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'Twilight,' the love that dare not speak its shame
Good, smart, literary women tried to resist the romantic-vampire phenomenon. And then, alas, they bit.

By Monica Hesse
Thursday, November 19, 2009

We know. You hate "Twilight." You don't want to hear anything more about "Twilight." That's why this is not another story about the "Twilight" or "New Moon" mania, nor will it rhapsodize on the vampire craze, nor does it contain any interviews with Robert Pattinson.

This is a story about shame.

All across the country, there were women who managed to avoid Stephenie Meyer's series about a star-crossed human/vampire teen couple. (Vampire Edward lusts for mortal Bella, but also for her blood; the books are less plot than endless yearning). They resisted the first three books -- refused to read them, didn't know they existed -- and the lunacy that was "Breaking Dawn."

"Twilight" came for the tweens, then for the moms of tweens, then for the co-workers who started wearing those ridiculous Team Jacob shirts, and the resisters said nothing, because they thought "Twilight" could not come for them. They were too literary. They didn't do vampires. They were feminists.

Then something happened: the release of the "Twilight" movie, which last year introduced $384 million worth of audience members to Kristen Stewart as mortal Bella and Pattinson as lust incarnate.

"Prior to 'Twilight,' my favorite books were by Anthony Burgess" and Ayn Rand, says Jenny West, 32, who had never heard of the series until she saw ads for the movie last year. "I bought 'Twilight' [the book] with the full intention of ripping it apart." Then she read it. In one night. Bought "New Moon" the next day. "I was kind of horrified with myself, and I had to keep going." When she finished the last book, she reopened the first one and started again.

She founded the blog Twitarded, to process what had happened to her. She and co-Twitard Debbie Connelly were last spotted soliciting donations to win a charity benefit date with Peter Facinelli, the actor who plays Edward's dad.

Beware the dark side

People, be warned. "New Moon," the "Twilight" movie sequel, opens on Friday. Everyone is vulnerable.

One minute you're a functioning member of society, the next you're succumbing to the dark side, wondering how deep you're willing to go -- and what that longing says about you.

In "Twilight," Edward Cullen waffled between wooing and eating new girl Bella Swan. He chose love. In "New Moon," the darkest installment of the series, Edward becomes convinced that his girlfriend would be safer without him, so he dumps her in order to protect her and then vanishes. Bella, catatonic from the pain, finds solace in Jacob Black, the devoted friend who has just learned he is a werewolf, and their relationship grows deeper, and this description is utterly, utterly useless because none of it gets at what the "Twilight" series is actually about, which is being 17.

It's a time capsule to the breathless period when the world could literally end depending on whether your lab partner touched your hand, when every conversation was so agonizing and so thrilling (and the border between the two emotions was so thin), and your heart was bigger and more delicate than it is now, and everything was just so much more.

"I noticed in that first week of reading that I was feeling things I hadn't been able to feel in a long time," says Lauren Ashlock, 27. She'd avoided the "Twilight" series ever since the 2005 release of the first book, because when she saw the passion of so-called TwiHards, she thought, Wackos.

She relented last year only because she wanted to be an informed hater. She snuck the books into her house, at first reading them in the bathroom so her husband wouldn't laugh. The floodgates opened. "I'd locked away a lot of emotions," she says. "I'd numbed out." It had been a terrible year, with unrelenting job stress, and yet suddenly she was feeling alive again.

The behavior that followed will make perfect sense to someone who has read "Twilight" and seem bat-crazy to anyone who hasn't: Ashlock got three dogs and named them after "New Moon's" werewolf pack. She and her husband traveled to Forks, the two-bit town in Washington state where Bella and Edward fictionally live. When the Ashlocks have a child, they will name it from the novels: "If it's a girl her middle name will be Renesmee, and I don't care if you hate the name because I love it."

