I think, possibly too hard, about Twilight

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.


13 thoughts on “I think, possibly too hard, about Twilight

  1. I haven’t read Twilight past the first, but given what I know of it I can see Holly Black’s take that it’s kink. Of course, good kink in the real world is predicated on explicit consent. If I saw anything naive or troublesome in the first book when seen as kink, it was that there was no negotiation of boundaries.

    But you reminded me: I read, at a pretty young age, the Pern books. I haven’t read them since, but you mentioned that McCaffery did an end run around consent, too, by having the lizards start the party that their humans were powerless to stop. So Pern had the same consent issues. But I loved it.

    Yesterday my response re: Pern was that “we” don’t need those excuses for our sex drives anymore, as women – “we”, meaning women of a certain secular liberal bent, I’m sure, don’t need to justify wanting sex.

    But of course, that’s a truth of my age: maybe liberal society as a whole is a bit better at acknowledging that girls have sex drives too (and not just a need for love), but that doesn’t mean that your average teenage girl isn’t struggling with self-acceptance.

    And I’m a pretty good proof. As a teenage girl, I was horrified and scared by my sexuality. But I was raised in hippie and queer households. I was a *lot* less scared and a lot more informed than most: I didn’t think that girls who had sex were sluts, I asked guys out, I was actively aware that sexual orientation isn’t binary, and I had plenty of information about playing safe and what sort of things people might choose to try.

    Even still, my sexuality was the biggest responsibility I’d ever been handed and it seemed … well, very practically like a dragon that had different ideas about things. The transition into adult wants and responsibility felt monstrous and alien. Maybe even vampiric. Having an id fantasy where I just let the dragon do the thinking? Yeah. It makes sense. Perhaps lack of consent is part of wish not to have the responsibility, and monsters or dragons are an acknowledgement of the power.

    Of course, then I read Fear of Flying. So that balanced things out.

  2. Interesting stuff, Rachel.

    The things that have really surprised me in the wake of BD part 1’s release are the lack of concern over the imprinting (I honestly thought more people were going to freak out, and rightly so, over it) and the sudden backlash to the backlash. I’ve seen several posts on websites I love either defending the series or tackling the backlash it received, to varying degrees of success. It’s almost hipster-like! “I was hating the haters before it was cool!”

    My opinions on Twilight are well documented but there are things that do bear repeating. Twilight’s not the biggest problem in the equation; for that, we need to tackle our society, culture and history, which has spent generations pushing the image of the unattainable ‘perfection’ women are supposed to achieve – pure and infantilised yet still extremely sexual, submissive but still a temptress. And that’s if there are any women there at all. Check out how few films are directed by women, even less when it comes to women of colour or LGBTQ women. They’re told outright they can’t direct certain movies because the studio wants a man to do it, yet plenty of men direct ‘women’s’ films with no complaints. There’s still so much victim-blaming & slut shaming and rape culture prevalent in our media and sometimes we don’t notice or forget about it.

    Having said all that, and keeping in mind that Twilight is evidently a product of this society (as well as some more personal elements on SMeyer’s life), I think the series is ultimately very harmful & problematic. I in particular hold Twilight under more scrutiny because of what in influenced in the YA genre. There’s so much unbelievably sexist stuff in some of these books that are happily marketed as romance, some of it’s even worse than anything Edward Cullen ever does. But once again, we need to look at society for this. What happened that made us ever think treating a young woman like shit and putting her in harm’s way could ever be considered sexy or romantic? The publishers who freely promote this stuff as romantic probably aren’t die-hard misogynists but it is sad that we’ve gotten to the 21st century and a girl can still be called a slut multiple times for wearing the ‘wrong’ type of clothing.

