The Vagenda

In (Strong) Defence of Twilight

On Saturday, The Guardian’s weekend magazine published a great interview and article on Stephen King. It covered his new book, a sequel to The Shining, which sounds intriguing, and his early struggles to juggle three jobs when he was trying to make it as a writer. He’s outspoken – offering some pretty harsh criticism of the film version of The Shining – and candid about his alcoholism and addiction to cocaine. Moreover, he is generous in his descriptions of the process of writing, how ideas form, and even shares a concept for a future book.
With this in mind, I was baffled as to why The Guardian had so aggressively pushed his brief comment on the Twilight franchise in its advertisement of the piece. It’s the one quote singled out to appear on the paper’s front page, despite only covering a mere paragraph within the article. The paper then also ran an article about the article, gleefully proclaiming, ‘Stephen King slams Twilight franchise as ‘tweenage porn’ and thus breaking my heart. It’s true that King is less than flattering about the novels, but it also feels as though the interviewer is pushing him into a discussion, actually prompting, ‘What about the Twilight franchise?’ King dutifully offers a dismissive opinion (‘tweenager porn’), but Brockes wants more… ‘Sweet Valley High with teeth?’ she asks, clearly with a glint in her eye. I wonder how long she’s been working on that one.
This is just the latest in a long tradition at of deriding Meyer’s books. At The Guardian particularly, the series is discredited and vilified in a way that doesn’t seem to happen to other mass-market authors and their literary outputs. This began when the books first became popular, and has continued for years afterwards, due to the periodic release of the film franchise. Aside from this recent piece of Twi-hate, Tanya Gold used the premiere of Breaking Dawn Part 2 to write last year that it was ‘female masochism’.A delve into the archives reveals plenty more where that came from. Bidisha has also criticised its protagonist, Bella, as a ‘deadzone ofpsychic antimatter’ and ‘anticharisma’ whilst Stuart Heritage labels her ‘an empty cipher for a grown woman’swrongheaded sexual belief system’. There’s the odd defence, such as Mathilda Gregory’s Comment Is Free post, ‘Leave Twilight fans alone’ (slightly uncomfortably calling to mind the unhinged ‘Leave Britney alone’ fan, but whatever) but the overall impression is one of contempt. Search for Twilight in The Telegraph or The Independent, however, and discussion seems to focus on reports of its box-office success and the stars’ love lives. There’s the odd negative review (Bill Condon calls Breaking Dawn Pt.2 the end of a ‘preternaturally boring series’) but not much to match the virulent criticism so decisively foregrounded in The Guardian, even now, years after the last book was published (in 2008) and almost a year after the last film was released (Nov 2012).
To put my cards on the table, I really like Twilight. The books are real page-turners, drawing on the Gothic tradition, with great atmosphere out in the misty forests of Forks, Washington. It captures that adolescent sense of isolation and heightened sensitivity so perfectly that, even as an adult, I was hooked. Having read the first three novels, I hurried to my local bookshop to buy the fourth, only to find bare shelves where it had sold out, and another customer with the same bereft look in her eyes – we shared a brief look of mutual understanding before I went home to order online. Sure, sometimes Bella can be annoying, and Edward can be possessive – but since when were fictional characters supposed to be flawless? When did enjoying a novel imply that you unquestioningly approved of every action, decision and conversation described?
Criticism of the Twilight series seems to revolve around it having an anti-feminist plot and providing bad role models for young women. I find this frustrating to say the least, as it pre-supposes that the female, teenage audience are particularly brain-dead, and automatically absorb any views they read in fiction. If this is the case, we should ban most of the books I read as teenager – Gone With The Wind supports slavery and the Ku Klux Klan, Wuthering Heights sells us a violent and unstable romantic hero, whilst Bridget Jones’ Diary pretty much suggests you need to get yourself arrested in Thailand in order to bag a man. Moreover, Twihards and Twimoms are boringly characterised as mentally unhinged by the media again and again – but why is wearing a ‘Vote for Pedro’ t-shirt a cool reference to a cult film, whereas wearing a ‘Team Jacob’ t-shirt is completely tragic? Why not characterise the punters queuing up for the sixth instalment of the endless Fast and Furious franchise as Fast and Facile? I think the answer lies in the gender of the target audience. Books marketed for teenage boys – for instance, the Percy Jackson series and film franchise – have nowhere near the same interrogation for appropriate role models, and dissection for gender stereotyping.
I could spend hours listing the many ways in which the Twilight series actually promotes an excellent role model for young women – I could mention Bella’s impervious attitude to peer pressure, her resolution not to judge people on appearances, insisting that not all vampires are evil, and I could point out that she acts as a peace-weaver, a literary tradition with its roots in Anglo-Saxon literature, bringing rival gangs of werewolves and vampires into harmonious accord. I could also defend Meyer’s writing – often underappreciated – citing her use of blank pages, not to obliterate Bella’s identity, but as an homage to one of the earliest examples of postmodernism in literature, Tristram Shandy’s black page. That’s before I even get started on how Rosalie and Bella’s conversation about death, gang-rape, procreation, mortality and revenge in Eclipse flies through the Bechdel test. But this would be missing the point, because criticism of these books has less to do with the content, and more do to with a jaded debate about the novel and its educative purpose, which has been dragging on since the eighteenth century.
Dr Johnson wrote in a 1750 edition of The Rambler (No.4) about a newly emerging form of writing: what we now know as the novel. He argued that they were written ‘chiefly’ for ‘the young, the ignorant, and the idle, to whom they serve as lectures of conduct, and introductions into life’, that they were for the ‘entertainment of minds unfurnished with ideas, and therefore easily susceptible’.
Of course, any work of fiction, whether in the medium of literature, film, television or even music, has the power to educate, but twenty-first century debates have moved on from this early view of Johnson’s. We recognise the autonomy of the reader, watcher and listener, and accept that they have a role in this exchange: we have the common sense to question, debate and argue about what we read – and it would be patronising and unfair to assume female young adults aren’t capable of the same. When discussing the Twilight saga among friends, and other young women I’ve met, most agree that these book are great reads, but are also quick to question characters’ decisions, laugh at misguided plot decisions, or analyse narrative techniques – which is exactly as it should be with any literature, irrespective of target audience.
It may be aiming to promote feminism, in line with its liberal politics, but in singling out the Twilight series for endless jibes and mockery, the usually fabulous and liberal Guardian unfairly subjects a fairly harmless series of books to scrutiny which is not applied to many other works, and especially not applied to those written for young men. It’s about time journalists found something else to laugh about. One consolation in all of this, however, is that Meyer undoubtedly has the last laugh: it says something about the incredible success of Twilight that, even if they love to hate it, the editors have to use its name to sell an interview with Stephen King.

