Does Edward Cullen Taste of Cherry Chapstick?

At my local shopping centre yesterday, I noticed a shop selling faux-Twilight merchandise — T-shirts with slogans that clearly reference the Twilight books/film, but are just generic enough to avoid a lawsuit (my apologies for the crappy cameraphone images):

For those of you who may not have encountered it before, Twilight is the first in a series of books by Stephanie Meyer; it has recently been made into a film. Meyer’s novels are particularly popular with teenage girls, and Meyer herself has been compared to J. K. Rowling in terms of her popularity. The books tell the tale of a teenage girl, Bella Swan, and her relationship with eternally beautiful (and sparkly!) vampire Edward Cullen, whose abusive and controlling behaviour towards Bella is configured as twu wuv, the ultimate in romance.

[Spoilers for the entire series beneath the fold]

Vampires have long been associated with the conflation of sexual desire and violence, so there isn’t much new in the “I *heart* Edward” shirts that you can see in the picture on the left, which use the violent image of a heart dripping in blood, but I think there’s something interesting going on in a couple of the other shirts. The first, which is in the top part of the left-hand, reads “I kissed a vampire and I liked it!” — an obvious riff on Katie Perry’s song, “I Kissed a Girl” (I kissed a girl/ and I liked it/ the taste of her cherry chapstick). The second, somewhat blurry image shows a shirt with the slogan “Forget Princess, I want to be a Vampire”.

So, here we have two slogans which, in spite of everything, seem to convey an expectation that the young women at whom these shirts are marketed want to reject the heteronormative patterns that are deeply entrenched in the Twilight franchise. The analogy between “I kissed a vampire” and “I kissed a girl” seems almost to imply that these young women are seeking out a queer identity, while the second clearly rejects the princess schema that is forced onto girls all throughout the Western world — although Bella Swan herself is constructed in terms of a princess-schema (a normal girl who ultimately marries a handsome man from a noble family), vampires in general undoubtedly seem much more powerful, much less passive than your typical fairy-tale princess. Is there a spark of resistance here?

To be clear, I am not trying to argue that these T-shirts in themselves are particularly feminist or progressive, but I do think (or at least hope) that they indicate that there is a certain resistance going on — that, in spite of the hideous heteronormative ideologies perpetuated by the Twilight texts, there is a sense that their initial appeal may lie in the idea of breaking away from the norm (even though, sadly, all they really do is reflect that norm back with greater intensity).

So — am I being overly hopeful here? Am I reading too much into a couple of slogans, or is there potential here to find the desire to resist patriarchal heteronormativity, even if the reality of the Twilight texts does not fulfil that desire in any way?

Categories: arts & entertainment, Culture, gender & feminism, Sociology, violence

Tags: , , ,

25 replies

  1. Yeah, I think you’re onto something there. While there’s a great big blob of horribleness, there’s also something a little bit different I can’t quite put my finger on. Maybe it’s more a function of changing attitudes on the part of consumers than changing stories.

  2. No, I think you have a point, Beppie. The queering of the vampire concept is a pretty common idea in literary theory, and it’s like that for a reason, that the vampire Other is typed in queer ways even unintentionally.
    (Back to reading my bloglist…I’ve been in a sinkhole of fail for about two weeks.)

  3. Yeah, Bene — but the interesting thing is that unlike something like Dracula, which is saturated with homoerotic subtext, Twilight isn’t — even Twilight slash is quite rare, apparently, especially in comparison to Harry Potter (presumably the two fandoms share a lot of the same readers). So it’s interesting to think of the way that the notion of queerness might manifest itself in other more nebulous ways for the readers of Meyer’s texts — almost like there’s a recognition that vampires come with queer subtext, but that there’s nowhere to place it, because even though her vampires live a hidden life within mainstream society (ie, in the closet), their difference, in many ways, stems from the way that they fall into these idealised versions of Western heterosexual subjects — beautiful, powerful bodies full of restrained desire, and very very white — all those things that confer privilege.

