“What if I’m the Bad Guy?”: Twilight’s Reinforcement of the “Bad Boy” Stereotype
By Rebecca Jaffe
“You Have to Know the Effect You Have on People”
Young adult (YA) fiction is a large genre of literature, written for and marketed to those around the ages of 13-18. YA novels often skyrocket to the top of bestseller lists and sell out of bookstores everywhere, demonstrating their mass amounts of influence on young adults and those outside of the teenage demographic. People are easily swayed by what they consume, especially young adults reading stories targeted to them. These stories, when analyzed, often contain gender stereotypes; thus, most studies focused on YA fiction have been centered on female stereotypes, and the portrayals of masculinity in YA fiction “have failed to elicit the same scholarly response” (Seymour 627). Stereotypes present in female-led literature can allow for further insight into negative notions of masculinity and the consequences that follow, which is why I believe that analyzing a popular YA novel, such as Twilight by Stephenie Meyer, will help fill the gaps in scholarly research of masculinity stereotypes. I chose Twilight because of its popularity. In 2008, the year of its film adaptation release and three years after its publication, Twilight was number one on USA TODAY’s Bestselling Books List for 19 weeks. In addition, Forbes has estimated that the film adaptations of all four books in the series “have earned a total of $2.5 billion at the global box office.”
Vampire fiction is a subgenre of young adult fiction that is rife with stereotypes, partly because of the inherent differences in humans and vampires. In her paper, Zoë Snider discussed the gender stereotypes present in Twilight, claiming that it “legitimizes violence against women by their male partners, portrays its heroine as stereotypically feminine, and glorifies unequal relationships in which the woman is dependent on the man” (128). Snider explained why this is troubling for young girls who are fans of the book series: Meyer has appealed to the desire for love that many young girls experience, and by doing so, has reinforced stereotypes and promoted dangerous, near-abusive relationships in her books (130). Franiuk and Scherr also analyzed the romanticized violence and gender stereotypes in vampire fiction, focusing on “the stereotypical portrayal of men and women, the romanticizing of characteristics predictive of partner abuse, and the link between sex and violence” (14). Through an analysis of The Vampire Diaries (a popular vampire television show) and Twilight, Franiuk and Scherr explained that because of the vampire characters present in these stories, “the image of the woman who is vulnerable to a man’s violence…has long provided justiﬁcation for putting men into the protector role” (17).
To gain an understanding of male perception, Christina Vogels conducted a study where she showed the Twilight film adaptation to a group of 22 high school boys in New Zealand and interviewed them afterwards, “to ascertain how they made sense of Edward Cullen’s (the vampire-hero of Twilight) performances of (hetero)romance, as well as their views on gendered roles in (hetero)romantic relationships more generally” (4). In the case of Vogels’ study, the young boys felt that “boyfriends who obey the dictates of hegemonic masculinity should not appear dependent and vulnerable: these traits are requirements of “good” girlfriends” (14). They also criticized Edward when he was “clingy”, because “a ‘clingy’ boyfriend therefore appears to be overly invested and dependent on his girlfriend, which could be interpreted as him showing vulnerability and weakness” (14). While the study that Vogels conducted lacked any analysis of specific stereotypes in YA fiction, it did focus on the male perspective, a key component often missing in research studies of gender stereotypes in YA fiction.
In their research, William Brozo and Ronald Schmelzer explained that fictional stereotypes have real consequences, such as “drive-by shootings, violence against women and children, sexual abuse, etc. (4). Through an analysis of female-led literature, Helen Harper studied how the novels “addressed the effects of enforced traditional masculinity” (508), including the real-world problems associated with negative masculinity ideologies. She explained that those who fall outside the standards of masculinity can fall victim to name-calling, assault, and even suicide, while those who are far too deep in the masculine ideology can exhibit patterns of dominance, such as bullying and violent actions (511).
Examples of healthy perceptions of masculinity are vital to creating positive perceptions of identity in young boys. Previous studies on gender stereotypes in YA vampire fiction have almost exclusively focused on female stereotypes, and that is why I aim to describe, analyze, and explain the issues with male stereotypes, specifically the “bad boy” stereotype, in Twilight and the social problems that arise from it, such as aggression and violence. To combat these social problems, young boys need to be given novels with protagonists of all backgrounds, with examples of healthy emotional expression and self-control in social interactions.
