Ten years later: Why ‘Twilight’ is still really, really important

Sunday, March 4, 2018 - 4:42pm

Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart in "Twilight"

Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart in "Twilight" Buy this photo
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The director, author, screenwriter and star of “Twilight” were all women. It was created and marketed specifically for women, and it was overwhelmingly consumed by women. “Twilight” is a women’s story, through and through, and we can’t talk about “Twilight” without talking about that first.

Let’s be clear: the fact that it’s a women’s story doesn’t make it a feminist story, but I think the process of either blacklisting media or giving it the feminist stamp of approval undercuts the fact that feminism is complicated and messy and it’s not an all-or-nothing, yes-or-no statement of fact. Feminism is a movement, not a label, and we should treat it as such, otherwise everyone would be too scared of relinquishing our Good Feminist Credentials (not a thing) to admit that we enjoy really undeniably amazing things like the scene where the vampires play baseball as Muse’s “Supermassive Black Hole” plays.

I don’t particularly think it matters if “Twilight” is “feminist” or “empowering” or any other words that don’t actually represent one side of a good/bad binary, even though people on the Internet sure do try to convince you that they do. What does matter is the fact that I saw the first “Twilight” movie in the most crowded theater in my life to date, and apart from a couple of disgruntled dads and boyfriends, it was filled entirely by women and young girls. The energy in the room was palpable — girls screaming at the first sight of R-Patz (God, that hair), and reciting their favorite lines from the book (“I was unconditionally, irrevocably in love with him”). Maybe it wasn’t necessarily “empowering” (whatever that means), but it was powerful, and I don’t mean emotionally powerful, I mean it represented a tangible cultural power. For a few years, one of the biggest blockbuster franchises that completely saturated the media and its surrounding discourse was a story about a teenage girl’s supernatural romance. That’s some honest-to-God real power: Young women, harnessing their collective cultural capital to dominate the zeitgeist in a way that I don’t think has been replicated in the years since.

Over the years, there’s been a lot of thoughtful criticism of the way “Twilight” makes abuse seem romantic, in the way it reinforces both backwards gender roles and the damaging effect a culture filled with this kind of media can have on young girls. But accompanying those careful, necessary responses was an undeniable vitriol towards “Twilight,” its author and its fanbase.

Any earnest criticism was immediately drowned out by the seemingly endless sea of trolls on the Internet flooding message boards and comment sections with long-winded screeds nitpicking stupid plot details, trashing the characters and sending Stephenie Meyer death threats. For a while, “Twilight” was treated like the end of literature, feminism, feminist literature and America’s conscience (or whatever other theories the people who are absolutely no fun at parties talk about). I’m not saying critiques of “Twilight” are sexist — those made in good faith are usually the opposite — and there’s obviously a distinction between the faceless horde of the Internet and the thoughtful critics who honestly had something to say. But ultimately it didn’t matter the intentions, because the result was a massive dogpile effect, and the people who got hurt or targeted ended up being the young girls of “Twilight”’s audience, made to feel stupid and ashamed for indulging in a fun, romantic fantasy.

This is nothing new. There’s a long and storied tradition of talking down to teenage girls, assuming they’re mindless sycophants who can’t think for themselves and don’t know what’s good for them, all the while dismissing their interests as dumb and frivolous and not worth Important Male Validation. It’s a stupid and frankly insulting perspective to have towards art in general, but it’s especially egregious for a work like “Twilight.” Why does something made so specifically for female attention need to be validated as worthy of men’s attention too? “Twilight” isn’t for everybody, but that’s not a mistake — it’s by design. The mean-spirited backlash to “Twilight” was, I think, mostly informed by the fact that to experience “Twilight,” you have to engage with a women’s space, with a work that was created for the express purpose of indulging teenage girls’ fantasies and making them happy.

And you know what? It worked. There was joy in that movie theater in 2008, and I think that matters. The fact that “Twilight” tapped into the essence of the teenage experience in a way that felt true, and in a way that brought happiness to so many people matters, because even if the story is sparkly and silly, the resulting joy isn’t something to be taken lightly. “Twilight” is important because teenage girls loved it deeply, in the way only teenage girls can: unconditionally and irrevocably.