Okay! Great discussion from last post, and I'd like to continue it on a couple of points. Sorry this is a long post. And please know that when I ask questions, I'm sincerely asking and not being rhetorical or sarcastic. I think there's room for discussion and I like to know what you think. I'm not writing these posts in order to promote Twilight or any book. I'm not the least bit bothered by anyone not liking them. It's impossible for any book to appeal to everyone. But what does bother me is how not just widely acceptable but laudable it's become to unkindly ridicule and even hate the creator of the series and anyone who like the series.
I think it's a lot easier to believe that those who think differently from us are brainwashed or stupid than to try to understand them. But trying to understand is the only way to have empathy, to be genuinely kind, to live in a world of friendship, compromise, and respect. (more on this in another post, if you'll permit me. it's been on my mind a lot through the past election.) And Trying to Understand is what reading books is really good at.
I think the most crucial point that came out of the discussion is the idea that Twilight can be a damaging book because Edward and Bella are in an abusive relationship and this can lead girls/women to believe that such a relationship is okay/desirable.
Let me deal with one (just one, please!) point that some use to illustrate that Edward is controlling and abusive, just as an example: He always wants to drive. He never wants Bella to drive. If I had a girlfriend who told me, "Man, I really like this guy, but whenever I want to drive, he insists that he do it. It makes me feel like he thinks I'm weak and useless." I'd be like, "Girl, kick him to the curb!" Unless…
Yes, unless. I think you absolutely have to look at context whenever criticizing a book. Unless the guy is a supernatural being with laser-fast reflexes who is factually a better driver than anyone on the planet, and the girl is clumsy by nature, and the guy watched her almost killed by a car once and is so desperate to protect her that driving seems like one small thing he can do to keep her alive. And this situation could never, ever happen in real life.
I don't make that point to try to convince those of you who think Edward is abusive and bad into believing otherwise. You have every right to think that. Reading is intensely personal. What I'm trying to do is ask, can you see the other side? Can you squint at it and sort of understand why maybe some people don't read the book the way you did? Is it possible that one might be aware of the signs of an abusive boyfriend and yet in the context of the story and the characters view their actions as rational and interesting even if they wouldn't be outside the story? Can you allow that some might actually like Twilight without being brainwashed or stupid? And to take this broader, can we all try to imagine that anyone who holds different opinions than we do might have valid reasons for those opinions and we can still respect them?
I absolutely do not want to get into a point-by-point discussion where people list the parts of the book that bother them and others defend those points. There are many places on the web where you can do that. Here I want to use Twilight as a springboard into a larger discussion. Is Twilight harmful to young readers? One of the main issues so many of you said you have with Twilight is that "it sends a harmful message to teen girls" and it can dangerously convince teen girls that an abusive relationship is desirable. It's interesting that no one (not here, tumblr, twitter, or Facebook) has told me that Twilight negatively impacted them personally, that they got/stayed in an abusive relationship because of Twilight, only that they worry that it would have that affect on others.
What I want to know is, is that a legitimate concern? With over 100 million books sold, if this is a real danger, we should have some data on it. Please add a comment if you have firsthand knowledge of such an instance, I would love to know. I've heard from one person who has a friend who was in an abusive relationship who had read Twilight and compared the boyfriend (in a positive way) to Edward. I've also heard from several people who said they were in a bad relationship when they read Twilight and reading about Bella and Edward made them reexamine their own relationship, recognize the guy treated them badly, and decide to end it. So far, in my personal experience and in talking with many people over the years, I don't have reason to believe that reading Twilight has influenced readers into getting/staying in an abusive relationship. But this is a very serious concern, so I think it's worth discussing.
I have no doubt that books influence us. They'd better! They have power. But in my experience, the power books have is to make us think. We think about something, perhaps in a new way, and maybe decide to change our mind. Or we think about something we already believed and that process helps us confirm our previous opinion. I don't know of any instance of a healthy individual who was over-influenced by a book or damaged by a book in that it provoked them to make damaging choices. I think that's giving too much power to books and taking too much away from individuals.
Uncle Tom's Cabin changed the world. It didn't trick people into acting like any of the characters. It presented the issue of slavery through a story so powerful it helped the readers think about it deeply, reexamine things, force them to form an opinion. It provoked just as many readers into becoming firm abolitionists as it angered firm slave-owners. It didn't blind readers and turn them into imitators of its plot and characters. Again, it made them think.
When I talk to a teen girl who has read Twilight, she will be able to tell me why or why not Edward is an ideal boyfriend. She's thinking about it. And not in isolation. In concert with her life experience, with other books she's read, with conversations she's had with others on the subject. Thinking about things, talking about things--in my mind, that's all very good.
