Twilight in the Rear-View Mirror

by Diane McDaniel Rhodes

Now that the final movie has premiered, and we’ve all had a chance to get some distance on the story, it is easier to question Stephenie Meyer’s phenomenally successful Twilight Saga. Critics and fans alike are commenting on the spooky resemblance between Edward and Bella’s romance and partner violence. Stalking, manipulation, threats of suicide, control, isolation, deceit, submission and death lead this passionate star-crossed couple to inhuman eternal happiness. For example recent research identified more than 75 episodes of physical violence or threats of physical violence in the story, with two thirds of that violence perpetrated by Edward on Bella and a third perpetrated by Jacob on Bella. Although Edward and Bella rather conservatively don’t have sex until after they marry, their ensuing sexual relationship is violent, causing Bella visible injury. Equally disconcerting is Bella’s acceptance of the violence directed against her; her reckoning seems to be that it’s right to sacrifice everything for those you love. In that context, the story has a strong post-feminist undertow. Not really the messages many of us hope for young women. Trying to fathom why the story is so desperately popular can make your eyes water with frustration.

What I haven’t heard anyone discussing much is the message the story offers young men. If you think boys and men aren’t aware of this story, think again. Between the women in their lives, the media and the ubiquitous presence of star Robert Pattinson guys know the story of Twilight. Here is a story, outrageously popular with women, that make one thing unbearably clear. To be considered attractive a man has to be a monster. Not only a monster, but dangerous and basically incompatible with life. Since Beauty loved the Beast women have been socialized to tame, cure and otherwise civilize men/monsters with love. The other side of that coin is men being socialized into monsters with control issues. Imagine the challenge of having to control your woman at the same time you are out of control yourself. Sounds exhausting. Yet young women have commented that the wonder of Edward has ruined “regular” boys for them.

Literature through history is chock full of stories about passive women, monstrous men and love. Twilight is just the most contemporary instance of this story being romanticized and cherished by readers. Even the very young among us know the difference between fantasy and reality. There are no vampires, no werewolves, and after all what harm can come from a single story? All by itself, perhaps none. Yet in the omnipresent sweep of popular culture idolatry, values are continually fostered (or festering). We can learn a lot about our expectations and the contradictions we harbor from a single story.

Four things to remind our Twilight-loving kids (and selves):

• The most interesting men are human.
• Danger and passion are not related.
• Your heart is bigger than your life: you can love people you can’t live with.
• Romance is present tense – before death.

Four things we need to do in popular culture to reduce violence in intimacy:

• Cherish fantasies about humans in love during their lives.
• Romanticize everyday intimacy.
• Detangle obsession from caring.
• Pay attention to relationships that are working.

Diane Rhodes is an instructor and doctoral student at the University of Texas School of Social Work, and is  the former Chief Program Officer for SafePlace. This was reposted from the DOING JUSTICE blog.

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