Growing up a hopeless romantic and a movie buff, I’ve always been in love with the idea of love. At nine years old, I swooned over the connection between Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins in “My Fair Lady;” at 11, I watched “Romeo + Juliet” religiously, and when I was 13, there was nothing dreamier than the cuttable tension and crude banter between Claire and Bender in “The Breakfast Club.” In my eyes, these couples were idealizable. I never considered that Professor Higgins had to transform Eliza in order for her to be lovable, that Romeo and Juliet’s bond was solidified more by lust than love or that the basis of Bender and Claire’s relationship was essentially verbal harassment. Considering this pattern, I started to wonder: Did every romantic relationship in film merely include the good and gloss over the bad and the ugly without a second thought? In order to tackle this question, I decided to reassess some of my favorite movie couples from my teenage years, Edward and Bella in “Twilight,” J.D. and Veronica in “Heathers” and Holly and Kit in “Badlands,” to come to grips with my and society’s potentially problematic romanticization of these on-screen relationships.
The “Twilight” series was one of my first loves and, as an angsty fifth grader, Bella and Edward’s moody, supernatural and iconic courtship was PG-13 gold. My infatuation started with the books, which I devoured in a frenzy as a tween. There was something so entrancing about the tale of a paranormal romance shared between two wandering souls who met in a high school biology class. Thankfully, the end of the four-part saga was only the beginning for the franchise. In 2008, three years after Stephanie Meyer released the book, “Twilight” went to the silver screen, and a whole universe was created filled with adoring fans, future sequels and promises of memes, fanfiction and “Twihard” fan-clubbing for decades to come.
For anyone who somehow managed to avoid the “Twilight” fever that swept our generation, I’ll give a brief synopsis. Bella Swan, a 17-year-old, semi-reclusive girl moves to the tight-knit, drizzly town of Forks, Wash., to live with her estranged father. Life in Forks looks unpromising and monotonous until a gorgeous, mysterious boy named Edward Cullen catches her eye. Long story short, Edward is revealed to be a vampire, the chemistry Bella and Edward share is otherworldly and by the end of the film, there is no doubt in their minds — or the audience’s for that matter — that they are soulmates.
Since its release, my appreciation for “Twilight” has been unwavering, strengthened each year by annual rewatches and replays of the iconic soundtrack. Nevertheless, “Twilight” has always been divisive. For millions of young girls, teenagers and moms, “Twilight” was a pop-culture revolution, a rebirth of the romance novel that was desperately in need of revival. Not everyone shared this same optimism. For some, “Twilight” and its sequels prompted criticisms of poor acting, mockeries of ridiculous dialogue and a whole lot of flack for sexism.
As a die-hard fan throughout middle school, “Twilight” could do no evil in my eyes. But I had also never viewed it through an analytical lens. After recently rewatching the saga with my roommates, I felt my 11-year-old blinders begin to fall, and I finally began to digest the criticisms. Was Bella giving women a bad name by coming off as “weak?” Was Edward’s temperament swoon-worthy, or paternalistic and condescending? Could I forgive these flaws, and most importantly, if loving “Twilight” was wrong, should I want to be right?
The first criticism that I aimed to address was the one proposed about Bella’s fragility, and the overall representation of female dependence on men. In an article for The Atlantic, Ashley Fetters quotes Guardian writer David Cox, who bluntly labels the franchise as one that “‘ate feminism.’” Though a bold claim, Cox’s assessment cannot be swept under the rug. Fetters argues that the question of what exactly “Twilight” was trying to get at is still open for debate, elaborating that Edward and Bella’s romance could be interpreted by both “a cautionary tale about the dangers of unbalanced relationships, or as a commentary on the virtue of an unswervingly committed partner.” Such commentary reflects on Edward’s tendencies that skirt the line between creepy and protective, i.e. watching Bella while she sleeps without her knowing, scolding her for being clumsy and reaffirming her lack of power by vowing to always “protect” her from harm’s way. While I had always perceived Edward’s attention toward Bella to be affectionate and pure, perhaps his influence on her is more controlling than considerate.
