December 13, 2012

Why It Sucks Being A ‘Twilight’ Apologist

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What is the issue?
(CONTAINS SPOILERS!)

It’s all over. Four years of Twilight movies. Four years of being ridiculed and likened to an illiterate teenage girl, because I like stories about sparkling vampires. So, why is Twilight so universally mocked and hated?

1. The books are badly written

This is a criticism leveled at pretty much anything that has enormous financial success, and it’s a lazy, non-specific complaint. What does it actually mean? Was the grammar incorrect? Was the story predictable and lacking suspense? (You’re not going to tell me you saw Jacob’s pedophilia coming, are you?) Bella may be lacking in discernible personality traits, but her blank page quality is a deliberate strength of the franchise — millions of teenage girls (and their mothers) identify with a girl who feels like an outsider in high school.

The books are undoubtedly easy to read, although some protest that Meyer writes “like a twelve-year-old with a thesaurus” (did she use big words that you didn’t understand?). Try “classic” Victorian literature if you really want rambling, verbose sentences. These are romantic novels aimed at teenagers, so nobody’s expecting high culture. (My favorite internet comment on the subject was “Now, three years after I first picked up a Twilight book, I see that they’re bad written.”) It also makes me chuckle when mothers proudly declare that their daughters “read a few chapters and then declared it trash.” Because of course, all bibliophiles take their reading recommendations from their children. (And people who couldn’t finish a book make the best judges of its quality.)

Why It Sucks Being A 'Twilight' Apologist

But why is so much vitriol aimed at Twilight rather than, say, the Shopaholic series? Is it because those books were about shoes, and credit cards, and marriage and babies and probably chocolate? Is it because Sophie Kinsella KNEW HER PLACE, and wrote about traditionally feminine interests? Stephenie Meyer dared to trespass into male/ geek territory by talking about vampires and werewolves, and has been vilified ever since. Some people hate the books so much that they have dedicated their lives to providing scathing commentary on the entire text. Literary prize winners WISH they could elicit that kind of passion.

2. Vampires don’t sparkle!

This is one of the most shill and indignant cries of the Twilight hater. I don’t know why the idea of vampires sparkling is so horribly offensive — perhaps it’s because glitter is traditionally associated with tween girls, unicorns and Barbie dolls?

I think we all need to take a moment here to remember that Stephenie Meyer can write about vampires sparkling, or she can write about them being accordion players who live on the moon, or anything she likes, because THEY’RE FICTIONAL. Other writers (including Bram Stoker) created daywalking vampires, so folklore purists (whose ranks barely rippled when Danny Boyle made speedy zombies) may need to rethink their objections. They could even appreciate the fact that Meyer came up with an original idea to explain the traditionally nocturnal vampire lifestyle.

3. Bella is a betrayal of feminism

If we take our cues from Hollywood, there are limited views on what a “strong woman” looks like. We’re basically confined to two options:

a) Ball-busting businesswoman in a suit, doesn’t take any crap from anyone, will fall in love with some guy who brings out her softer side. Ideally ends movie pregnant and/ or starting a small business selling homemade cupcakes.

b) Action heroine, generally quite scantily clad, toting a gun. Will kick some criminal ass (normally via a graceful martial arts session during which her opponent’s head will be between her thighs at some point). Will need the help of a man to save the day — a trained cop is ideal, although a random guy she picks up on the street will do just as well.

Bella Swann doesn’t fit into either of these stereotypes. She is quiet, clumsy, and unaware of her attractiveness. She spends her evenings reading literature and cooking for her dad. She is physically inferior to the vampires and shapeshifters she has chosen to surround herself with. However, Twilight critics ignore her many heroics; it is she who comes up with the plan to evade the “bad” vampires of the first book and later uses her own blood to distract the enemy in battle. It is she who rescues Edward in Italy and she who ends up saving her entire clan using her mental powers rather than brute strength. And if Bella is “nothing without a man,” she’s in the company of every woman in every romantic comedy ever made, so I think we can let her off the hook this one time.

Twilight
Twilight

Recently screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg pointed out that Twilight’s success has changed the film industry, paving the way for other female-led movies which may have otherwise been deemed unbankable (Hello, Katniss). Rosenberg also noted that people reserve a special kind of hissing contempt for Bella and co. which is entirely absent when reviewing the average dumb-as-a-box-of-hair action movie. Her theory is that simply “Because it feels female, it is less than.”

I’ve noticed that when women are quick to slip into conversation that they detest Twilight, the implication is often “Because I’m not like all those stupid girly-girls.” It’s like the custom of pouring scorn on accessories such as pink Hello Kitty hair slides, because anything so overtly “feminine” is irredeemably puerile and cannot be respected.

4. Edwards is a stalker/ control freak/ abusive

I hate to admit it, but Edward’s behavior does slot neatly into a checklist for potential abusers. He is “protective” of Bella to the point of holding her hostage. He makes her entire world all about him. He cuts her off from her friends and family, and (this is the one that really gets people) watches her when she sleeps. So far, so psycho, right? Except that he also advises Bella that she should be with Jacob if she wants to be, and actively encourages her to live a normal life without him. (It doesn’t work, of course, because “I’m bad to the bone, baby, and if you’re smart you’ll stay away from me,” is a chat up line older than all the Cullens put together.)

There is deliberate misinterpretation of the post-sex scene in which Bella is bruised and Edward is contrite over the “violence” he has inflicted on her. I think we need to give teen girls a little more credit here — they can see the difference between a fictional vampire who doesn’t know his own strength, and a man who calls his girlfriend a stupid fat bitch and tells everyone that she walked into a door.

