Twilight: Abuse and Attention

[Content Note: Abusive Relationships]

Twilight Summary: In Chapter 14, Edward and Bella spend the night together.

Twilight, Chapter 14: Mind Over Matter

Last week, Chris beautifully highlighted some of the ways in which Twilight is a novel about an abusive person. (If you haven't commented because you can't think of anything to add, do at least take a moment to compliment Chris on his fine work!) This week, I would like to talk about some of the ways in which Twilight is about an abusive relationship, and the reason why this is bad (which may not be the reason you expect!).

The thing is, if you're here reading this deconstruction, I probably don't have to sell you on the idea that Twilight is about an abusive relationship. In fact, one of the more frustrating things about deconstructing Twilight (for me, at least) is that a lot of people who don't care about abusive relationships in any other media suddenly care very strongly when we're talking about abusive relationships in a novel written by a woman, for women. I have previously illustrated these so-called allies with the following Venn diagram:
And here is the thing: Twilight has problems with misogyny and with abusive relationships. I don't want to sugar-coat that. But if you, dear reader, are going around saying that Twilight is proof that girls are all stupid-heads who want a brooding vampire to stalk and abuse them, then you are being misogynistic.

In all my years of life, I have never heard anyone seriously speculate that the popularity of femme fatales in fiction means that all men secretly yearn for an abusive relationship; yet in the time since Twilight was released, I have heard the meme that all girls wish to be abused more times than I can count. This is a failure of understanding the difference between fantasy and reality, and it is a "failure" that conveniently props up existing misogynistic narratives about how women who stay with abusers stay because they secretly want to be abused rather than because they are groomed (by both their abuser and the larger society) to stay with their abuser, and because society does not empower them to leave. This is a comforting lie we tell ourselves because it's easier to blame abuse victims than acknowledge that we are failing them.

For example: When I lived with my abusive husband, he once slapped me hard enough that I fell down to the floor while two married couples who were our friends watched without saying a word. I picked myself up and went to the bedroom and cried my eyes out, loudly, while my husband and our four friends sat down to eat a dinner I had cooked. None of our friends ever asked me, either that night or later, if I were alright. None of them (to my knowledge) expressed concern to my husband or anyone else about his behavior. All of them broke off their friendship with me after I divorced my husband; not one of them offered to help me in any way through the divorce. These were not bad people; I would even describe them as good people, very normal people. But they had been trained by society to perpetuate a cycle of victim-blaming which told them, simultaneously, that if I stayed with an abusive partner then I wanted to be abused, and that if I left an abusive partner then I wasn't trying hard enough to fix my marriage. Heads he wins, tails I lose.

Bella Swan is in an abusive relationship. The problem with that abusive relationship portrayed in these hugely popular books isn't that the female readership all secretly want to be in an abusive relationship; the problem is that the popularity of these books demonstrates something very broken about the ways in which we treat women in our society, and that the abusive relationships within these books illustrates just how deeply our culture normalizes symptoms of abuse not only as a sign of love, but also as frequently the most acceptable attention than women can command from men. 

   He reached the door ahead of me and opened it for me. I paused halfway through the frame.
   “The door was unlocked?”
   “No, I used the key from under the eave.”
   I stepped inside, flicked on the porch light, and turned to look at him with my eyebrows raised. I was sure I’d never used that key in front of him.
   “I was curious about you.”
   “You spied on me?” But somehow I couldn’t infuse my voice with the proper outrage. I was flattered.

We've talked before (and, in fact, there's a good conversation going on right now in Chris' thread from last week) about how the first-person narrative surrounding the dialogue in Twilight constantly seeks to override our own internal framing for the scene in order to explain and justify Edward's abusive behavior. Here is another good example of that: if we extracted that final sentence and just left the dialogue as-is without it, we wouldn't know how Bella feels about this situation and we might reasonably supply our own interpretation of her feelings based on our own personalities and experiences.

For me, this situation and these words would be accompanied firstly by fear, then supplemented by anger, and never followed by flattery. But the narrative is swift to contradict this in an attempt to keep us from considering the situation too closely; it briefly invokes anger in order to distract us from the fact that it struck out entirely any mention of fear, and then immediately segues into how flattering and attractive this behavior is. Edward spying on Bella is meant to be taken by the reader as romantic, and so the narrative makes Bella take it that way in an attempt to coax the reader to follow suit.

