Vamps and the single girl
I’m sure you’re all a bit Twilight-ed out at this point. Up until now I had refrained from any commentary on it, as I have not seen the movie or read any of the books. While I do enjoy vampire films, I tend to prefer either the classics or the grittier ones, like Near Dark or the recent 30 Days of Night. As for the books, angsty vampire romance stories are not really my cup of plasma, and everything I’ve read about the Twilight series leads me to believe that it’s little more than glorified fanfiction, with a beautiful, smart, resilient heroine who is also, somehow, quite improbably, a lonely outcast, so the readers can still relate to her in some way. Further, I tend to avoid book series that develop a rabid, cult-like fanbase, where minor criticisms of the books are grave breaches of etiquette and adults who should know better treat the characters as if they’re living people, claiming they’ve “fallen in love” or “soulbonded” with them, whatever the hell that means. When I read that riots were taking place at Hot Topic stores across the country over the opportunity to be in the presence of actor Robert Pattinson, star of the film adaptation, while his co-star Kristen Stewart has been all but ignored and sneered at, and that girls as young as 11 were approaching Pattinson to ask in all seriousness that he turn them into vampires, I knew my decision to stay as far away from it as possible was a wise one, as much as a book snob as it may make me sound.
Nevertheless, this cannot go unremarked upon: Caitlin Flanagan writes a very long defense of the Twilight series for The Atlantic, describing the books as “fantastic” and “old-fashioned.” Typical of treatises written in defense of pop culture phenomena, like Harry Potter and reality programming, Flanagan resorts to a whole lot of pointless psychobabble and social criticism to try to explain why the series is so popular, reading way more into it than is necessary. A lot of people just like cheesy horror novels, a lot of people like cheesy romance novels, in the Twilight series they can get both in one book, with easy to read type and no big words. To Flanagan, however, Twilight‘s appeal to teenage girls lies in their supposed desire to go back to a simpler time of finding joy in domestic tasks (the heroine of the series takes solace in cooking and cleaning for her nice but distant single father) and becoming dependent on a handsome, conflicted boyfriend, one who may keep her at arm’s length and treat her cruelly on occasion, but only because he is so overwhelmed with love and sexual desire for her that he is afraid of hurting her. Supposedly girls love that despite the fact that Twilight‘s heroine, Bella, is written as smart, brave and independent, she is constantly finding herself in peril, and is unable to get out of it without the help of Edward, her undead boyfriend. It’s apparently a refreshing change of pace from other YA literature, which encourages girls to not depend solely on a man to make them happy.
Think, for a moment, of the huge teen-girl books of the past decade. The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants is about female empowerment as it’s currently defined by the kind of jaded, 40-something divorcées who wash ashore at day spas with their grizzled girlfriends and pollute the Quiet Room with their ceaseless cackling about the uselessness of men. They are women who have learned certain of life’s lessons the hard way and think it kind to let young girls understand that the sooner they grasp the key to a happy life (which essentially boils down to a distaff version of “Bros before hos”), the better. In Sisterhood, four close friends might scatter for the summer—encountering everything from ill-advised sex with a soccer coach to the unpleasant discovery that Dad’s getting remarried—but the most important thing, the only really important thing, is that the four reunite and that the friendships endure the vicissitudes of boys and romance. Someday, after all, they will be in their 50s, and who will be there for them—really there for them—then? The boy who long ago kissed their bare shoulders, or the raspy-voiced best friend, bleating out hilarious comments about her puckered fanny from the next dressing room over at Eileen Fisher?
Oh, you see what she did thar? It’s a keen, nicely bitchy swipe at the mythical man-hating feminists, who are doing a grave disservice by encouraging young girls to rely on themselves and their friends rather than boyfriends or future husbands. It’s not surprising that Flanagan would be critical of such an idea, after all she’s best known for writing To Hell With All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife, a self-congratulatory collection of essays on her decision to become a stay at home wife and mother, a rather atypical stay at home wife and mother being that she has a nanny, a maid and a six figure book deal, but no matter. While Flanagan claims to pass no judgment against women who choose to work outside the home, it’s fairly clear she feels that at best most of them really don’t want to, that ideally we’d all be staying at home ironing socks, wiping baby bottoms and greeting our husbands at the door each night with pot roast and blowjobs, but we’re afraid of hairy-legged lesbians berating us for giving in to the patriarchy. So it’s not particularly surprising that she would assume that all teenage girls, before they take their first Women’s Studies course and have their first bisexual experience in college, are hardwired to dedicate themselves fully to a boyfriend, to focus their lives on making them happy, getting them to love them, refraining from sexual fulfillment only until said boyfriend is ready. These are old-fashioned, traditional girlish values, and Flanagan applauds author Stephenie Meyer for them. Disturbingly, she also seems to imply that the violent consummation of Edward and Bella’s simmering sexual chemistry, which occurs in the most recent book in the series and leaves Bella badly injured and unexpectedly pregnant (with a human-vampire hybrid that nearly kills her during labor) is rather sexy. To Caitlin Flanagan, the Twilight series offers girls a wonderful fantasy world of living fully for a man, even if that man happens to be a 100 year-old vampire, a welcoming respite before the cruel reality of being forced to think and do for themselves.