When New Moon, the second film adaptation of Stephenie Meyer's four-part Twilight series, opens in theaters this month, those who see it will not be getting great art. The faults of Meyer's immensely popular teen vampire-romance novels have been endlessly, and publicly, rehashed: the retrograde gender roles, the plodding plotlines, the super-heated goofiness of Meyer's prose. I can confirm for you that these faults are real!
Yet I could not stop reading the series. The books -- all about sexy teen vampire Edward Cullen, his sexy teen werewolf rival Jacob Black, and their joint quest to stalk, control, and condescend their way into the ever-turgid affections of sexy teen (human) narrator Bella Swan -- are slow, repetitive, and often unintentionally hilarious. ("If I hadn't seen him undressed, I would have sworn there was nothing more beautiful than Edward in his khakis." Wait. Hold up. The vampire is wearing khakis?)
Twilight isn't a literary masterpiece and doesn't need to be. There is, I would argue, a place for fantasies like these -- specifically, a place in the lives of adolescent girls, who often find actual teenage boys more intimidating than the fictional vampire variety, and for whom imaginary worlds (where no one has to grow up, where danger is the prelude to a rescue, where boys have no hidden agendas aside from loving you forever) can be a shelter from the terrors of puberty. The books are silly -- and have been roundly critiqued by feminists -- but they speak to a legitimate need.
Meyer's commitment to satisfying that need hasn't gone unrewarded. In the first quarter of 2009, Twilight novels composed 16 percent of all book sales -- four out of every 25 books sold were part of the series. The final installment, Breaking Dawn, sold 1.3 million copies on the day of its release in August 2008.
And then there are the movies. The first, Twilight, made $70.6 million on its opening weekend last November and set the record for biggest opening weekend for a film by a female director. The soundtrack sold 2.2 million copies. The follow-up film, New Moon, began selling out screenings more than two months ago, and its soundtrack is expected to be one of the top-selling albums of 2009, even though it's composed mostly of songs by indie artists.
Twilight is more than a teen dream. It's a massive cultural force. Yet the very girliness that has made it such a success has resulted in its being marginalized and mocked. Of course, you won't find many critics lining up to defend Dan Brown or Tom Clancy, either; mass-market success rarely coincides with literary acclaim. But male escapist fantasies -- which, as anyone who has seen Die Hard or read those Tom Clancy novels can confirm, are not unilaterally sophisticated, complex, or forward-thinking -- tend to be greeted with shrugs, not sneers. The Twilight backlash is vehement, and it is just as much about the fans as it is about the books. Specifically, it's about the fact that those fans are young women.
Twilight fans (sometimes known as "Twi-Hards") are derided and dismissed, sometimes even by outlets that capitalize on their support. MTV News crowned "Twilighters" its Woman of the Year in 2008, but referred to them as "shrieking and borderline-stalker female fans." You can count on that word -- shrieking -- to appear in most articles about Twilight readers, from New York magazine's Vulture blog ("Teenage girls shrieking ... before the opening credits even begin") to Time magazine ("Shrieking fangirls [outdoing] hooting fanboys ... in number, ardor, and decibel level") to The Onion's A.V. Club ("Squealing hordes of (mostly) teenage, female fans") to The New York Times ("Squeals! The 'Twilight Saga: New Moon' Teaser Trailer Is Here!"). Yes, Twi-Hards can be loud. But is it really necessary to describe them all by the pitch of their voices? It propagates the stereotype of teen girls as hysterical, empty-headed, and ridiculous.
Self-described geeks and horror fans are especially upset at how the series introduces the conventions of the romance novel -- that most stereotypically feminine, most scorned of literary forms -- into their far more highbrow and culturally relevant monster stories. At the 2009 Comic-Con, Twilight fans were protested and said to be "ruining" the event. Fans of Star Wars, Star Trek, X-Men, and Harry Potter are seen as dorks at worst, participants in era-defining cultural phenomena at best. Not so for Twilight fans. What sets Twilight apart from Marvel comics? The answer is fairly obvious, and it's not -- as geeks and feminists might hope -- the quality of the books or movies. It's the number of boys in the fan base.