“Edward Cullen Was Not…Human”
In Twilight, Isabella ‘Bella’ Swan moves to the small town of Forks, Washington to live with her father, Charlie, after her mother Renée gets remarried to a baseball player and moves around to be with him. Bella attends the local high school and soon becomes captivated by Edward Cullen, a mysterious classmate of hers with whom she shares biology class. After a series of odd encounters with him (including a near-fatal car accident in the school parking lot, where Edward stops the skidding van with his bare hand), she discovers he is a vampire. Over time, the two fall in love. After she is nearly killed by a vampire who hunts humans for sport, Edward saves her life, and the book ends with them attending the prom together.
The first book in the series, titled Twilight, was analyzed using a coding system with separate categories. I printed out the entire book on paper, using a .pdf file found online. I made sure it matched up with my paperback copy of the book to verify that there were no missing chapters or words. The printed chapters were then coded with colored highlighters, one color for each category. A red highlighter was used for the “dominant” category (any time Edward was described through words like “commanded” or “demanded” or displayed any behavior that was dominant or aggressive), a blue highlighter for the “emotional” category (any time Edward had difficulty displaying, controlling, or processing emotion, or Bella, the protagonist, was unable to determine or understand his emotion), and a purple highlighter for the “objectification” category (any time Edward was objectified or otherwise held to an unrealistic standard of beauty). Not every line, or even every page, was highlighted, and there were other categories that were not used in the final compilation of data as I narrowed down my focus for this specific paper.
It is important to note that since Twilight is fiction, it is difficult to determine how much of Edward’s characterization is due to his vampire state or the way he was raised, since he was born long before Bella was (in other words, nature vs. nurture). Since vampires are not real, it is reasonable to assume that the standards to which he is held might differ from the standards to which fully mortal men and women are held. I tried to keep this in mind when analyzing my data, but Bella’s narrative still provided enough information to allow for analysis. Bella is a human, and the story is told from her perspective, so we can assume she is familiar with the standards and stereotypes of modern, 21st century society, thus allowing us to take her words as though she is speaking about a fellow classmate rather than a supernatural creature beyond her comprehension. Franiuk and Scherr state that “in vampire ﬁction, any vampire is a physical threat to humans by nature” (18), so previous research has argued that any violent or aggressive behavior exhibited must be caused by the way Edward (or any vampire) is naturally. Keeping these special circumstances in mind proved challenging but I factored them in when coding, so I could determine if certain words and phrases belonged in the colored categories.
“A Few Certainties Became Evident”
After I finished coding, I discovered that bad behavior, tied to the “bad boy” stereotype, is rewarded with female attention. Edward Cullen is the embodiment of the “bad boy” stereotype: slick, thrill-seeking, and irresistible (but sometimes oblivious to his own charms). His behavior captivates Bella, who is unaware of, or simply not interested in, the affections of other boys, such as fellow Biology classmate Mike. Rather, she is preoccupied with paying attention to Edward. For example, in chapter 1, Bella goes to biology class, where she meets Edward Cullen for the first time. He acts very strange towards her, and she describes being “bewildered by the antagonistic stare he’d given [her]” (23). Throughout the class period, Edward’s body language remains rigid and stiff, keeping his fist clenched and his hand on his leg (24), a sign that he is obviously guarded and doesn’t want anything to do with Bella. He never speaks to her, or acknowledges her in any capacity, and yet, in the beginning of the next chapter, Bella narrates that the day was going badly “because Edward Cullen wasn’t in school at all” (30). Meanwhile, Mike, a fellow classmate who had introduced himself the previous day and even sat with her at lunch, is described by Bella as “taking on the qualities of a golden retriever” (30) when walking with Bella to her classes, as she is still new to the school and unfamiliar with the hallways. Although Mike is friendly and welcoming, Bella prefers the company of Edward, even from the very beginning, and her degrading thought towards Mike shows that Edward’s antagonistic nature is already winning him her attention.
Edward gets progressively more candid with his behavior as the story continues. He repeatedly tells Bella that they shouldn’t be friends, the first time being right after he saves her life. “‘It’s better if we’re not friends,’ he explained. ‘Trust me’” (74). This concept is repeated throughout the book. Edward calls himself a monster and a beast to repel Bella, and yet, she is intrigued. He acts as though he knows he is a monster, but doesn’t seem to do anything about it, or even try to fix his behavior. Edward himself says this to Bella, but she doesn’t believe him. In chapter 5, Bella and Edward are talking in the cafeteria, the day after the near-fatal car accident where Edward saved her from the van that skidded on the ice by stopping it with his bare hand, and Bella wants to know how he did it. Their conversation indicates that Edward is aware of his dangerous tendencies, but his actions the previous day have convinced Bella that he isn’t as dangerous as he thinks he is. The dialogue goes as follows (92-93):
’What if I’m not a superhero? What if I’m the bad guy?’ He smiled playfully, but his eyes were impenetrable.
