To say I dragged my feet when it came to exploring the Twilight trend would be a gross understatement, and it probably doesn’t surprise anybody that I’m not one of the world’s biggest fans of the books. Still, I give them a lot of credit; the series made countless people, young and old, into readers. The books turned a lot of already avid adult readers on to the young adult genre, essentially doubling the potential audience for many of the books I work on. They made a profit for their writer and their publishing house, and by spurring an interest in teen paranormal romance they’ve helped a lot of other writers and publishers turn a profit, too, in an industry too often plagued by low or nonexistent profit margins. As a member of this industry, I can’t help but be glad when, whatever the inspiration, people are getting genuinely excited about books. We need that fervor, regardless of what stirs it up. And, despite myself, I found many parts of the first book (mostly the parts devoid of descriptions of marbled abs, beautiful faces, or snowing-because-it's-too-cold-for-rain [wth?] weather) really enjoyable.
But when I think about the vast throngs of teenagers who have read the series and swooned over Edward, it physically pains me. Because no matter how many times Edward saves Bella’s life over the course of the series, that will never change the fact that, on their first date, he tells Bella he may not be able to stop himself from killing her. It doesn’t change the fact that he follows her, threatens her, makes all of her decisions for her, cuts her off from her friends and family emotionally and physically, instills her with the belief that his murderous impulses are her fault (she “has to be good” and not lose control of her urges when they kiss, so as not to tempt him), and attacks her when she says she’s not afraid of him, just to make sure that she learns to be. That’s just in book one, and it sure doesn’t sound like any healthy relationship I know of. In fact, I’m not the first person to point out that Edward’s and Bella’s relationship shows all the signs of an abusive relationship.
And while I may have some doubts about Ms. Gurdon’s claim that dark young adult literature normalizes self-destructive behavior, I do feel that Twilight normalizes—no, glorifies—unhealthy relationships. A glance at the popular website My Life is Twilight, where fans of the series share examples of how their life mirrors their obsession, makes my stomach turn. Here are just a few reasons why:
- “Today my boyfriend explained to me that he wouldn't want to live in a world with out me, and that's why he's so over protective.”
- “Today, I woke up to see my boyfriend watching me sleep. I thought it was so cute and not at all creepy.”
- “I want to be loved the way Edward loves Bella. Does that even exist anymore?”
- “My boyfriend cut the brakes on my car! MLIT!”
And I’m far more upset about this glorification of unhealthy love than I am about the darkness Ms. Gurdon spoke of in YA lit. Typically, young adult novels that tackle dark issues like rape, cutting, abuse, and drug use at least communicate the very real and incredibly heartbreaking dangers of those issues. Most offer a glimmer of light and healing in their endings, conveying not only that healing is possible, but also that healing is necessary after encountering these issues—indeed, by implication, that they are unhealthy. In stark contrast, Twilight presents a frighteningly abusive relationship as an ideal.
Out of low self-esteem, a lack of inexperience in love, or manipulation on the parts of their partners, many victims of emotional abuse confuse their partners' abusive behavior for exactly what the books make Edward's actions out to be: signs of intense devotion and passion. That the Twilight series seems to encourage that confusion breaks my heart.
Given the rather frightening statistic regarding teens in abusive relationships and the fact that at least one in three women will experience violence in a relationship during her lifetime—and especially because I've seen the devastating effects of emotional and physical abuse firsthand—I’m extremely uncomfortable with Twilight's idealization of abusive behavior. So if you asked me if I’d like to stop teenage girls from reading Twilight, I’d really, really want to say yes.
But I can’t be both against censoring dark content in young adult literature and for banning a particular series because it exhibits a trend I find scary. I can’t both believe that teenagers are smart enough to make positive decisions and accuse these books of brainwashing teens. I can’t believe that young adults need to be free to own their own destinies and then try to prevent them from learning for themselves what healthy love is. And I can’t deny that, in relationships like in everything else, those who are drawn to darkness are going to find it regardless of how others intervene, and only they can decide to look for a way out.
So while I won’t be recommending Twilight to any of the teens I know, I can’t and won’t argue that the series should be banned. Instead, I hope that those who are as concerned about the dangers of abuse as I am will use the books’ popularity as a jumping-off point for conversations about what healthy relationships look like. I hope many librarians will learn from YALSA’s L. Lee Butler, who uses the book as a tool for anti-domestic and sexual assault education. I hope that parents, friends, and teachers will talk to girls about their own experiences (both good and bad) in relationships so that these girls can begin to decide for themselves what healthy love looks like. I hope that writers will come together to depict more balanced relationships in just as alluring a manor, and that teenage girls will begin to migrate toward stronger female characters and model their relationships off of healthier examples.
It’s reassuring that the first five comments teens made on the My Life is Twilight post that worries me most all urge the person who submitted it to question the healthiness of her relationship and to seek help. Though it’s easy to get caught up in the dream world of fiction, I do have faith in readers to sort out (sometimes through the mistakes they will invariably make) the difference between fiction and reality. And I trust that teenage girls will be smart enough to listen, strong enough to survive whatever path they turn down, and powerful enough to heal themselves and to heal others when it's needed.
I have to have faith in that.