Twilight

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.

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14 Responses to Twilight

  1. Charlie says:

    a GODDAMNIT I AM SICK OF MEN BEING TAKEN MORE SERIOUSLY THAN WOMEN sort of place.

    On which note, you might be interested in this – not that it’s saying anything you don’t already know, but… http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2010/sep/02/publishers-ghettoise-women-writers-and-readers

    My “expertise” about Twilight consists entirely in having watched the first movie and read many an internet rant – i.e. I don’t really have any – but isn’t part of the problem people have with it to do with Bella’s absolute centring of her existence on her complete dependence on a man, without whom she is nothing? And the book’s confirmation of that perspective? That seems a long way from your other film where the heroine gets both love and a life of her own.

    • nowandrome says:

      isn’t part of the problem people have with it to do with Bella’s absolute centring of her existence on her complete dependence on a man, without whom she is nothing?

      I didn’t get the idea that Bella felt she was nothing without Edward from the film, myself, and this criticism seems to me like a misunderstanding of the romance genre: the absolute centre of the film‘s existence is Bella’s relationship with Edward, sure, because it’s a romance. The day I see a criticism of an action movie on the basis that the centre of the male lead’s existence is his ability to [catch criminals/steal jewels/etc], without which he is nothing), then I’ll start worrying about this.

      But I will admit that my reading of romance tends to be slightly skewed – students of mine have been a bit grumpy about my love of Twilight, because in their interpretive communities (to coin a phrase) the available readings have a much more heteronormative edge. Where I see the romance as the generic McGuffin which makes the awesomeness of Bella possible, they see the romance as actively normative in the sort of way you describe. So yeah, Bella is nothing without Edward – and to my studes, this has a punitive edge, whereas to me, it’s just the nature of the genre (Bruce Willis is nothing without Alan Rickman in Die Hard, Humphrey Bogart is nothing without the Maltese Falcon in The Maltese Falcon, Aragorn is nothing without the Ring, etc). But I don’t think that heteronormative, coercive/punitive edge is necessarily coded into the films, I think it comes from the conventions of the various reading communities that engage with the films – which means that making different and more awesome readings possible is a good thing. So I might be less evangelical about Twilight in a different context – if I saw any responses to it other than ‘It is BAD FOR GIRLS’, which seems to me to carry a subtext of ‘Because girls are TOO STUPID AND LITERAL-MINDED to read it in any other way than as a direct manual for life!’ (Often coming from people who I’m sure would be vocal in defence of their right to play, say, Grand Theft Auto without necessarily becoming more likely to go out and beat sex workers to death.)

      And thanks for the link, which I will use mercilessly as EVIDENCE for my many future rants about this!

  2. Charlie says:

    As Edward would say: “I love to watch you theorize.”

    I can’t see the words “interpretive communities” without a) wanting to change it to “interpretative communities” and b) being wafted back to the first time I read Is there a text in this class?, possibly the first occasion I fell in love with a theory book. So I see where you’re coming from. I’d been about to point out that there are plenty of movies and books based on the idea that a man’s inability to do more than catch criminals/diagnose obscure diseases/etc can make him an inadequate human being, but of course they aren’t usually action films, and your point about genre is an interesting one.

    I’m still not totally convinced, though. First, I’ve not read as many romances as you, but while of course they do centre on the romantic relationship, do many of them go as far as Twilight (is alleged to do) in endorsing the heroine’s view that that relationship is the only thing that gives her life any meaning or purpose, and something without which she might as well be dead? (The answer may be Yes – but in that case plenty of good books I’d thought of as romances probably aren’t.) As for Grand Theft Auto, while I don’t think that people who play it are individually very likely to go out and kill sex workers, I do find the idea of turning violence against women into entertainment disturbing and think that it contributes to a culture that treats women as less human than men. And I’d probably worry even more if fans of the game were being sold (at the equivalent of Claire’s Accessories) shirts and hats with “Team Whore Killer” on them.

    But the trickiest point is your list of examples: “Bruce Willis is nothing without Alan Rickman in Die Hard, Humphrey Bogart is nothing without the Maltese Falcon in The Maltese Falcon, Aragorn is nothing without the Ring.” I’ve not see The Maltese Falcon recently enough to comment on that, but sticking to the other examples I think they’re kind of ambiguous. For example, you could mean “nothing without” in terms of personal fulfilment: you could say of the Bruce Willis character that he’s washed up at the start of the film, and it requires Alan Rickman to give him the perfect opportunity to play to his personal strengths and rediscover himself. It’s a shame so many people have to die in the process, but hey, it’s quicker than therapy. Aragorn is already an impressive character when we first meet him – and even if he’s destined to dwindle into a king you couldn’t call him ‘nothing’ as Strider. But yeah, even with Aragorn you could argue that the fight against Sauron allows him to develop his potential in a way that 80 years as a Ranger hadn’t.

