Me and Twilight

I’m about to bare my soul here, so if you decide to criticize, please do so gently.

I first read Twilight in December of 2007, when it was just on the upswing, but before it became a proper phenomenon.  I was 26, in Florida for Christmas to visit family, away from my then-boyfriend now-husband (who was my boyfriend of 9 years at the time), and for the past several years Christmas-time had been when I was at my most emotionally vulnerable.  My husband would disappear to visit his family, where the internet is slow (meaning infrequent emails from him) and he would stay up until all hours playing video games with his brother, having what sounded like a right magical time to me, while I was with my family, whom I love very much and can stand individually for long periods of time but all together, three days is about my max.  I was in Florida which now counts as far from home, I had a sinus infection (which was actually an infected wisdom tooth but I didn’t find that out until January), my sister had just gotten engaged (to her then-fiance now-husband, whom she had been dating for only a little over two years before they got engaged, which seemed like not a very long time to me) in August, so this was the first time all of our family was seeing her since then, and I was feeling supremely lonely and overlooked.

I picked Twilight up at Target just before we left for Florida.  I started reading it on the way down.  (I think I flew but I’m not 100% on that.  All of my trips to Florida kind of turn into a swirly mess in my head, Christmases combined with summers, a few Easters thrown in, because the weather is about the same most of the year.)  I was sucked in pretty much right away.  Bella Swan and I were practically twins.  She had dark hair.  I have dark hair.  She was clumsy.  I was clumsy.  She had moved in with her dad and started attending a high school in a very small town.  I had moved away from my family and boyfriend and taught at a high school in a very small town.  She had a boyfriend who was a vampire.  I had a boyfriend who wanted to be a vampire.

I can’t remember how I felt about the sparkling at the time.  I want to say I thought it was stupid but it’s entirely possible I thought it sounded very pretty.  (I was supremely disappointed with the execution of that in the film, by the way.)

I ate it up.  I’m pretty sure I sang its praises to my husband.  I think I was all, “There’s this book, and the vampire says such pretty things, and it makes me think of you…”  (Let’s not leave aside the fact that Bella had never had a boyfriend before Edward.  Because the fact that she was having her first real relationship at 17 also parallels my life.  And probably the lives of many more people than would actually admit it.)

I finished the book while I was still in Florida, I think.  It was a vacation read.  I came back to the real world (i. e., not Christmas in Florida) and forgot about Twilight, mostly.  Then it started really becoming a thing and my students started talking about it.  I had two that were very critical of it, and the more I listened to them, the more I realized that all of their criticisms were spot on.  I started to feel ashamed for having enjoyed it so thoroughly.

I recently re-read Twilight for my Young Adult Literature class.  This time I went in looking to examine exactly why I’d had so much fun with it the first time.  For a while, I couldn’t figure it out.  The prose didn’t impress me.  I’m thoroughly tired of teenagers in books taking care of their incompetent divorced/widowed parents.  The last time I found that charming was when I was watching Blossom.  Edward’s behavior was mostly irritating.

But then I got to the sex-scenes-that-are-not.  If you’ve read it, you know what I mean.  The ones where lots of pretty words are said, but no touching happens.  And I realized  that those scenes were the ones that really got me the first time through, and that they have exactly the same power, even now.  Sad.  Embarrassing.  I realized during this reading of it, though, that Edward is not only creepy, but also extremely patronizing.  And that if I had a boyfriend who treated me the way he treats Bella (i. e., like a child) I would dump him posthaste.  I think even if he were really pretty and made me feel very special.  Because there are few things that bother me more than being patronized.

All of my problems with Twilight in terms of plausibility can be summed up by saying it reads like a fanfic – a fanfic I wrote in the Buffy universe, and one lots of other people have written, too.  The Cullens accept Bella so readily, which I thought was ridiculous.  (In fact, I think Rosalie is the most reasonable of them.)  Vampires should not go to high school; I don’t care if it means they can stay in one place longer that way.  As they’re undead, I’m pretty sure truancy officers aren’t going to come after them.  Why anyone would go to high school more than once I can’t imagine.  (And I actually had a pretty good time in high school.)  And then, there’s some parts of vampire lore that are really sacred to me which Stephanie Meyer completely threw out the window, and others she fails to mention entirely.

