Community of Scholars research focuses on society's messages
SPARTANBURG, S.C. - If there’s a perfect man, millions of fans of the “Twilight” book and movie series will tell you he’s Edward Cullen, the vampire who vows to protect protagonist Bella.
Wofford College senior Lyn Radke examined the concept of “the ideal man” and the message it sends in our society as her research project in this summer’s Community of Scholars program. She was one of 19 research fellows in the program this year.
Radke didn’t begin her summer research with that specific topic, though.
“I started out wanting to look at themes in young adult literature, specifically the phenomenon of vampires in romance,” the Woodruff, S.C., student explains. “That was inspired by the popular ‘Twilight’ saga by Stephenie Meyer.”
She originally planned to use Meyer as a case study to broadly examine the genre, but ultimately decided it was too broad for a summer project. Instead, she specifically focused on the “Twilight” saga.
Radke moved on to examine on the role of femininity in the series – “what kinds of messages it was sending to young girls about values, sex and relationship.” As she explored further, she discovered that there already was a lot of scholarly work on that “female side” of the equation. “So, I started to think about men in today’s society instead, and how this series sends messages that they should be perfect.”
While it’s common to think of unrealistic ideals being applied to females, especially in physical appearance, men have had their share of this phenomenon, Radke notes.
One thing she discovered was that Edward is “constantly referred to as ‘marble-like’ in his color, almost like a Greek statue,” Radke says. “It recalls the image of the ideal man in ancient Greece. You also have Renaissance heroes with all certain characteristics, and the literary heroes of Lord Byron, such as Don Juan.
“I don’t think Edward is anything new, but rather the latest in a series of so-called perfect men,” she adds.
Radke says those responsible for emphasizing this “ideal male image” today are “tapping onto a female demographic. Women have been used in that way for so long, but now they have more purchasing power and I think icons like Edward are the result.”
Like many people, Radke got sucked into, so to speak, Twilight’s “vampire-human love saga” through someone else. Her sister first bought the books, but Radke began reading them. “I remember reading the first two thinking that while I could see what the appeal was, the female character (Bella) seemed so weak to me, and how weird it was that girls related to her and what that might mean for girls. Bella rarely makes her own choices. She’s kind of clumsy and awkward, and I know every girl goes through that stage, but she takes it to a new level, like she’s so inferior to (Edward).”
Radke’s research topic made her a popular person at the Community of Scholars gatherings. Perhaps it’s one topic that appeals to everyone on one level or another.
“I think almost every single person (gave) me something they found about ‘Twilight,’” she says. “A lot of people … really helped me out. It’s such an accessible topic and so popular right now that virtually everyone has seen something or knows someone who is a huge fan of the series. I (got) emails all the time saying, ‘Have you looked at this for your project?’”
She probably did. Radke cast a wide net in her research, from Google searches to fellow scholars to recent dissertations written by other college students.
“There aren’t a lot of serious books published about ‘Twilight,’” she acknowledges. “They’re usually angled more toward pop culture and the general audience.” She found a book of scholarly essays about “Twilight.” The topic being a relatively new phenomenon, though, has meant that much of Radke’s research came from people her own age writing dissertations or trying to get published.
“It’s very much at the forefront of the academic world right now,” she adds. “I (wasn’t) just looking at Edward Cullen, either. I (looked) at ‘ideal male’ characters throughout history.”
In looking at male figures such as Cullen, Radke thinks she then can reflect on what they show about the women who adore them so much.
“How are they looking at the men in their relationships as they compare them to Edward, who is described in this book repeatedly as ‘perfect’ and ‘god-like’?” Radke asks, noting that research shows romance novels affect expectations in real-life relationships.
Radke views her experience with the Community of Scholars as one that will provide her with a significant competitive advantage when she applies for graduate school. After that, she plans to become a college professor.