Throwback Thursday is a new feature about books I once loved, no matter how embarrassing (or awesome!) I find them today.
I’m starting off with a bang by talking about Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series: books that consumed my life for a few months and then fell off my radar just as fast. I went from getting into literal fistfights with my sister over who got to read Breaking Dawn first, to sheepishly dropping off all my copies at Goodwill, where Twilight box sets go to die alongside VHS box sets of Titanic.
photo description: a collage of the covers of the four Twilight books. From left to right: Twilight, New Moon, Eclipse, and Breaking Dawn.
It definitely wasn’t just me that Twilight sunk its
hooks er, teeth into. I maintain that nearly everybody who’s in their early-to-mid twenties today had a Twilight phase, even if they lie about it now. Twilight also turbo-charged the YA, romance, and erotica genres as we know them today, so even if you hated the books and movies from the start, you’ve still been affected by them as a cultural phenomenon. (Fifty Shades, anyone?)
Why were these books so addictive, and why did they turn taboo so quickly? For this week’s Throwback Thursday, I’m going to do some intense science-ing to find out.
More than anything, the wish fulfillment.
Sure, the romance was great, but nearly everyone I remember talking to about Twilight found the Cullen family’s endless wealth and opportunity to be the most charming and enthralling part of the series. Into fashion? You probably drooled over Alice and Rosalie’s ginormous closet. Wedding fanatic? The idea of having infinite money and support to plan your dream wedding (like Bella had with Edward) is pretty damn captivating. Love vacations? If you ignore the pillow-biting and bruises, it’s hard to beat Edward and Bella’s honeymoon. Love cars? Edward’s definitely got you covered. Motorcycles? He’s not filthy rich, but Jacob Black’s fine too, I guess.
While it’s hard to imagine why anyone who had the Cullens’ means would want to deal with high school over and over, and there are plenty of other silly plot holes that never get explained, I think the endlessly pleasant and escapist world Meyer created is unmatched in anything else I’ve ever read to this day. I still daydream about how Twilight‘s vampires never needed to sleep. Imagine what I could accomplish!
Also: the Twilight movies boosted Kristen Stewart, lesbian icon for the ages, to popularity. While others thirsted after RPattz and that guy from The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl, I definitely had it bad for Stewart in all her awkward, lip-biting glory. Bless her for bringing such powerful queer energy to an aggressively heterosexual franchise. Bless the Twilight books for existing to give her the opportunity. Good vibes all around.
image description: Kristen Stewart in costume as Bella sitting in a red pick-up truck, winking, and flashing an “OK” sign. Swoon.
The writing, the writing, the writing! I guess you could argue that because these books are so addictive, they must have done something right, prose-wise. Then again, there’s the textual evidence. Geek feminist blog I Wanted Wings did a fabulous round-up of some of the worst quotes from the first novel, like the one where Bella makes a terrible joke about being “part-albino” and then, when no one laughs, decides that “clouds and a sense of humor didn’t mix.”
gif description: Marcia Brady sarcastically saying “Sure, Jan.”
I legitimately don’t understand how Meyer’s editor and publisher didn’t clean things up a little before unleashing Twilight upon the world. It reads like the first thing Meyer ever wrote (probably because it pretty much was) and the secondhand embarrassment I feel whenever I try and re-read excerpts of the books is…intense. I think this more than anything else is responsible for Twilight backlash.
I will say that while Stephenie Meyer is terrible at writing about flirting, 99% of teenagers (and, like, 70% of full-grown adults) are really terrible at flirting. So while it’s hilarious to read things like:
“I love them,” I enthused, making an effort to smolder at him…
…you can’t fault the accuracy.
Stephenie Meyer’s crappy abuse-enabling + repeated ignorance of the real-life Quileute Nation. No matter how fondly I look back on my Twi-hard days, I can’t get past how much damage Meyer and her publishers did in these arenas.
Bella’s relationships with Edward and Jacob are straight-up creepy, controlling, and abusive. On one hand, I think it’s okay to write, read, and fantasize about relationships you wouldn’t be into in real life–most of erotica and romance is based on this! –but the problem was that Twilight 1) was geared towards teens, who are smart and wonderful in many ways but are also uniquely vulnerable to this kind of messaging, and 2) that it gained purchase in lots of highly conservative, abstinence-only circles who are also vulnerable to this.
To get very political (because this shit is important to me), I think everyone deserves accurate sex ed as well as accurate info on what makes for healthy relationships, and the knowledge that the extent of what many people got for sex ed was literally Twilight (and now, Fifty Shades) makes me sick to my stomach. I think choosing the life Bella ultimately chooses in Twilight is fine, but that it was presented as this ultimate and inevitable romantic option is…not great. It’s not entirely Stephenie Meyer’s fault–she wrote the story she wanted to write, I guess–but it still gives me the heebie-jeebies.
The Quileute stuff is even worse, in my opinion. In the Twilight books, Jacob is from the Quileute tribe, which readers later discover (in New Moon, I think) is home to shape-shifting werewolves who are there to protect their people from vampires.
Of course, that’s not at all the Quileute people’s real history and mythology, and Meyer’s Calvin-ball had consequences. The Twilight craze benefited some tribal members who got in on the tours and special events held in Forks and La Push, Washington, but it also seriously compromised their cultural heritage thanks to Meyer’s dilution of their real stories. Insensitive merch designers looking to make a quick buck off of Quileute designs didn’t help, either.
I don’t know if it would have been much better for the representation of Native Americans if Meyer had created a fictional tribe for the purposes of Twilight, but her wanton finger-painting with the creation story of a culture that’s not her own–especially because she didn’t get permission or any cultural consulting first–leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
The merch (just not the crappy Quileute stuff). Here, have a gratuitous picture of yours truly, wearing one of my most treasured thrift-store finds:
photo description: Me (a white person with thick-rimmed glasses and brown hair) wearing a light blue T-shirt that says “Twilight Mom” in fancy font. I’m smirking.
This stuff was EVERYWHERE, especially during the lead-ups to the movies. The Christmas after my obsession had well and truly died, my well-meaning uncle bought me a giant set of Twilight journals and pencils that I promptly hid under my bed forever. There were also supremely cringe-y Hot Topic collections along with everything on this wack-a-doo io9 compilation of the 30 creepiest Twilight merch options, which includes a cross-stitch kit for Jacob’s abs and a felted replica of Bella’s vampire-infested womb. Seriously.
I thought about including all this crap under “the ugly” part of my Very Scientific Analysis, but frankly, I admire the hustle too much to insult it that way. These folks knew there was a limited amount of time to make hay, so they rolled out a bonkers cash-grab hay-baling-operation that I don’t think there’s been the likes of since. Kudos.
It’s funny how you can have a soft spot for a book you know you’re never, ever going to read again, and Twilight epitomizes that for me. It motivated me to write and dream bigger, not least because I knew I could write something better. It made publishing seem less like an un-assailable fortress, and more like the business it is. In a weird way, I think I can thank it for my current career as a freelance writer.
In short, Twilight is a hot, bland mess, but it’s my hot, bland mess. Just don’t make me read it again.
FINAL SCORE: 58.
Thanks for playing! See you in a week or two for another Throwback Thursday deep dive.