With the release of Breaking Dawn (the film), strong feelings about the Twilight series have once again risen back to the fore on blogs and discussion forums. Now, though, there’s a backlash against the backlash. A metabacklash, if you will. The inimitable Holly Black has her finger on the pulse of an interesting argument, as always.
This got me thinking, as appears to be inevitable. I’ve had a Twilight post fermenting in my brain for some time, and while it’s only tangentially related to Black’s post, now seems as good a time as any to write about it.
For those with short attention spans, or who fake a migraine any time I talk about art, I’ll cut right to the thesis: I don’t like Twilight, but I still think Twilight is art, maybe even good art. Unfeminist or not, modelling bad relationships or not, it has its place and it isn’t going to ruin kids who read it.
All righty then! Those of you intrepid enough to follow me into my Labyrinth of Argument, I’ll meet you under the fold!
Let’s just be clear what I mean when I say Twilight is art. I don’t mean Meyer is a particularly brilliant crafter of sentences. She’s not. This has been abundantly documented. I would say, however, that she writes exactly as well as she needs to to accomplish her purpose. Art is not and should not be exclusively the domain of highly trained master crafters. She’s like folk art or punk rock.
(Apologies to Punk Rock, btw. I don’t mean she shares your aesthetic or political bad-assness; I meant merely to draw a parallel with other art movements that value tapping into raw, unrefined emotions. See next paragraph.)
Skilled artisan or not, her singular talent is an ability to tap directly into her own emotions. I was talking with a friend about this yesterday, and she compared it to Stephen King: King is able to distil pure human horror and mainline it directly to the reader. No analytical middleman, no flinching or punches pulled. He turns on the spigot and out it runs, his amygdala to yours.
I would argue that Meyer does that too, but not with fear. She taps straight into yearning.
Who doesn’t yearn? Only dead people, I suspect. I don’t think it’s mysterious at all that these books are popular, or that people find problems with Twilight once they stop feeling it and start thinking about it.
There are those of us who prefer our art to percolate emotions through ideas. There’s nothing wrong with taking the emotion straight up every once and a while, but generally a mix of ideas makes a more satisfying brew. In fact, until someone finds a way to shoot us up with neurochemicals, the artist can’t just give us pure emotion; art is always going to have some ideas mixed in. Even music, which is about as close as one can get to a purely emotional experience, is made up of ideas, even if it’s hard to articulate them in words.
This, I suspect, is where Meyer falls down. She’s got all this emotion, this Big Yearning, but she can’t regurgitate it directly into your mouth like a mother gull. She has to use a medium, and she’s chosen the most idea-oriented medium of all: words. As she pours that emotion out onto the page, it’s going to drag a lot of ideas along with it, whether she chooses to or not.
What do we know about ideas we don’t consciously choose? That’s right. They’re often knee-jerk ideas.
So all this criticism, calling the book misogynist and anti-feminist and reflective of rape culture – it’s not wrong. Those things are present (and need to be criticized) just like they’re present in all of us when we’re reacting and not thinking. This criticism raises some important questions, though: do these books do positive harm? Are they teaching impressionable young women that stalking equals romance, danger/abuse equals love, and passivity and virginity are the highest virtues?
My response to this is twofold. First, I think it’s kind of a chicken-and-egg problem. Girls who read these books are already immersed in the culture these books fail to criticize. That may be part of the attraction of the books. If it’s teaching them to want bad relationships, it’s not teaching them anything they didn’t already know. Certainly Twilight didn’t create our culture. It is an uncritical product of our culture, just like lots and lots of other things. Let’s criticize it, let’s talk about it and bring it into the light, but I don’t see the books themselves as some kind of corrupting influence in that sense.
Second — well, for this we’re going to have to travel back in time, to the mists of Rachel’s misspent youth! Ready? Here we go!
Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I lived in a highly repressive household. Oh, we weren’t repressive about everything – if you wanted to talk about ideas (or art!) then have at it! – but we never, ever, no not EVER, talked about sex. No, no, that was too coarse and base and dirty to contemplate. It was probably necessary for the continuation of the species, but WE were above such considerations.
Except, of course, when one hits puberty, at which point one suddenly isn’t. I was a normal – okay, no, manifestly NOT normal. I was a teenager. I had normal, teenagery feelings and no one to talk to about them.
What did I do? I turned to the place where everyone seemed to be talking about sex, all the time. I turned to popular music.
It was more of an ordeal than it should have been. I could only listen when no one else was home. I would scrupulously turn the radio dial back to NPR when I was done, so no one could tell I had been listening. It was a SEEKRIT, and it was something I needed. Here were all these people feeling the things I felt and saying the things I could not say. It made me feel like that much less of a freak.
It was the 80s. Who was speaking my language on popular radio? Hair bands.
That’s right. Hair bands. Not exactly known for promoting good relationships or feminist values. Here’s an old favourite. When I hear it, I am thirteen again, and I have a crush on… well. None of your beeswax. The point is, I hear the song and I still feel that, even though I am now nearly forty and my taste in music has (mostly) improved. But seriously, watch the video: there are feral 80s women in cages, I kid you not.
It’s crap. It’s beautiful. It’s got yearning in spades and a total dearth of challenging ideas.
Most significantly: it didn’t ruin me. It spoke to me when I needed to hear someone saying… whatever the hell it’s saying. I wanna touch you? However embarrassing that is, that’s what I needed right then. When I need to tap into what it was like to be that age and feel that way – when I’m writing romantic scenes, for example – sometimes I still go back to it. Will people read my work or look at my life and say OMG, this is what comes of listening to hair bands?
Well, they might NOW, now that I’ve confessed.
It’s not wrong to yearn. It’s not wrong to let art make you feel things. That’s part of what art is for. Sometimes good art can spring from ideologies we don’t agree with (Another example: I love Handel’s Messiah. I can love Christian sacred music without it turning me into a Christian). Yes, criticise literature. Double YES, criticise the bad parts of the culture it springs from. But the kids, I firmly believe, will be all right.
Edited to add: a back-channel discussion with one of my sisters leads me to believe I need to underscore something. I’m not saying Twilight is harmless. I’m saying harm is not the only thing it accomplishes in people’s lives, and that the harm it does do is not necessarily crippling or insurmountable. I’ve seen people who started out loving Twilight begin to see the whole thing in a different light by the end (I direct you toward my friend Stephanie’s Project: Hindsight as a great example of this), and that suggests to me that there are times when the series is doing good, sparking thoughts and spurring people toward criticism. It becomes its own teachable moment. I think that’s awesome.