Why Going After Twilight for Its "Bad" Relationships Totally Misses the Point (and I'm Not a Fan)

Like many people, I've seen the Buffy-Twilight Remix. I think it is hilarious and adds an interesting perspective to discussions about Twilight. However, it has gotten me thinking about Twilight again and whether I'm willing to go as far in my criticisms of the series as recent critics.

I previously discussed Twilight with my friend Carole on this blog--Carole has read the first three books. I have read approximately 1/4 of the first book. Carole does an excellent job critiquing the books in terms of their writing and character development. If you read my response to Carole's critique, you will find that, like Carole, I consider the books flawed due to the lack of real choice on Bella's part. Furthermore, for any of you who are reading my Darcy's POV posts (the last one is coming!), you know that I consider the "classic" guy-stalking-girl-cause-he's-totally-obsessed-and-powerful motif to be, aesthetically speaking, rather dull.

Having said that, I have found the quasi-feminist backlash (feminism is a rather complex movement with many, many, many facets) against Twilight to be somewhat odd. I also think it ignores the more interesting question posed by Twilight. Before I get to that question, here are my thoughts in order:

1. Twilight is boring. I didn't finish the first book because I didn't care about Bella; I had no investment in her survival. Frankly, I found her boring. It is easy to put Bella's boringness down to her passivity, but on reflection, I've realized that passivity is a common denominator in YA novels--this makes sense since passivity is, for many teens, a common denominator in their lives: they are stuck between wanting freedom, being frightened by freedom, and not being allowed all that much freedom anyhow. (However, unlike Twilight, most YA novels do hinge on an active choice as opposed to "I just can't help myself" behavior.)

I decided, therefore, that my non-investment in Bella had more to do with her lack of humor than her passivity. I base Bella's lack of humor on the first chapters that I read and also on the fact that no one who talks to me about the Twilight books (pro or con) mentions her humor. They talk about Edward or they mention what is happening to Bella or how Bella feels. They don't talk about her wit.

In the excellent (non-fantasy) book Celine by Brock Cole, a young teenage girl (Celine) is stuck in a mostly passive role for most of the book. However, her voice is so delightful that the supposed passivity of her life becomes inconsequential. In any case, within the narrow confines of her life, she makes choices and achieves serenity, and she's very wry and touching while she's doing it. (I also maintain that her humor is part of what makes Buffy so watchable.)

So, I found Bella boring, and there wasn't much, writing-wise, to make up for this.

2. However, I consider the current attack on Twilight (series and movie) as a "patriarchal" work, blah, blah, blah to be rather annoying. Sure, the critics have a point, but not that much of a point.

Twilight hinges on a fantasy--it's not a particularly delectable fantasy re: real life, but it is a fantasy within our culture which is shared by both men and women: the fantasy of the romantic other who totally understands us and totally wants us and never wants to leave us and is always there for us and knows what is best for us.

Okay, yes, I figured out at fairly young age that this type of relationship would get very tedious very fast, but then, I'm the kind of person who gets snappish if I'm asked to be social without warning: the idea of a constant, adoring presence makes me tired (how could you ever live up to it?).

But I still understand the fantasy.

And I think it is unfair to get after women who voice it.

Romance writers have pointed out that the male version of this fantasy is accepted in our society. I'm not sure that's entirely true anymore (where are James Bond's ladies?), but there is something to be said for the male version of this fantasy being a staple of Western literature.

But when women produce the same fantasy, there's this big "Stop Talking!" response.

Give me a break.

Now, I am the first one to say that this fantasy can get trite and boring. Read several romances in a row, and you start rolling your eyes. Still . . .

3. Pretending the fantasy isn't there or shouldn't be there won't make it go away.

I've read responses to Twilight that basically go something like, "My teenage daughter loves this series. I must persuade her otherwise! I've spoken to her about it. We fight! What can I do?"

I want to bang my head against the wall. Fighting over gross impertinence: worth it. Fighting over clothes: sort of worth it. Fighting over literature: really stupid.

