Twilight of the Twi-Hards

The triumph of Team Katniss.

Jude Ellison Sady Doyle

Bella Swan and Edward Cullen: Bite me!

It’s become fashionable for adult feminists to embrace pop culture created by or for teenage girls, from the adolescence-enshrining rap of Kitty Pryde to the reality-TV-and-revolution saga of The Hunger Games. Girl culture is being recognized as complicated, meaningful and — most importantly — often objectively good. There’s one judgment made by girls, however, that feminists tend to stay quiet about: Nobody wants to be caught dead hyping the Twilight franchise, which has been accused, with good reason, of advocating stalking, abuse, sexual assault and extremist pro-life politics.

Twilight has been a pernicious influence on the culture. But it’s also a laughingstock.

And yet, here we stand, at the end of an era dominated by Twilight—the final film adaptation from the four-book young-adult series was released in November. And, as expected, it was a No. 1 box office hit. It’s worth taking stock of how it has affected our culture — whether it has, in fact, created a bleak romantic hellscape of dangerously antiquarian gender roles.

To understand the charges against Twilight, a surface familiarity with its plot is necessary. (Be warned: Twilight outsiders typically recoil in horror or just abject befuddlement.) To begin: Bella Swan is an average teen who catches the eye of the dreamiest boy in school, Edward Cullen. Unfortunately, Edward is a vampire and has an overwhelming desire to kill Bella. And so — after some stalking, a failed break-up, suicide attempts by both parties and some long-term emotional infidelity from Bella (turns out her werewolf friend Jacob is pretty dreamy, too) — they are wed.

And that’s when things get really stupid. On their honeymoon, Edward deflowers Bella; she wakes up covered in bruises and pregnant. Her half-vampire fetus is so powerful that Bella will die if she doesn’t have an abortion. She refuses to get one. Edward chews the baby out of Bella, which turns her into a vampire, which also conveniently resolves the problem of Jacob, in that Jacob falls irrevocably in love with Bella’s infant daughter. Also, Bella is much prettier as a vampire, and has superpowers. Everyone is pleased.

Except feminists. Anti-Twilight blog posts have poured forth as if feminist blogs were created for no other purpose.

Yet the last installment of Twilight has landed with a dull thud. While sales are predictably huge, the critics are apathetic and we feminists are out hunting for fresher meat. Twilight has been a pernicious influence on the culture. But it’s also a laughingstock. Parodies abound. You can still find a few enthusiastic fans on Tumblr by searching for Twilight,” but the tag Twihate” is likely to bring up an equally large amount of data. And almost every Twi-hater, sooner or later, will note that the series sends some bad, sexist messages to young women.

Consider Robert Pattinson Hates His Life, a Tumblr run by two female college students dedicated to collecting Pattinson’s passive-aggressive grumbling about the series. Along with all the GIFs, there’s also some analysis by the blogrunners: “[Edward] PREVENTS [Bella] FROM TALKING TO HER FRIENDS. HE FORBIDS HER FROM DOING THINGS… FORBIDS. HE’S HER BOYFRIEND, NOT HER DAD.” Another Tumblr user, shadesofpemberley, snaps: You don’t have to comfort your spouse if they hurt you in bed, and tell them it’s not their fault. It IS their fault.”

And all of these users would appear to be — surprise! — young women. There’s no word on the gender of the folks maintaining Twilights page on the wiki site TV Tropes, but the site skews young, and there’s an entire page of user-contributed unfortunate implications” of the series, including, Men should not be held accountable for things that they do when they are very angry or otherwise emotionally overwhelmed, but women should” and, If you can’t (or don’t) have a baby, you are of less value as a human being than people who can.” The young and female-skewing pop culture site ONTD has posts such as Edward And Bella Are In An Abusive Relationship,” and no less than two spin-offs dedicated to the series: ONTD: Twilight,” which has been deleted, and the Twi-hating ONTD: Twatlight,” which hasn’t.

We adult women feared for teen girls when Twilight took over. We weren’t expecting it would be transformed, in their able hands, from a toxic-relationship-creating sludge to an engine through which young women find and voice their feminism. Twi-haters may log in to talk about the doofy plot, but they wind up talking about pro-choice politics, paternalism, female independence and relationship abuse. One of the most popular cultural products has ended up pushing feminist perspectives about relationships into the mainstream.

A long, hard look at Twilights cultural impact yields one more sign that we should never, ever underestimate teenage girls.

Jude Ellison Sady Doyle is an In These Times contributing writer. They are the author of Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beatdown. You can follow them on Twitter at @sadydoyle.

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