Long after reading the books and watching the movies, I’m still thinking about Twilight’s reception. I’m not as concerned with the popularity of the films and their teen idols as I am with the utter contempt Twilight evokes in non-fans. Why is it that this latest vampire franchise draws such scorn?
I get a lot of eye rolling when I mention Twilight. Even though I don’t begin conversations with, “Team Edward or Team Jacob?” Though I have participated in that debate. Not in terms of Robert Pattinson v. Taylor Lautner, but in thinking about how our love stories privilege wealthy white men from the so-called first world over poor indigenous men of color, and about how that fictional bias speaks to our unexamined assumptions and beliefs. Twilight actually makes for engaging conversation.
Beyond analyses of the class and racial stereotypes lurking in popular American fiction and culture, however, I’m comfortable admitting that I like Stephenie Meyer’s books. I like the love story(ies), the plot’s action and the inaction of angst, the happily forever after. It’s ok to like the familiar, the predictable. And just as a good book doesn’t have to be Moby Dick, not every film has to be one of Wes Anderson’s.
So what’s so offensive about Twilight?
Twilight’s characters champion teen abstinence, but not in an aggressively rightist (or rightest) way. In the series, vampire Edward Cullen resists girlfriend Bella Swan’s sexual advances for fear of jeopardizing her soul. Which is understandable for a vampire who’s had time to reflect on the immortality of the soul and the soulless, who is also a 100-year-old man informed by early 20th century American values. There’s no condemnation or proselytizing in Edward’s gallantry, and historians would dismiss judging a real-life Edward by today’s standards as presentism.
Rather than promoting abstinence only, Twilight makes much of the sensuality of desire. Even before Robert Pattinson, Edward’s character was sexy. He’s a statuesque body (Bella describes him as carved marble – so Michelangelo’s David?) and a seasoned intellect (he’s attended ivy league universities for decades – so also Rodin’s Thinker?). He’s a sensitive man, literally a mind reader. He’s a hunter who, like the epic Greek hero Heracles, conquers lions. He’s at once an attentive, patient lover and also beautiful, forbidden, and dangerous.
And as it defies dominant coven, family, and high school expectations, Edward and Bella’s relationship insists on choice as much as it bows to social norms. Popular America thrills to sexuality as much as freedom, so Edward and Bella’s relationship probably isn’t Twilight’s great offense.
I think that Twilight’s antagonizing reception speaks to a larger issue: a lasting if quiet assumption that young girls, like their mothers, lack sophisticated aesthetic and intellectual sensibilities.
As a culture, we laugh at girls because they giggle. And because they love Justin Beiber. And we mock mothers for being, well, moms. Mothers, especially stay at homers, tend to fixate on our children. And on what we feed them. And on how we craft activities and a home for them. And then, en masse, we talk and post and blog about our fixations until we irritate the hell out of anyone who will listen or read.
But it’s cruel and condescending to mock children’s easy joy and early crushes, and mothers’ easy fascinations with children, motherhood, and homemaking.
Still, we do. When girls and their mothers thrill to a story or celebrity idol, we roll our eyes and sneer. Of course it’s fine to dislike a book or a film or a celebrity. But the popular recoil at mere mention of Twilight is telling. This response is as much to the audience as to the art.
Popular disdain for Twilight is a commentary on me – or at least the version of me I’m expected to be: a woman, ruled by sentiment, prone to frivolities. A women, purveyor of romantic novels and soap operas and other “low” arts. Or, disdain for Twilight criticizes me for exhibiting some aspect of the above stereotype when I should instead break free from gendered expectation and showcase my leftist feminist intellectualism. Whatever that means. Either way, contempt for Twilight and its audience exposes a lingering contempt for women’s sensibilities, real or imagined.
It often seems that reading books is becoming an art about as lost as calligraphy. Franchises like Twilight and The Hunger Games help (re)popularize reading – carefully critical considerations, powerfully cathartic experiences, and just curl up with a good story kind of readings. They also offer a chance to read and learn from our responses to art and to each other.
I like that girls and their mothers can share an infatuation. I like easy joy and laughter. And passions for people and ideas. I like books. And desire. I like Twilight.