    I also can’t stand the “It’s just a book/it’s just for teens” arguments because they completely overlook the problems. Our media does influence us, and while one book isn’t going to completely change a teen girl’s personality, when everything else around her is putting emphasis on these sexist messages, be it directly (the rape culture and misogyny pervasive in many YA romances) or otherwise (only seeing female characters in films act as objects of desire, only seeing a certain type of woman in film/TV/etc – white, skinny, straight, airbrushed to hell), then an influence is made, and most certainly these damaging ideas are allowed to grow. I think that’s why Twilight has gotten so much backlash from people like myself – it’s bigger than just a book, it’s an entire worldwide, money making phenomenon that perpetuates some of the most anti-women ideals yet this isn’t seen as a big deal. Then again, this issue won’t change just because we all complain about it, but it’s a good start to get the word out and have people talking and recognising the issues. Ideas don’t die.

    Long comment is long.

    • Long comment is good! Thanks for weighing in, Ceilidh. You’re not alone by any means – my sister has been arguing much the same thing on the back channel – and you’re not wrong. The industry Twilight spawned is significant, the numerous copycat books that have all the bad and none of the good (what there is to be found).

      I think it’s really important that people be passionately engaged by this issue and come out punching and kicking. These are points that need to be made and need to be heard. I feel like these books and their imitators have got people talking about misogyny and rape culture in a much more mainstream way than previously. They’re so obvious, in this regard, that you can really dig in and demonstrate it in ways that are clear to all.

      My sister thinks I was too blithe about the damage these things can do, and she pointed out instances of harm in my own history (nothing I can spell out here, sorry). I see her point, but I also see that I got back up, and that I would never have come down this (very complicated and interesting) road if I hadn’t fallen to begin with. To paraphrase something I wrote somewhere else: I can’t let the spectre of how much better things might have been recast my story as a tragedy. Getting hurt sucks; fighting my way back has been the most difficult and wondrous thing I’ve ever done.

      My own strategy for fighting the good fight – for other people, not just myself – is to make art. It’s what I’m good at and where my passions lie. I have found it fosters compassion. Whatever else is true of Stephenie Meyer, she is a human being who has laid herself bare. When people connect with her books, they are seeing that human there and recognizing something of themselves in her. I feel it’s important to remember that.

      • As President and CEO of Killjoy Industries, there are other ways to get to the same level of understanding that your childhood experiences with misogyny and these discussions spawned by these disgustingly misogynistic books have achieved. You could, (I dunno) START OUT WITH HEALTHY ROLE MODELS IN POPULAR CULTURE, for example — something that I believe we will find in Seraphina.

        While I’m glad that you’ve found meaning in your own suffering, I’m just saying that it is not necessary to suffer in these ways in order to achieve this level of enlightenment. There are plenty of other “very complicated and interesting” roads that one could have followed in a world without rampant misogyny. My personal history parallels yours in many ways (for obvious reasons!) and even though I don’t personally ascribe to the way you have made meaning out of the madness we went through, it does not mean I cast my life as a tragedy. It means that nobody deserves that sort of abuse and there is nothing in my mind that will ever justify it or make it okay in any sense of the word. Sure, I’m proud of how far I’ve come, but I’m angry at just how far I was set back for no good reason. And I’m angry at how far this type of thing sets other people back (since I am no longer a naive and insecure teen, I’m thinking the impact of Twilight upon myself personally is minimal).

        • You are right that better role models are needed. You are right that there will still be plenty of interesting roads and challenges in a world without rampant misogyny. You are right that it would be nice if no one were ever abused or set back. The idea of a better world is the best kind of guiding star, and something we should never lose sight of.

          Suffering happens, though, and it will happen even in a better world. If these specific bad things hadn’t happened to me, other bad things might have, and in the absence of bad things I might still have found a way to feel inadequate or ashamed. If it’s not imposed from outside, we build up our own neuroses from the inside. I’m not angry about the things that made me suffer. [cheap shot removed. I was trying to echo back your statement about “enlightenment”]

          What I’m really trying to say, with this whole post, is that we are resilient. We are easily hurt, but not so easily broken. The harm in Twilight isn’t all there is to Twilight, and it’s not going to harm everyone to the same degree. I have a friend (who may be lurking here, in fact) who read Twilight, loved it, was inspired to write romance novels herself, and eventually gained the confidence and courage to leave her abusive husband. That’s a great outcome, and it was sparked by Twilight. There isn’t just one interpretation of this (or of anything, as our differences about our childhood show). And I think that’s WONDERFUL. Diversity of thought, like diversity in nature, leads to a more robust environment.