‘Oh,’ I said, as several things he’d hinted fell suddenly into place. ‘I see.’
‘Do you?’ His face was abruptly severe, as if he were afraid that he’d accidentally said too much.
‘You’re dangerous?’ I guessed, my pulse quickening as I intuitively realized the truth of my own words. He was dangerous. He’d been trying to tell me that all along.
He just looked at me, eyes full of some emotion I couldn’t comprehend.
‘But not bad, I whispered, shaking my head. ‘No, I don’t believe that you’re bad.’
‘You’re wrong.’ His voice was almost inaudible.
While Edward and Bella don’t have much of a relationship at this stage, their conversation is the beginning of a pattern where Edward warns Bella that he is not good for her, and she simply ignores him.
Good looks and charming personality are also key to embodying the “bad boy” stereotype. Without an attractive external appearance, the “bad boy” wouldn’t be able to get away with all his dangerous behaviors. Bella has no hesitations about acknowledging Edward’s good looks, soothing voice, and hypnotic charisma. In fact, there’s an entire chapter of the book titled “The Angel”, a reference to Edward’ angelic appearance. In it, Bella is slowly dying from vampire venom, as she was stalked and attacked by James, a vampire who hunts humans for sport. Edward and his family manage to track her down in time to save her. As she is slowly bleeding out from the bite, she sees Edward trying to save her, and only refers to him in the first two pages of the chapter (452-453) as “the angel”, rather than by name. At the beginning of chapter 13, Bella finally sees Edward in sunlight for the first time, and describes him as “a perfect statue, carved in some unknown stone smooth like marble, glittering like crystal.” (260). In just this page alone, she uses the word “perfect” to describe him three times.
Edward’s hypnotic personality is given a spotlight in chapter 8. Bella and Edward meet up with Bella’s friends, Jessica and Angela, after he rescues Bella from the harassment of a few suspicious men in an alley. Edward uses his “silken, irresistible voice” (166) to ask if it’s okay if he joins the girls for dinner. Bella mentions that Edward “had never unleashed his talents on them before” (166); here, she is referring to his hypnotic voice and charisma. After Bella and Edward decided to split off from Jessica and Angela, they go to a restaurant. Edward orders for both of them, and Bella notes that Edward dazed the waitress with his gleaming smile, though he seems confused that he can “dazzle people” (167). Bella is describing Edward as literally having hypnotic powers, and although he can read minds due to his vampire nature, it is reasonable to conclude that his charismatic and hypnotic personality are an attribute of his “bad boy” persona, thus fulfilling one more characteristic of the stereotype.
As previously mentioned, a key component to the “bad boy” persona is thrill-seeking behavior. The bad boy loves danger: whether it be as extreme as living on the edge, or as simple as just breaking the rules. Either way, he goes against the status quo. Edward reveals his dangerous behavior and aggressive attitude moments before dazzling the waitress at dinner. After saving Bella from the men in the alley, Edward drives away recklessly, “blowing through several stop signs without a pause” (162), and after Bella manages to calm him down, they continue back towards the town “still going too fast, weaving with ease through the cars slowly cruising the boardwalk” (165).
Edward’s biggest issue, above all, is his temper. Looking back at the alley incident, when Edward finds Bella, he’s angry, and somehow manages to turn the situation into one that’s about him, not Bella. It’s all about his emotions. He’s not worried, or concerned, or panicked for Bella’s safety. He’s angry. “’Get in,’ a furious voice commanded” (162). As he speeds away from the scene of the almost-crime, his expression is “murderously angry” (162). There is no regard for Bella’s safety; fury is all that fuels the moment. Edward’s source of anger during the incident is never directly addressed until later, when Edward says: “Sometimes I have a problem with my temper, Bella…But it wouldn’t be helpful for me to turn around and hunt down those… At least, that’s what I’m trying to convince myself.” (164). It can be inferred that Edward’s anger is directed towards the attackers, but this level of rage doesn’t match up to their actions; the few inappropriate comments they made towards Bella don’t warrant the amount of ‘murderous anger’ that Edward holds in his expression, as Bella describes. This type of anger mismanagement is extremely unhealthy and can send a very troubling message to young readers. Blowing situations out of proportion and not focusing on the potential victim in dangerous situations are not behaviors that young boys should strive for; they are behaviors young boys should learn to avoid.
From his captivating personality to his dangerous behavior, Edward Cullen is a complete embodiment of the “bad boy” stereotype. Even though it is difficult to determine what Edward can control (nature vs. nurture; since vampires don’t exist in reality), we can determine that Bella’s attraction to, repeated contact, and eventual romantic relationship with Edward send a message to young adults: this behavior is completely okay. The romance in Twilight casts a shadow over the stereotypes present in the novel, silencing the message that the behaviors present are unhealthy and ones that young adults should avoid.
