/karen/

Twilight word vomit

Monday, 19 January, 2009

When it comes to Twilight, often I feel like Cady Heron in Mean Girls—the part where she mentions word vomit and always wanting to talk about Regina George, or waiting for someone else to mention Regina so she could talk about her. These days, I often want to talk about Twilight, or I want someone else to mention the topic so I can talk about it. This evening, George told me she was looking forward to my post on it, so I thought I would get it out of my system by writing down all my thoughts, no matter how jumbled they come out. (I'll try to break it up with some awkward headings so the post won't seem so long to read!)

Summary

For the benefit of the handful of people on this planet who have no idea what I'm talking about, Twilight is the first in a series of novels by American author Stephenie Meyer which revolve around the relationship between Bella Swan, a very ordinary American schoolgirl whose parents are divorced and who lives with her father, and Edward Cullen, a 90-year-old vampire who looks as though he's 17. The books have sold millions of copies, and the first one was recently made into a movie starring Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson (who also played Cedric Diggory in [the very woeful] Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire).

Back story

I remember noticing the books in bookshops because they have very attractive covers—black with brilliant colour on a pair of hands holding out an apple, or a white chess piece on a chequered floor. Then people started asking me about them. (It's weird: if you read a lot, people think you've read everything. But perhaps I do have a reputation for having read a lot of YA and children's fiction ...) I saw the movie poster during one trip to the cinema—I think it was when the Hive Mind, Ben and I went to see Hellboy 2: The Golden Army—and then started checking it out online. I didn't realise what a cult phenomenon it was until the movie was released and then it seemed like all the Twilight fans were coming out of the woodwork. (This New York Times article about Robert Pattinson's appearances in shopping malls in America is well worth a read: go on, I promise it's amusing!)

Like Bec, I figured it was probably my sort of thing, and I was mildly interested to find out what the big deal was, so I picked up a copy for under $15 at Kinokuniya (yay loyalty card!) It didn't have the nice cover; it's the movie tie-in, and Robert Pattinson looks appalling, and there's a poster in the back if anyone wants it, but moving on ...

Writing, characterisation and appeal

Firstly (as Bec points out), the writing is appalling. I suppose it could be worse, but it could be a lot lot better too. There's way too much telling and not enough showing, there are too many adverbs and adjectives, character development is almost non-existent, and Bella and Edward are extremely annoying. Bella especially: she's weak and pathetic and whiny and self-centred. During her first day at her new school, the kids go out of their way to be nice to her, but she barely notices. There is a scene where Jessica, who is one of the first girls to befriend her, is talking to her, but she doesn't even pretend to listen. One wonders (well, some of my school friends and I wonder) what on earth Edwards—and, indeed, Mike, Eric, Tyler and Jacob—see in her. Apparently she's rather good-looking (but doesn't see that about herself), but, really, personality counts more than appearances, don't they?

My theory regarding the characterisation is that Meyer has made them two-dimensional enough for you to project onto their canvases whatever you want. All of a sudden, you become Bella: shy, bookish, awkward (clumsy!), smart, desirable, etc. etc., and Edward becomes the guy you had a crush on when you were seventeen: he's good-looking (the most good-looking guy in the school, and therefore the most desirable), polite, charming, talented, dangerous, tortured, rich ... okay, you get the picture. Millions of girls are in love with Edward and dream of him, but it's not really Edward; it's the idea of Edward. I realised (after speed-reading Twilight in two days, and then going back later and re-reading certain bits) that what Meyer has managed to do is capture what being in love when you're 17 feels like. The book made me rather discontent much in the same way that The Devil Wears Prada made me feel discontent with my wardrobe: all of a sudden, I too wanted to live in small town America where life was slow, where kids drove to school and hung out in close-knit groups, where the most gorgeous guy I'd ever laid eyes on wanted me and would do anything to protect me and keep me safe from harm. The process of reading made me feel as obsessed as Bella was with Edward (only I was thinking back to the early days of my relationship with Ben, when all I could think about was him and when I would see him next). Meyer has bottled that experience of adolescent longing and obsession; no wonder the series is selling in its millions!

Girl-dom

This brings me to a very perceptive (and extremely well-written) article that Caitlin Flanagan wrote in The Atlantic (kudos to Tony for pointing this out to me). (Every Twilight fan should read it. But it does have a few little spoilers.) Flanagan places Twilight within not just the context of YA fiction, but the whole area of girls and reading. She points out that teenage girls are the perfect readers:

The salient fact of an adolescent girl's existence is her need for a secret emotional life—one that she slips into during her sulks and silences, during her endless hours alone in her room, or even just when she's gazing out the classroom window while all of Modern European History, or the niceties of the passé composé, sluice past her. This means that she is a creature designed for reading in a way no boy or man, or even grown woman, could ever be so exactly designed, because she is a creature whose most elemental psychological needs—to be undisturbed while she works out the big questions of her life, to be hidden from view while still in plain sight, to enter profoundly into the emotional lives of others—are met precisely by the act of reading.