10 thoughts on “In (Strong) Defence of Twilight

  1. I absolutely loved the first three books but it was when (spoiler!) that werewolf guy fell in love with the baby that I stopped reading them! I love vampires (Anne Rice is queen) and have started to read a lot more fantasy stuff recently but I’ve never understood the love of Harry Potter! I’m 100% sure they (the books as well as the films) never received the same kind of vitriol as the Twilight saga does now

  2. I have to agree that Twilight gets a lot more criticism than it deserves. I appreciate that Edward is a terrible role-model for a romantic hero, but he’s not nearly as creepy as Mr Rochester. The writing is no worse than many other popular books, and there comes a point where you have to wonder if most of the criticism is because girls like it.

  3. I completely agree. I read the books last year. (I was home, sick, and read them all in less than a week.)
    Because of the endless criticism, I was expecting a pretty awful bunch of books, but I was surprised to find that I was quite entertained.
    I honestly just don’t get why people have so much hate for the franchise. I’m not saying the books are a masterpiece which everyone needs to read. And sure there were several things I would have done differently if I were writing them. But I do not see the atrocity everyone talks about.

  4. I’m so glad you wrote this. I read Twilight back in 2005 before all the movies and tshirts and hype (I know…cool right?) and was so excited when the 2nd one came out a few years later. I couldn’t believe the backlash against it and was disgusted at people calling this great book that I had (ahem) “discovered” when I was 14, anti-feminist. I really think it’s a case of reading too much into what is, essentially, a piece of teenage escapism.

