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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Even My Displeasure is Guilty (originally posted @ Pop Culture Curmudgeon)

Wednesday, 23 November 2011 14:30
So, boys and girls, we have something special just in time for Thanksgiving: a guest post about the Twilight saga from one of Katie’s oldest friends, elisamaza. Be sure and leave your comments below. Enjoy!
A few days ago, a friend posted a link to an article called “11 Things to Know at 25(ish).” It was a good read, alternating between advice on coming to know yourself and advice on honoring your interpersonal relationships. It may look like the only link between that article and this post is the link that was at the top of the page: Kent Woodyard’s “You Can’t Marry a Hot Vampire.” But I think that self-knowledge and interpersonal relationships are at the core of the subject of that article, and the subject of this post: the Twilight series. Now, I think that Twilight demonstrates and promotes a disturbing lack of self-knowledge (in its characters, perhaps by the author, and, I would argue, by many of its fans), and I think that the models of interpersonal relationship are wildly unhealthy. But, as many of you know, the Twilight series is one of my few guilty pleasures. This is obviously not because I don’t take pleasure in other things that other people might call “guilty pleasures” — I certainly do. But I don’t actually feel guilty about any of those. As long I feel like I can distinguish between “it’s good” and “I like it,” I’m alright.

Sometimes, though, it feels wrong to like something. And for me, Twilight is one of those times.

 If you were around when I read the books, you know I consumed them voraciously. You also know that I spent a lot of time being absolutely horrified by the images of femininity, masculinity, and life in general that Meyer propagates. I honestly believe that Stephenie Meyer hates women, or at least the ones in her novel, and just doesn’t realize it. Why, then, I wondered, did I keep reading? And why did I go to see the latest movie in the series just last weekend? The answers there may be a little different.

I kept reading the books because they were addictive, in the way that immature, unhealthy melodrama often is (see soap operas, romance novels, the GOP debates). Bella and Edward’s so-called-romance was an extended train wreck, and I rubbernecked my way through with glee.

Don't get me wrong: there are, in fact, aspects of the book that are compelling. Meyer does a good job of ratcheting up the tension, for example. Then again, most of what she does to accomplish that involves putting Bella in danger. Again and again and again. The real problem, of course, is not that Bella is constantly under attack from enemies, but that her boyfriend is the biggest threat. She’s “dating” (which, to Meyer and, I fear, a generation of un-critical readers, means being stalked by, and then ragingly codependent on) a guy who loves her so much that he not only wants to be with her at any cost, but quite literally wants to consume her. For those keeping score at home, this is not ok. This combined lover/hunter is also someone whose supernatural existence means that he can be both father figure and peer simultaneously. For those keeping score at home, this is also not ok. His monstrousness makes him a warrior, willing and able to rip things limb from limb if they pose a threat to his beloved, but this really only distracts from the fact that the only appropriate threat to his beloved is him. Again, so not ok. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting to be wanted. I don’t even think there’s anything wrong with wanting to be protected. But everything in moderation, kids. Being stalked by someone whose desire to harm you is so powerful that it’s physically painful is not romantic. Being controlled by someone whose idea of protecting you is removing the engine from your truck, so that you can’t go and see your friends, is not sweet.

 But I digress.

 Why did I read those books? Given that I couldn’t I stop railing against them, why did I keep going? One of those questions is easy to answer: the Twilight story is a bad version of life, and that’s why I critique, in all seriousness, the harmful images of just about everything I think the books and films glorify (though, surprisingly, the latter to a lesser extent). But the Twilight story is also a bad version of fantasy, and I railed against that, too, before admitting that the thing I was defending is problematic. It took me a while to be able to articulate it, but my cracktastic experience of the Twilight books had partially to do with the fact that, while I now critique and often object to the fantasies from which Twilight was born, I have also been steeped in them. What do I mean by that? Well, his being a vampire should be a dealbreaker, but that didn’t stop me from wanting Nick and Natalie to work it out, nor does it stop me from wanting Damon to get his shit together enough to be a worthy companion for Elena. Her being a teenager should be a dealbreaker, but that never stopped me from getting totally sucked into the Buffy/Angel angststravaganza. See, also: my previous comment about Damon and Elena. But, what are the alternatives in Twilight, and other stories of its kind? What would the “better” version be?

