essay: Adventures in Readerland: Twilight

I’m going to take my life into my hands and write about Twilight. Yup, Twilight. A friend told me I should stand tall (and not wear my basque too tight, but that’s another story); so here’s me, as tall as I can be, bracing myself for flak.

Although, actually, I’m not sure what the flak is about. I’ve never understood quite why Twilight attracts so much negative press. It’s not literature, sure, but who cares? It’s entertainment, pure and simple. You can get lost between the pages and come away feeling warm and fuzzy. Not polluted by mindless inanity, or disturbed by unspeakable violence or despairing of humanity. (If you want pollution, disturbance and despair, go and turn on the TV any weekday evening.)

There’s a reason why Twilight is so popular amongst middle-aged women. And believe me, I’d know. I’m recently back from a midnight preview of the latest film and the cinema was full of middle-aged women, all fans, all feisty, all fearless of ridicule. We love Twilight because it offers us a heady whiff of nostalgia. It reminds us that we’re alive. The more weary we are, the more lacklustre our lives, the more we’re likely to love Twilight.

It’s not the vampires—or the wolves either, for that matter, although I was as happy as anyone in that cinema when Jacob took his shirt off again. No, it’s the obsession. We might not have been teenage vampires, but once we were all teenagers. We’ve all had that impossible teenage love, the one that felt like life and death, the one we’d have risked everything for given half a chance and a night off homework. The object of our passion was never a regular guy; he was always different, or better, or more interesting. He was The One. It was always about drama, torture, lust, misunderstandings.

I remember wilfully missing a piano exam, risking my heretofore model-student status, so that I could catch the same bus as the object of my obsession. I waited for twenty minutes and then rode one stop, for the glory of staring into the back of his neck for a whole three minutes. The rebellion in my heart that night was equal to anything Bella feels when she considers leaving the mortal world to be with her vampire.

I’ve read a great deal about Bella being a bad role model, being dominated, being subservient, being a wuss. The fact is, she doesn’t need to be a role model—why should she be? She’s a character in a book, for goodness sake. But if a young girl wanted a role model, she could do a lot worse than Bella Swann. Despite the clumsiness and slightly whiny turn of phrase, Bella is fearless. She knows what she wants, and she damn well gets it, even if it takes her several books. She’s brave, resourceful, loyal and loving. She is no one’s fool. So Edward is a bit of an overbearing alpha male? More power to Bella for not only withstanding him, but winning him over, taming him down. He’s dedicated to keeping her human. She’s dedicated to becoming a vampire. Guess who wins?

Actually, Bella’s ambition isn’t to become a vampire. Her ambition is to be the best Bella she can possibly be. And that’s what she becomes, a super-version of herself: smarter, faster, tougher, cleverer, able to protect her family from any possible assailant or misfortune. She becomes a kick-ass heroine in a world where a woman can be anything she wants to be.

And I think that’s what bothers me about some of the criticism that’s levelled at her, and at Myers for writing her; it betrays more about the critic than the author or her character. At the simplest level, Bella is a good girl who marries the man she loves, doesn’t have sex before she’s married (though not for want of trying; thank you, Edward), has a beautiful baby, and protects her family. Oh, and takes a massive risk in order to become more beautiful, clever and able than she already is. What’s wrong with any of that? Girls don’t have to want to be men any more. If you want to drink like a man, swear like a man and spit like a man—well, that’s fine too. You can choose; that’s what burning our bras back in the day was all about. I think the critics berating Bella are stuck in a time warp where owning up to wanting a baby or risking all for love are still mortal sins.

And that’s where the appeal lies for us middle-aged women. Growing up, we had only two choices: acquiescent people-pleaser or bra-burning feminist. Bella can be anything she wants to be. We envy her. She is what she is: an ugly duckling longing to be a swan (Bella Swann? Ahem). And she damn well becomes a swan, and through all four books (and all five films) I’ve cheered her till I’m hoarse.

Is Stephanie Meyers’s writing fabulous? No, but it’s not bad at all. Mostly it’s very good because you don’t really notice it, unless you’re looking for something to be snotty about.

I’m a sucker for a fairytale, so the idea that wolves and vampires walk quietly among us—well, that’s fine by me. And actually, if by wolves and vampires you mean teenage boys, with their sweat and body hair and testosterone, well they do indeed walk amongst us, and they disturbed my teenage mind quite as much as any monster could have done.

I dislike the attitude that says anything that’s wildly popular amongst the masses must, by definition, be rubbish. There’s certainly popular stuff out there that plays to the lowest common denominator but Twilight isn’t like that. Don’t pick up Twilight if it’s brain food you’re after, but don’t come here for something cheap or tacky, either. Seriously, if the vampire thing bothers you, you’re thinking about it too hard. Here’s the premise: humans aren’t at the top of the food chain. It’s not a completely new concept, but it’s an interesting one. These vampires are basically super-humans, like Superman or Wonderwoman.

One further thing to admire in these books—and one that I haven’t seen discussed much—is the way Meyers normalises Native Americans. Yes, they turn into wolves etc etc, but apart from that—and I’m being entirely serious—they are presented so matter of factly that it’s only later you sit back and think: when’s the last time I came across a Native American hero, where the fact that he was Native American wasn’t the whole point of the story? Even Barbara Kingsolver, whose novels I admire and love, comes over a bit self-conscious and educational when she starts on the Native Americans; and Loyd Peregrina (Animal Dreams) is one of my all-time favourite heroes. Meyers, on the other hand, normalises the subject so completely that any sense of ‘otherness’—or, worse, that whiff of sanctity that some writers imbue native peoples with—is completely absent. There’s something wonderfully fresh about the way she juxtaposes Native Americans, werewolves and vampires, the super-rich and the economically challenged, the highly educated doctor and the regular-joe-policeman, with absolutely no element of judgement. There’s a rare generosity of spirit in these books.

And that’s why I’m happy to stand up and be counted as a Twi-hard. I heartily recommend the Twilight books for adults, adolescents, and especially middle-aged women: read them and weep with nostalgia for the days when life was painted in black, white and red, and love really felt like life or death.

© Janet Allison Brown, 2012

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