Lots of things in life, including movies, are love-it-or-hate-it. But when you listen to the two clashing camps of opinion trying to shout each other down over the Twilight books and movies — let’s call them Team Rapture and Team I Can’t Stand This Garbage — you really get the feeling that its members are standing not just on opposite shores but in opposite worlds, on distant planets in enemy solar systems. You get the feeling that they’ve had, and are talking about, two entirely distinct, utterly non-overlapping experiences. It’s no wonder that the twain shall never meet, or even pretend to be civil.
To recap: Either you’re a hater or you’re a Twihard. Either you identify with Bella Swan as a fresh and noble ordinary girl who has a small touch of the extraordinary about her — a lovely wallflower who blooms under the gaze of her courtly vampire beau — or you think that she’s a drippy, passive doormat in thrall to the kind of male-centric romanticism that should have died out around the time of Gone With the Wind. Either you think that the stories are tepid, meandering, and wishy-washy repetitive, or you think that they coast along on wistful currents of yearning, loneliness, and desire. Then, of course, there’s the Great Edward Debate, which got played out here last year in the fury of responses to my New Moon post. Is he a swooningly idealized James Dean/Heathcliff/Brad Pitt figure, an amorous obsessive with just the right touch of otherworldly danger? Or is he a blood-guzzling “stalker,” an erotic harasser who will break into your house and stare at you while you’re asleep because he’s the kind of guy whom any sane girl would avoid at all costs?
What fascinates me, listening to the noisy battle of Team Rapture and Team I Can’t Stand This Garbage, is that the war of opinion over the Twilight saga isn’t just a disagreement about books and movies. It touches something deeper, something that pop culture has always touched and even defined: key questions of what love and sex and romance should look like and feel like, of what they should be. A movie like Eclipse may be a far cry from art, but it’s increasingly clear, at least to me, that the movie hits a nerve, even in people who say they hate it, because it embodies a paradigm shift: a swooning re-embrace of traditional, damsel-meets-caveman values by a new generation of young women who are hearkening back, quite consciously, to the romantic-erotic myths of the past. The Bella Swan view of the world may, on the surface, be the opposite of “rebellious,” but the reason her story sets so many hearts aflame is that it is, in a way, a rebellion — against the authority represented by a generation of women’s-studies classes. Bella’s story is, by nature, a meditative, even meandering one because it’s the story of how she wants to be acted upon, to be loved, desired, coveted, fought over, protected. A movie like Eclipse represents nothing less than a new and unambiguous embrace, by women, of the male gaze.
In many ways, the debate over these movies reminds me of the kinds of arguments that first coalesced 20 years ago around the Susan Faludi book Backlash, in which the author argued that a widespread retreat from many of the mores of traditional feminism was, in effect, a kind of cultural conspiracy, one that reached from corporate boardrooms to the cosmetics industry. I think it’s become clearer in hindsight that what Faludi regarded as a coercive step backward to the dark ages was a lot more complicated than that — that what she viewed as a back-lash was, in reality, a back-swing of the pendulum. With the Twilight saga, that pendulum swing may finally be complete — and some women, let’s be honest, are horrified at that.
A grand paradox in all this is that a great many professed Twilight haters are young men who, though they may not acknowledge it, are threatened by this pop cultural juggernaut. Otherwise, they wouldn’t need to hate it; it represents a notching down of their clout. (That Eclipse broke the single-day Wednesday record set by Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen may well be an iconic box office statistic; it’s a case of woozy, florid, pinup romanticism beating out action toys. Talk about a backlash!) That said, if Bella and her vast sisterhood of fans represent a newly powerful young female demographic, do they also, as some would claim, represent a retreat from personal power? They might indeed if Bella Swan’s behavior were looked at literally, as if she were merely a role model. Yet the Twilight saga, let’s remind ourselves, is a vampire story, a pure fantasy. It should be watched as a kind of retro dream, a vision not of life as it is but of internal emotions made thrillingly external.
The line in my review of Eclipse that provoked the most anger is the one in which I described the books as “Stephenie Meyer’s girl-power-meets-retro-Harlequin-fantasy series.” On the comment board, people railed: How dare I use the words “girl power” to describe Bella Swan? Who could be less powerful than Bella? Yet power, especially in human relationships, is a funny thing. Bella is, of course, a girl who longs to be swept up in Edward’s power, yet what renders her powerful as well is the way that she refuses to shrink from her fear of his attraction. She seeks out, and embraces, the most dangerous love in the room. And that’s a kind of power, too — a very old kind of power that is also, in the Twilight saga, a startlingly new kind of power. It’s not just power but a force. And it is with her.
So we already know that lots of you love Twilight, and that lots of you hate it. But here’s what I want to know: Who relates to it, and doesn’t, as a vision of romance? And does it represent a retreat from feminism — or, in fact, the embrace of a new kind of feminism?