29 Nov

This might be a bad time to make this public confession. I haven’t had much time to build up a facade of authority or credibility*. But I’m just going to go for it. Get it out in the open. Let the world know a more complete version of me.

I am Raewyn Campbell and I’m a Twihard.

With the recent release of Breaking Dawn: Part 1, interest and public discussion surrounding the Twilight Saga has been reinvigorated. And every time the fervency of the debate increases the more I want to speak back in defence of Twilight. Woe betide anyone who crosses my path while I’m in Twilight Defence Mode. The likelihood of being given a verbal essay is high.

Usually my – ahem – ‘passionate critiques’ take place in a face-to-face context. Small scale. Private. However, I broke this trend last year and voiced my opinions in a more public forum. That’s right. I sent an email to the letters section of a magazine. BAM! Like a boss!

It was even published.**

This year I have a blog. That beats a letter to a magazine. I don’t have to keep to a short pithy word count. I can ramble somewhat uninterrupted! THE POWER!!!!

So, to the discussion at hand. My defence of the Twilight Saga stems from dissatisfaction in what I see as the conflation of personal taste with moral absolutes.

There is no doubt that the sentence structure and language use in these books is pretty dodgy.

Many aspects of the narrative are problematic, especially in terms of gender and ethnicity. Some feminist and post-colonial critics might even see it as a gift – easy fodder.

It shows a lack of consideration for generic conventions and traditions that have come before it.

The fashion sense of certain characters’ is drastically and distractedly out-dated.

And these things can be hard to over-look. These things should be investigated and critiqued. But it doesn’t mean that Twilight is absolutely and essentially bad. I fear that sometimes criticisms of Twilight end up reinforcing the discursive regimes they set out to critique.

Too often in these arguments the vast fanbase of the saga becomes understood as mindless dupes. Easily manipulated by mass-marketing institutions. Spoon fed meaning. Homogenised. Uncritical. Victimised.

The female protagonist becomes the perpetual victim. Weak. Unaware of the abusive relationship she unwittingly fights for. A poster girl for female subjugation. The invisible maintainer of patriarchal dominance outside of the text.

I have a problem with this. I think Twilight has become the scapegoat for inequalities within a wider discursive regime. In the process it has placed those who like it – and let’s face it, its fanbase is predominantly female – in an awkward position, and has hidden (or in some cases glorified) other things that may contribute to power imbalances within countries such as Australia, the US, UK and many, many others beside.***

The protagonist of these books is Bella Swan, a teenager who falls “unconditionally and irrevocably” in love with a gorgeous vampire, Edward Cullen. The intensity of the relationship is such that these two go to extremes – emotionally, physically and mentally – to be with or protect the other. In many ways it verges on, evens steps clearly into obsessive, controlling and abusive territory; an example of this that sticks out most clearly to me comes from Eclipse. In this book Edward disables Bella’s car so she can’t see her friend Jacob. He also effectively has her kidnapped by his sister so Bella can’t hang-out with Jacob while he’s out of town. This behaviour is inexcusable. And you know what. Bella calls Edward on it. And he stops.

Then Bella has smoochies with Jacob only hours after accepting Edward’s marriage proposal. Victimised? Oppressed? Not necessarily.

Bella may mope about after Edward who is often a controlling, mopey doofus. But to argue that she is the perpetual victim disregards her agency in the things that happen to her and the decisions she makes in the books: she chooses to stay with Edward because she is deeply attracted to him – sexually, intellectually, emotionally – someone try to explain to me how love is ever rational. She chooses to become a vampire because she wants to match Edward physically in strength, beauty and life expectancy – how does her affection for a man invalidate her desire to reach the pinnacle of physical prowess? She fights to keep her unplanned child despite hostility and aggression from all sides – including from Edward – and despite the physical danger it poses for her own health. If you’re pro-choice, you’re pro choice… right? Bella might verge on emo, but she certainly has her moments.

To delegitimise Bella as a role-model (and who’s to say audience members see her in this way in the first place), I would argue, also disregards the agency of the audience. Cultural Studies 101: Texts are polysemic. This pretty much means that a text can mean lots of different things to different people – or even to the one person. To assume that every reader who reads Twilight takes the same message from it and is affected in the same way by it, is a very large assumption to say the least. It is an even bigger assumption to say that the effect of Twilight on those who read it is ultimately to their detriment – that the audience will sanction abusive, controlling relationships, that they will look unrealistically for their very own Edward, that they will become dupes of patriarchal power structures etc. This may very well happen for certain audience members, but I can’t help but think it’s akin to saying that playing violent video games makes those who play them violent. Effects research – as my supervisors are constantly telling me – is complicated. You can’t just reduce audience reception into one neat story.

To devalue Twilight on the basis of written quality and artistic merit also puts the fanbase in an awkward position where their affection for the text is regarded as lack of discernment on their part – they only like it because they don’t know quality when they see it. I like McDonalds cheese burgers. I know they are cheap and whacked together by a bunch of sweaty unskilled teenagers. But I’m gonna keep eating cheese burgers. I think they taste nice. Telling me you don’t like how they taste isn’t going to do a thing for my taste buds. And just because I like cheese burgers doesn’t mean I don’t like myself a roast carrot and avocado Moroccan inspired salad. What I’m trying to say is my personal enjoyment of Twilight is not contingent upon its literary quality or value. I like it. I don’t necessarily know why. I just do. That’s affect for you: pre-cognitive intensity. Thanks Massumi.

