By Caolan Madden.
The following is excerpted from Buffy to Batgirl: Essays on Female Power, Evolving Femininity and Gender Roles in Science Fiction and Fantasy © 2019 Edited by Julie M. Still and Zara T. Wilkinson by permission of McFarland & Company, Inc., Box 611, Jefferson NC 28640. www.mcfarlandbooks.com.
During the peak years of the Twilight franchise’s popularity – from about 2007 until the end of 2012, when the final movie came out – the novels and films became the targets for significant criticism in both the mainstream media and the science-fiction and fantasy communities.[…]The threat Twilight seemed to pose to sci-fi and fantasy communities is neatly articulated in a 2011 video recorded by George Takei, in which Takei urges Star Trek and Star Wars fans to unite against Twilight, “an ominous mutual threat to all science fiction,” adding that in Twilight, “goneis any sense of heroism, camaraderie, or epic battle. In its place, we have vampires that sparkle, and moan, and go to high school . . . the only message that rings through loud and clear is “Does my boyfriend like me?”
Arguments that cast Twilight as an antifeminist text commonly cite Bella Swan’s domestic qualities as evidence; after she moves in with her divorced dad Charlie, Bella immediately takes over the role of housekeeper and cook. Twilight is full of passages … in which readers get unnecessary details about Bella cooking dinner, Bella getting dressed, Bella checking her email. Readers also get long, laborious descriptions of how the office at Bella’s high school is furnished – “padded folding chairs, orange-flecked commercial carpet, notices and awards cluttering the walls, a big clock ticking loudly. Plants grew everywhere” (13) – and what Bella’s truck looks like after Charlie adds snow chains to the tires – “There were thin chains crisscrossed in diamond shapes around them” (55). If at the beginning of Twilight we suspect that these mundane details serve as a foil for the thrilling, sparkling vampires who are hiding in plain sight in this ordinary-seeming world, we soon discover that the world of the vampires, too, is full of mundane details: in Breaking Dawn, the last book in the series, we get similarly laborious descriptions of the decorations for Bella and Edward’s wedding, of what Bella cooks herself for a snack right before she realizes she’s pregnant with a half-vampire baby.These details aren’t really necessary to the narrative – they don’t advance the plot, they don’t tell us much about character, they don’t hold obvious symbolic value. In this sense, they contribute to what Roland Barthes has described as a “reality effect” – an accretion of material details that have no symbolic significance except as a marker of “realism.” The particular reality depicted in Twilight is a kind of middle-class, adolescent female everydayness, one that includes cooking and housework, but also the everyday activities of driving to and attending high school.
In the context of Chantal Akerman’s 1975 film Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, however, Twilight’s “boring” passages take on a more political, and specifically feminist, function. A classic of minimalist and feminist cinema, Jeanne Dielman presents the mundane details of the heroine’s everyday life. […] Jeanne Dielman’s drawn-out form is inseparable from its feminist politics: according to Akerman, this was “the only way … to shoot that film” in order “to avoid cutting the woman in a hundred pieces … cutting the action in a hundred pieces, to look carefully and be respectful” (Akerman 119). In an interview, Akerman explains that the film works against “the hierarchy of images” in which dramatically violent or erotic acts such as “a car accident or a kiss in close-up” are “more valued in the hierarchy than doing dishes … This is not by chance, but exactly in relation to the place that women hold in society’s hierarchy” (quoted in Yervasi 397). […] In the Twilight saga, the boring stuff of women’s lives – shopping, cooking, cleaning, and sitting – has exactly the same weight as, if not more weight than, the exciting stuff we go to the movies to see women do or have done to them – kissing, suffering, killing.
Just as the banal details of Twilight direct us to the importance of the everyday, of the boring and the feminine, the presence of the vampires marks everyday life for women as violent and dangerous – just as it is in Jeanne Dielman. Even in normal, non-supernatural everyday life, male bodies and male desire can destroy young women. That this idea is not a Victorian anachronism should be painfully clear to anyone who has engaged in contemporary debates about rape culture or women’s reproductive rights. Today’s young women still have to navigate between sexual desire and their own safety, between loyalty to family, to a partner, and to a child. Sex can, in fact, kill you; so can pregnancy.
The banality of Twilight’s vampires, then, directs our attention away from the threat posed by fantastic monsters and toward the threat posed by everyday life under patriarchy. At the same time, Meyer’s systematic efforts to domesticate and de-fang her vampire hero register a desire to dismantle that patriarchal control. The threat posed by Edward’s patriarchal masculinity is always present in Twilight, but it coexists with the possibility of the alternative models for masculinity that [Tracy L.] Bealer detects in Edward’s character. The everyday depicted in Twilight is always dangerous for women, but it coexists with another version of the everyday that is always a fantasy of wish fulfillment. The Twilight series ends, after all, with Bella and Edward as perfect equals, moving forward into the “forever and forever and forever” of unending domestic bliss – the unchanging everyday implied by the last chapter’s title, “Happily Ever After” (Meyer 2008).
Twilight is like Jeanne Dielman in its commitment to representing the boring everyday life of young women, with its mundane pleasures and its equally mundane threats. At the same time, Twilight produces a fantasy of an everyday life that is boring precisely because it is so safe and so happy: the same satisfying boredom, in fact, that often pervades the utopian spirit of Star Trek. The boredom of Twilight is simultaneously the haunted monotony of Jeanne Dielman and, to return to Takei’s video, the enlightened tedium of true Star Peace. Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey [as discussed in full chapter]both yearn for the boredom of whatever is left after epic battles are no longer necessary. But Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey know that young women live in our world, where neither Star Wars nor Star Peace prevail. What we have in these texts are not extraordinary choices, not epic battles. We have merely the battles young women fight every day, moaning and sparkling all through high school.
Akerman, Chantal. “Chantal Akerman on Jeanne Dielman.” Camera Obscura 2 (Fall 1977): 119. Print.
Barthes, Roland. “The Reality Effect.” In The Rustle of Language, transl. Richard Howard. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1989. 141-8. Print.
Bealer, Tracy L. “Of Monsters and Men: Toxic Masculinity and the Twenty-First Century Vampire in the Twilight Saga.” In Bringing Light to Twilight: Perspectives on a Pop Culture Phenomenon. Ed. Giselle Liza Anatol. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. 163 – 180. Google e-book. Web. 1 December 2015.
James, E.L. Fifty Shades of Grey. New York: Vintage Books, 2012. Kindle file.
Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. Akerman, Chantal. Paradise Films. 1975.
Meyer, Stephenie. Twilight. New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2005. Print.
Meyer, Stephenie. Breaking Dawn. New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2008. Kindle file.
Takei, George. “George Takei Is the Broker of Star Peace.” Video. YouTube, December 10, 2011. Web. 2 April 2014.
Caolan Madden’s writing on gender, popular culture, and poetics has appeared or is forthcoming in several journals and anthologies, including Electric Gurlesque, Triple Canopy, Victorian Literature and Culture, Victorian Studies, WEIRD SISTER, and We Are the Baby-Sitters Club: Essays & Artwork from Grown-Up Readers. She is the author of the poetry chapbook VAST NECROHOL (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2018).