  4. Wow, that’s so interesting.

  5. Ah. I had a student turn up in an “I (heart) Edward” t-shirt the other day, and I was curious about what on earth the reference was that I was missing. We were working on King Lear, so I wondered if she meant Edmund.

  6. Objection, Beppie! Harry Potter is a cracking good read, unlike Twilight which even I, as a 3+ books-a-week kind of girl, haven’t been able to struggle past the first book.
    /petty defense of my own preferences
    Back to discussion I find very interesting and am actually reading avidly. I personally got the impression, though, that the breaking away from the norm in Twilight was more in the vein of (stereotypical) teen-angst-no-one-understands-me-I-deserve-something-more, as opposed to a conscious rejection.
    Whereas, perhaps, the princess being carried away by a rich prince, was a fantasy from when the ultimate dream for a woman was to be looked after in luxury – this one seems to be a fantasy of being ‘cool’. And what’s cooler than hooking the hottest guy at school who’s never looked at any of the other girls?
    Although I guess that still reflects a change in society.

  7. Oh, goodness, genstar, of course Harry Potter is far better than Twilight — the comparisons come up because Twlight seems to be similar in popularity (although only with girls).
    Anyway, I think part of the point of this is that, yes, Twilight definitely plays into those stereotypical norms, and reinforces them, far more extensively than Rowling’s novels do* — in spite of the fact that it invokes mythical figures that are typically associated with queerness. What I’m wondering here is the extent to which readers may be resisting Meyer’s attempts to do this, against all odds.
    *Of course, Harry Potter is still incredibly heteronormative, but there are lots of openings for queer readings — as you would expect from any text in which the hero’s first action is to literally come out of a closet.

  8. Beppie: Is there not much Twilight slash? That surprises me! I would have thought that there’d at least be a body of vamp/werewolf slash, even in the absence of hints in the text, purely because of the tension there (which seems to be a key ingredients in some flavours of M/M slash).
    I share genstar’s hestation about the HP/Twilight fan-congruence hypothesis, though the way you’ve phrased it is likely true. I suspect most Twilight fans have read and liked Harry Potter, but I know plenty of HP fans who can’t stand Twilight. Are those latter fans more likely to be the ones involved in ficcing, maybe? Are the kinds of people who are going to be Twilight fans the kinds of people who are less likely to play with texts?
    And, to respond to the post and not just the thread-drift, I definitely see resistance in that T-shirt, even if it’s not all that widespread within the mainstream Twifan community.

  9. I’m going to disagree, at least with the reading of the Princess/Vampire t-shirt: As you just pointed out, vampires are the personification of the conflation of sex and violence. So to me, this T reads as classic madonna/whore dichotomy, where the only two options for (young) women are perfect, respectable lady (Princess), and rule-breaking slut (Vampire). There’s nothing new or particularly subversive about “grrl power” and the “reclamation” of the slut/bad girl persona.
    Going back to the previous, I fail to see it as much of a queering; rather, especially in the context of the Twilight series (whether licensed merch or no!), it reads as an endorsement of the “girls like bad boys” meme (again, vampires = conflation of sex and violence). The slight hint of queering in the bi-curious, two-women-making-out-for-the-pleasure-of-a-man kind of way only serves to enforce the meme of women’s sexuality existing for men’s pleasure, in my reading. But that might be my cynicism as an invisible bisexual showing through again.
    So maybe I’m just pessimistic, but I think your reading is entirely too hopeful. Alas.

  10. Yes, Lauredhel, I definitely take your point there — most Twilight fans are HP fans too, but the inverse is not true by a long shot — and it may well be that Twilight fen tend to be those who produced more passive readings of HP as well — there are, of course, huge swathes of Harry/Ginny and Ron/Hermione (and Harry/Hermione) shippers. And I’m not terribly familiar with Twlight fandom as a whole, but from what I’ve heard from others, it’s very slash-lite. There is a bit out there, but I suspect that, as a novel narrated by a young woman in the first person, most of the relationships portrayed in the book have a woman involved.

