Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Trouble with Twilight--Part VI:Twisted Appeal

So, what's really going on with Twilight? Why are so many girls and women such fanatical fans?

I've been thinking about this since I began the series, and although there are probably several reasons, I think the main one is that Meyer has somehow tapped into a mass sense of insecurity and provided a heady, addictive antidote.

There's no way that young girls and/or women can live up to the ideal they're shown every day, over and over, on billboards, in magazines or movies or TV shows--everywhere, all the time. They, like Bella, just can't match the perfection of the immortals. Of course, in our world the immortals are created by camera angles, air brushing, and starvation diets rather than by a vampire's bite, but the effect is the same--a major loss of self esteem. So, Meyer takes an average young woman and makes her the object of someone's obsession. And not a creepy someone. A handsome, god-like, powerful, rich, sexy young man who could have anyone but who wants only her.

This is heady stuff. Suddenly, a young woman who's always felt that she's not good enough can be vicariously powerful. She has a secret hope. If Bella can get a man like that, so can I. I, too, can be the center of someone's universe. I can be his special brand of heroin. Meyer is providing an illusion of female strength and, in a sick way, boosting weak self-esteem.

Jonathan mentioned in an earlier comment that he was interested in what Meyer has done with the tropes of the romance novel, and I am too. These tropes--which are probably ingrained in the collective female psyche--have actually grown and changed as opportunities for women have expanded. They've morphed from the basic helpless woman/rescue motif into various patterns of heroes being forced to accept a woman as she is and learning to respect her as an individual and allow her personal freedom before he can win her heart and form a partnership based on equality. Darcy and Elizabeth are an early example of this evolving trope. I'm not a big reader of bodice rippers today, but I know that Stephanie Laurens' historical romances are big on the independent woman/equality theme. Meyer does draw on the tropes of earlier romance novels, but it seems she takes all the female insecurities (ignoring the heroines' strengths) and pairs them with extreme versions of the heroes' characteristics. To use Jonathan's earlier list and expand on it, Edward has Darcy's good looks, pride, and money, Rochester's moodiness, Heathcliff's obsession, Jesus's ability to save, and the "Christian romance"-bodice-ripper heroes' super-human restraint (I didn't know there was such a genre as the Christian romance bodice ripper, but it's an interesting concept). This, of course, makes for a very unequal partnership. Yet, rather than being angry over Meyer's portrayal of women, fans seem to feed on the idea of a really weak woman being able to mesmerize the ultimate-alpha-macho man.

I know that Twilight fans will argue that Bella becomes a strong woman. And they're right, in the final novel she does. But they need to look a little closer. She doesn't become a strong woman because of personal growth or a reliance on her own abilities. It takes a man to make her that way, and she still has to look like a supermodel.

Meyer may have tapped into a great social malady, but the antidote she provides is just a placebo. It seems to address the symptoms, and you feel better for a little while, but the illness is still festering underneath it all.

Now I'm done with Twilight. In the words of Forrest Gump: That's all I have to say about that.

Anything to add?


Jonathan G. Reinhardt said...

Thanks, Stephanie! I've enjoyed these posts immensely, and I agree pretty much throughout.

I guess what I've started thinking about is two things that I'll be posting about myself soon.

One is instructional: The techniques for writing this sort of novel are pretty straightforward and not mysterious at all. Why not share some tips for others who want to do the same?

The second regards the disconnect between critics and the market. The Twilight novels are not good quality writing, and yet they will be read more widely and will shape more imaginations than most all of the classics or other critically acclaimed books. Perhaps it's time to think more about the economy of taste?

P.S. Thanks for the shout-out... I'm flattered.

Stephanie said...

There's definitely a disconnect. My daughter, whom I'd never classify as a reader, read these novels and couldn't wait for me to. She loved them. When I tried to explain why I didn't, she just rolled her eyes and thought I was over-reacting. "You can't think about all that," she said. "You just gotta loosen up and enjoy the story!" Sigh. I'm sure that's what most fans of Twilight think, too.

Oh, on another note. Edward has exaggerated versions of all the literary heroes' traits, so I started thinking about Jacob. Who's he like? Then it hit me--he's a very protective Incredible Hulk.

Kelly said...

Thank you for all of these posts, Stephanie. You have articulated most of my thoughts on the Twilight books and phenomenon. I agree with Jonathan about the disconnect, and so far, when I have addressed this issue with any book (like Twilight or Dan Brown or Grisham novels or the Christian "bodice-ripper" books - bleck, by the way), my friends and family think I'm such a huge snob.

I guess all I can do to help enlighten the masses about bad writing is to expose them to good writing. My high school English teacher told me once, "If you ever read a few really good novels, you will never want to read trash again." She's right. I need to buy my favorites in bulk, and when people start talking about Twilight, or the Time Traveler's Wife, I can hand them a copy of the good stuff. "Here. Please. Take this. You need it."

Jonathan G. Reinhardt said...

I like the Incredible Hulk idea.

I think, in fact, that Jacob is an older brother figure. I know that's weird because of the touch of romance between Bella and him, but I think there's a (low-key, non-escalating) degree of that in many fraternal relationships, in the sense that many sisters look to their brothers to fulfill some (strictly survival-oriented) intimate friendship-functions and physical protection roles that a romantic partner would when the true romantic partner isn't available -- or at least the brothers tend to think they do.

Just one more level of dysfunctional dynamics in this set of novels.

Becca said...

I thought you might be interested in this:

The author can be crude at times, but she does a good job at pointing out how drenched in Mormonism the whole series is, including some more obscure Mormon beliefs most non-Mormons don't know about.

Jonathan G. Reinhardt said...

Those livejounral entries are pricelessly funny...

Stephanie said...

I know! By the time I finished reading them, my stomach was hurting from laughing so hard. And the graphics were as good as the text!

Mimi said...

I really enjoyed reading your entries about Twilight (I searched twilight and read everything that you wrote relating)

And I see Kelly's stand. I first read Twilight when I was 14 and I loved it. I was in 12th grade taking literature when the 4th book came out. It was so horrible that I couldn't get through 1/5 of the book. Then I looked back on the books which had started to collect dust-- and I am ashamed to have loved it so much! It's a disgrace to literature! And to women! As if there aren't enough insecure (or as my psychology textbook would say "attachment anxious") women in relationships in the world!

In my graduating year of high school, I wrote several reviews criticizing the series only to receive death threats from the girls in my school. You can imagine how relieved I was to find copious blog entries about the dangerous of reading Twilight~

Thank you!