The Trouble with Twihard Tweens
How the Twilight saga is hazardous to your tween’s mental health.
Posted Nov 04, 2011
While the "saga," as it is being touted by the brand, may be entertaining to a wide audience, there may also be cause for concern, particularly with respect to young females. According to the American Library Association, "young adult" refers to the 12-18 age category (Young Adult Library Services Association, 2009). Developmentally, there are ostensible differences between the maturity levels of such a broad age range. Given Twilight's branding as young adult, and thus inclusion of pre-teens into its readership, this series is unsuitable for this audience. The story touches on several themes that parents, educators, and other consumers should be ready to discuss with young readers, as such media can be catalysts for important discussions and learning opportunities (i.e., Rosser, 2007). In addition to mistaking lust for love, additional harmful themes intertwined in Twilight include suicide and aggression. Given the upcoming release of the first part of the two-part finale of the films, it is helpful to begin with an examination of the first story of the series which started it all.
History of Vampires, Film, and Mental Health
Aside from its use with a clinical population, vampire culture is a prevalent force in the mainstream. Given its mass appeal, the first book (Meyer, 2006a) and film (Mooridian, Morgan, & Godfrey, 2008) of this series are reviewed below with respect to harmful themes. As there is much overlap in content between the film and novel, attempts will be made to delineate which medium is being referred to in particular examples; however, the themes themselves are present in both sources.
Synopsis of Twilight
Through a series of events, Bella and Edward's paths cross, and Edward ends up saving Bella's life several times; in one instance he pushes a speeding van away from her and saves her from being pinned against a car, and in a second instance, he saves her from a hoard of men in a dark alley at night. Bella comes to question Edward's superhuman strength and ability to appear in times of danger, and eventually learns he is a vampire. The two fall in love, despite the danger and impossibility of their romance. Though Edward appears 17, he is immortal and has lived for over 100 years. In order for their budding romance to work, Bella must convert to being a vampire, yet Edward desires her to have a normal human existence.
Love or Lust?
Bella and Edward's relationship reveals the first harmful theme of Twilight: mistaking lust for love. Such a phenomenon renders adolescent girls emotionally and physically vulnerable at a time when they may be least able to protect themselves. For example, Bartels and Zeki (2004), found that the brain activity of young adults in the first stages of passionate love share startling similarities with the brain activity of cocaine addicts given an intravenous injection of cocaine. In the novel and the film, Edward acknowledges that Bella, whose scent he finds deliciously unprecedented, is his own "personal brand of heroin." Likewise, Bella's reaction to Edward is visceral; she describes his eyes as mesmerizing and his scent as mouth watering.
Figuratively speaking, those bitten by the love bug are in a perpetual state of seeing the world and the objects of their attraction through rose-colored glasses. In addition to activating the reward centers of the brain, passionate love (as well as euphoria-inducing drugs, such as cocaine) deactivate the brain regions involved in critical thought, social judgment, and the ability to assess the intentions and emotions in others (Fisher, 2004). For example, the amygdala, a brain region which monitors the environment for fearful or dangerous stimuli, is far less active in those who are experiencing passionate love than in a control group of singles or among individuals in a long-term monogamous relationship (Fisher, 2000). As a result, violations of personal boundaries, aggression, and manipulations on the part of the beloved are unlikely to be viewed as a cause for concern or as a trigger for normal self-protective and self-preserving behaviors. Adolescent girls are additionally vulnerable when in the throws of passionate love because the frontal lobe, the region of the brain thought to control social cognition, executive control, and behavioral inhibition of context inappropriate behavior, may not be fully mature until a person is in their late 20's (Sowell et al., 2003).
Young female audiences, with little to no relationship experience, may internalize the message of the Twilight love story, experience similar physical attraction, and identify it as love. It is here that a candid discussion of the qualities and criteria of a healthy relationship and a healthy self is warranted. Loving, healthy, and enduring relationships include such aspects as mutual respect, non-violence, and equality—all of which are lacking in Bella and Edward's relationship. While Bella and Edward's mutual obsession can appear sweet and loving at times, the intensity of their addictive devotion lays a thoroughly solid foundation for other troubling themes; namely, suicide.
