Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight,” based on the best-selling novel of the same name, opens today in movie theaters across the nation. Deadline Hollywood Daily has predictions of a $60 million weekend box-office. By all accounts, “Twilight” is a huge marketing and social phenomena. Yet it is bad, truly bad, fantasy, just on it’s own accounts, and even worse in it’s social effects.
As commenter Wiredgrenadier noted in a comment on my post “More Scary Vampires”:
”Twilight” is basically female wish-fulfillment fan fiction, full of completely shallow characters (who never really grow in depth), centered around a Mary-Sue of the worst kind and a supernatural being for whose love a compelling reason is never given.
More so, the characters also never face true challenges. The Twilight vampire type is immortal, wealthy, has a superhuman physique and is, quite frankly, indestructable. From a standpoint of character development and story suspense, those vampires and the world they roam in are about as interesting as a heap of bricks. Nothing of true impact is ever done with them (which is already symbolized through the first novel: its 600 pages could just as well have been 300, so little does truly happen).
This is quite true. Moreover, “Twilight” is not alone. Other examples, would include Laurel K. Hamilton’s “Anita Blake” series (which skews slightly older, young adult women rather than teen girls as with the “Twilight” series) or the “Sookie Stackhouse” novels by Charlaine Harris.
All of these novels have various female fan-fiction characteristics. This would include “Mary Sue” wish fulfillment, resolution of conflict through rather icky sexual situations and encounters, mostly devoid of any mention of the word “Love” or any depiction of realistic romantic love, and a huge dose of “specialness” in relation to the female characters powers of sexual attraction and control, of powerful, dominating, supernatural male characters. All of whom are far older and more powerful than the female characters.
In all cases, with these new female fan-fic fantasies, the traditional settings of fantasy, which are mostly rural, fantastic worlds far removed from mundane settings, are up-ended. Instead, magic exists right alongside the modern, urban setting, with magical societies being merely jumped-up versions of the publishing, fashion, advertising, and public relations occupations/industries that dominate Chick Lit. While certain male-oriented authors such as Tim Powers (“Last Call” and “Expiration Date”) have used modern urban settings (modern Southern California and Las Vegas), the magical secret societies exist outside and completely separate from the mundane world, and have no rules save that of the jungle.
The main concern of the female heroines are that of Chick Lit. Finding the most dominant guy, remaining thin and beautiful, becoming successful in a “cool” field filled with status and “important people.” The important people may be werewolves or vampires, the field may be a magical private eye, or a vampire, or werewolf, instead of fashion or publishing, but the strong appeal to single young women are the same: STATUS.
This is a far cry from traditional female romance novels that centered on family, romance, the word “Love” and the desire to find or create the right family. It is also a departure from the traditional female fantasies written by authors such as Ursula K. Le Guin (“Wizard of Earthsea”) or Anne McCaffrey (“Dragonriders of Pern”) where tensions between utopianism and necessity, feudalism and modernism, tradition and the future, all collide. The mostly female heroes have things to accomplish that are more than merely status-climbing and becoming important, with an important boyfriend.
The female fan-fic type of works, whether “Twilight” or “Anita Blake,” are of recent vintage. The Blake series is the oldest, and dates only back to 1993. These novels are as commenter Wiredgrenadier noted, poorly written, with little dramatic structure, tension, or resolution. Things just happen, the protagonists are “Mary Sues” with a strong resemblance to Chick Lit characters, and sex as the solution to all problems (often the ickier the better) characterizes the novels. Even the “Twilight” series, that many clueless older female conservative columnists love, has lots of graphic sex, though no sexual intercourse.
The novels themselves are terrible influences on young women, particularly given the collapse of traditional culture and institutions. Young women are mostly influenced by peer groups and the media and entertainment environment. Thus, these fan-fic novels have an outsized influence. An influence that is toxic and bad for young women and society.
The heroines enter into relationships with powerful, much older men, that are controlling and socially isolating. Rather than achieve anything by their own independence, they merely exert power through their relationships with these powerful, older men (who merely look young and “hot”). The relationships are characterized by violence, with rape a common theme. Often the female characters have sex with characters they do not love to control or influence those characters. Remarkably absent is the Western ideal of romantic love, of consensual choice by two roughly equal young men and women, who form a lifetime partnership for both child-rearing and mutual support and affection, including deep romantic love after physical passion has burnt itself out.
The relationships the female characters have is built on pure lust and physical passion. The reason they love the older, socially dominant, male characters is never explained. Nor is the reason the older, dominant male characters love the female characters explored, save youth and beauty. The young women in the stories don’t struggle and sacrifice, don’t accomplish concrete, physical goals, have no plans for advancing themselves outside a relationship, and are merely pretty and desired. Jane Austen would be horrified.
Because the choices the young women make are abysmal. Violent, bad-boy brooding men, who have no capacity for compassion, integrity, self-control, cooperation (with other men), leadership (that does not include sheer intimidation through physical violence), or providing for a family. The stories, and “Twilight” is among the worst, read like a how-to manual for one bad-boy, abusive relationship followed by another, leading to single motherhood and the pattern repeating. Since in real life, not fantasy, girls turn into young women, who turn into older women. “Twilight” alone, with both the book and the movie, will turn out quite a number of single mothers who perpetuate misery and unhappiness from generation to generation through stupid choices in men, and rejection of the proven ways to advance in wealth and status: education, wise choice of career, saving money, and deferred gratification.
Be that as it may, it’s instructive to examine the possible reasons WHY these fan-fic stories are so popular. As noted, the earliest of them (Hamilton’s “Anita Blake” novel “Guilty Pleasures”) dates to only 1993. The earlier female fantasy authors wrote strong, independent heroines who’s primary accomplishments lay outside relationships, and even echoed the structure of male fantasy. Only instead of “save the day and get the girl” it was “save the day, win the heart of the proper guy.”
