Does Twilight deserve any “feminist defence”?

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:

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.

As the inimitable Granny Weatherwax says in a very different style of novel about vampires:

“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?

Categories: arts & entertainment, gender & feminism

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13 replies

  1. Traditional superhuman/supernatural tropes focus on the attractive woman standing by her monster right up to the point she has to stake him/shoot him with a silver bullet/shove him back into the transporter thus sacrificing her own happiness for the safety of her community. How often are her personal needs prioritised?
    I don’t have as much trouble with Twilight because for me it falls crashingly into the Romance genre – the supernaturals are just a tasty topping on what is an extremely stale traditional concept of a “fated” couple (often doomed as well, but not always) and the ever-objectified female caught between the attentions of two suitors. This is not a genre from which I expect much in the way of feminist awareness. I quite enjoyed the movie which had some very funny touches [the shotgun: just sayin] but the books are so badly written it was a real struggle to finish. Meyer’s relentless first person narrative is a real drudge to plough through (I am so glad I didn’t buy the hardbacks), but this strikes me as simply lack of writing skill as the excellent Sookie Stackhouse mysteries are also written in first person but they’re a much easier read! I can understand why it’s often perceived as a pean to abstinence, but even in the books Bella doesn’t WANT to wait. She is full-on up for it but Edward is the refusenik (for what he perceives as her own good of course… patronising bastard). The message I get from Twilight that really creeps me out is the one telling a young girl that her boyfriend is best placed to judge when she is ready for sex, rather than her own instincts. Or even {shocked gasp} negotiating the conduct of a sexual relationship from a position of equality.
    The materology/matyrology of vampire pregnancy from the last book is even worse for me as a feminist.
    Yes I’ll probably be going to see New Moon – I know, that’s how I ended up sitting through the atrocious Transformers 2 as well – but not until I’ve treated myself to a little lech at Gerard Butler in Law Abiding Citizen first.
    Gotta get my squee in somewhere…

  2. My favorite vampire books have always been Interview With A Vampire and The Vampire Lestat. I always loved reading about the transformation process and then the testing of new abilities after the change. (Though I’m not a fan of the later Anne Rice books)
    Thinking about it my fantasy books really center on escapism for me as I’m drawn to books with non-human protagonists be they urban fantasy or high fantasy with elfes and other mythical beings. Even without all the horrible misogyny of Twilight I wouldn’t see the appeal in reading from the perspective of a plodding normal human when I could be reading from the perspective of a werewolf or a vampire.

  3. There’s a whole thesis in this.

  4. A timely topic given that today is White Ribbon Day.

  5. ” This is not a genre from which I expect much in the way of feminist awareness. ”
    I don’t expect much in the way of feminist awareness from any genre. Romance is hardly the bottom of the list. There is nothing intrinsic about romance tales or romance fandom that means they must conflate creepy, stalkerish abuse and twu wuv.
    I recommend Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.

  6. I am only just catching up with True Blood on DVD and damn it is good. I am only a little way in but so far I am boggling at how great it is in all sorts of ways. I am pretty much punching the air whenever Tara or Sookie open their mouths and the stuff about segregation versus mainstreaming and so on – using vampirism to explore structural inequality and the dilemmas of identity, so far that is working for me too.
    I love that Kate Harding called Twilight the new Palin.
    I was thinking about ” people as things” and I guess one variant is reducing someone’s lived experience to a narrow meaning so that you can use them as a pawn in your argument or rhetoric. People as cyphers or symbols.

