Challenged Books: Twilight

In 2009, The Twilight Saga achieved the dubious distinction of being number five on the list of most frequently challenged books for the year. These challenges, oddly enough, were not based on a wooden, unimaginative writing style and some seriously troubling characterisations, but rather ‘religious viewpoint, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group,’ according to the American Library Association, which keeps track of these things. Clearly, some people believe that middle schoolers and teens should not be reading these books, and feel strongly enough about it that they want to try and get them banned from schools.

This series raises some interesting questions, when it comes to book bans, because, well, I don’t think it’s very good, and I think that it sends a lot of harmful messages. There are very heavy religious overtones but it goes deeper than that; Bella is a very compliant character without very much self determination, Edward is an abusive stalker, and this is depicted as a timeless romance, something readers should want to have in their own lives, which is not such a great thing to be saying, I think.

But I am not going to fall into the trap of assuming that people who read the series are incapable of critical thinking, of dismissing them wholesale simply because of what they read. I find bans on the grounds that books have offensive content and are sending bad messages every bit as unacceptable as bans on the grounds that books are ‘too socialist’ or what have you. All book bans are a problem, not just bans of books that I like and think people should be reading. And attempts at banning The Twilight Saga sometimes come from progressive types who dislike the idea of their children reading them, though conservatives engage in the bulk of banning attempts, as that ‘sexually explicit’ bit indicates. Honestly, these books are about as sexually explicit as a waffle covered in fruit and yoghurt, I mean, seriously, the grand denouement in Breaking Dawn starts with a tasteful draw of a curtain so as not to offend delicate sensibilities.

Some of the challenges and attempts at bans appear to be rooted in the fact that the story includes vampires and has supernatural elements. There’s a long history of challenging books that contain such content, as J. K. Rowling can attest. Many people seem to have unease with the idea of children reading texts like this, and this seems to be an outgrowth of evangelical and conservative Christianity. Evidently, reading The Twilight Saga will cause children to become witches, or something, I’m not exactly sure. People seem to believe that hiding this kind of content will make it impossible to access, which seems especially unlikely in the case of such a hit series, where someone is going to have the books and will probably be willing to lend them to a reader in need.

The quality of these books definitely leaves something to be desired, as does their content, but clearly something in these books is speaking to people. Instead of challenging them, people might want to find out what that is, and talk about it. Why not use one of the books as an assignment in an English class, for example, to get students reading the text critically and discussing it? It seems like we should reward reading and increased engagement with literature even if it doesn’t come in the form we necessarily want it to, and that providing a space to actually talk about the books might have some benefits for students. Why not discuss some of the things we find so troubling, like Bella’s lack of agency, in a setting where people can feel comfortable having that discussion?

There’s some very interesting stuff to explore with storylines featuring vampires and sexuality; the two are often interwined and seem to go together hand in hand. Providing some historical context for students and talking about similar texts sounds like a lot of fun, and it also seems like it would be something interesting to explore with students, to get them thinking about how these storylines and ideas play out in their own lives. While most people do not believe vampires are real, many people do have ideas about human sexuality, especially female sexuality, informed by texts like Twilight and its ilk, and it might make a nice springboard for a bigger discussion.

Of course, the people who want to ban the books on grounds of ‘explicit content’ probably don’t want their children participating in that kind of discussion, reflecting a larger split and conflict in US schools, where conservative Christian parents want to reject a lot of the curriculum offered at public schools because they don’t want their children exposed to things like sexual education and theories about evolution. I don’t know how to strike a balance here, because saying that parents unhappy with school curricula should take their children out of school and homeschool or send them to a private school is not a solution. But having those parents shape the curriculum and decide that what all children in the school learn should be based on their religious beliefs is also a problem.

How do you reconcile the conflicting needs of students and parents when it comes to things like this? Book challenges are part of a larger culture where the voices of a few dictate to the rest of us, where a handful of individuals can control what schools teach, and how. Can actually tell teachers what kind of content to include in their classes and how to frame it.