Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Twilight and adolescent wish-fulfillment

I almost missed this: a great article from Carolyn Moynihan at Mercatornet about the phenomenon of the Twilight mom:

Of course, there could be a large dollop of media hype, not to mention clever marketing, in the Twi-Moms story. But it kind of fits with the blurring of the category “adult” in these days when many women leave school in their early twenties, marry or resign themselves to cohabitation at 30-plus and have an increasing chance of never bearing children. "Does the warm blood of a teenager still flow beneath your icy grown-up flesh?" asks Slate's movie critic. "Yes!" is supposed to be the right answer here.

It is understandable that women still waiting for their romantic destiny to materialise, or perhaps discontented with the reality of marriage and family life, should indulge in a little escapism. There is nothing new in that; from the appearance of the first novels (Pamela, falling in love with her abductor…) through morning radio serials and afternoon television soaps, to the long reign of the ever more sultry Mills and Boon tales, it has ever been thus. [...]

But identify with a modern teenager who is in love with a vampire and courted simultaneously by a werewolf, high-school hunks both of them? No thanks. I have nothing against fantasy as such, although it took a master like Tolkien to really get me hooked, but from all that I have read about Stephanie Meyer’s oeuvre her fantasy is formulaic and the books depend heavily for their effect on the sensuality evoked in descriptions of the teenage lovers. (The much-touted “chastity” of their relationship seems more like a plot device to keep the story going than a virtue being celebrated.)

So, if Twilight boils down to Mills and Boon with fangs -- or rather, sharp teeth -- but without sexual intercourse before marriage, what exactly is the attraction for women who might otherwise be watching Sex and The City?

One answer seems to be the modern obsession with youth, its freedom from responsibility, its options, sexiness and style. Of course, the popular models must be wealthy or lucky enough to be fashionably dressed and accoutred at all times, but it is the sexiness that counts most. And this has a dark side: a woman has to be not only forever desirable but forever on the brink of being bloodthirstily, savagely desired. This darkness takes a particularly nasty turn in the crime stories of Stieg Larrson.

Well, not that I'd ever recommend "Sins against the Sixth Commandment and the City" as adult entertainment, either, but I think Moynihan is on to something, here.

When I read the Harry Potter books (the first six, anyway), I did so mainly to see for myself if they were dangerously occult, or not. I decided they weren't, and said so to someone who'd asked for my opinion. But that was that--I didn't think Harry was wonderful, or see myself in any of his female counterparts, etc.; the whole idea is pretty silly for a grown woman. I did note some aspects of Rowling's writing that I disliked, viewing the work as an adult, however.

One element of the Potter books I did notice was some definite adolescent wish-fulfillment. There is a scene in one in which the brainy, ordinarily somewhat grungy Hermione is suddenly transformed at a school dance into a beautiful young woman whom the boys can't take their eyes off of; there is the whole pairing off of Harry and Ginny, the younger sister of his great friend who has secretly been madly in love with him for years; there are similar situations involving other characters, all of which work out entirely too well (from an adult critic's perspective) given how these things usually go in real life.

From what I've read, this kind of wish-fulfillment is even more palpable in the Twilight books--though I must insert my standard disclaimer: I have not read the books, nor do I have any intention of doing so. Still, I've heard the gist of the story: Bella, a shy girl from a broken home, practically (and sometimes literally) has to fight off the boys who are interested in her. Among them are not one, but two totally cool bad-boy untamed dudes, who turn out to be a vampire and a werewolf respectively (and which would explain a lot about the politics in Washington State, but that's another blog post). The whole series of books then traces Bella's angsty love: her angst over Edward, Edward's angst over her, the werewolf's assorted angsts--angstes? Can angst be plural? There certainly is a multitude of it in the Twilight series, by all reports. Amid the angst, at one point Bella discovers that if she starts doing dangerous, bad-chick kind of things herself she can hear the absent Edward's voice, presumably telling her what he's been up to, what sort of job he's trying to get--oh, wait. He's a really old vampire dude who doesn't have to work, and who can essentially stay a teenager forever, and so can she if--oh, who's kidding whom, when they decide on a marriage/merger of the angst, which, followed by a rapid honeymoon and an even rapider reproductive cycle just about ends things, except for the obligatory new-parent angst one experiences because werewolves and vampires are trying to kill your baby (and what real parent can't relate to that?).

Of course, in fairness, I haven't actually read the book. So maybe it's possible that these novels really are breathtakingly well-crafted and well-written, and that the whole Edward/Bella setup is not really, in effect, the sort of thing that will cause real-life girls, craving Edward, to fall left and right for antisocial or psychopathic men, who are a different kind of vampire altogether. Maybe.

