Updated: Aug 22
The Twilight Saga is one of the most widely recognized franchises of the early 2000s. From its original book series by Stephenie Meyer to its iconic movie adaption (the first movie was directed by Catherine Hardwicke and released in 2008), it has taken the world, and the hearts of teenage girls across the country, by storm. Starring Robert Pattison as brooding, self-loathing vampire Edward Cullen and Kristen Stewert as equally angsty, “not-like-other-girls” recluse Bella Swan, Twilight gained a cult following in the years after its release. The story follows Bella as she moves to Forks, a small town in the Pacific Northwest, to live with her father. She soon meets the Cullens, a family of vampires, and falls in love with their adopted son-- handsome 108 year old immortal Edward Cullen. I thought it fair that a piece of media this widely acclaimed should receive some intellectual analysis.
Unpacking the abstinence metaphor
The first topic I wanted to dive into was the abstinence metaphor. The vampire plot device is such a thinly veiled metaphor, it’s almost transparent. Aspects of the story include describing a vampire’s need for blood as their “thirst,” and Edward insisting that to turn Bella into a vampire would be taking something from her (they use the word soul, but they’re clearly referring to something else— and the fact that they use her soul as a synonym for her virginity is a whole topic of its own). This means that Edward’s refusal to put her in “danger” of getting hurt by his vampire-ness makes him the perfect man to teen girls who have been taught to stay abstinent at all costs. Edward is an outlet for all that repression, clearly marked as “safe” by the Mormon author of the Twilight series, and his abstinence greatly contributes to the general theme of unused power.
This also ties in later in the series, when Jacob Black (a dashing and gentle werewolf with a heart of gold and anger management issues) makes his real debut. Part of his insistence that Bella should date him instead of Edward is based on the argument that, unlike his immortal counterpart, Jacob is human (“real flesh and blood,” he says at one point). This has several implications, along with the superficial plot reasoning, and the pro-abstinence undertones starts to leak through a little once Bella chooses Edward, who will “protect” her, over Jacob, who hasn’t promised abstinence.
What makes Edward Cullen so attractive to teenage girls?
This leads us to our next topic of discussion: why, exactly, Edward became the quintessential “perfect fantasy boyfriend” so quickly and so intensely. The best conclusion I could come to was the element of controlled danger that appears so often in his character design. He’s a self-loathing vampire, for starters— he resents his thirst for blood (“I don’t want to be a monster,” he says). His family members call themselves vegetarians: they exclusively eat animals, and learn to resist the temptation of human blood.
We’re never allowed to forget his thirst, though. Edward could, at any moment, murder Bella on sight. He has the power to hurt her in a very extreme way, and he chooses not to. This is what we’re supposed to think makes him such a good partner— and in actuality, what sends a terrible message to the young audiences reading or watching Twilight who are learning about how to exist in a healthy relationship. A messed up power dynamic is built into their relationship in a way that’s unavoidable. (For the record, this uneven power dynamic would also exist if Bella were to end up with Jacob. It’s not a problem with Edward personally, it’s a problem with the structure and theme of the series as a whole.) But I think that’s what makes Edward attractive to so many teenagers— he’s a bad boy with good intentions, a “protective” and loyal boyfriend who inspires just as much fear as he does comfort. He’s the best— or the worst— of both worlds.
Why, scientifically speaking, you should be Team Edward
All this being said, I think it’s important to set aside our biases, if only for a paragraph, and indulge ourselves enough to answer the burning question on everybody’s mind: Team Edward or Team Jacob?
In the long standing Team Edward/Team Jacob debate, it’s easy to make a choice based on the wrong criteria. For example, Jacob Black is objectively a much better character than Edward Cullen. He’s sweet, supportive (for the most part), present, and still healthily independent, unlike his counterpart. However, the best criteria for deciding who Bella belongs with is exactly that: who Bella would do best with in an actual, long-term relationship.
While Edward’s codependency is disconcerting, Bella’s is equally so: which makes them right for each other, in a twisted way. Jacob wouldn’t be able to realistically keep up with her constant and unhealthy need for attention and affirmation, while Edward can do so easily.
Also, Jacob’s reaction to Bella’s decision making skills, namely in the second and third movies, is far from acceptable behavior. Even if her decisions to date, marry, and sleep with Edward, and to eventually become a vampire herself, were “wrong,” Jacob’s angry and defensive response was far from acceptable and even farther from desirable. Almost every interaction he and Bella had in the fourth movie ended in a fight, and all of those fights were about things that had nothing to do with Jacob. His inability to respect her decision making skills and leave her alone when she asked him to is a mighty large red flag.
Which brings us to the final reason why Team Edward is the way to go: Bella chose him. In a cinematic universe in which Bella’s thoughts, needs, desires, and opinions are seldom listened to and almost never taken seriously, the least that she deserves is the ability to choose her own partner, even if that decision doesn’t make much sense to the viewers or the characters around her.
Racial stereotyping and the problem with the wolf pack
The pack of werewolves in the Twilight series are part of the Quileute tribe-- a Native American tribe that is very real and has been around long before Twilight was written. While Twilight got much of the logistical information right, such as their location in Washington and specifically on La Push Beach, the franchise also completely made up “legends” that they then had told by fictional leaders of the tribe. Along with the act of making up a false history for a real group of people, Stephanie Meyer (Twilight’s author) leaned heavily on the stereotype of Native Americans being “savages.” It’s ignorant and disrespectful to falsify an entire history of people into a racist depiction of literal half-humans, half-beasts. The Quileute tribe deserves better than to be culturally belittled to the point where their name is considered synonymous with a fictional clan of werewolves.
Twilight, in all its glory, has quite a bit wrong with it. Its terrible race and gender politics and its horrible depictions of what teen romance should be only scrape the surface of the vast well of interpretation this franchise offers us. There’s a lot more to dive into here, but for now, I think the best conclusion we can come to is this: Twilight, while a terrible model for any sort of real life interaction, is the perfect guilty pleasure media to either consume mindlessly or analyze in depth. It’s designed perfectly to be claimed and adored by teenagers across the country: it’s got hot werewolf boys and vampire girls, somewhat engaging plot, thriller villains and sneaky comedy, and shining moments of good performance floating in the sea of bad acting displayed primarily by a young Kristen Stewart. If you haven’t seen it already, I recommend giving it a hate-watch, and if you’re a seasoned Twilight veteran, maybe jump back in with a different perspective.
All Twilight movies are available on Netflix, and all Twilight books are purchasable on Amazon.