It’s fairly clear at this point that Twilight‘s leading vampire, Edward Cullen, is the heartthrob of the generation. Millions of teen and tween girls (along with a not inconsiderable number of women, boys, and men) are obsessed with this brooding, tortured, self-loathing boy, enamored of his darkness. Edward Cullen is in many ways a classic example of depression, and our culture loves him for it.
Edward despises himself, believing that he is fundamentally evil and there is no hope for redemption. He refuses to turn his girlfriend Bella into a vampire because he thinks that all vampires are soulless and doomed to eternal torment; even though he loves and respects his vampire family, he cannot extend those feelings to himself. He does not believe that he deserves happiness, constantly attempting to martyr himself or sacrifice that which makes him happy at the slightest provocation; and he is unable to believe that Bella truly loves him, no matter how hard she tries to convince him.
Edward, like all vampires, does not sleep, which leaves him locked inside his own head 24 hours a day, obsessing about his flaws. Despite the fact that Bella’s blood smells a thousand times more delicious to him than any other human’s, he spends all of his time around her, even going so far as to sneak into her bedroom while she is sleeping. He seems to purposely torture himself with the tantalizing blood he’s never going to consume, as if he believes he deserves punishment or perhaps as if sustenance truly doesn’t hold much interest for him.
Edward has severe suicidal impulses. Since vampires cannot be killed by shooting, poisoning, or falling from great heights, he’s put a lot of thought into possible methods of suicide, which he shares with Bella as if it is a completely natural thing for him to think about. He tells her quite calmly that once she dies he will immediately kill himself, since he will then know that there is absolutely no reason for him to continue living. After a simple misunderstanding, he even attempts to implement his plan, forcing Bella and his sister to race to Italy to stop him from taunting the vampire royalty into killing him.
Edward’s image in popular culture is defined by his unhappiness. He is almost always depicted against a dark background, looking to the side and down at the ground or staring at the camera in anguish. Robert Pattinson, the actor who plays Edward in the Twilight films, even stated in Empire Magazine‘s October 2008 issue that he sees the character “as a manic depressive that hates himself.” If even the man who portrays him sees Edward as a mostly joyless being, why are so many people desperately in love with him?
It’s a common stereotype that women are attracted to “bad boys,” to dangerous, tortured men with troubled pasts and leather jackets. But while there is a certain amount of that sexually enticing danger attached to Edward Cullen, his appeal doesn’t fit neatly next to the hard-drinking, motorcycle-riding, rebels without causes of pop culture. He’s not lashing out; he’s lashing in. For all that he’s a deadly vampire, the person he’s most likely to hurt is always himself.
Edward’s depression makes him sexy because it makes him vulnerable. He’s an immensely powerful immortal being, able to run faster than cars and crush stones with his hands, but his life is completely worthless without the girl he loves. He’s strong but also so intensely fragile that the merest hint of trouble in his romance could send him careening off the edge. He needs Bella, a thoroughly ordinary girl whom many readers and watchers find it easy to substitute for themselves, to keep his mental turmoil in check.
Edward is a new kind of sex symbol, a broken boy for a newly confident and empowered girl. His anguish makes him volatile enough to keep things interesting but dependent enough that he will never be tempted to leave. He is weakened, and his fanbase likes feeling strong.