The Twilight Saga’s emphasis on youth misses the point that aging has benefits and mortality makes life sweet.
I knew it would happen, but the fact that The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn — Part I just passed the $500 million mark is quite disappointing. The movie got incredibly poor reviews, the plot is insipid, and several events in the movie are downright disturbing.
This is what people are spending their money on?
First, let me assure you I have read all the books and seen all the movies up to Breaking Dawn, a movie I’m pretty sure I will need to see with fast-forward capability. You might ask why I subjected myself to all the permutations of the Saga. (It certainly wasn’t because it is “Great Literature” or Oscar-caliber filmmaking.) A lot of my patients — both young and old — are immersed in the Saga, and my knowledge of it actually helped me enhance my therapeutic relationship with them. Plus, I have to admit that I was curious about what all the fuss was about.
Like many of the Saga‘s critics, I am appalled by many of the messages found in both the books and the movies. Overtones of racism, sexism, classism and religious ideology, in addition to unhealthy relationship dynamics and ridiculous mythology (sparkling, really?) are certainly present, but I will leave the complaints about these issues to others. Instead, I’m disturbed today by the underlying glamorization of youth and the subsequent fear of mortality that the Saga encourages.
In the Twilight Saga, Bella Swan longs to be made into a vampire so she can stop aging and live forever with her boyfriend, Edward Cullen. Every birthday is met with dread and Bella has nightmares about becoming an old woman. Bella is also deeply jealous that werewolves can arrest their aging when in wolf form. The anti-aging theme is so heavily stressed that I just want to scream, “I get it!!!! Aging is bad!!!!!!” To be fair, the anti-aging emphasis is not exclusive to Twilight. If you take a look at other vampire-based shows on television like True Blood and The Vampire Diaries, none of them contain many older people either. With very few exceptions, all of the vampires are young, gorgeous and powerful because most of them “turned” while in their late teens and 20s.
I get the appeal. I do. Growing older is tough. Your body isn’t as strong, flexible, resilient or as youthfully beautiful as it used to be. You have to face illness and injury. You realize you will never accomplish all of the things you want to do. And, of course, you are closer to the end of your life — which is, for most people, a pretty scary thought. I also understand that these shows, movies and books are not precursors but instead reflections of the larger youth-oriented culture in which we live. One of the biggest compliments you can receive is someone telling you they never would have guessed how old you actually are. Vampires subvert this challenge of aging because, while they are chronologically old, they always look young. Edward Cullen is over a hundred, but he only looks 17.
Since no one can stay young forever in the real world, the spotlight we place on youth provides an unattainable ideal and promotes dissatisfaction with who we are. If I focus on mourning my lost youth, I cannot concentrate on what’s good about today. If I’m so busy wishing I still looked 25, I cannot appreciate the beauty I have now. Nowhere is the obsession with youth more obvious than in the beautiful celebrities (primarily women) of my younger years who now clearly indulge in plastic surgery. Many of them go from attractive to kind of scary-looking or, at the very least, unnatural. While I understand the pressure to look young, I wish they had the courage to allow themselves to age normally.
The focus on youth also ignores the fact that age brings benefits. When I get frustrated about getting older, I think about friends of mine who died young. I feel sad because I realize all the things they missed. They never got the chance to have long-term romantic relationships, children, hard-won careers, pets, new friends or accumulated knowledge. They never experienced the developmental changes of middle and later life, nor did they gain the wisdom age can bring. All they had was the emotional roller coaster of youth.
Similarly, the Twilight vampires never get to appreciate the true beauty of mortality: the ability to savor and cherish life. When things occur in limited quantities, they become highly valued. Time for most people is precious, but if you have an infinite amount of it, then it loses its luster. For vampires who remain forever unchanged, life must eventually get dull. Yet this drawback is never even mentioned.
Finally, there is the part of living forever where all the people you love get older and die. To its credit, the Saga does mention this, but Bella seems to shrug it off like it is nothing. She didn’t want to abandon her parents or her best friend Jacob, but the pain of losing them forever was not going to deter her in the slightest from becoming Undead. This message — that watching those you love age and die is pretty unimportant — is at best intellectually dishonest and at most morally corrupt. The relationships we build with other people are what define us. They give our lives meaning, purpose and, most of all, joy. They keep us grounded so that we maintain the best aspect of our humanity: care for others. Part of what makes relationships so special is that we all experience the same things together. That’s why we have generations, the age-mates who know what we’re talking about when we mention historical events, popular culture or the personal transformations that occur with age.
For example, people my age will understand why, when thinking about this essay, I say I keep hearing in my head Queen’s song Who Wants to Live Forever. This song led me to think about 1986’s film Highlander (the song was the movie’s anthem). That film dealt with immortality much more realistically than the Saga. The Highlander could not age or die unless killed in a fight with another immortal, so he had to live his life on the fringes of society. Anyone he loved would age and die, thus he had no true companion. He could never stay in one place for very long lest his continual youth be noticed. For the Highlander, immortality was boredom, loss and isolation. At the end of the movie, one of his rewards was that he could age and die. He could finally have it all. Queen’s haunting lyrics explained why immortality is what you make it:
This world has only one sweet moment set aside for us
But touch my tears with your lips
Touch my world with your fingertips
And we can have forever
And we can love forever
Forever is our today
This is the truth I believe the vampire stories completely miss: youth is great, but it is just a moment in time. We must experience all the arcs that make up the circle of life and revel in the age we are today. Mortality is a gift that encourages us to appreciate the life we are lucky enough to have. Let your immortality be about the love you share with others. After all, it is better to live than just to exist.