Abusive is the New Sexy: Why Books like ‘Twilight’ are Dangerous

When it comes to dating boys, I have always been attracted to the sarcastic nerd type. They’re smart, sweet, respectful, adorable, and have the weirdest sense of humour. What’s not to love? Unfortunately, the sarcastic nerd as a love interest is rarely if ever seen in young adult (teen) novels. From Twilight to Hush, Hush to the Mortal Instruments series, every single young adult (often referred to as YA) book written for teenage girls in the last five or six years has featured a sexy, dangerous, rebellious, and often supernatural boyfriend for the female main character. Becca Fitzpatrick, the woman responsible for Hush, Hush and its sequels (a series about a fallen angel falling in love with a mortal teenage girl) proudly states in interviews that she set out to write the “ultimate sexy bad boy.” 

So what’s wrong with this? Most girls—for reasons I will never understand—love dangerous, sexy rebels. The problem is that there is an extraordinarily thin line between rebel and jerkass and an even thinner line between dangerous and abusive. (I don’t object to sexy; I’m a fan of sexy.) In Cassandra Clare’s City of Bones, “sexy” demon hunter Jace is a complete asshole to all mortal humans. He calls all humans mundies (short for mundanes) and acts like a pretentious dickhead to them all. In Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight, the infamous Edward Cullen purposely breaks his girlfriend Bella’s car to keep her from visiting a friend of hers that Edward does not approve of. He is cold and rude to many of Bella’s friends and family members. There are several scenes throughout the series where Edward demands that Bella get into his car, or go somewhere with him, or do something that she does not want to do. At a few points, Bella admits to being afraid of Edward. When Bella gets pregnant in Breaking Dawn (the last book in the series), Edward demands she abort the baby. When she refuses (the first time in the entire series where she stands up for herself), Edward approaches one of Bella’s friends, Jacob, whom Edward knows is in love with Bella. Against Bella’s wishes—and even her knowledge—Edward tells Jacob he can have sex with Bella if he can talk her into aborting the fetus. And yet, Edward is still seen as Bella’s true love, more important than anyone else in her life. Because being pimped out by your boyfriend is sooooo sexy. Jacob doesn’t fare much better. He briefly considers accepting Edward’s offer to force Bella to have sex with him and to have an abortion. At one point, he forces himself on Bella and kisses her despite her protests. Also in the Twilight series are werewolves Sam and his fiancée Emily. Once, Sam became so angry that he morphed into his wolf form and brutally attacked Emily, leaving her face mutilated and horribly scarred. However, Sam is not reprimanded for this because he feels guilty and he’s Emily’s true love. Emily still stays with Sam, because she knows he’s her true love. Remember the first time a boy tried to viciously murder you?  Ah, the memories. In Becca Fitzpatrick’s Hush, Hush, there is a scene where the dangerous rebel Patch pins the main character, his girlfriend Nora to a bed. He tells her how dangerous he is and how he would kill her if he ever chose to do so. Then he kisses her, and everything is alright. He’s still her true love. And he’s sexy. In Lauren Kate’s Fallen, female protagonist Luce is told that her fallen angel boyfriend is (and I quote) an “asshole.” This, however, only seems to turn Luce on even more. In Maggie Stiefvater’s Shiver, protagonist Grace becomes so obsessed with werewolf boyfriend Sam (for five years before they even speak to each other) that she has few hobbies other than obsessing over him and has no personality. In most of the supernatural YA that features dangerous rebels, the female is a mortal human and the love interest is supernatural. However, in Claudia Grey’s Evernight, the female Bianca is a vampire and her boyfriend Lucas is human. Despite the fact that as a vampire, Bianca is much more powerful than Lucas, Lucas still frequently has to save her. Being a vampire doesn’t keep her from being the damsel in distress. In one of the most abhorrent scenes I have ever read, Lucas demands that Bianca spend less time with her friends and especially her parents. When Bianca objects, Lucas gets angry. Some chivalrous men nearby see the situation and interfere. Despite the men’s brave attempt to save her from an abusive boyfriend, Bianca is repulsed. After she rudely tells them to go away, she goes on for several paragraphs insulting the men in her internal monologue. When she tells her friend Raquel, Raquel (proving to be the smartest female in the series) is understandably mortified. She tells Bianca that Lucas’ demanding she have less contact with her parents is traditionally a sign of future abuse (which it is.) Bianca, of course, ignores this and says that Raquel doesn’t realize how special Lucas really is. However, Bianca does have one favourable quality. When Raquel (a human) is stalked by a teenage vampire named Erich, Bianca is furious. Bella, Zara (from Carrie Jones’ Need), and most other girlfriends in supernatural YA not only approve of their boyfriends stalking them, but are flattered by it.

