What a Girl Wants: Mixed Messages in Twilight
When my daughters, now ages 22 and 25, were growing up, I knew better than to forbid them to do something. It’s the quickest way to make that forbidden activity all the more tempting. I find it interesting that Stephanie Meyer’s novel Twilight has an apple on its cover, the original forbidden fruit.
Meyer’s four-novel series has captured the imaginations of the nation’s tween and teen girls, and, in many cases, their moms. It would be crazy for me to suggest we ask our daughters to not read the books or to not see the movies based on them. But I do want to suggest that we start being more critical of certain themes presented, not only in Twilight, but in all the books, movies, and television shows to which our kids are increasingly exposed.
In my article “Taking a Bite Out of Twilight” in the latest issue of Ms. magazine, I argue that while the books have been embraced by many adults because of their abstinence message and because they have gotten girls reading, there has been little discussion of the other, more subtle messages present. Girls and young women who swoon over Edward or want to be like Bella don’t seem to be picking up on just what that really means.
A quick recap: The story revolves around Bella, a clumsy, average-looking, human girl, and Edward, a century-old (but 17-year-old-looking) vampire, a real stunner by all accounts. We follow them from first high-school encounter to post-parenting, happily-ever-after, which doesn’t take all that long: Bella is 16 when we meet her and 19 when the series ends.
Setting aside for the moment that Edward is a beautiful vampire, it’s important to ask: Do girls really want a boyfriend like Edward? If Edward were human, he might have several strikes against him. For one, he stalks Bella. Before they are dating, he sneaks into her bedroom and watches her sleep at night. Creepy. After they begin dating, he follows her every move, keeping close tabs on her day and night. And he is jealous of her relationships with other boys, so jealous that at one point he sabotages her truck so she can’t go visit her friend Jacob at the nearby reservation.
As for how he treats her when they are actually together, Edward’s attitude is that he always knows what is best for Bella. (No doubt this is because of their 100-year age difference.) He treats her like a child, writing her a lullaby, for goodness sake, and rocking her in a rocking chair! Is he her dad or her boyfriend? This isn’t a relationship of equals: Edward is the protector, and Bella is the damsel in distress.
Sadly, Bella doesn’t have much of life. What with all the time she spends either with Edward or mooning over him, she has no time for friends and limited relationships with her parents. Outside of her Edward obsession, she doesn’t do anything beyond cooking and cleaning for her dad, reading or doing schoolwork, and finding fault with her hair and clothing.
Meyer has said she kept Bella’s physical description minimal so girls could easily see themselves in her shoes. Sadly, it seems she also manages to keep Bella’s interior life just as bland so it can be filled by Edward when he shows up. What does this say to girls? Keep your life empty of thoughts, interests, friends, and hobbies so that when that perfect boy comes along you can fill your time with him? That you are, or should be, nobody until somebody loves you?
While I write about Twilight as an educator and as the mother of two young women, I can only comment with as much passion as I do because I have read the books multiple times. I have to admit, they grab your attention and I understand their appeal. Meyer isn’t a great writer, and this isn’t great literature, but she tells a pretty good story. As a literacy advocate, I want to encourage reading, and we all want to read things that are fun and entertaining. I certainly don’t advocate censorship, for young adults or anyone else. They, maybe more than anyone, need to be able to explore a variety of different types of reading material. What I do advocate is critical thinking and a critical discussion of what is being read. That’s important for all of us, no matter what our age.
For the full version of my article “Taking a Bite Out of Twilight,” pick up a copy of the Spring 2009 issue of Ms. on newsstands, or have it sent to your door by joining the Ms. community at www.msmagazine.com.