New and Improved Gender Norms, Now with 30% More Sparkles

I recently became aware or something profoundly disturbing: I am becoming obsessed with Twilight. Not the books themselves (which I have not read, and would be embarrassed to be seen with in public) or the movies (which are hilariously bad and would probably make for a great drinking game) but the much larger, scarier entity that is Twlight-the-cultural-phenomenon. I can’t get enough of it. Critiques of the series’ glorification of abusive relationships and fetishization of abstinence make me feel all warm and fuzzy inside (in, you know, a righteous feminist way). Good old-fashioned snark, no matter how repetitive, gets me every time. And for the life of me, I can’t stop staring at that goddamn sparkly freezer dildo. This kind of thing is quickly becoming, in the immortal words of a certain Mr. Edward Cullen, my own personal brand of heroin (I tried to find a way to work “this is the skin of a killer into that sentence, but to no avail). I have even gone so far as to watch the movies. And yes, the dialogue is so bad that the actors sound embarrassed to be saying it, and there’s very little plot to speak of, but goddamn, they are fascinating.

It really isn’t my place to mock. And not only because calling my Twilight obsession “cultural critique” doesn’t make me all that different from people who want to make out with Robert Pattinson’s douchey face. You see, dear readers, I was once a Young Impressionable Person, and at the tender age of eleven I, too, became obsessed with a series of books. The series in question was Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness , about a girl named Alanna in who dresses up as a boy in order to become the awesomest knight in the realm of Tortall. (As silly as my summary makes them sound, I actually reread the books last year and would definitely recommend them to anyone seeking YA fantasy with strong female characters. The series has its flaws, sure, but Alanna is badass.) Now, when I say I was obsessed, I don’t just mean that I read them five times (I did) or that I sought out every single thing the author had ever written (did that too). I was obsessed in a way that would make your average Twihard recoil in terror. I created a fan website, which involved extensive role-playing in forums and chat rooms (I was twelve and it was 1999; neither I nor the internet was old enough to know better). I wrote fanfiction. I took up fencing. Looking back, I think I may have actually been considering knighthood as a career path.

Absolute devotion to a series of books is a lot of fun, but, it’s more than that. In my case, it played a significant role in the development of my identity. Looking up to Alanna, and internalizing her values, created a sort of cognitive dissonance when I tried to reconcile it with my experiences of the world at large. It through my attempts to reconcile what I learned from books with what I was learning from culture as a whole that forced me to question social norms and, I think, eventually led me to feminism. The disconnect between what I knew and what I was told forced me to question the world I lived in, and feminism gave me a language and a conceptual framework with which to express and explore things that I had been aware of, to some degree, since childhood. What I find so worrying about Twilight‘s role in teen culture is that it creates none of that dissonance. Generally speaking, it is in perfect agreement with the messages that young women get from patriarchal culture. The Twilight series tells young women things that they are ready to hear – things that many of them need to hear – but accompanies them with a frightening message about male dominance and female subservience. Observe:
It’s okay to be plain and ordinary (as long as a preternaturally beautiful dude shows up and stalks you, therefore proving his unconditional love).
It’s okay to feel isolated from your peer group (because this will allow you to spend more time with your creepy abusive boyfriend).
It’s okay to be kind of clumsy and awkward (as long as there’s a man around to rescue you).
It’s okay to have sexy feelings (as long as you repress said feelings until you’re married, because sex will literally kill you).

Young women are constantly bombarded with the message that who they are is not good enough, so I can certainly see why a story about an ordinary girl being loved for who she is would be appealing. Your average teenage girl is certainly a lot closer to being Bella than I ever was to being Alanna. It is precisely Bella’s role as stand-in is a stand-in for the reader (that and, you know, poor writing and shallow characterization) prevents her from developing a personality of her own. Nor does she need one, apparently. She has Edward, and we are told over and over (and over, and over) that he is all she wants out of life – never mind ambition, or self-respect. She is quite literally willing to die in order to be with him. The same can be said for Edward himself, of course. Both characters’ identities are entirely based on their relationships with each other, making the basis for that relationship a bit suspect. They’ve barely said two words to each other before Edward breaks out his whole “So the lion fell in love with the lamb” speech. Again, I can relate, because this is something that teenagers do: they fall in love not with each other, but with the obsessive need to be loved. He exists as an affirmation of her value, and she exists as an object for him to control. And when that is held up as a romantic ideal instead of something you (hopefully) grow out of when you reach adulthood, well, it’s fucking creepy.

Young women are not stupid, but they aren’t immune to outside influence, either. Shit is confusing when you’re a teenager, and generally you figure it out by learning as much as you can from people, and media, and the world at large. This is how culture perpetuates itself: it is taught, and learned, and absorbed from the various sources around us. Along the way, we also learn critical thinking, but seeing as that’s not really taught (or even encouraged) in schools, it often comes along quite a lot later, after most cultural norms have been internalized. Young women aren’t going to start thinking that abusive relationships are awesome because of a cheesy romance novel, obviously, but Twilight doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It exists as part of a powerful and scary patriarchal culture, and more often than not, reinforces and amplifies everything that culture teaches young women. Everywhere we go we are told that our sole value is in our relationships with men, and when that message is combined with all the things that young women want to believe about themselves, and wrapped up in all the romanticism and hype that is Twilight, well, it becomes all the more believable.

Having said that, I don’t think parents should keep their kids away from the books, necessarily. That would be fairly counterproductive (unfortunately I do buy into the “at least they’re reading” excuse. I have my reasons), not to mention futile. Twilight does, however, clearly demonstrate the necessity of teaching young people how to critically engage with cultural texts. After all, Twilight on its own is harmless fun. Twilight as object of worship in the middle of a patriarchal and misogynistic culture? Not so much.

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  • MontrealFeminist  On December 7, 2009 at 8:17 am

    I have to agree, Teenagers to take their cues from books, but Twilight could serve as a good opener to discuss relationships with young teens. FYI, I loved Alanna, I suggest the entire series to mothers who want an alternative to Twilight, and they say they all love them and more importantly their daughters do too! The characters in those books are definitely flawed, but they stay true to themselves, they do fall in love, and more importantly they battle sexism to achieve their goals.

    • Brett K  On December 7, 2009 at 7:00 pm

      Exactly. I think that if parents pay a bit of attention to what their kids are doing (as hard as that may be, since most teenagers probably want their parents to mind their own business) Twilight could actually be a useful gateway to discussions of relationships and gender stereotypes, in addition to potentially getting young women interested in other (hopefully better) books.

      I will definitely continue to promote Tamora Pierce’s books to every parent and young person who is willing to listen. Those books got my younger sister (former TV addict with no interest in books) into reading. She is now a straight-A student, voracious reader and badass feminist :D

  • Nikki  On December 7, 2009 at 10:08 am

    Read this because it was linked from, and because I, too, am obsessed with critiquing Twilight. I was so surprised and thrilled when I saw the Song of the Lioness references. Alanna, Daine, Kel, Beka, Ali, all awesome female role models for strength and determination. And I might have seriously considered knighthood as a career, too. Excellent article :)

    • Brett K  On December 7, 2009 at 7:10 pm

      Thanks! It’s great to see such a positive response to this entry. I had a really hard time writing it – partly because of technical difficulties (blogging on my work computer = epic fail, apparently), but mostly because so much Twilight criticism seems to devalue teen girl culture itself, which I really didn’t want to do. As Alanna, Daine, Kel et. al. demonstrate, there is so many great books geared towards young women. They’re just a bit harder to find, and they often don’t get the respect they deserve.

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