Twihard With A Vengeance: Why Twilight Is A Boon For Young Women

Friends, feminists, netizens, lend me your ears; I come to bury the Twilight Saga, not praise it. The evil that Twilight does lives in theaters; The good is oft interred on the internet; So let it be with New Moon.

About midway through watching New Moon with two friends, I realized I was having a lightbulb moment. I got it. Suddenly, in the theater, I realized why this series is so popular, why all the criticisms of Meyer's work slide off like it is made of teflon, how the story of a somewhat codependent teenager torn between two increasingly controlling objects of affection is enticing enough to spend weeks on best-seller lists and to break box office records. To condescend toward this type of fandom is a mistake (even if said snarking is both hilarious and on point). In order to unlock the saga's chokehold on teens, we must use its own conventions. In other words - we need to learn how to reach teens from Twilight.

This may seem like a strange admission to make. After all, feminists and fans of young adult literature alike have been warning against Stephanie Meyer's siren song for years now. Newser points out how many of the headlines surrounding the massive success of the franchise focus on the sexism inherent in the series. Grady Hendrix, writing for Slate, notes:

Just as America's young men are being given deeply erroneous ideas about sex by what they watch on the Web, so, too, are America's young women receiving troubling misinformation about the male of the species from Twilight. These women are going to be shocked when the sensitive, emotionally available, poetry-writing boys of their dreams expect a bit more from a sleepover than dew-eyed gazes and chaste hugs. The young man, having been schooled in love online, will be expecting extreme bondage and a lesbian three-way.

Even Ms. Magazine, which has remained somewhat indifferent to pop culture, gets in on the action, with Carmen D. Siering explaining:

Fans of the books, and now a movie version, often break into "teams," aligning them- selves with the swain they hope Bella will choose in the end: Team Edward or Team Jacob. But few young readers ask, "Why not Team Bella?" perhaps because the answer is quite clear: There can be no Team Bella. Even though Bella is ostensibly a hero, in truth she is merely an object in the Twilight world. Bella is a prize, not a person, someone to whom things happen, not an active participant in the unfolding story. [...]

Maybe it's difficult for Edward to see Bella as an equal because Bella has almost no personality. Meyer writes on her website that she "left out a detailed description of Bella in the book so that the reader could more easily step into her shoes." But Meyer fails to give Bella much of an interior life as well; Bella is a blank slate, with few thoughts or actions that don't center on Edward. Outside of him and occasional outings with werewolf Jacob, Bella doesn't do anything more than go to school, cook and clean for her dad, write to her mother, read and romanticize over Victorian literature and find fault with her clothing. She has no other interests, no goals, few friends: Bella does nothing that suggests she is a person in her own right. If Meyer hopes that readers see themselves as Bella, what is it she is suggesting to them about the significance of their own lives?

And indeed, there is much to hate about the series. Hell, I even put forth an analysis of racism within the series.

So how can I suddenly advocate to understand Twilight, instead of destroying it?

I speak not to disprove what others spoke,
But here I am to speak what I do know.

To be a teenager is a difficult thing. Desires war against common sense, ephemeral things (like boy bands) take on deep, long lasting meaning, and you are devoted to friends, peers, and lovers. Everyone seems to want to separate you from what you want. And, even with the best intentions, those of us who hate Twilight are just feeding the mania. We bludgeon them with reason and forget two key things:

  • 1. Fandom doesn't run on logic, and
  • 2. A large part of exploring the boundaries of growing up is choosing things for ourselves - whether we make the wrong decisions or somehow stumble upon the right ones.

Sitting in the dark space I shared with another 40 or so people to watch the film last night, it dawned on me. I listened to the cheers that went up when Jacob Black removes his shirt for the first time, the laughter that erupted when Bella cracks her head while trying to cliff dive her way to Edward, and the radio silence when Edward confesses his undying commitment to Bella. I realized that Twilight does not represent a failure of feminism, but rather a golden opportunity to evaluate where we can focus on outreach.

