The image of the two hands holding an apple was everywhere. Peeking out of our book bags, tempting us when we entered bookstores, adorning our social media. At first glance, one might wonder if it was the story of Eve, whose bite of forbidden fruit doomed herself and all of humanity. In a way it was, and equally destructive.
The image adorned the cover of Twilight, a Buffy the Vampire Slayer knockoff that became an instant sensation. Readers were consumed by the story of girl-next-door Bella, who becomes the subject of obsession by Edward, a century-year-old vampire boy. The novel launched a series, in which a family of vampires and their enemies, werewolves, navigate love and politics in the face of an ancient vampire guild. It would be an awesome world-building series if the fundamental story weren’t so troubling.
Don’t get me wrong, Buffy was troubling too. Personally, I’m glad that Angel left and Buffy started dating, um, humans (until later, when at least the issues with dating someone 100+ years older than you were highlighted). (Plus, we got the amazing spinoff Angel.)
But many critics have rightfully pointed out the issues with Bella and Edward’s relationship. Namely, that she is miserable in the relationship, he stalks her, and her agency is construed as secondary to Edward’s relentless pursuit of her. In this universe, vampires cannot change a state of being once they’ve entered it, e.g. if their hair is cut, it never grows back. When Edward falls for Bella, he can never fall out of love.
This is not a good thing. Love is neither a trap nor an immutable state of existence. It should grow and flex with the people experiencing it. Anyone who thinks otherwise has an unhealthy attitude toward love.
Twilight ruined me. I fell for its narrative, as well as Buffy’s, that love is so powerful, it entails harm to the one you love. I certainly stayed in abusive relationships longer because I attributed our fights to passion, rather than psychopathic abuse. I accepted grand gestures as Band-Aids for atrocious treatment, rather than calling out my partner for his behavior. Most of all, I believed in immutable love, then I was devastated when this non-ending thing indeed ended. Had I understood love as an act— a series of acts—not a state of being, I would have been less disappointed.
The most disturbing part of the Twilight series, to me, is that Bella completely checks out when she and Edward first make love. When she “comes to,” she realizes that he destroyed the pillow while trying not to destroy her. First of all, when consummating a relationship, the last thing anyone should do is check out and pay no attention to what’s happening. Secondly, the way the incident goes down is vaguely rape-y, with Bella consenting, yet not being a conscious participant and nearly being mauled by a horny vampire. Finally, this scene normalizes a problematic demand for young women: to lie still and enjoy it, rather than be active, sex-positive participants in love-making.
How is this love story empowering for girls and women of any age? Bella is completely submissive to Edward’s whims, tantrums, and freakouts — she sacrifices everything based on being “in love.”
I did the same thing. I turned down friendships, I neglected my own projects and self-care, and I excused a lot of horrifying behavior because I believed that in the end, only love mattered. I didn't realize at the time that my action mattered in the cultivation of love.
When I “woke up,” it was considerably more enlightened than Bella’s awakening. I felt ashamed and weak, but I also saw a light at the end of the tunnel… a life in which my love could be something I felt, not something that defined my life. At the time, I told myself that I would never stop loving my abuser, but I simply wouldn’t be subject to terror anymore. In time, that attitude faded, because love is something you do, not something you feel. He didn't deserve my devotion.
Recently, I saw an online discussion criticizing A Star is Born for “normalizing abuse.” I immediately responded and noted that A Star is Born, in all its iterations, clearly portrays the toxic relationship as such. It doesn’t normalize abuse, whereas Twilight, and to a great extent, Buffy, do. I could not change the minds of some people who insisted that the mere portrayal of abuse was enough to normalize it. I disagree. Twilight normalizes abuse because its portrayal is deliberately apologetic for it; it exploits behaviors that most people would consider wrong as romantic, based on the protagonist’s unending acceptance of those behaviors, explicitly in the name of love.
I remember when a classmate observed my copy of New Moon and gushed, “Isn’t it GOOD.” I responded in kind. And at the time, I really did love it. Looking back, I wonder what appealed to me about it. I’m not into romance novels, and as a writer, I was appalled by the author’s totally shit writing. Then I realize: I needed to justify the abusive relationship I was in, and Twilight gave me a means to do so.
Twilight ruined me. Now hopefully, I’ve ruined Twilight in return.
Rachel Wayne is a writer based in Gainesville, Florida, USA. She earned her Master’s in Visual Anthropology and Film Studies; her thesis was on the relationship between the media and interpersonal violence. She writes about society, culture, film, politics, feminism, and entrepreneurship.