Why I Love Bella Swan, Part 2: Anti-girl antifandom

Part one is here.

In this post, I’m going to talk about Twilight antifandom, and the ways in which a particular discourse about the books is complicit with deep-rooted misogynist aspects of our culture. In the third and last post in this series, I’m going to finish up by telling you how I read the books, what I think is valuable about them, and why I would like to see that reading more widely shared.

Twilight is a series of novels by women, about women, for women.* The first film adaptation had (prior to the opening of Fifty Shades of Grey), the highest-grossing opening weekend by a female director. Stephenie Meyer, the author of the books, went on to produce a film called Austenland, based on a novel by another female author, directed by a woman, and with women-only advance screenings and premieres. In 2014, Meyer launched a competition, in partnership with Women in Film, to help five aspiring female filmmakers to make short films based on the Twilight Saga together with an all-female panel of mentors including Meyer, Catherine Hardwicke (the director of Twilight), the actors Kristen Stewart, Kate Winslet and Octavia Spencer, Jennifer Lee (the writer and co-director of Frozen) and Cathy Schulman, the president of Women in Film.

So why isn’t Twilight already being generally celebrated as a massive win for women?

Well, first off, Twilight is aimed at, and largely enjoyed by, teenage girls. This is, in itself, often enough to devalue a cultural product. This point is hammered home in a fantastic 1999 essay on girls’ fandom and Titanic, by Melanie Nash and Martti Lahti. The essay  shows how the production team’s official discourse about Titanic tries to distance the film from its own fanbase, in a bid for more critical acclaim and higher cultural status: the director, Cameron, said that DiCaprio didn’t get an Oscar nomination for the film ‘because of his teen-idol image’

implicitly blaming the fans who made the film so popular for its star’s devaluation in the Academy’s eyes… Many critics equate Titanic’s commercial popularity with a lack of depth in DiCaprio’s performance and link this to girls’ tastes.

(Nash & Lahti, p.72)

Nash and Lahti go on to write:

Indeed it is the very few roles in DiCaprio’s oeuvre that girl fans really love that are consistently singled out for disparagement by the actor and the press alike. (p.74)

This very much goes for Twilight, too: Catherine Strong’s excellent essay on Twilight antifandom is entitled ‘It sucked because it was written for teenage girls’ (pdf link), which is a quote from an anti-fan site: another typical comment from an antifan is

Pretty much the only people who can enjoy Twilight exist solely within its target audience [teenage girls], which pushes it basically as close to worthless as it can go. (Strong, p.9)

Girls like it, so it must be worthless. I can’t help thinking here of the way that films marketed for teenage boys are basically mainstream (cf every blockbuster movie from the last ten years) – and criticisms of the Harry Potter books were immediately countered with ‘But they get kids reading!’ Sometimes it was ‘kids’; sometimes it was specifically ‘boys’.

(Have you ever seen anyone defend the Twilight books because they get girls reading? Me neither.)

In general, Strong points out (citing the cultural theorist Pierre Bourdieu):

cultural items associated with women are often at the bottom of the cultural “pecking order”. Romance novels, soap operas, and pop music are labels that are often used as a shorthand for “bad” culture, yet they also have a tendency to have women as their main audience. (p.2)

What’s being smuggled in here, and what particularly irritates me as a reception scholar, is a model of female consumption as fundamentally passive. Strong talks about the ‘hypodermic model’ of media reception which ‘suggests an audience has a message injected into their minds’ (p. 3). The idea that the media are capable of conveying a message directly into the unresisting minds of their audience has never been borne out by empirical research (see, for example, the essays collected in the first couple of sections of Brooker & Jermyn’s The Audience Studies Reader)…

… but more to the point, the idea that a cultural production is bad because it ‘sends a bad message’ is a criticism that’s overwhelmingly used for cultural productions aimed at women and girls. “Sends a bad message to girls” has 25,700 Google hits; “sends a bad message to boys” has

no really, guess how many

eight.*

(not eight thousand)

eight.

