Posted on Thursday, November 19th, 2009 at 11:10 am
Author: Sarah Jaffe
There’s a moment in “New Moon,” the new film sequel to “Twilight,” the vampire teen romance, that perfectly explains the appeal of this series. It’s between human Bella Swan, played by a thin and drawn Kristen Stewart, and her werewolf best friend Jacob Black, a buff and half-naked Taylor Lautner. They close the distance between their pretty teenage mouths so slowly that their lips are actually touching but they can’t be said to have kissed yet—when the phone rings and they stop.
The Twilight books are about pleasure not just delayed but stretched past tension, past any rational breaking point, to a feverish strain. As an adult, you rarely get those moments anymore (though every television show where you watch a couple dance around each other for years before finally getting together is guilty of the same thing). Romance moves so quickly to sex that you forget what it was like in those delicious moments when a first kiss meant absolutely everything, when it was enough to send you home beaming in ways that the best orgasms can’t today.
The books and films give full rein to that feeling, the one that even fourteen-year-old girls know isn’t really true, that love is the only thing that matters and that the boy you like in high school is the love not only of your life but of those classic romances that high school makes you suffer through in English class. The “New Moon” film uses one of those moments as well to amplify Bella’s epic romances, zooming in on students watching Romeo and Juliet in English class. Subtlety is not author Stephenie Meyer’s strong point, but the filmmakers thus far have excelled in adding humor to the overwhelming earnestness. They also amplify the subtle gender-role-reversals that are indeed written into the books, as in the English-class moment where one of the male students is sobbing at the end of Shakespeare’s teen-love classic.
Sure, it’s abstinence porn, loaded with those moments that fill pages with purple prose to recreate that throbbing tension that too often whips past on the screen—especially in “New Moon,” which contains a little more action (Werewolves! Motorcycles! Evil vampires!) and a little less heavy breathing. Stewart, when she kisses Robert Pattinson’s Edward Cullen, her vampire love, lets out tiny gasping moans that sound more honestly pleasured than episodes’ worth of huffing and puffing on HBO’s “True Blood.” It’s four thick books about a couple not having sex (and when they do it’s as wild and ridiculous as should be expected), but more importantly to this feminist, anyway, is that it’s four thick books about female desire.
Bella wants Edward, and despite the popular belief that he’s stalkerish and creepy, how many of us in our teenage days don’t remember walking or driving by our crush’s house over and over again to try to catch a glimpse? She pursues him even though he’s annoyingly noble and persists in telling her he’s bad for her. His self-denial is ultimately seen as selfish, and Bella’s acknowledgment of and indulgence of her own desires is what saves her—and him—again and again. Wanting, here, is allowed. It’s encouraged.
Twilight‘s vampires, at least the good ones, don’t actually drink human blood. Yet unlike “True Blood” or even “Buffy,” where bottled alternatives are available to our selfless brooding heroes, blood drinking is never sanitized. The vampires instead hunt animals, and when they hunt, they always kill.
So vampirism is sex—and Bella pursues both with singleminded determination—but it’s that dangerous, frightening sex that teenagers, particularly girls today, are faced with. Sex ed these days, after all, does little to explain sexuality to kids, but it does a heck of a lot to try to scare them away from it. That’s the world that Twilight inhabits, and that’s why Edward, with his desire for blood, and Jacob, always one loss-of-temper away from exploding into a wolf, wind up such ultimately safe alternatives for Bella. Neither of them, we know, would ever really hurt her, and so we can let their monstrous nature sub in for how terrifying—and magical—sex seemed when we’d never had it before.
But why a vampire hero if he doesn’t drink blood? What else is he if not a beautiful boyfriend who never grows up? Though the final book, Breaking Dawn, thrusts strange adult issues into this beautiful glossy teenage world, through most of the books the other constant refrain is Bella’s fear of getting too old for Edward. The fear of aging is threaded especially through New Moon, where Edward’s absence for much of the book becomes its own character. Even Bella knows that she’s really too old for this kind of romance, but by becoming a vampire she can halt herself at seventeen, and never have to go on to the real world.
It’s the escape from the real world, that diving back into those teenage moments where glorious self-absorption was not only normal but expected, and when you’re just starting to become aware that there’s a big messy world out there that you can never really save, that draws me back to Meyer. In New Moon, Bella has to walk by a line of humans on their way to meet their death at the hands of vampires and it sends her screaming into nightmares, realizing that she can’t save all of them. She even fears that she can’t save Edward—begging him to turn her into a vampire too so that she can protect him in another subtle egalitarian twist. But Meyer allows her to save those closest to her even as the only human in a book full of superpowered monsters. Power and strength have many forms, and to Meyer—as to J.K. Rowling, who constantly reminded readers in the voice of Professor Dumbledore that love is the strongest weapon Harry Potter has—Bella’s heart is what counts.
At heart, I’m a populist, and the Twilight books are nothing if not populist. The sneering and self-congratulating from the crowd who thinks they’ve accomplished something by not having bought into the phenomenon doesn’t just come from men who look down on girly pleasures, but from feminists who certainly make valid points about problematic moments in the books and films (I cringed, for instance, when the Native American Jacob gives Bella a dream catcher. Really?). No, the books aren’t the kind of romance that I’d like teenage girls to actually engage in. But they capture almost perfectly the way that teenage romance feels, even if they have to engage mythic creatures to allow that feeling.
The books are earnest—there’s not a hint of ironic detachment—and even the humor added into the films still requires you to let go as let this teen girl’s overwrought narration take you along for the ride. When I see men reading Twilight books on the subway, I don’t think that they’re taking notes from Edward Cullen on how to win over girls. I think that they’re spending hours voluntarily inside the head of a teenage girl—and that’s a good thing.
Twilight, after all, like Harry Potter, has become a mass culture phenomenon in old-fashioned book format, in a world where books are supposedly dying and mass media is fragmenting into a million Web sites, thousands of TV channels and homogenized and sanitized radio. It’s not going away. Its appeal might be regressive in one sense, because it highlights a desire to recapture or cling to teenage unreality. More importantly, however, Twilight encourages pleasures, even if it’s just that very populist pleasure of curling up with a book.
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