Content Note: Authoritarian parenting, teenage sexuality, frank sexual language
It’s never easy to be a parent, and it’s possibly now harder than ever before, with so much mainstream media battling over the right way to parent. Before I write any further, I should note: I’m not a parent myself. I don’t have children of my own and I’ve never had a minor living in my care or under my roof for more than the occasional quick visit. But despite my lack of children, I do have parents, and I have my own strong feelings about parenting styles and how they are portrayed in modern media. Something I’m particularly interested in is parenting styles as seen through the cultural lens of “Twilight” – both within the text itself and in the cultural phenomenon that surrounds it.
You may have heard of the “Twilight” series of novels – perhaps from my previous Slactiverse Special on the subject (1) or from my weekly series of deconstruction posts on my blog (2) – and you’re probably passingly familiar with the series’ polarizing protagonist Bella and her sparkly love interest Edward. What you may not be aware of, is that many modern parents are looking to incorporate “Twilight” into their parenting styles – either as a way to reach out and connect with their children during a time when children traditionally start to pull away and create their own cultures, or as a way to share a common pleasure in a world where an increasing variety of media is offered to cater to every possible taste.
“Twilight Moms” are not a new phenomenon: in 2008, articles were noting the number of parents snapping up the series and looking forward to the movie adaptations. Michelle Sager interviewed mothers who were joining the series with gusto and cheerfully sporting “Team Edward” and “Team Jacob” shirts (3); Rachel Silverman pointed out that the closing ‘generation gap’ allows parents to find common ground and quality conversation time with their children (4). There’s even a dedicated site for the phenomenon – TwilightMoms.com – where parents can join a supportive social networking forum to discuss “Twilight”, other book recommendations, and parenting styles with other parents.
One wonders, however, how much actual common ground exists within the Twilight-Readers-Who-Are-Also-Parents demographic. The demographic seems to run the gamut widely from self-described “twihards” who claim the series represents a perfect model of family life, to casual fans who enjoy the book as escapism, to readers who don’t enjoy the series at all but keep up on the details in order to connect with their children. The “Twilight Moms” site itself has a rather interesting motto –The Hand that Rocks the Cradle is the Hand That Rules the World– that is in some contexts a paean to parenthood and in other contexts a more dominionist statement. One way or another, however, parents are reading “Twilight” in droves, and I think it’s worth asking: How is parenting depicted within the pages of “Twilight”, and what are these real life parents being exposed to in their reading?
From my own reading of “Twilight”, I consider the novel to be about a good many things. Most obviously, it is about a love triangle between an emotionally vulnerable young woman and two deeply troubled supernatural men. Moreover, it is a series about exotic secrets and exciting mysteries and the power that comes with leaving behind the helplessness of childhood (and humanity) and confidently joining the world of adults (and vampires), not only as one of them, but as the best of them. Textually-speaking, however, I also firmly believe that the “Twilight” series is about platonic forms (5) and of escaping from an earthly, imperfect reality to a heaven-on-earth paradisiacal ideal.
Everything within the narrative of “Twilight” revolves around the process of ‘perfecting’ the life of Bella Swan. At the start of the series, our young protagonist is disconnected emotionally from her parents, and is moving from her newly-remarried mother’s household to live with a father she barely knows. The reader does not take from the text that Bella’s parents are overtly neglectful, but rather that they are distant and distracted. By the end of the series, Bella has left her father’s household to become the newest member of the Cullen vampire clan - and as daughter to the doting Carlisle, bride to the sexy Edward, and mother to the unique-snowflake Renesmee, Bella has been transformed into a beautiful, graceful, powerful being: utterly loved, adored, and admired. Suddenly the perfect daughter, wife, and mother, she becomes a holy female trinity: ageless, unchanging, and eternal.
The reader will note that, in the midst all of all this perfection, Bella is still living much the same life at the end of the series that she was at the beginning: living in the household of a father figure, repeating high school for eternity, and largely unchanged in terms of her teenage personality. It is my belief that Bella’s enhanced-but-unchanged life is meant by the author to be the ultimate point of the happy ending – if there is no better life to aspire to than living as a young woman in a communal family arrangement, then the perfect version of that ultimate life would obviously be living as an unstoppable badass young woman in a communal family environment where everyone adores and admires you. And if living under the authority of a father figure is the model to follow, then obviously a move from a family characterized by alternately neglectful and authoritarian parenting to one characterized by an indulgent parenting is the ideal – at least from the perspective of our protagonist (6).
But is the Cullen parenting style really better than the Swan parenting styles? As much as the styles sharply contrast, I think that both styles are inordinately unhealthy because they ultimately fail to take into account the unique challenges presented by the individual children involved and because they rely upon slavishly following a set parenting model rather than applying a flexible approach shaped by communication with and feedback from the children involved.
