Twilight and Abusive Relationships

I never thought I was going to have such a serious problem with a popular book that I almost didn’t put it on the shelves. I’m a cool, gay, sex-positive, pro-teen agency guy, I thought to myself when I was getting my MLIS, the parents may have problems with my selections, but too bad! I’m here to advocate for the students. And then I read Twilight.

I almost didn’t buy the Twilight books for my 7-8 school library. I don’t hate them because I’m a guy, or because of the excruciatingly bad prose, or the corruption of vampire mythology without acknowledging or commenting on the original, or even because Bella is such a waste of space. I hate them because of the sexual messaging they impart to teens, especially teen girls, robbing them of agency and normalizing stalking and abusive behavior.

Even if I hadn’t purchased the series (or is it a saga now?) for the library, it seems like every third girl in the school has her own copies, right down to the developmentally delayed girls who came in today toting matching copies of The Host. So I have to engage with it, and I’ve been trying to casually counteract the normalization when girls talk to me about their favorite book and movie of all time. (I am saying girls for a reason: Twilight seems to be universally reviled by the boys in my school, most of whom have not read it.) I don’t talk about hating the book, I just say I’m not a fan, and usually cite Edward’s stalking behavior as creepy. Sort of along the lines of this anti-text message harassment PSA. What Edward does is just not cool.

But a good (non-librarian) friend sent me this LiveJournal commentary on the movie adaptation of New Moon. The post has some NSFW language, but goes over the abusive red flags in Bella and Edward’s relationship, as laid out by the National Domestic Violence Hotline. It’s the first time I’ve seen it put so baldly, and it is shocking.

I no longer feel my casual, conversational undoing is enough. I’ve brainstormed with a Twilight-loving teacher about how to approach doing this anti-domestic violence education in a more formal way. I’ve got a call in to the dean of my school to see if I can link this in with the sexual assault education they get from the District Attorney later in the year. I couldn’t keep the books out of their hands even if I thought it was ethical to, but I also can’t sit by while a book with near-universal market penetration negatively shapes the social and sexual agency of the girls in my school.

37 thoughts on “Twilight and Abusive Relationships

  1. Thanks for speaking out on this and for pointing your students and the school to more awareness and education on domestic violence, stalking, unhealthy relationships, etc. It speaks well of you as a librarian and a human being.

  2. from the always awesome cleolinda.livejournal.com (my source for Twilight snark, when the squeeing gets to be too much)
    “Let me just say, if I say nothing else, that it’s not so much that the books themselves are dangerous or horrible or bad influences or [insert feminist/sociological complaint here]; it’s that we need to talk about those issues in hopes of neutralizing them. A lot of girls and women read these books, enjoy them, and walk away unscathed, because they’re just books. Unfortunately, we’ve also seen a number who don’t. I’m not saying that there’s any one truth here, in terms of whether these books do or do not harm whoever in whichever way. I’m just saying, clearly they’ve eaten society’s brain at this point, and it’s the sheer number of people who read them that give them their power. It’s the zeitgeist now, so we need to be having these discussions, and it’s the discussions themselves–there are no “answers”–that will keep us on stable ground. So, I’ll say it again: Parents, talk to your kids about Edward Cullen. And drugs, if you get around to that.”

  3. The way I explain boy’s (and just males in generals) opposition to Twilight is like this;

    Twilight and Edward Cullen in particular are the realization of the worse fears that any male has ever had about all females–that you can be a nice, normal guy, but that the girls will always go for the emotionally distant and abusive douchebags who treat them like crap as long as their pretty, slightly mysterious-ish, and they occasionally say vaguely deep thing that are really BS, which is why the male reaction to Twilight amounts to “GRRRRRR!!! FRIGGIN’ HATE EDWARD! MUST DESTROY THE SPARKLIES!!!1!!1!!”.

    Having to deal with Twilight either reminds older males of the rejection of girls in high school, or reaffirms everything boys currently in high school already believe to be true. about girls in high school.

  4. I’ve been having this kind of issue with purchasing books ever since I started (and gained purchasing power!) in September. My most recent internal battle was over Living Dead Girl.

