A feminist critique of Twilight: emotional abuse, child-grooming, and pro-choice plots.Posted: November 13, 2012
With the final film of the Twilight Saga to début in UK cinemas this week, the time is ripe to cast an eye of scrutiny upon one of the most popular franchises of the decade. Twilight could have been a positive force in fiction and film, not least because the book is aimed primarily at girls, with a female protagonist, speaking of female experience, written by a woman, and with the film itself being directed by a woman. In fact, Eclipse attracted audiences that were 80% female and scraped in a whopping £45 million (1). Since then, Twilight has had a considerable knock-on effect, not least on the revival of vampire fiction, but in the fiction industry – with 50 Shades of Grey starting its life as a slash fiction version of Twilight. The effects of Twilight are boggling, but what other knock-on effects are we missing?
Twilight teaches very dangerous lessons to its readers and viewers.
- Unhealthy, emotionally abusive relationships are desirable – see Edward and Bella.
- Women’s only life choices (“choice” is a key word here) are to get married, have children, and be a stay-at-home mum.
- Sex is bad. Abortion is even worse.
- Child-grooming is acceptable so long as the adult really loves “his” child.
(NB. I will be talking in very gender binary and white-washing ways, because Twilight erases all non-het sexualities and people of colour.)
Let’s begin with number one. Edward Cullen and Bella Swan have an emotionally abusive relationship. As defined by Women’s Aid:
- destructive criticism, name calling, sulking
- pressure tactics
- lying to you, or to your friends and family about you
- persistently putting you down in front of other people
- never listening or responding when you talk
- isolating you from friends and family, monitoring your phone calls, emails, texts and letters
- checking up on you, following you, not letting you go out alone (2)
So let’s go through these. If you’ve read any of the Twilight books, alarm bells should immediately be ringing in your head right now. Edward constantly employs “pressure tactics,” the number one example being manipulating Bella into marrying him. Bella doesn’t want to get married, she is mortified by the idea, and only goes through with the marriage because she wants to have sex with Edward. This is blackmail. Withholding sex in order to achieve what he wants at the expense of Bella is highly abusive.
Edward monitors Bella throughout the entire series, from having Alice check her future, to literally stalking her to Phoenix, to sneaking into her bedroom to watch her sleep (before they’ve even spoken! See Midnight Sun), and so on. And what is most worrying about this is that in the context of the narrative, these abusive traits are romanticised and idealised. This normalises abusive behaviour, and considering the demographic as Twilight (tween and teenagers who are first forming their ideas about love and sex) this is even more disgraceful. She even fears telling him the truth: “I’d given more information than necessary in my unwilling honesty, and I worried it would provoke the stranger anger that flared whenever I slipped and revealed too clearly how obsessed I was.” Twilight, chapter 11, p.230. This is not the hallmark of a healthy relationship. This is fear.
We also see Edward isolating Bella from her friends and family. For example, he takes the engine out of her car to prevent her from seeing her friend, Jacob.
Edward lies to Bella at the start of New Moon, when he tells her that he doesn’t want to be with her any more, when in actuality he is trying to “protect” her. This shows his disregard for Bella as an equal in their relationship, with equal input, and ability to make choices for herself. Not only this, but after he disappears from her life, he also removes every item that might remind her of him. All the photographs, tapes, etc. He gives her no choice and has no respect or consideration for how this might effect her.
Examples of destructive criticism can also be found in the books…
“Bella, it’s not my fault if you are exceptionally unobservant.”
“Bella, you are utterly absurd.”
“Damn it, Bella! You’ll be the death of me, I swear you will.”
“You aren’t exactly the best judge of what is or isn’t dangerous.”
Suddenly, Twilight is starting to seem a lot less romantic and a lot more abusive. The last thing that we should ever be doing is glorifying this type of behaviour.
Moving onto point number two: women’s life choices or lack thereof.