Compare Meyer to J.K. Rowling. The Harry Potter author had her detractors, too. In a 2000 Wall Street Journal article, Harold Bloom turned up his nose at the Harry Potter series, calling the books "not well written" and an example of cultural "dumbing-down." The headline: "Can 35 Million Book Buyers Be Wrong? Yes." In 1999, The New York Times seemed bewildered by the popularity of Harry Potter and noted, in a hilariously late-'90s turn of phrase, that "the books have become the literary equivalent of Furby stuffed animals." Yet Potter fans were never mocked as much as Twilight fans are, and respect for the series grew along with its readership. The final three books in the series were given full-length considerations in the Times by that most respected of book reviewers, Michiko Kakutani. "J. K. Rowling's monumental, spellbinding epic, 10 years in the making, is deeply rooted in traditional literature," reads her review of the final Potter novel, published in 2007.
There's little doubt that Rowling's success stemmed from her talent. But she also benefited from escaping the girly ghetto to which Twilight has been confined. Her publishers, famously, asked her to bill herself as J.K. rather than Joanne so as not to alienate male readers, and her books focused on a male hero and included lots of boy-friendly elements such as sports and warfare. She won a male readership, and with it, praise for the "universality" of her work.
Meyer, meanwhile, decided to forgo a pen name in favor of Stephenie, and Twilight is largely narrated by a girl. The books don't strive to draw in straight, male readers: There's little action, lots of emotion, and much lavish description of Edward Cullen's beauty. The vampire heartthrob isn't exactly macho. He's smooth-skinned, delicate-featured, and his body even sparkles. Edward abstains from sex and human blood, turning down several opportunities to enjoy both, and talks about his feelings frequently. To be blunt, he's not much of a man by sexist standards. In less-civilized regions of the Internet, the words "gay," "faggot," and "pussy" are thrown around liberally in discussions of the series, and of Edward.
Is it any wonder that there are so few visible male Twilight fans? Although boys' lack of interest in the series is used to argue against its "universality," the fact is that boys who do like it may be legitimately scared to say so. The vitriol aimed at the series is often about policing gender and punishing girliness -- and boys who dare to enjoy something so blatantly non-masculine would almost certainly find themselves harshly judged.
Yet, if the numbers are any indication, you don't need male fans to dominate the marketplace. In this decade, teen girls have backed the success of Taylor Swift (who ranks above every artist on the pop charts except for Michael Jackson), Miley Cyrus (responsible for multiple best-selling albums, a television series, a concert film, a movie, and various merchandise including a best-selling book), and the blockbuster movie franchise High School Musical. In the 1990s, teenage girls were responsible for the runaway success of Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears, and Titanic, the top-grossing movie of all time. A fan base of teen girls launched Madonna's multi-decade career. And there was that 1960s boy band -- the one with all the catchy, cheery pop songs and the cute, nonthreatening members who made girls squeal. I believe they called themselves The Beatles.
Teen girls have the power to shape the market because they don't have financial responsibilities, tend to be passionate about their interests, and share those interests socially. If a girl likes something, she's liable to recommend it to her friends; a shared enthusiasm for Edward, or the Jonas Brothers, or anything else, becomes part of their bond. Marketers prize teenage girls, even as the media scoff at them.
If you want to matter, though, apparently you need boys. The third film adaptation of the Twilight series, Eclipse, will be helmed by horror director David Slade, who has made such movies as Hard Candy and Thirty Days of Night. Even though it will not hit theaters until June 2010, it is already being touted as "darker," more action-packed, and more "guy friendly." Because the popularity of the Twilight formula guarantees Eclipse will be a box-office smash, the decision to consciously appeal to boys seems more like a grab at credibility than at profit. Romance-loving Twi-Hards be damned! Who cares about disappointing a huge, passionate, lucrative fan base if they're all a bunch of girls?
As Twilight demonstrates, not everything girls like is good art -- or, for that matter, good feminism. Still, the Twilight backlash should matter to feminists, even if the series makes them shudder. If we admit that girls are powerful consumers, then we admit that they have the ability to shape the culture. Once we do that, we might actually start listening to them. And I suspect a lot of contemporary girls have more to talk about than Edward Cullen.gi