Why ‘Twilight’ is all right with me

This post is Part 2 of G3’s response to Twi-Hater nation. Check out V.’s previous essay here.

Every other week or so, an anti-Twilight zinger presents itself during my regular pop culture and social media consumption, usually followed by a stream of ha-ha-Twilight-sux commentary from people who are vigilant about telling us that a harmless work of young adult fiction is total crap. It’s the meme that won’t die. You could set your watch by it.

Chances are that the person with the strongest opinion, the one who’s so sure that Twilight is the worst thing to happen to feminism, literature and film in the 21st Century, has never read a single book in Stephanie Meyer’s series. If you have done so and loathe Twilight, carry on. You’ve earned your right to judge.

I read two-and-a-half of Meyer’s books, which were fine, saw the first two films, which were solidly enjoyable, and then decided I was done. A Twi-hard I am not, and I’ve made it known that parts of the story got on my last nerve.

But come on. The bottomless contempt for this series, years after its peak, is beyond ridiculous. It’s also riddled with sexism and condescension toward Twilight’s overwhelmingly female fan base. Because if 11-year-old girls and suburban moms like something, it must be shitty.

When pressed to explain the sustained ire, Twi-haters trot out one or all of the following unsatisfactory arguments.

It sends a bad message to girls.
Girls weather a barrage of destructive messages about their bodies, their self-worth and their power or lack thereof in a society that still treats females as things to be objectified, categorized and judged before they even open their mouths. As the mother of an 8-year-old girl, I take that very seriously. But the idea that this particular series of books undermined a generation of young women and even encouraged them to engage in emotionally abusive relationships is laughable.

I’ve got some issues with Bella Swan and Edward Cullen’s obsessive dynamic, but the fact that Bella’s beloved is a vampire is a pretty strong indicator that this is not a true story. I suspect that one big factor in Twilight’s success is that it reflects many tween girls’ fantasies about romance — that of a beautiful, slightly tragic love interest whose world revolves almost exclusively around them. Perhaps that’s not edgy, adult or modern enough for you, but that doesn’t make their desires any less legitimate than yours. Plus, the girls who loved these books aren’t stupid. Very few of them are going to take life lessons from a novel where characters turn into werewolves and war with a ruling class of vampires.

Remember, many of the same people who loved Twilight also devoured The Hunger Games and Harry Potter series, books that were deemed respectable and pro-female. So …

It’s badly written.
Twilight isn’t The Sound and the Fury, but so what? Meyer created a world that enthralled millions of people and mined a paranormal love triangle for gold. Sure, I had my moments of thinking, “I could have written this.” But I didn’t.

Bella/Kristin Stewart sucks.
Now this is where it gets interesting. In particular, Twi-haters love to bash Bella Swan and Kristen Stewart, the actress who plays her. Bella has been compared unfavorably to almost every female heroine in contemporary young adult fiction and described as a terrible role model for girls. Stewart is routinely measured against the actresses who play those heroines, and not necessarily in ways that have anything to do with her talent.

If you want to pick apart Stewart’s performances or her screen presence, OK. That comes with the territory of a film career. But when it becomes an excuse to make negative comments about her sex appeal? Ick. Not long ago, I saw a side-by-side comparison of Stewart and Emma Watson of Harry Potter fame that declared Watson/Hermoine the “winner” in the hotness category. I’m sure Watson is flattered to pieces by this stamp of approval.

Twilight’s male characters and the actors who play them have endured their share of derision; however, it’s nowhere close to the level of scorn reserved for the female protagonist.

Vampires don’t sparkle/play baseball/drive Volvos.
They’re not real.

I don’t plan to see Breaking Dawn 2 or revisit the fictional citizens and vampires of Forks, Wa., anytime soon. But I know an awful lot of smart, well-read and discerning women who have enjoyed many years with these characters and will be in theaters opening weekend. If there’s anything geeks ought to understand and even salute, it’s this level of pure enthusiasm — the special kind that comes from being immersed in and transported by a work of fantasy. Why, it’s almost like … sparkling.

