What’ll you learn? Well, not just about Twilight, not just how our culture thinks, not just how many women think & how trends are changing — there’s even more here. It’s juicy. (And yes, there’s a point or two in here that I — <gasp!> — don’t agree with, maybe we’ll get into in the comments )
Why Twilight Is Not Just Bad, But Dangerous
Disclaimer: I’m basing this article more on having watched the films (All four of them. Twice.) than the novels. I read the first one, and am reasonably confident that the films are faithful to the source material, at least as far as the issues I’m presenting here are concerned. The fourth film has not been released yet, and as I’ve not read Breaking Dawn in its entirety, I am referring to reviews and commentary.
Unless you’ve been living under some kind of rock for the last 7 years, you’ve heard of the Twilight Saga; the novels and films about a young woman and her supernatural suitors.
Undoubtedly the novels and films are popular – popular beyond belief, among teen girls (and younger) and a somewhat surprising mix of other groups. There are some good reasons for that.
Supernatural creatures like vampires and werewolves inherently capture the imagination, and there are rich histories surrounding these mythical creatures. (The whole first nations/werewolves/ imperialism thing is deeply problematic, but is not my focus here.)
Romance, while not a genre I like personally, gives a lot of pleasure to a lot of people, which is a great thing. And the books and movies do capture the feelings of overwhelming emotional intensity I think we can all remember from our teen years.
Turning the archetype of vampires on its head can be annoying to some people, but I don’t think that anyone would question the right of an author to alter myths to suit the worlds and stories they create.
Escapist fiction, where you can easily super-impose yourself over the characters can be fun and exciting.
Even terribly written fiction has its value; this is the story, after all that brings you a hero that once “lay perfectly still in the grass, his shirt open over his sculpted, incandescent chest, his scintillating arms bare," who says things like: "Sleep, my Bella. Dream happy dreams. You are the only one who has ever touched my heart. It will always be yours. Sleep, my only love." Read it out loud. It’s hilarious.
So none of those things are the problem I have with Twilight.
The problem I have with Twilight is that it not just normalizes, but glamourizes abusive relationships, misogyny, archaic, damaging versions of femininity and the demonization of sexuality.
And that isn’t okay for anyone of any age.
Let’s start by having a wee look at hero number one – the sparkly blood-sucker known as Edward Cullen. Here’s how “one of modern fiction’s best candidates for a restraining order” treats the woman he is, supposedly, in love with:
- He stalks her,
- breaks into her home,
- physically moves her when he doesn’t want her somewhere,
- makes decisions for her,
- doesn’t solicit her opinion, and when she offers it, shuts her down,
- threatens her,
- exposes her to dangerous environments, where she is frequently badly hurt,
- controls her activities and relationships,
- reacts with horror and revulsion to her sexuality (more on this later),
- (until he) coerces her into marriage.
All of which we’re supposed to consider proofs of his great love.
Ladies and gentlemen, I ask you: is that what you would want for your child? Is that what you want them to consider normal, or romantic?
Moving on to love interest number two, the First Nations werewolf, Jacob Black. I’m not going to get into the troubling racist issues here, but they are well worth looking into if you or someone you know is interested in the series. (Here’s a place to start, and there is plenty more out there.)
So, as a love interest, how does Jacob stack up?
At first glance, a little better. They have some shared history, actually talk and do a few things together before going all moon-eyed, and Jacob occasionally asks Bella a question about what she thinks or feels. He also manages to swallow his possessive rage enough to resentfully acknowledge that it might possibly be a good thing if she makes up her own mind.
Sadly, that’s where the good times end.
Jacob is as intent on possessing Bella as Edward, and a little bit more inclined to violence. Convinced that she’s in love with him (or could be, despite her repeated assertions to the contrary) he assaults her, knowing that she lacks the strength to stop him.
And, of course, yet again there’s another person telling this young girl that he’s dangerous but she should be with him anyway. Need an example? Just look at the leader of his pack who brutally mutilated his fiancée in a fit of rage. What a role model.
Towards the end of the series, when Bella is no longer a romantic option, he goes for the next best thing – her infant daughter, imprinting upon her, a process that essentially makes a powerful, independent being the [fill-in-the-blank] slave of the imprintee. Now we’ll never, ever have to worry that Baby will end up single! Every parent’s dream, I’m sure.
