In Defense of ‘Twilight’

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Ever since it became a major pop culture phenomenon, Twilight has earned a heavy dose of criticism. Critic Mark Kermode has defended the series from the cheap dismissal of older, male reviewers too far removed from the series target (though not exclusive) audience but the criticism is perhaps nowhere greater than a feminist community aghast by Bella’s blank slate personality; the idealization of abusive, controlling or manipulative men; and the infusion of certain socially conservative values. This critique is based largely on one major misreading of the story. Twilight isn’t meant to be considered an expression of an ideal.

Many have focused on the poor quality of writing in the series but reading through Twilight, the first novel, one thing stands out; it is a teenage girl’s diary. Though lacking the “Dear Diary” formatting, the novel takes place inside of Bella’s head and subsequently has this style that sets the tone for the whole series, one of incredibly high perceived stakes. It isn’t the book that idealizes love so much as the teenagers depicted. True to form they are totally convinced that getting a boyfriend or girlfriend is the absolute most important thing and their first love is totally “the one.” This is absolutely an artifice, but it is one that comes naturally to those at the point in their lives that these characters find themselves.

The latest statistics from institutions like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggest that upwards of a quarter of teens suffer from some form of physical or emotional abuse as part of a romantic relationship. In the form of Edward and Jacob, Bella faces two very real, albeit subtle, forms of emotional abuse. For as much as we know of Bella’s unambiguous affections for Edward, seeing things from her perspective, Edward has some insecurity in the relationship as his view of his vampirism as a damning fate leaves him feeling unworthy of her love to the point that he is convinced he is not good for her. Still, he is drawn to her and this inner conflict expresses itself as a jealous, controlling and overly protective nature. He finds excuses (she’s clumsy, she’s in danger from other vampires) in order to keep a disturbingly close watch on her.

Jacob’s abuse is typical of the out-of-favor, unrequited love. While his cautioning Bella against Edward may have a valid basis, his motivation seems much more about his own desires than her well-being. What begins as an effort to poison the well, something bound to make her less happy, gets amplified in Eclipse as Jacob starts to use threats of self-harm and placing their friendship on the line in a coercive way to manipulate Bella’s emotions and make her feel guilty for not choosing him. Obviously both Edward and Jacob’s manners are filtered through the necessity of coherent narrative demands, but the book is pretty clear on the negatives each brings.

For many, the ideal resolution of this romantic saga would be Bella casting off both of these abusive men and asserting her independent persona more powerfully, finding some more ideal man. Maybe this would be more positive but it wouldn’t work very well narratively and might miss the point that this isn’t a story of Edward and Jacob being distinctly bad men but of typical boys doing bad things. Eclipse marks an important turning point in the maturity of the characters and Breaking Dawn shows both men emerging from this adolescent mind frame (which many men keep forever) and becoming more responsible. It also provides one major place for Bella to assert her individuality.

For a series that incorporates a number of more socially conservative mores, its handling of Bella’s pregnancy in the first half of Breaking Dawn is perhaps surprising. It is clearly making a pro-life case through the wishes of Bella to keep her child no matter the cost, yet it does so in an environment that doesn’t just avoid demonizing abortion, it outright advocates it. There’s no suggestion that those pushing for Bella to get rid of the growing fetus are evil, rather the decision is clearly placed as Bella’s choice, based on her own core beliefs. Debates around abortion would be far less contentious if pro-life arguments were more frequently of this nature rather than attacking choice to begin with.

The series’ treatment of sexuality is similarly nuanced. Many have focused on Edward’s fears for Bella’s soul should she become a vampire and putting off that transformation, and consummation, until after marriage. They contend this makes the story sound like a moral judgement of pre-marital sex. Within the context of the book’s world, that seems a hard sell. Twilight, among the other major teen lit franchises to make it big in recent years, is a notably sensual book. Sex is much more central to the story, not hidden between the lines like in Harry Potter or The Hunger Games. This is a world where Bella is primed for sex more so than Edward and is not judged for it. In fact, her desires are considered normal in contrast to Edward’s formality from the earlier era in which he was born. A far more convincing interpretation of the metaphor of vampirism in the bedroom is another comment on the nature of adolescent romance. Sex among teenagers can be very dangerous because they are new to it and often ignorant as to how to do it safely. This is still a more conservative message about sexual restraint than some will be comfortable with, but at least it hits at kernels of truth.

