When I first entered college in 2008, I came fresh-faced from the world of homeschooling. I had no experience with the high school dramatics, the dating scene, or cultural fads. The world that I found was suffering a new trend, one that shook all those things. It seemed that the female population had withdrawn their affections. The men could be seen despondently wandering the halls, playing games without joy, and eating food that did not fill their appetites. They’d murmur their complaints to each other in low voices, until the gathering would dissolve with the disaffected shrug, “Who is Edward Cullen?”
Well I sure didn’t know. You see, one of the fads that I’d missed in my snug home culture was the Twilight Saga. (Now don’t you wish you were homeschooled too?) I’d seen the visually striking covers in the bookstores, but stuck with Dame Agatha Christie. Once I entered the mainstream, Twilight was unavoidable. My first year roommates were hard fans, and the first movie had just come out. I saw the movie when one of them brought home the DVD, but still didn’t pick up the books. Much more interesting to me were the various reviews of the books. Many multifarious analyses poured out their hatred for the stories, its writer, and its character. Much more original and interesting, though perhaps not justifying, were the analyses that looked for the positives, to sometimes surprising results.
And yet no matter how the review is spun, I’ve never seen anyone address why Edward Cullen inspires such romantic fixation. The usual dismissal is to the detriment of the female population, declaring that they only want Edward because they are too stupid to see through the hunk and recognize that he’s an abusive creep. But I’ve seen smart and balanced girls fall for him, insisting that the character is really the pillar of virtue and gentleness. So who is Edward Cullen?
Keeping in mind that I’ve never read the books: Edward Cullen the vampire is a mass of negative-loaded conflict that aims to be better than what he is. He is always hungry to kill and feed on humans, but he denies it out of an ideological value for life. He surrounds himself with a community of those who share his struggles and ideals. He suppresses strong emotions centered around desire and anger in order to preserve good things. He desires to possess Bella but tries to keep a distance because he also loves her and mistrusts himself. In general he denies himself for the good of others (creepy sneak-in-to-watch-someone-sleep moments aside). This takes a lot of strength, and that strength is sexy. Sometimes I hear Edward Cullen praised for being a gentleman–but it’s not that he is a gentleman, it’s that he’s a monster who chooses to be a gentleman. The line, “What if I’m not the superhero, what if I’m the monster,” is a fan favorite because it describes Edward’s self-awareness and struggle. He’s a sexualized serial killer by nature, and an abstinent protector by choice. That’s what makes him a good guy. This is a positive, Harry Potter-worthy message, right?
To someone familiar with human nature, the appeal is obvious. All humans are flawed, and isn’t it desirable to be loved by someone who chooses to be better? How many relationships go wrong when one member decides to gratify their self at the expense of the other? How many people embrace their nature and rampage careless of what damage it does? Bella tempts the worst parts of Edward’s nature and yet he resists and clings to his ideology of what he should be and what is for her good. It is an admirable form of strength that people don’t expect to see in their daily interactions with others. It is also quite sexy to see someone stand up for their ideals.
But Edward isn’t the protagonist, rather Bella Swan. Bella is a socially unnoticed, awkward, mostly untalented, good person. Her character is constantly being labeled an audience surrogate, and I can see that. I have to imagine everyone has indulged in that pity party at some point: that they don’t receive enough recognition for how basically good a person they are because they aren’t super pretty or talented or charming. Yet Bella’s simple goodness is rewarded with the attention of Edward Cullen. Being lovable –being a personality so inspiring that someone else will defy their own nature for you– is an intoxicating power. Indeed, I would say that inherent lovability is Bella’s superpower. She doesn’t have to try hard to be loved by people, and moreover she attracts a guy whose whole existence is centered around fighting to be better than his nature.
Of course, the problem with this fantasy is that none of us are Bella Swans, we are all some degree of Edward Cullen. All of us have inherent tendencies to be selfish, single-minded, and destructive, but all of us have to tame and manage those tendencies in order to have relationships with our fellow humans and serve greater purposes. Not having read the books, I don’t know if Bella at any point has to make the choice to do something that denies herself for Edward’s sake. I don’t even think her arc in the story is that she’s going to help change his nature (which is the kind of psychology that contributes to domestic abuse cases). If her lovability is just a passive superpower, in which she has to make no effort of her own, then this really is just a fantasy and an unhealthy one at that.