But even if they were, these books are still packed with adolescent wish-fulfillment: shy girl getting noticed, getting tons of attention from the most "interesting" boys, etc. Which makes it easy to understand why teenage girls like them--but other women? Women in their thirties? Forties? Moms with children, even teens, of their own?

I know that plenty of moms will read books to preview them for their own children. I know other moms who enjoy the occasional young-adult novel as a kind of guilty pleasure, a return to time when plot lines were simpler, characters less complex, and the whole thing could be devoured in an afternoon. For similar reasons other moms enjoy murder mysteries or other light reading.

But that kind of thing doesn't describe the "Twilight Moms" Moynihan's article refers to--the grown women who line up at bookstores and at movie theaters, who compete with their daughters for "Edward" paraphernalia, who participate in online fan groups or even (shudder) write their own Twilight-inspired fan fiction. I'm not sure what does--is it the fear of growing old, or a reaction to the waning romance of middle age, or something else entirely? What makes women twice or even three times Bella's age want so desperately to revisit their high school years for a do-over, even vicariously through a fictional character who couldn't actually be real in any universe?


Anonymous said...

You should have been at Comic-Con in 2008. The Twilight Moms were out in force, and one TM would not get out of her seat that belonged to a reporter.

I'm all for some fantasy, as I'm divorced/single and in my 40s, but...come on. I don't have anything against anyone, regardless of age or gender, liking the books, but there's a difference between liking something and bringing yourself down to a level where you make a fool of yourself, as quite a few TMs have done.

For my part, I haven't read the books. I've followed the hilarious recaps done by pop-culture blogger Cleolinda Jones so I have a good idea of the storylines. I have seen the first movie (painfully bad) and the third movie (cheesily entertaining) but the angsty teen stuff is just something I can't get into. I have enough trouble dealing with my angsty 40-somethingness.

melanie said...

Here is what I would guess the attraction is, because, like you I have never read them, nor will I nor would I let my daughter....but, I think they appeal to an innate longing we have for romantic love before we "grow up" and become just too "jaded" to realize that love- the real good stuff of it- is not like that at all. Maybe it's just me, I mean my husband and I had a fairly "romantic" courtship ( to use a sadly out of date term) by today's standards.... But it wasn't beset by all sorts of " tragic" circumstances that led to deep romantic angst etc etc...we fell in love, no obstacles presented themselves, no confusion about our real character, no parents keeping us apart etc etc...he asked me to marry him a month later, 6 monthes after that we
married.....the "romantic angsty" part of life ends there. Now we live out the hard stuff of true love and happily ever after. So, no, it does not appeal to me because my tastes
Are different, if I need a bit of angsty romance I go for the old stand-bys, just finished Pride and Prejiduce for probably the 110th time, and yes, the are much younger than me I think? Not teens, no, that is a bit weird, I'll admit but I think it's a reflection of a "more innocent time". Meaning pre- the adult years (not necessarily innocent in all ways). That's my take on it for what it's worth.

melanie said...

Okay so please ignore the weird phraseology and strange placement of capital letters in my comment. No I don't talk like that...no more comments from my iPad, just too weird,
So sorry!

freddy said...

Melanie, I agree with you that many of these moms are searching for what passes for romance in these novels...that, plus an inability to read beyond the 8th grade level....

Deirdre Mundy said...

Erin-- I've no time to write about this right now, but I really think you're doing a disservice to a lot of modern YA when you tar it with the "shallow and poorly written like Twighlight" brush.

It's the equivelant of me saying that all modern Catholic novels are ridiculous because "Pierced by a Sword" was.

Red Cardigan said...

Deirdre, I certainly didn't mean to tar all YA with the Twilight brush!

The choice isn't between "trashy novel (YA or otherwise)" and "high literary art." There are good, legitimate books written primarily for the reader's pleasure and entertainment which don't aspire to be literary classics but which are nonetheless well-written and contain some elements of good literature; they are, at least, good fiction, and I'm sure some YA is in this category.

But most of the people I know who read YA books do it for the sheer enjoyment of these, and aren't seeking a great literary encounter. There's nothing wrong with that.

Red Cardigan said...

However, I should add, there *is* to me something wrong with grown women primarily seeking and enjoying books which exist as adolescent wish-fulfillment, particularly when the wish-fulfillment centers around a girl who goes from being shy or awkward or misunderstood or unpopular to being the belle of every ball, the most sought-after girl in the high school community, etc. And, sadly, there are a lot of YA books written according to this template.

JMB said...

It seems to be in vogue to bash the Twilight series in Catholic circles, so I guess it stands to reason that the fans will get bashed too. What about all the Star Wars and Trekkies out there? Isn't that just as stupid? How about all those folks who go to Super hero conventions? It's entertainment and it appeals to women, so what?

Red Cardigan said...