How often do we get a non-personal opportunity to talk about issues with obsessive relationships? Promoting the idea of passive femininity and promoting an idea of controlling and all-powerful masculinity. While we may wince at the portrayals of Bella, Edward, and Jacob in the context of their relationships, it would be foolish to pretend that Meyer isn't just tapping into societal ideas surrounding heterosexual relationships and power dynamics that already exist. The documentary Micky Mouse Monopoly explores the messages portrayed in Disney films:

By exploring these themes with teen and preteen girls in a questioning, not a confrontational tone, adults can help them to discover for themselves why the things that Edward and Jacob do in the name of "love" are not okay. Conversely, teenage and pre-teen boys are also paying attention to the cues they are learning from Twilight. I was shocked last year to learn that my younger brother, whose sole ambition at the age of 11 is to sag his pants as low as possible, and to be as cool as possible by knowing every popular rap lyric on the radio, pulled out a Twilight DVD when I came to visit and offered to put it on "because this is what girls like." Apparently, his "girlfriend" - a term he defines as a female who gives him her phone number - and most of the other girls he knows love Edward or Jacob.

What are young boys learning about how to behave in relationships when they are exposed to Twilight?

A very similar message as to what they learn through Disney:

Just as Jacob started out as a genuinely nice kid who switched over to being a Nice Guy, when he realized Edward's tactics of being forceful and controlling were working on Bella, there are potentially thousands of boys who could decide that the way to win a girl's admiration is by emulating Jacob and Edward's controlling behaviors.

Only by understanding and critically engaging with the Twilight saga can parents and other adults start looking at what aspects of this series appeal to teens and where else they can channel their attention.

After all, the Twilight mania won't rule the world forever. The teenagers now will get older, a new crop of teen idols will arise. What will endure from Twilight won't necessarily be the messages of sexism - those are reinforced in thousands of different ways every day, and Stephanie Meyer will not be the last author to tap into them. What adults and pop culture critics should pay attention to is how Twilight breaks with many different conventions that have come to be accepted as normal. As Neesha writes on Racialicious, how often do girls get a chance to explore their budding sexuality in a safe (fantasy) space? I'm sure many of the young women who watch Twilight will have also seen the Transformers franchise, featuring Megan Fox as hyper-sexualized eye candy. How often do they see a movie geared at teens and young adults that allows for the main heroine to wear double layer shirts and oversized jackets? And how often do studios discount budding adolescent desire, and fail to consider that perhaps, girls would also like to see attractive, shirtless men parade around on screen?

Indeed, the mania resulting from New Moon and other parts of Twilight saga allows more than just an easy feminist critique - it also allows the opportunity for adults to influence the great Twilight-after. Eventually, all of the books will be read, and all of the movies will be left. What could be next? Can they help to exert small variations in the narrative by encouraging teens to write their own fan fiction (and guide Bella in their own ways)? Can they recommend other books to fill the aching gap left by the end of the Twilight saga with similar content but more progressive leanings? (Try Kelley Armstrong's The Summoning, Tamora Pierce's Song of the Lioness quartet, The Silver Kiss and Blood and Chocolate by Annette Curtis Klause, The Uglies Series, by Scott Westerfeld, and Magic or Madness by Justine Larbalestier, for starters.)

There is so much possibility within the world that Meyer has created to reach out to teens. And the way to do it isn't by dismissing their fandom, but engaging within their world, on their terms. As Nancy Gibbs writes in Time magazine, "Kids, like adults, resist force-feeding."

We can't force anyone to take their medicine. But what adults can do is allow teens the space to explore, grow, and come to their own conclusions on their own time. All they need to do is be ready, and willing.

O judgment! thou teens art fled to both brutish beasts (vamp and were),
And women have lost their reason. Bear with me;
Their hearts are in the coffin there with Edward (or in the forest, with Jacob),
And I must pause till they are ready to hear me.

New Moon' Breaks Midnight Record [Box Office Mojo]
LDS Sparkledammerung IS HERE! [Stoney321's LiveJournal]
New Moon Sexist, Say Critics [Newser]
Vampires Suck [Slate]
Talking Back to Twilight (Partial Article, Full in Print Only) [Ms.]
Running With the Wolves – A Racialicious Reading of the Twilight Saga [Racialicious]
Mickey Mouse Monopoly: Disney, Childhood & Corporate Power [Media Education Foundation]
Friends [XKCD]
Disney, Twilight and Bollywood: Reinforcing the Purity Myth or Fantasy of Safe Sexual Exploration for Young Girls (and Their Mothers)? [Racialicious]
The Gospel of Glee [Time]