So I was very excited the other day to find a Twilight (hello, by the way, I know it’s been a long time, things have been complicated and busy on multiple fronts lately) badge that just showed Bella on her own – I am kind of in love with Kristen Stewart’s Bella, and it’s been an ongoing source of discussion with one of my MA students, who’s a Twilight fan, that it’s very hard to get merchandise that just shows Bella without either Edward or Jacob. All of which reminded me that Twilight is a prime example of something I mentioned in passing in my paper for the Desiring the Text conference back in July: the way that just being the object of desire in teenage girls is enough to dismiss a cultural phenomenon. (This has been talked about in relation to Twilight here, for example.) So, in Harry Potter and the Twilight series we have two massively popular, badly-written and politically conservative/problematic series of books with an associated film franchise, a vocal fandom, and a multimillion dollar spin-off merchandising series: but one of them has a boy hero and is about WAR and EVIL and DEATH, and when we talk about it we all have to put on serious faces and say things like It gets children READING, don’t you care about children READING?* or It is comparable to DOSTOEVSKY in its epic scope and literary merit. And the other one has a girl hero and is about LOVE and FEELINGS, and when we talk about it we all have to say things like rabid, hysterical, obsessed, ravenous, fevered, mad.
And this makes me furious. (It also, by the way, makes me fall more and more in love with Roland Barthes, who said ‘It is never a good thing to speak against a little girl’, and who insisted that erotic passion and hysteria were the drivers of all reading practices.) It’s particularly interesting and infuriating to me, I think, because it comes at a time when my feminism is moving away from a kind of queer/genderqueer interest in cross-gendered and multi-gendered identifications and more into a GODDAMNIT I AM SICK OF MEN BEING TAKEN MORE SERIOUSLY THAN WOMEN sort of place. (Of course, the point is that in the culture I live in, a kind of giant, coarse-grained misogyny and sexism coexists with complicated, multiple and fine-grained lived experiences of gender, and that’s where it all gets interesting: but more and more at the moment, what’s striking me is the erasure and deletigimization of women and of all things coloured ‘girly’.)
So… I don’t know. The only thing I ever hear about Twilight is that it’s terrible and sexist and anti-sex and trains girls into accepting abusive relationships and Edward is a stalker and isn’t it terrible that he’s depicted as some kind of romantic hero, which did not AT ALL prepare me for the first movie, in which the incredibly beautiful and emo heroine, who wears a red flannel shirt and drives a massive truck, slouches unsmilingly and moodily into a high school like a butch girl James Dean and refuses to play any of the girly Mean-Girl games that every high-school movie ever has prepared me to expect, to the extent that she slouches out of a prom-dress try-on session with her reluctantly-acquired friends in order to go to the bookstore. (And, and, the prom-dress-trying-on friends are not femme-bashed as superficial, stupid, or psychopathically cruel and consciously responsible for the culture of gender-policing, as they also would be in the Mean Girls genre.) And when her boyfriend is all like Oh Bella I cannot control myself I will HURT YOU in some way because of my UNCONTROLLABLE DESIRES she just goes: Oh ffs, Edward, do you love me? Okay then DON’T HURT ME, you idiot. Your desires are perfectly controllable, it’s completely simple, now let’s go climb a tree with your AWESOME VAMPIRE POWERS! and Edward goes: Okay! and they go off and have a brilliant time together.
And then! In the second movie! A heroine who is all alienated and fucked-up and alternately physically wracked by emotion and out-of-touch with her own emotions to the extent that she can only access them by increasingly dangerous physical pursuits like MOTORBIKE RIDING and JUMPING OFF CLIFFS!
So I guess one of the things about Twilight is that it has made me think about how rarely I get to see those plots played out with female leads, on female bodies, and more generally how narrow the range of stories is that our culture allows to be told about women. (We also recently saw a movie – and damn if I can remember what it was, annoyingly – where the woman gets rewarded at the end with heterosexual happiness as a sort of bonus/afterthought to her success in a completely non-romantic narrative, and I really think it was the first time I’d ever seen it: male leads get it the whole time – save the world! get the girl! – but female leads tend to have to CHOOSE between CAREER and LOVE.) It was genuinely ground-breaking, to me, and that makes me interested in the massive gap between what I see in the films and what I keep hearing is in the films. I wonder how much of it is our cultural trashing of romance as a genre, or how much of it is only being able to see one of the permissible plots about women in a movie which seems to me to be doing something else, instead or as well.
*Pleasingly, this particular meme seems to be dying down – it was never actually true; the books were read by, proportionally, fewer and fewer children as they became more and more part of adult pop-culture, and most of the research shows that reading Harry Potter did not have a knock-on effect. The link I have there is to ‘research’ carried out by Waterstones, and is not to be taken very seriously.