Can we please stop with the Twilight bashing?
It’s feeling a bit warmed over at this point. Sure, Bella and Edward’s relationship is completely unhealthy – he’s a controlling creeper, and she’s a dependent, moping wreck of a female role model. As countless memes attest, pretty much any story is a better love story than Twilight. The books are not nearly as well written or compelling as Harry Potter or The Hunger Games series, and the movies I’ve seen (the first two) were absolutely horrendous, with bad special effects and wooden acting.
And yet, I found the books interesting and often enjoyable. The vampire/human love story was still fresh when I read them, and I appreciated that Meyer at least tackled the issue of teen sexuality, even if her treatment of it didn’t totally jive with me.
That the Twilight fan base should be characterized as largely young and female is unsurprising, given the books’ teen, female protagonist and its prominent love story.
Clearly, though, not all Twilight readers fit the stereotype presented here, and not everyone who enjoys the series does so due to supposed adolescent immaturity or romanticism. The series’s popularity is too widespread to be that simple.
Yes, I’m female. But I’m also a thirty-something wife and mother and an academic writing a dissertation on Shakespeare in nineteenth-century literature and culture. You could say I’ve got the market cornered in literary pretension, and yet I sprinted through the entire Twilight series in a matter of days. What’s more, my husband and nearly every member of our immediate friend group, men and women alike, has also read the books. These people are educators, government employees with PhDs and high-level security clearances, doctors, and forestry workers. We all love sci-fi and fantasy literature, so we read Twilight. ‘Nough said.
But the hate-fest continues, and I think it goes deeper than simply dogging Twilight, instead pointing to some downright troubling trends in the realm of literary geek culture and beyond.
Let’s start with the caption: “Read a Real Book.” What counts as real literature? Who maps out its parameters and criteria? These questions are hardly new, and all too often what counts as legitimate merely aligns with the literary canon, which is supposedly serious in content, written to meet a certain aesthetic standard, and (very often) authored by men.
The Lord of the Rings fits the bill, then, with Tolkien’s work representing a literary/fantasy urtext. Twilight and Meyer, not so much. The books are popular but hardly respected.
My goal here is not to somehow redeem Twilight’s aesthetic reputation or to say that the books are the same as The Lord of the Rings concerning writing style, content, intended audience, or any number of facets that go into what makes a text worthwhile and enjoyable. Why on earth should they be the same in order to qualify as real or legitimate? Why do we have to pick one or the other? What gives anyone the right to critique what other people like?
Who’s to say this woman hasn’t read Tolkien? Indeed, he is one of my favorite authors, and The Lord of the Rings franchise (both the books and the movies) has a special place in my heart. But I also like a lot of other books, Twilight included. They’re all real to me, if by that you mean enjoyed and deigned worthwhile in some capacity. As if REAL literature existed as a contained and agreed-upon genre.
At its core, this image represents one iteration in a long line of critiques aimed at supposedly frivolous literature and its readers. Domestic fiction, YA literature, romance novels, sci-fi, graphic novels, non-Western literature and writers, books by women writers. These are all categories that at one time (and sometimes still) took heat for being inferior or illegitimate. Shit, for much of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, even Shakespeare was considered lowbrow. Very often, such critiques tread (or hurtle over) a fine line between literary critique and personal bias, revealing latent or unacknowledged prejudices that tie into our society’s interconnected hierarchies of genre, gender, age, and race.
In my mind, the “Read a Real Book” meme has as much to do with hostility towards women as it does with Twilight’s literary quality (or lack thereof). It disparages supposedly feminine/fluff literature and pushes on specifically female readers a REAL book in the patriarchal, masculinist tradition.
The symbolism here is hardly subtle; it’s meant to knock you over the head. Sure, the creator could have substituted any respected book in place of Tolkien’s text. My point is that he or she didn’t. The reader and her female-authored, female-centered fiction take a symbolic lashing from one of literature’s most celebrated writers, who happens to be male, and who writes of male protagonists embroiled in subject matter conceived as male-oriented. Sure, Tolkien wrote the YA classic The Hobbit, but that’s not what’s braining this meme’s unfortunate reader.
Clearly, not all female-oriented series and writers meet such treatment. An apt comparison might be Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games series, which has a respected critical reputation and a diverse reading/viewing audience. It’s just that when some readers DO take it in their minds to negatively critique a text like Twilight, a bit of their own personal prejudices get thrown into the mix. And such readers don’t have to be male, since women are just as capable of reading and interpreting from within a masculinist, patriarchal perspective as men.
Let’s Get Physical
In my mind, the issues of gender and prejudice embodied in this image are part and parcel to the broad range of issues women face every day, such as wage gaps in the workplace, sexual double standards, and governmental regulation of women’s health.
And violence against women. Most specifically that.
How does a person rationalize physically assaulting another person? What is the psychological and social framework in which actually punching a woman in the face becomes acceptable? In part, it’s when she no longer figures as a legitimate and valuable member of society in her own right. When she and the minutia of her daily life are ideologically winnowed down to nothingness and irrelevancy. Obviously, the dynamics of violence are more complex than this representation, but the denigration of the female perspective marks a key factor.
This image is not just about literary value. Its imagined violence against the female reader is what ultimately drove me to write this post. I don’t think we’re *literally* supposed to go out and brain Twilight readers with Tolkien’s heavy tomes. Rather, the girl gets a sort of quick and dirty osmotic education in what to read and what not to read, as well as a literal lesson in male aggression.
In a world where 35% of women have been raped or physically abused, where violence is a routine element of the female experience, symbolic violence—even if in relation to contested subgenres of fantasy literature—is never just symbolic. It ties into and contributes to the culture that demeans women, that makes such violence acceptable. It means something.
And you know what really gets me? I found this meme on a Pinterest board for book lovers. I’m probably naïve, but I consider readers to be more open-minded, more thoughtful than the rest of the population. Something about inhabiting other worlds and other characters, seeing situations from other people’s perspectives. I was truly disappointed, crestfallen, and angered upon seeing it amidst all the other pins extolling the virtues and luxuries of reading.
Bottom Line: The Twilight books may not be as well written as many other books. The movies may have been terrible. I am all for having thoughtful discussions about what we want from books and how some fail to meet the mark. If people still like them, though, that’s their prerogative. That doesn’t make them worthy of ridicule, and it certainly doesn’t warrant symbolic or actual physical reprimand, be they men or women. ‘Nough said.
I’m gonna go drink a beer now, and maybe read a book. Who knows…it might even be Twilight.