Today die-hard fans are rejoicing over the release of New Moon, the second movie in the Twilight series based on the bestselling quartet of books by American author Stephenie Meyer. For those who have been living in a vacuum and therefore don’t know what I’m talking about, the Twilight series is about the relationship between Isabella ‘Bella’ Swan, a child of divorce who goes to live with her father in Forks, Washington, and Edward Cullen, a telepathic 104-year-old vampire who feeds off animals instead of humans and who finds Bella strangely irresistible. The books, with their themes of romance, budding sexuality and forbidden love, are hugely popular—not just with teenage girls (who comprise Meyer’s core audience), but with women of all ages. Furthermore, their status in pop culture has paved the way for a host of other vampire-related literature and entertainment (e.g. True Blood, Vampire Academy, The Vampire Diaries), not to mention an increasing interest in paranormal romance. (For those interested, I’ve blogged elsewhere about Stephenie Meyer, Mormonism, love and Twilight.)
Observing the Twilight phenomenon, a friend remarked to me that now a whole generation of young men will grow up to hate Edward Cullen the way men throughout the centuries have come to despise Pride and Prejudice‘s Mr Darcy—for giving women an unrealistic portrait of what to look for in a mate.1 In reality, the chances of the majority of the female population finding a man who is as noble and as good as he is handsome are the same as the likelihood of major Hollywood studios not flogging the Twilight/vampire horse to death in their quest to make a buck.
Unfortunately, unlike Austen, whose much-loved tome contains valuable lessons about not marrying for money and choosing a husband wisely (lessons that serve young women well, regardless of the kind of relationship they are entering into with the opposite sex), Meyer depicts only one sort of heterosexual relationship: the ‘romantic’ one.
Yes, I’m sure that’s obvious, but I mean ‘romantic’ in the sense that Judith Wallerstein does in her book The Good Marriage. Having studied how divorce affects the nuclear family for several decades, Wallerstein was interested to see what makes marriages last, so she interviewed 50 Californian couples who had been married for nine years or longer with children. From those interviews, she identified four loose ‘types’ of marriage: the romantic marriage, the rescue marriage, the companionate marriage and the traditional marriage.
In the Twilight series, Bella and Edward’s relationship falls squarely in the ‘romantic’ category—that is, it has “at its core a lasting, passionately sexual relationship … [and] the sense that they were destined to be together”.2 Consider this excerpt from the end of New Moon:
Option three: Edward loved me. The bond forged between us was not one that could be broken by absence, distance or time. And no matter how much more special or beautiful or brilliant or perfect than me he might be, he was as irreversibly altered as I was. As I would always belong to him, so would he always be mine.3
Furthermore, this sort of relationship is mirrored not just between Bella and Edward, but between the other couples in Meyer’s cast of characters. A similar sort of thing can be seen among the werewolves who, when finding a mate, involuntarily ‘imprint’ and are somehow spiritually and emotionally joined to the best candidate of the opposite sex likely to carry on the werewolf genes. Imprinting happens regardless of the age of the candidate, which means that werewolves can ‘imprint’ upon babies. Jacob, one of the central characters in Meyer’s story, describes it as follows:
“It’s not like love at first sight, really. It’s more like … gravity moves. When you see her, suddenly it’s not the earth holding you here anymore. She does. And nothing matters more than her. And you would do anything for her, be anything for her … You become whatever she needs you to be, whether that’s a protector, or a lover, or a friend, or a brother …
Part of this way of thinking comes, perhaps, from Meyer’s Mormon beliefs in celestial marriage (that is, marriage that is “divine” and “intended to last beyond the grave and through eternity” [source]). However, I suspect that here lies the major draw card for Meyer’s readership: she has managed to tap into what women want—to be immersed, obsessed and devoured by so perfect and strong a love, it transcends time and space.5 That’s what makes Twilight so intoxicating.
There are, of course, problems with this sort of love, just as there are joys and benefits. The main problem is when the couple’s love becomes so inwardly focused—so self-centred (and therefore not an accurate mirror of God’s love)—that it completely shuts out the rest of the world. The demandingly exclusive nature of the relationship can then cause the couple to turn their backs on family, friends and even children.
To be fair, Meyer hasn’t set out to write a treatise on relationships and the heart. It just disturbs me that the content of her books may lead many a young fan into unhelpful expectations when it comes to dating and marriage. Just as you cannot expect to find an Edward Cullen or a Fitzwilliam Darcy, so must you not expect your relationship with your beloved to be all fireworks and passion. It is true that love is like that for some people; Wallerstein points out that 15 per cent of the couples in her study fell into the ‘romantic marriage’ category, and we must not belittle or demean what couples like that have. But the other 85 per cent must not ever feel like they are missing out, or that their relationships are second class just because it doesn’t feel like that for them.
In the end, however, our expectations regarding romantic relationships must be shaped by the ‘Great Marriage’ between Christ and his church and the hope of eternal life as defined by John 17:3 (cf. Mark 12:25). Surely that’s worth dreaming about more than Edward Cullen.
1 Meyer claims that Twilight, the first book in the series, is loosely based on Pride and Prejudice, but aside from the two protagonists hating each other and then eventually falling in love, the resemblance is scant.
5 “Many couples in romantic marriages, I would learn, have a sense that they are connected by a magic that transcends time and space. Like Sara, many feel that their relationship is out of the ordinary, that it possesses a fantasy quality. They sometimes speak in mystical terms are if their meeting were preordained or the answer to a prayer. These are not New Age people, nor are they particularly religious, yet they speak of a love that crosses the reality of the present and extends to a hidden past and to a future beyond death.” (Wallerstein and Blakeslee, The Good Marriage, pp. 35-36.)