Monday, August 31, 2009

The Real Trouble with Twilight

By Karen J. Ohlson for Talking Writing

Vampires, shmampires – let’s talk about bad boyfriends…

In three years of being in a mother-daughter book group, I’ve never seen our group of girls (now 12 and 13 years old) react as strongly to a book suggestion as they did to the idea of reading Twilight in our group.

“No way!” said one girl, all but holding up a garlic bulb to fend the book away.

Another argued we should read it, “so you can help me spread the word about why it sucks.”

“I actually thought it was pretty good,” a third girl protested.

No one really wanted to champion it, though; it’s the kind of book a sophisticated middle-school-age reader – or her Mom – might feel a bit self-conscious carrying around. But after my daughter finally agreed to read the copy pressed on her by an insistent friend (“You have to read it. You just have to!”), I decided it was time to crack the spine of Stephanie Meyer’s multi-million-selling vampire-thriller-swoonfest and find out for myself. Would I find it a guilty pleasure? Would I revert to my ten-year-old Harlequin-Romance-devouring self and yearn for hero Edward Cullen’s cold (but oh, so hot!) embrace?

The answer is no. I managed to get through all of Twilight, but the relationship between Bella and Edward was so claustrophobic that I was happy to close the book and make my escape. Even with Meyer bludgeoning me repeatedly with descriptions of Edward’s handsomeness (his face is “dazzling”… “stunning”… “glorious”… with “a set of perfect, ultrawhite teeth” through which he laughs his “soft, enchanting laugh”), I didn’t fall in love with Edward. In fact, I couldn’t stand him. Not for the obvious reason, but because of how he behaves in his relationship with Bella. He’s got some major Bad Boyfriend characteristics — ones I know I’d want my own daughter to see as warning signs.

Let’s take a moment to look at Dear Abby’s “15 Signs of an Abuser” and see how Edward stacks up in Twilight:

1) Pushes for Quick Involvement: Comes on strong, claiming, “I’ve never felt loved like this by anyone.” After trying for some weeks to resist the urge to get involved with Bella – because, as he tells her, “You are exactly my brand of heroin” – Edward can’t stay away: “You are the most important thing to me now. The most important thing to me ever.” And this is from a guy who’s been sentient for more than a hundred years.

2) Jealous: Excessively possessive; calls constantly or visits unexpectedly. How about, “listens in to thoughts of everyone who talks with you (taking advantage of a superpower he has), appears in your room without warning (thanks to his supernatural speed of movement), and watches over you even while you sleep (since he’s awake 24/7)”? Yes, all these are true of Edward’s involvement with Bella. Plus, here’s his reaction to another boy trying to cut in as he and Bella are dancing at the prom: “Edward snarled very quietly.”

3) Controlling. See above. Also, consider the dynamics of the book’s final episode, in which Edward hijacks the dance-hating Bella to the prom against her will: “You’re taking me to the prom!’ I yelled… He pressed his lips together and his eyes narrowed, ‘Don’t be difficult, Bella.”

4) Unrealistic Expectations. Does expecting Bella not to mind round-the-clock supervision count here? How about expecting their relationship to remain at a fever pitch of unconsummated physicality forever? When Bella inquires delicately about someday satisfying the human side of their desire for each other, Edward points out that, “if for one second I wasn’t paying enough attention, I could reach out, meaning to touch your face, and crush your skull by mistake.” Uh, okay. Suggestion withdrawn.

5) Isolation: Tries to cut you off from family and friends… may deprive you of a phone or car. Look at the way Edward whisks Bella away from Angela and Jessica for a private dinner in Port Angeles, the way he beckons her over to eat with him in a secluded corner of the lunchroom, and his insistence on chauffeuring her as often as possible, rather than letting her drive her truck. I know, he can’t be frank about who and what he is in front of other humans. And he needs to protect her, because she’s a “magnet for trouble.” But wait – she survived okay for all the years before she met him. Hmm…

Several of the remaining list items are less applicable – particularly #14 (Past Battering) and #10 ( “Playful” Use of Force During Sex), since Edward has no relationship history and won’t consummate his relationship with Bella until the end of the series. Three more items are worth highlighting, though:

9) Cruelty to Animals or Children. Sure, Edward resists his desire to prey on humans, but the wild animals in his vicinity don’t get off so easy. Here’s his response when Bella asks how a person hunts bears without weapons: “Oh, we have weapons.’ He flashed his bright teeth in a brief, threatening smile… ‘Just not the kind they consider when writing hunting laws.”

13) Sudden Mood Swings. Trying to track the mood swings in Bella’s and Edward’s initial interactions could make a person dizzy. The morning after he uses his superpowers to rescue her from a car accident, Edward greets her calmly, speaking in a “velvet, muted” voice. He responds with amusement to Bella’s persistent questions about what happened the day before, but then his “tawny eyes” flash with anger and he speaks coldly. Yet, moments later he’s chuckling, “seem[ing] to have recovered his good humor.” It’s no wonder Bella then asks, “Do you have a multiple personality disorder?”

15) Threats of Violence. Edward doesn’t try to get his way with Bella by threatening violence – he devotes himself to protecting her and trying to keep her out of harm’s way. But he does warn her constantly of how dangerous he is: “Sometimes I have a problem with my temper, Bella.” (He says this in a whisper, with “his eyes narrowed into slits.”)

