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Book Excerpt: Seduced by Twilight by Natalie Wilson

Book Excerpt: Seduced by Twilight by Natalie Wilson

Here is a taste from the Introduction, A Post-Twilight World from Seduced by Twilight

I fully expected to hate Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Saga when I was dragged, kicking and screaming, to read it by my then-nine-year-old daughter. She claiming that she was the only child on the planet not reading Meyer’s books and regaled me with stories of how all the kids at her school clutched one of the four books to their person at recess, and I began to wonder why Twilight had come to such cultural prominence. I was aware large segments of the planet (and particularly large portions of the female population) had been bitten by the Twilight bug. However, until I delved a little deeper, I didn’t realize just how large a phenomenon Meyer’s series had launched.

I had heard the usual claims: the books are badly written, once you start reading them you can’t put them down, Edward was to die for. Aware of discussions about the age appropriateness of the series given the “sex stuff ” (as my daughter put it), I assumed the legions of 9- to 11-year-old girls wearing Twilight T-shirts at my daughter’s elementary school were drawn to the “mature content” that our abstinence-only culture insist they not be aware of. While I anticipated sexual content was what had parents in a dither, this was not ultimately what worried me—rather, I was concerned about what I had heard were the very regressive messages regarding gender roles. Would Bella be just another weak wallflower? Would Edward’s apparent irresistibility lead my daughter to forget her love of feisty female protagonists and head down the path of future Harlequin romance addiction? I need not have worried, as her relationship with the series was much like a crush.

She fell headlong into the first book, feverishly turning the pages. With the second book, the honeymoon period started to fade. She began to complain about Bella—her lack of character, her clumsiness, her stereotypical femininity. By the third book, she had just as many dislikes as likes. Then, as her Twibreak- up loomed, she slogged through book 4. Now that a few years have passed, she is able to look at her Twi-crush more clearly. She has seen the existing film adaptations several times, and laughs heartily at Bella’s earnestness, at the clumsy dialogue, at Edward’s overdone emotion (and lip gloss). While I feared I would have a “Twi-hard” on my hands, I need not have—she, like me, has a love/hate relationship with the saga.

While many Twilight fans admittedly fail to recognize their devotion to the saga, the majority are not prisoners to its allure. Rather, they are able to have critical distance, mocking the texts’ and films’ more ridiculous moments and analyzing the series’ often less-than-stellar messages. Indeed, as I educated myself more about the series itself and various responses to it, I was surprised by all the different ways Twilight seduces its readers. Tapping into our cultural love affair with romance, the books seduce readers not only because they rely so heavily on archetypal character types and alluring supernatural figures, but also because they reflect various cultural shifts and trends.

Fans live at a time when vampires have never been sexier, or more likeable. Surrounded by not only the likes of Edward Cullen, but also Bill, Eric, and Pam of
True Blood, Stefan and Damon of The Vampire Diaries, and the sympathetic vampires of Let the Right One In, Daybreakers, and Being Human, and the lasting impact of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Lost Boys, Fright Night, and Near Dark, is it any wonder that so many seem so smitten with the undead? American culture is in love with vampires. They have become, rather than the dangerous warnings they once were, contemporary culture’s sexy drug of choice.

While medicating ourselves with immersions into the world of the undead comes with some negative side effects (such as convincing us to value youth, beauty, and power and romanticize violence), it also has its benefits—especially when we analyze our dependence and “manage” our addictions. Even in the more conservative, regressive vampire narratives there is space to enact subversive readings.

And Twilight is no exception.

The present book is an attempt to turn a light on Meyer’s series and its widespread popularity. I hope that it will prompt readers to question Bella’s desire to wed herself to the Cullen vampire lifestyle as well as to question their own attraction to the seductive messages Twilight offers.

We need not deny our attraction to the saga (or to its many sparkly vampires and hunky werewolves), but we would be well served to turn a critical eye on our enmeshment in vampire culture. Rather than moving into a Snow White–like cottage in the Forks woods for a happily ever after as a forever young, forever beautiful wife and mother, we should endeavor to become not sidekick Lois Lanes, but Super(wo)men, able to see through the illusions of our culture with a laser-like gaze. We may indeed be seduced by Twilight, but our awareness of the many ways in which the saga, its characters, and its messages seduce us will allow us to be more of an empowered Eve than a soporific Sleeping Beauty. Our world may be far from the post-racial, post-feminist utopia some claim, but it can at least be post–Twilight if we, as critical readers of our culture, refuse the seductive message that falling in love with a sparkly vampire will solve all our problems.

While Twilight’s popularity is usually traced to the mysterious romance at the series’ core, the way the saga is centered around Bella’s choice to become a vampire certainly also appeals to contemporary readers schooled in the rhetoric of empowerment. The cultural championing of choosing abstinence, the continuing sexualization of women and girls, the backlash against feminism, the bolstering of certain types of masculinity, the political and religious turn to the right, the exhortation to be consumer citizens—all of these are important social contexts that further foster Twilight’s appeal and make it, to use a popular Twi-ism, as addictive as heroin.