Recently, I also started to object to the fact that Edward is just creepy, and it frightens me that this is the ideal man in the minds of many girls and women.  But yesterday I had to start re-examining this objection, because my perfect man imprint in fiction is The Phantom of the Opera, and he’s really way creepier than Edward.  He kills people a lot, he sings at Christine from behind a mirror – which means he’s probably been watching her dress and undress, he kidnaps her, he sends threatening notes to all sorts of people.  So.  What makes the Phantom different than Edward?  Well, he’s smarter.  Edward didn’t design an elaborate system of traps and such under an opera house.  Also he’s not actually pretty.  Which I think really is part of his appeal.  Edward feels like he’s a monster because he kind of wants to eat people; Erik, however, looks like a monster but, in the strictest and least psychological of terms, is not one.  Why am I not scared that people will actually hope deformed men will start watching them in mirrors and stealing them away in the same way I’m afraid women will think the ideal boyfriend is a patronizing stalker who looks like he’s going to throw up every time he talks to you?  I think the distance in time is what does it for me.  Erik doesn’t look seventeen.  He doesn’t go to high school.  He doesn’t feel like a person you might really run into who’s just, you know, a vampire, but otherwise “normal.”

So I’ve kind of figured out why I’m okay with the Phantom and not Edward, although I still feel like I’m not really justified in criticizing other people for loving Edward anymore.  (I’ve never been on Team Edward or Team Jacob, but I move closer to being on Team Jacob every day.)  I kept pursuing this line of thought, examining what I think is or is not okay to idealize in a relationship, and I came to the best in vampire/teen girl loves: Buffy and Angel.  I am one of these  Buffy/Angel OTPers.  I mean, I hated Riley simply because he was Not Angel.  And don’t get me started on Spuffy.  (It always ends bad when I talk about it.  Let me say that one of my other prime OTPs is Spike and Dru.  So anytime they’re separated I’m unhappy.)

I was like, “Oh, but Angel’s different.  He didn’t stalk – ”  Oops.  Edward sat inside Bella’s bedroom at night for two months.  Angel watched Buffy hang out at school for a year.  Angel followed her from LA to Sunnydale.  “Oh, well, Angel’s different, because he -”  And I just have very little, except that he’s not really patronizing.  But, would you be, if your girlfriend had superpowers?  Now, the fact that it’s Buffy’s job to kill vampires lends a lot more interest to the story, I think, than the fact that Edward kinda wants to have Bella for lunch.  Sacred duty is more interesting than being a snack.  Buffy as a story has many things to recommend it over Twilight, I think; complexity, mainly.  (And I’m pretending here that nothing after Seasons One through Three exists, because it’s really the Buffy/Angel relationship that is of interest here.)  Also Joyce is an adult who can cook her own food and do her own laundry, so that’s nice, and Angel points out how ridiculous it is for Darla to be pretending to be a school girl.  So those issues of mine with Twilight are not a problem on Buffy.

But in the end, I’m pretty much a hypocrite.  I do wish I’d gone on and read New Moon and Eclipse before the phenomenon really started.  (Stupid not being in paperback at the time.)  Because now, I will feel weird reading them.  But the truth is, I’ll probably have fun reading them (not so sure about Breaking Dawn but I couldn’t have read it pre-phenomenon anyway since it wasn’t out until mid-phenomenon). 

No matter how much fun they are, though, you’ll never find me being a Twilight tourist.  I’m not about to journey up to Forks or Port Orange to try and recreate scenes from the book or the movie.  Also, I don’t care how much you like the name Renesmee, it sounds silly.

There.  Now this is the personal response to reading journal I always meant for it to be.

14 responses on “Me and Twilight”

  1. Really good analysis. For me, the parallel that made me realize that there was nothing inherently harmful in crushing on Edward was Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights. The fact that these characters would be intolerable in real life does nothing to diminish their sexiness when they are safely in fantasy land. I don’t think that people are as comfortable with the notion of girls having unrealistic romantic/sexual fantasies as they are with boys, which is where I think a lot of the Twilight hand-wringing comes in. It sounds like you’ve heard criticism from the actual age group for which the books were intended. I’ve only heard it from well meaning and/or snarky adults.