Swan Parenting: Demanding But Not Responsive
There’s no doubt that the Swan family is full of conflict and fragmentation. Bella’s parents, Charlie and Renee, separated when Bella was an infant - Renee fled from gloomy Washington to sunny Arizona and never looked back, apparently even going so far as to confide in her daughter all the details of her final fight-and-flight from Charlie. Bella has dutifully visited her father once a year, but claims no pleasant memories from the visits - a claim that is reinforced when we glimpse the inside of Charlie’s home and realize that, in the absence of pleasant photos of their vacation moments together, he has instead opted to fill his home with Bella’s impersonal yearly school photos to mark the passage of time.
The relationship between Bella and her mother is close but strained. Renee is a functional child who has relied on Bella her entire life to run the daily details of household life. Prior to the start of the series, Renee has effectively ‘replaced’ Bella with her new husband Phil, who has taken over the responsibility of handling the finances, keeping the cars in good repair, and otherwise managing Renee’s life for her. It’s not a stretch to imagine that Bella’s replacement as caretaker is a source of internal conflict for Bella, especially since this ‘replacement’ leads to a major demotion from being head of her mother’s household to being a child in her father’s household.
Once integrated into her father’s household, Bella immediately assumes responsibility for the traditionally feminine household chores: shopping for groceries, preparing dinners, and washing all the laundry. Bella notes in text that this is not a hardship – the chores are, after all, the same she used to perform for her mother – but the reader will note that the power dynamics in Charlie’s household are very different from those in Renee’s household. In Renee’s household, Bella performed her chores in the role as effective parent, with Renee acting as the effective child – with the shouldering of these responsibilities, Bella also gained the full benefits of adulthood: managing the household finances and crafting Renee’s daily routine. In Charlie’s household, by contrast, Bella is no longer the acting adult in the relationship – she is very clearly a daughter serving her father. Never does Bella decide how the household finances are managed; even matters such as what car she will own and drive are decided for her before she arrives in Washington, and entirely without her input or opinions.
If Renee neglected her duties as a parent, Charlie seems almost obsessively interested in micro-managing his daughter’s personal life once she has moved into his household. When Bella announces her completely uncharacteristic decision to move to her father’s home, Charlie accepts this move as his due without ever thinking to ask if Bella is okay, or if the newly-married Phil has hurt her in any way or otherwise prompted this move. When Charlie presents Bella with his gift to her of a ‘new’ car, he tries to deceive her about the age and condition of the car in order to make the gift seem more generous than it is. And when Charlie first begins to suspect that Bella might be romantically interested in boys at her school, he starts disconnecting her car engine at night so that she can’t sneak out of the house and drive off to meet anyone, despite the fact that she has never shown the slightest inclination to this kind of behavior. The message in their relationship is clear: Bella is not a functional adult, but rather an irresponsible child and is therefore worthy only of mistrust and what paternal affection can be spared in between his weekend fishing trips.
There is no doubt in my mind that the Swan parenting styles are intensely unhealthy. Renee has spent her life being a demanding force on her daughter by allowing her childlike helplessness to rob Bella of her own childhood. Bella’s own needs have been utterly neglected as she has been raised to be her mother’s confidant and caretaker – but never to have or fulfill any dreams of her own. Charlie, by contrast, almost completely ignores his daughter as he works long hours, leaves her for weekend fishing trips, rarely speaks to her in the evenings, and studiously avoids engaging her opinions, and yet he still demands that her behavior conform to his ideals. As long as Bella lives under his roof, she will be the sole performer all the feminine chores of the household and her sexuality will be tightly controlled – even to the point of disconnecting her car engine nightly and regularly listening at her bedroom door for any hint that a boy might have been somehow smuggled up to her room.
In these ways and more, Bella is treated by her parents as an object - she is a day planner to be utilized by her mother and a vagina to be controlled by her father. Her hopes and dreams aren’t discussed or acknowledged because her parents don’t care about them; Bella is never treated as anything other than an extension of her parents’ desires and needs.
Cullen Parenting: Responsive But Not Demanding
When the Cullen family first arrives on the scene, they initially seem far more dysfunctional than the Swans: the young doctor Carlisle and his wife Esme have adopted three suspiciously-beautiful children while very pointedly not adopting the two blood-relatives that have been living under Esme’s guardianship since her late-teens/early-twenties. In a series of moves that seem straight out of the cult-leader’s guide-for-dummies, Dr. Cullen has isolated his family in a remote house in the woods, with no income other than his own, and appears to heavily discourage outside socializing, preferring that the teenagers form semi-incestual sexual relationships with their adopted siblings. He removes his children from school for ‘special training’ at random intervals, thereby disrupting their friendships outside of the family. No one has ever seen the children eat the school food, and the constant exhaustion that seems to infuse their slender bodies and the dark bruises under their eyes seem to point to serious abuse.
