I know, I know…Twilight? Seriously? That silly teen drama with the sparkly vampires and the ridiculous love triangle? (not to mention all the excessive staring and the stilted acting?)
Well, yes, actually. That one. (Well, those four. Or five to be exact, since the forth book was adapted into two movies, complete with added “it was all a dream” plot lines that fail to disguise the obvious ploy to squeeze more money out of us.)
You see, as parents, we have a choice. We can make sure that our kids will only watch the best, most appropriate and ideologically “correct” movies, the ones with the perfect messages and role models … Or we can actually prepare them for the real world out there. Because one day, and that day isn’t all that far into the future, they WILL watch the kind of junk we want to protect them from. And on that day, all the coddling in the world won’t help them. If anything, it will leave them ill-equipped to think critically, analyze what they see, and draw their own conclusions.
Remember how Elsa’s parents locked her in a room to protect her? (Yes, I do have a 3-years-old daughter. However did you guess?) They thought that by isolating her from social interactions they will leave the princess free to perfect her self-control.
Do you remember what happened as soon as Elsa stepped foot in a situation that called for interaction with other people (the kind of situation that was bound to come up, mind you, seeing as it’s a bit hard to rule without ever meeting anyone)? Elsa’s carefully crafted self-control, carefully crafted in unnaturally sterile and challenge-free conditions, that is, snapped oh-so-not-shockingly within one afternoon.
(Read more about Frozen’s flawed parents here.)
Well, I don’t intend to lock my children in a metaphorical room. I want them to know what it is they will face in the future (movie-wise and otherwise) and be ready for it. And the Twilight Saga happens to be the perfect tool to prepare them for something far more sinister than silly movies of doubtful cinematic merit: abusive relationships.
Abusive relationships can happen to anyone. They trap women (and less frequently, men) from all backgrounds and all walks of life. And once the relationships evolve, the trap is sprung and escape becomes exceedingly difficult. Abusers twist, manipulate and control their victims’ perception of reality, isolate them from people who might help, and sabotage their sense of worth and self-dependence. Confused and alone, the victims don’t always understand what’s happening to them, and often can’t bring themselves to break free even when they do (read more here).
Many individuals and organizations try to help young people to avoid such relationships in the first place. They teach them what early warning signs to look out for in potential partners, and what behavior patterns mean that it’s time to run the other way. You can find such lists all over the Internet (see here for example), and they are often very useful – I personally know several young women who used them to escape potential disasters. But all these resources suffer from one fatal flaw:
It’s much harder to recognize the signs when you’re in love.
When you’re emotionally invested in a relationship, you want it to work. You want it to justify your choice to pursue it (especially if people around you warned you against it, and now you have something to prove). You want it to be worthy of the romantic narrative you weaved around the two of you as you fell in love.
And within this frame of mind, it’s extremely easy to excuse away worrying signs.
He goes through your text messages and asks you to cut ties with certain friends? Well, it’s only because he loves you so much, and has your best interests at heart! They must be the wrong kind of friends anyway.
She calls you all the time and gets angry when you don’t pick up? Well, it’s only because she worries about you!
He tells you to change the way you dress/the company you keep/the job you love? Well, it’s only because he sees your potential and wants you to live up to it!
He acts in ways that eerily resemble that list of early warning signs you once read? Well, clearly the list doesn’t apply to loving relationships like your own, and you must be the exception to the rule!
Things that look sinister when you read an article online, look romantic from an insider’s perspective. And therefore, what we need as parents and educators is more than an impersonal list. If we want to truly prepare our children for the risks out there, we need a way to show them what the warning signs look like when they’re wrapped in romance. We need a way to expose them to what abusive relationships actually feel like.
And this is where Twilight makes its grand entrance.
Almost everything about Bella and Edward’s relationship follows classic patterns of abuse. Edward stalks Bella, keeps tabs on her, isolates her (as her father points out explicitly in the third book/movie), bars her from meeting certain people, and exhibits irrational jealousy. He withholds information and makes crucial relationship decisions without consulting her. He hurts her time and time again in the name of knowing what’s best for her (because CLEARLY abandoning Bella in the woods after crashing her self confidence should be good for her…), manipulates her into changing her personal style (designer clothes and fancy cars, anyone?), and makes her feel guilty whenever she tries to stand up for herself.
But within the Twilight world, these behaviors are somehow perceived as romantic. Bella sees them as part and parcel of the kind of all-consuming, total love she wants, and her point of view invites us to do the same.
Many victims of abuse tell themselves the same excuses as their abusers sap their sense of self away. They continue to cling to them as things get worse and worse, leading to emotional scarring, physical injuries, and sometimes even death. Ironically, Bella doesn’t escape this fate either: Her relationship literally saps her humanity away and ends her life. If it wasn’t for the magical deus ex machina fact that in Twilight death can lead to vampirism, Bella’s death would have been a tragic yet not-particularly-surprising conclusion for her relationship, instead of a romantic pathway to a better future.
I hope and pray that my children will never find themselves in abusive relationships. But they might. Or their friends might, and my children will be in a position to offer help. And so I plan to give them every tool possible to recognize and battle an abuser’s approach… Even if it means sitting through ten hours and eight minutes of crappy films.
I will watch the Twilight Saga with my children one day. And I will ask them what they think of Bella and Edward’s relationship. Is it romantic? Is it healthy? Could it work if he wasn’t a supernatural creature? How would you feel if someone treated you this way – cherished? Loved? A little intimidated?
Abuse feels like all of the above. And young people need to know that, or risk missing the obvious signs.