So—read Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight saga? Seen the first movie? Seen “New Moon”? I ask because I’m about to go off on a rant. Yes, that’s right. I’m joining the fray and putting in my two cents about the romanticization of abusive and co-dependent relationships.
Abusive and co-dependent? Well, yeah… You didn’t actually think the stories presented examples of healthy relationships, did you?
When I first read the novels, which, I admit, were guilty pleasures (at least the first three were—the fourth was just…whacko), I saw straight off that these characters had issues.
First: Bella. In the first few pages of the book, we learn that Bella is worried about leaving her mother to fend for herself in Phoenix. Let me repeat that: She’s worried about leaving her mother to fend for herself. Her apparently inept mother needs to be looked after. Bella has taken on that responsibility, and now she’s worried whether her mother will be able to take care of herself without Bella there. (Thank goodness the mother has a boyfriend to help her!) So straight off, we know that Bella does not have a typical child-parent relationship with her mother. In fact, Bella has played the part of the parent by becoming her mother’s caretaker. Combine that with her father’s absence over the years and you get a heck of a setup for Bella’s future relationships.
Bella’s caretaking isn’t limited to her mother. Bella “takes care of” various people in her life by doing everything possible not to upset them and trying to make everything be okay, even at her own expense. Bella regularly disowns or hides her feelings, censors her words, and keeps her actions in check. She rarely stands up for herself or tells anyone what she’s really feeling or thinking. What a great example of girl power she is for the teen readership!
Bella’s love interests have their own sets of issues. Edward and Jacob both have “conditions” that have to be managed (if we can call vampirism and lycanthropy “conditions”), and this results in their displaying a certain level of narcissistic self-absorption, including a need to “protect” (i.e. control) everything and everyone around them. (Well, it’s in everyone’s best interests, of course.)
Edward, the brooding, mysterious vampire, is extraordinarily self-controlled, and habitually suppresses his natural “instincts.” Like Bella, he considers this suppression of instincts “noble” and a way of taking care of others. He demonstrates a clear sense of superiority over mere mortals and treats Bella like a child who must be protected, both from his power and from her own tendency to get herself into trouble. He becomes like a parent—perhaps the strong, caretaker parent that she never had. He has no sense of appropriate boundaries; he follows Bella, watches her sleep—heck, if he could listen to her thoughts, he would. Yet, despite his obsession with her and her declarations of love, he abandons her, even after swearing not to leave her. Abandoning her is an apparently noble act that’s in Bella’s best interests, of course.
Then there’s Jacob, Bella’s werewolf buddy. Unlike Edward, Jacob acts like the youth that he is. Though equally moody, Jacob is more volatile, has less self-control, and exhibits a tendency to act out. He also manipulates Bella’s emotions, guilt-trips her, and basically forces himself on her. (You may have to read the books for that bit.) All this is for her own good, of course.
Bella caters to the moods, needs and whims of both Edward and Jacob. She controls and compartmentalizes her feelings, walks on eggshells so as not to upset or anger them, and does her best to avoid disappointing them. In her eyes, they are better and more deserving than she is. She has no sense of self, apparently, and no personal power. In fact, she seems to have no life of her own—no interests, no ambition, no plans for the future. Her life is either Edward or Jacob. When neither is around, she has no one to live for.
These two guys have all the power; Bella has none. They both claim to want what’s best for her, yet, who’s determining that? Bella? Heck no. Neither male really cares or respects what she wants. They just want her to match their own fantasies of who and how she should be. (And Bella is usually willing to comply. Not choose—comply.) It’s in Bella’s “best interests” that they dismiss her feelings and violate her boundaries.
And we’re supposed to see these relationships as romantic? Wow.
I am a generation older than the teens that are so into these books. When I was a teenager, in the days of Harlequin romances (yikes!), brooding, controlling, powerful men were often the romantic ideal. Being controlled or taken by force was a sign of love (Oh, heavens!)—it meant that he cared. To be desired by a man like that was a dream come true. Oh, this powerful, unhappy man chose me! I’ll make him happy! I’ll save him! He just needs the love of a good woman. My love can heal him! I’ll gladly give him my life. I’m even willing to die to show how much I love him!… Yeah, something like that.
Has nothing changed?? I would have thought that girls today were being raised with slightly more empowering stories than I was. But it seems that many young women still believe that control means “caring” and that trading one’s life, power, or mental health for “love” is a worthy and noble sacrifice. Frankly, I’m pretty pissed at Stephenie Meyer for reinforcing these outdated, unhealthy ideas.
And so, I have been glad to see that the internet has been abuzz with discussion of Bella’s relationships, even going so far as to call them abusive.
For example, one post (which has apparently gone viral) from Captain’s Log entitled “What do you see in him again?” holds Bella’s relationships in “New Moon” up against a domestic violence checklist. The author finds fifteen signs that Bella may be in an emotionally or physically abusive relationship.
Another post on Squidoo has a title that speaks for itself: “Edward Cullen is an abusive, controlling boyfriend!”
Of course, there are a zillion comments on these and other posts defending Edward, Jacob, and Bella. Defenders use terms like “unconditional love” or claim that the characters are simply immature and learning how to be in relationships and are not really abusive. (Really. Hmm.) The author of
A 5 Part Essay on Edward Being Called an Abusive Boyfriend even attempts a lengthy rebuttal to many of the claims of abusiveness.
Look, it’s pretty simple: The relationships in these books are not healthy ones. Frankly, these characters could use serious therapy. Control is not love. If your partner is constantly telling you what to do, who to be, or how you should live your life, if your relationship has to be on their terms, if you can’t be yourself around your partner or if you’re afraid of your partner, those are pretty big clues that you’re in an unhealthy and possibly abusive relationship. Love is not about sacrificing yourself for the other person. Love is about being authentic and fully yourself and having your partner respect, value and appreciate you just the way you are. If someone uses force or coercion to get you to do something or requires you to behave in a certain way, it’s not because they care—it’s because they’re an asshole.
Even worse than Edward and Jacob’s treatment of Bella, though, is Stephenie Meyer’s treatment of her. In the books, Bella is ultimately rewarded for her “noble” self-abandoning, self-sacrificing ways. Although I had found the books entertaining, in that moment, Ms. Meyer lost me completely. In my opinion, she completely failed her “heroine” by not allowing her to grow, develop a sense of self separate from others, or develop any real human power. To me, that is a tragic message to send to today’s young women.
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For information on co-dependency, check out Patterns and Characteristics of Codependency from Co-Dependents Anonymous.
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Addendum 1/28/12: I just found this great blog post called “The Problem with Twilight” which links to another wonderful post called “Twihard with a Vengeance,” written by a very savvy teenager. Check them out!