In the Twilight Saga, we are never presented with any other option for women other than to get married and have children. I’m not just talking about Bella here. Think about it. Is there any significant female character who does something as subversive as, err, having a career? Renee, Esme, Alice, Rosaline,…
Drawing a blank? I am too. So let’s turn to the author of Twilight, Stephanie Meyer to hear her take on this:
“In my own opinion (key word), the foundation of feminism is this: being able to choose.” (3)
I wouldn’t argue that “being able to choose” is the keystone of feminism. The keystone of feminism is equality of the sexes in domestic and public arenas and in legislation. However, let’s continue and tackle what is problematic about Twilight and the “choices” available to the female characters: do they have any choices at all?
If you are never presented with an alternative, then you don’t have any choice. You just have the one path that every woman treads. There is nothing wrong with being married, having children and being a stay-at-home mother. Let me be clear here. But there is something wrong to suggest that is your only option. True, Edward tries to encourage Bella to go to college – that is go to college and then we’ll get married. That isn’t really an alternative option. In fact, the only alternative option that Bella ever gets is to be in a relationship with Jacob instead of Edward.
Besides which, does Bella really have a choice in all of this? The books would suggest otherwise. Let me throw a few quotes at you:
“I didn’t know if there ever was a choice, really. I was already in too deep.” Twilight, chapter 7, p.139.
“Our relationship couldn’t continue to balance, as it did, on the point of a knife. We would fall off one edge or the other, depending entirely on his decision, or his instincts. My decision was made, made before I’d ever consciously chosen.” Twilight, chapter 13, p.248.
“There was no way around it; I couldn’t resist him in anything.” Twilight, chapter 13, p.284.
Even if we are to go by Meyer’s definition of feminism as the presence of choice, Twilight still fails miserably to be a feminist narrative.
Now to point three. How are sex and abortion handled in the saga?
It will come as no news to you that Stephanie Meyer is a Mormon, who in her spare time preaches abstinence in high schools.
Bella and Edward only have sex once married, surprise surprise. But what is all the more surprising is that despite having sex within the confines of a marriage, Bella is still punished for her sexuality. She becomes immediately pregnant, which she didn’t want to happen, but what is more important is that the pregnancy she endures is a particularly punishing one. She is violently sick, loses most of her body weight, and would have died had she not been made a vampire during the birth.
The pro-life rhetoric is blatant in the books and film. With everyone but Bella and Rosalie on the “bad” side – that is, the pro-life side. Whilst Bella speaks of the “baby,” Edward speaks of the “foetus.” Edward tells Bella to “get rid of it,” but his pleas do nothing. We are meant to feel sympathy for Bella, who almost dies trying to keep the child alive. But all that this promotes is that women should carry their pregnancies through to full term, no matter what the danger to them, even at the cost of their lives.
And finally, point four: child grooming. No matter how many times a Twihard stresses that the child “imprinting” in the Twilight books is not paedophilic, I maintain that is is, and this is why…
For those not familiar with the Twilight universe, werewolf imprinting is when a member of the pack (all male bar one female, who doesn’t imprint in the books) falls in love unconditionally with a girl. (And of course it’s a girl, because werewolves can’t be gay, duh.) And this girl can be of any age, apparently, though conveniently they never imprint on old women. So we see several cases where werewolves imprint on children and even babies. But this isn’t paedophilic, remember, because he loves the child like a father, brother, uncle until the girl comes of age. And the girl will fall in love with her werewolf because it’s “hard to resist that level of devotion.”
The definition of child-grooming from Wikipedia (4):
Child grooming refers to actions deliberately undertaken with the aim of befriending and establishing an emotional connection with a child, to lower the child’s inhibitions in preparation for sexual activity with the child, or exploitation.
And all the parents are understanding and accepting of imprinting – even Edward and Bella when Jacob imprints on their newborn child! So the child will grow up believing it’s okay, their parents telling them it’s okay and encouraging the relationship, being told that the werewolf is in love with her, leaving little room for her own choice in partner. This relationship throughout their childhood will naturally lead to sex when they come of age – turn back to Wikipedia: “in preparation for sexual activity with the child.”
When you go to see the final Twilight film this week next – though I would encourage you to watch something else – please bear all this in mind. When you swoon at the romance of Edward’s controlling behaviour, Jacob’s devotion for Renesmee, please try to remember the underlying meaning of all of these plot developments.