    My question: would we have these purchasing qualms if the books in question weren’t already so popular? I wonder how many titles I already have in the collection that might be sending horrible messages to my teens in one way or another, and I just don’t know it because I haven’t bothered to read them–largely because they haven’t gotten the kind of buzz books like Twilight have. (Or because they’re so old I wasn’t Alive for the buzz… but that’s another issue!)

  5. As I think more about this (and it has been occupying my thoughts), I liken it to the issues surrounding Harlequin Romance Novels. I don’t think I’ve ever actually ready one myself, but it occurs to me that (and research supports this), even though they situate women in subservient roles, they are also valuable as forms of entertainment. I think our role as librarians is not to limit access to books with which we don’t agree, but to offer in addition to those books educational materials that prompt discussion about these books. In other words, if we offer access to the materials to which you have linked (abusive red flags and the national domestic violence hotline) and promote discussion of books like Twilight, we may do more good than if we limited access to Twilight. I’m not one for censorship but I don’t always like everything that’s out there.

  6. Great post.

    As to harlequin novels, Nancy B, I use them as discussion points and always did. After reading enough of them I find I have less & less tolerance for the “eye candy”. I was really enjoying regency romances as those usually have strong women characters who just happen to fall in love… but all the publishers have been bought out by the major romance publishing houses and now the thinking seems to be “well if she is unconventional then of course she’ll be having sex before marriage even if she is a woman in the early 1800s and of the aristocracy”. So we’ve gone from strong, unconventional women who kept their value to unconventional and unable to control themselves when some fantastic guy comes along – lost the strong part which is really sad.

  7. At first I kept my views about Twilight silent, because there was so much enthusiasm about it, and I was afraid it would somehow weaken the trust necessary for RA. Slowly, though, I’ve become more vocal about my discomfort with the Edward-Bella relationship. This post has encouraged me to be more strident about it.

    At the same time, I love Wuthering Heights, and am thrilled when teens want to read “that book they always talk about in Twilight.” That’s an even more problematic relationship — and it swept me away as a teen.

  8. thank you!!!! i am so glad i’m not the only one who feels this way.

    and the girls at my school put up with borderline abusive/disrespectful behavior from boys all the time, because that’s normal to them. augh.

  9. I also get the creeps from the unrealistic, obsessive love between Bella and Edward. While I totally get why this appeals to teen girls (because that’s how many of them feel about love), I fear that it enforces unrealistic expectations for romantic relationships in the same way that the Disney princess stories do. There is more to romantic relationships than codependency and a happily ever after message, and there’s more to one’s life than obsessively watching someone sleep or falling into a deep depression after your vampire boyfriend breaks up with you.

  10. i think we should also ban video games with violence in them because boys will play them and think that kind of violence in reality is okay. we should also ban movies that condone violence and have any kind of nudity and sexual behavior because kids will think it’s okay to get naked and have sex; even if protection is used. any book that doesn’t have a strong religious and/or moral message should be banned as well. no sense having kids read about something outside of what some people agree upon and making their decisions on what’s right based upon discussions with adults.

    music, don’t even get me started. where’s tipper gore when you need her? we should ban anything and everything that one or more people have personal issues with. better that than to allow people to think and make decisions for themselves.

    the above was total sarcasm but after reading your post i equate you to the same religious, repressed fundamentalists who don’t like books like catcher in the rye. personally, i hate the twilight saga of books. i think it’s lazy writing and has no redeeming value but who am i to say someone can’t read it? if you have such a problem, talk to the kids checking the book out and explain the parts you have issues with instead of just being silent. otherwise complaining about it in a blog is kind of lame.

  11. I’m an English Language Learner’s teacher. Most of my students are reluctant learners and generally despise reading. The Twilight series was like a beacon in the light for students who all too often pretend to read. I believe there is a fine line between having students read only material that is “healthy” and just getting students to read. Can anyone recommend any books my reluctant readers could read “post Twilight”? Or some “healthy” books similar to Twilight without the skewed relationship issues.