    One thing that really gets under my skin is attention movie reviewers (invariably male, it seems) pay to the films, and the thoroughness of their negative reviews. It happens with boy bands too, and I can’t help but think that it comes from a place of being unhappy with the fact that young girls’ attraction is going to Not Them. That and the fact that damnit, sexy vampires are for boys! (I can’t remember if it was the Indy or the N&Os reviewer who went on and on about how Vampires Are Supposed to be Scary! and then said of The Hunger, “Catherine Deneuve and Susan Saranden butt-bald naked, now that’s what I’m talking about!”)

    I liked it in the same way that I like fan-fiction. Slightly guiltily, slightly unapologetically, perfectly aware of its extreme failing where emotional reality and decent writing are concerned. (And I don’t think that finding scenes that were written to push all the right buttons powerful to be sad or embarrassing. Well, maybe only embarrassing in the way that porn is. Like, we all know it’s natural and fine, but that doesn’t mean that we want people to know about ours or that we want to know about other people’s.)

    I also think (and were you the one that first suggested this?) that Bella’s appeal lies in the fact that, aside from a few superficial details, she is pretty much a blank slate. She’s clumsy! She doesn’t fit in! Ohmygod, she’s Just Like Me!

  2. I think where it is a little scary, and where the line between Erik or Heathcliff and then Edward lies, is in the setting and the age at which Edward is stuck. He looks like a 17 year old and he goes to high school, and I do hope that readers realize that even though it’s set in the real world in modern times it needs to be treated as fantasy still. (With all the inherent metaphors and relationships to modern issues – like teen abstinence!)

    There is some argument suggesting people are uncomfortable with girls objectifying boys, which is an argument I’d accept more if Bella had any agency in the relationship. (I find it sad but also probably true to life that she’s so competent around the house but turns into a puddle when Edward’s around.) I also find it a much more reasonable argument when talking about the movies than the books. Though, someone in my YA Lit class pointed out, the kid who plays Jacob is 17, and being a lot older than him but still thinking he’s dead sexy is maybe sketchy. (Clearly these people were not on the interwebs in the few months after Daniel Radcliffe hit puberty, or this phenomenon would not be news to them.)

    I was not the first person to say that about Bella, but I was probably the first you heard/read. I call it the Chrono/Squall effect. For you, we’ll go with Squall as our example – there are bajillions of boys on the internets who when asked which FF character they identify with say Squall, and their explanation is that he’s “just like them.” Now, to be silly about it, I doubt they have gunblades or bizarrely coincidental relationships with people who used to be their friends when they were wee that they’ve since forgotten. But he has confusion and trying to find his place in the world and no characteristics that would cause someone to say he was absolutely NOT like them. Anyway. I submit all the internet boys who think they’re Squall (who I thought was actually named Yoshiki for the longest time after watching you play) as evidence that this really works, for both boys and girls.

  3. I think the lack of agency is part of the fantasy though. It may not be the kind of fantasy that we think of as healthy or empowering, but what in “My Secret Garden” really was? A lot of the criticism I hear seems to make the assumption that girls are unable to transition from reality to fantasy and back again, and I guess that, given the intensity with which many young women become obsessed with things like Twilight and boy bands, I can see where they’d get that impression, but I really, really don’t think it’s the case. For one thing, guys like Edward don’t exist, and I don’t mean that in the vampire sense, so the issue of whether or not he is “scary” seems moot. I think what is attractive is that whole “you are my reason for living!!!!” crying in the rain thing (Charity and I used to enjoy long conversations where we shared our best crying in the rain fantasies). And that? Doesn’t happen in real life. Stalkers, yes. Patronizing jerks, yes. But those aren’t the qualities that make girls go mad for Edward, and I doubt that those girls would take the bad stuff if the DEEP SOUL LOVE (that doesn’t exist) weren’t there.

    I guess the argument can be made that girls see Deep Soul Love when it isn’t there, but I still don’t think that the two things are related. Maybe a lot of this comes from the fact that, back in my day, I was mad, insane, Good lord lock that girl-child up obsessed with the New Kids on the Block (yeah) and read bodice rippers like crazy (and this was back before bodice rippers were at all concerned with female empowerment), and I turned out just fine.

  4. I don’t think you’re wrong, and I’m not really worried about the lack of agency – I just think it deflates the argument of people saying the reason people are uncomfortable with Twilight is that they have problems with women objectifying men, a bit. I think the lack of trust in girls’ intelligence is where people’s actual concerns stem from, and I think that you’re right that these girls will turn out fine. (This is not to say people don’t have that problem with the women ogling the men; I just think it’s expressed differently than the general “Edward is sketchy!” stuff I have been hearing. Which is all from women. I’ve not looked at any reviews.)

