"Twilight" Pushes the Harmful Gender Stereotypes We've Fought for Decades

Young readers of the popular books encounter women shoved back into traditional gender stereotypes that have taken years of effort to overcome.

Some make excuses for the immensely popular Twilight book series by saying, "well, at least kids are reading now.” I, too, think that it’s great if kids and teenagers are starting to read again, especially after the National Endowment for the Arts sobering report on reading rates in 2007, which found, for example, that less than one-third of 13-year-olds are daily readers, a 14 percent decline from 20 years earlier.

Yet it is the message in Twilight that is disturbing. Young readers encounter women, embodied in narrator Bella Swan, shoved back into traditional gender stereotypes that have taken years of effort to overcome. And millions of young girls (not to mention adult women) are devouring these books.

I worry about the girls who seem, with quite a bit of personal conviction, to put one of the main characters of the Twilight "saga,” the vampire Edward Cullen, on such a high pedestal that they think he is the ultimate ideal of a boyfriend. That he is not. These girls need a wake-up call: Edward Cullen is a caricature of an emotionally, psychologically and physically abusive boyfriend -- and one with supernatural powers no less. It can’t be healthy to have an attachment to a fictional character with those qualities, much less a real person.

Apart from the vampires who attack Bella at the end of the first book (Twilight), Edward is the source of most of her abuse. He is dangerously possessive. In the third book (Eclipse), for example, the vampire boyfriend removes the engine from Bella’s car because she wants to go visit her friend Jacob Black. Edward stalks her, constantly asks where she is going and what she is doing and plays hot and cold in their love affair. He neglects her emotionally in some passages; in others, he tells her he loves her and wants to be with her forever.

A phrase in the series is used to sum up the relationship between Edward and Bella: "and so the lion fell in love with the lamb.” A symbolic, romantic concept perhaps, but it only reinforces traditional gender stereotypes of males being strong and dominant, and females being meek, demure and passive. Feminists have fought for decades to eradicate this trope and to stretch the boundaries of how females are viewed by the dominant society.

The phrase "and so the lion fell in love with the lamb” attempts to evoke a space where the strong and weak can co-exist peacefully. Is it also meant to suggest that the rapist/sexual assaulter can have tender feelings for his victim? With all its associations, the phrase is a prominent feature of Twilight-inspired jewelry and tee shirts populating the Internet. Its problematic quality is reinforced by Twilight series dialogue in which Bella often refers to herself as a "stupid lamb” and Edward calls himself a "sick, masochistic lion.” They may recognize their personality disorders but the books never deal with the damage. Instead, Twilight glorifies the "masochism,” making it a fetish that burrows into the minds of young readers. One website featured a Christmas ornament with the phrase "Property of Edward Cullen -- Forks, WA.” The product description read, "You belong to sexy sparkly vampire Edward Cullen now.”

One work of literature cannot undermine all the significant milestones and strides feminists have made in the last several decades. Nonetheless, young girls are very impressionable. Twilight books and movies are reportedly targeted to a junior-high and high-school audience, but one photo caption I saw in a newspaper article on the popularity of the series identified the reader pictured curled up with one of the books as nine years old. I couldn’t help worrying about what she is picking up from its pages.

"To put it simply, dear reader, I was horrified,” says Kellen Rice of Blast Magazine. "Not just by the sickeningly purple prose or the lack of general writing quality, but the books themselves are insulting on every level -- as a woman, as a teenager, as a literature student, and as a graduate of the Harry Potter craze. What’s worse is that so few seem to realize it.”

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