Without Edward, Bella is portrayed as lost, thrown into a new school in a new town with a father she barely knows. All of Bella’s relationships before Edward are unfulfilling: Her mother is preoccupied with her younger boyfriend, her father feels like more of a stranger than a family member and her new friendships serve more as placeholders than genuine connections. Edward’s entrance into the picture represents a shift for Bella — an awakening from monotony, so to speak. But instead of functioning as an addition to her life, he becomes the center of it and a reason for living where there was, apparently, not one before. Bella’s growing desire is not only directed at Edward, but also at the world he belongs to. Her world is composed of divorced parents, ditzy friends and aimlessness, but his world is one filled with a loyal family, ageless beauty and unearthly powers. His is a world that Bella can only be a part of by association, which she soon realizes will never be enough. It is this realization that seduces Bella, the idea that Edward’s life of magnetism, beauty and strength is not quite hers, but eventually could be if she became a vampire.
Bella’s goal of immortality would arguably be less worrisome if it weren’t for the fact that the person who dictates its fulfilment is Edward. He holds the power to change Bella, a reality that he continuously reminds her of, and objects to her wishes to be “turned,” justifying his reasoning with the logic that he wants to save Bella’s soul, since he no longer has his own. By practically eliminating Bella’s ability to exercise choice, Edward governs the path that her future will follow. Though it pains me to admit it, Edward’s initial refusal to change Bella may not be entirely motivated by authentic concern and adoration, but also by a concealed impulse to feel power over her.
The more I mulled it over, the more I began to realize that “Twilight” wasn’t the first time I’d kept my blinders on. Two of my favorite film relationships, J.D. and Veronica in the cult classic “Heathers” and Holly and Kit in “Badlands,” were also of questionable standing. While these two films differ from “Twilight” in their maturity levels and their much more obviously toxic romances, there is no doubt a pattern of illusory female control and real male power that runs between all three films.
In the world of film, there seems to be a recurring tendency to romanticize relationships that revolve around violence, deception or infatuation, and to pass these relationships off as exceptional portrayals of love. The toxic and sinister relationship that director Michael Lehmann displays between charming-yet-psychotic J.D. and brilliant, quirky and fierce Veronica is one that sometimes comes off as romantic. When I first saw this film, I was wooed by J.D.’s bad-boy, carefree attitude and, because of this, was partly able to set aside the fact that he murders his classmates and is completely deranged.
Though obviously diverging into a much darker genre than “Twilight,” J.D.’s allure for Veronica is much like Edward’s for Bella. Both boys extend the opportunity for an escape from the mundane pattern of high school life. Like Bella, Veronica finds herself immersed in J.D.’s world, which puts her further and further out of touch with her own (and her sanity). His coaxing brings out a different, sinister side to her and, for a while at least, she embraces it. Though Veronica eventually gets a grip and, remembers that murder is wrong, she has to break away from J.D.’s control in order to do so.
We can compare these relationships to that of Holly and Kit from “Badlands,” the 1973 Terrence Malick movie. Holly, the female protagonist in “Badlands,” goes on a murderous escapade across the country after the male lead, Kit, kills his girlfriend’s father. Kit is trigger-happy, killing without real motive and still somehow charming audiences both within and outside of the film. Similar to “Heathers,” “Badlands” paints an oddball, disturbing romance in which an attractive couple gets caught up in crazy, violent antics that yield disastrous results yet remain bizarrely romantic.
Though all three of the aforementioned films vary considerably, the common thread of idealized, unrealistic and perilous romance remains consistent. From Romeo’s impulsive murder of Tybalt, to J.D.’s obsession with eliminating Veronica’s friends, to Kit’s insensitivity towards violence in general, these depictions have lead me to believe that the idealization of destructive and twisted teenage “love” is something deeply ingrained in the culture of film.
Now comes the big question: Are films responsible for showing realistic exemplifications of “young love” instead of illustrating ridiculously unhealthy relationships? Or is there an artfulness and beauty to idealized, over-dramatized and often dangerous romantic depictions? Films have an undeniable power to shape our understanding not only of the world around us, but about ourselves as well. In the midst of a rising demand for more diverse, well-rounded and realistic roles for women in film, it is essential to consider the repercussions that films can have on a young girl’s confidence in her sexuality, awareness of herself worth and conception of what a healthy relationship looks like.
Perhaps the problem is not that films like “Twilight,” “Heathers” and “Badlands” present young, heavily female audiences with risqué, dark or destructive relationships, but rather that there is no dissection of these contentious themes in the films. Blindly romanticizing relationships filled with drama, instability and immorality will understandably confuse young viewers, taking away the message that something as serious as murder and suicide can be taken lightly if it is a labor of love.