In my Twilight wanderings last week I came across this article. It's an analysis of why Team Jacob is doomed to lose and why the conceit of the series hinges on this one, fundamental truth: Bella will always pick Edward. While I found some of the assumptions the article makes to be a bit of a stretch (Stephenie Meyer is against interracial relationships...reason #1 that Bella will never pick Jacob) I did find most of it to be fairly on-point, specifically the idea that by choosing Edward, Bella is essentially giving up choice. She is, as the article puts it, "rejecting adulthood." But by rejecting adulthood she's also rejecting humanity, and, of course, Jacob. It's a dangerous game, least of which is the fact that her boyfriend sometimes wants to kill her. It's dangerous because she is choosing love over life and in making the choice she is also communicating to Twilight's teen readers that these two things should ever be mutually exclusive. That there should ever even BE this choice at all.
I, like many people, enjoy the books and the movies. They're fun and romantic and sexy and I leave it at that. My concern, however, and the concern I've heard people voice as the saga escalates, is that many teen girls do not. Which leads me to the crux of my argument today: do YA writers have a responsibility to their teen audience?
I vacillate quite regularly and quite broadly on this issue. On the one hand, of course. Of course YA authors have a responsibility to their audience. Do teachers have a responsibility to their students? Young Adult authors are communicating information, they are reflecting the reality in which these children (yes, children too) live. They need to do their best to impart good messages, solid messages, messages that teens will identify with and try to internalize. I have many YA writer friends who will not swear in their books, will not include drinking and driving unless they are trying to convey a very specific message. I admire these authors. I think what they're doing is honoring responsibility, choosing it, and then building their worlds accordingly. I know an editor who once said this about using the word "retarded" in a manuscript: "I know teens say it and I know it is believable that these characters would say it here. The point is that they shouldn't and if you put it in a book, you make it seem OK. And it's not."
But. And oh, this is a big but: they are also writers. Artists. Their job is not to tell the most moral version of a story. Their job is to tell the truest version of a story. The truth is that Twilight is not a story about Bella and Jacob. It's a story about Bella and Edward. That was the story this writer wanted to tell. The problem, of course, is that the book ended up becoming a cultural phenomenon, and slipped into the psyche of millions of teen girls (and their mothers). It's not just about what Stephenie Meyer wants anymore. It's about what her readers want and what they want in an undead boyfriend who loves them so much he refuses to sleep with them.
Just for a moment, let's translate Edward Cullen into a teenage boy: sullen, moody, incredibly possessive, volatile and obsessive. These traits work on Edward because he is a vampire (and therefore has reasons for acting this way?) but teen girls who go looking for Edward Cullen are not going to find a sparkly 100-year old thing. What they're likely to find is a semi-abusive and certainly emotionally unproductive relationship. This concerns me. It concerns me that Edward re-wiring Bella's car to prevent her from seeing Jacob is supposed to be a sweet gesture. It concerns me that he rebukes her sexual advances and makes her feel rejected in her human form. It concerns me that Bella has to give up so much (specifically, life) to be with someone but mostly it concerns me that all of this is swooned over, that it is seen as some kind of ultimate standard of love.
Now I know I'm giving teens very little credit here. Certainly they are discerning and make better choices than a lot of twenty-somethings I know, and I want to acknowledge that. But I can't help but feel a bit protective, as well. I remember what it feels like to be fourteen or sixteen, to have the world folded out in front of you and to have a million choices ahead. I also remember what it feels like to be so open and impressionable and to want something so badly it's impossible to see that maybe it isn't the best thing for you. My point is: I don't think it would hurt anyone if we all worked a little harder to put material into this world that shows teens the best versions of themselves, the brightest versions. Because honestly, whether we like it or not we have a responsibility to our readers, viewers, and to the next generation. Let's own up to it.