  12. @ Jason -

    Your ignorance of the person to whom your comments were addressed is amusing to those of us who know better, but is not something that could be adequately corrected on an internet blog. Your ignorance of the matter under discussion, however, is something that really ought to be addressed.

    “… who am i to say someone can’t read it?”
    Who indeed? More importantly, you failed to read the original post, in which the author clearly states ‘I almost didn’t put it on the shelves’ and also ‘I almost didn’t buy the Twilight books for my 7-8 school library’. Now, we could argue the meaning of ‘almost didn’t’, but I would wager a hefty sum that it means that the author did in fact buy the books and put them into circulation, even against what he felt was his better judgment. Before accusing someone of censorship, perhaps you should read what they’ve actually had to say — for instance, when the author states clearly “I couldn’t keep the books out of their hands ***even if*** I thought it was ethical to…”

    “if you have such a problem, talk to the kids checking the book out and explain the parts you have issues with…”
    Again: read the post. Not only has the author been talking to the kids and doing just that; he’s also taken considerable action, far above and beyond the call of duty, to speak to fellow teachers, to formulate possible courses of action regarding anti-domestic violence education, to liaise with his school’s dean, and also, in response to your further ‘point’…

    “…instead of just being silent. otherwise complaining about it in a blog is kind of lame.”
    … the author has further blogged about his concerns, his actions, and his intentions in the most apposite of forums, in the hopes of sparking further discussion and debate which might help him (and others) come to terms with the problems surrounding these pieces of writing.

    If this is ‘being silent’ or ‘complaining’, then I think we would all be very interested to hear how you think you could handle the situation more appropriately.

    There is one more point that can and should be made here:
    As a librarian of a school library (even a large one) decisions inevitably need to be made regarding what does and does not go into your collections: you are not making acquisitions for a major holding, nor are you operating a deposit library where you can rest comfortably in the knowledge that your library will automatically receive without question a copy of every book published in the country. You as the librarian are most often the individual who decides whether or not a book is important enough to make it worth purchasing (on your doubtless quite limited library budget) or even housing (on your doubtless quite limited library shelves). When very real questions are raised over a title — the sort of questions that parents should be asking but might not realise the need to; the sort of questions that bear worrying significance upon young children’s minds and that therefore can and should be discussed and debated until a viable consensus is reached — any school librarian worth his or her salt is ENTIRELY right to question whether that title is WORTH the financial cost to the school, and the potential ethical/moral/psychological cost to its students, that might result from its acquisition and circulation.

    In this case, not only has the librarian done just that, but he has also stood up for free speech and choice in allowing even children to decide what they want to read, whilst at the same time opening up a conversation that can lead to better and more promising ways of using such freedom in the defence and furthering of student’s education and well-being.

    The author of the original post is to be commended. Keep up the good work, Mr Butler.

  13. Glenn.

    Thanks for the schooling on Jason. That was awesome.

    As for the OP’s struggle… I think he’s handling it exceptionally well. You can’t ban them. (It’s deeply unethical, I think.) You can try to put them in contest. I remain deeply concerned as to WHY these books seem to have resonated so much however. I think it has a lot to do with Meyers getting the crazy, delirious intensity of young obsession so well. And as much as Edward’s behaviour is abusive and in real life would only become more so, the whole “two people are so madly into me that they can’t even control themselves” has some major resonance, I think. Just about everyone desires to be desired.

  14. i think these comments and the whole blog is stupid why be critical about a book if u dont like then dont allow your kids to read that easy the story was good and i would allow my kids to read it… it’ s just a damn story for christ sake u people need lifes!!!

  15. Oh, good–the well-reasoned arguments have begun….

    TMASON, if you’d actually read the post or any of the rest of the blog, you’d know that we’re librarians. While those of us who are parents may, indeed, choose to set limits on our children’s reading, for the vast majority of us, “our kids” are the teen patrons we serve–and we’re committed to upholding their right to read whatever they wish.

    “Why be critical about a book?” Why be critical about anything? Perhaps because we want teens (and adults) to be critical thinkers rather than passive consumers of information.