As attitudes about marriage, family, parenting, gender roles, and race relations are being jolted by cultural shockwaves, it is not surprising that a series exploring these issues appeals to so many. Further, the open, rather blank writing allows readers to project their own ideas onto the narrative: those who seek a “typical romance” are able to live vicariously as the damsel in distress saved by the uber-hot Edward; those who frame their lives in terms of religious belief are able to view the series as a Christian allegory; those with more political sensibilities are able to read the human/vampire/werewolf triad as negotiating difference, hierarchies, and societal inequalities. Twilight provides such narrative pleasure because it is able to offer different things to different readers. It is like a Vegas buffet—there is something for everyone. Most readers return to Twilight, either through repeated book reads, blog discussions, attending conferences, or buying every “so the lion fell in love with the lamb” trinket possible. They stuff themselves silly, gorging down enough vampire and werewolf to repulse those who somehow remain immune to the series allure—the Twihaters. These haters dislike the book for a multitude of reasons, but one recurring complaint is their simplicity. In the books, the contentious debates over “family
values” dominating the cultural landscape become the idealized Cullen family. The mixed messages given to girls to be “good” yet hypersexual is embodied in Bella—the ultimate good girl who teeters constantly on the edge of “badness.” The collective guilt of our war-ridden society morphs into an epic vampire
battle where good wins out against evil. Consumer capitalism on over-drive is given a flattering Twist via the opulent world of vampires who have no monetary impediments, such as outsourcing or inflation.

Arguing that the series’ messages about gender, race, class, sexuality, and belief are as unstable as Bella’s moods, the present study will explore the contradictory
messages of Twilight, a series that presents neither a subversive nor a conservative view of larger social contexts but is an ambiguous mixture of both. This vacillation, I contend, is precisely why the saga appeals to such a varied readership. Most of the messages in the saga are rather old-fashioned, encouraging the largely female fan base to head back to the kitchen. The series speaks for the likes of Glenn Beck, who recently told Sarah Palin to “make him some stew.” Yet, some of the textual strands are transgressive, suggesting that religious and cultural mores of sexuality and gender are too strict. Others imply that some of the more delimiting aspects of the current culture—namely, the abstinence-only imperative, the cult of beauty, and the sexualizaton of women and the violence done to them—are acceptable. This textual vacillation not only can be traced to the author’s status as a female Mormon, but also is indicative of contemporary American culture. We are a society that cannot quite
make up its mind about our principles and beliefs. We are Puritanical devotees dedicated to hard work and morality and simultaneous crazed consumer gluttons driven by desires for the perfect body, the perfect product, the newest gagdet. Neither can we make up our minds about gender, sexuality, race, and class. We are a “post-racial” society obsessed with race and ethnicity, a “postfeminist” society trying to roll back women’s rights, a “secular” society fanatical about religion. Seduced by Twilight will investigate these conflicting ideologies shaping American culture, using Twilight as a lens through which to view our culturally inconsistent ways of thinking.

Bella, in particular, embodies cultural inconsistencies with regard to gender; she speaks to our culture’s rampant sexualization of females on the one hand and obsession with abstinence and purity on the other. Our cultural fascination with “MILFs,” “Cougars,” and “Hot Moms” also takes fictional form in Twilight. In the fandom, this translates into a bevy of “Twilight Moms” whoare just as much (or more) smitten with the series than their daughters. The claims that our society is “post-racial” and “post-feminist” are tidily fictionalized in a world in which vampires, werewolves, and humans get along and battles for gender equality need not be fought. Emerging at a cultural moment colored by conservative politics and religion, by consumer capitalism, and the explosion of internet culture, Twilight is both a product of and a reaction to
these trends. As many technological shifts impede human contact and physical interaction, as we spend more time at keyboards, on Facebook, and on eBay, as
we are encouraged to avoid physical contact via purity balls and pandemic fearmongering, as we are enticed to shop our way out of both “terrorist attacks”
and economic downturns, as we chatter into cell phones, text, and Twitter, we are profoundly distanced from face-to-face contact. Thus, the series speaks to our innate desire for connection.

While some might argue that the young fan base of Twilight does not care for the more weighty issues the saga circulates around, this assumption denies the very complex interaction between readers and texts. Moreover, the predominately young fan base is not the vapid, only-caring-about-iPods bunch they are made out to be. It may seem youth culture is not concerned nor engaged with the bigger issues shaping the world, but their devotion to books that speak to these bigger issues—such as The Harry Potter Series, the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, and, yes, Twilight—belies this claim. Each of these series, while very different, speaks to enduring sociocultural issues. Twilight, coming out during an era of extreme cultural anxiety, salves readers’ fears and ignites their desires.

