Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Waiting for the Right Monster to Come Along: On Twilight, Abusive Relationships, and YA Saves

I had barely finished formulating my beliefs about the YA Saves controversy when I found them being challenged. But the attack didn’t come from the friends with whom I discussed the controversy, the worried parents of teens, or even from the supporters of Meghan Cox Gurdon’s article. No, the challenge to my beliefs greeted me coyly from the top of my to-be-read pile. Because the first book I picked up after the YA Saves controversy began was Twilight.

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:
Am I the only one who gets shivers just reading that? Or, for that matter, whose skin crawled reading some of Edward’s dialogue in the novels?

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.


  1. The difference between you and me and someone like Gurdon, is that we recognize there's something unhealthy in Twilight, but don't advocate censorship. If I knew a young woman who was super into Twilight because it was romantic, I would engage her in conversations about healthy relationships and recommend other books that portray healthier romances (which, unfortunately, are few and far between in the paranormal books I've read. Few are as actively creepy as Twilight, but there's a lot of creepy stuff out there). I wouldn't (and don't) say that Twilight is trash and needs to be banned from bookshelves everywhere (though if it were to disappear on its own...or the market shifted so something more exciting took its place...).

    I also feel Twilight is a different animal because I think few of those dark books Gurdon was talking about actively glorify cutting, suicide and abuse. They are certainly present and described in varying ammounts of detail, but by the end the protagonist has often learned to overcome some of these impulses. Because these are complicated psychological issues she may not be 100% "cured," but a journey towards healing has at least begun. By the end of Twilight, everything works out beautifully and perfect for Bella (frustrating not only because of the problematic relationships, but also from a literary perspective and as a fan of vampire stories!).

  2. You know, each time I look back at Gurdon's article or catch up on the media surrounding it, I'm even more confused about exactly what she is advocating. She swore in radio interviews on NPR that she wasn't advocating for dark YA lit to be banned, but neither does she seem to be advocating for it to be accompanied by education and discussion. The latter is where I think the conversation needs to turn; we all have particular topics that push our buttons, but the only sensible way to confront these is by spreading awareness and using literature as a tool through which we can educate others.

  3. A friend of mine asked me if she should let her 8 year old read Twilight. Her concern was more about explicit content. I told her she didn't have to worry about that, but that she should read it first so she could talk about it with her daughter. I explained, not only about the abusive nature of Bella and Edward's relationship, but the vilification of female sexuality. Through out the books the only true threat is Bella's sexuality - which is not only contained (domesticated) in the fourth book but punished as well.

    I think the key to all of this is dialogue. Parents need to be paying attention to what their kids read and reading it too, so they can talk about this stuff. However we all feel about Twilight or any other "offensive" literature, there are lessons in all of it if the right discussion takes place.

  4. It sounds like you gave your friend really good advice, Devyn. I think it would be wonderful if all books could be a springboard for good dialogues about healthy and unhealthy behavior, but especially in books that deal (intentionally or unintentionally) with issues as controversial as this one does have got to be used for discussion on top of pure entertainment.

    And an excellent observation on the vilification of Bella's sexuality; as a sex-positive, feminist reader I was also pretty strongly put off by that element of the books. I didn't bring it into this particular argument because I expect readers are more likely to be in different places when it comes to sex positivity in teens, whereas I think we can all agree that abuse is not a good thing. But Bella reads as a complete psychological mess to me, and part of that is her natural insecurity as a teen girl, but another part of that is the reinforcement of that insecurity that she receives from those around her, especially Edward.

    I guess the plus to Twilight's existence is that it offers so darn many examples of what not to do to be a healthy teenage girl in love. And those are useful so long as we take the time to ponder and discuss them.

  5. I agree that the violence inherent in Twilight should be a concern for parents, and that censorship isn't the answer. But I think that most discerning teen readers will sort of get that the relationship between Edward and Bella has significant issues on the violence/abuse front.

    My concern over a larger swath of YA is the emphasis on relationships that can serve to reinforce co-dependence (abusive and otherwise). How many books can you think of that have the main female character pining, needing to be with a guy to feel fulfilled? I think this is a more insidious issue, in that this co-dependence (especially of teenage girls, but not exclusively so) is already normalized, and has been for a very long time. Hey, I'm a dude, and as one of the few who like reading "girl books" (I will turn in my MANLY MAN card in now), I find the predilection of characters who can only find true personhood inside a romantic relationship as disturbing as Twilight-esque relationships. Really, they are the same, only with different degrees of creepiness.

