The other day, Sweet Machine alerted me to a new study about the influence of media on relationship ideals. According to BBC News, the study found that people who watch a lot of romantic comedies have unrealistic and harmful ideas about relationships — they were more likely to believe in destiny when it comes to love, and less likely to communicate effectively with their partners (or, the researchers hazard, to think communication is important). To be sure, I’ve ranted about rom-coms for the same reason, and also from a general feminist perspective — the way they devalue both partners in a relationship, reinforce absurd gender roles, associate femininity with pablum — though to be honest I’m most likely to complain about them simply because they’re awful. But like so many of the studies we examine here, I think these researchers are confused about causation. In this case, I think they have it backwards.
I’ve always hated romantic comedies (with a very few exceptions) and never really suffered from the misconceptions being examined. So to elaborate on this thought, let me move away from rom-com to generic rom, or actually rom-vamp. Dan’s young cousin, who is now my cousin too, is a big fan of the Twilight series. She told me all about it at a time when I didn’t know anything about the books except that they involved vampires and were very popular. (Remember those innocent times before you learned that vampires sparkle and play baseball?) I listened politely as she explained the mystique of Bella and Edward’s relationship: that, as she described it, he loves her because he wants to kill her and can’t read her mind. It didn’t sound like a particularly feminist tome, but neither were the vampire books I read when I was her age, and I just didn’t know enough about the series to say “wow, that shit ain’t right.” (Also I try not to swear in front of those cousins, believe it or not!)
Of course, the more I found out about Twilight, the more horrified I was at its retrogressive approach to romance. For those of you who live under a mercifully insulating rock, a recap: To the best of my understanding, and I haven’t read the books, Bella has no stated interests outside of her devotion to Edward. The two are forcibly abstinent, because his passions would rupture her (or because vampire bun + human oven = death, I’m not totally clear on this point). Edward is obsessively in love with Bella, because she smells like tasty food, except his mood swings make Ian Curtis look like Stuart Smalley so sometimes he acts like he hates her. (The rest of the time he jealously imprisons her, abandons her, or stalks her “for her own good.”) Bella is obsessively in love with Edward and completely subsumes her personality and choices to him. Bella’s mind is opaque to Edward, who is usually psychic, which I gather from my cousin makes her seem mysterious and fascinating to him even though she’s impossibly bland (particularly after committing herself entirely to pleasing Edward). As the books go on, shit only gets worse — Edward’s controlling habits become more active (sabotaging Bella’s car, for instance, rather than just watching her sleep), Bella starts grasping for Edward’s attention by endangering herself, Bella is tormented by Edward’s refusal to make her a vampire (either so they can fucking have some sex already or so they can be together forever etc. — I’d be thinking the former but it’s probably the latter), and finally she nearly dies giving birth to his child, which breaks her back and has to be chewed out of her womb. I guess vampire law doesn’t have a “health of the mother” exemption.
Bear with me for a second, because I’m about to get a little more autobiographical than usual. (I’ll try to keep it short, but I think personal perspective may be more useful than speaking theoretically.) There are basically four relationships that have defined my romantic history and, to a disheartening extent, my personality. The last one, you all know about — through a combination of good timing and the influence of friends, I lucked into not only one of the healthiest, happiest, sanest relationships I’ve ever been in, but really one of the healthiest and happiest and sanest relationships it’s possible to have. (Reader, I married him — no mystery why.) The other defining relationships: Ages 15-18, obsessive teen thing; his fits of rage and frustration weren’t usually directed at me, but he got progressively more controlling and jealous. Ages 20-21, chronic nogoodnik emotional abuser; I supported him financially while he by turns doted on me and punished me for imagined infractions. Ages 21-25, protracted non-relationship with a profound power dynamic; he was intermittently affectionate, scolding, and indifferent, and had me scrambling to learn his rules and his preferences and what he thought I ought to do to improve and fix myself, which seemed to change based on what he wanted from me at that moment. (Sweet Machine, did I get those basically right?) Salient common denominators: learned helplessness on my part, and on theirs, a conviction that I was fucked up and needed to be fixed, or at least contained. It’s important to note that at no point did I completely stop being, in my non-relationship life, a mouthy, stubborn, prickly punk-ass. But I still rolled right over for these men who thought they knew what was best for me.
The point is, I would have fucking LOVED Twilight if it had come out when I was a young teen. The central relationship that I described up there with so much deserved disdain would have resonated so hard for me, my whole body would have rung with it. I would have fantasized obsessively about being fragile, irresistible Bella and deserving to have an Edward of my own, as I’m told millions of teenage girls and grown-ass women do. Twilight horrifies me, but it mystifies me not at all; I know exactly what the appeal is, not just intellectually but viscerally. When I was the age of Twilight’s target audience, I hadn’t had any of those defining relationships, of course, but clearly I had the capacity to find disdain, paternalism, and misused power attractive.
But I didn’t read it, because it didn’t exist. In point of fact I read pretty much everything that did exist, or at least everything that ended up in my line of sight, up until age 12 or so, because I was socially and psychologically awkward. So I probably read some stuff that was just as objectionable — but I also read the delightfully feminist Song of the Lioness series, for instance, and observed the growing partnership and understanding that preceded the marriage of Meg Murry and Calvin O’Keefe , not to mention consuming great swaths of YA-and-otherwise fiction that had fuckall to do with relationships, misogyny, or self-respect. Wherever my fascination with muting my personality to try to please undeserving men came from, it wasn’t from my reading. (And it wasn’t from my TV watching, which was and is mostly cartoons.) But if I’d found a book that catered so perfectly to that fascination, I would have eaten it up.
The rom-com study’s conclusions could suggest a simple plan of action: Keep impressionable minds away from “romance” media. I don’t think it’s remotely so simple. It’s not a mistake that romantic comedies, and romantic horrors like Twilight, play on models of romantic interaction that rely on patriarchal gender roles. Women are flighty and adorable or fragile and damaged, or all four; men are at best protectors, at worst superiors whose attention and emotions are a prize to be gained. These tropes predate modern media, and rooting that out promises to be — has proven to be — a lot more difficult than flipping the channel from Dharma and Greg to Buffy, or (say) giving your cousin a box set of the Rebecca Rabinowitz-approved series Uglies.
Because those of us for whom these unhealthy messages are going to resonate? We seek them out, because they represent existing beliefs and desires. Regardless of your opinions on nature and nurture, by the time we’re consciously consuming non-Teletubby media, young women are not empty vessels in danger of being filled with bad ideas. We already got the bad ideas, from the input we get every day, from years of media we might not even have paid attention to, from offhand comments that seemed innocent at the time. We worry about giving kids good models in what they watch and what they read, and I do think that’s an important concern — sure, the bad models are usually more fun, but I believe in making sure kids have access to positive messages (I wouldn’t have asked Rebecca to guest post if I didn’t!). But we absolutely can’t stop there — and we can’t just start there, either. Bad feminist role models aren’t responsible for bad feminists. Bad role models germinate in a society that devalues women, condones misogyny, and elevates unrealistic and regressive relationship roles.
It’s easy for us to shake fingers at Twilight or roll our eyes at Maid in Manhattan, but even poisonous plants need fertilizer to thrive. It’s a feminist act to protest antifeminist media. It’s feminism’s goal to create a society where nobody wants it in the first place.
 Let us ignore, for the time being, the really problematic aspects of their relationship, mainly Meg giving up her education/career for her children. I was having trouble remembering all the stuff I used to read, so I asked Dan “what are some books with good relationships I might have read as a kid?” and he said “people don’t write books about good relationships.” Fair enough, really.