    (I know, I know… don’t feed the troll. But someone is wrong on the internet!)

  16. My Teen Advisory Board is mostly female and very Twi-happy. I have read all the books, will see the movies (although not opening weekend or even early in the run), and do understand where their love of all things Twilight comes from. But I have a good rant about Twilight (similar to this blog) and I share it freely with most adult and some teens.

    But one meeting my TAB was squeeing about Edward at the other end of the table and I had the best teaching moment ever. Without even acknowledging their conversation, I calmed them down and then asked if they knew what an abusive relationship looked like. I gave them a list of things an abusive boyfriend might do, with no mention of Twilight or Edward or anything specific. After a moment of silence, one of the girls quietly said, “You’re talking about Edward.” Every kid at that table got wide eyes at that moment, even the boys and the girls who hate the series. And since then, although they are still major Twilight fans and insist I *must* give The Host a try (again), they do occasionally mention their concerns too.

    I learned in that moment that you don’t have to talk bad about something they love in order to show them why it’s not quite as perfect as they thought.

  17. I also hate the Twilight series. My little cousins watch it! I cannot believe they like it! If you are on Facebook please join K.A.T (Kids Against Twilight). Don’t worry, adults can join too.

  18. Really I’m shocked at all the discussion of characters in a book series, but after reading these blogs I can understand both sides a little. I am a mother of three, and one is a daughter, I love the books, and she does too. This has given me a lot to think about, and to talk about with her. To me it was just a fun, different kind of book, but to the young crowd they see more. However, I do not think it’s bad, unless you read too much into it. I can see what people say about the abusive side, and that is worth taking note, and worrying about b/c it’s so prominant and scary. I get a little more worried about things like Grand Theft Auto where it’s cool to kill police officers, and rape women. The bad, no horrible ideas for our children are everywhere!!! I appreciate a liberian taking so much time to think about what’s on the shelf, I feel it’s the parent’s who need to check out what their kids are reading, and if they agree with it or not. If they don’t then talk to their kids as to why. However, I know some parent’s don’t do this so it’s nice to know some liberians are trying to help! Just like that horrible video game, I would never let my kids play that!!! I will monitor what they watch, read, and play. I still lilke Twilight, but this has opened my eyes a little bit to it.

  19. What a great discussion. I greatly appreciate the focus on the Bella/Edward relationship. I hadn’t actually thought this way, though I certainly see it now. But I had thought there to be something strange about Bella’s relationships with each of her parents, where she seems to be more the parental figure than either her father or mother who both seem so self-absorbed as to be unable to give her much nurturing.

    As an educator, myself, I had looked at the “message” of the Twi-saga books (I have read them, though I have not seen the movies) from a slightly different angle: the Cullens are a group of vampires who have consciously chosen to go against their natural inclinations and to teach themselves how to live on animal blood (though it is, they say, less satisfying), for the good of humankind. I thought this to be a rather interesting message, in itself– that one can choose to sacrifice what feels good to the individual for something less satisfying if it preserves the good of the world or the community. Notice that their own community of vampires persecute them for this, but they continue to live in this fashion so as to do no harm to humans, and they fight for their right to teach others who want to learn this way of life, too.

    Perhaps there is a way to use both elements of the Twi-series as ways to teach young readers how to analyze media and even their own behaviors. There are good things here and there are not-so-good things. Edward and his family are heroic in some ways. Yet his treatment of Bella can be seen as abusive, and Bella’s dependence on Edward can (perhaps? I’m not sure on this; I’m not a family psych specialist) be traced to the lack of parental love and support she has received. Certainly her secrecy about the vampire and werewolf dangers in her life could be traced to her lack of connectedness to each of her parents, couldn’t it?

  20. Thank you! I’m just halfway through watching the DVD of Twilight. I had to do a Google search to see if anyone else was as sickened by the messages to girls this is sending. She keeps repeating, “I am not afraid of you.” She damn well should be.

    I guess I live in lala land. I’ve always been upset by what Beauty and the Beast teaches girls. That fairytale has nothing on this scary crap.

