23 September 2009
The young adult novel series Twilight by Stephanie Meyer has become so wildly popular among young women (and their mothers) that it is worth examining. What makes these books so appealing, and what kinds of messages are they instilling into the minds of the next generation of females?
The romance novel is about the relationship between average-girl Bella and perfect-in-every-way Edward, who is a vampire. While both characters ultimately have little personality to speak of, the few details we do have about them set up a disturbing generalization about the genders. Some of Edward's characteristics include being physically strong, extremely fast, athletically gifted, a fast driver, an expert pianist, and with model-like good looks. In contrast, some of Bella's characteristics include being frail, delicate, unable to partake in athletics, even unable to do simple physical acts such as walking or hiking.
With so little depth to their personalities, one would ask why these two fall so passionately in love. In reality their love could only be described as lust. Edward’s passion for Bella is based on the smell of her blood, which is appetizing to him. In the real world, this could be compared to a man lusting over a woman solely for the appearance of her body. In both cases, her personality has nothing to do with the attraction; it is merely a physical longing, a biological drive.
In fact, Bella has almost no distinguishing characteristics, or interests for that matter, to fall in love with. As soon as she meets Edward in the beginning of the novel, she is hopelessly devoted to him, abandoning the few interests she had in the first place. For example, it is mentioned early in the novel that she enjoys reading, but seems to forget this once she meets Edward. Also, all outside friendships and relationships are forgotten; she snubs other kids at school to spend more time with Edward, spends as little time as possible with her father, and can barely find time to email her mother.
The fact that Edward is a vampire makes him dangerous and exciting to boring Bella. Perhaps this is why she is so willing to sacrifice everything in her own life, which prior to Edward, seemed to be spent primarily moping around the house. Edward's dangerous identity brings Bella into an exciting life, albeit one that is not her own. This seems to enforce the antiquated idea that women themselves lack identities; their identities are merely formed by the men they are associated with. Bella is a shell of a human, completely lacking personality, passions, interests, and talents. Her life seems pointless until she meets the man who defines her identity.
The dangerous secrets Edward shares with Bella about him and his family make their relationship instantaneously intimate. The quickness with which they declare their soulmate status (was it the first or second date?) is disturbing. Edward and Bella are declaring that they love each other, can't live without each other, and would die for each other at lightning speed. This is unhealthy role modeling for young women in their own relationships. Declaring a lifelong commitment in a puppy love relationship can ultimately lead to premature marriage, teenage pregnancy, and a lifetime of unhappiness.
Of course it is impossible to discuss Twilight without discussing the abstinence-only subtext. Upon meeting each other, Bella and Edward are extremely sexually attracted to each other, but this is complicated by Edward's desire to eat Bella for lunch. Thus, the couple must restrain their passions because sex is just too dangerous; Edward could lose control and kill her. Perhaps it is a positive message for young couples that sex can indeed be dangerous, and should not be rushed into. On the other hand, the abstinence-only message has long been proven ineffective. Besides, real-life sexual intimacy does not literally pose the risk of instant death, which seems to be the only thing restraining Edward and Bella. Thus, the novel provides no realistic argument against teenage sexual intimacy; if anything it merely intensifies the importance of sex, as it is always on the minds of the main characters.
Another observation I made about Bella's character is her peculiar relationship with food. In almost every scene when Bella is eating, it is forced. She usually skips her lunch at school, drinking only lemonade or picking at a small snack, which she ultimately loses interest in. She gets no enjoyment from her food. Every time she eats, it must be excused and apologized for. Bella’s diet seems to consist primarily on a quick bowl of cereal before school. On the other hand, she is vigilant about preparing intricate meals for her father. Though he never asked her, she takes it upon herself to prepare a hot meal from scratch every night. Bella however, is never shown enjoying the meal she’s prepared. This is a shockingly old fashioned view, the woman being the one responsible for preparing the meal for others, never the one to enjoy it. Perhaps if Bella ate more than a bowl of cereal a day, she wouldn’t be so helplessly frail and physically inept!
There are many disturbing messages in the Twilight series. Though I have only read the first of the novels, from outside reading it is clear that things only get worse from there. Bella marries Edward young, becomes a young mother, and literally gives up her life, becoming a vampire, to be with him. While many offer the argument that it is better for young women to be reading Twilight than nothing at all, I am not convinced. I only hope that these deeply disturbing messages are lost on the younger readers.