The dark side of the Twilight phenomenon

The hit movies Twilight and New Moon – and the books they are basd on – have huge popular appeal but glamourise violent, dependent romantic relationships

New Moon, the latest movie instalment of the romance featuring lovelorn teenager Bella and her two subhuman admirers, vampire Edward and wolf-man Jacob, is a bona fide box office hit, having grossed US$255 million in the US and NZ$5 million in New Zealand – so far.

Based on Stephenie Meyer's blockbuster book, New Moon contains elements that are deeply disturbing, although little critique of the underlying messages pervading the Twilight series has appeared in mainstream media. At least one theme that recurs strongly in New Moon should be of great concern to those who work with young people, at whom this movie is targeted, and those working in mental health services.

Given that New Zealand has some of the highest rates of youth suicide in the OECD, a movie that depicts a teenager throwing herself off a cliff out of despair over a broken relationship, and engaging in other self-harming behaviours in pitiable attempts to induce hallucinations of her estranged boyfriend, should be cause for alarm. The boyfriend also decides that suicide is the only alternative to an existence without his loved one. The relationship between these two, which is held up as something wondrous and exciting, is in truth pathological and crippling to both.

Is this the sort of relationship we want young people to emulate and hold up as an ideal – one that labels a sad delusion that life cannot be lived without another person as romantic heroism? The answer to pain is not a permanent withdrawal from the world but the development of resilience.

The Twilight movies also implicitly support the notion that physical violence towards women in a relationship is acceptable, perhaps even inevitable. Bella deliberately puts herself in situations where the males competing for her affections may be provoked to hurt her, even after they themselves warn her of the danger. Instead of protecting herself, she embraces the possibility of being seriously harmed or even killed – all for the sake of the infatuated co-dependency that passes for love in these movies.

In a country with appalling statistics on family violence shouldn’t we want girls, when confronted with potentially violent partners, to walk away and seek help, not passively accept and encourage it? Maybe sexual tension is heightened by having a boyfriend with supernatural powers he is not quite in control of, but the message for young women should be that their personal safety is more important than the buzz received from hanging out with a sexy guy.

Finally, the character of Bella is a source of shame to any self-respecting feminist. I fail to understand how she manages to attract so much male attention – I don’t know many men who would put up for long with her self-centred, neurotic insecurities. Endless propping up of another’s ego is a tiring business, especially when that person is wholly consumed with the idea of abandoning her life as a human, including her family and friends, to become an immortal monster who drinks blood.

The most dreadful aspect of Bella’s insipid character is that she is entirely dependent on the males in her life. All of her actions revolve around them – everything she does is in response to Edward or Jacob. She plays the consummate damsel in distress, without any desire to save herself – how is this possible in the 21st century? Of course, we would all like to be rescued now and then, preferably by someone extraordinarily handsome with stacks of money, but we also know we have to be able to pull ourselves up, for the times a superhero isn’t available. And, unfortunately, males as credulously devoted as Edward and Jacob are much rarer in real life than in the pages of fiction.

Bella is ready to dispense with the safety nets of a solid education and firm family connections (in later books) for her paramour, but these things may be essential for girls in a world without vampires, but more fickle males of our own species. Why has this story had such appeal to women, despite the dark undercurrents of violence and self-repression? Perhaps it is due to the tremendous pressure society places on women to be superhuman – to simultaneously hold down a job, run a home, be mother, daughter, wife and friend. The appeal of the superhuman man, who is not only unbelievably gorgeous, the perfect gentleman, sensitive, intelligent and wonderfully rich, is overwhelming.

But just as no mere man can be and do all these things, neither can mere woman be and do everything. Perhaps if women felt less expectation from society to be superhuman, then they would find their human male counterparts more attractive than fictional vampires and werewolves, and trashy fantasies like Twilight would lose their appeal.