What’s So Great About Vampires

I don’t know why I keep writing about Twilight. I’m becoming a ‘voice’ on the Twilight circuit. Here’s the evidence: a three part (three part!) essay on women’s cinematic fantasies at Huffington Post here, and a TIME.com column on the bigotry of Twilight haters here. And, somewhat tangentially, a defense of Kritsen Stewart’s Snow White here. And now yesterday’s piece on the non-crazy reaction to the demise of ‘Robsten’ here.

I never saw this coming.

It’s true I’ve always been fascinated  by the nexus of popular culture and women’s issues, and I’ve got a warm spot for low-brow culture. I’m also curious in a rubber-necking sort of way about people who become obsessed with celebrities and talk about them like personal friends. Additionally, I’m a romantic sap. And most of my adult life has been spent in the company of kids and young adults. And I love children’s and YA fiction and movies. So I guess these factors add up to some kind of explanation of my interest in the Twi-verse. But I’m not sure they provide a full explanation. On some level, it comes down to this: there’s a story about women that isn’t being told and the more I delve into it, the more I want to respect and share it.

I discovered Twilight by accident one day while cleaning my daughter’s room, and I didn’t initially feel the love. I opened the first book and was appalled by the insipid cheesiness. I couldn’t believe the dull characterization, with prose I’ve described elsewhere as “bovine.” Two hours later of course I had devoured every word! But my jonesing for Twilight remained for a long time a bit of a lark – an ironic gesture. I was amused to discover there were other well educated, smart, adult women with a similarly childish habit, like eating candy every day (which I also like to do.). All of us recognized it as fluff, literarily speaking (and I assume that goes without saying), yet it touched a nerve somewhere. The best way I can explain it is that there are some people who really enjoy conjuring their youthful romantic dorkiness and others who don’t. If you are in the former category, you have a higher probability of enjoying Twilight.

I started noticing a lot of surprising Twilight fans in my social circle: a close friend with a PhD in English from Stanford. (Me: “But the books are terribly written!” She: “I don’t care.”  Me: “Is it Edward Cullen or Robert Pattinson you are obsessed with?” She: “I don’t understand the question.”) My cousin, a family physician, enjoyed the books. Another close friend – a medical researcher and pediatrician at an Ivy League university – was into it. (We watched New Moon with her 81 year-old mother, who told me she would like to lick the movie screen.) My son’s godmother, a Harvard grad and very capable television producer, shared the books with her daughter. She liked the theme of non-violence in this fantasy world. A few of the Harvard graduate students with whom I work admitted to a shy, furtive interest (though, interestingly, the younger Harvard undergraduates were contemptuous, bored, or embarrassed by the phenomenon.). I forced my highly accomplished 50 year-old husband to watch the movies  – a manly guy with a surprisingly high tolerance for sap — and he thought they were “sweet” and reasonably entertaining. He’d prefer Die Hard, obviously, but he didn’t dismiss them out of hand. He found the love story “believable.” This, too, surprised me.

None of us were hard-core fans. We claimed a certain emotional distance. We were bemused by the intensity of the fan base and wondered how they found the time for all that drama.

And yet… I enjoy the Twilight series. I do! Sue me. To be fair, most of my women friends lost interest in Twilight pretty quickly, or at least stopped talking about it. And I suppose I would have moved on, too, except that I couldn’t stop thinking of its significance as a cultural phenomenon. I couldn’t understand why all the commentary seemed so at odds with my observations. The mean-spiritedness, the mockery, the fear that this light fictional experience would undermine the world somehow. It seemed so out of step with the cultural response to, say, the Spider Man movies. This double standard bugged me.

And what I’ve come to realize is this: It’s not just Twilight that I like, for all its quirky imperfections; I like many of the fans, too. Especially the adult women fans. They seem like mostly normal, kind, thoughtful people. (Compare their comments on this blog, if you are interested, to the fevered and hostile reaction from commenters on my pieces related to male violence. The difference is quite striking.) Are some of them too invested in celebrity culture? Sure. Is it kind of weird or depressing to project so much emotion on famous strangers? Sure. But most of these adult women fans know exactly what they’re doing. They mainly don’t seem so unhinged or juvenile to me. Or to the extent that they are being juvenile, it’s in a purposeful and controlled way. They’re aware of what they are up to and they’ve given themselves permission to feel in touch with the young person they once were.

