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.