Of course, the real story is very different from this first appearance - the Cullen children are not abused, rather they are strong immortal beings who have chosen to pretend to be human teenagers in order to live as a family unit. They stay together out of a common sense of self (as rare ‘vegetarian’ vampires) and out of mutual respect. The Cullen parenting style seems to be healthy and nurturing - the children are trusted to come and go as they please, they pick cars and hobbies according to their own tastes, and they form sexual relationships according to their own needs. Edward Cullen in particular represents the freedom that awaits Bella: his doting parents are in raptures with all his choices and accomplishments, from his musical tastes to his choice of new girlfriend. Approval and acceptance suffuses the entire family, and as Bella moves slowly from one household to the other, so too are we to understand that she is moving from an imperfect fractured family to an ideal cohesive one.
While the Cullen parenting style may seem ideal in theory, however, it is fundamentally flawed in practice. Though the Swan parenting styles are unhealthily defined by dependence and mistrust, it does not automatically follow that the opposite parenting style – total independence and complete trust – is therefore the best, most healthy choice available.
Although it is tempting to view the Cullen ‘children’ as functional adults because of their advanced age and sexual maturity, these traits are not the defining aspects of adulthood. The most important aspect of adulthood is – in my opinion – a capacity for self-control, and it is here that the Cullen children are deeply lacking. Because the Cullen children struggle so much with controlling their vampiric blood lust, they are effectively unable to socialize outside the family, hold a regular job, or meaningfully attend higher education – they require complete freedom to take off for extended periods in order to hunt and recharge themselves before returning to the taxing demands of interacting with human society without accidentally murdering someone. It is precisely the issue of “self-control” that defines the makeup of the family: Carlisle is master of his vampiric urges and is therefore father and front man for the family; Edward and his siblings are still susceptible to temptation and are therefore children who defer to Carlisle’s guidance. In this sense, Edward and his siblings are far less mature than the average human teenager (including Bella!) and for the Cullen parents to treat them as adults with full independence and complete trust would seem to be a recipe for disaster – both for themselves and for the community.
The Swan family, for all their dysfunctionality, at least understand that biological urges exist – an authoritarian Charlie Swan sabotages his daughter’s car nightly because he fears that she has a biological compulsion to have sex. The Cullen family, in contrast, live their life in indulgent denial that their son has a biological compulsion for murder – and that he has acted on this compulsion multiple times in the past. The Cullens know their son sneaks out nightly to hover longingly over Bella Swan as she sleeps. They know that Bella is the one person on earth whom Edward feels most compelled to murder – her allure to him is described as that of cocaine to a junkie, and it is an allure that other members of the family have experienced before with disastrous results. The Cullens are also acutely aware that if by some miracle Edward merely turns rather than murders Bella, he’ll hate himself forever for turning her into something he believes is damned. It seems almost certain that this situation is bound to end in either a murder-suicide or a situation where Bella is turned to vampirism and Edward torments himself with an eternity of guilt for losing his self-control.
Faced with this situation and with the individual personalities involved, the Cullen parenting style is just as dysfunctional as the Swan parenting styles! A parenting style where the parents grant total independence and complete trust to their children is most certainly not automatically wrong, but a parenting style where the parents grant total independence and complete trust to a child who has a serious lack of self-control and a known problem with a destructive addiction is negligent in the extreme. The fact that the Cullens never speak to Edward about his dangerous disregard for his own limitations, the fact that they never urge the couple to employ chaperones to prevent an accidental murder, and the fact that they never express anything other than their unconditional support for Edward-the-junkie hanging out constantly and privately with Bella-the-cocaine-vial is incredibly distressing to the reader – and yet, this parenting style is being held up as a model for treating children with mutual respect and trust.
Conclusion: Flexibility and Feedback
It is my opinion that both the Swan and Cullen parenting styles are unhealthy not because there is some perfect, one-size-fits-all parenting model that should be followed blindly by everyone and which they have each failed to employ. No, it is my opinion that they are failures as parents because they are following rigid parenting models without any attempt at modifying those styles periodically with communication, feedback, and a good long hard introspective look at what they are doing and why they are doing it.
Renee treats Bella as an adult – she gives her daughter great power and great responsibility. This model is fulfilling for Renee because she has a companion, a confidant, and a caretaker all wrapped up in one, but the model doesn’t work for Bella because she is robbed of a meaningful chance to be a child. There’s nothing automatically wrong with encouraging a child to be mature and self-reliant, but the onus was on Renee to monitor Bella’s growth and note that the demands of completely running a household were effectively isolating Bella from creating meaningful relationships with her peers – in which case, Renee should have re-evaluated her parenting style and changed it appropriately.
