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Against Depression and Against Kristen Stewart’s “Extreme” Comments

November 19, 2009

In the upcoming blockbuster The Twilight Saga: New Moon, the character Bella Swan responds to heartbreak with deep, prolonged despondence, nighttime fits of screaming, and a desperate trip to Italy to protect her beloved Edward Cullen from danger. When recently asked about this plot element, Kristen Stewart offered some advice to Twilight fans based on her character’s example.

“Be extreme,” Stewart said. “Go for it. I think that’s the point. I know that this is a movie about immortality and mortality but, like, you live once.”

OK, so I get that part of what she’s saying here is “carpe diem” and “no regrets” and all that motivational poster stuff. Follow the one you love to the ends of the earth and, like, do anything to help him when he needs you. I suppose that, assuming their parents will buy them the plane ticket to Italy, emulating some of Bella’s actions could actually enhance Twilight fans’ love lives.

But now let’s consider Kristen Stewart’s entire “be extreme” idea in the context of her character’s overwrought disposition AND the rabid devotion of Twilight’s millions of teenage fans. When I do so, I shudder at Stewart’s dangerously mindless and irresponsible words. She is plainly linking her character’s major depression to the idea of “going for it” that she holds up to be admired and emulated.

I read Peter Kramer’s book Against Depression a couple of years ago as part of the process of finally coming to terms with, and seeking treatment for, the mood disorder that had weighed down my life since I was about the age of the average Twilight fan. Kramer’s book completely destroyed the one positive, but utterly illusory, quality I had assigned to my own susceptibility to bouts of depressed mood. Against Depression showed me the hollowness and falsehood of the beliefs that having a mood disorder made me more cognitively or emotionally developed, that I was seeing the “truth” about life all the way down to its sad, dark core, and that depression was the Windex on my psychological and spiritual window to the world. Wrong, wrong, and wrong again.

Along with its straightforward summation of the latest research on depression’s neurophysiological and psychological origins and effects, harshly critiquing our culture’s tendency to romanticize mood disorders is Against Depression’s greatest contribution to the public discourse. The idea that depression is a heroic, ennobling, empowering struggle that leads to great insight is a dead wrong—and deadly wrong—notion. Kramer’s argument to the contrary is simple: depression is no more and no less than a significant, highly destructive health problem that must be treated with individualized, comprehensive therapy programs. You know, treated like the disease that it is.

Are diabetes patients deeper and more soulful because of their illness? Does Crohn’s disease make you more emotionally evolved? If you develop cancer shortly after you suffer heartbreak or grief, is that an understandable or acceptable outcome that you should “go for”? To all three of these rhetorical, absurd-on-their-face questions, the clear answer is, “No, of course not.” Responding to and coping with these diseases can give you wisdom and perspective, but the diseases themselves do not make you who you are. In that sense, depression is absolutely no different from those other major diseases, nor should it be presented as such.

And yet, that’s the idea that Kristen Stewart’s “extreme” comments threaten to reinforce in the minds of millions of adolescents who absorb Twilight content like sponges and regard the Bella/Edward melodrama as a romantic ideal. I cringe at the thought of Twilight fans suffering needlessly because “that’s what Bella did, and she did it for love.”

I know most teenagers are smarter than most adults give them credit for, but I also suspect that, more than they’d like to believe, they’re easily swayed by information (both good and bad) from sources they deem credible. For better or worse, Kristen Stewart now has an abundance of that credibility among her adolescent fans. I wish I could believe that those fans will disregard Stewart when she’s touting  her character’s mood disorder as an attractive “lifestyle choice,” or when she’s idealizing clinical depression as something special and spiritually pure that people will—and should—feel when they find “true love” or “the one” and then lose it all.

But for the most part, I don’t believe Twilight fans will reject her comments, and therefore Kristen Stewart’s misguided ideas could cause harm, however indirect it may be. So I hope someone calls her out and shames her into doing an anti-suicide PSA or a NARSAD fundraiser. Stewart should be using her ample cultural capital to help young people, rather than pointing to a potentially ruinous path and telling them to “go for it.”

3 Comments
  1. Jay St. Orts permalink
    November 19, 2009 8:09 pm

    I don’t think I need to say anything. If we were in the same room, I’d give you the nod.

    • Matt Shorr permalink*
      November 19, 2009 8:57 pm

      Another fantastic post: poignant, personal, well-constructed, and wonderfully relevant. This one deserves a lot of hits.

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