The people who have not read "Twilight" do not get it. Worse, they think that what happened to Ashlock could not happen to them. They're so smug, talking about how they once read a chapter of "Twilight" in a bookstore and the prose was just awful. Meyer never uses one adjective when she could use three, and most of the time that adjective is a hyphenate combining "dazzling" and "chiseled."

The people who have not read "Twilight" think they are astoundingly brilliant when they point out the misogynist strains of the series, like how Bella bypasses college in favor of love, like how Edward's "romantic" tendencies include creepily sneaking into Bella's house to watch her sleep, like how Bella's only "flaw" is that she is clumsy, thereby necessitating frequent rescues by the men in her life, who swoop in with dazzling chisleyness and throw her over their shoulders.

In response: We know. We know.

The women who have succumbed to "Twilight" have heard all of these arguments before. They wrote those arguments. This self-awareness is what makes the experience of loving "Twilight" a conflicting one, as if they had all been taught proper skin-care routines but chose instead to rub their faces with a big pizza every night.

A love most 'exquisite'

It's embarrassing, to love something you wish you hated.

Witness the progression experienced by West's mother, who agreed to read the books after her daughter's site went gangbusters:

E-mail 1:

How many times does Bella describe Edward's face as "exquisite?" . . . and that whole scene with Bella riding on Edward's back as he races through the woods . . . cooooorny.

E-mail 2:

Dad and I just finished watching "Twilight" and I must say we both liked the movie.

E-mail 3:

I have a serious problem with ["New Moon"]. My problem is I can't put it down.

E-mail 4:

Where the heck is Edward? The suspense is killing me!

Oh, Mrs. West. Welcome.

Witness the downfall of Sarah Seltzer, a freelance literary critic who also writes for a reproductive rights Web site:

"I wanted to write about the abstinence subtext," Seltzer says, which is why she read the books to begin with. She planned on questioning the allegorical "abstinence only" theme that runs through the series. "But the books are kind of hypnotic, so it's very much that while you're reading them you're sucked in, and then you take a step back and you think, this is kind of troubling. She jumps off a cliff because she misses her boyfriend?" What?!

"New Moon" shows Bella at her most pathetic, and so the grown women who love "Twilight" have methodically come up with rebuttals to the accusations that the character is anti-feminist. Perhaps her single-minded desire for a relationship is actually a Third Wave feminist expression? Maybe it doesn't matter that she's choosing Edward over everything else, as long as it's her choice? Maybe her wish to become a vampire is really a metaphor for asserting her rights over her own body?

Is Bella regressing or progressive? The past or the future?

And Edward -- Edward might be imperfect, might be too possessive, but then why does he still seem so insanely dreamy?

"I remember when the movie first came out," says Mindy Goodin, 36, a special needs teacher in Stafford. "I remember thinking," whoever that boy is, "he really needs to brush his hair."

How things have changed. Recently, when Goodin's 10-year-old daughter wanted to lash out, she did so by yelling the words she knew would cut her mother to the core: "I don't even think Robert Pattinson's cute, anyway!"

For mothers of tweenage girls, there are added complications. Is it sweet or twisted to share the same crush as your 14-year-old? (Taylor Lautner as Jacob. Ahhhhhhh. Only 17. Ewwwww.) How do you reconcile cooing over an on-screen relationship that, if your daughter had it in real life, might be worth a restraining order?

What women want

It's just a movie. It's just a movie. It's just a movie.

It's just a movie -- well, movie and books -- but it's a movie that's come to represent such big things, from the future of girls to what women really want (they want men who will shut up and come to watch "New Moon," and not ask how many points they're getting for the evening).

Men feel perfectly comfortable slathering their chests in greasepaint and screaming like half-naked ninnies at football games, but women too often over-explain their passions, apologizing for being too girly or liking something too trashy.

The grown women of "Twilight" will no longer apologize. They will go to those midnight "New Moon" screenings.

But as for telling them how silly they're being, how Edward is not real and neither is Jacob, how their brains are rotting and their sense of reality is being distorted and this obsession is crazy, just crazy? There's really no need.

They already know.

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