  5. These characters have a right to exist but when they are considered influential enough to make people act as they do, it’s not alright. I still think the writing is crap and the characters terrible. I was arguing about how the media influences people recently and the other person thought it was a stupid theory. I then showed him the news about people being influenced by 50 shade of grey as one particular case being taken to court showed, where 2 people got together, there was a mixup with the safeword, he left her whipped and naked, sobbing on the floor, chained to the bed, she pressed charges, he said he had played by the book and he got off. The judge clearly stated that while he considered the man to be innocent in the affair, he warned against the influence of stories like these and how unsafe they could be if not understood properly. The other person didn’t bother replying back so although unacknowledged, I proved my point and won that argument. Same applies here. You cannot convince me that the media doesn’t influence some people’s thoughts and actions in some cases and Twilight is no exception. It goes beyond fantasizing about vampires and progresses to thinking that to be a constant needy drip to attract a possessive guy is a good thing, for example. Perhaps its the way Kristin Stewart plays the character, perhaps different to the book maybe, I don’t know, I only read the first few chapters to see what the hype was about and got bored and never watched the films, but I see little to redeem these characters who are at best, annoying as hell and at worse, influential for the wrong reasons

  6. Confession: I’ve only seen the first couple of films, it could easily be the case like almost all hollywood adaptions the film version is a horrific bastardisation of great works of art.

    The main issue I had with the story is that after Eddie finds himself in love with Isabella, he follows her about without making himself known to the object of his desires ‘I wanted to keep a discrete distance…’ and takes to breaking into her house and watching her sleep at night, again without making himself known. After finding this out, Isabella does not take him to task for such antics.

    Would you suggest this is appropriate behaviour we should encourage young men to adopt ? Should a young man find himself with a Twilight fan, would you encourage him to use a similar approach ?

  7. Fictional narratives influences real life narratives, particularly when it comes to romantic expectations and I think the narratives privileged by Twilight are particularly harmful to young woman – i.e. stalkerish overly possessive men are sexy, you should be willing to sacrifice everything for the sake of a relationship, etc etc. That said, I don’t think Twilight is the only franchise that glorifies these tropes; woman is passive recipient of attention and man as domineering pursuer is a cliché that has been around for as long as… oh, I don’t know, PATRIARCHY. But the reason that Twilight is worrying is that it glorifies these things so blatantly and it’s SO popular among teenage girls.

    Also, no one thinks that an individual teenage girl is going to read these books and think “OK, now I personally must start acting exactly like Bella in order to attract a man like Edward” – that’s a straw argument, at best. The problem is that the franchise is an extremely prevalent popular cultural force, and thus influences wider perceptions of what women should aspire to in romantic relationships.

    I agree that singling out Twilight and Meyer individually for endless repetitive bashing is not particularly helpful as it doesn’t address the root of the problem. But I don’t think the books are “harmless” – after all, 50 Shades of Grey – a hugely popular series that blatantly glorifies an abusive relationship – was originally Twilight fanfic. Nothing exists in a vacuum and all these things have ripple effects, and that’s why continuous and robust commentary about the problematic elements of popular culture is important.

  8. Most people I meet who criticize and are very dismissive of the books have never read them which seemed strange to me. I had never considered that this could be ‘it’s for girls’ sexism at fault before but I always thought everyone was just jumping on a ridiculous bandwagon where it’s cool to hate Twilight.

    However I would disagree that we don’t have to worry about how this influences young women forming ideas about relationships. I read the books and found them quite gripping and entertaining, it was only afterwards that I started contemplating them and realised I had serious issues with them. Edward breaks Bella’s car so he can’t go and visit her friend that he doesn’t approve of! Bella centres her whole life around him and doesn’t seem to care about anything else at all. She even goes to college because he wants her to rather than because she wants to. While reading I was swept along with the whole romance of it and didn’t notice any worrying behaviours. For this reason I don’t think I would let my metaphorical teenage daughter read them until she had more knowledge and experience about relationships and I would make sure we had discussions about it afterwards.

