In the past decade, the popularity of vampire-themed books and movies for young adults has risen dramatically. Although vampires make for some good nail-biting fun in the Halloween season, they also send some unfortunate messages to the young people who love them. In this article, I argue that the popular Twilight series can be used to highlight patterns of behavior that put individuals at risk for abuse in dating relationships. The popularity of the Twilight series shows just how much attention girls are giving to the examples of lovers displayed in Edward and Bella’s world. To them, Edward represents the troubled soul who is waiting to be tamed by just the right woman; it’s the modern Beauty and the Beast.1 Unfortunately, many fans turn a blind eye to the dark side of Bella and Edward’s romance. The course and characteristics of Bella’s relationship with Edward are actually a template for violence and abuse, and Twilight fans may unwittingly model a relationship that may lead to both psychological and physical abuse.
Bella’s character demonstrates three characteristics common in victims of violent relationships. The first and perhaps most obvious trait is her consistent low self-esteem.2 Bella constantly reminds herself that she’s uncoordinated, unsocial, and unattractive. When Edward shows interest in her, Bella’s low self-esteem puts him in a position of power over her; he can treat her however he’d like, because she perceives that he’s out of her league and is lucky to be the dirt on the bottom of his shoe. An example from Twilight is when she notes how good looking he is (and that she is not): “Why did he have to look like a runway model when I couldn’t?”
The second quality Bella displays which is common in women who become victims of abuse is that she is particularly attracted to men who are forbidden.3 Most readers will be familiar with the “Romeo and Juliet” effect: lovers who are not allowed, disapproved of, or are simply unattainable sometimes become even more desirable. Bella is thus drawn to the “bad boy” who is more likely to abuse her.
Third, and most unfortunately, Bella is simply excited by violence, aggression, and danger; she finds it all very thrilling. Bella’s attraction to anything dangerous is clear in many cases through her human life. She rides a motorcycle because it’s dangerous. When Edward tells Bella that he’ll literally kill anyone who tries to hurt her, she’s attracted to his violent nature. And, as anyone on “Team Jacob” will note, she’s only interested in Jacob after she learns that he’s a violent werewolf who might rip off her face. Research shows that when we’re scared, we become more attracted to the people around us.4
Edward also displays many stereotypical characteristics of abusers. First, one of his hallmark characteristics is his control over Bella and his attempts to isolate her from others.5 Abusers often use this tactic as a way of ensuring that their victims have no way to escape should they attempt to do so. After he decides that he wants her, he’s quick to get her alone, and for the rest of the series he constantly shields her from any other interactions, including from her father and friends. Edward consistently forbids her from seeing Jacob (a potential rival). When he has to leave town and thus can’t directly watch Bella, he convinces his sister Alice to kidnaps Bella, who refuses to let her leave the house until Edward can return to watch her every move. Edward even sabotages her car so that she has no avenue of escape. A final example comes in Eclipse, when they discuss their wedding. He tells her, “It doesn’t have to be a big production… We’ll go to Vegas—you can wear old jeans and we’ll go to the chapel with the drive-through window. I just want it to be official – that you belong to me and no one else.”
Next, the use of coercion to accelerate the development of closeness is another common warning sign of abuse.6 If an abuser can get full commitment from his (or her) victim as early as possible, this basically “locks in” the victim and cuts them off from escape. Once Edward and Bella have decided to be together, he spends the first week of their relationship asking her a constant stream of questions. Through this process, Bella experiences a high level of self-disclosure during which she lets him in and reveals several secrets. His desire to know everything about her renders her powerless. They spend every night together in her room, and he tries to follow her in others’ thoughts (using his vampire superpowers) when she’s not present. He proposes to her when he knows she’s not ready and refuses to listen to her reasons for delaying the marriage.
Finally, a classic warning sign of partner volatility is high levels of jealousy or possessiveness.7 When Bella learns that Edward was only in Port Angeles because he followed her there, she was appreciative for being saved from attack, but does seem to notice that it is stalking8 behavior. Her ultimate acceptance encourages and reinforces him. Edward continues to treat Bella in ways that mark him as a jealous, potentially violent predator.
Why is Twilight so popular? Since the Victorian era, vampire legends have been part of pop culture. These legends emphasize forbidden desires, illicit sexual metaphors, and adventure. Unfortunately, they also often include messages that support sexism and the abuse of power. In the case of Bella and Twilight, it’s possible that the millions of screaming fans might be learning how to fall victim to a violent relationship, which might lead to screams for a very different reason.
Read more about research on abusive relationships here:
1Tracy, J. L., & Beall, A. (2011). Happy guys finish last: The impact of emotional expressions on sexual attraction. Emotion. doi: 10.1037/a0022902
2Eckstein, J. (2011). Reasons for staying in intimately violent relationships: Comparisons of men and women and messages communicated to self and others. Journal of Family Violence, 26, 21-30. doi: 10.1007/s10896-010-9338-0
3Rosen, K. (1996). The ties that bind women to violent premarital relationships: Processes of seduction and entrapment. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
4Dutton, D. G., & Aron, A. P. (1974). Some evidence for heightened sexual attraction under conditions of high anxiety. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 30, 510–517.
5Dutton, D. G. (1995). Trauma symptoms and PTSD-like profiles in perpetrators of intimate abuse. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 8, 299-316.
6Dutton, M. A., & Goodman, L. A. (2005). Coercion in intimate partner violence: Toward a new conceptualization. Sex Roles, 52, 743-756.
7Weisz, A. N., Tolman, R. M., & Saunders, D. G. (2000). Assessing the risk of severe domestic violence: The importance of survivors’ predictions. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 15, 75-90.
8Kropp, P. R. (2005, August). Risk assessment and risk management of domestic violence offenders. Paper presented at the meeting of the Department of Defense Domestic Violence Intervention/Treatment Protocol, Alexandria, VA.
Dr. Wind Goodfriend – Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Goodfriend’s research focuses on cognitive bias within romantic relationships: how partners view each other in a subjective, instead of objective, way. These biases can sometimes be positive, but they can also perpetuate unhealthy or violent relationships. She has co-authored a book about relationship violence titled Voices of Hope: Breaking the Silence of Violence, to be released in the summer of 2012.