  11. Arwyn, I definitely see what you’re saying, and that’s why I was only talking about the desire for resistance, rather than its acheivement — and I think that is something that pervades both the bad girl/slut persona and the “two women making out for the pleasure of a man” thing (although I do think that in “I kissed a girl” there is an element of real desire there, but the singer seems only to be able to understand that desire in terms of a broader heteronormative paradigm). Both of these are about wanting to break free, but not quite getting there — finding oneself trapped back in the same old cycle again.

  12. Interesting, and hopeful-making stuff, Beppie! I think there is a thread of resistance here. And to be honest, I think that the desire for resistance kinda *is* its achievement, insofar as it’s clear from these T-shirts that there’s a resistant reading of Twilight going on, and one that people are invested in in some way. Which, given the text, is a fucking relief!
    And the queer vampire stuff is intriguing (with, as both you and Bene have pointed out, a long and fascinating history). It’s interesting that it’s coming up in relation to Twilight, whose reconfiguration of the vampires as *invulnerable* to anyone/thing except other vampires is quite a radical shift from earlier (imho more interesting and more queer) conceptions. Nonetheless, they maintain the ambiguous situation in relation to death (not alive, not dead, kinda both) which maintains the queerness of them (and maintains their challenge to the heteronormative structuring of ontology, but now we’re getting in deep…). Honestly, I kinda like this overt refiguring of the desire for the vampire as a queer desire, as a queer desire for (un)death (which also does interesting things to the ‘violence’ stuff, I think). Even as that annoying song is annoying as hell (for a heavenly, queer-as-anything remix, check out the following Especially good, Arwyn, for teasing the whole song away from its homophobic attempts (though I think you’re right, Beppie, it’s not altogether successful) to disavow “real” desire, which gives me the irrits too). Although the proximity of the two (Edward and This Perry Girl) reminds of me the bizarreness of trying to eroticise someone who is, effectively, made of rock. I get gorgeous planes and, you know, hardness. But kissing granite? Not really that hot, I wouldn’t have thought?
    Whilst I get what you’re saying, Arwyn, about how the ‘bad girl’ can be just as problematic, I’m not convinced that that is so easily mappable to the figure of the vampire as you suggest. There are elements of it, sure, but there’s a few extra fun bits thrown in for good measure: a girl vampire can penetrate the allegedly impenetrable male body, and more than that (shock, horror, bloody up the heteronormativity) make him *want* it. She is aloof, invulnerable, and certainly not going to be ‘taken’ by anyone; indeed, she’s more likely to do the taking. And she, for any Lacanians out there*, has no reflection, never enters the Symbolic, never becomes naught but the complement of men. In fact, even without the Lacanian thing, she’s always on the edges of culture, and certainly fails to participate in heteronormative *life* (except to fuck up marriages, for the most part)… Give me a vampire girl over a princess any day. NB I may be influenced by hilarious-but-honestly-awesome lesbian vampire film watching. 🙂
    *With thanks, as ever on this stuff, to the awesomeness of Sue-Ellen Case.

  13. In a hurry, but just a note: I’d argue there is some queering of the Twilight vampires, unintentionally. The sparkling, for example, and the preternatural beauty, etc.

  14. sigh…in the end she marries Edward? Lord I have the first book on reserve at my library. I guess there’s no point now. Could you maybe add Spoiler Alert to your post. sob!

  15. The romantic heroine marries the misunderstood hero at some point of a series of romantic novels? That’s a spoiler? Really?
    The point of romantic novels is the twists and turns of the misunderstandings and the perils along the way to that fated union. Some romantic novels continue with the drama after the weddings.
    P.S. In Pride and Prejudice? Elizabeth marries Darcy.

