There’s been so much criticism levelled at fans of the Twilight series of supernatural romance novels (as the publicity machine has cranked up for the release of the second film in the franchise) that feminist hackles are rising, because the criticism tends to be along the lines of “See! We told you women are just stupid! Look at what they’re doing now!”. As Kate Harding at Salon says:
“Twilight” is officially the new Sarah Palin: I hate everything it stands for, but since so much of the reaction to it is sexist, I keep feeling compelled to defend it. Sigh.
We’ll come back to Harding’s defences of Twilight later, and exactly what she is defending and what she isn’t. Carmen D. Siering and Katherine Spillar at Ms Magazine aren’t buying into any feminist defence of Twilight in their article New Moon, Same Old Sexist Story. This insight from Siering’s earlier piece on the saga neatly sums up feminist concerns with the narrative themes and characterisations:
the protagonist Bella Swan—by all accounts a very average human girl—has two suitors. One is the unimaginably beautiful vampire, Edward, the other a loyal and devoted werewolf, Jacob. Fans of the books, and now a movie version, often break into “teams,” aligning themselves with the swain they hope Bella will choose in the end: Team Edward or Team Jacob.
But few young readers ask, “Why not Team Bella?” perhaps because the answer is quite clear: There can be no Team Bella. Even though Bella is ostensibly a hero, in truth she is merely an object in the Twilight world.
Siering and Spillar view the second movie as even worse than the first in this regard. Yet the Twilight phenomenon is not just about the narrative arc’s blatant reinforcement of patriarchal norms through shallow characterisation along tired gender stereotype lines and “true love” being the ultimate prize. I’ve linked to two posts by Kate Harding over the last week as part of the Femmostroppo Reader series that take different angles on the enormous success of the films:
- The immense popularity can be viewed as a good thing for women despite the shortcomings of the source material – that women and girls going out in droves to see something because it’s a story that they really like rather than only going to the movies to see what their boyfriends/partners like is a rare phenomenon that should be embraced, because it shows Hollywood that films aimed squarely at women can make big bucks at the box office, and we can hope the more female-centred films being greenlighted will offer women as both creators and consumers of movies better opportunities, choices and rewards.
- However, is the overtly sexualised fangirling over the highly objectified male characters/actors in just the same way that fanboys overtly drool over highly objectified female characters/actors in other franchises the sort of gender equality that feminists want to see?
Harding isn’t really defending Twilight qua Twilight in either of these pieces. One needn’t defend a work one doesn’t like to defend the people who do like it from sexist attacks on their taste, intellect and character, attacks which have been ever more frequent and virulent as the franchise makes more and more money. As I wrote in comments yesterday, I can’t entirely resist that touch of schadenfreude as I consider the cognitive dissonance currently afflicting those who are ideologically committed to the idea that market forces can never be wrong yet are simultaneously squicked at teh wrongness that is teh wimminz expressing unapologetic sexual desire, but that doesn’t mean that their double standards surrounding female sexuality generally and sexual objectification in the movies specifically are not still incredibly irritating.
This quote from Tiger Beatdown (also quoted in the second Harding article above) looks at one particular double standard: how Twilight actor Robert Pattinson receives substantial sympathy for feeling overwhelmed and belittled by his self-facilitated objectification, but when Megan Fox says similar things about characters she plays in movies then she’s vilified as an ungrateful hypocrite:
Robert Pattinson talks shit about the projects he is in. Robert Pattinson is honest about the fact that he is not the best actor. And Robert Pattinson’s main source of employment is facilitating his own objectification, which he does, but also complains about all the time. Robert Pattinson is… Megan Fox, basically! But, you know. A man version.
But the issue of Our Cultural Discomfort With Objectifying Robert Pattinson, which is a very important phenomenon that I just made up and decided that we should focus on, is perhaps best illuminated by how different it is from our generalized Cultural Discomfort with MF. Because we have no problem with objectifying Megan Fox, really! We just have a problem with everything she says, and specifically the things she says wherein she takes issue with being objectified. We just hate her. Whereas people don’t hate Robert Pattinson, really. At least, not outside of the inevitable superfans in various Internet comment sections, who take issue with him not loving Twilight like it is his own sweet mother, and most of their ire is reserved for Kristen Stewart anyway. And superfans just yell about shit all the time. That is how they show their love. People outside the superfan matrix don’t tend to have strong feelings about The Pattz, but they do tend to get all squirmy and giggly and uncomfortable with the way that so many women relate to his filmed image (for example, by screen-printing it on their underpants) and/or his person.
Because those women are acting in a way that is typically reserved for men. And they’re treating Pattinson like a girl.
Treating a man like a girl is just not on, Twilight fans! How very dare you!
So, you can see that the commentary on “the Twilight phenomenon” is becoming complicated, requiring some disentangling of several tropes:
- critiques of the source material on its literary and feminist demerits
- analysing the responses to the fandom culture (both the positive responses of the women and girls who are enjoying being part of it, and the negative responses of those who are using the fannish enthusiasm as just another illustration of how all women are dumb and our opinions should be ignored)
- calling out the critiques of the fandom culture that reify double standards about male and female sexuality
- what the money made by the Twilight franchise could mean for women-centred narratives in the Hollywood movie industry and for women as fans of movies
While looking at this, let’s not forget the whole issue of objectifying people (instead of making the effort to consider them as complex personalities with inconvenient opinions of their own and with conflicting motives and goals) as a behaviour in the first place, of which the treatment of actors/characters by Hollywood is only one example. It’s well to remember that not all objectification of people is sexual, and the popular fiction entertainment genres that rely on people threatened by supernatural monsters or by the superhuman villains of comic-book franchises are fundamentally about the threat of normal people being objectified as prey, playthings, drudges, drones etc by people with terrifying powers.
“And sin, young man, is when you treat people as things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is.”
“It’s a lot more complicated than that—”
“No. It ain’t. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they’re getting worried that they won’t like the truth. People as things, that’s where it starts.”
~ the witch Granny Weatherwax to the priest Mightily Oats, in Carpe Jugulum (Terry Pratchett)
These genre fictions of supernatural/superhuman threats have allegorical power that stirs profound emotional responses despite their literally fantastic settings, because many people already feel powerless and objectified by the hierarchies surrounding them, hierarchies which treat them as just another cog in the capitalist machine, or as just another status accessory or household appliance, as just another consumer or as just another electoral ballot. When these fictions are done badly they reinforce standard hierarchical tropes: oversimplifying the objectification issues and spinning a myth of personal salvation from danger through being chosen as worthy of protection from one particular holder of the terrifying powers (who generally “saves” the protagonist only because of aesthetic appreciation, and/or occasionally because of personal attributes viewed as a useful tool).
When these fictions are done well they challenge and subvert hierarchical tropes, acknowledging that the objectification is the true horror and personal redemption is found by protagonists refusing to accept protection in return for subjugation. I would point to the more overtly sexually charged the True Blood “Southern Vampire” novels/TV series as a far superior example of the supernatural romance genre than Twilight, which is not to say that it never falls into the trap of viewing hierarchical subjugation as not just inevitable but also romantic, but that it at least has characters who are flawed as well as gorgeous, unattractive people are still important to the narrative and it takes a complex and nuanced view of what the attraction to threatening power is all about.
Now, let’s do some more deconstructing: in terms of fantasies centred on threatening supernatural/superhuman forces, what are your least/most favourite examples, and just why is that exactly?