The Twilight franchise has become too pervasive to be ignored. When something becomes this popular, one has to wonder what effect it is having on the collective psyche of its target audience — in this case, adolescent girls. As I read the books I became increasingly annoyed, for some reason that I could not exactly put my finger on. Bella had low self-esteem, Edward showed obvious signs of being an abusive boyfriend — but it went beyond that.
The problem I have with Twilight is not the deep-seated neuroses of the protagonist and her immortal beau, but rather the way those neuroses are presented to the would-be middle reader as reasonable mindsets (given supernatural circumstances, of course). Vampirism and mystical forces become the vehicle (or excuse?) for Bella’s subjugation, and this idea of “blood lust” creates an atmosphere that presents relational abuse in an acceptable manner.
Pop culture has unquestioningly embraced this Edward Cullen, the beautiful 100+ year-old vampire and his child-bride Bella, when they never would have accepted situations with comparable perversity and less glamor. Let’s say that instead of a vampire, Bella met an incredibly attractive, older sociopath, pedophile, or ex-serial killer, also trying to control his “blood lust” — would Twilight, then, be considered an age-appropriate novel for adolescent females? If Edward warned Bella, every time she kissed him a bit too heartily, “Be careful, dear — you’re arousing my desire to choke you to death” — would he be nearly so charming? He wouldn’t — but vampire Edward is no less dangerous, no less violent than a convicted rapist or serial killer on parole from prison. Lev Grossman of Time Magazine writes, “It’s never quite clear whether Edward wants to sleep with Bella or rip her throat out or both.”
And Meyer makes this clear, that their relationship is a dangerous one. However, she is more deceptive about presenting the “positive” aspects of their relationship; Edward’s paranoia and controlling behavior is explained as a protective aspect of his “love,” actions that hurt Bella and counteract her wishes are done, of course, for her own “good.” He makes decisions about who she spends her time with, where she goes to college, and most disturbingly — when and how her ultimate destiny is carried out.
Bella’s “choice” of whether or not she wants Edward to make her a vampire is linked with marriage: she can become a powerful creature, but only of course if she promises to be with Edward for all eternity. I am disturbed at this picture of “love” that Meyer is showing to young girls, a love predicated on domination and ultimately consummated by death.
Meyer, in response to criticism that Bella was an anti-feminist heroine, offered the following argument on her blog (which you can read in full here):
“…I never meant for her fictional choices to be a model for anyone else’s real life choices. She is a character in a story, nothing more or less. On top of that, this is not even realistic fiction, it’s a fantasy with vampires and werewolves, so no one could ever make her exact choices. …[S]he’s in a situation that none of us has ever been in, because she lives in a fantasy world…
“…Bella is constrained by fantastic circumstances that I never had to deal with. The person she loves is physically seventeen, and he’s not going to change. If she and he are going to be on a healthy relationship footing, she can’t age too far beyond him… For Bella, [being a vampire] was what she really wanted for her life, and it wasn’t a phase she was going to grow out of.”
Aside from the general immaturity of this (the implication that relationship footing is based on how youthful each person is, physically; that Bella could possibly know what she wanted for the rest of her existence at 18), Meyer seems to be side-stepping the issue of Twilight’s anti-feminist aspects with the blanket excuse of “it’s fantasy.” Fantastical circumstances do not render moral and feminist questions as irrelevant; in fact, all vampirism changes is the mode in which Edward has more control over Bella. It is still misogyny, just wrapped in a sparkling package of immortality.
Finally, Meyer doesn’t seem to be concerned about what effects her writing may be having on an entire generation of young women. Leonard Sax of the Washington Post, in his article ” ‘Twilight Sinks Its Teeth Into Feminism,” wrote: “Consider: The fascination that romance holds for many girls is not a mere social construct; it derives from something deeper. [Girls] are hungry for books that reflect that sensibility.” It is my concern that the Twilight Saga takes this issue that is so significant for young women, love — and leads it in a disturbingly unhealthy direction.
I hope parents of daughters (or sons, for that matter) who read Stephenie Meyer’s books will take the time to consider these issues.