This is also to do with genre, and the associations between romance and femininity/femaleness. If you Google Harry Potter “sends a bad message”, pretty much all the hits are saying “it doesn’t send a bad message”, and the majority of them are in fact about Twilight sending a bad message. So most of the top hits are arguing that ‘Kids aren’t going to drop out of school because Harry did!’ – as if this was self-evidently a ridiculous model of reading and human behaviour. But we seem to be really convinced that girls are definitely going to romanticize abusive human men because of certain details of Bella’s relationship with, let me remind you, A VAMPIRE.

As Melissa Click points out in another excellent essay on the gendered politics of Twilight fandom, feminists have been talking about the denigration of girl culture since 1978, when McRobbie and Garber published a critique of subculture scholarship

which they suggest positioned boys as resistive to mainstream culture and rarely discussed girls at all… Scholars continue to fight the persistent cultural assumption that male-targeted texts are authentic and interesting, while female-targeted texts are schlocky and mindless – and further that men and boys are active users of media while girls are passive consumers.

When I was preparing this talk, the very excellent Jessie Hunt of the Feminist Society at UOW sent me a link to this interview with Lauren Adkins, the ‘Twilight fan who married a cardboard cutout of Robert Pattinson’. She did this as a performance art piece, which in turn was part of an advanced degree – an MFA – reflecting on and interrogating questions about girls’ reading practices, romantic attachments to fictional characters, and so on. And it’s always reported as if she was a totally uncritical, naive, Edward-Cullen-loving fangirl.

Our culture – our white heteropatriarchal/kyriarchal culture – really wants to keep telling this story about girls, even when it is clearly not true: that they are uncritical, naive and vulnerable readers. I don’t think we should keep helping it out.

So, look. For me, if you hate Twilight  – if you have rage at it or it triggers you or it puts you in a position that you find untenable as a reader and a woman – I respect the hell out of that. I respect it, in part, because I find the books emotionally very powerful, too: I read the saga for the first time when I was grieving my dad’s death and I found its descriptions of grief and loss enormously resonant. So I can imagine that it might resonate with other people in other, less healing, ways. What I respect less is if you are saying that you hate Twilight on other people’s behalf : if you hate it because it ‘sends a bad message to girls’.

Other girls, of course. Not you. Stupid girls. Passive girls. Teenage girls. You’re not like that. How could you be? You hate Twilight.

All I’m saying is that you can hate Twilight – and you might be doing so for really good reasons – but you don’t have to justify that by doing other women down.***

Next up, in Part Three, you will finally find out why I love Bella Swan!

*which means that my default setting is to be on its side

*For the record, the eight (EIGHT) things in the world that send a bad message to boys are:

the routine circumcision of male babies

Disney’s Beauty and the Beast

Star Wars

using the words ‘bitches’ and ‘hoes’ to mean ‘women’

something – maybe taking cheerleaders to the prom? – I can’t find it on the page

girls scoring more points than boys in flag football (I don’t know what this means)

Mako flip flopping openly between Korra and Asami (I really don’t know what this means)

lingerie football

***Here’s an interesting thing: the critiques of Twilight’s racism I’ve seen mainly stick to analysis of the text; they talk about representation, about the techniques Meyer uses, about the stereotypes she draws on. Some of them talk also about the economics and the cultural politics of the text’s circulation. None of them talk about the ‘messages’ the text is sending, and none of them frame the readers of the text as vulnerable or passive. I Googled “sends a bad message to black people” and “sends a bad message to white people”, out of interest: “black people” gets two hits (affirmative action and Confederate flags); “white people” gets zero. Interestingly, though, race inverts gender here, so “sends a bad message to black men” gets three hits  – black men are even more vulnerable than black people – and “sends a bad message to black women” gets none, as do “… to black boys” and “… to black girls” (backing up the idea that our culture’s notion of vulnerable “childhood” is specifically white). (“white men/boys” and “white women/girls” still get none, of course.)

The things that send a bad message to black men are Zimmerman being found not guilty, and the family court system (two hits for the same thing there).

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