Mad, bad romance

Article by Christopher Scanlon /
Sydney Morning Herald /
October 08, 2011 /
Click here to view original /

PSYCHOLOGICALLY immature and nihilistic M. incapable of love with barely restrained urge to murder seeks F. for fun times and possible romantic relationship.

It’s not the kind of lonely hearts ad that’s likely to set a girl’s heart aflutter- unless of course the suitor happens to be Edward Cullen, the object of Bella Swan’s affections in Stephenie Meyer’s hugely popular Twilight series of books and films.

While Edward has both girls and women swooning, regular blokes are left wondering, “What’s he got that I haven’t?” Well, first up, he’s a psychopath.

The popularity of Edward owes less to his status as fantasy and more to the fact that he accurately reflects the real-life ‘bad boys’ women encounter in their daily lives.

That, at any rate, is the conclusion of Debra Merskin, associate professor for the school of journalism and communication at the University of Oregon. Writing in a recent issue of the Journal of Communication Inquiry, Merskin argues that Edward has all the hallmarks of a “compensated psychopath”.

Unlike full-blown psychopaths, compensated psychopaths have learnt to conceal their limited emotional repertoire and “pass” as normal. “While he is incapable of feeling compassion, or remorse, there is an awareness that the full-blown psychopath doesn’t have – that these feelings do exist in the world but he is somehow lacking,” Merskin explains via email.

Edward, she says, ticks all the boxes.He’s psychologically immature; although born in 1901, Edward is fated never to develop beyond the age of 17.

He’s socially withdrawn, living far out of town, and he’s controlling. He frequently belittles Bella, saying she’s emotionally unobservant, she’s absurd and, most patronisingly, “You’ve got a bit of a temper, don’t you?”

Edward’s inability to love is the crucible for the romantic tension throughout Twilight. “I don’t know how to be close to you. I don’t know if I can,” he says to Bella. And, perhaps most tellingly, Edward admits: “I’mn ot used to feeling so human. Is it always like this?”

Merskin says these types aren’t new in literature and cinema. Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, serial killer Patrick Bateman in American Psycho and Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko are all examples of compensated psychopaths.

But unlike Edward, none of these fictional characters was presented as boyfriend material. This,Merskin says, makes Edward novel. It also makes him concerning- especially given that its target audience is young women and adolescent girls.

“The media play an important pedagogical role in the socialisation of young people. If the information coming to girls is that a dangerous, psychopathic boy is good boyfriend material, I argue they are psychically and physically in danger.”

But is Edward really that dysfunctional- or unique? Western literature and cinema is, after all, littered with dysfunctional leading men.

Wuthering Heights’s Heathcliff, for example, isn’t exactly a poster boy for mental health. Similarly, for most of Pride and Prejudice, Mr Darcy is contemptuous and emotionally withdrawn, spending his time charging across the English countryside belittling anyone who fails to live up to his own standards. Jane Eyre’s Edward Rochester is another , being withdrawn, controlling, patronising and moody.

The collective name for these literary bad boys is “Byronic heroes”. Named after Lord Byron, they are, in the famous words of one of his lovers, Lady Caroline Lamb, “mad, bad and dangerous to know”. The real Lord Byron, it turns out, was the inspiration for one of the first vampires to appear in English literature. One of Byron’s acquaintances, John Polidori, based Lord Ruthven, the main character in his 1819 short story The Vampyre, on Byron.

Viewed in this light, Edward is about as close to the original Byronic hero as you can get. Natalie Wilson, author of Seduced by Twilight: The Allure and Contradictory Messages of the Popular Saga, agrees, up to a point. Edward, she says, differs from the traditional Byronic hero in a number of important respects.

“Many Byronic heroes revel in being bad. Edward hates himself for his ‘badness’ and the danger he poses to Bella,” she says. “He has a lot more angst than a typical Byronic hero and he genuinely tries to protect Bella-something Byronic heroes don’t normally do for their leading ladies. Granted, his ‘protection’ results in him controlling Bella but his domination comes from the desire to protect her, not harm her.”

Wilson continues: “And, significantly, he wants to protect her humanity and particularly her virginity. Traditional Byronic heroes were not so chaste but actively tried to turn their leading ladies into ‘fallen women’. ”

Stories featuring Byronic heroes usually end in tragedy but although Edward is good-looking and dangerous and disregards social norms, Edward and Bella’s story ends in wedded bliss. Judged against that standard, Edward starts to look like the best of a rotten bunch. Sure, he may be a homicidal blood-sucking bad boy but at least he’s a self-aware homicidal blood-sucking bad boy.

Why, then, has Edward ended up on the therapist’s couch when the likes ofHeathcliff, Mr Darcy and Rochester are celebrated as the great romantics ofWestern culture? Perhaps the urge to diagnose Edward as having a psychological disorder says more about our changing attitudes to fantasies of romantic love than it does about Edward Cullen. Have we become so anxious about stories of unconstrained and passionate love that the only way we know how to categorise it is to medicalise or pathologise it?

Wilson says Edward isn’t being singled out.

“Feminist critics have long examined these male characters, noting the negative role models they represent, as well as the way attractive, desirable masculinity is associated with being violent and being a womaniser.”

Edward’s popularity, she says, owes less to his status as fantasy and more to the fact that he accurately reflects the real-life “bad boys” women encounter in their daily lives. Romanticising characters such as Edward, she says, is a way for women to cope with the all-too- real toxic creeps in their lives. Unfortunately, it’s often self-defeating. “Females learn to love their own subordination by loving the very type of character that keeps patriarchy firmly in place. This is a cycle that is not new to Twilight – which is why I find the text so regressive,” Wilson says.

Should the Twilight books and films come with a health warning? Author of Part-Time Perverts: Sex, Pop Culture and Kink Management, Lauren Rosewarne, is sceptical when it comes to claims about the potential harmposed by books and films such as Twilight.

‘There appears to be a contemporary obsession on the part of some academics and commentators to a) pretend that women are cultural dupes passively accepting anything they ever read or see; and b) to pretend that any single controversial item-be it a Twilight novel or an explicit music video-is the only media influence that a person gets.

“Neither of these things are true.We’re each exposed to a deluge of different media influences and to pretend that any one item influences more strongly than another is ludicrous [as years of media research has proven].”

Perhaps, but as the father of a two-year-old girl I would prefer that her future media diet isn’t saturated by men whose emotional lives resemble those of the undead.