I don’t see what’s wrong with this. Do I think it’s  a little weird to camp out for three days at Comic Con? Sure, I do. But most of them aren’t doing that. And anyway, who am I to judge what’s a good use of someone’s time? Writing a self-referential blog and eating tubs of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream is probably not the best use of my time either. We all have our quirks. Most of these women seem bright and sensible. And kind. Did I mention that? I’ve been touched by the depth of their insights about human nature and their honest understanding of their own needs, interests, and motivations. We can learn a lot from these women! (I guess there must be some male fans, too, but I haven’t met any.)

What I find so interesting about the Twilight “phenomenon” is the contempt around it. As I’ve noted before, we tend to give men a free pass when it comes to their fantasies — fantasies which, as we’re painfully aware, can veer into very scary territory – but women’s head trips are subject to such scrutiny and judgment. There’s ageism involved too. The teenage fans are mocked for their silliness. The older fans are derided for their creeper-ness. I would hazard that quite a few of these middle aged women who love Twilight are less interested in removing Robert Pattinson’s clothes than in laundering them.  If he came to my house, I’d probably make him a grilled cheese sandwich. But even if they’re all lusting for him, who cares? Why not? I really don’t see why women can’t enjoy their possibly kooky, f-ed up or just plain vanilla fantasies! (I wrote more about that here.)

I’m aware that this isn’t only (or primarily) a feminist issue: there are tons and tons of women who think I’m crazy in writing about Twilight this way; women who loathe everything Twilight; women who think I’m protesting too much. That’s okay, too. I don’t mind people thinking I’m nuts. I just mind people insisting that I’m nuts and thinking my nuttiness is a threat to them.

All I’m saying is that surely we can have a big tent policy where fantasy is concerned. We should at least be able to do that, right?! If we can’t be generous with each other where our fantasies are concerned – the things in the privacy of our own minds – how ever are we to understand our actual, consequential differences?

In writing about Twilight, I think I’m just trying in a very, very small way to illuminate a certain kind of female world to the many people who find it opaque. That’s all. And soon enough, this will pass. We’ll move on to the next phenomenon.

About ErikaChristakis

Yale Lecturer in early childhood education/Licensed teacher/Former preschool director and Harvard College house master/some-time journalist. In possession of: unmarketable bachelor’s degree (Harvard, anthropology), semi-marketable graduate degrees (public health, education…). Rewarding career at the intersection of family, society, and schools (including long stint in parenting vortex). Forging a new path to connect all of the above.
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5 Responses to What’s So Great About Vampires

  1. I too have a sweet spot for YA pop literature. I devoured the Hunger Games, and I’m a shameless Harry Potter fan. I watched the first Twilight movie with a secret fear that I’d fall in love with it and risk either having to hide it or being viciously ridiculed by my peers. But I didn’t. I hated it. I hated it so much I had a hard time finishing it.

    You write such a sensible defense of the series that I feel almost guilty for disliking it so much, but I’m surprised that you don’t bring up any of the issues with it that make any girls like me feel almost offended by the premise of this story. Bella is an anti-feminist character, a girl who swoons and faints, and gets rescued, and makes stupid life decisions and gets rescued again, and wants nothing but to give her life up for a man (if only she could pick which one). She is controlled by the guy she loves, and to top it all off, she appears to have no personality at all. I understand your argument about giving a bit of leeway for the private world of other people’s fantasies, but, although I’m no radical feminist, if I had a teenage daughter I’d feel a lot more comfortable having her fantasize about Katiniss Everdeen’s two hunky would-be lovers than Bella’s whiny and manipulative love affair.

    • Thanks so much for writing!! I get where you are coming from. There’s a lot of highly questionable stuff, especially if you don’t follow the story through to the end, where Bella becomes totally, epically, mythically Badass. But –apart from the fact my daughter is quite tough and can handle some cheesy fantasies, if she wants (she largely doesn’t and prefers Hunger Games) — I’ve actually written at (extreme) length in a long form essay for Huffington Post ( “What Do Women Want? The Cinematic Wasteland of Female Fantasy”) about the very issues you discuss. IMHO, there’s a totally different way to look at the story as the antithesis of hookup culture and the objectification of girls/young women and violence-laden popular culture blah blah blah. I think Bella’s blandness and loserdom has been grossly exaggerated and Edward is quite the sap himself, sigining on for chronic manipulation/mind control by his girlfriend ( who maintains an inappropriate relationship with a werewolf boy through 1,000 pages!) I also think Breaking Dawn is the only movie I’ve seen in recent memory that engages in a totally realistic way with the shock/fear/disappointment of unplanned pregnancy and its sometimes destructive impact on relationships! It’s truly PATHETIC that it takes a cheesy teen vampire saga to engage seriously in an issue that impacts so many couples. Anyway, I could go on –read my three part essay, if you are feeling masochistic!! I genuinely think it might give you some insight into why certain non-lunatic people enjoy the story. But I’m sure and hope you have better ways to spend your time! Thanks for writing! P.s. I loved the Hunger Games, too, and my daughter much preferred it to Twilight, but I found the violence apalling, even allowing for the ‘message’ behind it — so I think you can find fault with lots of stuff, including more feminist stories. Most fantasy is just that: fantasy. I’m very liberal on this point that people need an outlet to explore feelings they know aren’t totally legit in real life.