  16. Corrinna — my apologies. I have added the spoiler warning. I am sure that there are plenty of things that happen in the first three books that you don’t know about (and also in the fourth book — it’s not JUST a wedding), so I’d still read them, if you’re interested. (Though there are even more Book 4 spoilers later in this comment so you may want to skip past it.)
    a girl vampire can penetrate the allegedly impenetrable male body, and more than that (shock, horror, bloody up the heteronormativity) make him *want* it.
    Yes, although the interesting thing about Bella is that even when she does, ultimately, become a vampire, she is so strong that she never represents that threat to men — she’s immediately able to restrain herself, and even so, the object of her desire, the one man that she finds irresistable, is already a vampire, so there is no threat to him.
    Of course, as we discussed the other day, Edward never actually penetrates Bella in the vampiric sense either — he ends up converting her with a syringe, a pseudo-phallus. And, it strikes me suddenly, this could be symptomatic of a repressed disaffected attitude towards heteronormative penetration on Meyer’s part — because the actual penetration through intercourse (which we don’t actually see — I believe a number of fans were very upset not to catch “sight” of the sparkle!peen), which occurs while Bella is still human, results in the horror pregnancy from hell, not to mention all the disturbing bruising that she wakes up with the morning after, because Edward can’t restrain himself — even though Meyer attempts to configure these as “good” things (yay, babiez! bruises don’t matter because the sex was wonderful), perhaps there is an undercurrent of disillusionment there?
    Also, while on the topic of both Bella’s pregnancy, and the sparkling/perternatural beauty as queerness, it’s worth having a read of stoney321’s Twilight Sporkage — the author of this is a former-Mormon, and she explains how the beauty/sparkling (and later the pregnancy stuff) fits in with an LDS worldview (which basically casts Edward Cullen as Joseph Smith). So, do we have a queering of Mormon identity here too?

  17. (Sorry, Tigtog — our comments must have crossed.)

  18. As far as the queer of Twilight goes… well, I think I mentioned the other day that I was pretty disappointed by Bella’s ‘crossover’ into being a vampire, because she managed to be so very ‘strong’ as to not ever need to engage in physical violence, which is kinda the vampire thing. And that, my friends, does funny things to situating a battle as the climax… Have I mentioned these books are poorly written?
    As for the few sites of penetration 😉 It could be a disaffection for het penetration more generally, or an anxiety about any penetration that is not, y’know, reproductive. OMG sodomy! (In the old sense of any non-reproductive sex). I mean, they have sex this one time (I personally thought the whole ‘exfoliation whilst sexing’ was the hilarious aspect to this whole thing) and she falls pregnant? How very… Mormon? See, in lots of ways I think Meyer struggles to keep the heavy eroticism under heteronormative control, but at the same time, the tries to plug those leaks in really kinda odd ways. And mostly by making Edward Joseph Smith and Virtue Personified. As well as creepy and kinda boring. To be honest, I think the appeal of these books for most people lies in the characterisation of desire as overwhelming, so overwhelming you don’t care how proximate death is: it’s the point at which control, the superego, the sense of doing what you’re meant to do, ceases. And, y’know, the loss of self is queer (in the queer-theory-queery-contemporary-forms-of-identity sense). If it’s interesting at all, I think it’s partly interesting because women and girls are given a fairly hefty sense of responsibility, so I can see the appeal of giving in to such strong desires. There’s something vaguely interesting going on there; I just think it happens in lots of other, far better written and more interesting texts…

  19. I was also going to bring up the ‘vampiric bite as metaphor for sexual penetration’ thingy, which SCREAMED at me right through ‘Twilight.’ It has so many interesting facets to it in the context of Twilight and how it parallels attitudes of emergent sexual females in conservative America (ie ‘getting bitten’ or having sex can both be seen as something ‘forbidden’ and scary, as well as full of adult secrets and excitement). Unfortunately though, I never had any sense that Meyer had the talent or imagination necessary to set out writing the book with that in mind!
    Re the t-shirts… As far as young girls wanting to wear vampire/Twilight-inspired fashion, I’m ambivalent. The fashion choices of teenaged girls can be equally about playing with and ‘trying on’ various personas as they move towards adulthood, as they can be about simply fitting in. And the Twilight franchise has HUGE popularity amongst teenaged girls.