  6. As a 35-year-old woman who escaped an abusive relationship and is still coming to terms with realizing exactly how much emotional abuse was present in the relationship, recognizing emotional abuse can be incredibly difficult, especially if it's couched in terms of "protection" and "passion." A lot of women, and teen girls in particular, don't have a good grasp of what healthy boundaries are, and by the time she realizes that something she thought was sweet is actually controlling ("He doesn't want me to spend time with my friends because he wants to be with me all the time! He must really love me!" for example) she may be neck-deep in it, and it's not easy to escape.

    Really, I think that Twilight-esque relationships are almost a *manifestation* of that perceived inability to find true personhood without a relationship; if I am nothing without him, then why shouldn't he have the right to dictate the terms of my life? If I am nothing without him, then I should put up with anything he asks of me, because him leaving me, for whatever reason, would be the worst thing that could happen.

    Another disturbing aspect of Twilight (I know, right?) is Bella's relationship with her family and friends. Once she has a boyfriend, she's one of those girls who totally blows off her friends, she has ZERO healthy relationships in her life, the way she essentially treats her mother like a child (and steps out of her life when she decides that her mom would be happier alone with her significant other), and the way she brushes off her father's valid concerns as being overprotective... it really does create the isolated life of the domestic violence victim, and it treats it like a good thing.

  7. Reinhardt: You are so, so right. Though I've read many YA books in which I've loved the romantic elements, I have always been a bit put out by the number of books out there that confuse finding love with finding oneself. I do think that that confusion has been normalized and is a huge and rarely commented-upon part of our culture as a whole. But it bothers me most in media aimed at teens because the themes of those stories are so much about finding oneself and becoming an adult -- meaning that if a YA novel's climax is "girl getting with guy," it in some small way sends the message that becoming an adult or finding oneself is about finding the right partner. And I see so many of those books become so popular that I worry, too.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  8. Amber: Thanks so much for sharing your story, and I'm sorry to hear you've gone through that. Having survived an emotionally abusive relationship myself, I wholeheartedly agree with you. For more than a year, I took the incredible highs and lows of my relationship to be signs of how passionately we loved each other. While my boyfriend and I fought constantly and my confidence plummeted, I looked at the happier, more stable couples around me and thought, "My love's not like that, but that's just because we're intense people, and we can't and wouldn't have it any other way." It wasn't until months after I left that relationship, feeling broken and insignificant and not sure why, that I began to realize that my brokenness came out of that relationship, and that everything I'd mistaken for passion had been manipulation. For certain types of people, it is very, very hard to recognize abuse from the inside.

    That's why I agree, as well, with the fact that the sort of insecure, I-am-meaningless-without-him attitude that Bella embraces does lead to unhealthy relationships. I'm as bothered by Bella's behavior in the novels as I am by Edward's; while it would stink of victim-blaming to say it's her low self-esteem which causes their awful relationship, I want to see the novels treat her terrible self-image and near-complete lack of agency as the problems they are. But from what I can tell, Bella is never encouraged, as a real teen would or should be, to grow out of that. And that's scary.

  9. I found your take on the Twilight novels very interesting. When I first read it, I was dating my husband. He was in a state of self loathing for some past decisions he had made. He was very much aware of my safety. Oddly, I saw a lot of Edward's characteristics in him. I could understand what Bella saw in Edward.
    My husband is not abusive. He expresses his love for me in his actions. (Takes care of the baby, does the dishes, gives me a hug and lets me cry when I need it.) He also does not separate me from my friends and family. He is aslo not an immortal being who will stay young forever and will eventually turn me into one at my request or out of necessity.
    That's the key to Edward's separating Bella from her family and friends. He warns her of the consequences of her becoming a Vampire. He even tried to leave her, but she followed him. She made an informed choice. I'm not saying it was the right choice, but she made that choice. In the end, she became immortal and still had contact with her family and some solid friends.
    The comments from those girls on My Life is Twilight are frightening. I believe that they may have misunderstood the books and would have possibly have seen the same message in any number of romance books written for young adults because they only see the good in their guys.