21 thoughts on “Why ‘Twilight’ is all right with me

  1. Well said Erika. As I’m one who shouldn’t be throwing stones, I’m ashamed of myself. I won’t promise to let the occasional smartass comment slip, but I’ll be more considerate in the future.

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  2. Craig, you are a good guy! I have been guilty of snarking about things that others hold dear, and writing this made me rethink some of my own habits. In any case, we are still friends. :-)

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  3. True confession: I did wade through all four books, and IMO they got even creepier, which is saying something. But you are right, Erika, and I need to stop rolling my eyes quite so hard. After all, my favorite fictional female when I was 11 was the daughter of a plantation owner whose self-absorption knew few limits and whose greatest accomplishment, before a war turned her world upside down, was having the smallest waist in five counties…Come to think of it, her love interest for most of her life was a pale, emotionally tortured, unavailable man who thought he yearned for her, but hardly ever touched her…wait a minute…I think we may have a new insight into Ashley’s real problem!

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    • Barbara, I remember loving books with those kinds of themes! And “Twilight” is way more defensible than the “Flowers in the Attic” series I read when I was 12 years old. Now THAT was creepy.

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      • hell, Stephen King got me to love reading through Jr. High and High School. I don’t think there’s much that’s more messed up than what flows from his pen.

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        • I read Carrie when I was 13, and I have every intention of giving a copy to my niece when she’s that age– what a perfect book for girls that age! ^_^

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          • I don’t even remember which one I read first. It was either Christine or Pet Sematary. I was hooked. I’ve suggested both IT as a coming-of-age tale and the Stand for it’s epic glory to my son. Not sure if he’s ready for the Gunslinger series yet. I couldn’t stomach it until just a few years ago. Love it now.

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  4. While I despise Twilight I say that if you like it or love it then LIKE AND LOVE IT!! If it makes you happy, read and enjoy!!! I do admire that the book contains so much sexual tension. Huzzah!

    Still don’t like it. But I can respect that many do. :)

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  5. I will only say this once. I like Twilight. I HATE to like it, but it can’t be helped. Reading that series, I had a voice in my head constantly saying “THIS IS GARBAGE!” and “YOU COULD’VE WRITTEN THIS DRIVEL!” and “JUST PUT IT DOWN!”… but I couldn’t. I wasn’t able to explain why. Nothing was relatable. Nothing was particularly compelling. It was just that metaphoric trainwreck you can’t look away from. I HAD to read them all. I HAD to know how it ended.

    My eyes hurt from the constant rolling as I tore through all four books in around 2 days. A wave of relief washed over me as I put down the final volume. It was all over. I would never have to do this to myself again. …Until a few weeks later, when I was gripped by some sinister desire to read them again. And I did. And it wasn’t better, but I finished the series for a second time.

    Twi-hating culture aside, I was embarrassed at MYSELF for liking these books. I consider myself pretty well-read, and poorly written, borderline erotic fiction like this had never once penetrated (HA) my discerning tastes in literature before. But it had something in it that was deficient in the rest of my well-grounded reading. Over-the-top. Angsty. Teenage. Feelings. Plus vampires.

    I might not have been a teen anymore, but I was a college student and still as angsty as ever. The basic idea of the Bella/Edward relationship thrilled me on some level because it seemed so caustic and awful at times. Sure, sure, it gets better at the end, but I was reveling in the bad parts. Bella is depressed! Bella refuses to eat! Bella can’t speak! It was like how I had once imagined I should act after a breakup but could never muster the dedication. The books purged my system all of those false ideas about how a girl in love should act. It was pretty therapeutic.

    Bottom line though, I don’t think the franchise is sending a bad message, and I don’t think it deserves the level of hatred it gets. We can analyze almost anything in almost any angle that suits us, but that doesn’t mean we should. These are works of fiction. Entertainment. They were not created to be held up under a magnifying glass and scrutinized. They were created to satisfy a level of unfulfilled needs and desires in females the world over. And it worked like a charm.

