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The twilight years of Stephenie Meyer’s ‘Twilight’

It is my lot in life to be incapable of reading the word “irrevocable” without being reminded of this quote:

“About three things I was absolutely positive: First, Edward was a vampire. Second, there was a part of him — and I didn’t know how potent that part may be — that thirsted for my blood. And third, I was unconditionally and irrevocably in love with him.”

This is partially due to the fact that “irrevocable” was still missing from my vocabulary at that point, so in my head, I mispronounced it as “ir-re-VOC-able.” Even a decade on, though, I can’t specifically recall another catchy quote with “irrevocable” in the context of contemporary literature, which may be a testament to the lasting subliminal power of this paragraph on impressionable teenage minds that have since matured into adulthood.

If you don’t immediately and instinctively recognize this text (but as you may have deduced from the words “Edward” and “vampire” being used back to back), the aforementioned passage is from Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight” series; more than that, it’s the tantalizing excerpt printed on the back cover of the first book, meant to entice potential readers into purchasing the novel for themselves to see exactly what larger literary dish that brief taste is a part of.

(It’s worth noting that I typed that quote from memory; I Googled it afterward to double-check I was correct, of course, and the fact that I was could be both celebrated or condemned, depending on how you feel about “Twilight” as a concept, as a pop culture phenomenon or as a so-called piece of literature, or even just how you feel about me as a person.)

“Twilight” is a contentious topic. On the one hand, the first film in the franchise grossed over $192 million at the box office in 2008, and by the time the finale rolled around four years later, the series was averaging about $290 million per installment. On the other hand, Urban Dictionary, that bastion of cultural capital, calls it, “A fictional story created for women or homosexual men who are insecure and need to get laid big time.” On the third hand (bear with me; this is a Hecatoncheir model), “Twilight” also spawned the “50 Shades of Gray” series, which began as BDSM “Twilight” fanfiction. On the fourth hand, there was a period of roughly four years during my high school days where The Internet Trend was to comment on shitty content with the oh-so-original, “Still a better love story than ‘Twilight.’” On the fifth hand, the sweet, artsy girl in my middle school homeroom redecorated her locker in the style of the “Twilight” book cover — swirly black font, Snow White-apple and all — and made us all jealous. On the sixth hand, there was the petty “Twilight”-versus-“Harry Potter” war that erupted online (shocker of all shocks, I was in the “Harry Potter” cavalry, and we all see how well that worked out), as if young audiences are incapable of consuming multiple sources of media at the same time. On the seventh hand, it’s 10 years after “Twilight” was released, and the Internet has given “Twilight” new life with a resurgence of Twilight-related memes.

So what is the truth? How do we reconcile this thousand-pronged response to a series of young adult fantasy novels with a coherent cultural narrative? Why does “Twilight” stir such rage, such interest, such devotion, such intensity?

There’s the obvious prevalence of sexism in our consumption of pop culture, of course. “Twilight” was targeted at preteen girls, and as we all know, anything popularly praised by young women must be devalued by the public at large. A lot of the original, mainstream “Twilight” hate stemmed from the fact that it was written by a young woman for young women. Literary theorist, film critic and YouTuber Lindsay Ellis eloquently outlines this in her video essay, “Dear Stephenie Meyer”: “We — and by ‘we’ I mean ‘our culture’ — we kind of hate teenage girls. We hate their music, we hate their insipid backstabbing, we hate their vanity, we hate their selfie sticks, we hate their makeup, we hate their stupid books and the stupid, sexy actors they made famous, and we hate their stupid, sparkly vampires… And then we wonder why so many girls are eager to distance themselves from being the object of societal contempt.”

She explains that the anti-“Twilight” vitriol wasn’t just “that ‘Twilight’ was popular, but who ‘Twilight’ was popular with: teenage girls, and the mothers of teenage girls. And the vast majority of the virulent hatred towards ‘Twilight’ didn’t really come from grown men but from other girls and women who were more than eager to distance themselves from something so unapologetically female.” (Anecdotally, that’s absolutely true. My mom, younger sister and I used to have girls’ nights where we ate pizza and red velvet cake (for irony) and made fun of the “Twilight” movies.) Constance Grady over at Vox says of her own ambivalence, “I clearly found ‘Twilight’ really compelling when I was 19, and I was mad about that, because smart girls weren’t supposed to like books and movies like ‘Twilight.'”

As Ellis says, “Your ‘pop feminist’ hot takes can have elements of internalized misogyny, namely the visceral aversion to a thing that women and teenage girls like while giving a pass to or ignoring altogether other, equally high-profile media of the day [e.g. the “Transformers” movies] that has the moral benefit of not needing to provide ‘strong role models’ for teenage girls.” As a result, the “Twilight” series was under more intense scrutiny than concurrent media of similar quality, mostly because people disguised their misogynistic hatred of the books and their audience behind so-called “critique” of the writing itself. Ellis caveats, “I’m not saying all criticism of ‘Twilight’ was disingenuous, but after a while the ‘it’s problematic!!1’ argument starts to feel like a lazy excuse to hate on a popular thing teenage girls liked, rather than good-faith criticism.”

