A Psychologist at the Movies

Imaginary people have problems, too.

Relationship Violence in “Twilight”

How “Twilight” teaches teens to love abusive relationships.

I love psychology, and I love movies. Every couple of years, I teach a class called "Psychology in Film." When I tell people about it, they often ask, "Are there enough movies about psychology for an entire class?" My response is first shock, then slight annoyance, then my vocal response of, "Every movie is about psychology."

An abusive future?

As my initial posting for this new blog, I'd like to focus on the "Twilight" movies (based on the books by Stephenie Meyer). In the past decade, the rise in popularity of vampire-themed books, TV shows, and movies has risen dramatically. While some vampire stories are rich with sexual and cultural lessons, the "Twilight" series, in my opinion, can be used as a display of behaviors that put people at risk for abuse in dating relationships. 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. To them, Edward represents the troubled soul who is waiting to be tamed by just the right woman; it's the modern "Beauty and the Beast." 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. While relationship violence is extremely complicated and every case is different, some warning signs have been identified by researchers.

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Bella: A Future Victim of Relationship Violence

Let's start with how Bella, the main female character, displays three characteristics common in victims of violent relationships. The first and perhaps most obvious trait is her consistent low self-esteem. Bella constantly reminds herself that she's uncoordinated, unsocial, and unattractive. 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 quality Bella displays which is common in victims of abuse is that she is particularly attracted to men who are forbidden. Many readers of Psychology Today will be familiar with the "Romeo and Juliet" effect: Lovers who are not allowed, disapproved of, or are simply unattainable sometimes become even more desirable. 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 (due to his sudden increase in hair and his sudden decrease in shirts).

Third, and most unfortunately, Bella is simply excited by violence, aggression, and danger; she finds it all thrilling. Bella's attraction to anything dangerous is clear in many cases through her human life. She rides a motorcycle because it's dangerous. 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.

Edward: Why He's an Abuser

Now let's take a look at the male "love" interest. Edward also displays many stereotypical characteristics of abusers. First, one of his 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. Edward consistently forbids her from seeing Jacob (a potential rival), and he even sabotages her car so that she has no avenue of escape. Not my idea of romance.

Next, the use of coercion to accelerate the development of closeness is another common warning sign of abuse. 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. Once Edward and Bella have decided to be together, they spend every night together in her room, and he tries to follow her in others' thoughts (using his vampire superpowers) when she's not present. He proposes to her when he knows she's not ready and refuses to listen to her reasons for delaying the marriage.

Finally, a classic warning sign of partner volatility is high levels of jealousy or possessiveness. When Bella learns that Edward was only in Port Angeles (in the first movie) because he followed her there, she was appreciative for being saved from attack by random dudes, but does not seem to notice that it is stalking behavior. Edward continues to treat Bella in ways that mark him as a jealous, potentially violent predator.

Why is Twilight so popular? Since the Victorian era, vampire legends have been part of pop culture. These legends emphasize forbidden desires, illicit sexual metaphors, and adventure. Unfortunately, they also often include messages that support sexism and the abuse of power. 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.

 

For more information about relationship violence, my book "Voices of Hope: Breaking the Silence of Violence" is coming out in the summer of 2012 (co-authored by Pamela Lassiter Cathey).

Copyright Wind Goodfriend, Ph.D.

 

 

 

Wind Goodfriend, Ph.D. is a social psychologist at Buena Vista University, with research expertise on stereotypes and on romantic relationships. more...

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