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  6. “Bella has been compared unfavorably to almost every female heroine in contemporary young adult fiction and described as a terrible role model for girls. ”

    My problem is actually not that I think she’s a “role model” but rather almost the opposite problem: that there is almost nothing to “model” anything off of. Well, okay, maybe something but… eh, let me get specific here. This will… be long. And strongly-felt. I’ve been meaning to get it off my chest and I think to some extent I only just recently, fully, comprehended why she bothers me. Please bear with me, and if you’re fan, I really don’t want to offend you or anything, but this is my honest reaction to the character and I have trouble interpreting her otherwise and this is not an opinion I have ever seen anybody espouse other than myself.

    I tried – really, earnestly TRIED – to read Twilight. Because I wanted to “see what the fuss” was, and I had several friends who liked or loved them and because even Cleolinda Jones, whose commentary I love, admits that it’s kinda endearing even as she can acknowledge the less than stellar bits (I believe her comparison, back in the days of yore before Hostess went under, was to a Twinkie; that you know it’s supposed to be bad for you, but once in a while…you just crave a damn Twinkie).

    And having read her other book, The Host, I kind of “got” what people meant when they said that it didn’t matter that the writing wasn’t perfect, she could manage to make you care enough to make it literary crack. In fact, though I am pretty well aware of its many flaws and issues (Mary Sues, plot holes, aliens that aren’t quite made to make sense, etc.), I still… actually, really really enjoyed The Host. The psychedelic imagination it showed, and the compelling narrator that’s likable even though she supposedly shouldn’t be, and damnit, in spite of myself, may well go to see the movie. I enjoyed it!

    And I knew, before ever flipping open Twilight, that it was intended as a sexy, piece of fluff romance for teens. That it wasn’t mean to be taken “seriously”, and it was just supposed to be this tumultuous romance that you kinda know is going to end well because it’s exactly that kind of romance, you know? And I knew that some of the characters, like Alice, would probably appeal to me, and thanks to Cleolinda, I could probably have managed to not dislike Edward (despite the fact he’s the exact opposite of My Type), on account of I would be too aware of how hilariously unbalanced he is and just take it as two mentally ill teens managing against all odds to not actually end up like Romeo and Juliet even when by rights they should’ve (that latter bit being kind of the point of That Kind of Romance). Heck, there’s even a Fandom Secret out there that jokes “decided to interpret it as Bella Swan being off her meds and hallucinating the whole thing, enjoyment went up 1000x, oh god now I think I’m a fan” that gave me yet another option for enjoyably interpreting it. So yeah, I was all set to have various non-offensive, potentially entertaining interpretations. I was all set to have fun, even!

    And you know, I knew the origin (that it was based on a dream) so the sparkling, though surreal, didn’t seem all that odd to me anymore, especially given the borderline hallucinogenic alien concepts she had in The Host; I knew both the benefits and the issues with Meyer’s writing style (stream of consciousness, editing it later – not a bad way to write so far as keeping momentum going and staying in the character’s head, but in her case her editors aren’t quite up to the task or something or maybe they just get distracted by that momentum, because both they and she often miss plot holes); I knew the flaws that tended to show up in her prose style (too much purple for my taste, too many verbs instead of “said”, confusingly written action sequences etc.). I knew those were there and weird as it sounds, because I was aware of them, I was ready and capable of looking past ALL of that. Seriously! I was!

    Even the fact that Bella was, supposedly, very much designed as a self-insert stand-in, with few specified interests outside of her love interest, was something I was aware of and willing to overlook. Because it’s romantic fantasy! It’s that kinda book, right? Just roll with it.

    But then I started reading it. And by page 20, I wanted to punch her effing lights out, and had to give up. I know what happens, thanks to Cleolinda’s recaps and my friends and all that. But I couldn’t stand to wade through any more of Bella Swan’s narration. I just couldn’t.

    It’s not just that she doesn’t have specified interests, because that’s a side effect of the “insert yourself here” model of romance writing, and I knew it was the case going in. No, the problem I had with her was that her PERSONALITY sucked. Not, you will note, that she “had no” personality, because she does. People say she doesn’t, but she absolutely does! That’s exactly the problem for me.