Before we're allowed to really grapple with this, Bella and Edward plunge ahead:

   He was unrepentant. “What else is there to do at night?” [...]
   “How often?” I asked casually.
   “Hmmm?” He sounded as if I had pulled him from some other train of thought.
   I still didn’t turn around. “How often did you come here?”
   “I come here almost every night.”

In real life, of course, this would be the terrifying behavior of a stalker who enjoys disrespecting boundaries. Yet Twilight wants us to take this behavior as romantic. Why? The popular explanation -- an explanation which I would argue is highly problematic -- is that S. Meyer just doesn't understand how dangerous and terrifying this is, and that she is damaged in some way such that she craves this kind of negative attention.

One of the many problems with this explanation, though, is that centering all this on a failure of S. Meyer means invisibling all the many hands who worked on this book during publication, as well as forgetting the fact that these books would not be so ridiculously popular if they didn't resonate with the readership in some way. When reminded of these facts, the people who believe that S. Meyer inexplicably wants and romanticizes abuse tend to fall back on two equally problematic explanations: either the fans weren't able to see the abuse between the pages, or they all secretly wish to be abused as well.

Yet I think this passage contains a clue as to why so many readers (including, perhaps, the author herself) interprets Edward Cullen's behavior not as abusive but as attentive.

Edward justifies his stalking behavior by asking Bella what else there is to do at night. On the face of it, this is a remarkably callous remark: he's justifying a major invasion of her privacy by instantly centering the situation on himself and on his needs. Being bored isn't just a completely inadequate reason to spy on someone; it's also as assertion that Bella's needs and boundaries aren't even worthy of consideration. This is a mentality that lies at the root of much abuse, a mentality that the abuser is the only real person in the room and all others are objects for hir use.

Yet Bella takes this assertion that he was bored and found her interesting to be a compliment: this magical creature with all the time and money in the world found her the most interesting thing on the planet. Out of an infinite universe of choices, Edward ranked "watching Bella sleep" to be more interesting than jetting to exotic locales, learning exciting new skills, seducing beautiful women, conversing with the greatest minds on the planet, climbing Mount Everest, or anything else he could do in his copious free time with his obscene wealth.

The reader doesn't have to view this as the compliment that Bella does, of course. If the reader doesn't find this plausible because the reader doesn't find Bella likable, then Edward's insistence that she is the most interesting thing in the world will ring false. Or if the reader is sufficiently educated as to the ways in which abuse can manifest as interest and/or love, then Edward's insistence that he follows Bella because she is interesting to him may not assuage their discomfort with this passage because they recognize that interest is not incompatible with abuse. (In fact, despite social narratives to the contrary which falsely claim that most abusers would rather their victims weren't there, abuse is almost always accompanied by intense interest, which is why it is so frequently difficult and dangerous for a victim to leave hir abuser.)

Then too, there is the curious verbiage: Bella asks how often did Edward come in the past tense, and Edwards replies in the present tense that he comes every night. This framing suggests that Edward intends to keep coming, presumably regardless of Bella's wishes (since he hasn't cared about her consent up till this point). Again, this can be viewed as abusive: Edward is flatly stating that he is going to continue spying on Bella whether she wants him to or not. Or it can be viewed as intensely attentive since Edward still finds Bella irresistibly interesting even after the initial mystery has past and they are now an established couple. Edward wasn't drawn to Bella over a misogynistic view of romance, where his interest is piqued not by the person but by the process -- the "chase" or "bagging another one" for his "record". Instead, he continues to attend to her (rather than ignoring her) even after obtaining her confession of love.

More of this continues as it comes out that Edward doesn't just watch, he listens:

   I whirled, stunned. “Why?”
   “You’re interesting when you sleep.” He spoke matter-of-factly. “You talk.”
   “No!” I gasped, heat flooding my face all the way to my hairline. I gripped the kitchen counter for support. I knew I talked in my sleep, of course; my mother teased me about it. I hadn’t thought it was something I needed to worry about here, though.
   His expression shifted instantly to chagrin. “Are you very angry with me?”
   “That depends!” I felt and sounded like I’d had the breath knocked out of me.
   He waited.
   “On?” he urged.
   “What you heard!” I wailed.
   Instantly, silently, he was at my side, taking my hands carefully in his.
   “Don’t be upset!” he pleaded. He dropped his face to the level of my eyes, holding my gaze. I was embarrassed. I tried to look away.
   “You miss your mother,” he whispered. “You worry about her. And when it rains, the sound makes you restless. You used to talk about home a lot, but it’s less often now. Once you said, ‘It’s too green.’” He laughed softly, hoping, I could see, not to offend me further.
   “Anything else?” I demanded.
   He knew what I was getting at. “You did say my name,” he admitted.
   I sighed in defeat. “A lot?”
   “How much do you mean by ‘a lot,’ exactly?”
   “Oh no!” I hung my head.
   He pulled me against his chest, softly, naturally.
   “Don’t be self-conscious,” he whispered in my ear. “If I could dream at all, it would be about you. And I’m not ashamed of it.”

This is important because it establishes that Edward's interest is, once again, with Bella's thoughts and her mind. He's not staring at her nightly because he enjoys the view of her body, or at least not just because of that. He's not propelled by pornographic fantasies which might erase Bella as a person and render her into nothing more than an empty body. Instead, he's spying on her in order to get into her head, in order to understand her, and in order to know her better. He's interested in what she says in her sleep for the same reason that he longs to read Bella's mind: because he cares about her and wants to know her as intimately as possible.

This is deeply and intensely problematic, but it's important to parse through the problems in the right ways.

Edward Cullen is a fantasy. The reader is never once invited to consider him to be really real: in addition to being an immortal vampire with eyes that change color like mood rings hardwired to his stomach, the text continually reiterates his unearthly appearance: Greek god. Marble statue. Sparkling splendor. Perfect face. Even his breath smells like the best perfume sprayed on the finest roses and dipped in the richest chocolate and then set on fire with the most awesome matches ever created. There is never, ever any concern in the text that a real-life Edward Cullen might break into your bedroom some night and watch you while you sleep because Edward Cullen is repeatedly and constantly emphasized to be an unreal fantasy.

As we generally reckon fantasies (and with various special case caveats set to the side), a fantasy cannot harm us. The fantasy I project in my head cannot hurt or kill me; I control the fantasy completely. Even if the fantasy could somehow gain autonomy, it would have no motivation to kill me, because the fantasy would die along with me -- without me, my fantasy cannot exist. And we instinctively understand that fantasies cannot harm us, nor are they about being genuinely harmed by them: when we fantastize about being Han Solo, we are not fantasizing about the pain of being frozen in carbonite; instead, we are fantastizing about vulnerability or about rescue or about failure (to be followed, of course, by ultimate success), or about any number of fantasies, many of them escapist and/or empowering.

Similarly, when many women fantasize about Edward Cullen, I don't think the majority of them are fantastizing about an abusive relationship and how wonderful that would be -- nor do I think the majority of them are ignorant as to the realities of abusive relationships. (Indeed, considering the large Twilight fan base alongside NOW's estimate that women experience about 4.8 million intimate partner-related physical assaults and rapes every year, it would be extremely problematic to assume that all or most Twilight fans are unfamiliar with partner abuse.) Instead, I think that those fans which find Edward Cullen's behavior attractive as opposed to abusive are adept at parsing out the difference between fantasy and reality. In fantasy, Edward can act out over-the-top displays of intense obsession without a threat of danger to the reader because he is so thoroughly unreal.

Yet for all this, I said at the opening of the post that the abusive relationship in Twilight is problematic. And here is why.

A major problem with the abusive relationships in Twilight is the ways in which unhealthy disinterest (Charlie, Mike, etc.) is countered with unhealthy interest (Edward, Jacob, etc.) as opposed to trading the whole kit-and-kaboodle for genuinely healthy interest. I think that the popularity of these books indicates how deeply women in our society feel their marginalization as uninteresting/non-valuable members of society and how deeply we are socialized to not pay attention to women as people as opposed to bodies or concepts*. And I think that the choice to provide unhealthy interest is less of symptom of something wrong with S. Meyer (and the editors and publishers), and more an indication of how thoroughly our culture correlates abuse as the most acceptable form of intensely attentive love.

* Think about TV Tropes like Blonde, Brunette, Redhead and The [Lone] Chick and how they identify women in fiction entirely by bodily features or by concepts as opposed to people. Note how rarely these tropes are applied to male characters. 

