1.30.2009

Over the winter break, I read the first two of the Twilight books, Twilight and New Moon. I didn't want to read them, but I have had no fewer than 25 young women who I teach or otherwise encounter tell me that I HAVE to read them. I was beginning to feel if I didn't read them, it would be like not knowing the name of the President. I would be that culturally out of sync. So, I took them up, knowing that I could read them quickly and knowing that I would rather spend that time reading something else.

Now, don't get me wrong. I've read plenty of "fluff" novels before (The Shopaholic books were a particularly low point; I was angry the whole time I was reading.). But I typically avoid them. I am without a doubt a literary snob. If it doesn't ask something of me, I am usually turned off. So, my nose was turned up before I even started. The one thing that compelled me, though, was one young woman who said these books were as engaging as the Harry Potter series. I didn't actually believe her, but I was curious to see if it came anywhere close.

So, the short version is: I was able to keep turning the pages to find out what happened. Not a total loss. Not a forget-what-you-were-reading kind of experience. However, most of the time I was reading (especially during the second one), I was compelled more by an academic curiosity than by the merits of the story.

Say what? Did I just say I was academically motivated by this book? Yes, I did, but not for any reason you might be imagining. I am considering writing an academic article on these books because of the disturbing convergence of circumstances that I experienced while reading them. First, there is the aforementioned crush of young women who just love these books. They love Edward. They love everything about them. I have heard not one negative or even mildly critical response from the young people I've talked to. And normally, I rejoice over such a response regardless of the literary quality of the text. I mean, sure, I'd love for all teenagers to be excited about Austen or Steinbeck or Rushdie or Mistry or Lahiri. But the act of reading - any reading - is so transforming that I say, let them eat cake.

However, I am struggling hard against rejoicing over any young person reading these books because they are so thoroughly wrong in the gender models they put forth. These books are just updated bodice-rippers. The women are weak; the men are strong. The women can be broken; the men do the breaking. The women can be hurt; the men do the saving. In the second book, Bella loses whole segments of her life because he who defines her (Edward) has forsaken her. Worse yet, even though the reader does not for a moment believe that Edward no longer loves her, Bella buys that line fully and is destroyed by it. (By the way, I had to google "Twilight" to be reminded of Bella's name. Take that for what it's worth.) These distorted roles hurt both our young men and our young women.

I understand that some of the self-loathing and doubt is a natural part of being an adolescent, male or female, so it could be argued that Meyer is merely representing the reality of youth. However, I find natural self-doubt to be amplified in the character of Bella to the point of romanticizing it, and I refuse to accept Meyer's answer for that self-doubt: the return of Edward which makes Bella whole again. Nowhere are we given a model for self-reliance, independence, or strength without some external motivation.

Perhaps most disturbingly of all, though, is that Edward and Bella's relationship is built around Edward overpowering Bella physically. Some of the physical manipulation is to protect her, but at other times, it is part of their physical/sexual relationship. In contrast, Bella's friend Jacob never uses his great strength, virility, and intelligence to dominate Bella. He should be the hero, but the girls I talk to do not love Jacob. Just as Bella does, they choose Edward. They choose the role of submissive instead of the role of equal. And I cannot support such a choice.

I have been told by several young readers that my opinion will change when I read the later novels. I've also been told by a fellow adult woman that she was so annoyed by book 4 that she refuses to finish it. I will read the final two books and withhold my full judgment until then, but I will read with a skeptical and critical eye. And you can watch for my forthcoming publication on the subject.

PS: Just to keep an accurate count on everything I've read this year, I need to document that I recently read James Dobson's Dare to Discipline and am reading The Blessing of a Skinned Knee by Wendy Mogel.