What I Think About Twilight
Admittedly my reaction might have been quite different had I not been thoroughly spoiled for all the cracktastic elements (let me just say, the Meadow Of Great Sparkle lived up to its reputation). If I hadn't already known about the sparkling and the baseball and the freesia, there would have been a great many yells of "WHAT??!" echoing across Sussex. As it was, I went into this with the intent of examining the text for two things: Firstly, why it's so popular with teenagers, and secondly, whether it justifies the (generally light-hearted and snarky) moral panic around it online and in print.
My conclusion is that one of the things that I think makes it popular with teenagers also negates some of the moral panic argument: Bella's agency. I was surprised at how much agency she has in the book.
... Okay, I'll just pause so that you can all get back on your chairs and pick your jaws off the floor.
Now, key to my argument is my view that YA books tend to predominantly sell to those a bit below the protagonists' ages -- tween and teens read books about characters older than themselves, but rarely younger (Harry Potter is a notable exception to this; I think this is a combination of the portrayal of the adult characters, who have almost as major a role in the books as the kids, and the rate at which the books came out). Bella is 17, which suggests to me that the target for this book is 14-16; my understanding from lolfandom online is that this is where the biggest segment of actual fandom is to be found (Twimoms aside, and that's a whole different story).
So, what's it like to be a 14-16 year old girl in today's world?
You can't drive. Unless you live in a large city, your public transport options are probably strictly limited. Bearing in mind the way that people are more spread out in general, you stand a good chance of not having any of your school friends within convenient visiting distance, without relying on the parental taxi service. Which is probably not at your beck and call, because both your parents work (if you have both parents), and anyway petrol prices are high. Your parents probably aren't too keen on you going off on your own or just with friends anyway, because of the dangers of predators, which you are told daily about on the news.
If you are in the reasonably affluent middle classes, you almost certainly have a number of activities scheduled into your week which are not necessarily of your own choosing (music lessons, sports activities, etc.). There's a lot of pressure on you to do well both academically and socially, while also being healthy (which means: thin), environmentally concerned, involved in your community, and sporty. You do not pick what you eat. Your parents pick what you eat. Your parents have control over you financially, and are not above reminding you of this fact ("As long as you're living in this house you will...").
In short, there is a metric buttload of pressure on you to perform well (and I think this is much, much greater on girls than on boys at the moment), and you have very little control over your schedule and geographical location.
Now look at Bella. The first time we meet her she's choosing -- choosing -- to go to Forks, where her dad lives, rather than stay at her mother's. And her parents viewed this as her decision to make. She has chosen where she will live, what sort of school she will go to, how she will relate to her parents.
I think it's deeply, deeply significant that Bella thinks of her parents by their first names, not as Mom and Dad.
First thing when she gets to Forks? She gets a car. Not just a little runabout, but a huge truck in which she could, if she wished, pack up all her worldly goods and take off. Her dad gives her the car, and then promptly clears off out of her life. She comes in and sets the schedule; what they will eat and when they will eat it. Charlie is not the master of the house; Bella is, and there is power in that.
(which makes it triply creepy when Edward breaks in without permission, but I digress)
Bella completely sets her own schedule. She doesn't even have set times at which she has to report back to her mom. If she wants to take a day out and go to the big city? She damn well will, and she doesn't ask her dad's permission, either (This is deliberately highlighted in the text, in fact). She manages to storm out and leap onto a cross-country plane with barely five minutes explanation to her dad. She never explains or justifies herself to a parent, and they don't seem to expect it. In fact, Renee and Charlie seem to have no expectations whatsoever of their daughter. They are benign and loving, and very much in the background.
At Bella's school, there are no Mean Girls (I think there's one semi-nasty comment in the entire book). There are no social cliques -- apart from the Cullens, who are not actually involved in the school socially at all (nobody tries to bully them; no one really insults them; we don't see anyone trying to suck up to them. They ignore everyone and are ignored in return).
There's a point where Bella says something along the lines of "I'm old enough to get my own place in Phoenix if I want to." At seventeen, with no qualifications, and two loving, living parents.
This, this is the wish-fulfillment for the 14-16 year crowd. Forget the magic sparkly boyfriend. It's the freedom, the ability to make your own choices while still having a safety net to fall back on, the lack of pressure. Being treated as an equal (everyone in the book takes Bella seriously - even when she's staring at the wall in a four-hour depression fit). Having this be so normal that neither of your parents even call attention to it.
When we adults, as post-feminists, bitch about Bella being a good little housewife and making dinner for her dad, we forget that many teenagers do not have the freedom to decide what they will eat. They would love to take the weekly budget and go out and do all the shopping, if they had total control of what they could buy. Controlling the household is a form of power, if an often downplayed one.
There are just so many things in this book that call out to the under sixteen crowd. Bella is inhumanly clumsy (which was actually played much better than I expected; most of the time it's for sly humour, apart from where it becomes a major plot point) -- young teenagers often are, because they don't know anymore what size they are; the brain hasn't caught up with the body. Bella is terrible at sports, but no-one picks on her because of this, or forces her into the gym to practice until she gets better. No-one tells her that she needs to think of the future and start planning how to get into a good college. No-one is interested in her grades (note that Bella gets good grades; at one point, she smacks down a teacher who implies that she just cribbed from Edward. She's also a reader, but not a geek).
