Unless you’ve been in a coma or living under a rock for the past five years or so, you’ve probably heard of the Twilight franchise. The four-book series, which has been adapted into five blockbuster movies, has become popular with teenage girls (and with some of their mothers as well). The Twilight phenomenon can be explained by the way author Stephenie Meyer weaves supernatural elements into an adolescent love story. But beyond selling of romance among the undead, what messages are these books sending to girls?
The Twilight books center around Bella Swan, an ordinary teenage girls who moves to a new town in Washington. On her first day at her new school, she meets the handsome Edward Cullen and quickly falls in love with him. Edward eventually comes to share her feelings and the two begin dating, even though this is a dangerous situation for Bella. Edward is a vampire who has trained himself to drink only animal blood, but being around Bella is a constant temptation to give up his “vegetarian” ways. Thus, the specter of violence and death constantly hangs over them.
Bella devotes a considerable amount of her life to this relationship, so much so that her friendships wither and her father begins to worry that she’s turning into a hermit. At various moments in the series, Bella describes Edward as the center of her life and her reason for existence. Her whole world begins revolving around him, to the point that when Edward breaks off the relationship for a few months, Bella thinks that she doesn’t want to live without him and falls into a months-long depression.
Bella’s devotion comes despite the fact that Edward is a less-than-stellar boyfriend. He tries to tell her who she can be friends with and where she should go, and at one point he even disables her car to keep her from visiting someone. Edward also confesses that before they were dating, her used to sneak up to Bella’s bedroom at night and watch her sleep. Rather than being alarmed by this, Bella finds this behavior romantic.
As their relationship progresses, Bella decides that she wants to become a vampire so that she can be together with Edward for eternity. Becoming a vampire has risks – not only is the transformation painful, but vampires have to keep their immortality secret, so Bella must cut off all contact with her family and friends. Never does she waver in her desire to become like Edward, because she believes that this will be the ultimate expression of her love.
In the final book of the series, Bella and Edward marry and finally sleep together. Edward’s lust for her blood is so strong when they have sex he damages their bed and leaves bruises all over her body. Bella soon becomes pregnant with a human-vampire hybrid, which grows too fast for her body to accommodate and begins crushing her from the inside. Through all this she refuses to have an abortion, and the birth of her daughter nearly kills her.
These visions of love as controlling and sex as deadly are unsettling, but what I found most disturbing was Meyer’s take on consent in sex. When one of Bella’s friends, a boy named Jacob, confesses that he is in love with her he forces her to kiss him. Bella later describes this kiss as an “assault,” but a few chapters later she kisses him again willingly and decides that she does have feelings for him. Edward also has a tendency toward aggressiveness: right before their wedding, he breaks his vow to stay a virgin until they are married and tries to have sex with her. Bella struggles against him, but Edward doesn’t stop until she pushes him off of her.
There is also the story of Rosalie, one of the members of Edward’s coven. Everyone in this coven was turned into a vampire when they were on the brink of death – in Rosalie’s case, when she was gang-raped by her fiancé and his friends and then left for dead. When Rosalie tells this story, she holds herself and her vanity responsible for this attack: “It took some time before I began to blame [my] beauty for what happened to me – for me to see the curse of it. To wish that I had been … well, not ugly, but normal.”
In wading through all this mess of all-consuming relationships and quasi-rape apology, there was one thing I liked about Meyer’s writing: how she talks about a teenage girl’s sexuality. In all of the books Bella is quite open about wanting to have sex with Edward, and this desire is wholly her own. She isn’t sleeping with her boyfriend in an effort to please him, or because she’s trying to work through past traumas. She wants sex, period, and isn’t ashamed of it. Bella describes her desire to Edward as such: “… Right now, physically, there’s nothing I want more than you. More than food or water or oxygen. Intellectually, I have my priorities in slightly more sensible order. But physically …”
All in all, the romance in Twilight is not a great example for teenage girls to follow. In the world of Stephenie Meyer, love is a domineering, overbearing force; men are forceful with their lovers; sex is a dangerous act that women are responsible for controlling; and pregnancy must never be terminated, even when a mother’s life is a stake. The only positive thing in this series is the honest portrayal of a teenage girl’s sexual awakening, but those few passages can’t make up for the other, overwhelmingly regressive notions of love and relationships.
Girl Museum Inc.