It’s tempting to hold up Jacob 1.0 (maybe even 1.5) as a positive option, and that’s part of why I kept reading — I was hoping against hope that she’d pick “the right guy.” I didn’t hope very hard. It’s honestly never *actually* a triangle, and it eventually becomes impossible to root for Jacob, as Meyer transforms him into her ideal man: possessive, controlling, strangely unable to understand the word “no.” But, even before then, his right-guy-ness is as much a fantasy as Edward’s. Jacob is not the dangerous, mysterious, brooder. He’s the awesome friend, waiting in the wings for Bella to notice how sweet and supportive and handsome and perfect and totally in love with her he is. And what of the other featured couples? Alice and Jasper, Rosalie and Emmett, Carlisle and Esme? All fantasies. It’s a story full of soul mates and happily ever afters, none of which are actually healthy pictures to shape a life with (even if they’re less obviously damaging than the hot mess of obsession and self-abjection that is Bells and Eddie). Even the wolves with their imprinting (brought to its uber-creepy height with the Jacob and Renesmee pairing) is a gross twist on love at first sight. Let *that* sink in for a moment.

The Twilight story is an affront to my sensibilities as a feminist and a critical thinker. I worry about how it both was shaped by and is now shaping cultural images of love and life. But, I am also shaped by its predecessors and peers. This understanding of how I’ve been shaped is actually why I think the critique is crucial, but it’s also why at least a small part of me just wanted to keep reading.

I mentioned earlier that my reasons for being drawn to the books and my reasons for being drawn to the movies might be different. I read the books at least partially because they tapped into a lifetime of unrealistic portrayals of love, men and women, and happiness that my critical thinking feminist is unable to believe, but that my Lloyd-Dobbler-loving, MickBeth-shipping, daydream believer is unable to let go of. The movies obviously tap into some of that, but there’s another reason that I enjoy them so: the Twilight movies involve some of the worst actoring I’ve ever seen, and I happen to love bad movies. There’s something I find really enjoyable about watching something you know is of poor quality, specifically for the joy that comes from pointing out (preferably in a group, with a drink in hand) just how poor the quality is. I enjoy pointing and laughing, staring with disbelief at the wreckage of bad dialogue, bad delivery, bad makeup and wigs — oh, the wigs! I enjoy bad movies, and these are bad in a spectacular way.

But I’m also implicated in a culture that fetishizes pretty faces, chiseled abs, love at first sight, and happily ever afters.

I think it’s important to think critically about the disturbingly unhealthy images of love, life, and beauty in the Twilight books and the movies based on them, but also about the problems inherent in countless other romantic comedies, romance novels, etc. I think it’s important to ask what, exactly, we’re absorbing from our media, but I am also aware that I’ve been shaped by what I have already absorbed form those books, those movies, that media. And this is what’s really scary to me. Because you can’t (and shouldn’t want to) marry a hot vampire, but you can’t marry Mr. Darcy either, be it Mark or Fitzwilliam. And, if someone like me, who thinks really hard about what she’s taking into her brain, and into her heart, has to admit that she is always already affected, and in ways that she’s not comfortable with, what of all the uncritical readers and watchers? If they manage to avoid threatening, possessive creepers, what will they seek instead?

elisamaza is both a nerd and a geek. She grew up in the South, now lives out West, and studied religion, ethics, and literature at schools on both coasts. She currently makes a living teaching students to read, write, and speak more critically about things she thinks it is critical to read, write, and speak about. She’s particularly interested in the relationship between selfhood and storytelling, and has written about it in works as varied as Isak Dinesen’s short stories, Joss Whedon’s TV series’, and Neil Gaiman’s comics. She thanks Jennifer and Katie for inviting her to guest post, and invites you to visit her blog at in medias res, where she talks about everything from “media and metaphysics” to “absolute rubbish.”

She does not usually talk about herself in the third person.

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