Undying love and its haters
Twilight has a largely female fan base. It is time to re-evaluate female fan pleasure, says Will Brooker, and be alive to its magic
The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 1
Directed by Bill Condon
Starring Robert Pattinson, Kristen Stewart and Taylor Lautner
Released in the UK on 18 November
"How many times are you allowed to write the words 'insipid crap' in your article?"
Monday morning. I had posted a picture of my recent purchases online: a trilogy of movies on DVD, three CDs and four books. I was immersing myself in Stephenie Meyer's Twilight franchise: Twilight itself, New Moon, Eclipse and the novel Breaking Dawn, part one of which is released as a film on 18 November. Now my friends - mostly academic colleagues - were wishing me luck with my project. "I'd rather have all my teeth pulled out," another guy wrote. "What I've seen, I detested," a third offered. I locked myself indoors, and at midday, I began.
It's easy to mock Twilight, and easy to mock its fans - the diehard "Twi-hards", teenage girls aligning themselves with "Team Edward" (cheering the vampire played by Robert Pattinson) and "Team Jacob" (supporting Taylor Lautner as his werewolf rival). It's too easy, and we should ask who it serves.
Melissa A. Click, assistant professor of communication at the University of Missouri and co-editor of the book Bitten by Twilight: Youth Culture, Media, and the Vampire Franchise, points out that "the media have belittled the reactions of girls and women to the Twilight series and the actors who play their favorite characters, frequently using Victorian era gendered words like 'fever,' 'madness,' 'hysteria,' and 'obsession'".
Male media fans have also responded to Twilight's female followers with resentment, rather than solidarity. Suzanne Scott, currently a postdoctoral fellow at Occidental College, Los Angeles, reported in her PhD thesis on fandom that the overwhelmingly male attendees at San Diego's 2009 Comic-Con complained that the influx of Twilight aficionados had "ruined" the event by filling the conference halls and "screeching".
Neither Scott nor Click tries to champion the Twilight books and movies as high art. They don't pretend that the franchise isn't problematic or that it offers female audiences a particularly strong role model in Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) as the ordinary girl pursued by two otherworldly love interests. But they remind us that female fan pleasure has been trivialised and ridiculed for decades, if not centuries.
Twilight is a new phenomenon - a franchise driven by female followers that broke the box office records previously held by Harry Potter and Pirates of the Caribbean - but dismissing female fandom is an old, tired tactic. Janice Radway's research in the 1970s and 1980s revealed the importance of "escapist" Mills and Boon romances for Midwestern women who prized their own space and time; Barbara Ehrenreich, Elizabeth Hess and Gloria Jacobs have argued that the "hysterical" girls screaming at Beatles concerts in the 1960s were also finding a voice and expressing their desires.
Again, feminist critics also have issues with Twilight, especially with its heroine, and in Scott's phrase, her "exhaustively described averageness". Bella is intended as a cipher, a placeholder, a place of entry for the reader. In Breaking Dawn, finally engaged to Edward, she still can't believe her fiancé finds her attractive. "It made no sense when he looked at me that way. Like I was the prize rather than the outrageously lucky winner." Meyer relentlessly turns Bella's brightness down to the dullest level, to show off Edward's shine and sparkle. "He had the most beautiful soul," we are reminded on the same page, "more beautiful than his brilliant mind or his incomparable face or his glorious body."
In the films, this self-effacing voice becomes Stewart's meek performance, all downcast eyes, quick glances and bitten lips. But hasn't the diffident misfit, stumbling and slouching through school and mumbling with his head low - whether through shyness, rebellion or a mixture of the two - been a teen-hero archetype from James Dean in Rebel without a Cause (1955) through Judd Nelson in The Breakfast Club (1985) to Jared Leto in My So-Called Life (1994), Joshua Jackson in Dawson's Creek (1998-2003) and Tobey Maguire in Spider-Man (2002)? Bella blushes and stammers, and on her first day at a new school, wishes "that I could turn gray, fade into the wet concrete of the sidewalk". She's 17. Seventeen-year-olds, male and female, frequently feel that way. So do adult men and women; but maybe some adults, unlike Bella, are too uncomfortable to admit it.
It's possible to see why the young men in Twilight make some other men uneasy; and it's not hard to see why they make some fans scream. The Twilight movies do more than any other commercial franchise to reverse the embedded cinematic conventions of male voyeur and female-as-spectacle. The camera lingers far more on Edward's pale, sparkling skin and colour-changing eyes than it does on Bella, although it captures her quick smile of pleasurable surprise when Jacob returns in New Moon, visibly taller and broader after their time apart. "Hello, biceps!" she comments appraisingly, and later the camera says hello to every other muscle of Taylor Lautner's bronze, toned torso. Bella is never seen in less than a modest vest; her outfits are so normal you don't notice them, but compared with the lingering shots devoted to a contemporary star such as Megan Fox in the Transformers movies, the lack of attention to her as sex object is remarkable.
Monday evening. It was dark as I sat with the books open before me, the soundtracks paused on iTunes and the DVDs freeze-framed on my screen. "Hesitantly, always afraid, even now, that he would disappear like a mirage, too beautiful to be real..." I felt like I'd read the same line in all three novels; Meyer was inspired by a dream, and her prose has a drifting, aimless quality. At one point, though, she makes a startling stylistic leap. Chapter three of New Moon, where Edward tells Bella he has to leave her, for her own good, is called "The end". It is followed by a page on which appears only the heading "October" - the rest of the page is blank. "November" follows, equally empty. And on through the winter, until "February" and finally, the fourth chapter called "Waking up".
The film rises to the challenge of these bleak, blank pages, echoing Meyer's textual experiment with a circling camera that prowls around Bella, unmoving on her bed, while the seasons change. If Meyer's writing, for the most part, fails to sparkle, the adaptations frequently transcend the original. The soaring, swooping shots of Washington's forest landscape are reminiscent of Blade Runner's original (1982) ending, and scenes that could be bland, SFX showcases in a more conventional vampire film become oddly haunting and atmospheric, the action languid and the colours rendered in smudged but vivid shades of green and ochre - autumn leaves, wolf fur, red hair - while the soundtrack adds an urgent indie sensibility.
"Well, you built up a world of magic because your real life is tragic." Brick by Boring Brick, by Paramore - regulars on the Twilight CDs - shows how easy it is to mock the franchise and its fans. It's too easy, and we should ask who it serves, and what they have to gain, and what they're so threatened by.
Tuesday morning. I had spent the night with Twilight. I opened the door to autumn. The air was clean, and frost sparkled on the leaves. Maybe we could all do with a little more magic in our lives.
Will Brooker is the head of film and television research, Kingston University.