After 10 Years, Does Twilight Hold Up?

Photo: Summit Entertainment

Ten years ago, I was a self-proclaimed Twihard. That's the name given to hardcore fans of the Twilight saga by Stephenie Meyer, books-turned-movies about a vampire who falls in love with a mortal. I was obsessed; I devoured the books, I just had to buy all those special Twilight-themed magazines, and there may or may not be a rather large stack of character posters tucked in a folder in my room somewhere.

I just couldn't get enough of Edward Cullen and Bella Swan.

November 2018 marks the 10th anniversary of the release of first movie. In honor of that milestone, I recently sat down to rewatch. I was expecting a sweet little walk down memory lane – you know, a fun way to relive the movie that once occupied so much of my time and romantic imagination. What I got instead was a much-needed wake-up call: The movie isn’t a beautiful love story. In fact, in 2018, it feels like a nightmare — and not just because there are vampires involved.

At face value, the story sounds innocent enough, or as innocent as a movie about bloodthirsty humanoid monsters can be; Two teens (one, a vampire) from opposite worlds come together against all odds and forge a love story for the ages. The one-sentence summary on IMDb – “Bella Swan moves to Forks and encounters Edward Cullen, a gorgeous boy with a secret” — the secret being the whole vampire thing.

Twilight Saga Anniversary
The Twilight Saga/Facebook

Ten years ago, I interpreted Twilight as a story about passionate, boundary-pushing love. Now, though, I see it as a sort of toxic codependency. From the moment Bella and Edward meet, they’re like two magnets unable to stay away from each other. Bella gets her first glimpse of Edward as he enters the school cafeteria with his vampire sibling. Cue the movie magic slow-mo as time seems to stop for Bella — her entire focus shifts to him. Later, when they’re paired together for an experiment in science class, Edward is so overcome with bloodlust for Bella, he has to leave the room. All of this is intense, obsessive energy is depicted before the two characters even speak.

It’s not just the supernatural being that’s obsessed, either. In the books, Bella’s description of Edward is full of hyperbole — she describes him as “too beautiful to be real.” Her obsession with him leads her to dangerous behavior (like, you know, visiting a house full of vampires, including one that’s trying to actually kill her) but she’s not afraid of any of it. Instead, Bella has another fear: Getting older. She can’t stand the thought of becoming an old woman while Edward remains his glistening, sparkly 17-year-old self forever. It’s not long before Bella decides she wants to be a vampire, and makes it her mission to have Edward transform her.

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Now, maybe I could just chalk all this up to teenage hormones and a very bad case of lust if it weren’t for the fact that Edward plays off of Bella’s obsession for her and engages in repeated predatory behavior. Yes, he’s a vampire – being predatory is part of their DNA (if vampires even have DNA, I have no idea).

Still, Edward takes it to extremes. Bella almost gets hit by a car? Good thing Edward followed her out of the school so he could swoop in with his vampire speed and save her. Bella talks to other people, specifically her werewolf friend Jacob? Edward can barely contain his jealousy. Bella’s asleep in her bed? There’s Edward, sneaking in to watch her. The imbalance of power in their relationship is alarming — Bella is posited as a fragile, lovelorn figure in need of constant protection, despite the fact that involving herself with Edward is what makes her life dangerous in the first place.

“The relationship between Bella and Edward is 100 percent toxic, unhealthy and abusive,” says Rachel Wright, a New York-based licensed psychotherapist and relationship coach. “The Twilight movies promote the idea that women are better when they are dull and submissive. Bella exhibits low self-esteem and reminds herself that she is not attractive and anti-social. Plus, her character is shown to find the violence and danger exciting — even thrilling.”

All things considered, perhaps it’s no surprise that Twilight feels problematic in 2018, particularly when viewed through the lens of the #MeToo Movement and what we now understand about toxic masculinity — Bella is attracted to Edward (and Jacob) based on their strength, aggression, and status.

I wasn’t the only one who picked up on this, either. Diana Whitney, a freelance writer and yoga instructor from Vermont, recently watched Twilight with her 13-year-old daughter, who’d been asking to see it. Whitney recalls seeing the films years ago and enjoying it as “a fantastical, sexy thriller with gorgeous cinematography,” but seeing it again with her daughter gave her a different perspective.

“Suddenly, watching with my kid, I could see all these troubling dark undercurrents. Bella and Edward's relationship disturbed me,” she said. “It was based on her weakness and vulnerability and his strength and power. Starting from when he saves her from the van, it played right to traditional gender roles. The damsel in distress and the romantic brooding hero.”

“I used to love this series when I was in high school and they first came out, but now after growing up, I can’t stand them,” says Hannah Paul, an Illinois-based photographer. “Young adults nowadays don’t need someone romanticizing and normalizing unhealthy relationships and unsafe behavior. It just gives young adults, especially young girls, the wrong idea about how a relationship should be. No one in that series is a role model or a positive influence on young readers.”

Though the author has been quoted saying that the Twilight series is all about women having choices (the author also labels herself a feminist), the story actually just conflates a toxic power dynamic with true love.

“Abuse of power does not equal love. It equals abuse,” Wright says.

However, it’s not all bad news — a series of movies like Twilight can actually serve as a vehicle for a teachable moment. In fact, Wright recommends using the movie as a way to create an open dialogue

“Instead of parents and teachers saying things like, ‘Oh, I don’t want to watch that movie with my kid,’ perhaps they can take the 90 minutes out of their day to watch it and have a conversation about the themes,” she says.

At the very least, I’m glad that the idea of having conversations like these is on the table in 2018 — when it comes to Twilight these conversations are long overdue. I tried to re-watch the other four movies in the Twilight series, but so far I’ve only made it through New Moon and half of Eclipse. Maybe my heart hasn’t fully recovered from the fury and anger I felt after the first one. Part of me felt as though I’ve betrayed my feminist values by ever liking the series in the first place. I hope somewhere, in some alternate Twilight universe, Bella has come to her senses.

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