God, it’s been so hard to figure out how to start this, but let’s try. Ok, how about this?
Reading the Twilight series has been like slowing down to gawk at a string of car wrecks, only–like thispo/pro-ana websites, like the skeletal thinning down of the “new” 90210 and Sweet Valley High–the wreck is American girlhood.
Sometimes I think I only stay sane by avoiding 90% of American popular culture. I accept that the world is full of hackmo schmackmo bad fiction, bad young adult lit, and bad young adult lit that gets sold and made into movies, I just don’t need to know about it.
The Twilight series sets itself apart because it has developed a massive cult following of teen girls—plus their moms. Millions and millions of books sold. Harry Potter-like levels of obsessive fans.
And yet the books themselves are utterly undistinguished in terms of plot, character, concept and execution—notable only as a beacon-like example of the mediocre being the enemy of the good. So why are they so popular?
What makes Twilight so painful to me, so disturbing and so notable, is that the overwhelming success of these books, the lame desires it celebrates, holds a mirror up to both a yearning currently alive in young women—and the dreary, damaging time in American sexual culture that creates and feeds this yearning.
For a terrific summary of the series, Laura Miller’s Salon article.
But the basics: high school junior Bella Swan moves in with her dad in the rural town of Forks. At school, she meets Edward Cullen, a gorgeous vampire who lives with a coven of “moral” vampires: they have trained themselves to sustain their needs on animals, not human blood. Despite her ordinariness, Bella’s blood possesses something magical for Edward. She smells utterly amazing to him—a once in a lifetime smell!—like the finest bouquet of the finest bottle of wine!–he desires desperately to eat her. But as a resolutely moral vampire, he won’t.
Bella finds herself dazzled by his beauty and morality (note: in this world, “beauty” = “pretty.” “Morality”‘s equation is similarly obvious.). But more than his beauty, Edward’s desire for Bella makes him unutterably desirable to her, as a carnivorous plant smells like sugar to its prey.
Out of this mutual hunger, they fall in love. Eternal lasting forever-type totally cliché love.
Things can’t ever get too sexy between them, because he’ll either lose control and eat her, or fuck her to death (her human body can’t handle vampire sex). She wants him to transform her into a vampire right away (so she won’t be eternally “older looking” than him, given that he had been “changed” at 17). Also, she wants to be a vampire so they can have vampire sex and also be forever eternally linked and in love blah blah blah.
This, essentially, drives the entire four book series.
For months, director and friend Ellen Sebastian Chang has been trying to hip me to this girl phenomenon. Her mother, who lives in the part of Washington State in which the novels are set, had sent her the books. As Ellen read them for the first time, trying to understand their pulse, she sensed something odd…
“Were these written by a Christian fundamentalist?” Ellen asked her mother, to which mom replied:
“Oh no. Much worse. A Mormon.”
Oh yes. And you want to know what’s even worse? A 34-year old Mormon mother of 3 who says these books are like foreplay for her.
The Puritan quality of American fundamentalism courses through the book. The “good” vampires with their heroic self-denial. The vampire body as a paeans to the Mormon obsession with whiteness–gloriously, perfectly marble-like sculpted beings who need to live in grey cloudy places because sunshine makes them glitter like beautiful dazzly diamonds.
Eternal sealing and bonding (as a marriage metaphor). Masturbation and real wet sexual desire and drinking among teenagers? Doesn’t exist. Sex is never explicitly referred to, which is rather Victorian. The series even makes excruciating, self-important references to Wuthering Heights, where Bella compares herself to Catherine (AS! IF!).
This “Victorian” quality leads to the one element of the writing in which I actually take some pleasure. Author Stephanie Meyer does manage to capture the breathless, potent dizziness of initial teenage sexual experiences.
The “oh my God he’s kissing my neck I’m going to die” moment. The first time you feel that the entire outside world has completely disappeared, and the points of contact–lips, hands, breath–are all that exist. The intoxicating new power when you don’t just feel desire, you feel desirable. The pleasure that exists when you don’t even know what to want next, even though your body is telling you it wants something.
Caitlin Flanigan writes persuasively about just this element of Twilight—she believes the books capture the complexity of adolescent female desire in that juicy, frightening moment in between girlhood and womanhood; she also, quite movingly, describes how it felt to have those particular memories stirred in her, her yearning for the “romantic charge” of her teen years that the series triggered within her.
But Flanigan writes about such things more beautifully and provocatively than the source material she’s quoting, which is why I’m afraid I have to respectfully disagree with her. Flanigan breathlessly compares elements of the book to Jane Eyre and Rebecca, describing Bella as a heroine of the old fashioned Victorian mold: she reads and is good in school and is a brave, nice person and a model of domestic housewifeliness.
Yes, the glamour and romance of first love abounds in Twilight. But the hack rollercoaster of Twilight is closer in quality to the film treatment summary writing style of The Da Vinci Code than Jane Eyre; and Bella, our narrator, has none of the complexity, pluck, insight or intelligence of a good old-fashioned Victorian or Edwardian heroine.