    But maybe you didn’t mean it in that psychological way. Maybe you meant that Bruce Willis is nothing without Alan Rickman (or Aragorn without the Ring) because without the latter in each case the generic demands of the story wouldn’t be fulfilled – a more structural kind of point?

    The reason I’m labouring this point is because, when we apply the phrase to Twilight and say that “Bella is nothing without Edward” I think there’s a danger of eliding these two meanings. Shifting the argument into one of genre (Bella is nothing without Edward because you can’t have a romance without a male lead, to put it crudely) tends to disguise the psychological reading (Bella is nothing without Edward because all her worth resides in her being desired by him). And that elision makes me uneasy.

    • nowandrome says:

      I think there’s a danger of eliding these two meanings.

      Well, what I was trying to say – and thanks for unpicking it so neatly – is that those two meanings in fact shade into one another: different acts of reading will realize the meanings differently. In the text itself, Bella is nothing without Edward (and Bruce without Alan) for the kind of generic-structural reasons you outline so succinctly there: Bella cannot be a romance heroine without a male lead, as Bruce cannot not an action hero without an antagonist. But genres carry worldviews with them – Philip Hardie (in his book on Virgil) says:

      The play of genres within the text is not simply an object for formalist analysis; a genre brings with it a way of looking at the world and a set of values, and to juxtapose different genres is at the same time to question the perspectives within which we judge moral and political issues.

      So in the romance genre, the ‘pure’ structuralist idea that the romance is the narrative shades into a set of values: in the universe of a romance-genre text, romance is centrally important to life, and romantic relationships are the most important thing. It’s in specific and contextualized acts of reading, I would argue, that readers negotiate the relationship between the romance genre worldview and their own worldview/their own sense of the world. So one reader might read (what I see as) the generic emphasis on the centrality of romance to life as actually meaning that Bella, as a human being, has no worth unless she is going out with a boy; another reader (like me!) might see the centrality of romance as purely generic, generating a set of highly pleasurable identifications and affects which aren’t necessarily embedded in heterosexual romance (and which don’t rule out other dimensions to life outside the narrow generic selection of things to focus on).

      But I think the main thing we’re actually at cross purposes about is this:

      Twilight (is alleged to…) … endors[e] the heroine’s view that that relationship is the only thing that gives her life any meaning or purpose, and something without which she might as well be dead

      As I said, I haven’t read the book, so I can’t comment on that – I’m talking purely about the films – and I didn’t see anything that implied Bella might as well be dead if she wasn’t with Edward in the first two films. So if you can give me some evidence for this reading, we can argue more about it, but at the moment, I just don’t know what you’re alluding to here: it’s not at all what I saw on the screen, so I can’t really say anything interesting in response to it.

      (Hello, by the way! I’m back in Bristol, but still in the workberg/having to go and visit family in Edinburgh for the next couple of weeks… will drop you a proper email soon.)

      • Charlie says:

        I can’t give you any evidence for that reading, not having read the books myself (nor particularly intending to), so that’s entirely anecdotal. I may run the reading past H, though, who I think has read one or two of them, to see if she thinks it’s fair comment.

        Anyway – yes! Drop me that line as soon as you’re free and we’ll meet up. I want to hear all about your adventures in the land of Veggie Might.

  3. Sarah AB says:

    Hello – I’m sorry I missed your conference – I would have liked to have attended but it clashed with my holiday. Your views on Twilight chime, to some extent, with mine. I loved the whole series – and ‘Host’ the sf novel which seems to have been slightly overlooked.

    Here’s something I wrote about Twilight – the comments are relevant to the series’ relationship with feminism. Lots of spoilers!

    http://www.adjb.net/sab/index.php?entry=entry081116-155737

    Also – isn’t Edward rather more wrapped up in Bella than is the norm for romantic heroes? In other words, isn’t the dependence a bit more mutual than is sometimes the case?

    • nowandrome says:

      Hello! And thanks for that blog post on Twilight – I like the wish fulfilment slant (and it’s awesome [and, as you say, kind of subversive] that the series ends that way – I hadn’t heard that at all, and I’m not reading the books, only watching the movies. But I like spoilers!)

      You are also really right about the mutual dependence – I hadn’t seen that at all, but it’s a very marked difference between Edward and his two inevitable-comparators, Heathcliff and Rochester, both of whom are involved with a bunch of women outside the core relationship (indeed both of them are married to other women, now I come to think of it), and both of whom have secret lives as well as strong narrative arcs about MONEY and SUCCESS. Whereas Edward really doesn’t seem to have much to do without Bella.

