Sunday, November 22, 2009

Twilight/ New Moon/ Sparkle Vampires

The work of Stephenie Meyer is a hot button issue at League HQ. I am not supposed to tell you that Jamie has read the entire series.

Or that she owns the Blu-Ray of the first movie. Or that she will see New Moon in the theater at least once, if not twice.

Anyway, as you can imagine, the Sparkle Vampire franchise is a pretty small sliver of Jamie's media intake in comparison with how I've said "I ain't reading anything but stuff about people in tights fighting colorfully-dressed, albeit ineffective criminals. Often on the moon.", which Jamie is very good about not nitpicking to death.

But.

It's my official stance that Twilight is sort of stupefying in how it embraces and endorses behavior that seems abusive.

Look, I get that teen-age girls (and adults, in many cases) get all excited about broody, mysterious guys. But when they take you into the woods and talk about how they've killed people and how they can't help themselves when it comes to violent acts, saying "that's okay, we're in it together" is how women end up in half-way homes five years on.

That's not to say that Superman comics weren't (from about 1950-1977) almost entirely about Superman being an emotionally manipulative jack-ass to Lois. Those Silver Age and early Bronze Age comics are often a bit iffy (including the assumption that if Lois and Clark ever did marry, she'd quit working immediately. WTF? Earning potential, people.).

Now, I should qualify my statements around Twilight. I've only seen the movie, never read any of the books, and the version of the movie I saw was RiffTrax. And I may have had a few glasses of wine. I do not know Edward and Bella the way many of you will. I do not have the Barbie dolls of Edward and Bella that I saw at Target today, for example.

I just sort of wonder how something like Twilight doesn't just slip through the cracks, but that nobody really talks about the messages of the franchise to its target audience of young women when its become such a massive phenomenon. Reviewers like Lisa Schwartzbaum of EW.com, who normally take movies to task for stepping anywhere off the line from an ERA-era take on gender politics, seem to shrug off the ick-factor of a 108 year old dude getting hot and bothered by a 17 year old girl (who, I might add, has the personality of a mopey house cat), and who alternately threatens and baits her.

My theory is as follows: The Sparkle Vampire phenomenon taps into some of being a teen-age girl that The League so completely does not get that its loosely the equivalent of why guys don't blink at the absurdity of beer commercials (ie: If you drink Natty Light, you will meet women), at which women tend to roll their eyes.

Anyway, with the release of New Moon (which I mentioned on our Facebook account that I'd go see under certain conditions), I can't help but ponder the phenomenon afresh.

It's probably also worth pondering the emasculation of vampires in the post-Anne Rice era.

The physiology and habits of vampires as described in Stoker's "Dracula" are obviously far different. Its worth noting: in the book, Dracula did not burst into flames when exposed to sunlight. I now have no idea where that came from. Instead, he simply loses his powers and is often seen sleeping. He does not sparkle. Nor is he seen as being of particular romantic interest (and it seems that the appeal of Dracula's brides hits a bit differently than Edward's appeal).

But since Anne Rice took the romantic cues of the Frank Langella-starring Dracula and spun them out to historical fiction, and authors started pondering the "what-ifs" of vampirehood, removing the limitations and peculiarities of vampires seems to be a method of humanizing the characters while simultaneously doing exactly what's happened on shows like True Blood, and that's turn the very nature of the beast on its head.

As discussed after reading "Dracula", becoming one of the Un-Dead means a dissolution of the victim's personality. The nature of vampirism is seen through a very different filter if the taking of life becomes a choice (one that we know Dracula's victims are denied). Even Dracula himself has an expression of peace after our heroes drive a stake through his heart, and so there's the tortured nobility of the Twilight vampires if they have the option to just, basically, be super-anemic. But it certainly removes the whole "eternally damned" aspect of vampirism, and just makes it an inconvenience with nifty benefits.

Its an inadvertent side-effect that the lust for blood in Edward which is read as just plain lust can be read as a lust to do violence and winnow away the personality of Bella Swan as she gives up on friends and family to be with her man.

I don't think the movies or franchise are "dangerous", per se. But it is a reminder that for all the messages we get in health class about violent, co-dependent relationships, and what we can agree are things we wouldn't normally say were okay to see in a movie as an overt message, we're happy to put aside those stances when it comes to the right story. Buried under sparkly, handsome Edward, any suggestion of abuse or violence becomes coded or muddled, and its not hard to dismiss possible readings to that point as "not getting it". After all, nothing is more powerful than the lunch-table conversations with our peers who egg us on or who feel wrong when they suggest we're making a romantic mistake, and who is the better lunch-table buddy than Bella? Heck, the first movie tells us she's the dream lunch-table pal.

Anyhow, its an interesting phenomenon. Meyer is becoming as wealthy as Rowling as the sort of pop-culture juggernaut that seems self-perpetuating builds around her. The kids who grew up with Harry Potter can add sex to the mix, and a dozen or so imitators can pop up in books, one CW TV show, and a grittier take on the concept on "True Blood" (I've never seen either show).

Why vampires and why now? Man, I have no idea. Certainly it helps fulfill that angle that pop-culture critics kept insisting we needed out of the modern superhero any time a superhero wasn't "conflicted" enough. By jettisoning the concept of vampire as monster, and reinstating them into the equation as nothing but a tortured paramour, Dracula goes from hellspawn to unique-fixer-upper opportunity. Its not enough that with power comes responsibility, but the powerful pay for their "abilities" in obvious and direct ways, sort of how Singer's X-Men seemed to in the first outing (and which was melodramatically forgotten by the time Wolverine rolled around).

