Societal Misogyny

So. You may have noticed my Twilight liveblog last night. If you’ve been on today you may also have noticed my conversation with a Twilight fan about the creepiness of Carlisle. All this has gotten me thinking about Twilight, the messages it contains and the fervor of its fans.

By now we’ve all heard the arguments against Twilight: how it teaches young girls that their happiness is dependent on their relationship with a man, how it promotes obsessive love, how it portrays all women as incomplete without children. My intention here is not to reiterate these points, but to examine why so many people,of all genders and ages, are such ardent fans of a series which, quite clearly, to me at least, promotes these negative themes.

I don’t believe that the answer is as simple as naivety or a lack of the necessary literary experience to recognize these themes. Many well-read individuals with the life experience to notice these themes are either unaware of them, or do not believe they are dangerous, while younger individuals who may lack this literary and life experience are fully aware of the implications of the themes in the Twilight series.

Clearly, society plays a large part in determining both what is represented in literature and how that literature is perceived by the individuals who experience it. This is obvious in regard to the Twilight series. Societal concepts of gender roles are quite evident throughout the series, and these are generally presented in a positive manner. Gender roles are promoted even in something as simple as who the series is marketed toward, as modern American culture defines “romance” to be a genre which predominantly interests women and girls, although quite clearly there are people of all gender identities who are fans of the series. While these elements are important in understanding the series as an entity removed from its fan-base, what is more interesting to me is the way in which it is perceived and defended by its fans.

Although, as previously stated, the Twilight fan-base represents people of all ages and gender identities, it is clearly dominated by young (generally preteen and teen) girls. The experience of having been socialized female in a society that still contains large amounts of misogyny most likely contributes to the reaction of these individuals to Twilight. You can’t fight against things you can’t see, and I believe that some of these fans simply cannot see the issues with the Twilight series, due in large part to their experience with cultural misogyny.

If you have seen women represented as objects to be possessed by men, which is a common theme throughout American media, since infancy, the likelihood that you will notice the degree to which Bella is treated as a commodity, rather than an autonomous human being, is greatly diminished. If you have never had anyone argue against, or even point out, the rape culture we live in, how can you be expected to notice the amount of victim-blaming Edward uses to justify his initial reactions to Bella? (In particular, in the Twilight movie, he says that he hated her at first “for making [him] want [her] so badly.” He then proceeds to say that he doesn’t know if he can control himself. These are classic lines used by perpetrators of sexual assault and rape to justify their actions. I’m working without access to the books, so I can’t vouch for the existence of these particular lines in the books, although I’m fairly certain that there are similar arguments.) Without access to media that portrays women and girls as independent and able to achieve happiness without a man, why are we surprised when some who experience the series see nothing wrong with the fact that Bella’s entire happiness (and, indeed, existence) is tied up in her relationship with Edward? If girls who are interested in “masculine” or “non-feminine” activities and topics are (often publicly) shamed for their interests, the fact that all of the female characters in the series are (predominately) interested in nothing but stereotypically “feminine” things (i.e. clothes, prom, babies) does not seem harmful or even unusual.

There are many issues with the Twilight series that go beyond Bella and Edward’s relationship (see the aforementioned discussion of Carlisle’s creepiness), and I don’t have the time or space to discuss them all. What I’ve been trying to get at with this post, is that the reactions of Twilight fans to criticism isn’t a result of them not being smart enough to understand the arguments against the series. For many, I strongly believe that the way in which they experienced media growing up, and the way the continue to experience media now, shapes the way in which they are able to perceive the themes of the series. And because our experiences with media in our younger years can have a profound impact on our future perceptions of it, the fact that Twilight reinforces much of the misogyny present in our society makes it that much more dangerous.