What has happened is demography and marketing. There is a huge entertainment market, focused on women, young and old. Disney makes a considerable amount of it’s money marketing one wish-fulfillment Pop Tart after another to pre-teen girls. If it’s not a young Britney Spears it’s Miley Cyrus as “Hannah Montana” or the “Cheetah Girls” or the “High School the Musical” actresses. Older girls, in their teens, have “Gossip Girl” and various other conspicuous consumption tales, in luxury goods or luxury sex, to amuse them. Women in their twenties, thirties, and beyond, have “Sex and the City” to titillate them. Though “Sex” has as the Wall Street Journal noted, a substantial teen and pre-teen female audience, through the repeats (censored) on various cable outlets. Women are getting married later and later, earn more money than male counterparts (in urban areas) and have more educational achievement (often an indicator of income). Indeed, the American Medical Association lists women as making up fully 50% of all incoming medical students. All that delayed marriage, higher disposable income, and free time leads to consumption of luxury goods including tales of luxury and luxury sex-relationships. A demographic and cultural shift that moves downwards into teens and tweens, as well.
Note the pattern of wish-fulfillment. A “career” where the girl or woman is “important” in some industry like fashion or pop music (never say, classical music where rigorous and demanding regular practice is required). In many cases, fame and celebrity are on offer. Wealth and status among an insular, wealthy in-group is the major part of the story. Romance with various bad-boys of dubious character is on offer, and the men are always quite literally at the top of the heap (“Mr. Big”). Nowhere are the themes of Jane Austen, i.e. choosing carefully the right man for a husband (or boyfriend) evident. Nor are the other concern of Austen and female writers like her anywhere in these stories: deep romantic love, and romantic love explained to the viewers/audience.
It’s a consumerist approach to live, and sex, with love and human connections completely absent.
This sort of approach, which Disney pioneered, and the publishers of junk like “Twilight” copied, rests of course on the assumption of good times. Disney depends on enough disposable income from parents to pay for Hannah Montana related T-Shirts, concert tickets, movies, and more. Not the least of which is the cable or satellite package for the Disney Channel where the “tween” girl stars like Cyrus and company are launched. [Amusingly enough, to the constant consternation of Disney, the young women who portray the "tween" wish fulfillment idols regularly engage in the practice of posting inappropriate to provocative photos of themselves on the Internet, no doubt preparing themselves for overtly sexual roles as they inevitably age out of their Disney roles and can no longer credibly play teen agers. The path of a parent of young girls is not an easy one.]
Decades long expanding economies, a whole series of industries built on disposable female income, from either parents (“tweens”) or single young women, have built the economic and demographic and marketing structure to create the environment for “Twilight” and the books like it. However, this structure looks increasingly shaky.
Chick-Lit books, and the fantasy cousins of “Twilight” and “Lonely Werewolf Girl” are dependent on disposable income. As the publishing, public relations, fashion, beauty, and advertising industries come crashing down, during what looks to be a prolonged, lasting recession, there won’t be that many employed in those industries, and women young and old will have less disposable income. [High incomes for women are disproportionally distributed in these professions, plus the legal, and medical professions. There are relatively few female Mechanical or Chemical engineers, for example, but many female publicists, lawyers, fashion designers, and associates and assistant in book and magazine publishing.] It is possible, of course, that female readers would want even more feel-good fantasy of wealth, power, and luxury, and increase rather than decrease the appeal of these books and stories. However, there is far too much competition among the female market in books, magazines, television, and movies, and so far indicators are that the appeal of these kinds of luxury goods sex-status stories have peaked.
ABC’s “Dirty Sexy Money,” which was an adult version of “Gossip Girl” has been canceled due to poor ratings. “Gossip Girl” is struggling to stay above 3 million viewers, and so far is on track to repeat last season’s performance, of about 2.5 million viewers. Viewers and readers generally don’t have an appetite for contemporary based luxury, status, and relationships characterized by the same, during economic hard times. Preferring instead to be taken out of the present day for fantastical settings of the past, an alternative reality, or the future.
So far, in the extraordinary run of general economic good times from the early 1990′s to the present day, the fan-fic vampires of “Twilight,” and other supernatural versions of “Gossip Girl” are seemingly immortal. But just as sunlight kills most vampires, prolonged hard times and the required shift by women along with men to sheer economic security rather than luxury good consumption (including luxury good relationships and sex) may kill vampires like “Twilight’s” Edward Cullen after all. It is not set in stone, but quite possible that female fantasy may return to traditional themes of accomplishment and actual, real, romantic love-based romance (instead of icky and violent sex) that used to characterize the genre. Let’s hope so.
Update: reader/commenter Wiredgrenadier passed on this link with the quote by the actor who plays “Edward Cullen” in “Twilight” :
“When you read the book,” says Pattinson, looking appropriately pallid and interesting even without makeup, “it’s like, ‘Edward Cullen was so beautiful I creamed myself.’ I mean, every line is like that. He’s the most ridiculous person who’s so amazing at everything. I think a lot of actors tried to play that aspect. I just couldn’t do that. And the more I read the script, the more I hated this guy, so that’s how I played him, as a manic-depressive who hates himself. Plus, he’s a 108-year-old virgin so he’s obviously got some issues there.”
The actor also complained that fans, including a six year old, asked him to bite them.
Historically vampires have never done well in recessions, quickly turning into figures of ridicule as the real scary monsters are poverty and unemployment. The ridiculed “nerd” or “beta provider” may well win out for a while as incomes crash and single motherhood becomes unaffordable, a luxury good of good times long past.