It should be blatantly obvious that this kind of behaviour is far from acceptable. However, in the books and in the fandoms, the abusive actions of these male characters are rationalized and often even condoned. If you’ve been living on Earth for the last three years, you’ll know that the Twilight fandom is huge. Millions of teenage girls worldwide have fallen for the male characters in the book, namely Edward Cullen. A common complaint I’ve heard from the female fans of Twilight is that Edward ruined men from them. He’s the perfect man; the boyfriend they desperately want. Nobody is as “good” as him. I’ve heard married women say in all seriousness that they’d leave their husbands for Edward Cullen. Despite being fictional, he is the boyfriend millions of girls want. This is a terrifying thought considering all the abusive things Edward does to Bella. For four long books, he tortures Bella emotionally and physically. He has abused her in so many ways, I couldn’t list them all in this article. But believe me, the ones I listed are only the tip of the barrel. Instead of thinking that his actions are evil and abusive—which they are—teenage girl are being conditioned to think that Edward’s abusive behaviour is the ultimate way a boyfriend should treat his girlfriend. They are conditioned to desperately want abusive relationships. I’ve also heard girls who fawn over Edward say he only does those abusive things to Bella because he loves her and wants to protect her. Bullshit. All abused women say that their abuser does what he does to protect them. These Edward-loving girls are learning that if a man treats them in the abusive manner that Edward treats Bella, it only means he really loves them. This perversion of love is confusing these girls to the point that they don`t know what real love actually is. All of the books I mentioned above are similar to Twilight. Hell, many of them are even worse. And like Twilight, they all have large fanbases filled with fans who desperately want to date the abusive love interest. Since they can’t (these characters do have the unfortunate handicap of being fictional), they try to turn to the most abusive real men they can find for a relationship.
So what should you, as a parent, do if your daughter becomes a fan of one of these books? The most important thing is to not censor the books. Of all the things in the world, censorship is what I hate the most. If your daughter is in her mid to late teens (the age range that these books are meant for), you should trust that she is old enough to make her own decisions. What you should do, however, is find out what her motive for reading the books are. More often than not, books like these are read as guilty pleasures by intelligent teenage girls who know that the relationships depicted are abhorrent. Several of my fellow book critic friends read books like these as some form of masochism or, in Internet terms, “for the lulz.” I myself have read all the books I mentioned above. I read them as a way to teach myself how not to write. If your daughter is, unfortunately, one of the crazed fans who think that the treatment of teenage girls depicted at the hands of their boyfriends is the ideal, you have a problem. Talk to her frequently and explain why these relationships are bad. Passively monitor her interactions with her boyfriend and watch for signs of abusive. People tend to think that abusive relationships don`t happen to teenagers, but I`ve seen it happen time and time again. That said, it is rather rare. Like I mentioned before, there is a huge complaint amongst the Twilight fandom that boyfriends like Edward are hard to find. This is usually because real men have more respect for women. However, I think the best way to cure an obsession with these types of books is to turn your daughter onto other, better novels. You know how earlier, I said that the only young adult books written for teenage girls feature abusive rebel boyfriends and weak females? I lied. There are tonnes of amazing YA books with amazing female characters out there. Tragically, they are overshadowed by horrible books with horrible characters like Twilight. Books like Twilight give teenage girls a superficial fantasy, which is why they sell a lot more. The books that sell more are, obviously, promoted more. If your daughter reads books like Twilight, try turning her on to some better-written books with characters that can be applauded. Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy is a fabulous series featuring a female main character. Katniss, the main character, can hold her own in battle, cares deeply about others, and often saves the life of her love interest, Peeta. Peeta is smart, funny, generous and—most importantly—not an abusive jerk. Kelley Armstrong’s two supernatural series, Women of the Otherworld and The Darkest Powers feature some of the smartest and strongest female characters in both the supernatural and young adult genres. Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series, as well as many of the novels by Libba Bray, Kim Harrison, and Holly Black feature strong female characters as well. There are also YA books written for all gender audiences that are fantastic, such as the works of J.K. Rowling, John Greene, Scott Westerfeld (again), Neil Gaiman, and Michael Grant. These are just a few. Good books for teenage girls do exist; you just have to look for them.

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

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