This is not to say that “Twilight” is not riddled with problematic elements; it is. There’s the wide age gap and unequal power dynamic between Edward and Bella, which is made all the more eye-catching by the recent cultural conversation regarding sexual manipulation and what constitutes consent (and is exacerbated by “Breaking Dawn”’s imprinting storyline, in which Jacob falls in love with a literal newborn baby). There’s the appropriation and misrepresentation of an actual Native American people’s (the Quileute tribe) legends and belief system and the portrayal of characters of color as uncontrollably “savage.” There’s the glossed-over backstory where Jasper was a major in the Confederate Army before becoming a vampire against his will and was then manipulated into helping his sire, a Mexican vampire named Maria, conquer and kill (there’s a lot there). There’s the uncomfortable truth that neither Edward nor Jacob are desirable love interests as they both infringe on Bella’s agency by kissing her against her will (Jacob), damaging her car so she couldn’t interact with a rival for her affections (Edward) and breaking into her room to give her a romantic ultimatum (both), just to name some specific examples.

This last point is made especially tense due to the existence of Rosalie’s storyline. For those not in the know, Rosalie Hale, one of Edward’s “adopted” vampire sisters, was a 1930s socialite who got gang-raped by her fiancé and his friends, after which Carlisle, the patriarch of the Cullen clan, found her beaten nearly to death and turned her into a vampire. Rosalie, in a savage act of revenge, violently murdered every man who forced himself on her.

In her wedding dress.

Rosalie might have an instinct for the dramatic.

But Rosalie’s character arc is also a fascinating female revenge story a la “Thelma and Louise,” “Kill Bill” or even the recently re-evaluated “Jennifer’s Body,” which are all fairly universally praised for their protagonists’ radical seizure of power from patriarchal forces. Outside of the text itself, “Twilight”’s cultural legacy is one of several female-centric stories dominating decades of media. Kate Muir at The Guardian reminds us that, prior to the monumental success of “Twilight,” films with women front-and-center were niche creations, defined by their femininity: “The sensation of ’Twilight’ in 2008 caused Hollywood studios to perk up and pay attention to a new ticket-buying demographic — young women,” and so “the race to satiate the imaginations of teenage girls was on,” leading to a slew of female-led films like “The Hunger Games,” “Divergent” and even “Wonder Woman” farther down the timeline. Vox’s Grady agrees with this, acknowledging that, “‘Twilight’ was such a giant franchise that it had a real effect on pop culture.” She even goes so far as to wonder, “Would it [even] be a stretch to call movies like ‘Brooklyn’ and ‘Lady Bird’ part of the legacy of ‘Twilight’? Of course, they’re in an entirely different genre … but they fill a place in [girls’] heart[s] that ‘Twilight’ once did, for the way they show that the stories of young women and their romantic choices are important and worthy of deep study.”

So we’re left with a Charybdis of “Twilight”-generated talk; it’s as impossible to sever the text from its troubling politics as it is to analyze Hollywood trends without giving “Twilight” its due. We’re a much more forgiving audience than we were in 2009, though; the problematic aspects of “Twilight” have been dissected to death, and now we can appreciate its silliness, its entertainment value and its underutilized world-building without having screaming matches about internalized misogyny or the fall of literature. “Twilight” is ripe with ridiculousness, from lines like “You better hold on tight, spider monkey” and “I’m more the suffer-in-silence type” to such iconic exchanges as, “‘Vampires play baseball?’ ‘It’s the national pastime,’” and, “‘Is she even Italian?’ ‘… Her name is Bella.’”

Anyone between the ages of 18 and 35 is so hyperaware of all things “Twilight” that it’s a universal inside joke, and that level of familiarity with a text lets us reinvent it, reimagine it, reinvigorate it, on a monumental scale. The Twilight Renaissance, as the “Twilight” meme frenzy on the Internet has been named, has us reinterpreting the text we’ve already read, making Edward as virgin-y or snail-obsessed and Bella as bookish or as butch as we want, reveling in “Twilight”’s ludicrousness rather than ridiculing it. We’re rewriting “problematic” relationships; we’re making Bella in love with Rosalie or Alice and making Jacob and Edward bros rather than antagonists. We’re representing ourselves, making Leah a lesbian or treating Bella’s trauma seriously. We’re smushing our grandmothers’ names together a la Renesmee (mine’s Jancy, so that just confirms that Bella was on too many painkillers when she named Renesmee). We’re exploring the premise on which this simple wish-fulfillment series was founded and making it relevant to today, making it better — and everyone and their mother is having harmless fun with it.

More than anything, the “Twilight” conversation makes clear the need for nuance in a world increasingly enamored with extremes and absolutes. Media works exist in — pardon the pun — shades of gray, and the question of “What is ‘Twilight’ teaching the children??” can have conflicting answers — that watching someone sleep is romantic, not creepy? That immortality has better uses than being a perpetual high schooler? That pop culture that centers on female stories and desires can, in fact, be financially successful? That stories that capture the young imagination can foster creativity, humor and community, even if they’re flawed works?

I like that one best.

 

Contact Claire Francis at claire97 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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