Do I really think Edward is an abuser? No – mainly because he’s a fictional character (as I’m reminded all too often by the jarring, stagey words Meyer uses to describe his actions; I haven’t seen this many snickers, smirks, snarls, and chuckles since my days as a Nancy Drew reader). Meyer clearly intends him to be a romantic hero, so we know he’d never hurt Bella – not intentionally, anyway. And to me, this is the real trouble with Twilight: the glamorization, not of vampirism, but of stalking, controlling boyfriends with hair-trigger tempers.

Bella gets to have it both ways: she gets the thrill of a dangerously passionate boyfriend who’s obsessed with his overwhelming desire for her, combined with the security of fictional circumstances that compel Edward to restrain himself and protect her. I can see how this portrayal would be compelling to teenage and pre-teen readers entering the scary world of hormonal urges, as well as to teens and twenty-somethings disillusioned by a culture of casual hook-ups and “friends with benefits.” At least stalkers care.

Which is, of course, the type of thinking that begs for a reality check from Dear Abby.

Now that I think about it, Twilight is a perfect choice for a mother-daughter book group with girls of a certain age, where discussions of literary merit can easily veer into reminiscences of bad boyfriends. Meyer’s writing and her imagination provide plenty of fodder on both counts. My own book group may have vetoed the proposal (we’re nothing if not democratic), but feel free to co-opt the idea for yours – and to bring Dear Abby’s list along when you meet.

And in case you’re wondering whether book two, which introduces nice-guy teen werewolf Jacob as a competing love interest, offers any balance in perspective: hah! The New Moon movie trailer I saw in a theater gave Jacob only about three seconds of screen time, even though he’s in much more of the book than is the temporarily exiled Edward.

But Jacob does star in the most unexpected funny line in the book. It occurs after Bella whispers to Jacob, while “locked in Edward’s eyes,” that she will never give Edward up.

The line? “Jacob made a gagging sound.”

My sentiments exactly.


  1. This is a terrific take on the *Twilight* series and a great tonic to all the swooning out there about hot vampires and "cute" werewolves. They are so endlessly appealing, aren't they? Which leaves us feminists in the ludicrous garlic-slinging role--we're like the fusty professor "experts" in all sorts of hoary movies.

    Because Karen's post was published to my Facebook network, there's a great string of comments there about it, many from young readers. I invite you to search them out by going to the FB page for the Talking Writing blog (I do believe you can get to the comments by clicking on the blog post title there via Facebook Connect.) You can also find the comments on my wall, for those who have access to it.

    So now I want to hear Karen's and other's reaction to the latest young-adult sensation: *The Hunger Games*.

    Can I just say that it's great so many young readers *are* reading, regardless of quality?

  2. This article was well-timed. My daughter (14) really enjoyed the couple of books in the series that she read, and loved the film. I was beginning to get worried since this is quite a change from her usual literature (more Shakespeare, theatre and classics, old and modern). I asked her to read this article and the accompanying comments on Martha's wall. Yesterday, the results of a survey by the NSPCC (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children) were published in the UK concerning teenage girls and the amount of abuse they suffer in relationships with their boyfriends. 1 in 3 suffers some form of sexual abuse in a relationship and 1 in 4 experiences violence.
    The combination of the survey results and this article about Twilight provoked an interesting and necessary discussion about teenage relationships. Regarding Twilight itself, her comments were along the lines of how over-analytic people were of a book that was clearly just entertainment (teen trash lit) and not to be taken as a model for anything. And furthermore: "everyone sees how all these bad things happen to Bella when she's with Edward". Her peer group didn't find him to be at all convincing as a character nor appealing. I breathed a sigh of relief: she's already moved on.

  3. I also invite you to check out a discussion on Open Salon regarding a post by The Biblio Files regarding the wisdom of allowing kids to choose the books they love:

    *Twilight* comes up a number of times among the comments (including my own). Carmel, I think your daughter's response is not only reassuring but very much on point.

  4. I had an interesting experience today. My five-year-old granddaughter welcomed my suggestion to begin reading her one of my favorite childhood books, *The Wind Boy*. And she loves it. My daughters never wanted to hear (or read, when they got older) any of the books I'd saved for them. They much preferred listening to their Papa read highly embellished versions of Nancy Drew. (And why not? He invented somewhat racy dialogue to replace lines he thought were boring, and the thrill of the mystery stayed the same.) They worked their way through the entire series, one chapter at a time, night after night.

    It's strangely satisfying to have my granddaughter love *The Wind Boy*. I'm wondering what she'll choose when she's a teenager. When I was 14, I was reading Daphne DuMaurier and imagining my own smoldering heroes. My daughters were reading Tolkien and Anne Rice. I'm generally in favor of allowing kids to choose the books they want to read, and I applaud Carmel's open and thoughtful approach to helping ensure that her daughter sees all aspects of a currently popular series.

  5. Along the lines of Marie Antoinette, I would agree with, "Let them read junk." My son taught himself to read on ebay. He was so obsessed with Batman, and esoteric action figures he could not find anyplace like Toys R Us, he was motivated to stumble through the ebay ads and Batman websites. Reading choices are one of the first x-rays of the deep, dark inner self, and what it craves. Spontaeous deposits of potent curiousity. To be honest, I myself have ordered (on ebay) magazines from the sixties that I shoplifted from the drugstore at the age of ten, because I was mystified, as an adult, why each word had been so crucial that it's stayed with me for 44 years. Seminal verboten reading choices come as close, in my mind, as the spiritual epiphanies of childhood ever got. Laurie Weisz


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