Bella Swan lives a life of silent marginalization, convinced that she is uninteresting to those around her. She made a completely uncharacteristic decision to leave the mother and home she loves to move in with a father she barely knows in a town she hates and not one person -- except Edward! -- seriously questioned why she would do that, or if she's okay, or how she's holding up through this emotional upheaval. (Even many critics don't understand why she 'keeps whining' about moving to Washington.) When people warm to her as friends and lovers, their interest appears (to Bella) to be entire superficial and based on her "newness" as opposed to her value as a person; even her father alternates between avoiding her and awkwardly acting out a Good Dad script as opposed to simply talking to and listening to her. When her disability isn't being actively mocked or pitied, it's forgotten about: friends and family and would-be lovers all pressure her to attend a dance as part of a Good Girl script without care to the fact that the event would probably end in a broken ankle for her.

None of this ignoring of Bella as a person as opposed to a concept is terribly unusual, in my experience. And I believe that much of this is usual to the experience of many of the readers who appreciate this series. But then in walks Edward Cullen, who finds Bella irresistibly and intensely interesting. He wants to know her every thought, and he wants this so badly that he'll do anything, breach any boundary in order to understand her. Because he's a fantasy and because Bella is an insert for the fantasizer, he is literally powerless to hurt her -- he would be effectively harming his own maker -- and so his breach of boundaries comes off not as abusive (for he is powerless to abuse) but as attention. Loving attention, more attention than Bella has ever received before. And soon the rest of the supernatural world will follow suit: Jacob will spend much of New Moon showering Bella with attention; two entire armies will be raised (one to attack and one to defend) to focus on Bella in Eclipse; and two more armies will be raised for another assault on Mt. Bella in Breaking Dawn.

These armies aren't intended to be frightening to the reader any more than Edward is intended to be frightening to the reader, because the armies are there to affirm, not to harm. Most girls don't secretly wish to be attacked by an army any more than they secretly wish to be abused by a lover; but many girls do secretly wish someone would listen to them and pay attention without having some kind of ulterior motive -- or, if they must have an ulterior motivation (as with Edward's blood-lust), that this someone acknowledge that motivation openly and make a good faith effort to overcome it. And thus it is okay that Edward wants to murder rape fuck Bella, because he honestly acknowledges those desires between them and works to overcome those urges in order to treat Bella like a person instead of like an object to be used for his gratification.

That this series appeals so widely speaks to my own belief, based on my own experiences, that girls aren't empowered to openly desire these things -- attention, respect, humanization -- and that our culture works to insist that girls aren't worthy of them. And this is one of the ways in which Twilight is vaguely "feminist lite", as it affirms that women are worthy of these things and do deserve to be treated like people.

Yet the message falls flat, because the same socialization which says that women are not worthy of attention also says that the only kind of acceptable attention they might be allowed is abusive attention. So when the authors and editors and publicists of Twilight decided to undermine the idea that women don't deserve attention, they failed and reached for the most acceptable attention available -- which, not coincidentally, is harmful attention Because Patriarchy -- and ended up with an abusive relationship. So Edward pays attention to Bella, but in the most abusive ways possible: by spying on her without her consent; by lurking in her room while he wrestles with rapey murderous impulses; by hauling her backward across parking lots; by haranguing her about her thoughts to the point where she has no mental privacy and develops a siege mentality, actively censoring her own thoughts lest he read them on her face; and so forth.

The fantasy of abusive interest works (for some) when the abusive nature of Edward's interest doesn't ping the individual reader's triggers too closely, and when the narrative is able to assure the reader that Edward isn't real and is therefore powerless to cause genuine harm. With the abuse removed from the equation, the reader is left with the interest -- and that interest may still satisfy her in a world where the alternative is persistent, dehumanizing inattention.

But that doesn't therefore mean the reader wants to be abused. It means she wants the attention that she deserves, as a fellow human being. The failure isn't in the reader; the failure is in the book (which itself was shaped by patriarchal social values) for providing only unhealthy attention instead of genuinely healthy attention. And the failure is in our culture for normalizing both unhealthy inattention and unhealthy attention as the only options women are allowed to have; as well as always, always, making sure that women are blamed for whichever unhealthy interactions are heaped on them.

Twilight is about an abusive relationship. But instead of pointing fingers at women authors and women fans, we need to point the finger at our own abusive culture which treats women as objects to be ignored, abused, and blamed.


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