I am not ashamed to admit that I read and loved Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series before it was cool. I was in eighth grade when I devoured the first book in Barnes & Noble. I was so engrossed that I read the next two books with just as much hunger. I had my tween crush on the vampire Edward Cullen, but it was not so much the Edward/Bella romance or even the Edward/Bella/Jacob love triangle that captivated me (Jacob was always just a distraction to me), but the brand of vampire mythology presented in the books. I loved the way vampires were humanized in the books, as übermensch creatures with personal weaknesses and passions. And I wanted more. Twilight was my young adult transition into classic vampire canon – it was because of Twilight that I read Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles soon after and eventually Bram Stoker’s Dracula. No matter where I went in the literary vampire universe, it always began with Twilight.
Alas, then came the movie franchise, Robert Pattinson (I wanted Billie Joe Armstrong to play that role, dammit!), the Twihards and their moms and righteous ire of the Twilight haters. There was Team Edward and Team Jacob (please, it was always going to be Edward) and girls who wore Edward Cullen shirts to school and taped pictures of Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner all over the senior lounge walls. And soon there was so much distasteful madness over this series that once sparked such a personal literary fascination within me that it sucked all of the joy out of those books for me.
I concede that Twilight is neither quality literature nor quality cinema. The books are not well-written by any measure and the movies are beautifully filmed but ultimately come off as a little silly. But humans through the ages have a habit of making poorly written books and silly movies popular. Although occasionally I find Bella Swan’s self-sacrificial nature tragically heroic, she is fairly uninspiring as a female protagonist. And really, I find the goal of the franchise to be purely entertainment value and not much more. So why the fuss about one book and movie series?
One argument against Twilight that fails me is that the series promotes so-called “pedophilia,” with its portrayal of a relationship between a teenager and century-old vampire. Since Bella and Edward do not even have relations until she is at least 18, no pedophilia technically takes place. Moreover, good and bad romantic relationships with bizarre age differences occur in literature and real life all the time. Also, no one levels the same criticism against Anne Rice’s Lestat de Lioncourt, a 200 year-old vampire who forms multiple romantic attachments with young women.
But of course, the main criticism of Twilight is its glorification of a dysfunctional relationship, namely Edward’s stalking of Bella before their relationship and increasing possessiveness of her when they become involved, and Bella’s consequential dependence on Edward. But we would be fools if we believed Twilight to be the first novel to popularize a toxic relationship. Take Heathcliff and Cathy of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, who spite and hurt each other throughout their relationship and then Heathcliff embarks on a lifelong revenge spree after Cathy’s death. Frankly, I would choose to exist in Edward and Bella’s relationship over Heathcliff and Cathy’s any day.
Recently I read a quote from Shailene Woodley criticizing Twilight, where she said, “What message are we sending to young people? That is not going to help this world evolve.” But I think we do a disservice to the intellect and intelligence of young people by simply assuming they can’t tell the difference between the relationships in Twilight and those in other books and the real world. All kinds of love stories exist in this world and relationships are not one-size-fits-all.
The fact is that Twilight has not done anything that has not been done before in pop culture and literature, from its portrayal of problematic romantic relationships to its fantasy elements and even to its arguably mediocre quality of execution, so none of its faults should appear novel to us. Young adult fiction in general does not lend itself to great writing or grand philosophical themes – authors like J.K. Rowling and John Green are huge exceptions. John Green of the Vlogbrothers sums up Twilight pretty well in his 2009 video review of the series, saying “It’s fun, it distracts me from the brokenness of the world, and it argues that true love will triumph in the end, which may or may not be true, but if it’s a lie, it’s the most beautiful lie we have.” So I think it is time we stopped taking the franchise so seriously and holding it to various moral and quality standards, and started seeing it for what it is – simple entertainment.
Moreover, we need to realize pop culture is not geared towards instructing young people about how they should be, and we shouldn’t fool ourselves into believing it has an obligation to present some sort of “gold standard” for behavior. Breaking Bad is one of the most popular shows of all time and asks us to sympathize with a cold-blooded meth cooker. There’s a reality show about teenage moms. We constantly scrutinize celebrities and their attire, relationships, and paychecks. The media pays more rabid attention to Justin Bieber’s misbehaviors than it ever did to his music. We crucify Twilight, one poorly written, problematic book out of many — what message does all this send to young people?