Charlie treats Bella as a child – he gives her chores, makes decisions for her, and lays ground rules for the behavior he expects from her. This model is fulfilling for Charlie because he has a well-behaved daughter to brag about to his friends and his time is freed up from all the household chores that he hates, but the model doesn’t work for Bella because she feels stifled and unfulfilled. There’s nothing automatically wrong with laying ground rules and monitoring a child’s behavior, but as Charlie sees Bella become more interested in boys, he fails to re-evaluate his parenting style in order to allow safe exploration, and by continuing to micro-manage his daughter’s sexuality, he inadvertently pushes her into a teenage marriage.
Carlisle and Esme Cullen, by contrast, treat their children as adults – with complete respect, trust, and independence. This model is fulfilling for all the Cullens: the adults have the “children” they always wanted, and the children can live their lives as the “adults” they see themselves as being, based on their advanced age and sexual maturity. But this model ultimately doesn’t work in this situation because as much as the Cullen children like to think of themselves as adults, they aren’t – despite their apparent maturity, their fundamental lack of self-control means they are less of an adult than the most hormonally-driven human teenager. There’s nothing automatically wrong with extending trust and independence to children, but the Cullens failure to acknowledge and act on their childrens’ dangerous addictions puts both their children and their community at serious risk. What they should do and what they fail to do is be honest about Edward’s destructive behavior and communicate to him how dangerous and inappropriate they believe his actions to be – and then suggest safer, alternative ways for him to see Bella, both for his own safety and for hers.
Again, I feel I should mention: I’ve never raised teenagers myself. As such, I may be completely wrong in my opinions, but I personally believe that the responsible parent recognizes that their children are unique individuals and adjusts their parenting style accordingly based on the behavior they observe and the communication they elicit. A child who has demonstrated a propensity for harmful behavior may be granted fewer privileges and independence than a child who has shown good judgment and healthy self-control. To my mind, good parents attempt to provide healthy guidance and will attempt to set the appropriate boundaries that their children might not yet have the self-control to set for themselves. “No, you may not go out with Jimmy alone anymore since the last time you two were together, you two thought it would be a good idea to snort cans of compressed paint,” they may say, or, “I don’t think you need to see Shawna on weeknights until your grades improve past a C-; you two can wait until the weekend to hang out.” Or, even perhaps, “I’m not sure that you should be alone with Bella, given that you’ve had trouble controlling your blood lust in the past, and I’m sure you’d be very sorry if you did something you’ll regret later. Why don’t you take Alice with you as a chaperone?”
To me, being an adult is about healthy self-control, about setting boundaries for yourself so that you don’t unnecessarily harm yourself or others. Select a designated driver. Plan ahead for safe sex. Try not to spend a lot of time alone with people you desperately want to murder, or with people who desperately want to murder you. To me, being a parent is about helping your children be aware of the importance of that self-control, and about helping them to set those boundaries for themselves even when they can’t or don’t want to.
By that rubric, there are no ‘good parents’ in “Twilight”. There is a strong contrast between the Swans and the Cullens, but the contrast is no longer between imperfect and perfect parenting styles, but rather between two equally unhealthy parenting styles: on the one hand, a family so steeped in control and boundaries that the reasons for those boundaries have become meaningless; on the other hand, a family so proud of their indulgent parenting that they’ve managed to completely ignore the fact that their ‘children’ are impulsive serial killers who haven’t yet mastered the self-control to keep themselves out of dangerously triggering situations.
It’s worth noting that among the many fans and anti-fans of “Twilight”, there’s a small but vocal faction that wants to see Bella escape the oppressive love triangle she inhabits with vampire Edward and werewolf Jacob. For myself, I’m just as interested in seeing her escape the irresponsible and stubbornly static parenting styles of Charlie Swan and Carlisle Cullen.
(1) Good Girls Tell Lies: Internalized Misogyny in Twilight
(2) I regularly post deconstructions on my own website.
(3) Source: The full article is well worth a read, but a particularly funny stand-out is when a 12-year-old quips "My mom got me the book to get me into reading," Jacqueline Capalbo said. "But now she's more into it than me. It's kind of weird."
(4) Source: Again, the full article is worthwhile, but I was pleased to see the author calmly point out the possibilities for bonding within busy families: Reading together is also a way that time-crunched working parents can strengthen bonds with their children, as an example of quality, rather than necessarily quantity, time. (A parent can, say, read the same book as their teen on the subway home, and talk about it over dinner.)
(5) Source: I was particularly interested in philosophy when I was in college and took several elective courses on the subject, but I will also admit that was a rather long time ago and it’s possible that I don’t have all the details right.
(6) Source: I’m using the parenting style names as outlined in this Wikipedia article, but I don’t personally care for the terms used in the article, nor the overall tone of the piece. Words have connotative meanings as well as definitive meanings, and terms like “indulgent parenting” are in my opinion likely to evoke an emotional response in an audience regardless of the definitive meaning of “responsive but not demanding”.