TWILIGHT At 10: Let’s All Just Retract Our Fangs, Shall We?
Twilight is a bad movie.
I know, I know, this isn’t exactly a revelation of film criticism, especially ten years on from the film’s initial release. However, it’s also not exactly the case that the film is the apocalyptic piece of anti-feminist tripe that it was hailed as upon release. Don’t get me wrong, the film is an absolute mess of excruciatingly bad dialogue and narrative shallowness, and it is absolutely problematic in what it romanticizes in Bella and Edward’s relationship. But at the end of the day, Twilight is a fantasy, and it’s one that was perhaps harshly decried not so much for its content but because of who that content was for.
I do want to make clear that I’m not really defending Twilight as a story. It’s barely a narrative in terms of character development or even plot progression, setting up its characters as ciphers who exist as vessels of adolescent self-projection and spend most of the film hanging out in what barely registers as the first act in a multi-volume story. There are moments of contrivance where cause and effect are distant cousins, and the lines that Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson have to spout at one another are clichéd at best and nonsensical at worst. (There’s one exchange where they refer to themselves as a lamb and a masochistic lion that is absolutely absurd.) And, of course, there’s all the business of Edward acting very creepy and possessive of Bella: the constant staring, the descriptors of Bella as an addictive food source, the watching Bella as she sleeps. It’s all stalking behavior that the film and novel source material emphasize as endearing but would in real life be absolutely disconcerting.
But there’s something disingenuous in the idea that the fans of Twilight, namely the then-teenage girls who comprised the franchise’s fanbase, are unaware of either the film's artistic merit or the disturbing parallels one can draw between Edward and real-life sexual predators. In fact, so much of the discourse around Twilight has been focused through a lens of condescension, as if it’s up to the paragons of pop culture watchdogging to protect young women from the corrupting influence of something that clearly speaks to a craved-for voice in the zeitgeist. It’s worth recognizing that most fans of Twilight understand that the franchise is a fantasy, and while it certainly contains unsavory behavior that is contextualized as attractive, that’s not so different than any action film that glamorizes violence as the best solution to conflict and has primarily been marketed at boys. The main difference in how our cultural discourse responded to Twilight as opposed to, say, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is because of this underlying assumption that the virtue of young women needs protection while young men can distinguish reality from fantasy and can know the appropriate measure of when violence is necessary.
So what is it exactly that Twilight is selling to young heterosexual women through the fantasy of Bella and Edward? Well, the main reason why Bella doesn’t have much of a personality besides being something of a bookworm is that she is the audience stand-in, and when people see Kristen Stewart giving a bored or lazy performance, it’s more nuanced than that, at least in the first film. She is playing into this mold of melodramatic self-projection because, despite being the main character, it’s not Bella who is the main attraction. Edward is a cool, gothic figure, but he also expresses vulnerability, like when he gets an awkward fang boner upon seeing Bella in their Biology class, or when he demonstrates how he looks in sunlight. The reveal of Edward as this being of crystalline sparkles is accompanied by dialogue that illustrates how Edward sees himself as an ugly monster. To Bella and the audience, this is supposed to be disproved by his shimmering visage, and to many young women who struggle with self-esteem issues tied directly to their appearance, seeing a romantic interest be just as raw and vulnerable as them is a revelatory and stimulating experience.
And the appeal of that vulnerability extends to Edward’s role as a boyfriend who isn’t sexually threatening. Twilight goes out its way to demonstrate that most young men, particularly the adults, are leering predators in their own right, and this culminates in a confrontation between Bella and a gang of drunk men who presumably want to rape her. But Edward is a fantastical protector in this situation, and he does not even need to demonstrate his supernatural power to save Bella. He’s a dangerous person, but he’s sworn to not be dangerous toward Bella, and he asks for nothing in return but her company. Their relationship is remarkably chaste, both in the metaphorical sense of holding himself back from drinking Bella’s blood and in the literal sense of restraining himself from sexually pursuing her. Contrast this with the uncontrolled volatile violence of the film’s vampire pseudo-antagonist James, and Edward is established as one of the film’s most respectful male influences. Perhaps he is still a monster, as his stalking behavior would establish himself to be in the real world, but he has self-restraint that extends so far as not drinking Bella’s addictive blood as she’s bleeding and passed out.
Now, this clearly opens a can of worms with the idea that men are merely sex-craven predators in need of self-control, but the point here isn’t that Twilight isn’t devoid of unfortunate sexual stereotyping. Rather, it’s that those shallow understandings of sexual politics are in service to a fantasy that women can find a man who won’t threaten them, even as the world of men is persistently and constantly threatening, something that should be obvious to all of us by now. Edward acknowledges his monstrous flaws, but his restraint is what makes him beautiful, and that’s the appeal he holds as the love interest in this trashy, shallow series. These are tropes and archetypes that have predated Twilight for decades between the covers of romance novels, but the infusion of supernatural elements and the intended audience of young women made Twilight a phenomenon that received detractors equally as loud as its fans. But now, ten years after the cinematic rendition arrived in theaters, maybe we can step back and recognize that while Twilight may not be a standard of artistic taste, it at least doesn’t deserve the absurd level of hatred leveled at it in the name of protecting young women. Young women are doing just fine without being told what fantasies they are allowed to indulge in.