(Trigger warnings: relationship violence, stalking, sexual assault, violence against women.)
If you know me at all, you know that I don’t care for Twilight–and while that is true, there is something you might not know: I own the entire series*. As a matter of fact, on my first read I found them entertaining enough, if exasperating in the bad writing. I even attended the release party for Breaking Dawn (I know, I know) and stayed up all night to finish the series… and my horror at the general awfulness of that last book made my enthusiasm fade.
And then I was no longer a teenager, and I read them again.
The journey to revisit Twilight as a series began my sophomore year of college, in the fall of 2008, when I had to read Twilight for my Adolescent Literature class. My Reader Response assignment, dated December 4, 2008, contains the following conclusion:
This was a rather odd experience, as I had already read the entire series before this class. However, rereading Twilight for class presented me with the opportunity to examine it more critically—and I’m afraid it did not hold up well to the inspection. While still an enjoyable read, I am definitely able to pinpoint the grammatical and structural issues that plague it, diminishing its literary merit. Furthermore, upon closer inspection Bella and Edward’s relationship comes off as highly unhealthy and perhaps even somewhat emotionally abusive, which is not particularly well-received when noticed. Overall, I think its ability to draw a reader in still merits praise, but its literary structures leave something to be desired.
With that sobering thought, I chose to spend my winter break re-reading the series, and found it even more problematic than I had imagined. Not only was the relationship abusive, but Bella was not a whole person–her identity was entirely defined by the men in her life. She did not get to make her own decisions unless they agreed with what Edward wanted… I mean, she hallucinated his voice in her head telling her not to do things after he broke up with her. And she’s not the only one who doesn’t get to choose: Emily is imprinted on, Leah ends up randomly becoming the only female werewolf, Esme is not allowed to have the death she chose, Rosalie is brutalized by a man she turned down. Let’s not even talk about how gross imprinting is. (And don’t get me started on Edward stalking Bella…)
But the whole thing with the lack of agency, awful as it is, wasn’t even the worst part: the worst was seeing how women were constantly victimized in the series, and their trauma was ignored. Just off the top of my head, I can think of Bella being attacked by James, Alice being imprisoned in a mental institution for no reason, Emily having her face scarred by Sam, and Rosalie being, essentially, raped and beaten and left for dead. And it is simply said to be something that happened to them; if anything, the circumstances are described in terms of what they do to the men around them. Edward suffered so much having to see Bella in pain and having to suck the venom out of her; Carlisle and Jasper feel so bad about how much Alice went through; Sam feels so awful looking at Emily’s face every day; everyone else feels awful about Rosalie’s fate, especially Carlisle, who turns her.
To be fair, there is a sort of subversive figure to all of this: Rosalie. Despite the fact that she has choices taken away from her and undergoes probably the worst trauma in the series, she is probably the most complete female character. Rosalie’s the only woman who gets to make a choice and deal with her trauma: she kills all of her aggressors. She is possibly the only person not fawning over Bella 24/7. She has the best argument for why Bella should not simply choose the life they live. And, despite the fact that her “babies are the most important thing” mentality can be seen as an example of the sexism in the books, I personally find that it balances out the character a bit, giving her a softer side… but that might be because I am also all about the babies. Not sure.
While both of these issues point to the sexism I mentioned, there are two characters who really embody it completely: Professional Damsel-In-Distress Bella and Hulk Smash! Emmett. Bella can’t seem to go more than a couple of pages without falling over. She is constantly making really questionable choices and keeps getting into awful, dangerous situations that she doesn’t seem to be able to escape. This makes her a perfect match for Edward, who is “traditional” because he’s over 100 years old, i.e. thinks he should be able to control every facet of his woman’s life. As for Emmett, if vampires have a “douchey frat bro” stereotype, it’s named after him. He finds it hard to be serious, spends a lot of time engrossed in his muscles and athletic prowess, and seems to be the ultra-macho counterpart to “sensitive” Edward.
There were many other issues that popped up, like the “otherization” of the Quileutes, the lack of diversity (which was “remedied” in Breaking Dawn by introducing characters that were described as “exotic” more than once. Oh, okay, SMeyer), the devaluation of education, and the dismissal of friendships. But by the time I had thought through the big issues, I was too exhausted and upset to think about any of these at length.
I’ve been wanting to write about this ever since that winter break, but I always talked myself out of it. “Other people have done it before,” I said. “And they did it better.”
But today, something really amazing happened in my honors class: we had a super heated discussion about Twilight and how it handles gender roles, violence against women, trauma, lack of female agency (as well as in Fifty Shades of Grey, which I do not have experience with), relationship violence being normalized/glamorized, and why Bella Swan is regressive. It was a life-changing experience to engage in that conversation with high school sophomores–with students who could really be affected by the messages the books endorse.
I suppose, after all, that that’s the point of this post–to encourage parents and educators to start having these conversations with our teenagers. They grow up too fast.
After all, a year ago tomorrow, I entered my own version of Edward and Bella’s relationship… and if someone had told me what to look for, if someone had talked to me about relationship violence and how it does not have to be physical? I could have avoided the relationship altogether, or been more prepared to recognize the signs and ask for help earlier.
Conversations like these, simply put, can change–and save–lives.