“There Was No Other Conclusion I Could Come To”
Edward’s hypnotic personality, issues with his temper, and reckless behavior prove that he is the embodiment of the “bad boy” stereotype. This is problematic for young girls and especially young boys. Negative depictions of masculinity, like the “bad boy” stereotype, can have real-world consequences, and it’s important to create positive notions of masculinity as early as possible. Brozo and Schmelzer have already identified violent consequences of negative portrayals of masculinity in fiction, such as domestic violence, sexual abuse, etc. Although young boys are not the target demographic for Twilight, they may still be affected by its stereotypes. As seen in the study conducted by Vogels, most of her participants had already seen the film adaptation and those who hadn’t were at least familiar with the storyline (4). Afterwards, they were praising Edward’s behavior; specifically, they liked how Edward showed restraint in not killing Bella, noting that it was a sign that he truly loved her (11).
As I saw in my own analysis of Twilight, Edward knows that he is dangerous, but because he is falling in love with Bella, some believe his behavior is okay. In the cafeteria speech, Edward warns Bella that he’s “not a superhero”, and she pursues him anyway, giving him the benefit of the doubt, but his behavior proves his words to be true; his anger and reckless driving in the moments following the alleyway rescue are a perfect example. His anger is “murderous” and sends a dangerous message. Even when Edward isn’t being impulsive and uncontrollable with his emotions, his tone is violent. “’Get in,’ a furious voice commanded” (162). “’Put on your seatbelt,’ he commanded” (162). Instead of checking on Bella, making sure she’s okay after being harassed by strangers in an alley, he commands her to do as he says in a furious tone. While this is problematic, others (Edward Cullen included) believe that Edward’s behavior is acceptable because he is acting in the name of love. They believe that he is protecting Bella from those strangers, so it’s okay that he was filled with “murderous anger”. They know Edward could kill her at any moment, but they excuse it, because his love is just too strong. The theme of love is used as justification for Edward’s actions, and it’s not justified, in the end. Bella still ends up hurt. Her association with vampires leads to her getting attacked by James, a vampire who happens to hunt humans. My analysis has proven, through detailed examples, that Edward’s behavior is not acceptable and not an ideal model for young boys.
It is common for readers to yearn for the characters and plots they read about in their novels, though it is important to note that Twilight is written as a heterosexual romance, between a boy and a girl. Thus, the young girls most influenced by Twilight are those that seek a similar, heterosexual romance. These girls might see some part of themselves in Bella Swan and crave the irrevocable love that Bella experiences in her story. They will find their Edward Cullen in the “bad boys” they find around them. Conversely, the “good guys” who are part of the heterosexual framework present in the novel are going to want girls’ attention, and because books like Twilight reward dangerous and reckless behavior with that attention, the “good guys” are going to start acting bad. As seen in studies done by Brozo and Schmelzer, bad boys tend to stay in their bad behavior when they grow up.
Although Twilight isn’t targeted towards young boys, the popularity of it and other stories like it show that what teenagers and young boys read needs to be beneficial to their construction of healthy notions of masculinity. Books like Twilight do not help young boys’ perceptions of masculinity because of the stereotypes present in the plotlines, as illustrated by Edward Cullen’s “bad boy” persona. In addition to my research, the previous academic discussion has shown that the path to eliminating negative perceptions of masculinity should begin at a young age, when readers are most easily influenced. Young readers need to be given novels that help shape positive perceptions of masculinity, so they can be taught healthy notions of what it means to be a man. These novels should include protagonists of all genders, to shape and reinforce the idea that anyone can be a hero. In turn, this can lead to perceptions of equality amongst all genders through the eyes of young boys. In addition, these novels should include clear examples and demonstrations of emotional control, respect for others, and situations allowing characters, especially male characters, to show emotion. Taught by their parents, and later by their teachers, boys need to learn that it is okay to cry, to feel sad, to feel pain. Teaching boys early on that expressing and discussing emotion in healthy ways gives them the skills later in life to cope with emotional issues and teach themselves proper emotional control. By teaching and reinforcing these ideas of emotional control and respect for people of all genders and backgrounds, we can teach boys what it truly means to be a man.
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Rebecca Jaffe is an Honors political science student at the University of Central Florida with a double minor in diversity and inequality and writing and rhetoric. She started her research as a dual enrollment student during her senior year of high school. Her passions include writing and social justice and through this research paper, she was able to combine the two. After graduation, she plans to attend graduate school and get her PhD in political science.