  7. I’ve been collecting what’s commonly referred to as “urban fantasy[1]” for a while now. I have a reasonable collection of Anita Blake: Vampire Humper Hunter novels[2]; the Merry Gentry novels[3]; the Southern Vampire novels [4]; the Jaz Parks books; the Hollows stories; and a few other oddities and bits and pieces here and there.
    Overall, I was rather grimly amused when the local Borders decided to stop trying to shunt these into the Horror and Science Fiction sections of their shelves, and put them into Romance, where they more appropriately belonged (Romance with Fangs, as opposed to Romance on Horseback, Romance in Hospital, or Romance in General). I don’t mind the whole genre too much – the heroines are pretty much of a muchness, and you get the standard romance novel dwelling on how they look, what they’re wearing, and how good their supernatural-being-of-choice[5] looks, as well as the necessary arse-kicking prior to their supernatural-being-of-choice stepping in and saving the day with their supernatural abilities (not to mention sweeping the heroine off her feet) and lots and lots of bloodshed.
    To be honest, my first and foremost criterion for reading anything, no matter what the genre, is “does it sound interesting?” and the second one is “does it keep me interested?”. Some of these books do actually cover some rather interesting issues in alongside the standard angst – things like having the (generally male) vampires having trouble with the way that modern women act; the issues of how to sustain a lengthy existence (centuries, possibly millenia; this for a species which, as one person so sapiently pointed out, has problems sustaining themselves through a wet Sunday afternoon); even the straightforward physiological problems inherent in being fed on by a vampire on a regular basis (anaemia, anyone?). I’ll admit I like the way Charlaine Harris (Southern Vampires) handles things best, but that’s mainly because I do have a soft spot for an author who manages to have her characters laughing at themselves. Second on my personal list is Jennifer Rardin (Jaz Parkes) because again, her characters don’t take themselves overwhelmingly seriously[6].
    For least favourite, I’d have to nominate the works of Anne Rice and Stephanie Meyer in equal proportion, primarily because they’re so focussed on being deadly serious about the whole business, and taking it all so seriously. Stephanie Meyer gets an additional serve from me because she’s obviously confused her sidhe princes with her vampires, and mixed either or both up with a good solid serve of Mormon theology then served the whole underbaked mess out in massive slabs. My fourteen year old niece used to be quite a fan of the Twilight series – but both her parents have been working to wean her onto more traditional versions of the vampire mythos (things like the “Vampire Knight” manga, and good old Dracula – the Bram Stoker version), which she’s found much more interesting.
    [1] Aka “From ghosties, ghoulies and the long leggedy beasties living at number 28, may the good lord deliver us” genre of fiction.
    [2] I gave up buying them when I realised there was slashfic in fandoms I liked available online for free which had better plots, more porn, and less pointless angsting.
    [3] Again, dumped for the online slash – much less angst, plus my preferred style of bishounen.
    [4] Haven’t seen the TV series as yet, and don’t particularly want to. The books are apparently much better, from all the reviews I’ve read.
    [5] Or, depending on the series, the supernatural dish of the day.
    [6] Anyone who gets a chronically flirtatious CIA assassin to get himself issued the alias of “Thor Longfellow” can’t be too bad, after all!

  8. [6] Anyone who gets a chronically flirtatious CIA assassin to get himself issued the alias of “Thor Longfellow” can’t be too bad, after all!
    Hmm, looks like another library request coming up…

  9. It makes me sad that we’ve taken steps back from where we were when Buffy walked away from both Spike and Angel and even Harmony had the good sense to recognize an abusive man (however hot) when she saw him.

  10. I love Charles deLint’s Jack the Giant Killer, personally. Urban fantasy like most of his stuff, where the world of the Celtic faerie lies alongside our own and only the fey-touched can see them. De Lint’s stories get repetitive after a while, but Jack’s still a favourite of mine – Jack being short for Jacqueline, of course! – who kind of stumbles along into faerie by accident.

  11. [True Blood] using vampirism to explore structural inequality and the dilemmas of identity, so far that is working for me too.
    Personally, I find it a bit squicky to use vampires as a metaphor for real world prejudices. Although unlike most shows that do so, True Blood acknowledges the literal existence of those prejudices too: Tara having to pretend that the Descendants of the Glorious Dead aren’t celebrating a wannabe nation that deemed her fit to be bought and sold; Lafayette being told his burgers might have AIDS (though his response to that was a superlative laying down of righteousness).
    I agree with Alphie about Charles de Lint. Though I haven’t read Jack the Giant Killer, I’ve read a lot of his books. I love he inextricably wraps the magical and the mundane around each other – in plots, settings, and characters – and how they aren’t “chosen,” but win through courage, intelligence, determination, strength, and sometimes even compassion.
    I’m a big fan of Kelley Armstrong. In my local shops, her books get filed under both horror and romance, but they read more like mysteries (albeit mysteries where the heroines are very good at landing hot men – but then again, that doesn’t differentiate them much from male-centred mysteries). And her characters deal with those mysteries in detective-y ways. Plus, she has my favourite werewolves – both individual characters and as a species.
    Anne Rice books irritate me (not just the angst, but the fact that the really interesting vampires get sidelined: why would I want to read about Lestat when I could be reading about Gabrielle; why would I want to read about Pandora when I could be reading about Flavius? I liked Pandora more than other vampire books). However thing about Anne Rice’s books that I find most perplexing is the widespread notion that it’s Louis who’s the whiny one, not Lestat.

  12. Personally, I find it a bit squicky to use vampires as a metaphor for real world prejudices.

    I guess it could be a problem but I am choosing to see it as the “monstrous other” made deliberately explicit in order to comment on how/why we construe certain groups in that way. Even if that was the writer’s intention and not just my interpretation, I suppose there is always the danger that it winds up subtly reinforcing the status quo .

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