Part 2 "Romancing Monsters: The Rihanna / Chris Brown Saga Author's Note: This is a paper I wrote for one of my University courses on the Twilight films and relational abuse and the impact the media has on our perceptions of love and relational health.
“Women are mesmerized by the forbidden relationship, the exciting stranger who radiates danger and yet seems vulnerable and wounded by life. We want to crush him to our breasts and ease his pain. Simultaneously, we desire the thrill and the exhilarating sting of danger.”- Dorothy McCoy (“The Manipulative Man”)
Part 1: Twilight and Relational Abuse
On November 18, 2011 a world record was nearly broken. Bringing in $30.3 million on its midnight premiere, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 1 (the fourth film based on author Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series) achieved the second largest midnight gross in history. With its weekend debut hitting $139.5 million, the film came in fifth place for weekend debuts of all time. The film’s worldwide weekend total was $283.5 million and the Twilight franchise has brought in over $2 billion worldwide (Hollywood.com). 80% of the Breaking Dawn box office was generated by females, and thus, as Paul Dergarabedian, President of Hollywood.com Box Office says in his article, “It is clear that there is no further proof necessary that teenage girls can rule the box office”.
What is it exactly that is bringing these girls to the cinemas in droves? My money is not on the vicious fights between oversized wolves and blood-sucking, pale immortals. After all, I highly doubt these things appear in many 15-year old girls’ fantasies. No, it is the classic love story – the forbidden romance between a girl who is just trying to find her place in the world and a vampire who loves her so much that his desire to devour her (literally) is almost beyond his control. And then there is the added drama of the stubborn werewolf who, unlike the vampire, actually has warm blood running through his veins and who is able to kiss her without fear of turning her into his next feast. Yes, the epic Love Triangle – two strong, dashing men so passionately in love with one young girl whose only trouble is deciding which one she loves more – that is what makes up a 15-year old girl’s fantasy. And, in essence, that is what fuels the plot to this book-series-turned-film-saga sensation.
The problem is that the relationships portrayed in these films are less than desirable. We see this in both relationships that the story’s heroine, Bella Swan, has – one with Edward (the vampire) and the other with Jake (the werewolf). One might think that the shortcomings in these relationships are obvious – the two male love interests are after all, ‘monsters’; however, Edward’s thirst for blood and Jake’s tendency to get just a little angry (thus turning himself into an oversized, rabid K9) are actually the least of their problems – and the least things to be considered when analyzing the ‘health’ of the relationships in these films. The most dangerous things are the things that are less overt, and are ‘justified’ by phrases such as: ‘It’s not supposed to represent reality, the story is Fantasy’. However, when the blankets of fiction and fantasy are removed and one looks at the underlying messages that are implied by both the actions of the characters and the dynamics of their relationships, it becomes clear that the Twilight saga sends out harmful messages to young girls about relationships and the definition of ‘true love’.
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Meet Bella Swan
We first meet Bella Swan in her junior year in high school when she is moving away from her mom to go live with her dad in the small town of Forks, Washington. Based on actress Kristen Stewart’s portrayal, Bella has dark hair, dark eyes, prefers not to smile, and speaks in dispassionate monotone. She likes her red truck and doesn’t enjoy going to Prom – or any other social event, for that matter. Apart from that, we really don’t know anything else. Seeing as she is the main character – the heroine, even – you would think that we would know more about her, maybe her interests, her passions (outside of sucking face with vampires), her dreams and her goals – but that’s just it, Bella has none. And by none, I mean no hobbies, no interests, no plans. Until she meets Edward. Then her hobby becomes escaping ‘bad’ vampires, her interests turn to vampire life, and her plans are simple: become a vampire (so she can spend eternity with her ‘prince charming’). Through Bella’s lack of personal identity, we already see a young woman who is at risk of rooting her identity in someone else – namely, a man. In her book Men Who Hate Woman and the Women Who Love Them, Dr. Susan Forward says, “We have been taught since we were little girls that love is the answer. It will make everything better; all we have to do is to get a man to love us and then life will be good and we will live happily ever after” (Forward, p. 41), and through Bella we see this message being sent out to millions of young girls. In the words of Kristi Coombs in her article “The Twilight Saga — A Poor Example for Teen Romance”, “[Stephanie Meyer] completely failed her “heroine” by not allowing her to grow, develop a sense of self separate from others, or develop any real human power. To me, that is a tragic message to send to today’s young women”.
