is mourned by Taha Aki, and it causes her sons to go through their first phasing. She is, in many respects, the mother of the Quileute tribe, and Gaiane Hanser equates this with a “Quileute variation of the angel of the house”—one whose role is maternal and obedient (131). She was not a Quileute wolf, but her sacrifice is felt by Leah’s pack. Leah echoes her in some respect: she is a woman of the pack, who sacrifices her life in a metaphoric sense. It is not her survival that she sacrifices, but her happiness and autonomy. While the men are allowed to prosper with mates and children, Leah is left alone with her duties and status as the only woman in the pack.
It could have easily been a different way. Studies of colonialization and Native tribes have noted that “many Native American tribes were matriarchal” and “understood gender in egalitarian terms rather than in the terms of subordination that Eurocentered capitalism imposed” upon tribes (Lugones 7). Leah could have been one of many women in her tribe. She could have been an equal. Instead, she is relegated to “the girlie-wolf” and nothing more.
Ultimately, Meyer’s definition of feminism does not depend on notions of equality or of justice. When asked on her site if she considered Bella an antifeminist hero, Meyer claimed, “In my own opinion (key word), the foundation of feminism is this: being able to choose. The core of anti-feminism is, conversely, telling a woman she can’t do something solely because she’s a woman—taking any choice away from her specifically because of her gender” (“Frequently”). By Meyer’s own definition, Bella may be considered a feminist character, but no other woman can, especially not Leah. Leah constantly has choices taken from her, and most of them are gendered and never addressed as anything other than a necessary part of being a Quileute wolf. In this way, Meyer has written an antifeminist rhetoric embodied in her she-wolf.
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MLA citation (print):
Gallon, Stephanie. "The girlie-wolf—good for nothing: Twilight and the Anti-Feminist She-Wolf." Supernatural Studies, vol. 4, no. 1, 2017, pp. 24-36.