A Boyfriend to Die For
Or just feeding on insecurities?
By Deb Merskin
There is a dangerous young man living amongst us who is perennially young, tremendously good-looking and thoroughly charming. He drives a sporty Volvo, wears elegant clothing and his father is a doctor. This 17-year-old, well-positioned vampire is the object of desire for a teenage girl who has just moved from the warmth of urban Phoenix, Ariz., to the pallor of Forks, Wash., to live with her father, the town sheriff. The girl’s only apparent talents are cooking and ironing. Otherwise she is uncoordinated, frequently falls down, often gets lost, is socially awkward and needs regular rescuing. She is also completely fascinated (some might say obsessed) with the seemingly unattainable young vampire. Her name is Bella Swan. His name is Edward Cullen. This is their story.
Twilight, the first in Stephanie Meyer’s series of teen-targeted vampire tales, has been a runaway popular and commercial hit. The movie, while not a critical success, was nevertheless received with open arms by members of its target audience— mostly girls — as is the soon-to-be-released sequel. Spawning merchandise and a movie, the Edward and Bella series has, since 2005, sold more than 42 million books worldwide and grossed more than $382 million. Adoration of the books and movie suggests a refreshing move in popular culture — a girl hero. In another vein, however, Twilight has its dark side.
Bella’s idolization and subsequent obsession with Edward reflects a growing backlash against independent and spirited girls who don’t require the attention of boys to feel good about themselves. Evident in the current feeding frenzy of media attention to vampire stories, these otherwise autonomous girls are drawn to the emotional unavailability and physical danger of these boys. Bella will do everything she can to attract and keep Edward’s attention, even risk the safety of her family for this dangerous love. This is, of course, not a new theme in literature, but the cultural emphasis on this relationship dynamic comes at a time when girls’ newly hard-won freedom should be leading to greater social and political equity. As parents and educators we should critically evaluate the message the books deliver.
The director of the film Twilight, Catherine Hardwicke, said, “You have the story of a young woman falling so deeply in love that she doesn’t care if she dies or becomes a vampire.” I believe this is something to be concerned about. Having the boyfriend or girlfriend of one’s dreams can seem like life or death to an adolescent. However, in the case of this story’s heroine, the consequences are literal. Despite applause for the book series’ and film’s emphasis on self-control and girl power, I believe those messages are lost by rewarding Bella not for confronting her insecurities, not for being strong and seeing that this guy is dangerous, but rather for her dependence on a monster who can only offer her death or an eternal life like his feeding on others.
Examined psychologically, the main male character Edward fits all the criteria of psychopathy — or more specifically, compensated psychopathy — as described by psychologist Adolf Guggenbühl-Craig. Unlike headline-making mass murderers, these charismatic killers manage to pass practically undetected in the everyday world. In fact, it is their inaccessibility that makes these (mostly) men so darn appealing.
The compensated psychopath does not completely lack morality — he is aware something is missing. In Twilight, Edward Cullen constantly reviews this lacunae with Bella: “I have human instincts — they may be buried deep, but they’re there,” he says, and “I’m not used to feeling so human. Is it always like this?”
Other symptoms of this psychopath-who-can-pass, besides confusing love and lust, is the absence of any psychic development (Edward is frozen in time at age 17), a background depression (a sense of never fitting in) and a chronic background fear of being found out. Bella dismisses these personality disorders as an “unusual quirk” in his personality.
A secondary symptom of psychopathy is the ability to be simultaneously charming and evoke pity. Bella is drawn to the unattainable Edward, who shares outsider status. Bella spends most of the book in self-deprecating inner dialogue. Bella’s simultaneous attraction and repulsion at the idea of him as a vampire suggests her own ambivalence about growing up. She lives and breathes the idea of him — he is distant and too perfect. His need for control by rescuing and protecting her results in his being with her at every moment, even when she’s asleep. Pretty creepy, I’d say, and she thinks that kind of attention is love.
Bella says, “I was consumed by the mystery Edward presented. And more than a little obsessed by Edward himself.” Furthermore, she realizes, “I couldn’t allow him to have this level of influence over me. It was pathetic. More than pathetic, it was unhealthy.” But he does and she does.
As her name portends, Bella Swan is the fair virgin. She and Edward do a dance of predator and prey; victim and violator. In fact, the movie version of Twilight ends with Edward and Bella doing just that — dancing — under a gazebo at the high school prom, unknowingly observed by a dangerous, female renegade vampire. The two even refer to one another as the lion (Edward) and the lamb (Bella). Edward says, “And so, the lion fell in love with the lamb … what a sick, masochistic lion.”