        • I totally co-sign your wish for good role models and a world without misogyny, but have a bit of a different perspective on great role models, I think. My mom was awesome and strong in her sexuality; I was surrounded by proud queer women; I was the kid who learned what a clit was and what it was for at the same time I learned about my navel and its umbilical reason, at four years old. I was good at orgasm early and often. I was provided lots of sex-positive woman-positive material and lots of room to ask questions. Plus, I was given room to explore on my own and a sense of bodily autonomy.

          But I was also girl in rape culture, and dealt with both harassment and abuse. And as someone who was interested in men, my own sense of being vulnerable to the lust of men, while also lusting, was an extraordinarily daunting challenge.

          I think that Pern (which was my politically troubling analogue) situated me in misogyny and yet, by being *protagonists*, rather than objects, in some way helped me move past. Bella’s interesting, I think, because she’s every-girl under misogyny: she’s not a princess, she’s not winning token person-hood by way of being plucky and gorgeous and smart, she’s just depressed and clumsy and lost and alone and she fixates on someone who wants to consume her and is dangerous to her. But she’s a protagonist – she decides that she’s worth it, on some level, even still.

          I don’t want the Bellas of the world to be necessary. There’s no play in a gender-flipped Edwina and Beau, I don’t think, and a world where Bella isn’t a runaway sales success is a world I’m looking to live in… But I think these books reflect reality, and it can actually be a good place for some to start choosing worth from a place they’re already IN – even if it is damaging in other ways.

  3. what i find disturbing (and perplexing) is that these books are so popular. twilight didn’t become a bestselling series on its own. moreover, women are the majority readers – not misogynistic men. so at the end of the day, does this mean that this is what women really want? – to be hapless and passive, while a strong edward-guy “saves” her time and time again?

    • Well, that may be one thing some women want. But it’s a very literal reading.

      I think of myself as active and capable, but there are times when life makes me tired and sure, I wish someone would swoop in and carry my burdens for me. I could see that being one possible appeal of the narrative, a little more metaphorical. Another possible metaphor: relinquishing one’s will to god. That one doesn’t appeal to me at all, but I could imagine it playing into someone’s understanding of the book (there’s lots of stuff on the internets looking at Morman symbolism in this whole thing).

      I think there are a lot of possible things people can get out of Twilight.

  4. Great post, Rachel! I was tempted to write my own blog entry on the subject, but I think people can argue these things better than I. Including you!

    A friend of mine suggested I read TWILIGHT when I was in my 2nd year of undergrad (before the 4th book came out), because she wanted my opinion on them. I had no idea how popular they were! Anyway, I read the (then) three books in about a week. Not my cup of tea.

    Before I get to the aspects of the novel that I found . . . rather uncomfortable, I do want to first state this: I don’t want to make a blanket statement about books like TWILIGHT being “unhealthy” for young women. I think plenty of people can read, and enjoy novels that aren’t reflective of what they find appealing in their own lives. I read a lot of romance as a teen — not all of it teen friendly — and tore through books that portrayed relationships that I recognized as not at all appealing to me. I still quite liked the books, the characters, ect.

    I think one of my main issues with TWILIGHT is this: hardly any of the characters seriously question, or express anything more than passing concern about the unhealthy aspects of the relationships in these novels. Edward confesses he’s been watching Bella sleep for months, and her immediate concern isn’t, you know, that he’s been breaking into her room every night. It’s that he might have heard something embarrassing. When Jacob first (forcefully) kisses Bella and she actually responds appropriately by punching him in the face (thereby breaking her hand), what does her father do? He gives Jacob a high-five! What? Sam slashes the side of his beloved’s face in a fit of rage? Well, but he couldn’t control it and it wasn’t his fault. Bella wakes up covered in bruises after a night of passionate sexin’? Well, but Edward couldn’t control it and it wasn’t his fault. Jacob imprints on an infant? After Bella’s initial rage, everyone comes to accept that — all together now — he couldn’t control it and it wasn’t his fault.

    Are we seeing a pattern here? It’s that pattern I find troublesome.

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