She talks about the relationship she had with books when she was that age—how days and weeks would pass by, and she'd be curled up with a good book. I remember those; I experienced them too, and even miss them:

It's also the first book that seemed at long last to rekindle something of the girl-reader in me. In fact, there were times when the novel—no work of literature, to be sure, no school for style; hugged mainly to the slender chests of very young teenage girls, whose regard for it is on a par with the regard with which just yesterday they held Hannah Montana—stirred something in me so long forgotten that I felt embarrassed by it. Reading the book, I sometimes experienced what I imagine long-married men must feel when they get an unexpected glimpse at pornography: slingshot back to a world of sensation that, through sheer force of will and dutiful acceptance of life's fortunes, I thought I had subdued.

This, I think, is also why teenage girls—and their mothers (actually, wait a minute: it's not just teenage girls and mums; it's women of all ages) are so obsessed. For teens, Twilight mirrors something true they are already experiencing; for women, it reminds them of something they have lost.

So for days after reading Twilight, I wandered around feeling rather discontent with my lot. (I was also in the middle of moving house which made life even more unsettling.) I said, “Twilight reminds you of what it's like to be 17 and in love,” but then I realised that it was never like that when I was 17. Twilight gave me an ideal—a fantasy—that I thought I had grown out of. Worse, it made me think of “Maureen Easterbrook” in Judith Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee's The Good Marriage: Maureen's daughter hit adolescence and started going out with this absolutely gorgeous boy two years older than her (the daughter) who was a terribly bad influence. But Maureen became obsessed with him and said:

“... I lost it for a whole year ... I became an adolescent again. I had this gigantic rescue fantasy for this boy. His mother was alcoholic and had been abusive, and he in turn was abusive to my daughter. Nevertheless, I treated him like my son. I became preoccupied with him, as if he were my son, and my other daughters and my husband resented it mightily ...

“It was very erotic. He was a stud. It was an affair, but it was all in my head ... I was absolutely wild in what I did with this boy and for this boy. It was a vicarious relationship in which I was living out something via my daughter, and I couldn't stop myself ...

“I was a late bloomer. There must have been something missing from my adolescence. The truth is ... it was his beautiful body. It was sexual. It was lusting for adolescence and being the lusty adolescent I wasn't able to be. I had been kept under strict supervision by my mom.”


(Judith S. Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee, The Good Marriage, Warner, New York, 1995, p. 251)

The restlessness and discontent I was experiencing felt similar, and I wondered whether this was something that many of the women who love Twilight so much also felt. It's like that episode of Buffy Season 1 where the mother (who is a witch) trades places with her daughter so she can try out for the school cheerleading team. (this actually happened in real life and the mother, when she was caught, explained that “she had no childhood and was trying to regain a part of her life she missed”. It bothered me because divorce takes away your part of your childhood, and then by the time you realise what you missed, you're too old to go back. I don't want to end up like Maureen Easterbrook; I know I need to grow up. Unfortunately growing up never stops ...

A bit of romance

But back to Twilight. People complain that the first half is really slow (and the explanation for that is found in the dream that Meyer had, which resulted in her constructing the first half of the book to match the second half). George complained that it was a romance but it wasn't a terribly good romance. She did have a point: if I think of all the YA books I love that contain a romance plot, there are others that stand out as far better: Fifteen by Beverly Cleary (where the heroine is rather similar to Bella but much more likable), The Changeover by Margaret Mahy (which captures more of the awkwardness of adolescent romance and what it means to grow up through the plot devices of witchcraft and single parenthood), Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones (perhaps that's more “children's” fiction than YA but it's beautifully done), Beauty by Robin McKinley ...

Still, when I went back and re-read the first half of Twilight, I had to admire the way Meyer lets the plot develop. There was something comforting about Bella's day-to-day routine—the movement from class to the cafeteria to gym and to class again, getting ready in the morning, coming home at night, having fun on weekends with friends, and so on. Meyer takes it step by step, letting things progress a little more and then a little more between Bella and Edward. As Flanagan (I think) points out, it's a far cry from the worldly spheres of movies like Mean Girls and Degrassi Junior High where the teens know far too much about sex and drugs than seems decent.