In addition to her lack of identity, we see in Bella a ‘victim’ mentality. As Coombs writes, “Bella caters to the moods, needs and whims of both Edward and Jacob. She controls and compartmentalizes her feelings, walks on eggshells so as not to upset or anger them, and does her best to avoid disappointing them”. In an article entitled “Relationship Violence in ‘Twilight’” by Wind Goodfriend, Ph.D. on Psychology Today, Goodfriend compiles a list of three characteristics that show why young Bella Swan is at risk of being “A Future Victim of Relationship Violence”. Goodfriend says, “Bella constantly reminds herself that she’s uncoordinated, unsocial, and unattractive” – and we see this throughout all four of the films. Goodfriend adds, “When Edward shows interest in her, Bella’s low self-esteem puts him in a position of power over her; he can treat her however he’d like, because she perceives that he’s out of her league and is lucky to be the dirt on the bottom of his shoe (or the blood on the bottom of his fangs, I guess)”. The second characteristic is that Bella is attracted to ‘forbidden men’. “Lovers who are not allowed, disapproved of, or are simply unattainable sometimes become even more desirable,” says Goodfriend. “Bella is thus drawn to the “bad boy” who is more likely to abuse her. Her interest in Jacob also goes up when he decides not to see her anymore”. Lastly, Bella is excited by violence – in New Moon her friend calls her an “Adrenaline Junkie”, and we see evidence of this not only in her reckless behaviour, but in her relationships as well. Goodfriend says, “When Edward tells Bella that he’ll literally kill anyone who tries to hurt her, she’s attracted to his violent nature. And, as anyone on “Team Jacob” will note, she’s only interested in Jacob after she learns that he’s a violent werewolf who might rip off her face”.
Meet Edward – The ‘Good’ Vampire
In his article Dr. Goodfriend also addresses Edward’s character, listing off three characteristics that relate Edward to an abuser. Goodfriend mentions Edward’s signs of jealousy and possessiveness, which is evident when Edward virtually stalks Bella – even showing up in her room at night to watch her sleep. In addition, he gets angry whenever he sees that she’s been spending time with Jake, and in Eclipse he even cuts the wires of her truck when he knows she is planning to go visit Jake. Another characteristic Goodfriend lists is Edward’s “use of coercion to accelerate the development of closeness”. He says, “If an abuser can get full commitment from his (or her) victim as early as possible, this basically “locks in” the victim and cuts them off from escape”. We see this in how Edward quickly moves into Bella’s life and begins monopolizing her time (to which she doesn’t object) and rushes her into marriage even when she is not ready and refuses to consider her reasons for wanting to delay it. However, the most implicit sign of Edward’s abuse is how he isolates Bella; Goodfriend says, “One of [Edward’s] hallmark characteristics is his control over Bella and his attempts to isolate her from others. Abusers often use this tactic as a way of ensuring that their victims have no way to escape should they attempt to do so. After he decides that he wants her, he’s quick to get her alone, and for the rest of the series he constantly shields her from any other interactions, including from her father and friends”.
Susan Forward refers to this ‘isolation’ technique as one of the Misogynist’s ‘weapons’, saying, “This process often begins in a subtle, indirect, benign way” (Forward, p. 55). Forward suggests that the reason the misogynist does this is to feel safe; she says, “The misogynist must control your thoughts, your opinions, your feelings, and your behavior. Therefore, only those friends or family members that support his view of himself or his version of reality will be welcome in your lives” (Forward, p. 76). We see this in the movies when shortly after meeting Edward, Bella abandons her friends (who never were a fan of the vampire) and eventually the only people in her life are Edward and his family – she even is willing to abandon her own family, in the end, when she begs Edward to turn her into a vampire (but more on that later).
Breaking Down the Relationship
What we see developing between Bella and Edward is a relationship filled with so many unhealthy aspects coming from both parties that it’s difficult to tell who is at fault or who the ‘instigator’ is. As Forward says, “The misogynist’s jealousy and possessiveness [limit] her world, which further enhances his importance to her. It is a vicious cycle. The more dependent she becomes, the more important he becomes. The more important he is, the more she is willing to give up for him, so that there is less left in her life that is free of him” (Forward, p. 87). This process causes the victim to begin accepting the abuser’s version of the relationship – seeing him as ‘good’ and herself as ‘bad’ and believing that his actions are solely based on his desire for her to become a ‘better person’ and Forward says that once this happens, the victim has stepped into watch she calls a ‘dangerous twilight zone’ (how fitting!). She adds, “What makes this transition so destructive to her is that she actually has begun to help him to abuse her. She suspends her own good judgment, joins him in his persecution of her, and finds explanation to justify his behaviour.” (Forward, pp. 94-95). And this is where Bella Swan sits – in the Twilight Zone with her abuser.
