thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

I’m Going to See Breaking Dawn OR How A Smart, Independent, Educated Woman Learned to Love Twilight

In gender, girl culture on November 23, 2011 at 12:48 am

Melissa Sexton

The first time I went to visit my sister in her new home in Seattle, I needed something to occupy my time during the long days she spent working. I was a 2nd year PhD student in a literature department, so the last thing I wanted to do on my downtime days was read anything serious. Still, my sister made a full disclaimer when she handed me her roommate’s copy of Twilight. “It’s not great literature,” she said with a shrug. “But I bet you’ll be entertained.”

Such a disclaimer was more than warranted given my lit snob past. I had spent my teenage years aspiring to an elite aestheticism, sneering at my younger sisters for their fantasy novels and their mainstream movies. Like many a wanna-be intellectual before me, I wanted to like the right things. I wanted to read philosophy and great literature; I watched old movies, not blockbusters, with my boyfriend. I didn’t watch TV; I backpacked, hello. Before I ever even thought about drinking, I started going to “shows.”  I was relentlessly and, to be honest, baselessly opposed to anything that could be construed as popular. Luckily for me, I was already outgrowing what I still think should never be more than an an adolescent phase: the conviction that, just because we don’t like something, this makes the object of our disdain inherently and objectively bad; that there are good and bad things to like, and your aesthetic preferences say something meaningful about your character; that there were things not just that I hadn’t read but that I wouldn’t read, that I shouldn’t watch.

Harry Potter provided the first crack in my snobbery. I had refused to read the books, laughing at my youngest sister’s infatuation and reacting not to the books themselves so much as to the public hype. The [unexamined] reasoning always seems to go something like this: If so many people out there like it, no way can it be good.  In such snobbery, we gain merit through elitism; we condition ourselves to enjoy things that are unique and original. Nevermind that my childhood love of literature had been cultivated by epic fantasy sequences such as The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, Star Wars, and The Dark is Rising. I baselessly assumed that the squealing endorsement of millions correlated directly to inanity. Harry Potter could not be good. But then I had to teach a summer camp  class based around Harry Potter, and I sat down to familiarize myself with the material.  At this point, four books were out; needless to say, I didn’t sleep all weekend.

I had a similar euphoric escape into another world – one shaped by the pleasure of a compelling narrative – as I lay on a blanket in my sister’s front yard reading Twilight, sunburning the backs of my legs in a rare burst of Seattle sunlight. For the first three days of my visit, I spent whole afternoons and early evenings devouring the first three books of Stephenie Meyer’s series.  I was converted. I had been wanting to read the novels since a teaching colleague had mentioned their odd mix of chastity soft porn and indie-disempowered femininity. But let’s be honest; I stayed because these novels tell a good story.

This past weekend, I’ve been thinking again about our literary prejudices and how we want them to say something about us. Here I am, hopefully mere months away from a degree that supposedly marks me as somehow qualified to talk about literature and how it functions in our culture. Yet person after person that I talked to – as I shared my excitement for my pending Wednesday afternoon, post-teaching trip to see Breaking Dawn Part I – curled their lip at me and parroted the now-standard lines about Twilight: disempowered heroine; hopeless teenage love; terrible grammatical errors; racial problems. Everybody seemed in a hurry to identify themselves as Team No-Twilight.  I wanted to know why. And I wanted to justify why I, an intelligent, highly-educated, empowered, independent, ambitious, self-actualized, sexy, and no-nonsense woman, have read these books not just once but many times – and continue to enjoy doing so.

The center of smart women’s rancor against Twilight can perhaps best be seen in the jokey graphics that were popping up all over my News Feed today:

These two images, for me, encapsulate the two major factors that have contributed to such anti-Twilight rabidity: one, a gendered prejudice against female forms of fandom; and two, a preference reinforced by female viewers for empowered, even militant, visions of what it means to be a woman.

