Author Note: NYC psychotherapist Colette Dowling, who wrote the following article on the Twilight craze, has written a number of books, including and the bestselling The Cinderella Complex: Women's Hidden Fear of Independence.
Millions of women in their 30s, 40s, and beyond are raptly following the romantic escapades of 18-year-old Bella in the teenage romance series known as Twilight. What, we may wonder, is the emotional yearning that drives them?
Feminists loathe the fact that Freud described many of his female patients as suffering from hysteria. Though I consider myself a feminist, I'll take the risk of saying I think hysteria aptly explains grown-up women’s frenzy over Twilight. Recently I’ve been asked if the Twilight phenomenon bears any relation to The Cinderella Complex. In that book, published in the eighties and translated into 23 languages, I documented women’s psychological fear of independence–their deep-seated wish to be saved. Feminists at the time took issue with my theory, and yet here we are, a quarter of a century later, with something akin to mass hysteria reflecting women’s fear that without the love of a powerful man their lives will be meaningless. Considering the enormous gains women have made, both professionally and financially, how could romantic illusion continue to be so powerful?
As a psychoanalyst I've begun thinking clinically about Twilight Twitter. One aspect of women’s identification with young Bella, I believe, is her self-abnegation. No sooner does Edward show an interest in Bella than she shrinks back. “I couldn’t imagine anything about me that could be in any way interesting,” she says.
“I know exactly how she feels,” accomplished women tell me. And yet Bella’s is the plaint of a girl with few interests and curiosities about life, much less herself. In spite of herself, she gets the boy (or, in this case, the vampire). Women find doubting Bella’s romantic success reassuring. Also, oddly, they’re compelled by the idea of her ungratified sexuality. (I can imagine Freud in his grave stroking his beard and saying, “I told you so”. Repressed sexuality, to his way of thinking, lay at the root of women’s hysteria.)
A core issue for hysterics, as psychoanalysts understand the phenomenon today, is the damaging experience of never having been taken seriously. It causes such individuals to be without an anchor, feeling “virtually weightless and floating, attracted here, repelled there, captivated first by this and then by that,” as the noted psychoanalyst, David Shapiro, wrote. Little seems rooted in deep interest or purpose. The resulting sense of insubstantiality can leave those suffering from hysteria vulnerable to the influence of others. Shapiro described it, way back in the 60s, as a “Prince-Charming-will-come-and-everything-will be- all-right view of life.”
Anyone who doubts that many women still think this way this has only to check out the OMG sensibility flooding blogs and chat rooms. OMG, Edward is too beautiful, too fabulously strong, even “gentlemanly”. Bella is so lucky to have snared him; now, Cinderella-like, the poor girl can look forward to a lifetime of happiness. Never mind the danger implicit in dashing Edward’s creepily long eye teeth, he is the prince.
When working in therapy with women who are preoccupied by adolescent dreams of romance, my hope is to spark in them a curiosity about themselves–to get them to begin wondering if there mightn’t be some powerful thoughts and feelings of their own lying beneath the surface brush fires that distract them. Eventually, if things go well, they come to experience themselves as substantial, interesting, and beautiful, and are no longer inclined to gravitate toward media images of male power.
If there’s a main reason for women's preoccupation with Twilight's young Bella, I believe it’s this: society still doesn’t take women seriously. As a result, many women don’t take themselves seriously.
The cultural conditioning of girls persists. Think of the madness surrounding “princess parties” if you want evidence that romantic notions continue to be foist on them. It’s Barbie reincarnate, only the princess is if anything more ephemeral, weightless, even less aware of her own substance.
In the seventies we worried about Barbie’s influence on our daughters and tried to diminish her power over them. Today’s mothers actually love the princess. They spend millions so their daughters can flit about in miniature gowns and tiaras looking and acting like one.
My concern is that as long as society keeps insisting on a de-fanged image of femininity, girls will continue finding it hard to connect to their own core and will grow up enthralled by “harmless” stories of romantic obsession.
In placing so much attention on romance, women only feed the fantasy that they need some idealized Other to make the world go ‘round. In the end, they are left yearning, the glass slipper of adult love having utterly eluded them.
NY psychotherapist Colette Dowling, LCSW, has a masters degree from The Smith College School for Social Work and received her certificate in psychoanalysis from The Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy. Colette has a private therapy practice in Manhattan. She can be reached at 718-594-0201, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Click audio button to hear Colette speak on what it's like starting therapy with someone new.
Copyright Colette Dowling, 2006-2010