Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Twilight Saga

Yes, I'll admit it: I've read the Twilight books. All four of them. Since most of the people I hang out with are intellectual enough to be repulsed by the series, this is something I've had occasion to feel awkward about -- and perhaps even a little guilty, because I actually kind of enjoyed the books a little. But let me try to explain in a belated blog review. (Belated because I read these books circa 2008.)

The thing about the Twilight novels is that they're very readable -- light, easy books that don't really make you think too hard. (Really, I'm not sure why anyone should come to them expecting anything else, after observing how popular the series is with the tweenage girl demographic.) The books contain the long, romanticized story of mutual infatuation between a vampire and a human, and are basically escapist wish fulfillment fantasy to the core.

I hesitated to use the word "love" in that last sentence because, really, the relationship between Edward and Bella is pretty dysfunctional. They're both ridiculously codependent; their romance comes across as shallow, Edward comes across as a controlling stalker, and Bella comes across as a hapless damsel in distress. Other than the general entertainment value of the books, there's not much there, and I'm not going to disagree with the vast majority of criticisms that have been leveled against Twilight across the internets. Because most of said criticisms are pretty valid.

However, there are at least two lines of criticism against the Twilight books that I do tend to disagree with, and they are as follows:

Sparkling vampires are de facto wussy. This seems to come up a lot. And to me, it seems like some kind of unthinking knee-jerk reaction to... I don't even know what. Sparkly things are girly, and girly things are wussy, or some other such poorly-formed chain of logic.

Personally, I think the whole sparkling-in-the-sun thing almost makes the Twilight vampires more badass. Because while most of the acceptably "tough" vampires from other works of fiction are burning up helplessly in the sun, the Twilight vampires can just stand there sparkling, all smug and invincible. Dismissing this godlike advantage due to a minor aesthetic detail is just silly.

The Twilight books are anti-feminist. This is a more complicated one, and I do waver on it a bit. But most of the arguments along these lines seem to center on the unequal, borderline abusive relationship between Edward and Bella, and overall I feel like these criticisms are missing something.

I think it's fair to say that there are two things going on at once in the Twilight books. First, there's a relationship between a vampire and human (predator and prey). Second, there's a relationship between a male and female. The anti-feminist critiques seem to focus pretty much exclusively on that second thing, but I don't think they have much justification for doing so. To me, the Twilight books came across much more as a vampire/human romance than a male/female romance.

As a thought experiment, you can switch the genders around -- make it a female vampire pursuing a male human, or a female vampire pursuing a female human, or a male vampire pursuing a male human. The resulting story would probably be less popular among the tweenagers without an Edward to fawn over, and of course any business of spawning human/vampire hybrids would have to change according to the biology of your selection. But I think that on a whole, in terms of the characters' behaviors and motivations, the story would still make the same amount of sense.

I don't think the same applies if you start switching the species around, making it a human pursuing a vampire, or a human pursuing a human, or a vampire pursuing a vampire. There's no good reason for a human to be overprotective of an immortal and indestructible love interest, for instance, while the reverse -- an indestructible creature fearing for the safety of a flesh-and-blood mortal -- is actually pretty understandable. So yes, you'll get some disturbing results if you try to plaster they dynamics of a vampire/human romance onto any standard male/female romance, because that isn't what the books are about.

But like I said, I do waver on this issue a bit. Whether consciously or not, Stephenie Meyer does place a lot of her characters into pretty stereotypical gender roles, and she tacitly endorses outdated ideals like purity before marriage and continuing a pregnancy even if it's likely to kill you. If there's anything anti-feminist about these books, I think it has more to do with these telltale remnants of the author's more traditional cultural background, rather than any aspect of the relationship between Edward and Bella.

Either way, it seems pretty clear to me that Stephenie Meyer didn't set out to write a sinister, calculated propaganda piece aimed at young girls, so as to keep the next generation of women in the kitchen, or slavishly bound to their abusive husbands or whatever. She had a dream about a romance with a pretty vampire one night, and she woke up and said to herself, "I should write this down." She wrote the fantasy primarily for herself, managed to get it published, and yeah, it turned out her fantasies were similar enough to those of a 13-year-old girl that she attracted a lot of squealing fans.

I figure I'll end this discussion with a quote from Stephenie Meyer, discussing feminism and Bella's character on her website:

I never meant for her fictional choices to be a model for anyone else's real life choices. She is a character in a story, nothing more or less. On top of that, this is not even realistic fiction, it's a fantasy with vampires and werewolves, so no one could ever make her exact choices. Bella chooses things differently than how I would do it if I were in her shoes, because she is a very different type of person than I am. Also, she's in a situation that none of us has ever been in, because she lives in a fantasy world.

I like how she stresses, repeatedly, that this is a fantasy, and not even a very realistic one at that. It does bear repeating, although I'm honestly a little skeptical that any serious number of young girls -- even those who claim to be in love with Edward -- read these books without understanding that they're complete and total fiction.

Anyway, I think I'm being pretty charitable in rating the Twilight Saga, as an average across the four-book series, at two-and-a-half stars. The books aren't great, but in fairness they're at least more readable than many novels I've encountered in my lifetime, and I feel like that should at least count for something.

The Twilight Saga
by Stephenie Meyer
My Rating: 2.5 out of 5

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