In addition to the messages being sent about both Bella and Edward’s behaviours and the cycle of their abuse, another message that must be looked at is the addictive nature of their relationship and how it is being displayed as an example of ‘true love’. We have been told that there is no greater way to show love than to lay down your life for another; however, in Twilight this seems to be mistaken for laying down your life because of another, or, more specifically, because you cannot live without another. We see both Jake and Edward threaten to kill themselves if Bella ever leaves (which is also an abusive manipulation technique) and we see Bella essentially giving up her life (though she is really gaining an eternity of existence – just without ever being able to see her friends or family again) so she can become a vampire and spend an eternity with Edward. This is where true love crosses the line into obsession, which is where Bella and Edward reside – they are addicted to each other. “Addictive love works like any other addiction,” says Forward, “Whether it is to alcohol, drugs, gambling, or food. There is a compulsive driven need for the other person. When a woman is in an addictive love relationship, she experiences intense pain and suffering when she is deprived of her partner; she feels that she cannot live without him” (Forward, p. 87). We see this intense pain in the second film, New Moon, when Edward moves away and Bella remains in a depression for months – the scene shows Bella sitting on her couch staring out the window as the months “October” “November” “December” flash across the screen.
There is both a spoken and unspoken agreement between Bella and Edward that Forward refers to in her book; “The spoken agreement says: I love you and I want to be with you. The unspoken agreement, which comes from our deep-seated needs and fears, is far more powerful and binding. [The victim’s] part in the unspoken agreement is: my emotional security depends on your love, needs, and wishes. [The abuser’s] part of that agreement is: my emotional security depends on my being in total control” (Forward, p. 42).
The ‘Not-So-Subtle’ Messages
Not all the messages sent out in these films are as subtle as the ones mentioned above. Though some of the ‘overt’ displays of abuse are easily justified by the vampire-based storyline, if you strip away the fantasy element and look at the raw material, you will find some frightening messages. As Maria Pawlowska says in her article “A Tale of Two Bellas: Sex, Violence, and Children’s Entertainment” written for The Good Men Project, “What rubs me the wrong way about Breaking Dawn is not so much the werewolves having a go at the vampires or the vampires having a go at other vampires. Rather, it’s Edward Cullen’s aggression towards his bride. In the movie (and more so in the book) Bella is literally all in bruises after their wedding night, and she never once stops telling him that she knows it’s all because he loves her and [insert domestic violence excuse of your choice]”. Sure, in the world of vampires and werewolves, in light of their passion (and especially because of Bella’s ‘fault’ of being irresistibly desirable) the men tend to ‘lose control’ on occasion and the women end up with scars along their faces from their werewolf ex-boyfriends or, in Bella’s case, bruises all over her body, and this is all excusable because it’s ‘fantasy’; but these ‘fictional’ situations seem to parallel reality in a way that is too close for comfort. I can hear the young girls now: “He just loves me so much, like Jacob loves Bella, he just couldn’t control his temper” or “Yes it hurt, but it’s only because he is so passionate and loves me so much – he’s like the Edward to my Bella” – it’s a frightening thought.
Maybe young girls can differentiate between the two, maybe they can watch the movies and realize that though all is fair when it comes to vampire love, it is not the same in real life, but what if they can’t? Quite frankly, I don’t think that is a risk that we want to take.
I like how Linda Holmes puts it in her article on National Public Radio: “But when a saga popular with pre-adolescent girls peaks romantically on a night that leaves the heroine to wake up covered with bruises in the shape of her husband’s hands — and when that heroine then spends the morning explaining to her husband that she’s incredibly happy even though he injured her, and that it’s not his fault because she understands he couldn’t help it in light of the depth of his passion — that’s profoundly irresponsible” – and irresponsible is the only way to put it. As Goodfriend says, “The popularity of the Twilight series shows just how much attention girls are giving to the examples of lovers displayed in Edward and Bella’s world….Unfortunately, the course and characteristics of Bella’s relationship with Edward are actually templates for violence and abuse, and Twilight fans may unwittingly model a relationship that is far from healthy…. In the case of Twilight, it’s possible that the millions of screaming fans might be learning how to fall victim to a violent relationship.”
Read Part 2: “Romancing Monsters: the Rihanna / Chris Brown Saga”
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