  21. To add: is anyone else as thoroughly alarmed and creeped out by Edward letting himself into Bella’s bedroom without permission? This is very, very serious stalking behavior. Stalkers get arrested for “simply” sitting outside your house. A healthy girl would scream for him to get out. Just as Bella didn’t scream or fight when surrounded by a gang who wanted to rape her—she has NO sense of self protection. She was quite a distance ahead of them at first, but didn’t run or scream then. She reminds me of a snail without a shell.

    And this man is actually 100 years old. He is 17 in appearance only. What is a mature man doing with a teenage girl? This is not just an abusive relationship, it is pedophilic. All this talk about the control he has to have around her. This is the kind of statement a pedophile makes while he is struggling with whether to abuse further. A man who has lived that long would have no use for a relationship with vacuous teenager, unless it was sexual. Many pedophiles are emotionally arrested, and seek these kinds of relationships. Some have some “control” and don’t touch the child that excites them. They spend time in her/his company, then masturbate to photos.

    As horrific as is the message of accepting abuse in the name of “love,” the underlying message of Twilight is downright sinister.

  22. i LOVE this article! you are so right. these books/movies promote abusive relationships and stephanie meyer is merely portraying her own sick fantasies (she must be a masochist or something) into these books…very disturbing.

  23. I think this is a very interesting view of the books, but the books are fiction, and not mean to be analyzed so closely. The books demonstrate complete love and the helplessness we are when faced with being different or un-accepted. The love between Bella and Edward is so intense that they are unable to remove themselves from the relationship. This is a book about reassurance. It tells teens that though childhood memories are filled with painful visions of bullies and hate, a true lover loves them for who they are, despite their flaws. I don’t see how his age matters. He died at the age of 17 and that is the age he will remain. He was cruelly deprived of a fulfilling life, and he doubts he will ever be able to experience of love, that humans can. He deserved to find love, and he did. The love expressed may seem obsessive, but that is only because of his fears of losing Bella, the one person he lives for. We all would go to the ends of the earth to keep our loved ones protected, especially when they are being hunted down by sadistic beings. I think it’s a story of love, beauty, and acceptance written for teens who are insecure, fanciful, or romantic.

  24. what can we do other than complain?
    ps fiction is never just fiction, it’s metaphor… weather or not your supposed to you learn from it

  25. Reading this article give me an insightful thought of how things should be done in reality based from fiction story. Well, if it is just metaphor, you cannot give it away completely don’t you?

  26. I respect your choice as a librarian, and your feeling about this book. As a mom of tween girls, I had the same issues. I was reading it aloud to them, and kept wondering, Is this okay? What are we endorsing here, exactly? Like you, I never thought I’d tell my kids no about a book, and in the end I didn’t, but I certainly led them down a path to thinking about how girls are treated in books, and oh yeah, I emphasized how poor the writing was, too.

  27. I read this book because I thought there must be some substance to it that every woman of all ages seemed to like it. I found it scary, disgusting and comical that so many peers enjoyed these books! In the first one Bella is in an abusive relationship with a stalker and controlling man, her entire happiness and identity is wrapped up in her relationship. When she gets physically injured by their relationship she tells her family she “fell down the stairs.” Is that not the oldest most cliche abuse cover-up? THEN in New Moon she is really depressed until she finds a new boyfriend. The author uses the strategy to describe in detail the leading men but very few descriptors of Bella so every girl can imagine herself as the leading lady. This is sending a horrible message to young women who we should be telling not to have their emotional wellbeing influenced by anyone but themselves.

    Not to mention she keeps calling guys beautiful and they seem to like it. That’s just weird.

  28. Every time I find someone else who recognises the horrible themes in these books I do a little dance. There aren’t enough. I just wanted to say you are an awesome librarian, and thank you, both for choosing not to exclude Twilight from your library (because I don’t beleive in making exceptions to being against censorship, even for Twilight), and also for recognising the bad things in that book and trying to talk to young girls about it (even if it’s just a comment about Edward being creepy). The problem is not really that Twilight exists – it’s that people think it is alright and normal. More people need to sit down and talk about the problems in it rationally to display how not-ok they are, because raging is fun but it alienates people who are fans of the book, they get defensive and don’t listen.

