Dear Aunt Debbie,
Ah, Twilight. Yes, after realizing how many of my high school students had read the series (most of them in junior high), and after one of my all-time favorite students told me I needed to read them because the gender issues in them were really disturbing, I read all four books. They're not good books, but they are quick, gripping reads -- the kind of book you read obsessively for two days and then it's done, and while you're reading you keep thinking, ah yes, this was written to be turned into a movie.
What bothers me about the ubiquity of the Twilight books is the relationship dynamic they set up for the (mostly) tween (mostly) girls reading them. Because Edward is a vampire, and Bella is human, every romantic encounter they have is freighted with danger: he is so in love with her, so aroused by the smell of her blood, that if he loses control, they both know he might kill her. Because he doesn't want to do this, he is by turns emotionally cold and crushingly overprotective. While there's a logic to his behavior in the fantasy world Meyer has created, in our world, a relationship like this would be abusive. I worry about Edward helping shape the concept for so many girls of what it means to have a "good" boyfriend.
(Spoiler alert -- in the next couple of paragraphs, I'm going to reference major plot points in Book 4.)
This ties into the question of sexual desire, and who is supposed to feel it. A lot has been written about Twilight as a sexy abstinence book -- Bella and Edward don't have sex until after they get married, early in the last book. Before this, Bella wants to, but Edward won't go along with it. She desires him intensely, but knows that she has to keep a lid on her desire, because if she turns him on too much, he might lose control and kill her. There are a few scenes where she doesn't hold back while kissing him, then gets mad at herself for tempting him too much. Because, you know, boys can't control themselves the way girls can.
When they finally do have sex, it is reported to be mind-blowingly fantastic (we don't actually get a sex scene), but Bella wakes up covered in bruises. Edward feels terrible and never wants to touch her again; Bella reassures him that she's fine, doesn't hurt at all, and wants to do it again immediately. Then it turns out she's pregnant, and I don't know what happened to Meyers during her own pregnancies, but this one is horrible -- the half-vampire baby makes Bella violently ill, breaks her ribs, and brings her to the brink of death while ripping its way out of her. (Another picture I'm thrilled to have put in the minds of my students.) This paves the way for Edward to finally turn Bella into a vampire, which she's been asking him to do for three books. And the moral is? We're all happy, young, gorgeous, rich vampires who don't need to kill people. And did I mention we're gorgeous? And young? And rich?
I read my fair share of bad books as a kid: dozens of Sweet Valley High books, for one, which I borrowed from a friend in junior high. It was like eating junk food. I knew this at the time, knew that these were fun books but that they were essentially the same, and that I wasn't getting anything real from them. All I've retained is that the main characters were twins, and they had perfect size-6 figures and wore gold chain necklaces with their names spelled out so people could tell them apart. I'm sure if I re-read SVH, I'd find plenty of gender issues to object to as well. But like you, I think that when something terrible is part of the larger picture of reading, and if it gets kids going and interested in reading more, it's not necessarily so bad.
That being said, I'd like to know that there's some really good fantasy/fairy/faerie/vampire YA lit being written out there as well. Is there? What do you recommend when this question comes up?