Bella isn’t especially strong, observant, witty, brave, independent or adventurous. She’s a bland American smart girl. She doesn’t seem to learn, or see, or yearn for self-improvement. Her feelings aren’t complex. She falls in love. Bang. Done. Eternal. Nothing more.
If anything, though the book captures some of the raw emotion of teenage girlhood, it only captures the blandest, lamest, most tedious and most ignorant of the teen girl mentality. And extols the most shallow, infantilizing view of love there is.
Bella’s relationship with Edward, this “eternal love” that acts as the engine of the series, lacks anything notable, admirable, sexy, or interesting. He’s smug and superior and does what’s best for her, she gets all pissed about it but then accepts that he only wants what’s best for her. Their conflicts have all the banality of made-up teenage interpersonal drama.
Her relationship with Jacob, a best friend who turns out to be (whoopsie!) a werewolf, has far more depth and heat and humanity. But of course, at the end, even though she loves Jacob, it isn’t like the way she feels for her pretty vampire.
Which would be ok, I guess, if it was coming from a teenage writer. But it isn’t. It’s coming from a grown woman. And this is her fantasy. And it is the fantasy of not only teenage girls reading it, but their mothers, who make up a big percentage of the fan base.
If I haven’t made myself clear, the books are an excruciating read, like biting on a cold sore.
There’s a scene where Edward and Bella are arguing over whether it would be in her best interest to become a vampire. She goes to his house and gets his coven sitting around the dining table and says something like, “ok, like, I want to become a vampire and Edward thinks I’ll be missing out on like, human life and stuff, so, we’re going to have a vote, and if you all want me to be a vampire, then Edward has to make me one, k?” She turns what could potentially be a momentous decision that ripples with consequences into her very own student body president elections.
In Twilight, the most complex feelings of adolescence are rendered safe and obvious. We know it’s going to be a happy ending! All close shaves end up well. Edward and his coven pose utterly no danger. The entire series renders the vampire itself neuter.
But the vampire is a Victorian artifact—the mythic embodiment of people’s deepest fears and darkest inner demons (meaning, desires)–it has been reinvented hundreds of times over the past 150 years to reflect the monster of the moment, from a rainbow of deviant sexualities—to ferocious bloodthirsty viciousness—to rampant diseases—to bestial lack of control.
Never has the monster been rendered so utterly safe—hence pointless—as in Twilight. Yes, there are evil bloodthirsty vampires in the world of the series, but our knowledge of the vampires is as a coven of beautiful beings with somewhat questionable desires they keep under control so they can live a happy peaceful life. Like Christians. Utterly neutered, like the 1970s Castro of the movie Milk.
The danger of Twilight’s vampires are never real enough—the desire never means enough. So the stakes never feel important.
The entire series never feels like anything more than a teenage girl making a big deal out of nothing. When something feels like a big deal vs. when it is a big deal vs. when it actually isn’t a big deal–when something is a rule or limit vs. when it isn’t really that important–switches around so easily, so conveniently, so capriciously, that it quickly becomes the little boy who cried wolf and I have a hard time believing in the stakes of any of it.
So. We are left with shallow, cliched ideas of love, a mediocre heroine and a neutered vampire, in a world which lacks true stakes.
I believe all of it is responsible for the book’s huge appeal.
The appeal seems to be that there’s this girl who is nothing special. Not her looks, not her personality, not her brain. She’s ok, she’s not a zero, boys like her fine, she’s really good in school, but she’s nothing special at all. And yet, she just innately has something about her that makes her utterly, utterly, desirable to this impossibly dreamy boy, who desires her more than he’s ever desired anything in his long, eternal life.
She wants him too, now, and even though she wants him badly, no matter what, he respects her too much to want to corrupt her in any way. So they don’t have sex, because he’s too much of a gentleman to possibly risk her in any way, even though, no worries ladies! He totally totally desires her.
As Miller’s Salon article perceptively notes, Bella is more of a bland placeholder for the reader than a character. And the experience the reader gets to have, is a girl who is nothing special living a totally cliched easy non-confrontational vision of true eternal love.
It’s the world’s reward for what women should want, with all the dangerous parts removed.
The Twilight world is a world where you will avoid nasty sexual exploitation–by beings saved. You will still base your life and happiness around male approval and desire–but at least, without being barraged by totally unrealistic and damaging ideas of what the female body and the sexy female body should be. You get to abandon yourself to sexual desire and being adored, desired, loved and worshipped–but the man will protect you not only from him, but from yourself! And none of it requires work or practice or training.
Where is the independence? Where is the curiosity? Where is the woman as adventurer? What kind of a heroine is this, what kind of a message, what kind of satisfaction?
But also, where is sex as something exciting and beautiful and healthy, something to learn about negotiating? Or where is the real risk about sex, emotionally and physically?
All I see in the appeal of the Twilight books is exhaustion, an escape from the wretched expectations, the shallow pool that women are expected to float in these days. But it does so in a lazy way, not a heroic way.
And I guess girls just finish these books, sigh, and go back to fantasizing about it in between their tween bikini waxes and Pilates classes.