Should my teen read Twilight?
The popular vampire book and movie series is raising questions for Catholics
By Julie Rattey
Warning: This article contains spoilers
Stephenie Meyer, a 38-year-old mother of three, does not read vampire novels. She says she “just knows” she is “too much of a wuss for Stephen King’s books,” and she’s “waaay too chicken to read horror.” She also happens to be the author of a hugely popular young adult series called Twilight... about vampires.
One would not expect a vampire series, however relatively tame, to drum up much controversy among the Christian community. It would either be dismissed as irrelevant or condemned as inappropriate. But Christians have, in fact, been debating the books — on one side, there are those trumpeting them as promoting positive values (Teens who save sex for marriage! A young mother who carries out her unintended pregnancy!); on the other, there are readers claiming the hero of the books is a creepy stalker and the heroine a pathetic, obsessed victim.
With the film "The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 2," based on the final book in the series, out in theaters November 16, and with the Twilight phenomenon still going strong, Catholic parents are bound to ask (if they haven't already): What is Twilight? What could be good or bad about the books? And how do I approach this with my teen? Let’s take a look:
What is the Twilight phenomenon?
Twilight is a best-selling series of four books (Twilight, New Moon, Eclipse, and Breaking Dawn) by Stephenie Meyer. The film based on the first book was a box-office smash and the top-earning vampire film in history. Thousands of girls and young women are devoted to the series, to the protagonist’s vampire boyfriend, and to the young British actor (Robert Pattinson) who portrays him.
Some of the particular elements readers are drawn to in the series are the romance between Edward and Bella, the love triangle between them and Bella’s best friend Jacob, the suspenseful story, and the element of the fantastic. The books also resonate because they play into some traditional literary elements or figures — the damsel in distress, the noble savage, star-crossed lovers, the Byronic hero, the vampire as a metaphor for sexuality, travail-fraught romance between humans and non-humans (such as in “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Little Mermaid,” hundreds of ancient myths), etc.
What are the books about?
Teenager Bella Swan falls in love with Edward Cullen, a dashing but mysterious young man who saves her life… and who happens to be a vampire. Despite the obvious obstacles and dangers, Edward and Bella find themselves unwilling to keep apart and discover that each needs the other to survive enemy forces. Bella marries Edward instead of her best friend, Jacob, and, contrary to Edward’s concerns, plans to become a vampire herself so they can live eternally together. Bella unexpectedly becomes pregnant but refuses to abort her baby. When a horrific birth complication arises, Edward saves Bella’s life by injecting her with a syringe full of his venom, thereby transforming her into a vampire. After avoiding a cataclysmic battle among supernatural forces, Bella and Edward, along with their daughter, Renesmee, begin their new life together.
Why are girls (and, in some cases, their mothers) swooning over Edward Cullen?
Fans see Edward as romantic, protective, and chivalrous, as well as brave and noble for being a “vegetarian” (he and his family eschew killing humans). Edward is smart, a talented musician, polite, generally respectful of parental rules, and a proponent of no sex before marriage. He is also rich and supernaturally handsome.
How tame are the books?
Twilight is primarily a romance, and it may be less graphic than some vampire or horror books, but it is still a series featuring vampires and other supernatural creatures. The books feature characters in life-threatening situations. There is some fighting (of the good-versus-evil type) and violence. The final novel is especially dark and, due to the bizarre nature of Bella’s pregnancy, very bloody. The teen characters experience romantic and sexual desire, but there are no sex scenes.
Is there any religious content in the books?
Some, but not what you might expect. The stereotypical, sometimes campy vampire-church references, like vampires cowering before crosses, carry no weight here. Edward’s vampire family hosts a minister-presided wedding for Edward and Bella, and display an ornamental cross in their home. Edward, as well as his father figure, Dr. Carlisle Cullen, believe in God, heaven, and hell. There are many discussions in the books about right and wrong, good and evil, choices and consequences, souls and salvation. One of the most frequently revisited topics is whether or not being a vampire — willing or unwilling — means losing one’s soul.