    I’m more worried about the boys, actually, because I fear the message they get from this is that they need to be like Edward, and you know, they really don’t. They can’t and they shouldn’t. (Please keep in mind too that my fears all come from a place of actually having taught in a high school while kids were reading these books, not from hypotheticals I’m inventing from my office at Salon or something.)

    I loved bodice rippers, and when I think about the way those men treated those women, I kinda feel the same – they were patronizing and that was annoying but that whole true love thing (and the smut) made it okay to read about.

    Now when I read romance it does tend to fall into the paranormal category (which is partly Sonja’s fault I think) and more than that, the vampire category, but it is kind of heavy on the chick lit style (I’m a shoe-loving hipster Wiccan who works in a magic shop! And my boyfriend is a vampire! Whee! Or alternately I’m a shoe-loving business CEO from an ancient and revered vampire family! And my boyfriend is a cowboy! Whee!) and the men generally treat the women like adults. Even if sometimes they don’t really act like adults (which is kind of overrated, anyway). I think my favorite paranormal series I’ve read any of – and I’ve only read the first one – is actually a Nora Roberts trilogy where the main girl is a red-headed Wiccan and she has to travel through time with her lover who is an Irishman from a century before the 19th (though I don’t remember if it’s 17th or earlier) whose brother is a vampire that is causing problems in the 21st century.

  5. Read the remaining books. Seriously.

    I didn’t read ANY of them until after I took M to see the midnight opener for Twilight last fall – and then I read and re-read the series repeatedly until just after New Year’s, losing 30 pounds in the process (no kidding). It was like crack – seriously addictive, and you are exactly correct – it’s all the yearning/longing. The books aren’t well-written; they could have used some serious editing; the author makes some choices along the way that are there to make things easier for her characters instead of harder, etc. And yet . . . oh, the shiny, smoldery goodness.

  6. I think there’s a difference between objectifying men and having sexual fantasies, and I think it’s more the latter that gives people the squick, especially when the fantasy doesn’t conform to what we think of as healthy. I should add that with the male-reviewer-spending-too-much-time-criticising-a-movie-for-teenagers thing, I think it is less “women shouldn’t ogle men!” and more sour grapes about who it is that women choose to ogle. (That and the fact that it seems sometimes like the world is really invested in pointing out how little value there is in anything that teenage girls like.)

    Have you seen boys wanting to be like Edward? I remember when the most recent book came out, the piece in the paper about the midnight release party (come to think of it, I think this article was the first place I heard about Twilight) had a couple of quotes from boys who were there that boiled down to, “The books are stupid, but there are girls here.” I remember thinking that those boys were clever, though whether or not that was a good thing for me to think, I don’t know.

    (Sorry it took me so long to reply. It’s a good weekend when I’m kept away from the @#*&-ing internet.)

  7. I didn’t see boys wanting to be Edward, but thinking on the character of my students it wouldn’t surprise me. And I mean more in their interactions with girls, not their hair or something – thinking being patronizing and treating her like a child would be the way to go, for example – and I didn’t see a lot of that kind of interaction. I could be way off base. I had one boy student who went to the midnight release party, and I think he went because he actually liked the books. I think, in fact, he liked most books. Two covers + lots of pages in between = good in his mind, I think.

  8. I just ordered New Moon after holding out for about a year. I told myself I was saving the rest of the series (which I knew I would love like a bad drug, but find really embarrassing to read and be really annoyed with the TERRIBLE writing) for a rainy day. I think that day has come.

  9. I could spend a full 24 hours going on about the many things that are wrong with these books, from the writing to some of the characters to some of the story lines. Yet it didn’t stop me from reading and re-reading them (like, 6 times – I lost a ton of weight while doing it, too – all that talk of abstinence, coupled with the fact that I don’t eat while reading, I suppose). By all means, read the rest. And then read ‘s summaries of them.

  10. I just think it’ll be that long before I feel like reading them. I’m gonna read some grown up books now. Reading 3 – 6 YA novels a week is hard work!

  11. Especially when you’re reading them for school – reading for pleasure is something else entirely.

    Of recent releases, M recommends Hush, Hush, The Splendor Falls and Beautiful Creatures. She also likes forthcoming novels Captivate and Chasing Brooklyn.

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