    I just found it to be the perfect storm of awful and unpleasant traits that made her completely unappealing as a narrator: she’s depressed (but won’t seek help or admit it to anyone, possibly including herself), she’s ungratefully passive-aggressive about literally everything (including getting a free car at seventeen years old), and – the worst sin of all in my opinion, when it’s in conjunction with all of the above – she isn’t even WITTY. I mean, passive-aggressive? Okay, she’s a teenager, and she’s flawed, that’s fine, I could have dealt with that. Depressed? (And seriously, there’s no pleasing her, she’s in a gorgeous section of the Pacific Northwest and her complaint is seriously that the scenery is TOO PRETTY at one point, she is THAT depressed) Well, I’ve been there, so I could’a dealt with that, probably. But then you get to this line, where her dad is giving her a car for free: “Oh well, never look a gift truck in the mouth – or engine.”

    Seriously. She (the character, specifically) not only seems to think that this is witty, but seems to think that it’s EVEN FUNNIER to just, like, explain the joke, so that an already terrible pun is just… ruined, as far as any remote chance of finding it funny goes, by the over-explanation of a joke that was already so damn simple it needed no explanation.

    And I got to that line, and I looked at the page It was on… 19 (of the large print edition, for those trying to look it up and getting confused). And we STILL hadn’t even gotten to her first day of school, where (thanks to being spoiled), I knew she was supposed to be kinda whiny and moody about how she’s… actually kinda well-liked by her new peers… all day until lunchtime, when she FINALLY, finally, goddamn sees Edward for the first time.

    How the hell many pages was it going to take to get to the “good stuff” that allegedly made this book worth reading, I thought – and how many more completely awful, unfunny lines like that, mixed in with additional 18-page tracts of passive-aggressive, depressed whining, was I going to have to SLOG through to get there?

    I decided, perhaps unsurprisingly, that it just was not worth it. If I wanted to be reminded of what it was like to be depressed, I could just rewatch Buffy season six. It would at least be wittier, and the plot would move a bit faster, especially in regards to getting to the sexy bits.

    And the funny thing is – I really don’t think this was a “Stephanie Meyer” issue I had. I really honestly think it was a Bella Swan Is Goddamn Annoying as a Narrator issue. Because even in incredibly rough, early draft, Midnight Sun was SO much more interesting, Jacob’s bit in Breaking Dawn (which I’ve seen a sample of) was actually pretty witty, and despite the fact that they’re both huge Mary Sues, I liked BOTH Melanie Stryker and Wanderer as narrator/POV characters in The Host (a book that, for the record, I read in two days flat despite the thickness, because it was just THAT compelling). I also read the beginning of that little side-book, Short Second Life of… was it Bree Tanner, I think? And that was fairly entertaining as well.

    I have, in other words, been at least entertained if not enchanted by her writing – even capable of ignoring my Nitpick Mode during it! – whenever she used ANY OTHER NARRATOR. Except Bella Swan. Because Bella has literally NOTHING I could find that would make her compelling or even tolerable; she’s whiny, a downer, unfunny, bitchy, passive-aggressive, and… just… worse than “empty”, really. Worse than “bland” as so many accuse her of being, she’s outright AWFUL, and I don’t mean that in a “terrible role model from a feminist POV” standpoint, I mean that from a “terrible person from a human POV” standpoint. She’s a terrible and terribly unlikable person. She’s self-centered, and not even clever enough to get by on charisma. Depressed and even depressing I could take if that’s all she was, but Daria she ain’t! I not only wouldn’t want to BE her, I wouldn’t want to be NEAR her, and honestly, she is lucky Edward can’t read her thoughts, because none of them make her likable. Ironically, the main reason (other than she smells tasty) that Edward is drawn to her at first is he cannot read her thoughts like he can anyone else. I guarantee you the results would be the exact opposite if he could, because I don’t care how tasty you smell, if your thoughts are those of Bella Swan, I don’t think any sexy vampire in the world would want to date you. Eat you, okay maybe. But not in the fun way! More in the “she’ll shut up if she’s dead” way. And when that’s your feeling on a character – “I really wish she would literally die, and not come back, so a better character could be here instead” – that is kind of a barrier to liking the book that is supposed to be an Epic Romantic Saga from her POV.