So those are the magical hunks.
It’s time to look a little bit into the meat of all this, the protagonist: clumsy but loveable Bella Swan.
The argument has been made with some degree of success that Bella is an incredibly strong character in terms of narrative. I agree. Everything that she wants, one way or another – she gets. The entire plot is driven by her various desires. In a very interesting article, about the feminist implications of the saga, Sarah Seltzer writes:
“There’s a reason teenage girls are obsessed with this story, after all, and it’s not because they’re shallow consumers of pop trash: over the course of four books and five movies, Bella’s needs, wants and impulses are by the strongest power manifested–stronger than the vampires and werewolves combined. Her inmost wishes are the steady heartbeat that propels the action forward to an absurd degree.”
So it falls to me to examine what she wants, and how her desire is enforced.
What does Bella want? She wants to be with Edward, she wants to become a vampire, she wants to carry her pregnancy to term. Okay, no real problems here; nothing particularly ground-breaking, but nothing particularly offensive on its face. One woman writes: “Bella’s desires are not revolutionary, they are the desires of a person trying to get the most power they can within an unjust system.”
So let’s look at things a little more closely.
She wants to be with Edward although he’s, as I discussed earlier, an absolutely abominable person. And she wants to be with Edward to a really scary extent. Causing her parents worry and pain, completely ignoring and taking for granted her other friends, losing interest in school and activities, completely forgoing further education, or anything other than being with Edward. Any aspects to her personality that might have been developed within the series are completely blacked out by her obsession with getting to be with the vamp prince now. The message this sends is very clear: nothing is as important as your romantic interest in someone. Everything else is insignificant.
When Edward leaves is when it really becomes dark. Months of depression, risky behavior, social isolation, suicide attempts. Which is a totally rational reaction to being dumped, right? Take note, parents: next time your child has relationship trouble, give them the keys to a motorcycle and directions to the nearest cliff. It’s one thing to express the pain you feel at a major emotional event in your life – and it can totally feel like the end of the world when (especially your first) love ends – but the kind of behavior Bella exhibited isn’t romantic longing. It’s dangerous, unhealthy obsession.
She also wants to have sex with him. Unsurprising – mid-late teen years are, I’m sure you remember, a time for exploring and experimenting – or at least wanting to! But that’s not going to happen in this series. Oh no. Eventually she gets to, but at a pretty hefty cost. More on this below.
She wants to be a Vampire. This is an interesting one. She wants the same power that Edward and his family have – she wants to be strong and fast and immortal. Of course she does! As a “normal” girl she gets pushed around, beaten up, stalked and sexually assaulted. And if she doesn’t become a vampire, she’s going to get older. Since Edward is trapped in the body of a seventeen year old, this idea is simply appalling. Women shouldn’t be old! It’s disgusting. Particularly if their partner looks younger then them, despite an 80-odd year age gap.
She wants to carry her pregnancy to term. The pregnancy that advances at an unprecedented rate, destroys her health, has an unknown outcome and eventually kills her. In the same situation, I’d encourage anyone to seek termination, but Bella didn’t, despite the warnings from a doctor and the pressures of her family. Her body, her choice – so that’s all good. There are aspects of it that I think are incredibly negative, and I’ll get to those in the next section.
So how does she get these things that she wants?
Mostly through deception. Every relationship Bella is shown to have is based on, or at least initiated with subterfuge and lies. Bella is never open about what she feels or why, instead, getting what she wants through deception. From lying about why she doesn’t want to go to a dance, to sneaking out of her father’s home to run away. Bella never expresses her desires in straight terms, finding it better, I suppose, to maintain illusions of being the perfect daughter, or unassuming female than actually speaking her mind.
If she’s not deceiving her way into what she wants – she’s suffering for it:
Lover leaves? Torture yourself till he comes back.
Want to have sex? Give up your hopes, dreams, family and future to wed at 18.
Want to have a baby? Grow emaciated and resort to cannibalism. (Bella drinks human blood to nourish the fetus and regain some strength.)