Vampires

Speaking of Robin McKinley (or rather I'll get back to her in a moment), of course the whole romance between a human and a vampire thing is not new; we've seen it in Buffy and I'm sure it exists in other literature and media. Robin McKinley's Sunshine, however, does it much better than Twilight, partly because Sunshine and Constantine are more appealing characters, but also because she's so good at presenting Constantine as being alien. The Cullens are a break with tradition simply because they are so super-human and there's none of the blood and sex which usually mark vampire fiction. (Okay, perhaps here I'm exhibiting my ignorance; I've only ever read Bram Stoker, Anne Rice and Sunshine. And watched seven seasons of Buffy and one issue of the season 8 comic ... Oh, and Nosferatu for first-year English ...) Anne Rice's books were (if I remember third-year English!) often about sex and forbidden sex: the exchanging of fluids involved in turning someone from human to vampire was a metaphor for sex, and it often took place between men (homosexuality, with its connecting ideas of HIV and AIDS—blood, etc.) and even family members (Lestat, you remember, turns his mother). Twilight isn't like that. Flanagan writes, “This is a vampire novel, so it is a novel about sex, but no writer, from Bram Stoker on, has captured so precisely what sex and longing really mean to a young girl”, but I think the sex part of the vampirism in Twilight is largely played down. Instead, being turned is expressed in almost salvation-like terms: most of the vampires became vampires when they were almost at the point of death, and their choice to become vampires (for most of the Cullens were given a choice) gave them life—eternal life—and accompanying special powers. I find this interesting because most of the early traditions involving vampires tended to regard them as being like vermin, and you took certain steps to eradicate them the way you would mice or rats (e.g. scattering rice or seed around the grave because the vampire would be forced to stop and pick it up [“One! Ah ha ha!” as one audience member called out during Continuum 3's panel on vampires]). Nosferatu retained some of those elements in that the vampire looks decidely rat-ish in some of his scenes. It wasn't until Bram Stoker came along that the vampire suddenly became this sexy desirable being—an aristocrat whose seductive powers made him an object of desire among women. It's this aspect of vampirism that Meyer is interested in—but not the garlic, crosses, stakes and blood that go with it; vampirism, for Meyer, is not a disease (like Joss Whedon's vampires), and it's not about sex or lust (like Anne Rice's vampires); it's about being born again. Almost.

Mormonism

Here is a topic that no reviewer I have read has dealt with very well(see Salon, The New York Times, SydneyAnglicans and Salt): the expression of Meyer's Mormon beliefs in the novel. Flanagan writes, “That the author is a practicing Mormon is a fact every reviewer has mentioned, although none knows what to do with it, and certainly none can relate it to the novel”. Here's a few of my ideas (and please bear in mind that I have a rather amateur grasp of Mormon theology).

It almost seems to me that in Twilight, the vampires—or, more specifically, the Cullens—are like the gods on earth. They're beautiful, strong, fast, rich and virtually indestructible (and their skin glitters in the sun!). They have everything a human could ever want, and, for the most part, they are pretty content with their lot. Edward does describe being a vampire as being a “monster” at one point (I'm too lazy to look up the reference, sorry), but he's referring to the feeding-of-humans thing, which the Cullens don't do. In Mormon theology, the end goal is that you become a god. But you can only do that if you join the Church of Latter-Day Saints and submit to its rules. No wonder Bella is so keen for Edward to turn her.

The other area where I see hints of Mormonism is the emphasis on being paired up: all the Cullens are partnered except for Edward, and most of the “family” rejoices when Bella comes along because he's been alone for so long and now at last ... okay, not quite “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh”, but you do get that sense from reading it. Mormons believe that God is married, and there is enormous pressure on Mormons to find a life partner. I remember a Mormon once telling me (when I asked him if singles felt like second-class citizens in the LDS church) that Mormons could undergo a ceremony whereby they “marry” their life partner if their partner just happened to have been born in another time (or in the future). For him, that solved the marriage problem. (For me, that was really bizarre, and confirmed to me how much better the Christian God's plan for human relationships is with both marriage and singleness being good in his eyes.) Edward waits 90 years for Bella; it must be the quintessential romantic ending for a single Mormon.

My final comment on Meyer's beliefs is the curious lack of the sense of the divine in Twilight. Perhaps this isn't particularly noticeable since most books have no sense of there being a divine being—not even books by fellow Mormon Orson Scott Card (and not even in his Homecoming series which is basically a sci-fi retelling of The Book of Mormon). The only author I could think of who does include some sense of there being a divine being beyond humanity is, somewhat curiously, Guy Gavriel Kay: in The Fionavar Tapestry, there was the weaver, and in a lot of his later works, even though the expression of religion tends towards either Roman Catholicism or paganism, you do get the sense that their beliefs are not unfounded; Jad is real, though he may not be the kind of being that his adherents think he is.