    And it’s really a shame, because I HAD enjoyed The Host, and I had hope I could “understand” from an emotional standpoint what people saw in it, but I’m still to this day baffled as to how they could empathize with such a selfish, whiny, bitchy, passive-aggressive, un-clever, unfunny character who basically goes around complaining and being self-centered about everything when EVERYTHING GOES HER WAY, for I don’t want to know how many pages, before you finally get to the sexy vampire dude, let alone sexy werewolf dude. Did people like, skim until she meets Edward or something? I actually seriously kind of want to know, because the thing that worries me about Bella Swan isn’t the Message(tm) she’s supposedly Selling to The Kids These Days(tm), but the fact that people look at the way she ACTS, and thinks, as a human being, and see nothing wrong with it other than “she’s kinda boring I guess”. And that this utterly self-centered whinger who, I will say it again, can’t even muster a good one-liner without breaking it into the realm of unfunny,is taken to be a “self-insert”. Really? This is the “self” we want to insert? Because if I’m going to have that many flaws, I really want to have better one-liners than that, and if my one-liners are going to be that bad, I want to be fucking awesome as a person. The fact that it’s neither of those and that she’s basically just obnoxious and the opposite of entertaining on every level, makes her definitely nobody I would want to be.

    THAT to me, is the “reason I don’t get the appeal of the books”. Not “wah, not feminist enough”, because if you want Feminist self-insert there are better places for it; not “wah, the writing is bad”, because it’s no worse than I’ve seen a thousand times and I have anecdotal proof that she can make a book compelling despite it; no, it’s because I cannot for the life of me understand why someone would like to read a book from HER perspective, because she’s completely unlikable to me. I would read the hell out of the books if they were Edward’s perspective, because he’s entertainingly screwed up and actually, kinda entertaining in general. But the books are not from his perspective. And I just don’t get how so many people could slog through that beginning and still find themselves engaged by the time they got to the good parts. :\

    Again, if there were just ONE ELEMENT to her and her life altered – if she were wittier, or she were less passive-aggressive, or if you know, she had actual REASON to feel the whole world sucked and owed her something other than being self-centered (i.e. if her parents were abusive, or their divorce weren’t amicable, or mom’s new boyfriend was actually portrayed as a bad person, or we had any reason to believe she was seriously bullied, or etc., insert actual unhappy backstory element here) – I could take it. But the fact that at the beginning of the story, everything is handed to her on a silver platter and she’s still completely awful about it without being in any way… entertaining, let alone redeeming. Just… utterly spoiled and bitchy and ungrateful and the epitome of A Waste of Space. I just can’t get over it. I know it’s weird to obsess over a book you don’t like, and I agree that for the people who’re complaining about it because “it’s anti-woman” or whatever, that it’s silly at this point given it’s very close to being an “over” trend anyway, and objectively speaking, Bella Swan was so freaking worthless it’s almost not even worth bothering to complain that she didn’t go to college and stuff, because honestly, she didn’t seem like the type to do much of anything with her life anyway (and yeah, objectively speaking, we should respect the choices of women to pick their own life paths that make them happy, as far as that goes, even if we think they’re stupid or disappointing choices). But it’s just such a mystery to me how anybody liked that character enough to empathize with her – enough to be okay with her POV, enough to slog through like several dozen pages before The Good Part – that. Yeah, I do still kinda fixate on it from time to time. Because it’s like a great unsolved mystery to me.

