We’re a few days away from the premiere of the new Twilight movie, which will undoubtedly be one of the biggest movies of the year. The box office returns suggest it’ll be a hit; the advance screening I attended was filled with teenage girls screaming and falling over themselves to get a glimpse of the newest cast members. Inevitably, this will lead to a surge in interest in the saga, and it’s one of the most prominent examples of a phenomena that permeates much of young adult fiction: heroines demanding to be treated like equal partners with the male protagonist. But while we’re excited about the next installment of a phenomenally successful series, it’s also worth remembering that things could have been so different.
It’s been a few years since we last heard from Robert Pattinson, the English actor who played Edward Cullen in the Twilight franchise. In that time, his career took off with the critically acclaimed drama, The Rover, in which he played an alcoholic vet who teams up with a deaf mute to take justice into his own hands. In 2016, he also voiced the character of Ben in the animated series, Over the Moon, and recently wrapped filming on High Life, a drug addiction drama directed by the Wachowskis. But while we eagerly await his next project, it’s been nearly eight months since we’ve heard new words from Pattinson, and the world has changed a lot in the meantime. In the wake of the #MeToo movement and the many high profile sexual misconduct allegations that have been leveled at several prominent men in the media, it feels like an appropriate moment to revisit the actor’s prolific career and discuss the significant impact that these changes are having on the way we view and respond to violence against women.
The Evolution Of Abuse
While it’s true that men have always been capable of violence, and that some may still find recourse in the bedroom (or wherever else they think they have the upper hand, in other words), the way men treat women has changed in recent years. In 2015, Dr. Stacy London, Director of the Widening Voices program at the University of Toronto, published an article in the Canadian Journal of Human Resources discussing the increasing rates of domestic violence and sexual assault that are being perpetrated by a new generation of young men. She notes that while previous generations of men may have turned to alcohol or drugs to deal with their frustrations, today’s men are seeking cathartic release through their digital devices – and they’re finding new ways to harm themselves and others in the process.
In a 2011 TED Talk, Dr. Elle MacLeman, co-founder of the Women’s Community Project in Vancouver, discussed how the prevalence of violence (both physical and sexual) against women is on the rise, particularly in the form of “cyber-violence.” MacLeman posited that while society has always tried to protect women from physical violence, the lines between reality and representation have blurred, creating a world where female characters can be raped, abused, and humiliated with relative impunity. The trend, she suggested, can be tied to increased competition for male attention and the growing accessibility of pornography, which acts as a cheap and easy reference point for men in their interactions with real women – or at least, women they perceive to be their competition.
The Meaning Of “No”
In the wake of these social and cultural changes, it’s not surprising that young adult novels are becoming more nuanced when it comes to depicting gender dynamics. Gone are the days of ‘brave’ male protagonists dishing it out to unsuspecting, submissive females. In Robin Wasserman’s Gentry, for example, male lead, Grayson Gentry, refuses to be the passive vessel for female desires and commands a strict and unbending ‘no’ when asked for sex. The 2017 YA Bingo Card Game was won by Gretchen Witzgall, with a card that succinctly displays this theme: “I don’t need a man to fight my battles. There’s no shame in asking for help, but there’s shame in offering none.”
Where Do We Go From Here?
In the Twilight saga, men dominated the narrative; the female characters largely served as objects of desire or as foils for the male leads. While this certainly wasn’t a bad thing (the majority of Twilight readers were teenage girls who related deeply to Bella’s desire to be taken care of by a strong, protective man), it’s worth considering the impact that these fictional portrayals had on young women who identified with the characters. As mentioned above, much has changed in the years since Twilight was first released; it will be interesting to see how the next generation of young adult novels and movies shapes up.