  20. Wow tigtog! Sorry. I have read Pride and Prejudice 10 times at least and yes I did not know that in the Twilight Series those two got married. I don’t read a lot of romances. I read this site every day, link to you, and admire you. Why do you have to be all sarcastic with me?
    And thanks for the spoiler warning.

  21. @ corinna:
    Corinna, what made me sarcastic was this:

    I guess there’s no point now.

    You are probably a most likeable person generally, but that particular phrasing choice was whiny.
    Now you say that you’ve read P&P 10x at least, which means that you actually do know that there’s more to enjoying a book than not knowing how one particular aspect of the narrative plays out, so why make such a passive-aggressive claim in the first place?
    I’m still unconvinced that this post needed a Spoiler Alert for that one line, despite Beppie acquiescing to your request. If you’re that keen on avoiding spoilers, why read a post discussing Twilight at all? Wikipedia doesn’t put up spoiler notices for any of their entries discussing novels/movies/TV series – they assume that people know that there will be spoilers in the discussion and decide either to read or not read accordingly.

  22. I’m tempted to see it as a bit less conscious than all this. I think people now find it safe enough to toy with those slogans or ideas that they do so without making any kind of commitment to them. As certain ideological stances make their way into the mainstream, it becomes easier to adopt that stance without explicitly endorsing the ideology.
    That is, in a vague kind of way, I suspect that the lesbian/vampire shtick is of a piece with all those college women who simply assume they should be able to vote, own property, have a career, own their sexuality, have their own opinions and make their own decisions, but who say they are not feminist. Those assumptions have become so much a part of the cultural milieu that they’re just not seen as radical, or even forming an ideological stance, anymore – even while they’re still under attack. Similarly, you can be into vampires in a kind of cutesy non-heteronormative way, without, you know, really endorsing non-heteronormative life choices or even recognizing that you’re transgressing any kind of cultural or literary norm in doing so.
    And, just like voting, education, and careers for women, that’s also a product of the successes of feminism that then dilute the urgency of feminism itself. Today, you can kiss a girl (if you’re a girl). You can dig vampires without playing the submissive virgin. And you don’t have to think of (or even recognize) yourself as taking any kind of stand in doing so. That would be so, you know, feminist and all. And who wants that?

  23. Kevin, I don’t think anyone was arguing that this was a form of conscious resistance — rather, it’s more that things like these shirts demonstrate a subconscious desire to resist (even if the medium used to express that desire undermines its fulfilment). I think you raise a good point in that a lot of young women have ideological posiitons that are broadly consistent with feminism, but they don’t want to be seen as taking a “stance”, but that becomes problematic when faced with a text like Twilight which undermines the assumptions about female agency that many girls now grow up with — Edward constantly treats Bella as someone who cannot do anything for herself. He spends a large portion of the first book basically convincing her that she will die if she does not allow him to hover over her constantly (and then he also keeps telling her that she’s being incredibly stupid by allowing him to stick around — that he will probably kill her if something else doesn’t). And then the final book makes out that getting married and having a kid straight out of high school is the best thing ever. So you have readers who on some level recognise that this is regressive, but at the same time, explicitly acknowledging that would require taking a “stance”, as you say, so they look to discourses that are less explicitly political in order to express their desire to resist these ideas.

  24. I agree, Beppie. I’m a bit over the idea that in order to be politically relevant or whatever, it needs to be a conscious resistance. I personally think it’s much more telling (and actually politically useful, since I think a politics of persistence self-abnegation is incredibly problematic) if desires have been so subconsciously reshaped that young women are drawn to these kinds of minor resistances.

  25. *persistent*. I need coffee.

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