The movie and the way forward from here

My jumbled thoughts have almost completely tumbled out, but here are a few more comments. Firstly, the movie: it surprised me that I liked Bella more and Edward less in the movie. Kristen Stewart does an excellent job of portraying a gangly but still rather savvy teenage girl. (Maybe it helped that the movie didn't have Bella's voiceover telling us how gorgeous Edward is, and how his gorgeousness dazzles her, every two seconds.) The adaptation has been done rather well (it condenses certain plot points, introduces the ensemble cast without losing you [though the parade of vampires in the cafeteria felt awfully like the introduction of the bridal party at weddings] and it weaves certain plot elements through which become more relevant later). However, the movie still feels clunky in parts and suffers from some of the same problems as the Harry Potter films do (i.e. they're more like film versions of books than films in their own right). I'm probably too close to it though; I saw the movie a day or two after I read the book so I was probably too close to the material to see straight. Oh (and Yvonne, who knows more about these things than I do, agrees): the make-up on the vampires is terrible. Could you be any more obvious about the fact that Robert Pattinson is wearing lipstick???

All these comments came from just my reading of Twilight. Yvonne graciously lend me the rest of the books in the quartet, but I've decided to hold off until I've finished Bec's novel. I do wonder sometimes if I'll become as obsessed as the rest of those Twilight hordes out there; I hope not. But at the same time, I want to enjoy the series for what it is and keep things in perspective instead of trying to re-live my adolescence. I don't want Ben to turn into Edward Cullen; I like him as Ben. (An aside: a school friend pointed out that now there is a whole generation of boys growing up who will learn to despise Edward the way that men throughout the ages have learned to despite Mr Darcy for giving girls around the world a whole set of expectations when it comes to love and romance.)

Let me leave you with a YouTube video of Twilight with puppets (hee hee!) brought to you courtesy of someone's Twitter feed ...

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Other comments

Wow! Epic post!! Men despise Mr Darcy?? I didn’t know that!

Wanted to say - thanks for the article. I found it illuminating, but very brain intensive!  You clearly DO have a degree in English (I did know that you did).

Elsie, not sure if most guys despise Mr Darcy, but I have heard a few express their dissatisfaction with him, and remark how unrealistic he is!

You’re welcome, George smile

Yes, it’s very true that men detest Mr D.  Colin Ferel, the actor who played Darcy in Bridget Jones’s Diary, said he hated the character he played because he thought he was smarmy, self-centred, and a whole lot of other things, and never wants to perform the character again…  Poor Mr D smile

Dear Karen,  Thanks very much for these thoughts.  I shall look forward to discussing them tomorrow with my daughter who is very keen on Twilight (along with her friends).  Yours in Christ, Dominic

Thanks for the post, and the puppets! I’ve just watched it sitting in the coffee club with Aimee. She’s talking about politics and religion and views on turning/conversion in Twilight and I’m trying to talk her into writing a post on it referencing yours, but we’ll see. I’ve been thinking about life changing decisions being made by young characters and how Twilight compares to Whisper of the Heart in that respect.

Also, there are a lot of men who have said that their favourite literary heroine is Elizabeth Bennett smile

Thanks for this post - Kathleen directed me to it - I share so many of your opinions!

Among other things, I liked the unexpected areas of sophistication in the novel - that the Cullens’ differing beliefs in God and their eternal damnation was discussed and became a plot point. (So yes, thank you for your comments about Mormonism - I didn’t know that much about them before this!).

I also liked that Meyer showed Bella’s awakening of a sense of her power over Edward and Jacob (despite their physical superiority). Throughout the books she experimented with it and learned when she could and could not use it, and when she probably shouldn’t. The gender/power politics of the relationships were interestingly explored.

Thanks for bringing up Twilight so I could talk about it smile.

Posted by Aimee on 26 January, 2009 11:20 PM

Mr Darcy is a character with very similar personality trails to a psychopath so I understand why women like him.

Thanks so much Karen - you’ve written really well and with such clarity.

Posted by Diane Lovell on 02 February, 2009 6:09 AM

Thanks for lending me the book Karen I finished it yesterday and now that we finally have internet at home I could read your post.

I agree that the writing is bad and there is way too much time spent describing Bella’s palpitations everytime Edward is near etc.  Yet I found that I wanted to keep reading.

When I was pregnant last year (and fearing that becoming a mother would be the final “nail in the coffin” of my youth) I revistited adolesence through punk music and black jeans.  So your post makes alot of sense to me. Plus when I was a teenager I thought that if I had to choose how to die being killed by a vampire would be the sexiest way to go.

Posted by Stacie on 16 February, 2009 1:29 AM

Hee hee, Stacie, you crack me up!

Hi Karen,

I haven’t read this post, but I just wanted to thank you for not linking book titles to Amazon and movie titles to IMDB.

Is there anything more useless?



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