Bella, who incidentally did not grow up with religion, is not overly concerned with this notion. Edward, who believes vampires have lost their souls, is gravely concerned and thus does not want her to become a vampire. Carlisle hopes there is purpose, meaning, and the possibility of salvation for vampires.
“I look at my... son,” he tells Bella, speaking about Edward. “His strength, his goodness, the brightness that shines out of him — and it only fuels that hope, that faith, more than ever. How could there not be more for one such as Edward?”
Bella replies that she doesn’t think Carlisle’s feelings are foolish. I couldn’t imagine anyone, deity included, who wouldn’t be impressed by Carlisle, she thinks. Besides, the only kind of heaven I could appreciate would have to include Edward.
On a side note to religious references, the cover of the book Twilight, which features a red apple, is an intentional reference by the author to “forbidden fruit,” as linked with Genesis as well as other stories including Snow White.
What are some of the things readers commend about the books?
- The vampires’ morals. Edward and his family are morally committed to a “vegetarian” lifestyle, despite the torment it causes them. Dr. Carlisle Cullen has fought against his vampire instincts to the point where he is now a talented doctor. “What I enjoy the very most,” he says, “is when my… enhanced abilities let me save someone who would otherwise have been lost. It’s pleasant knowing that, thanks to what I do, some people’s lives are better because I exist.” Edward exercises Herculean efforts to protect and care for Bella despite his vampire qualities. Although there is violence in the books, often due to attacks from enemies, the protagonists usually try to keep peace whenever possible.
- The depiction of a chaste relationship. Although the lovers are passionate about each other, physical contact between them is mostly limited to embraces and kisses. Edward asks Bella to marry him and does not sleep with her before marriage. Despite pressure to the contrary, the author refused to include sex scenes in the books. “Reading it makes you want to save your virginity more because it’s a really special thing that you want to share with a really special person,” one 15-year-old female Twilight reader was quoted in a Newsweek article on the books. Some readers, however, see the relationship as an insufficient model of chastity for teens. Although physical contact is limited, Edward secretly spends the night in Bella’s room a great deal, and Bella is extremely eager to sleep with Edward before marriage — and despite the dangers it poses to her as a human. It is Edward’s gentle refusal that prevents the event from occurring before matrimony.
- The bravery and self-sacrifice revealed by the characters. Many characters, both humans and vampires, put themselves in grave danger for the sake of loved ones and even enemies.
- Bella’s refusal to abort her pregnancy. Some readers see this as a pro-life message, given that she is willing to see through an unexpected and torturous pregnancy, and that she loves her child despite her not being “normal” (Bella’s daughter is half-human, half-vampire).
What are some of the reasons readers are concerned about the books?
- The depiction of a relationship between a vampire and a human. The two are drawn together despite the fact that Edward’s vampire nature urges him to kill her. “And so the lion fell in love with the lamb,” he muses. Some fear that young women will subconsciously absorb this fictional dynamic and apply it to real life, rendering them more likely to be drawn to dangerous men or situations. Some also disapprove that the series’ happy ending involves Bella becoming a vampire — without, some add, many of the grave dangers typically associated with the process. Though it’s a fantastical premise to begin with, some wonder whether Bella’s happy ending sends a poor message about consequences in the real world.
- Passion-fueled dramatics. Bella engages in dangerous behavior (like riding motorcycles and cliff diving) when Edward temporarily disappears from her life. Edward plans to get himself killed when he mistakenly believes Bella is dead.
It’s worth noting that the couple’s dramatics are often challenged by more mature characters, and sometimes by Edward and Bella themselves. I thought about ... jumping off the cliff and what a brainless mistake that had been, Bella realizes. What if something bad happened to me? What would that do to [my dad]?