15 comments:

Michael Corley said...

I really liked this missive.

I myself have read them all. Really. I got the audio books and let the miles do the work for me. I don't think I could have read them otherwise.

I have watched True Blood and call it good. You know what it reminded me I was missing in Twilight? Weakness. The Vampires have NO weakness. Save they suck blood, which is sort of expected. And only a bunch of super rare werewolves can kill them. Wow. Fascinating. Give me at least some silver or something!

And while she did get better after the first, she may win the prize for the most overuse of adverbs (the dreaded "ly" were everwhere).

Jason said...

You're just jealous of Edward, you lame, old, square!!

mcsteans said...

Yeah, the books are adverby. And there's a lot of chagrin in them. A LOT of chagrin.

Simon Mac Donald said...

I have never read the book nor seen the movies. I, like you, cannot get past the 108 year old dude macking on the 17 year old girl. Where I come from we call that statutory rape and we lock up the sicko's who'd commit such an act. I guess what I'm saying is that I really can't understand the phenomenon from the outside.

tachyonshuggy said...

I so fucking hate vampires. There's nothing interesting about vampires at all. They remind me of all the worst aspects of affected high schoolers. There's no consistency other than "us vs. them."

Anyhow, Twilight gets both my film geek hackles and my WTF-is-wrong-with-women-hackles up. Every budding middle school lothario should watch Twilight and take copious notes: *this* is how you mindfuck women. Apparently it's quite easy once you understand that they're attracted to dysfunction and violence.

Ryan S. said...

One of the things I recall finding very difficult to grapple with was that not all media was aimed at me and did not seek my approval or dollars. When the 1990's introduced us to the all-female-cast chick-flick of empowered women singing "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" together, it was not aimed at me. When "Sex in the City" came out and seemed to be about women engaging in behavior and conversation that, were it featuring men, would be considered mysoginistic, I knew the show was not for me.

And just as the endless rows of romance novels featuring bare-chested pirates and cowboys are not for me, so Twilight is aimed so far away from me as an audience, that it totally doesn't give a shit about whether I find the messages creepy, to say the least (so says a $140.7 million opening weekend).

But, yeah, it does make it seem that the success of the franchise indicates a fairly sizeable schizm between what we hold up as standards versus what we put into practice.

tachyonshuggy said...

http://www.aintitcool.com/node/43130

I found a review that says what I think.

Ryan S. said...

did you actually see the movie? I mean, I know I will, but its gonna be on TV, and wine better be involved.

tachyonshuggy said...

No. I saw the first one though. I actually didn't hate it but I was working while watching and didn't pay that close attention. I know it's not "for me," and I actually admired it for what it achieved (a la Ash in Alien): it reliably hit all the right notes for a woman viewer. It's just that I hold some pretty mercenary ideas about women and how to have them part with their pocket money.

Ryan S. said...

So, is your marriage just the most unnecessary and longest con in history?

Yeah, well. Between you, me and the wall, I don't really think the "it's not aimed at me" in any way really means I can't apply a little of the ol' RTF-criticism-strategerie to a movie. I just have to be aware of the audience, and be a little sensitive to that audience's expectations.

I can view XXX (the Vin Diesel vehicle, not porn) and know its not aimed at me (even if it pretends to be. I know its really a movie for middle-school boys), and still criticize it. The gender issues and stunning popularity tied up in the Twilight franchise just make it a lot tougher to discuss without stepping on someone's toes.

Samantha Laury said...

i really enjoyed this movie, Kristen Stewart is the perfect "Bella" -- i will admit that her character can be a bit excessive at times

NTT said...

There's really nothing wrong with niche marketing and creating a novel/franchise/movie that caters to a certain gender or cultural group. That's why we have genre fiction in the first place. I love anything fantasy and science fiction but stay away from horror. I watch boxing but can't really enjoy MMA.

The real issue is that the Twilight franchise celebrates psychological abuse and borderline misogyny as "love". Bella is targeted and stalked. The enormous age difference connected with the fact that Bella is of teenage years is smacking into an area of human sexuality that in any other presentation will be castigated as exploitive. Since Twilight is marketed directly at underage tweens, shouldn't some people pause and consider the subtext in the books and movies?

As a good example, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a work that Stephanie Meyer borrowed liberally from, delved seriously into the parameters of the dark underbelly that entails with having a relationship with a vampire, a creature who is undead and has no soul. Twilight glosses over all such details and even if you ignore the ontological status of Edward as a vampire, there is still the issue that he is an immortal being that psychologically manipulates a very young girl and seems to be driven as much by lust as his "love".

But whatever. They're all so dreamy right?

Ryan S. said...

At some point, somebody (whose voice matters, not just bloggers like myself) is actually going to publicly criticize this franchise for the reasons you mention, and its going to get real ugly real fast.

Simon Mac Donald said...

@NTT I'm going to borrow liberally from your last comment when I go off on my Twilight rants in the future. Thanks for putting it so eloquently and succinctly.

Oddly enough I just read this post on io9 which describes the relationship in Twilight as an abusive relationship.

Ryan S. said...

Yeah, I think twilight has finally gained enough traction that is potentially may have reached a tipping point. We've all been through enough health classes, TV movies-of-the-week, etc... to know the behaviors. And perhaps as dudes, we also know the behaviors we were told at a formative age "hey, you know what's considered creepy/ abusive?" often enough that we know how to recognize that stuff when we see it.

Again, I'm a bit surprised that this hasn't come up in professional criticism, and that feminist critics don't get a bit wound up that Bella doesn't technically DO anything in the first book other than act as an object for Edward.

I don't get this whole phenomenon.