Catherine Hardwicke’s (“Thirteen”) “Twilight” should be in the fucking Criterion Collection.
I’m not about to make some case for it being a masterpiece, let alone a feminist masterpiece, but it’s obviously a major cultural touchstone. The way I introduce people to my obsession with “Twilight” is that, in the anthropological sense, it’s basically “Call Me by Your Name” for older Millennials: A director from an underrepresented group in cinema adapts a novel about an abusive and unhealthy relationship into a film that becomes an instant classic for its cast, killer soundtrack and horniness.
I didn’t even read the book. I followed the bandwagon and decided to hate it for no reason. To be completely honest, I don’t think I’m able to make a sound judgment on any of the films at all. I don’t know if I can separate them from the way I was encouraged to hate them to seem cool and was then convinced to like them after hearing the phrase “internalized misogyny.” There’s also my desire to cling onto some kind of nostalgia for when I could go to the movies and hear Paramore when the credits rolled.
There is so much to say about “Twilight.” For the purposes of this article, I’ll be focusing on the first film. The studios handed the rest of the films off to a revolving door of male directors when the first one made millions, and they just don’t have the same spark (i.e. blue tint) that Hardwicke gave to the first film.
We won’t pay too much mind to the book either; I tried to read it and hated it. What I’ve found from excerpts and my sisters’ accounts is that it’s a Mormon “Pilgrim’s Progress” with racism against Indigenous people, an obsession with virginity and the awful relationships that go along with all of that, not to mention a khaki skirt.
Hardwicke couldn’t save everything, but she made the best out of the source material compared to how the male directors handled it. In “New Moon,” there’s a transition where Bella (Kristen Stewart, “Happiest Season”) throws Jacob (Taylor Lautner, “Valentine’s Day”) a slice of pizza that turns into a wrench while OK GO’s “Shooting the Moon” plays. They gave Stewart a really awful wig in “Eclipse” since she was filming “The Runaways” at the same time and had to cut her hair. “Breaking Dawn: Part I” begins with fun wedding scenes and ends with a C-section via teeth and “Part II” has the infamous CGI baby, so we really have to give Hardwicke credit for not doing any of that.
For now, I’m looking beyond the stalking, the paternal overprotectiveness and lack of narrative logic. I’m ignoring author Stephanie Meyer’s notion that the worst thing a woman can do is age and the introduction of a Confederate vampire, Jasper (Jackson Rathbone, “The Last Airbender”), without addressing it. I know we all love an anti-hero, and I can understand the interest in showing the assimilation of a 19th-century racist into modern society. Meyer could have at least explained away that Jasper was called to join the Confederacy and simply couldn’t refuse the draft or something non-committal like that. Lin-Manuel Miranda has even shown us how many people sympathize with slave owners when you give them a fun rap. But in “Twilight” they literally don’t mention it again. It’s insane.
“Twilight” is successful and fascinating purely because of its sex appeal. I’m certain there’s a line you could draw from the 2008 recession, the release of “Twilight” and the emergence of Evan Peters and other teen heartthrobs of the 2010s in sexy serial killer roles. When Millennials (and some Gen Zers) were realizing their own sexuality while simultaneously hearing their parents fight about a lost job or missed rent, “Twilight” was a nice, horny distraction.
Monsters have been hot for a while. Dracula and Ted Bundy needed charisma to lure in victims, not just chloroform. There’s something so interesting about this idea of consumptive love. Not literal Armie Hammer cannibalism, but this symbolic understanding of love as something to be taken, swallowed. “Sorry about the blood in your mouth. I wish it was mine. I couldn’t get the boy to kill me, but I wore his jacket for the longest time,” Richard Siken wrote in his novel “Crush.”
And then, of course, the gendered side of it: the understanding of sexuality as violence, like Angela Carter’s bloody chambers and sheets. Speaking of violent sex, I feel the need to remind people that “Fifty Shades of Grey” started out as “Twilight” fanfiction. Then there’s the obvious metaphor of immortal love from the vampires — we never die, so our love never dies, we’ll be married forever, all that. And then there’s the feeling that Bella loves Edward (Robert Pattinson, “Tenet”) so much that she doesn’t care if he drinks her blood.
Sex and death feel intrinsically connected — Edward and Bella make a baby, which leads to Bella’s death during childbirth. Aphrodite was born not just from seafoam but from her father’s mutilated sex; the goddess of love was made from violence. There’s something to be said about how teen girls have been socialized to see violence and think sex.
Then, there’s the simpler iconic moments: the Swan and Cullen houses, the baseball scene, the first kiss. The desire to be hungry, with dumb horny kids feeling like insane sinners for having a sexuality at all. I could definitely be overthinking this, but I just think it’s interesting to think about how female sexuality was commodified into a booming business, and “Twilight” was what we got out of that. Paraphrasing @quakerraina on Twitter, maybe “Twilight” is actually as stupid as we all said it was, but we didn’t know how else to express our sexuality, so we let it happen. Either way, Robert Pattinson got a career out of it, so I’m not complaining.
Daily Arts Writer Mary Elizabeth Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.