Criticizing the latest film in the Twilight series, Breaking Dawn, is child’s play. As columnist Jordan Baker writes, “I worry for girls who will grow up with Bella Swan from Twilight. Bella is self-absorbed, clingy and willing to give up everything – her education, family and mortal soul – for a man.”
It’s a common concern. And others have raised many more. Are the books and films romanticising stalking and controlling relationships? Why is Bella always in need of rescuing – often by more than one hero at a time? Is this yet another fable designed to teach girls that sex is an inherently corrupting force, where – once again – male sexuality is constructed in terms of the danger and risk it poses, while female sexuality is characterised in terms of deficiency and loss – loss of virginity, innocence and reputation?
Thousands of centimetres of column space have been dedicated to critics bemoaning the insipid and sullen Bella, and this latest film has triggered yet another flurry of exasperated screeds all taking aim at the Twilight franchise and, more specifically, at the fans who are ridiculed as mere “Twihards”.
And therein lies the problem. While the criticisms of the film may be legitimate, the subsequent worrying over teen girls, and criticism of those who enjoy Twilight, is not productive. When we roll our eyes at the cultural goods which appeal to teen girls and when we dismiss texts that manage to speak to them, we miss out on an opportunity to better understand and engage with girls.
As teen educators, we see this all the time. Parents like to repeatedly carry on about the “trash” that their teen girls are into (mind you, these same parents probably grew up on a diet of genies in bottles and Stepford-like domestic witches who both aimed only to please their masters). These same parents then act surprised as to why their daughters might be reluctant to share other parts of their lives. We can hardly expect our children to open up about the things that matter most to them when we dedicate so much energy to insulting the cultural goods they identify with.
As insightful as the critiques of Twilight might be, the problem is that they don’t in any way help to explain why teenagers like it or how it manages to speak to them. Instead of arguing the reasons as to why teenagers shouldn’t watch Twilight, let’s turn the problem over and try and understand why they do.
According to 15-year-old Elena Burger, the appeal of Twilight is that it marries up the fantasy of eternal youth with the fantasy of having access to adult privilieges, minus adult responsibilities:
“Bella gets to stay a ‘child’ forever. She doesn’t need to worry about the adult things that we teenagers know we’ll have to worry about: she doesn’t need a university degree, a car, or a mortgage. Plus, she still gets all the advantages of adulthood: sex, freedom, and a honeymoon. This is the ultimate fantasy for teenagers, and probably what a lot of adults hunger for as well.”
Other girls comment that they like the fact that Bella is decidedly not interested in dieting, cosmetics, fashion or other superficial trappings. Others seem to revel in their power to read resistently and deconstruct the text. One twelve-year-old girl we know leaned over to her mother while watching the latest film and commented, “Um hello? Domestic violence, much!”
The real power of the series is that, like it or not, the film seems to tap into a number of themes that resonate with the lives of young women. It is unsurprising, then, that they would wish to discuss and reflect on those themes.
Twilight presents us with an opportunity to springboard into discussions about some very sensitive issues. Ask a bunch of teen girls what a healthy relationship looks like and they will probably roll their eyes. But say to them, “Edward and Bella: a tale of domestic abuse. Discuss,” and you’ll unleash a passionate and thoughtful discussion as to what a healthy relationship is and how gender and power operate.
The latest film invites discussion on matters including premarital sex, abortion, consent, rejection, crushes, teen pregnancy, domestic violence, male competition, body image and secrets.
Teen films create “teachable moments” where we can connect with young people and engage them in discussions using the cultural goods already familiar to them. It’s far easier to debate the motives and actions of a removed, fictional character than it is to discuss the behavior and motives of your child or one of their peers. Young people enjoy expressing their opinions about the former, but will often become defensive or guarded about the latter.
You don’t have to love what your child likes. But if, instead of dismissing it, you view it as an opportunity to engage with your child, you just might learn something.
This post was co-written with Nina Funnell. Nina is a social commentator and freelance opinion writer. She works as an anti–sexual assault and domestic violence campaigner and is also currently completing her first book on “sexting”, teen girls and moral panics. The post was first published by the Sydney Morning Herald.