Many very smart people have already addressed these strains of disdain, but the mass redistribution of these images on Facebook as a kind of self-evident in-joke (actually, quite like the way many OWS images have been disseminated) suggests the prevailing social stigma associated with Twilight fandom. If you profess to like Twilight – if you don’t giggle and nod at the joke – you are a bad feminist, if not just a stupid person. To push back against the prevalent interpretation (in the case of OWS, to resist the “devil cops – saintly protestors” binary; or, in the case of Twilight fandom, to resist the “hysterical, dumb fans – smart, skeptical cultural critics” binary) is to be less than. Perhaps you think I am being facetious to compare political protest with jabs at fandom; I don’t think so. Both kinds of widespread media mockery do exactly what I tell my freshmen composition students not to do: without clear evidence or reference to specific text, they summarize a situation in broad generalities, they assume the automatic complicity of their audience, and they reduce complicated texts to a kind of shorthand for individual character traits: pigs; stupid girls.

So what’s a smart girl to say in this cultural stew?

Well, Melissa Click helps us chip away at the assumptions of the second image, in her discussion of the gendered politics of fandom. She points out the way that Twilight critiques have revitalized the feminine dismissals of the 19th century by characterizing Twilight fans as “rabid” and “hysterical.” She also points out the weirdly gendered nature of fan interpretations, where we assume that male fandom is active and resistant while female fandom is passive and complicit. The Trekkie may be weird, but he is actively engaging in a subculture that provides him with a form of escape from the ideology of daily life. Meanwhile, the Twi-hard is a passive victim of feminist ideology. Really? As a long-standing Star Wars fan (who got more praise than critique for self-identifying as such), I can honestly say that there is no fundamental distinction between these forms – just an inherited gendered assumption. Yes, it is an equally frivolous use of time to learn Klingon or Quenya as it is to agonize over the details of Bella’s pending nuptials. Indeed, the supposedly “active” resistance of “male” Star Trek fans could be read as equally complicit with predominant ideologies about violence, empire, and politics; how different is such complicity to a notion of what “male” identity is supposed to be than the complicity of a Twilight fan to cultural ideologies about how chastity, motherhood, and romance define a “female” identity. I’m not supporting the perpetuation of ideologically constructed forms of gender identity; I’m just saying they’re out there for both of the poles of this gender binary. To point out how Bella fulfills female norms while ignoring her points of resistance (her stubbornness; her refusal to play according to beauty norms; her introversion; her sense of being an outsider) – and to simultaneously ignore the ways that the outcast nerd of male fandom is also complicit is hypocritical and, well, gendered. It assumes feminine expressions of culture are inherently inferior while masculine expressions are superior.

Which I get. As a girl with a tried-and-true history of tom-boyish girl-denial, I understand why girl Trekkies and fans of Katniss alike might be screaming for my blood. My favorite heroines do tend to be the ones that exhibit more “male” characteristics like toughness, autonomy, independence, and skepticism about intimate emotional relationships, especially teen heroines like this: Katniss Everdeen; Veronica Mars; Eowyn; Hermione Granger, Luna Lovegood, and Ginny Weasley.  Bella drives me nuts as a character.  But I’ve been increasingly aware of how my preference is culturally constructed, is gendered. So, for instance, Harry Potter also drives me nuts as a character without eliciting my same queasiness about reading his books. And Sarah Blackwood helps us understand why both Bella and Harry might be so maddening in her brilliant Hairpin article on our feminist resistance to Bella: because these characters are teenagers. While my sisters swore Harry was a whiny mess for the last three novels, the bulk of our culture has given his whining a by.  Why? I can only guess because he’s actualizing in a way that we understand; it’s a bildungsroman with wandcraft. He’s becoming autonomous in ways that we recognize and approve; fighting evil! going on quests! But wait…he’s also…learning that love and family and relationships and loyalty are more important than power, control, immortality, and being the greatest wizard ever? Don’t tell the cultural critics; they’ll say he’s selling out his individual potential for…oh wait.  He’s allowed to do both because he’s a boy. Meanwhile, the rabid anti-Twilight discourse pounces on how Bella chooses chastity, a long-term relationship, and eventually (spoiler!!!) motherhood over college or a life on her own. But such a choice is not rendered in Harry-Potter terms; you can’t mix militarism and family in the girl-verse. And so, her choices are rendered explicitly passive – as we so so clearly in the first image pictured above. Never mind that Bella has made Harry Potter type sacrifices to maniacal blood-thirsty villains in order to save those she loves – not just her boyfriend but her mother, father and friends. Never mind that Bella has risked her life and battled through crowds of aloof, cold, ancient vampires in order to prevent her lover from killing himself. Never mind (oh, spoilers spoilers spoilers!!!) that in becoming a mother, Bella goes through a birthing process that sounds nightmarishly hellish; never mind that, following her transformation into a vampire, Bella becomes the most powerfully gifted of all the Cullen family and eventually manages to protect her entire vampire family from destruction (aside – interesting that her gift is that no one can touch or access her mind, not even her boyfriend – a surprisingly feminist twist in those most anti-feminist of books). Because Bella is the whipping-girl of contemporary girl culture, her choice to embrace motherhood is imagined as “just laying there” while her “sparkly boyfriend does all the work.” At least the readings of this choice as an anti-abortion form of religious propaganda were somewhat accurate and interesting! Meanwhile, in the above graphic, Hermione and Eowyn are lauded for being fighters. Never mind that both of them have to fight for recognition, in the novels and in the fan universes, because culture still imagines them as “back-ups” to the central male protagonists; never mind that their Hollywood images are sexed-up and made to fit conventional notions of beauty in order to mask their competence and importance…All these women – Bella too – are more complicated than normative or transgressive stereotypes. And we as feminists have to figure out how to critique things we don’t like about Bella (her willingness to let her boyfriend control her life; her participation in narratives of romance that leave little room for autonomy or freedom) without swinging to the other side and saying there’s only one way to be a good woman, and that’s by acting like a “tiny man” (as Blackwood says we see in, say, Lis Salender in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo).