Despite the fact that he could easily kill her, Bella often talks about how she is not afraid of him and how she refuses “to be convinced to fear him, no matter how real the danger might be.” She “would rather die than stay away” from Edward, and knew, “at any moment it could be too much, and my life could end — so quickly that I might not even notice. I couldn’t make myself be afraid. I couldn’t think of anything, except that he was touching me.”
Bella is completely under the spell of this very dangerous man, and she looses any sense of self-preservation. early in Twilight she says, “About three things I was absolutely positive. First, Edward was a vampire. Second, there was part of him — and I didn’t know how potent that part might be — that thirsted for my blood. And third, I was unconditionally and irrevocably in love with him.”
The popularity of the series raises questions about audience engagement with fantasy material and the pedagogical function of mass media such as books and films. Popular press stories about real girls’ responses to the books and to the actor suggest his promotional appearances at malls are no play date.
A New York Times story described girls’ responses to the actor who plays Edward (Robert Pattinson): “When Mr. Pattinson appeared at the Apple store in SoHo the week before one young fan asked him to bite her.” Pattinson said, “The connection that I am an actor playing this character is sort of skipped … They are in denial. They think I am Edward Cullen.”
Many teen girls have dumped Harry Potter for the more exciting and dangerous Edward Cullen. According to one story, a 13-year-old girl said, “Nobody really believes you can have magic, but some people believe you can find the perfect guy.” A vampire — the perfect guy? That’s what I think is really scary about Twilight.
Despite, or because of, the popularity of this series, the characterization of Edward as a desirable male poses a danger to real girls-as-eventual-women’s sense of self and development and the idea of the power dynamics in real relationships with boys-as-eventual-men.
Once upon a time in media, vampires were presented as disgusting, gelatinous, primordial figures who reflected more about death and decay than romance and redemption. Today’s sexed-up version presents a consistent tension (also seen in Charlaine Harris’ southern vampire books, which spawned the 2008 HBO series True Blood) — whether or not the main female character will or won’t loose her virginity to a vampire and whether or not she will become one. The dynamic is present in Twilight — whether or not Bella will lose her virginity and become a vampire so that she and Edward can be together forever. What this requires, of course, is that she die in order for this relationship to reach its apex.
In a culture such as in the U.S. that places a premium on youth, eternal life and fixed ethereal beauty is a hard-to-resist combination. Male vampires presented in media as romantic partners are typically drawn to victims who are emotionally vulnerable. Teen and pre-teen girls who are wrestling with changing bodies, psyches, and sex role identities are a vulnerable audience. Thus, the vampire story resonates with girls because it taps into their desire to take risks and into the simultaneous fear and excitement of gaining the favor(s) of the gorgeous guy.
Edward, as a compensated psychopath, recognizes that if he were to give in to his urge to feed on Bella he would kill her. He says, “Wanting to be with me. That’s really not in your best interest.” Edward remains eerily self-controlled and well behaved in his actions toward Bella, at least at first. He balances his psychic defects by an overwhelming desire to protect her. The appearance of morality is merely a mask for a need to control, and in real life can become an overwhelming level of manipulation.
From the exchanges between Edward and Bella this fantasy character/teen heartthrob has entered the lives of real girls in ways that are not positive. First, the vampire as sympathetic tragic figure and object of a young girl’s desire in Twilight is an example of the culture ignoring the gender specificity of serial killing. While Edward Cullen feeds on animals other than humans, he is always but a bite away from a change in the menu, which is part of his appeal to Bella. She says, “Common sense told me I should be terrified. Instead, I was relieved to finally understand. And I was filled with compassion for his suffering, even now, as he confessed his craving to take my life.” Even more frightening is once Bella realizes this she says, of her choice to be with him, “this decision was ridiculously easy to live with. Dangerously easy.”
It would be easy to dismiss Twilight as only harmless entertainment. While Edward Cullen may be purely fictional, the power of story, of mass media, to influence viewers and readers, is well established in academic literature. To ignore that power puts us all under Edward’s spell. A substantial body of research demonstrates the power of media to influence girls’ and women’s body image, self-esteem and sexual identity. Girls have a special relationship with books in particular.
Just as psychopathy, particularly CP, is difficult to identify in real life, the romanticization of it in fiction, fiction that targets girls via stories about vampires, is also potentially dangerous. As a source of learning, the media play an important role in socializing young people. If the information coming to girls is that a dangerous, psychopathic boy whose allure is built in part on taking advantage of their vulnerability to his good looks is a good thing, I believe they are psychically and physically in danger. This is not a call for censorship, but for mediation.
Debra Merskin, Ph.D., is a UO associate professor of journalism and freelance writer.