      And I’m sorry you didn’t make it to the conference, too – it would have been great to have your input – but I totally understand. (Even more so since I’m going to have to miss yours, which is so close to my own work and research interests, but in a fit of over-excitement when I submitted my book earlier this year I committed to six research events between now and Christmas, and I’m going to be hard pushed to stay afloat even without taking anything else on. Hopefully that will teach me to say no to things, and free myself up for the next thing you organize!)

      • Sarah AB says:

        That’s ok! But do mention the conference to anyone who might be interested or pass on details to me. But I know how time consuming conferences can be. WRT your point below – Twilight seems to position itself as an invitation to write Jacob/Edward slash!

  4. Liz says:

    Woohoo! Glad you’re back in blog form!

    I remain troubled by twilight, but enthused by your reading of Bella, and how plainly it reflects the shit choices girls get in a patriarchal society. My only experience has been watching the 3rd movie at midnight with a cinema full of teenage girls. en route to the movie I met a mum taking her 9 year old to the film and desperately tried to hide my mollification and moral outrage at the mum, imagining the film to be somewhere between Buffy and IDK, The Ring, or some other horror/thriller concoction. So I calmed down after the movie, but still uneasy about the whole twilight saga, because although at the end when Bella actually says something, it’s a fired up ‘i’ve finally found my people’ rant, palpable as a coming out story, but wholly dependent on getting married and personal sacrifice.
    I do like the werewolves when they are animals though. That gives me hope, somehow.

    • nowandrome says:

      Hello! Are you still blogging? I have no link to you currently!

      I’m interested to see where the rest of the Twilight story goes – I liked the second movie less than the first, though I did keep thinking how like a slash plot it was – not that there was any homoerotic desire that I noticed (for once), but just the way that slash traditionally takes action heroes and makes them physically wracked with desire, full of grief and love and pain and these HUGE emotions. Usually it’s up to women and amateurs and fans to write those things into stories, so I really enjoyed getting to see a pure angst plot played out on the big screen. And seeing a movie which didn’t just laugh at teenage girls for being so stupid as to think the pain of their breakups is real, but which said: wow, that really hurts! Wow, your feelings are HUGE! They are as HUGE AS THE SKY, they are LIFE AND DEATH, they are IMPORTANT AND WORLD-CONSUMING, they are EPIC, my God, you are such a hero for withstanding them, you are amazing, you are strong, you are brilliant, you can have what you want.

      (My Twilight really does seem to be way better than everybody else’s Twilight)

  5. inez b says:

    Ika! I love this post and the comments and the links, yours is the best description of the film ever (oh and may i add the music was also surprisingly good, for once not going for the crude emotives that i find often mar many an otherwise better film);- i recently watched Twilight # 1 twice, hardly believing what i saw the first time, saw what you said, not, after all, something stupid and girlie which i must have expected from hearing the echoes and distorted sounds of the cultural noise around this through my own feeling that massive phenomena like this never [can? do?] speak to my own fantasy life, or aesthetic and critical pleasures. Like you what i had heard did not match what i saw. So now i must Think Hard about that. And here’s my way in. Thanks.

  6. Sally M says:

    I admit, I failed to finish either the first Twilight or the first Potter book, they were not good enough nor nor entertainingly bad enough… the written Twilight is worse IMO (my real opinion of its target audience would probably get me in a lot of strife) but what the hell, Barbara Cartland made a fortune and a lifelong career out of a loweringly similar market… I don’t begrudge the writer her squillions or the readers their fun (I had several Aged Acqaintances who adored Cartland and the like – and even East Lynne – and have learned the hard way to respect people’s joy in stuff that makes my brain hurt.

    But the simple fact is, the writing is godawful. And I speak as someone who can giggle her way through old Mills and Boons 🙂

    I haven’t seen the films (other than a small amount of one of the HP ones on an international flight, and I wasn’t alive enough to judge 🙂 From what you say, the script must have been a VAST improvement on the book. Which happens, yes 🙂

    • nowandrome says:

      have learned the hard way to respect people’s joy in stuff that makes my brain hurt.

      [g] One of the hard lessons that fandom teaches us! I suspect I won’t be able to make it through the prose of the Twilight novels either – I do love a good sentence. But I thought the film adaptation was just marvellous (there are a few, like you say, that improve on the books. The HP films are better than the books, too, though at least in part for two simple reasons: [a] they are shorter and [b] ALAN RICKMAN.)

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