Parents will have to face an important question here: Will teen readers acknowledge the dangerous nature of various behaviors in the books, or will they simply find them romantic? Will they see true love as defined by passion-fueled dramatics, or will they learn, as the characters often do, that such stunts are reckless and irresponsible?
- The character of Bella. Given Edward’s beauty and talent, Bella feels unworthy of him despite his love and admiration, not to mention her own strengths. She only feels truly equal when she herself is a vampire, endowed like he is with supernatural beauty and strength. Some readers also dislike Bella because she is constantly in need of aid and rescue, and they criticize her for being focused on Edward and her life with him instead of on other ambitions or goals. Given these and other characteristics, some see her as a poor role model for readers.
- Behavior by Edward that borders between protective and possessive. Often as part of protecting her from enemy threats, Edward engages in behavior that, in real life, would be even more troubling: following Bella, eavesdropping on her conversations, visiting her room unannounced, etc. Some readers condemn his behavior altogether; some justify it. Some express concern that some readers may confuse fiction with reality: In real life, young women with boyfriends who secretly follow them would have a problem on their hands.
- Controversial scenes with Edward and Jacob. In one scene, Bella’s best friend Jacob kisses her in an ungentle manner. In another scene, through a mystical event unique to the world of the books, he recognizes Bella’s daughter as his soul mate and plans to marry her when she grows up, an arrangement some readers find distasteful. In another scene, during the morning after Bella and Edward consummate their marriage, Edward — who always has to be extraordinarily careful with Bella due to his superhuman strength — is horrified to see that he has inadvertently bruised the surface of her skin. For a time he refuses to sleep with her again for fear of hurting her. Some readers feel that Edward’s appropriately horrified reaction is insufficient to deter some young women from justifying or brushing off physical abuse in real-life relationships.
- Bella’s pregnancy. Bella undergoes a horrific, life-threatening pregnancy, due to the fact that her child is half-human, half-vampire. Although Bella’s love for her child is admirable, the very graphic nature of the pregnancy is a bit much for even some of Meyer’s devoted fans. Some also feel that the pregnancy is so horrific that any pro-life message it might carry gets lost in the process.
How do I handle this with my teen?
Each family will need to make a decision based partly on what they know of the books, partly on their knowledge of their own teen. If parents are in doubt, reading the books or detailed plot summaries would help in making an informed choice. If parents choose to refuse to allow their teens to read the books or see the films, a calm and open discussion about this decision and the reasoning behind it would be helpful (“Because I said so” or “Because I think those books are the spawn of Satan” is unlikely to get you very far). Parents who choose to allow their teens access to the series should make themselves available for discussion about the topics and issues it presents.
Should teens be reading Twilight at all?
These books, and the movies inspired by them, provoke thought about the choices we make at the same time that they present challenges in moral discernment to those who read them. Twilight deals with issues many adolescents struggle with: friendship and romance, family dynamics, chastity and pregnancy, questions of self-worth, depression, fear of aging, etc. In some cases, the way these issues are presented provides positive food for thought. In other cases, the presentation urges readers to question how and whether teen readers will be able to separate fiction from reality, and whether they will step back far enough from the romance to make discerning judgments about decisions the characters make.
If teens pass on Twilight, they are certainly not missing out on any great work of literature or any moral lessons they can’t find elsewhere. But with the popularity of the books and movies, Twilight isn’t going away anytime soon, so parents who haven’t yet made a decision on these books will likely need to do so in the future. And those whose teens are already reading the books may want to take a close look at what they contain in order to address any issues that may arise. The books present challenging questions parents and their teens will need to grapple with as the phenomenon that is Twilight continues. CD
What about the movies?
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops rated the first film in the series, “Twilight,” which is rated PG-13, as A-II (adults and adolescents) and deemed it “acceptable for older teens.” Sister Rose Pacatte of St. Anthony Messenger called it a “an intense, contemporary gothic tale” that “allows the moral imagination to consider the meaning of free will, the choices we make, and their consequences.”