Ultimately, Stephanie Meyer accomplishes something pretty groundbreaking. The conclusion of the story is the series’ final thematic emphasis stressing the value of family, in this case an extended family with loose blood ties, coming together to protect themselves against what is within the vampire world the closest thing to a government. This adds to the list of artful conservative messages that do their best to make the positive argument in favor of this set of beliefs rather than the negative case against contrary beliefs. In a world where Ayn Rand is celebrated as a conservative author, subtlety hasn’t been a strong suit when putting such themes into fiction. Combined with the book’s authentic and hopefully educational look at the perils of young romance, the series’ popularity can be used as an opportunity for teens (and adults) to recognize the monsters that sometimes exist inside that prevent healthy relationships from developing. That would seem to be a positive development from a feminist perspective and people would do better to use the series’ popularity to teach such lessons rather than to demonize it.

Erik Bondurant

  1. Davian says

    A very well written article with a very good point of view on the Twilight argument. The one thought I would add is that the character of Bella, who is easily the most hated character in this series, goes through this whole metamorphosis and emerges independent and the strongest one of them all. She fights through the entire book, endures some epic hardships, such as the overly harped on abuse, and comes out of it the equal of her man. Technically stronger. Since they are basing their opinions off the movies, most people failed to notice exactly how much fighting back Bella did before “Gaining super powers”. She spent from the last 3rd of New Moon all the way to the end of the series making both guys dance to her tune. She fights the control that both guys attempt to place on her every step of the way and always ends up getting her way. Half of the people harping on the abuse have never read the books and are just judging the always poorly converted movie model. The abuse is overly harped on because people are so focused on saying “OMG” that they failed to see exactly what i just explained. SO for roughly 60 of the series she is portrayed as a young woman defining herself as a mere mortal in a world of monsters. Also the “Abuse” is never as bad as the hype is making it sound. The two male characters are both controlling, yes. However, even in book one, when Edward attempts to be controlling Bella basically tells him to go to hell. Even in the movie she does it. Bella gets physically hurt a lot in the movies due to the fact that she’s tangling with Supernatural forces. No one attempts to hurt her except the antagonists. Yes, Bella is over dramatic, but my experience with teen girls isn’t far off from most of what happens in the books. Bella wasting away for half a year in New moon was going way too far in that respect sure, but I still feel that this whole abuse thing is blown way out of hand. The co-dependent relationship is a bit extreme, but i saw plenty of that going on as a teen too. People just hate these books, and are blowing things way out of proportion, but that’s just my opinion.

  2. Daniel says

    Interesting perspective…

  3. jimsaysthings says

    forget all that! It’s a pretentious fantasy of a middle aged woman who is living in a dream world of a spoiled teenager. I mean really? There’s seriously nothing that happens in the books/movies…no proper development, no proper storytelling elements, no real danger, it’s just bland! It’s like watching an episode of full house! No one’s really got a serious issue to deal with, and it’s all resolved in a retardedly easy way! It ruins classic mythology, has so many plot holes, is a rip off of romeo and juliet, (only without any real casualties/dilemmas) and tells little girls that all they need to do is depend on a man for everything they need. “Bella” needs to grow some spine and do something rather than be a whiny spoiled rich girl. There is no real character at all! Even the cast of twilight (including your beloved Robert Pattinson) has admitted to disliking the series. And of course, the best part of the last movie was Michael Sheen parodying the crud out of it! If anything the only good thing to come out of twilight was a ton of good jokes, and a hilarious Michael sheen. Nothing more nothing less…it’s a comedy, because no one could take this stuff seriously. Just my 50 cents.

  4. Tihamer says

    My son’s girlfriend lent him the first Twilight book when it first came out. After reading the first few pages, I was hooked, because all of a sudden it was like I was reading my wife’s diary when she was in high school. Admittedly, I was one of two guys in a theater full of young girls when the movie came out, but that was ok. After all, the same year, when I wrestled in the finals of a local freestyle wrestling tournament, my opponent’s dad was cheering for me because I was the oldest guy in the building. :-)

    Anyway, I can understand why people hate Twilight, and I feel sorry for them. Not because they’re missing great art (Twilight is not great art; sorry Stephanie), but because they’ve cut themselves off from subconscious needs. Look–there are two reasons that so many young girls (and older women) go crazy over Twilight.