Want to become a vampire? Prove your worth first through a debilitating pregnancy and birth ending in mutilation and death.
The Sex and its Consequences
When I was consuming the saga, after I got over my revulsion at the abuse = love motif, I was greatly bothered by the treatment of sex and sexuality.
To sum it up quickly: Sex is bad, and women wanting to have sex are worse.
Bella, being a healthy (at least physically) young woman wants to have sex with her partner. Her partner will have none of that slutty bullshit. “No sex before marriage, miss! Because I love and respect you, and come from a different time. Remember when women were property and value was measured with virginity? Yeah, back then, so down girl.”
To be fair, human-on-vampire sex is painted as very dangerous, so dangerous that it’s too unsafe to contemplate. Unless you’re married. Even if it’s still human/vampire sex. I don’t understand this at all, but apparently it totally makes a difference.
So they get married, and run off to a Brazillian Island, where newly-wed sex leaves Bella happy, and bruised.
This is a dangerous pregnancy that defies nature as known for humans and absolutely wastes her body, and, as she is frequently told, could cost her life. Scary, unsought pregnancies are pretty common in our media culture, and they’re usually played out in about the same way. Briefly – when a woman is made pregnant as a plot device she’s being reduced to her biological functions as a means to carry the story forward, and her personhood is overlooked or diminished. There are lots of reasons this is troubling, and the person who explains it best is, I think Anita Sarkeesian. Here’s her video on “Mystical Pregnancy.”
So, in any case, Bella decides to try and keep the baby, and while many reading or watching think this is monumentally stupid, that’s her call (or the author’s, anyway) to make.
And it actually turns out really well for her, because after the emaciation, pain, broken bones, cannibalism, surgery while conscious, and mutilation after – she delivers a healthy baby and proves her worth as a female, earning herself a reward. In this case, being turned into a vampire by her husband .
Did you get all that?
- The ideal man owns you, or wants to.
- Sex before marriage will kill you (or as good as).
- Sex after marriage (if you desire it) is dangerous, and the consequences are dire.
- The life of your fetus comes first, no matter the risk to yourself.
- Female power comes through men.
Researching and writing this, I started to think “who could possibly be responsible for this? What kind of person comes up with this?” A woman named Stephenie Meyer.
Even after seeing the films and reading one of the books, I didn’t think that Stephenie Meyer, and the directors/producers/actors/whoever deliberately set out to create something so offensive to women (and people who don’t hate women).
I thought it was probably a touch of ignorance coupled with a whole lot of laziness, and I still think that, at least about the team responsible for making the movies.
But Stephenie Meyer is a slightly different story. I think that she genuinely wanted to create a strong feminist character, but that her idea of what that means is so terribly warped that the execution was positively regressive.
You see, Ms. Meyer is a member of a very, very conservative church, known for having quite firm ideas about the distinct roles of men and women and, shall we say, restrictive attitudes towards sex. She has been quoted as saying that while she did not consciously inject her religious views into her work, it is likely that her work is shaped by her values. (Which is, of course, completely fair – all writing is shaped, in one way or another, by the values and beliefs of the author.)
Now, I never wanted to get into issues of religion with this piece, at least not in a pointing-fingers kind of way, and I’m not going to do it now. Simply put, what we believe in our real lives influences the work we create. That Twilight is misogynist and anti-sex is undeniable – what that says about the author and the world she (and we) live in I’ll leave for you to decide.
The Entertainment Machine
I can say, however, that the movie and marketing and publishing machine that took an abhorrent story of abuse and misogyny and made it a household name should be well and truly ashamed of themselves. Don’t get me wrong, I am not advocating censorship, people should be allowed to tell pretty much any story they want to, but I also think that we all have a responsibility for what we say and who we say it to. And telling young girls and women (not to mention young men!) that their sexuality is evil, that true love means effacement of self, and abusive behavior is acceptable in relationships is wrong. Billions of dollars earned in the box office don’t make it okay.
In my more optimistic moments, I like to believe that there has been a change below sea level in how women are seen onscreen and in real life. And I think that to some extent this is true. Certainly there are more female characters who demonstrate qualities I’m happy to look up to, and set as role models for the younger generation.
I think of Hermione from Harry Potter – smart and brave and loyal.
