The Twilight Saga tells the ever-evolving story of a 17-year-old girl, Bella, a 17-year-old vampire, Edward (chronological age 103), their turbulent road to falling in love, and the consequences of their young, romantic relationship. The huge success of the Twilight Saga movies has been a result of the popularity of the books by Stephanie Meyer, which have been causing youth, young adults, and adults to flock to the bookshelves by the masses. The fourth film installment of the series was just released on the big screen this November 18. Watch the trailer below:
I became interested in the Twilight Saga as a consultant to (and trainer of) professionals who work with girls and women. Admittedly, I was also personally interested in what all the media hype was about, and as a mother, I was curious to find out whether I would want my own daughters to read these books or see these movies. So, as everyone else seemed to be doing, I spent the summer of 2010 reading each of the four books in the series. I would be lying if I did not say that the books held my attention. I found the science fiction and romance combo to be interesting, and I very much appreciated Stephanie Meyers’ detailed exploration of the supernatural world. She thought out every detail thoroughly and threaded the idiosyncrasies of the world she created with great consistency through the plots of all the books. To my surprise, I even developed a “stomach” for the sci-fi genre after reading the books.
And then my sci-fi bubble popped.
And it wasn't because I was suddenly seeing Twilight differently as a thirty-five-year-old adult. It was because I started seeing it through the eyes of the thousands of young girls flocking to the bookshelves and theaters to experience it. I am stunned that it has somehow become acceptable for girls of all ages to read the books and watch the movies. The plot’s themes are not only very mature, but they may—however unintentionally—convey messages that actually reinforce negative stereotypes of females as weak, in need of protection, and worthy only if they are on the arm of a desired male. Mature adults have the capacity to edit these themes and apparent messages while reading—young girls do not. Assuming that they do is akin to expecting a toddler to ride a two-wheeler. They are simply not there yet developmentally. In fact, adolescent girls are neck-deep in the process of figuring out who they are. Exposing them to such mature themes while they are moving through a significant developmental phase is irresponsible and harmful.
While I am not suggesting that parents (whether aware of the potential harm these movies can cause, or not) are intentionally risking harm to their daughters by allowing them to read these books and see the movies, I am making the case that doing so introduces an unnecessary risk to their daughters’ construction of a healthy female identity. Consider the following examples:
In the first movie of the series,Twilight, Bella’s entire life is Edward, and her obsession with him occurs almost instantly. After she falls in love with him (and he with her) he becomes her entire world. She makes it clear that she would rather die than be without him. In the second movie, New Moon, after Edward breaks up with Bella, she falls apart for months, disconnects from peers, and relies on another male character, Jacob, to make her feel whole again. She believes she is nothing without Edward and engages in risky behaviors just to feel close to him. Subsequently, when she and Edward reunite, Bella is focused on only being with Edward. Her education takes a distant second to being with him and she speaks of no other life goals outside of being with Edward forever. In the third movie, Eclipse, Bella is willing to give up everyone and everything, including her mortality, to be with Edward by becoming a vampire herself.
As is the case with any series, the Twilight plot thickens with each installment, and new twists and turns are introduced that makes the series even more captivating. The fourth installment, and recently released film in the series, Breaking Dawn, includes themes that are particularly concerning for girls. For example, Bella marries Edward with no discussion of any other future goals. When they have sex, Bella ends up with bruises because Edward cannot completely control his own strength. And, when she becomes pregnant with a half human, half vampire baby, she experiences a violent pregnancy and birth. These themes are received and interpreted much differently by the psyche of girls and young women (versus a mature adult). Exposing girls to these types of themes can inevitably introduce unnecessary risks to their development of a strong female identity. For example, Edward sneaks into Bella’s room to watch her sleep without her knowledge. “Wow,” our daughters think to themselves, “He must really love her.”
Do we want our girls engaged in obsessive relationships? Do we want a male to be the center of their universe? Do we want them to justify physical harm from their romantic partners in the name of love just as Bella justifies the bruises she receives from Edward?
“C’mon,” you say, “Edward is a vampire. It’s different. It's make believe.” But is it, really?
Is this where we are in 2011—justifying risky themes because they exist in a vampire world that our daughters are infatuated with? As thousands of girls continue to flock to the books and the movies, they continue to fuel a sad cycle of life imitating art.
Parents: what are we seeing happen in the plots of our daughter’s lives?
Abusive relationships where their partners violate their boundaries, a lack of deep exploration of and excitement about who they are and what makes them valuable, and an emergence into adolescence with what female development expert Carol Gilligan calls "a loss of voice.”
Research continues to show that in comparison to boys, girls are more anxious and stressed, experience diminished academic achievement, suffer from increased depression and lower self-esteem, experience more body dissatisfaction and distress over their looks, suffer from greater numbers of eating disorders and attempt suicide more frequently.
We have to be intentional with our daughters. They are making a host of decisions every day as they navigate the ups and downs of life and its complicated relationships. Do we want the Twilight Saga to be their reference point? With the plethora of research on the challenges girls experience as they grow up, is this series the best choice for them during this phase of their lives?
I am not concerned that the Twilight Saga exists. Like countless other stories, it wrestles with the complexity and rawness of human emotion and behavior. I am, however, concerned with the ease with which we allow our daughters to read and see it. Research shows that learning positive messages about oneself is an important protective factor for girls. I would imagine that virtually all parents would love nothing more than to see their daughters cultivate a strong sense of self, meaningful connections with others, and clear sense of independence and ambition.
Have the courage to stand apart from other parents!
Be thoughtful about what you allow and when you allow it. Read the sentinel works that tackle female development and how you can best support your daughter’s journey such as Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia and Peggy Orenstein’s Schoolgirls. Empower yourself with knowledge, and you just may see your daughters do the same.—Alyssa Benedict
Alyssa Benedict, MPH is the founder and Executive Director of CORE Associates, LLC (Creating Opportunities through Research and Education) and provides training and technical assistance to schools, agencies, programs, institutions and systems that work with girls and women. Having worked for over a decade developing and implementing programs and interventions for females who have already exhibited risky behaviors, Alyssa has become a staunch advocate for the creation of “optimal early development” opportunities for girls and boys in their in homes, schools and communities. She continues to study the impact of early experiences on healthy psychological development, including those that impact gender identity formation. She can be reached at COREassociatesLLC@comcast.net.______________________________________________________________
1. American Psychological Association, "A New Look at Adolescent Girls".
2. Jill McLean Taylor, Carol Gilligan, and Amy Sullivan, Between Voice and Silence: Women and Girls: Race and Relationship (Boston: Harvard University Press, 1995).
3. Image via COMAS on Flick'r.