On the plus side, the series has a female protagonist at the helm and many female characters—a factor that in itself is still a rarity in both printed and visual narratives. It covers topics that are too often put under erasure-violence against women, rape culture, female sexuality, changing codes of masculinity. It has male characters who talk and feel, female characters that refuse to live by the purity-ball paradigm, storylines that metaphorically grapple with interracial relationships. Its focus on the obsessive and even dangerous components of romance, as well as on sexuality, has encouraged readers to discuss what constitutes a healthy relationship.

On the more problematic side, the series champions rather conventional notions of gender, sexuality, race, class, and belief. It focuses obsessively on true love, a focus that also romanticizes violence, polices female sexuality, and promotes abstinence. It is imbued with racialized representations that do not take white privilege or racism to task. The saga offers an uncritical (even glowing or—more aptly—sparkling) depiction of patriarchal capitalism. It upholds norms in relation not only to gender and class, but also body and beauty, giving the message that youth and physical attractiveness should be pursued at all costs. It is underpinned by an unspoken but pervasive religious subtext, one shaped by the Mormonism of the author specifically and our cultural turn to the religious right more generally.

As a reader, while part of me enjoyed escaping into Bella’s world, another part of me never stopped analyzing the deeper messages and implications of the series. I am wary of some of the more stereotypical, conservative, and disempowering messages the series circulates around. Though I have been warned that fans don’t want to hear anything critical about their beloved Twitexts, I hope I am correct in giving fans more credit than this. I agree with Buffy scholar Lorna Jowett that “it might even be true that fans are more likely to be critical, not less, since they regularly engage in discussion and analysis.” I have found this to be true at the many Twilight events I have attended. It is also certainly true in the lively Twi-net world—that collection of blogs, websites, discussion groups, and fan-fiction sites that regularly and enthusiastically discuss and analyze Twilight. These “Twilighters” have taken the message of cultural studies theorists and feminist scholars to heart (though they most
likely don’t realize it) that critical analysis of popular texts is important—that it reveals a great deal about our human condition and our place in social reality.

The Twilight saga is popular by any standard, breaking best-seller lists and sales ranks the world over. In regards to explaining the allure of Twilight, we might ask–to put it in the terms of Twilighter fans, what makes someone a “Twi-hard” or a “Twi-addict”?

In current times, why and how are our real-world contexts fueling Twilight’s massive appeal? Such questions demand attention.

It is this question, among others, that the present study sets out to explore. Among the specific question the book will address are:

• Why are vampires so compelling at this particular historical juncture?
• What does the particular representation of romance say about our cultural notions of love, romance, sexuality, and desire, particularly in relation to our abstinence-only culture?
• What messages do the textual representation of gender, race, class, sexuality, and belief send to readers? How are these messages a reflection of cultural trends and ideologies?
• What characterizes the Twilight fandom? How can we account for the popularity of the series across generations, genders, and belief systems?
• How does the popularity of the saga further the norms and practices of consumer culture, and, further, what does the massive franchising of Twilight portend?
• How does Twilight criticize the social order from which it springs? Or does it?
• Alluring as they are, how might some of the messages of the series be problematic?

Overall, Seduced by Twilight insists that we need to examine what the popularity of the series means and to forge ways to respond to the zeitgeist that promotes critical discussion. The saga, much like any text, is neither wholly regressive nor progressive, neither all positive nor all problematic. More to the point, to ignore its cultural impact or write it off dismissively as “just a girl thing” not only would participate in the sexism that still shapes wider culture, but also would deny us the opportunity to discover how, why, and to what end we are seduced by Twilight. Indeed, the title of the saga, though not the one Meyer intended, is ultimately a quite fitting metaphor for the seductive appeal of the saga. “Twilight” literally refers to the time between night and day, when the sun is still below the horizon. It is an in-between time, serving as the bookmark to both parts of the day, marking the time between dawn and sunrise as well as that between sunset and dusk. The light provided by the upper atmosphere, rather than by direct sunlight, offers a muted quality, a sort of natural “romantic lighting.” Just as twilight is an in-between time that refuses to accord to the either/or dualistic thinking that so shapes our world, so is the saga “in between” many key cultural dichotomies—it is neither feminist nor anti-feminist, neither fundamentalist nor anti-religion, neither progressive nor conservative. At the level of content, it also circulates around various binaries such as human/vampire, good/evil, moral/immoral, civilized/uncivilized. It explores the in-between space of these constructions, suggesting that “Twilight” is a better place to be,is indeed the place we inhabit as humans who are neither wholly good nor wholly evil. The fact that “Twilight” has become the name used to refer to the saga as whole reflects how apt this title is.

I hope that you find this exploration of Twilight seductive, that you are willing, like Little Red Riding Hood, to stray from the straight and narrow path into the darker wooded areas that allow for explorations of the less sparkly aspects not only of the Twilight series, but also of its cultural milieu.

Copyright 2011 Natalie Wilson.
Natalie Wilson is a Women’s Studies and Literature professor at Cal State San Marcos in San Diego. She also pens the blogs Seduced by Twilight and Professor, What if…? as well as regularly contributing to Ms. Magazine Blog and Girl with Pen. She has lectured widely on the Twilight saga.

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