    Like I said though, this is totally, 100% an issue with Bella Swan as a POV character and as a first person narrator. I hated and couldn’t even finish Twilight, not because “it’s Twilight”, but because of who the narrator was. Weirdly (well, weirdly to me anyway), this seems to put me in the minority though because I have yet to see anyone, ever, complain about Bella in contexts other than “she’s just boring” or “she’s a self-insert”, or “has no personality” or “stupid”, or “a terrible role model”. I have yet to see a single person, ever, make the exact complaint I have, which is not actually any of those things. It’s to the extent that for a while I wondered if I was crazy, but I think it’s just… I dunno. :\ I wonder if we don’t notice self-centered characters the way we used to, because we’re taught that being “selfish” isn’t a bad thing nowadays? Or is it really, seriously that a lot of teens are THAT moody and self-centered that they actually do empathize with her fairly well? Because I really don’t want to be that cynical, but so far, that’s the only logical explanation I can think of for the portions of Twilight fandom that fiercely defend not just Edward and Jacob, but also specifically Bella. Am I really alone in thinking all this? :( Did no one else seriously have this reaction?

    I know that reading fiction is a subjective experience, but I really want to know if my feelings were unusual. Because I had honestly prepped myself for EVERY eventuality other than severely not liking her as an actual person/narrator. Being bored with her? That I would have expected. Her not making the same “feminist-friendly” choices I would make? Yeah, I knew that. But loathing her with every fiber of my being to the point where I wanted to throw the book across the room? That? That is a reaction I did not expect to have.

    And I apologize (especially to fans who didn’t have this reaction!), believe it or not, if this seems like a really vicious critique in parts, but… I just… that’s my honest reaction to the character, it’s a really STRONG reaction that hasn’t, somehow, been dulled by the passage of time and I really have come to the conclusion that if she were different by even one element of her composition as a character, I wouldn’t have felt that way and could have enjoyed the book. Or if she weren’t the narrator, I could have enjoyed the book. So it’s still kinda hard for me to find a non-bad-sounding reason for why people were able to still enjoy it, aside maybe from “skimmed it a bit”. Am I seriously unusual in feeling this way?

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    • I had a very different response to Bella Swan. At times, particularly in Eclipse, I was very frustrated with her desperate behavior and indecisiveness. But I was far too invested in the story as a whole to quit then. I am a completest that way.

      In regards to Twilight, the first book, I enjoyed her perspective. I thought it to be authentic. This is a girl who was a product of divorce and she lived primarily with her mother. A mother who was kind but immature and irresponsible. We learn in the story that Bella spent much of her childhood caring for her mother. That kind of role reversal can have a pretty stark impact on a kid – leaving them to feel like their feelings don’t matter much. So, you get a character that is uncomfortable with compliments, attention, that kind of thing. You get some one who is self-sacrificial because that is the self that forms when a child cares for an adult. Also, Charlie is that way, too. That behavior is modeled to her by the parent she most resembles, her father. So, the authenticity of it was enough for me. So for your spoiled, I saw a girl who didn’t think she deserved a lot … and is apathetic towards life because of her depression.

      Ultimately, I think Meyer uses her apathy towards life as a juxtaposition for her passion towards the supernatural. But that payoff does not come until later. Of course, some may not view that as a payoff. But I did.

      I didn’t find her “bitchy” at all, but perhaps our definitions of bitchy differ. It’s not a word I would use to describe Bella. I also don’t see how everything goes her way. That statement seems a bit hyperbolic. She leaves her home so her mom can travel with her younger boyfriend in her senior year of high-school. Sure, it was her choice, but I wouldn’t exactly say that life is “going her way” in terms of success or luck or wealth. If that’s what you mean. As for Charlie giving her the truck, it makes sense. He works. She needs to get to school. Her response to it – also doesn’t seem that odd. Ungrateful, sure. But she came to love that truck.

      Given Bella’s disposition, you place a high value on wit/humor, and you’re spot on there, Bella isn’t that. I didn’t mind that because I enjoyed that she did well in school and didn’t find being in the “in-crowd” romantic. She just wanted to be her. To do what Bella wanted to do. I perceived that as marching to her own drum. Not selfish. But maybe she is both.

      For our own reasons, I empathized with Bella. You did not. I don’t think you are “wrong” and I don’t think I am “right.”

      Some times, I think particularly strong feelings towards a character/story/event speak towards personal and subjective feelings about how someone views the world and themselves. Do I think that is unusual? No. Do I think that applies to you in this instance? I don’t know.

      I do know parts of my personal story allowed me to relate to the perspective of Bella Swan, and while she is flawed, I like her.

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