People like what they like. They grow out of what they like. Or they don't. My mother didn't want me to see the first Batman (1989) because it was nihilistic. She was right. I saw it about twenty times and then formed the opinion that the movie was nihilistic.

And I was a really obedient kid.

I can't think of anything dumber than telling a teenage girl that she should stop adoring Edward. There's nothing wrong with saying, "I don't agree." Shoot, if you grew up in my family, you'd get eight opinions on the subject plus an argument at the dinner table to boot. But trying to argue a teenage girl out of her aesthetic response--I just don't see how that could be productive.

I think the fear is that the susceptible teenage girl will go off and get into a relationship with a (glittering) stalky guy. Well, maybe, but I would be willing to bet that girls and women who get into relationships with stalky guys have other larger issues in their lives than reading B-literature. At the risk of making a possibly injudicious statement, I even wonder how many of these girls and women read fantasy or, since Twilight has crossed genre lines, are series readers at all.

In any case, all this worry still doesn't make the fantasy go away. I could even argue that trying to shut teenage girls off from the fantasy could make them more susceptible in the long run. Maybe not--arguments like this enter the realm of indefinite probabilities. I just don't get readers who want to get after Meyers for not having Bella have sex AND for introducing the fantasy of Edward. Pick up some Camille Paglia, people, and face the hormones: whether we like it or not, whether we approve of it or not, whether we acknowledge it or not, this fantasy--the wholly seductive yet completely responsive and considerate lover--is part of the human psyche. It isn't going to go away just cause it upsets us!

For that matter, the juxtaposition of viriginity and sexual seduction are huge motifs in legend and myth; sure, sure, Bradley et al. "feminized" the Arthurian legends; my point is--you can feminize things all you want, it doesn't make the big, bad, masculine wolf in Sondheim's wood go away.

4. The more interesting question posed by Twilight is: Why do we find this fantasy so alluring?

What's the thrill? Why do stories about sirens and vampires and succubi and incubi flood our myths? Why do romance novels about the domineering/there-no-matter-what hero flood the market? And what is it with James Bond's ladies? Or the spunky gal in the Western who will do anything for her man?

Here's one theory (at the mythic level):

Mormons and other religious people believe that the battle between God and Satan was over agency--God was for it (choose who/what you will become); Satan was against it (I'll make it all turn out right), and Satan enlisted a whole bunch of support. The idea of no-agency/no-choice is seductive.

Now, to survive in this world, we have to compromise (at the risk of getting all philosophical, I maintain that humans contain agency as a whole or given; how we exercise it is limited, but agency itself doesn't increase or decrease). We are not entirely free in the sense that all options are available to us at all given points in time (and we have no direct control over the consequences of those options). I'd love to rush off to Wales right now but physically, financially, and obligatorily speaking, that's not going to happen. I can't fly; I haven't got the money; and I've already agreed to do other things this week. I'm also limited by my ethical standards: I won't be robbing a bank this afternoon. Besides, I don't like the possible consequence: jail. And I am limited in terms of my credentials and my natural abilities: the University of Wales isn't going to be calling with a teaching offer (too bad!) for me to teach calculus (it's been explained to me three times; I still don't get it).

So agency exists along a line rather than as two extremes--agent versus slave--and humans are constantly testing positions along that line politically, personally, theologically, and romantically. The concept of a desire/love/interest that conquers all our reservations is one of those positions. And it's not going to vanish from our culture, no matter how often people say, "Stop Talking!"

5. All that granted, I still won't be finishing the books (though I might see the movie).


Joe said...

I'll go way out on a limb and suggest that the big appeal of Edward is that he's the bad boy, well he's really not so bad, but bad enough that you wouldn't choose him unless the decision is made for you.

* * *

And what's the maligning of James Bond? Bond isn't a misogynist; he adores women, he just doesn't care about them. There is a difference. (Besides, he doesn't care about men either, so he's an equal opportunity non-carer.)

mike said...

You know, I never really thought about it that way, but the idea of a life without choice is sometimes tempting. I know that sometimes I might be elbow deep in bills, looking at my work schedule and then think about all the other things I need to do, and then I think "wow, I wish i was a kid again."