I don't mind that people use Edward's behavior in Twilight to outline possible abusive behavior. Any way to get that message out is fine with me. More people are talking about it, more people are aware of the signs of an abusive relationship than they were before. Great! But is reading about this relationship damaging girls? I think we need to be fair about declaring the Bella/Edward relationship as a harmful model.
Let me outline for you a relationship I'm in right now. There are two people in my life who I love so much that I think I would die if I lost them. And it's mostly great. We laugh together, they tell me they love me and kiss and hug me. But sometimes they hit me. They hit me in the face with bottles and books and telephones. They make messes they expect me to clean up. They demand food and if they don't like it they throw it on the floor. They can be angry and mean and bite, but if I even leave the room, they cry and cling to me. Out of context, it sounds abusive, but since they're my toddlers, it's a really bad example of abusive behavior. Admitedly this is a ridiculous, an extreme example of taking something out of context. So let's look at other ones.
It could be a game! Choose a novel. Take the actions of the character out of context, list them, and align them with an anti-social, abusive, unhealthy behavior. Take for example Katniss, a character often lauded for being "strong" in contrast to Bella being "weak." Out of context, Katniss is an extremely unhealthy, murderous, psychopathic personality (especially in the third book). This is not a criticism of Hunger Games, which I loved. I just want to make sure we're being fair. Bella is often condemned for not being a good role model for girls. Is Katniss really the best role model? Why are we more worried about what Twilight is "teaching" teens than what Hunger Games is teaching? Because the context of Hunger Games is further from the real world than Twilight? Are vulnerable naive teen girls able to distance themselves from some stories like Hunger Games but unable to do so with Twilight? Why?
Will reading Harry Potter encourage children to engage in witchcraft?
Will reading Romeo & Juliet encourage teens to commit suicide over love?
Will reading ANY of my high school English texts convince girls that they are lesser beings than males, unworthy of having their own stories, and worth only being a love interest or model for bad behavior?
Does reading (and loving) a book make us into different people than we would have been? What effect does it really have?
Are some right to be genuinely concerned that Twilight will lead impressionable young girls into abusive relationships? Or convince them that the abusive relationship they're in at the moment is actually good for them? Has this happened?
I think these are fair and complex questions, and perhaps impossible to answer fully because we don't read in isolation. Everything we read is in conversation with everything we've read/experienced before and during and after. If there's a teen girl who locks herself up with the Twilight books and reads nothing else and watches nothing else and will interact with no one then GET HER TO A THERAPIST. (Also if she isolates herself and only reads Fitzgerald. Or Austen. Or Shakespeare. This behavior is never healthy.) My opinion is that a story's purpose is to be 1. entertaining and 2. good to think with. If a story has an agenda so strict it tries to control the reader and doesn't allow a reader to think, then it fails. I don't think a book's job is to provide perfect role models (if we took the time, I bet we could name hundreds of bad role models in excellent books). But I don't think Twilight has an agenda or is trying to portray "do it like this" morals. I think it's a story, for some an entertaining story, that has provoked a lot of people to think about something they hadn't before.
If you're interested in this discussion, please read the comments from my last post. I wanted to quote them all! Thanks for your insight. I want to end now with an email I got from a teenager that beautifully exhibits how books make us think.
You have been talking a lot recently about whether Twilight is the direct cause of abusive relationships, and I agree a lot with what you have been saying/asking. You asked if young reader emulate characters, and personally I can say that to an extent I did exactly that: after reading a book I frequently think about what I admired about characters, and try to become more like them - or the reverse, if I identify with a trait that I don't like I have found books can be helpful for working through those. When I was 13 I was (I think, I guess I will never know really) very close to developing an eating disorder, but I read a book in which the main character went through that, and it made me ask myself what it was I was thinking. I read every book I could find with character going through similar problems. At first I think I was trying to find a story where it ended well for the girl, where it was a positive thing, but I never found one. Gradually it become about finding ways to change my thoughts so that it was not an option. I didn't feel like I had anyone I could talk about these issues with, and I don't know what would have happened without those books.
Around the same time I read Dreamland, by Sarah Dessen. I remember pausing after reading the chapter where Cassie's boyfriend first hits her and thinking something along the lines of, if I had a boyfriend I wouldn't care if he hit me, at least he would love me. That thought scared me, and in a lot of way I think it was a turning point, because I started to again think about the self destructive path I was potentially on.
(I have never been in an abusive relationship so that has never been tested, but it still scares me sometimes when I remember the fact that I am still not sure how I would respond to that situation.)
I read Twilight a year or so after most of this happened, and I was still sort of struggling with these issues. I didn't think of Edward as abusive, and I though he was a perfect boyfriend. Later after hearing people discuss him as abusive it scared me again: was I idealising an abusive relationship, as I know I had done in the past? I still don't really know. But I do think that the books aren't the cause, for me they have helped identify already existing parts of myself, and also work to become a better. I think, while books are clearly powerful teaching tools, external factors are always going to be the real driving cause.