    First, all women want to be loved (and deserve to be). There is no debate about that. This means that they don’t want to be used like an object. Again, no debate. But what exactly does that mean for a vampire-human relationship? Edward wants Bella’s blood desperately, but he restraints himself–for her good. The fact that he struggles to restrain himself for her benefit shows how much he loves her. How many guys do that, given that more than one in five girls are sexually abused by the time they finish college?

    Second, women want to be safe. Again, who is going to debate that? The question is, who is going to do that protecting, given that there are evil and violent people out there (mostly men, according to statistics)? Edward is willing to do sacrifice his life to protect Bella from harm. Don’t you think that women want and deserve that in their men? Sure I would want my wife to be able to handle a gun, but I (and she) would only want her to need it after an assailant has stepped over my dead body (with my emptied shotgun still in my hands). This is a violent world we live in, so what woman wouldn’t want a generous, gentle, powerful, and loving man at her side?

    I wonder if all this anger directed at Twilight is really envy in disguise–from the women because they weren’t as lucky as Bella, and from the men because they refuse to measure up to Edward or Jacob.

    1. Sprague says

      Interestingly enough, this was the same opinion that i held when i finished the 4 books: Twilight is basically a girl’s diary. Tho i still hold gripes for all that build up and no real war but the movie makes up adequately for that. Not that i support the violence or anything….but it’s supposed to be the natural order of things. The vampires choosing not to fight shows that in all conflicts, no matter how deep or grievous, there’s always the open alternative to be peaceful and walk away.

      1. lili says

        Very interesting perspective, and agree with tihamer, sprague and erik. It’s not about having a good writing style, but the main message of the story. It’s about life, and everything related to it whether it’s good or bad. It’s told through a girl’s point of view, but it doesn’t mean that guys get the story too just like girls do. I’m a girl and i admit i wanted to see some fight, but i’m pleased with the movie showing the alternative ending that we were expecting (even though it wasn’t what ended up happening). It shows the emotional struggles that we deal with everyday, but in the end what matters is how we choose to deal with the struggles while we keep being faithful to our values.

  5. ann says

    Good read, bro. New insight. Nice.

  6. Elisa says

    you make a good point. Insightful observations.

    Overall, I see Twilight as a fairly accurate telling of early experience with love from a female point of view, with all the intensity, projecting onto others hidden or repressed sides of yourself. Since Bella is bound to be an immature jerk herself (and if Jacob told his story, he’d probably see her as some semi-monster).

    But I see the feminist anger at it too, and I couldn’t really continue reading it, due in part to the amateur writing, but also because it was a little too like regressing – I’m not teenager. But I don’t mind the movies, just for the simple, fairy tale style.

    It captures well adolescent experience with the opposite sex – the awkwardness and rudeness that hides shyness that comes with strong attraction, the idolizing of your first love and the female wish for a guy who could be bad but won’t (vegetarian vampire), and the aggressive, jealous but loyal nature of Jacob, the second choice who’s comfortable but not as thrilling.

    If anything it is a little embarrassing in how it reveals the female psyche. But it isn’t really. It is what it is. It’s one stage in development and experience. The fact that Bella is passive, is really just innocence, just as much as Edward and Jacob’s aggressive, demon natures, are innocent. …a good reason to avoid marrying too young, since you want to work through your demons ideally beforehand. Probably Bella would be better off not ending up with either one. I might like the story more and might have read past the first book.

  7. Dylan says

    You really tend to state what is clearly your opinion as fact. You keep telling us “This is what Twilight is! It’s obvious!” Well I’m sorry; it’s not. Where are you getting these “facts”? Is Stephanie Meyer telling them to you? I think not.

    If this is any girl’s diary I think it is Mrs. Meyer’s. It is a diary of things she desperately wanted her life to be. I read the books – all of them. It was a train wreck and it angered me that any human being would DESIRE to be treated the way the characters in the book are. I do agree that the book is a useful aid in teaching what you should NOT want in life. However I sincerely doubt that this was the intent of the author.

  8. Ricky says

    Great Article!

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