I think of Katniss from the Hunger Games – troubled and dedicated and powerful.
I think of Lyra from the His Dark Materials – creative and bright and determined.
And mostly, I think of another young woman who dealt with Vampires on a day-to-day basis. Buffy.
Buffy was the embodiment of a positive female lead; powerful, loving, brave, funny, questioning and flawed. Buffy didn’t always win – but she always tried again. Buffy fell in and out of love and had diverse relationships with family, friends and lovers; she struggled to discover and maintain her sense of self, tried to live up to her responsibilities and generally, be a good person.
In short – she was a whole person, with interests and skills, successes and failures, shining moments, and moments to be ashamed of.
So when I was pouring over Edward and Bella, I kept thinking: “What would Buffy do?”
Somebody got there first. (Thank you internet!)
This is critic’s (absolutely spot-on) imagining of what Twilight would have been like if the heroine were Buffy instead of Bella:
What’s interesting about this video is that it demonstrates the stark contrast between the attitudes and actions of two very prominent female characters. What changed in the years between the end of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the beginning of Bella the Vampire Wannabe? What does it mean for people who look (consciously or not) to media for examples?
I grew up with Buffy. I watched her struggle with her emotions, develop relationships, overcome obstacles, grow as a person and kick ass on a daily basis. While I certainly don’t credit a television series with the entirety of my growth and development as a human being – the lessons and ideas that I absorbed from it did contribute to the shaping my view of the world, and the possibilities for my role within it.
My little cousins, among a legion of young people are growing up with Bella, watching her be abused, behave abominably to her family and friends, and efface herself totally to her romantic interest before finally giving up her personhood altogether to be with her partner. I can only hope that the children idolizing the Twilight empire have other stories to which they give equal or greater weight.
As consumers of media, we have the right, and I believe also, the obligation to demand that we’re given strong, independent, creative and otherwise admirable women to watch and adore. Women who are whole people and that have feelings and interests and passions and skills outside of their gender and their relationships to men.
Of course, the solution is not to ban or banish the Twilight franchise. I don’t imagine there’s anything that would make a 14 year old MORE inclined to read it. But I think it’s absolutely vital that there be discussion and communication about the messages that this book is delivering.
What happens someday when the girl who loved Twilight as a 12 year old starts dating? If she has the misfortune to start seeing a boy who threatens or tries to control her, is her reaction going to be “ummm, hell no!” or “wow, he really cares about me.”
Stories have a huge impact on how we see the world, and I think that children (because remember, this book is marketed to children, although the readers span a broad demographic) need to see myth and magic and relationships and love and pain and terror – being exposed to those feelings and ideas in stories helps us handle them in real life.
But there is nothing good when a young girl internalizes that no means yes and stalking means I love you, or that an appropriate, even noble reaction to the end of a relationship is months of depression, night terrors and stupid, life endangering risk taking.
When we let this kind of thing go by, when we brush it off as “just a teen craze,” we’re doing a grave disservice to ourselves and to the young people who we want to grow up into happy, healthy people.
Not convinced? Visit Twilight fan board and look into the comments. People are obsessed, refusing to date at all because they can’t find someone enough “like Edward.” Comments about how he’s so strong and romantic, how this is really what true love must be like.
As a feminist, it offends me. As a future parent, it horrifies me. As a woman, it disgusts me. As a proponent of sex-positivity, it saddens me.
Normalizing abuse in popular media does just that – makes it seem normal. And when we tolerate it, when we let it go by without comment– that’s tacit approval.
So, Ryze readers, congratulations if you’ve made it this far. I’ve said my say, and now I’d love to hear what you think. What do you think of Bella as a role model? Do you think characters in books, movies and television influence people? Do you think I’ve got the whole thing complete wrong? Let’s talk.
|MEGAN DOUGHERTY is a writer, blogger and marketer working out of of Montreal, Quebec. When not helping out at Firepole Marketing, Megan plays board games with her husband, watches Doctor Who with her cats, and writes letters to her Member of Parliament. Always interested in a discussion, Megan will be watching the comments for questions, criticisms, ideas and counterarguments. You can find out more about her over at Megan-Dougherty.com.|