      • One more thought on the fantasy vs. reality conundrum. When I first read the series, I was hugely irked by the many instances of Edward cooking for Bella. I couldn’t understand why he would do all the cooking for her when a) he drinks animal blood and is truly disgusted by human food and b) she is a good cook, who routinely prepares meals for her father! It just seemed like one more example of a character relinquishing even a basic bodily function like eating to her more powerful man. But then I reflected on this cooking thing as a fantasy. Bella has essentially raised herself, while being an honors student with a job. She has big responsibilities and in many ways lives as an emancipated adult (driving cross-country alone at 17, for example.) She is very much the parent in the family, especially with her hapless and immature mother. It’s striking how little good parenting she’s had (and I’ve been surprised by the lack of commentary on that.) So as a FANTASY, I think it totally makes sense that the author would have Edward feed her all the time. Honestly, who wouldn’t like once in a while to fantasize about letting someone else handle all the cooking? As someone who’s cooked for my family for 20 years, it’s an appealing concept! Teenagers, especially, love to be babied with food. Even Harvard students like to be fed. So this is just one example where I think people are misinterpreting fantasy as reality. But fantasies are recognizable as such and are not dangerous in and of themselves. I really believe that. To extend the point to something more controversial, I think women are fully aware that, as I’ve argued elsewhere, they don’t ACTUALLY want to be raped if they have an occasional fantasy that involves sexual submission. People know the difference. Yet we hold women to a ridiculously higher standard when it comes to thought control. And we don’t trust teenage girls – who are very smart, generally speaking – to explore and understand contradictions within themselves. Yet we cultivate the most outrageous fantasy life (that often spills over into real life) where young men are concerned. So that’s my feminist take on this. Let women explore all aspects of their lives in the privacy of their own minds. Sorry to drone on like this…

  2. Hi Erika! Wow! What a response! Thank you so much for taking such a long time to write this out, especially given how under-informed a commenter I was to begin with. I feel quite guilty for having left the comment without first taking a look at the other pieces you wrote for HuffPo (you did link to them in the post) in which you totally destroy everything I just wrote. Like I said, I never read the books, and only watched the first movie thus missing out on Bella’s eventual badassery, and the transformations that would assuage my pseudo-feminist sensibilities. However, I did just read your description and analysis of Bella’s monster-baby birth, and I found your comparison to battle scenes and what that says about men’s fears especially compelling. It reminded me a lot of Emily Martin’s work, which I read for Nicholas’s class and I remember as one of the most eye-opening things I read in college. I totally concede the point, so long as you promise you’ll never make me watch that horrifying-sounding scene! I will get to work on your other two pieces and maybe find myself a full Twilight convert (at least from a theoretical point of view, I don’t I’ll never be able to *like* that thing).

    Another point you make that I really like is that we always seem to underestimate how much teenagers can handle. Being thought of as intellectually handicapped is one of the most frustrating things about being a teen (and a young person, in general). People have a tremendous ability for forgetting how smart they used to be. In fact, I remember going to my grandmother’s house when I was much younger than your daughter and reading this ridiculous 1940s manual on good manners just to get myself pissed off. I liked doing the same with Leviticus. I suppose that wasn’t fantasy reading, but the point is that just because you’re a kid doesn’t mean you get automatically mind-washed by everything you read. Thanks for reminding me of that.

    I don’t comment much, but I do read your blog regularly and enjoy it a lot. At this rate, with all the haters you and your husband are accumulating, you’ll really have to find a place to be exiled with no fat people and no men!

  3. Thanks for this great dialogue, Laura. (And don’t worry: I promise not to brainwash you into becoming a Twilight fan!) I also don’t think I totally “destroyed” everything you wrote. I do see where you were coming from and appreciate the open-mindedness. I just wanted to push you a little because I worry the narrative about women and girls can often become so unnecessarily rigid. Anyway, thanks for reading my blog and for commenting!

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