Ultimately Twilight is part of a wider discursive regime where, I believe, white males come out on top. But I don’t think it should be isolated and villanised because it shows traces of this heritage. Critique it, investigate it, talk about it. This is good and useful. I will do this until the cows come home.

However, it would be dishonest of me not to own that I spent almost a week of my Christmas holidays three years ago never getting to sleep before 4am, rarely leaving the lounge, consuming nothing but cups of tea, and ignoring every person who spoke to me because I was completely, unconditionally and irrevocably engrossed in these books. And I’m pretty sure there are a few other people who had a very similar experience.

*Ha! Like that was ever a possibility.

** See!

*** This is what I wrote about in the letter to SFX. I’ve copied the whole letter below:

It seems, from the July 2010 SFX vampire special edition, that gender inequality is only worthy of criticism if it is not mediated by the display of boobs.

I’ve just been flicking through this edition and was interested to note that the major criticisms of The Twilight Saga, expressed particularly in the article ‘Twilight On Trial’, stemmed from perceived gender inequality within the text. For example, Jayne Nelson writes “I think she’s [Bella’s] horribly wimpy […] you can’t deny that Bella is a bad role model for girls.” (83) and “my biggest problem with Twilight – in fact, it’s with New Moon – is that it’s about a girl trying to kill herself because her boyfriend’s left her. I know she’s not really trying to die; she’s only doing it to get his attention. But that’s shocking to me” (83). Despite Nelson herself admitting that she has straw-manned sexism within Twilight, I think a popular text such as Twilight is indeed worthy of rigorous critique, particularly regarding issues of gender and power. However, I believe it is also important to recognise that Twilight is not the only text which can, and should be scrutinised. Looking through the rest of the magazine, it seems that women continue to be disempowered. Yet it appears that, as male privilege is being reinforced through the objectification of women and their bodies (rather than via a young woman’s post-breakup depression and a male denying potentially violent sex) it is somehow less worthy of criticism.

Based on a very rough count, there are at least 72 images throughout the rest of the magazine which depict women in sexualised poses, emphasis being placed on the female body through focus on legs, skin, cleavage, skin-tight clothing etc, of women having sex with other women, of women having sex with men, of women bare chested/naked, and of women as victims of violence (often whilst naked). Somehow, it seems that objectification has become conflated with empowerment. These 72 images compare to a mere 11 images (some of these overlap with the above mentioned female images) of men in sexualised poses, revealing bare skin, or violence being inflicted upon them; 6 of these bare-chested male images come from New Moon – perhaps Twilight is actually the most subversive vampire text of the bunch…


6 Responses to “Confession”

  1. Clare Woodley November 29, 2011 at 4:39 pm #

    Many a valid point even if you don’t convince me.

    I like the cheeseburger analogy. Personally my cheeseburger books are Charliane Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse books- True Blood may be awesome and well written but the books are of a pretty woeful quality and I also read everyone of them with kind of speed/intensity with which you read Twilight. Everyone needs a guilty pleasure.

    • woefully imprecise November 29, 2011 at 4:43 pm #

      I love them too!!! And I consumed them in a manner very similar to Twilight. I haven’t worked out if they get better written as they go on or if I just get used to the writing style the more I read.

      • Clare Woodley November 29, 2011 at 4:55 pm #

        I think it is the latter especially as the writing quality is very variable.

  2. fanthropology November 30, 2011 at 7:24 pm #

    I am so with you on this. I myself am not a big fan of Twilight but I think it is important to accept that audiences may find diverse and sometimes unanticipated meanings in texts. And one of the founding tenets of cultural studies is to break down the barriers between high and low (popular) culture. Yet most of the arguments against Twilight are on the basis of class and quality. Texts that may be similarly poorly written or have gender issues that are not so explicitly for women (or feminised) are not lampooned the same way. Great post. I really want to share it with my students!

  3. The Awesome Ellen December 1, 2011 at 10:56 am #

    Great post Rae! Completely agree! Yes, the twilight series are poorly written, edited and are often just taken at face value… but so what? Our culture is full of texts that are like this, and more often than not they do not get critiqued. Especially as most of the people critiquing the twilight series have never read the books, and some have never seen the movies. Any text that encourages debate, and gets people involved with reading is a good thing! And I (shamefully!) was one of those people that read these 4 novels in 4 days- ignoring everyone and everything around me. So I’ll admit, I’m a twihard too!


  1. Response to ‘Girls on Youtube’ Becoming Youtube | woefullyimprecise - February 28, 2013

    […] be challenged.  For example, where does the line between aiding and being patronising fall? And (as I discussed in relation to Twilight fans) sometimes criticism of certain discursive regimes can unfortunately fall back into reinforcing and […]

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