Otherwise, Edward Cullen is already practicing this restraint and finding support in a constructive community before Bella comes into his life. He is already taking steps to manage his problems in a manner that we’d love to see our deeply troubled kindred imitate. Maybe the main reason that people don’t find Edward Cullen acceptable is because it’s popular to not like the Twilight Saga (and why so much?). But hasn’t this happened before? Can’t this also be compared to another —more socially acceptable– phenomenon: a fierce romantic fascination with a pale, repressed, physically superior, long lived, stony-faced, inhuman sex symbol?
Can you think of who?
Any more guesses?
I give you, Mr. Spock.
One of the great oddities of Star Trek: The Original Series (TOS) is that amorous fan attention mostly glazed over the sexual and macho Captain Kirk to land on the lanky, slumping shoulders of Mr. Spock. When you analyze what makes Spock so sexy, you’ll find the same conflicts present in Edward: he suppresses a murderous and paranoid biological wiring in favor of an intellectual value for life, he deeply mistrusts himself but always strives to be better, he holds all relationships at a stiff distance and yet proves his friendship through constant self-sacrifice. No doubt, the most appalling and unsexy episode of TOS is “The Other Side of Paradise,” when Spock gets hit with a pollen that dissolves all his conflict, releasing him to a happy place of not wanting to kill anyone and being able to kiss a girl without unleashing his inner demons.
And if you insist that Mr. Spock is still a fundamentally better role model than Edward Cullen, then I ask that you read this excellent article I found by Noah Berlatsky.
As Mr. Berlatsky points out, it’s a familiar plot arc of TOS to see Spock’s strength of willpower and intellect compromised. At least three times there is a beautiful woman involved. I mean, Twilight has this advantage: at least you can relate to some little part of Bella Swan.
I find that poor, functional, wall flower Nurse Chapel, who quietly pined for Spock and never had her wish fulfilled, is often disregarded or even written off by fans. Perhaps this is because her character arc (while relateable) was not a flattering perspective for the audience to inhabit. Unlike Bella, Nurse Chapel fails to be inherently lovable. Instead it is much more appealing to dream of being like the inherently attractive and lovable women, the special person who could tempt Spock to compromise his reserve and at the same time to fight for it. There is still the desired vanity in being the one person who inherently has the ability to attract and affect someone of great strength, and the feeling of power such an ability would give.
It is true that Edward Cullen and Mr. Spock are dangerous. Just as their series constantly remind and tease, all it takes is the right push to break their self control and they will damage and destroy the things they try otherwise try to preserve. Twilight nullifies this eventually by making Bella an indestructible vampire, albeit one exempt by special blessing from sharing in Edward’s dark struggles. Spock barely endured through all the radiation, toxins, and gut-wrenchers that the screenwriters threw at him (and now has been resurrected so they can keep doing so). In real life, everyone can somehow relate to these men. We might not all suppress murderous impulses (or maybe we do, Freud, maybe we do), but we do have to make choices of various size and consequence every day on whether we will follow our impulses, or whether we will conform and suppress those impulses to the service of a moral concept. Sometimes we have that day where it would just take one thing, “one more thing!” to push us over the brink.
I would rather see people relate to Edward Cullen of Mr. Spock than throw stones at them. Cullen and Spock were already practicing self-restraint and making constructive use of their lives before love interests came to test it. (And yes, it is frustrating how often the story is told with women in the temptress role.) Because of that pre-existing choice, they were already good people and worthy of respecting. The delusion is to imagine that we are like Bella Swan, a basically good person with only negligible flaws who will one day be noticed and worshiped by someone with inner strength. We all have problems, and that we should all be on guard of our own natures. It would be better if we related more to those who fight their monsters, and even better if, like Spock and Cullen, we instead looked for the methods and communities that only strengthen us against our inner demons.