Again, if you're of the age where you can remember when there were no expectations on girls because girls were just going to be wives and mothers, this is horrifying. But if you're a 1990s/2000s girl? This lack of pressure is a dream.
Throw in My Little Boyfriend on top of this, and I can see why this was a smash hit.
So, Edward. So very much not a real person, it becomes hilarious. He simply doesn't exist outside of the context of Bella. He is not from the same lineage as Lestat and Jean-Claude; his attractiveness does not lie in his experience or his sophistication. He is not, in fact, Vampire Guy. He's less experienced at being "human" than Bella (and most of the book is set in the human world; this means he's at a disadvantage), he's not as good with reading emotions, he doesn't really understand people, he's moody and unpredictable and snarly and a predator: He is, in fact, Werewolf Guy. He's the dangerous and instinctive predator who needs to be tamed, not the suave dangerous gentleman who is going to sweep you away and maybe ravish you.
(I am now actually kind of agog to read the second book, because I really want to know how Meyers handles actual werewolves)
In the most telling two chapters, Bella makes a deal with Edward whereby they promise to give each other a day of asking questions. Edward asks Bella about her favourite foods and her friends and the books she likes (he basically turns into a walking, talking embodiment of Hello Quizzy, which absolutely cracked me up); Bella asks Edward about being a vampire. Not about being Edward. It does not matter what Fantasy Boyfriend thinks about when he's not thinking about you, because he never is.
I think you could get some mileage out of viewing Edward as a Companion Animal. Psychically bonded, slavishly devoted, scary to others, and not a sexual threat.
Oh yeah. Let's talk about sex and Twilight.
Sex gets swapped out for vampirism; this is hardly an uncommon trope. But this is not the vampire hanging round the heroine trying to persuade her to give in, while she says no, no, no (but secretly wants it). Bella is practically screaming YES YES YES; it is Edward who constantly has to back off. I think this is a wonderfully coded version of female teenage sexuality. I am absolutely certain Meyers wasn't doing this deliberately (I think Meyers is pretty clearly writing straight from her id, which gives the books so much of both their crack and their charm), but it's actually kind of subversive. Bella is not acting as the gatekeeper of sex, the guardian of her sexuality; Edward is the one who is constantly saying no, we mustn't, stop. It's notable that the first two times they kiss, it's Bella who becomes the aggressor, despite telling herself that she has to stay still (that she must act as the gatekeeper).
Wouldn't it be nice if you could kiss a boy without reservation, and have him be the one to back off first? To let him take the responsibility of making sure things don't go too far? It's another form of wish fulfillment, one that I don't think many young teenager girls are even aware that they have. Powerful stuff.
On a complete digression, someone needs to write a paper about the use of topaz eyes in romantic fiction. It seems to be one of those powerful erotic images that only occur in fiction written by women for women. What is it with topaz/golden/yellow eyes? Is it the fact that they're wolf eyes, cat eyes? I desperately want to read a scholarly dissection of why yellow eyes, pointy ears, and wings hold such attraction to females. (and I wholeheartedly count myself in that number)
(and I'm now determined to give someone in my own YA novel golden eyes, and it will not be either of the male love interests)
So. Bella has personal freedom, no pressure on her, and a fantasy boyfriend on whom she can offload the burden of guarding sexuality. On top of this, the prose is pretty good (from a technical standpoint, this was better written than quite a few fat fantasy and SF books I've read recently), there's a leavening of snarky humour (another surprise: Bella is pretty darn sarcastic), and the whole thing bounces along at a good clip.
And the last line is sheer, complete genius, both from a story and a marketing point of view, and I am unabashedly in awe of it. It is a brilliant hook into the next book; when Twilight was first published -- before the sequel was out -- the last line practically demands that you immediately thrust the book into someone else's hands so that you have someone to discuss it with. (basically, the last line could be read as Bella getting vamped; if you were a young teenage girl, just imagine how desperately you would have wanted to speculate about What Happened Next with your friends. Think how eagerly you would have awaited the next book. As I say, sheer genius, and if you'd told me two days ago that I would ever write that about anything Twilight related I would have laughed in your face.
(second marketing genius -- giving different vamps different powers. Instant daydream fodder. "If I was a vampire my power would be...")
When I was a young teenager, I devoured Anne McCaffery ("If I was a dragonrider my dragon would be...") and Jean M Auel, both of which have subtexts that now completely horrify me. But the stories those books told were stories I needed to hear at that time. I turned out... okay, completely weird, but capable of normal function. We find what we need to find in the stories we read. The teenage girls today have different experiences to those of us who grew up in the 70s or 80s or even 90s; some of the stories they need are different to ours. I think Twilight is one of them.
And it's okay. The kids are going to be all right.
(The Twimoms, on the other hand... but that's a whole other essay)