JMB, there's nothing wrong with a little harmless entertainment. In all seriousness, though, the Twilight books have come in for some criticism from Catholic moms because of specific elements in the books. Like I said, I haven't read them myself--but with three daughters I *am* concerned about the trend to reinvent vampires as good guys.

In the real world, the only "vampires" are the men who prey on women. The real "bad boys" may charm a young woman--but they will also bleed her dry (emotionally, financially, etc.). These books, which are marketed to girls as young as 10 or 11, are riddled with material that suggests that "bad boys" are worthy love interests, that "bad behavior" is a way to connect with one's special bad boy, and that marriage to a bad boy is a heroine's triumph.

I think this goes beyond the kind of wish-fulfillment found in campy sci-fi or comic books--most of them, anyway (I'd probably be just as critical of some modern comic-strip storylines).

JMB said...

Erin, you're right. I recently read a thread on Twilight on F&F and I wondered why anyone really cared. I'm reading an anthology of Flannery O'Conner right now. I'm really enjoying it. But I'm struck as to how absurd and grotesque and violent some of her work is. I'm thinking that this (Flannery) would not pass Catholic mom muster in our world right now. Everybody seems so uptight and prickly about fiction these days.

melanie said...

JMB, You make an excellent point, but one caveat, her- flannery's- writing is so much better, so there is literary value there beyond simple sensationalism. I also have similar problems as Red with the whole over blown romantic dramatization that makes up that series....if only as it relates to susceptible young girls. Maybe an adult can enjoy it as pure fluff, but I think Reds worry is that it could have damaging influence on young girls who are all sort of hoping and dreaming to be the next Bella....

JMB said...

I see your point, and I agree with you that Meyers is certainly not on par with Flannery. But would we be so dismissive of Meyers if she wasn't a Mormon and was a practicing Catholic? Would it even matter? I just get so tired of the knee jerk Catholic reaction to fiction in some circles. It just sounds so prissy to me. Believe me, I grew up reading a lot of trashy fiction - Blume, S.E. Hinton, Jackie Collins, etc. but I understood that it was fiction. What probably had a worse effect on my soul was reading the NY Times, Time Magazine, Esquire, Newsweek and New Yorker magazines as a teen. I didn't know enough about the world to understand that there was a point of view in "non fiction".

melanie said...

JMB- I hear you definitely! On this I can only speak for myself as catholic mom I usually am not as worried about content as I am literary quality. I want my kids to read books that are written well. Lots of great books are full of dark content. I am not worried that Harry Potter has sorcery etc etc, anyone read Arabian nights lately? Or Grimms fairy tales? But in these they are seeing good craftsmanship. Words used well. Harry potter, Twilight, are
Just linguistic junk....written quickly,without much thought, to make money. I don't want to waste my kids time necessarily. I try, modern or not, to find books that are well crafted. I think a lot of us think the same way, but sometimes cannot articulate what we really find objectionable. I remember when Harry potter first came out and all the buzz and excitement. Then I read it and I thought...this is just really simple-minded. Not horrible, just simple-minded. As long as my kids can make that distinction between good writing and bad, then great, they can enjoy some of the fluff, what worries me is that soon enough the fluff will be passed off as literary greatness. Or worse, no one will really care anymore as long as it sells.

John Thayer Jensen said...


I usually am not as worried about content as I am literary quality

Amen, amen! There is an attitude amongst Christians, some times, that good morality - and particularly good theology - excuse bad craftsmanship. To be sure, I wouldn't want my (now grown) children to absorb a steady diet of evil - but writing that is flavourless, haphazard, or tasteless is like feeding them on junk food - bad junk food at that!


Deirdre Mundy said...

The thing about Twilight is that a lot of the "Good moral quality" moms really mean 'no premarital sex." But the characters, for all their talk about chastity and purity, aren't really chaste and pure--they spend all their time OBSESSING about not having sex. From the reviews and summaries (even the positive ones) I always get the feeling that Bella would be better off if she, y'know, had some INTERESTS or something... joined the soccer team. Played chess. Even knitting.... it seems like the only things she's really PASSIONATE about is her vampire. Blah.

OTOH, Ally Carter's books (also fluff), are also clean. But they don't hit you over the head with it. Her heroines are just...really busy. Being spies. or Art thieves. Saving the world, or their parents. Hanging out with friends. Getting into Hilarious Hijinks. Being shot at by bad guys... you know, normal high school stuff.

No one is proclaiming Carter's heroines as exemplars for our daughters. Why not? I'd rather have any of the Gallagher Girls, or Kat, as a teenaged daughter than a Bella. Give the kids something to DO.... it's much better....

Dymphna said...

I think the anti-Twilight talk is just the puritan fear that somewhere somebody is having fun.s