Research has indicated that teenage suicide attempts are sometimes linked to romantic relationships (Shrier, 1981). A sequential model of suicide indicates several risk factors among teens; included in the list are interpersonal loss and the romaticization of suicide that is promulgated by the media (Shaffer, Gould, & Hicks, 2007). Further examples of precipitants include such factors as a breakup with one's boyfriend (Schaffer et al., 2007). Thus although fictional for Twilight, this issue of love and suicide may have very serious consequences and its implications should be discussed with young readers.
Further frustrating for Bella, and likewise audiences, is Edward's moodiness. At times, he oscillates between being exceptionally loving and bitterly scathing. While this may be attributed to Edward's internal conflict to either stay in Bella's life or attempt to keep her safe by leaving her, his behavior is reminiscent of character profiles of batters and, therefore, manipulative and disrespectful of the person he professes to love. Indeed, Bella sarcastically noting Edward's mood swings asks him, "do you have multiple personality disorder?". (p.82) In addition, some of the themes apparent in the couple's love are lightly reminiscent of Stockholm's syndrome, the occurrence of a victim bonding with its captor. Ironically, just as Edward and his family hunt and prey on animals, so too Edward hunts and preys on Bella. For example, before Edward fully knows whether his adoration for Bella is requited, he slips into Bella's room at night to watch her sleep and monitors her whereabouts by reading the thoughts of her friends and family.
In their therapy guide, Escaping Love Captivity, Sally Coleman and Susan Steibe-Pasalich (1996) use the idea of Stockholm's syndrome to identify maladaptive relationship patterns. Among the themes involved in such relationships they include: isolation/imprisonment; verbal and/or physical dominance; over-focus on the captor; entrapment; and required secrecy. It is imperative to note here that in authentic domestic abuse situations these themes are very harmful and prevalent with a high degree of severity. Bella and Edward's relationship share many of these elements, though possibly to a lesser degree. Exclusive, and highly passion-driven romances have the potential for harm, especially for young adults and teenagers who lack maturity, social skills, and judgment to adequately assess dangerous relationships. If allowed to continue so tumultuously, there is the risk of such a relationship becoming dangerous. In Twilight, the secrecy and physical dominance of Edward is intended as thrilling and alluring. Yet, for young readers, this is a dangerous message. Dominance and violence when confused for love often have devastating psychological consequence for all adults, but most especially for impressionable teenagers and young adults.
The stories are appropriate for older populations; it is for the readership of younger audiences that there should be caution. On her website, the author states that the original sequel of the story was leading into a tale unintended for a young adult population (Meyer, n.d.). Thus there is some indication that the first story was in some ways prefacing the more mature themes that the author states were in the original sequel. Later books in the four-part series go on to openly discuss infidelity, sex, and pregnancy. Thus this article should also serve to admonish publishing companies and media franchises that seek to advance their own economic interests above those of adolescent girls, as the series is not appropriate for 12-year olds. Twilight is a culturally relevant topic today, much as Harry Potter was a few years ago, and another exciting story will supercede all of them. What these stories will always share, though, is the power to fuel discussions and illustrate life scenarios. But the merits of Twilight, can be summarized in the aptly named poem, Eternal Twilight, and it's resounding conclusive exclamations:
"something needs to be said
in the morning, in the shivering moment
wherein space mixes
suddenly with something vague
like the flooding feelings of puberty
my heart wants to give
into the flood
my heart wants to burst
into rain from that great cloud
my heart wants to say:
no! no! no! no!"
(Farrokhzaad, 1997, p. 49)
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* this article was previously published under the following citation with co-author, Ms. Elizabeth Hendriks
Saedi, G & Hendriks, EA. (2010). "And so the lion fell in love with the lamb": An examination of potentially harmful psychological themes for adolescent females in Twilight. The School Psychologist, 63, 19-24.