    Speaking of raging though, I mostly wanted to comment to tell you about a thing called Mark Reads Twilight. It’s basically a chapter-by-chapter review/rage/calling out Stephanie Meyer on her fail and sexist themes. It covers a lot of things from her bad writing to the creepy Edward stuff and it helped me identify some issues that I just couldn’t put my finger on. Though, I have to warn you as you warned your readers about the lj link, it contains a lot of hilarious rage, ranting, swearing, all caps, gifs, and frustration. But Mark is a decent respectful guy so nothing offensive (except for people who are offended by people who don’t like Twilight).

    So here’s the link:
    http://markreads.net/reviews/2010/11/complete-mark-reads-twilight-archive/

  29. i have to disagree with you all. first of all i read every single book. yes i am an older fan of the series. yes i am a stong fan of twilight. i don’t think people are reading these books correctly. first, edward gives bella almost all the choices, like if she wants to leave him, she can. he never coerces her to stay with him, though he wants her to. he never emotionally abuses her at all, nor does he threaten her to stay. in twilight and newmoon and even eclipse he’s still giving her the choices. he leaves her in new moon because he loves her that much and doesn’t want to put her in more danger. though he does suffer without her, he still does the hardest thing. he does not stalk her, he’s afraid to get her hurt. he does not take her friends away, she doesn’t really see them because she really wants to get closer to him in their relationship.healthy couples do that in real life and there is no abuse in their relationships, including young couples.they really just want to be close and spend private time together. see it’s her choice too.he does become friends with her dad. he’s even kind of afraid of him. he does not want to turn her into a vampire either, he keeps telling her that. she wants it , not him because he loves her so much he tells her he doesn’t want her to be like him. so he never forces her to become a vampire. she wants it, its her choice. the reason why he is so protective over her is because like any loving man he wants her to stay safe. also he does let her have her friends and in eclipse he even hangs out with her and her friends. she does have freedom. like any one in love, young or older she chooses to be with him more because she knows this is what she really wants. yes their are highschool sweethearts out there that get married and its meant to be.you can’t help who you fall in love with. and some young people do choose real love over college. because that is what comes first to them. their are people who never are intrested in college that much, such as myself when i was younger. personally i would choose love first. remember there is no 5th book, so even though they got married young they still could have gone to college. that is not out of the question she choose to be with him, the man(vampire) that she really truly loves. and he really truly loves her in the right way. he does marry her, but it’s her choice as to when. he changes her into a vampire because he doesn’t want her to die and shes dying. also that is what she wants. Bella is never in an abusive relationship, because Edward never abuses her! He is so caring and gentle to her and never makes her do anything unless she wants to. The only time she has to do something is when she is in danger and she knows he is protecting her. abusive relationships are not like this caring , loving, giving one. People know this. and yes i am a smart person. and like othet people i do believe in soulmates. I’m still waiting for mine. remember, this is a fantasy romantic suspense novel that i really love! I think Stephenie did a beautiful job writing it! I totally love the Twilight Saga! I don’t care who you are and I am tired of these terribly wrong opinions, that is all they are, they are not facts and never will be. This is ludicrous. R ead the books again and pay attention this time. Some people have even accused Edward’s character of being too soft, which i totally disagree with also. i think his character is perfect.

  30. @Dee

    Not only is your grammar poor, but you seem to think that it’s perfectly OKAY to stalk someone. Edward is not a character. He is devoid of emotion and personality. His only “redeeming” quality is his unhealthy obsession with a girl he barely knows. And Bella is a Mary-Sue, which is a too-perfect character.
    Here’s my question to you: Would you be okay with someone who insisted on damaging your personal property to keep you from seeing a friend? Invading your home without your permission? Not allowing you to make your own decisions/manipulating you into doing what they want? Because Edward does all of that. Bella doesn’t make her own decisions, she does what he wants. Edward is manipulative. Bella is a pawn.

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