And, lest we forget, this is a supernatural love story. Bella really does need protection from the vampires after her blood, the wolf-man who could easily fly into a murderous rage (abusive boyfriend no. 2) and the evil vampire government. (Say what you like about Twilight, but don’t tell me nothing happens.)

5. It sets up unrealistic expectations of relationships.

When people aren’t whinging that Edward makes young girls want abusive boyfriends, they object that the idealized romanticism sets teens up for disappointment in their future relationships. It’s not a ridiculous claim — If I met a 17-year-old boy who opened doors, stood up when a woman entered the room, and paid for dinner, I’d think something was supernaturally wrong with him, too.

But isn’t it a GOOD thing if young girls are growing up with high expectations of the way they wish to be treated by men? It’s got to be better than getting called a “ho” by the boy you just texted with naked pictures of yourself. (Not to mention the bizarre relationship rules fed to us by standard romcoms, which demand that declarations of love are only valid if they take place in front of a large group of strangers, preferably on a subway train or onstage at a black tie event.) So what if there’s the odd girl who asks her boyfriend to bouffant up an Edward hairstyle? It’s no more extreme than the generation who wanted their dates to look like David Cassidy or Donny Osmond.

Twilight
Twilight

However, it’s grown men, not teen boys with their pants falling down, who are suffering from the Edward effect; Twilight is a phenomenon among older women starved of romance. (Jeff Gordinier wrote for Details in 2009: “That vampire stuff is little more than a red herring. What Stephenie Meyer Day really boils down to is a cloaked symposium on the state of American marriage. In other words: Gentlemen, your wives have something they want to tell you.”

6. It’s all a right wing agenda for pro-lifers and abstinence campaigners

It’s no secret that Meyer is a Mormon, and these values spill over into her writing; Edward has done more for the Abstinence movement than a million creepy fathers trying to control their daughters’ sexuality with promises of jewelry. In our hyper-sexualized society, Meyer has provided an alternative, essentially saying “Hey, let’s pretend that men are super chivalrous, like in Disney movies and fairy tales,” and millions of females have squeed their approval.

Bella is a young woman who is able to express her sexual desires without fear of being thought a “slut,” or being pushed into doing something she wants but is not emotionally ready for. That’s a powerful fantasy for the average teenage girl. Suddenly it’s not so surprising that “abstinence porn” has struck such a chord.

Criticism centres around the fact that Bella is not allowed autonomy over her own sexuality, with a patriarchal Edward taking it upon himself to protect her “virtue.” But let’s bear in mind that Edward is a virgin too, and he is the one who believes that sex before marriage is wrong. Women choose how and when they have sex; we must also allow men the same right to refuse consent.

Regarding the pro-life/ pro-choice debate; in an act of defiance toward her new husband, Bella chooses to see her pregnancy through at the cost of her own life. However, her version of “death” is merely a stepping stone to becoming a vampire, which is what she wanted in the first place. (I don’t know why everyone is worried about Edward being abusive. If you had a teenage son, would you want him to have a manipulative girlfriend like Bella?) Our “perfect” hero is the one who’s in favor of abortion, so let’s not pretend that it isn’t presented as a perfectly viable option.

So why does it suck being a Twilight apologist? Because there are some criticisms which even I can’t justify:

1. Jacob is a pedophile

This is one of the easiest targets for Twilight critics. After a torturous love triangle with Bella and Edward, everything is conveniently wrapped up when Jacob falls in love with Bella’s newborn baby — platonic love, naturally. He just wants to be her best friend, protector, brother. Until she’s fully grown, which should be when she’s about seven years old.

When you’re reading the books, it’s easy to get caught up in the moment, and I have attempted to defend Meyer — “Honestly, the way it’s written, you understand that it’s not, like, a sexual thing…” However, after seeing the film, I realized it really isn’t possible to show a small girl and a young man smiling at each other — with the knowledge that they are destined to be romantically involved — without it looking horribly creepy and awkward. There is also the minor detail that a seven-year-old half-vampire may look like an adult, but will still only have the life experience of a child. When Bella confronts him, Jacob’s defence is, “You know we have no control over it. We can’t choose who it happens with, and it doesn’t mean what you think…” I think we’re all agreed, this wouldn’t stand up in court. Sorry, Twilight.

2. The films are really bad

Kristen Stewart gets a lot of hate for being a “terrible actress” — possibly because viewers are unaccustomed to seeing an actress react in an understated way (like a normal person) as opposed to a melodramatic soap opera style. Likewise Robert Pattinson manages to inject real angst into the somewhat thankless role of ”matinee idol/ tortured vampire.” The films will never win Oscars, but they’re not meant to — they’re pure escapism. (And the Academy is snobby about stuff like this.)

The deliberately awkward, indie style of the first film was forgotten as the series became increasingly pre-occupied with CGI and Taylor Lautner’s impressive abs. (I’m only going to complain about one of these things.) By Breaking Dawn Part 2, all subtlety had been lost. Young Renesmee was portrayed by a horrific CGI baby (why not just find a bright, perky human infant?) and then shot 20 feet into the air to catch a snowflake (for no apparent reason). The “indestructible” vampires turned out to have a weakness — heads that pop off like champagne corks. A pair of “Romanian” vampires appeared to have based their acting style on 1970s Hammer horror features. And Michael Sheen is generally considered a top class actor, so I can only imagine that he was deliberately hamming it up in his role as Aro. However, his hysterical giggle echoed in my head for days. I still hear it sometimes.

3. And finally…

The whole point of Breaking Dawn — the very linchpin of the Twilight ethos — is that unassuming, modest Bella ends up being a kickass hero. Not only was her wispy, halfhearted “shield” another CGI failure, but her role in the finale became inverted; suddenly she was dependent on Edward as a fighting partner. I understand why the movie needed a more action packed finale than the book offered, but it also cost the story its meaning. TC mark

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