Bella Cullen: Docile Wife that Feminists Fear

OR Bella Cullen: Making Choices, Drinking Blood

Blackwood really helped me to see why I have conflicted reactions to Twilight and why most women I know can’t bring themselves to open the front page of the series. Twilight has become the stand-in for what so many of us feared in ourselves and our choices as women. To admit that we like Twilight seems akin to admitting that we want romance rather than solitude; that we might want conventional motherhood; that we don’t want to become stand-ins for men, all autonomy and stoicism and solitude. To not-like Twilight, writing unseen, is to be a smart, independent woman – to prove that you can’t fall for that schlocky crap. But that same impulse has made so many of us smart, independent women feel like we have to choose between fierce empowerment and femininity. It has made so many of us ignore the ways that a sexed-up chic with a gun or a sword and some attitude might still be playing the gender hierarchy game. Twilight‘s portrayal of gender is not one that I particularly want to buy into; but I do identify with the way it thinks about desire and love and longing and tries to figure out how that fits into a life. To reject Twilight without reading a page – to hate the stereotype rather than really think about what Bella and her relationships show us about our cultural constructions of what it means to be female and our cultural relationships to love – is like rejecting outright the decision to be a mother or a wife and assuming that such a decision is anti-feminist. Let us critique Bella – her ability to be manipulated by her controlling boyfriend; her total reliance upon love as a kind of drug; her choice of an infatuation over a genuinely compatible romance. There is so much to critique! But let’s not reject her book just because it features a girl that chooses chastity, marriage, and motherhood – the old trifecta that we must, secretly, still fear ties us to a past when women didn’t get to choose. Such choices are always fraught with peril, intensified by our desire to become the admirable, independent women we’re now supposed to be.  But Twilight doesn’t ignore those choices. As Manohla Dargis points out in her recent movie review, the last movie becomes so much more complex because it forces Bella to make  these choices. Surprise, surprise, she begins to act on her own, despite the censure of the boyfriend/husband that has overly controlled her for so many books; motherhood is not a default for her, not something she accepts passively lying down, but something that she has to fight for by enlisting a number of male and female allies to her side. Gender, motherhood, life choices – they’re more complicated decisions and identities for present-day women than picking between a weapon and a baby. A fully actualized feminism would make choices like motherhood and family equally available to women as choices like militarization and combat; a fully actualized feminism would allow women to explore these choices in a variety of characters and narratives rather than sacrificing our cultural Bellas in the name of seeming smart.

  1. […] Blackwood over at The Hairpin and GLG’s own Melissa Sexton have eloquently analyzed the problems with dismissing Bella and the Twilight franchise on terms […]

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