  9. To start with, I’d like to point out that I, when I read the books at age 12, was highly entertained by them. In fact, I read all 4 in quick succession and became a veritable fangirl of Bella and the gang. However, now I am 17 years old, I have had time to think, to mull over, and to see the franchise expand before the eyes of myself and the modern western world, and I am not happy.

    I do agree wholeheartedly that these books are page turners; aside from myself I know loads of other people (mainly teenage girls) who simply couldn’t put them down. Even so, there is no denying the horribly passive nature of Bella, who seems like a total blank canvas. Until, of course, Edward arrives in his Prince Charming get-up, and paints a sloppy portrait of himself with a giant red heart around it slap-bang in the middle of said canvas. And then, you know, leaves again, restarting the whole process and erasing his domineering work of art, but reserving the canvas for later use. In other words and with all things considered – because yes, I have considered her lack of judgment and her good intentions – vacuous, pessimistic Bella Swan is not a good role model. You see, when you take all of the good stuff out, she is still obsessive (hello, going on death missions just to remind herself of her dear Edward’s presence) and that obsession is horribly romanticised, to the point where it’s the only thing that really takes precedence in the story.

    There was also one other aspect of the book that deeply troubled me, and it is, surprisingly, not the young man falling in love with a newborn infant, or even the slightly unsmooth way Meyer got around the whole logic and science aspect of the world she’d created in bringing said infant into the book (which, by the way, I do still have a problem with). No, the other main issue I had was the whole appropriation of rape culture thing. You know the bit I mean: when Jacob forcefully kisses Bella against her will, doesn’t let her pull away and she, resultantly, just shuts down and let’s it happen. And then she punches him. And then her dad congratulates Jacob for forcing her into a kiss she clearly had no desire to partake in. Y’know, that bit. Yeah that got on my nerves, and I really don’t feel the need to further explain why.

    I would just like to add as I finish my rant, that I do recognise the existence of books with characters that have worrying and unadvisable behaviours, some of which mirror behaviours in Twilight, and some which do not. But this book is different. Mostly in those other books, these characters and their actions were not condoned by the other characters, or were not designed to be read sympathetically or be appreciated and appropriated by the audience, whereas this franchise completely and utterly romanticises obsessive, impulsive behaviour and sends the message out that, to be a heroine, and, arguably more worryingly, to be happy, one must have a man, and that man must be Edward Cullen.

  10. Wonderful article.
    The concept that women shouldn’t be allowed to use their imaginations and read without a benevolent force guiding them because they can harm themselves without even realizing it is ancient, outdated and stupid.
    Humans (this includes women BTW ) develop the capacity to tell reality from fiction very early and the ones that don’t are not metric to start making assumptions about the overwhelming majority that that does. After all evolutionary speaking someone that can’t tell a predator from a puppy wouldn’t had lived long enough to procreate so I think we probably talking about a very small percentage of exceptions.
    It also assumes a lot of how ALL women relate to fiction. Not all women look for role models in fiction specially fiction with freaking vampires as the theme and women are not unidimensional that cannot identify with different types of female characters or that they should only identify with one type of woman and despise women that don’t fix in their particular “women should do this” box. Many Twihards were Buffy fans before, and now they are the ones that fuel Hunger Games and Divergent franchise. Bella is part of a tradition of female protagonists she is not an or she is an add and fulfill a different function than Katniss, Tris or Buffy or Xena or Scully… and a function that was obviously needed given the franchise success. The critics are projecting their personal experience with Twilight without even considering equally valid the interpretation of the fans and the author’s intention. Furthermore a recent study shows that romance readers are more sensitive to emotional cues than people who read other literary genres and reading these novels “helps to maintain and improve social skills,” including the ability to read subtle facial expressions. So maybe this “Won’t you think on the young women fragile minds?” Is not really helping any. Just something to consider.

    I do think you made a mistake thought. Now fiction aimed at boys is left alone to flourish and entertain but back in the 50′s the Comic Code was created based in similar ideas (and bad science) of how comic books were corrupting young minds.
    History repeating itself?
    Another good read is Dangerous books for girls it talks about why Romance novels being written for women and by women were always suspect and mocked to take away their power. Because you know if is not accessible to men it most be evil somehow.
    Again great article.