Love it or loathe it, there’s simply no denying the cultural impact of Twilight. Since the publication of the first book in 2005, The Twilight Saga has helped fuel an explosion in young adult literature. It has become the basis of uncountable internet memes, produced four best-selling novels and five blockbuster movies, and launched three relatively unknown actors into global superstardom. Screening Twilight takes a critical look at the saga and its place in the wider cultural landscape through a collection of academic essays that touch on widely varied areas of interest.
It is often the case that popular culture texts that appeal to the masses are dismissed by academics in favor of more “worthy” subjects of study. For example, consider the reading list of a university English literature course. They are filled with Wordsworth, Homer, Milton, and Eliot, but rarely, if ever, with even a single example of the works which populate the NYT bestsellers list: Lee Child, James Patterson, or Jodi Picoult. Screening Twilight begins with this lament, opining that the study of The Twilight Saga as cultural phenomena has been dismissed as lightweight and frivolous, even within the field of fandom studies.
“Indeed,” the introduction goes, “the criticism of the saga and surrounding franchise often relies on the same sort of gendered lens that not only constructs females as rabid, hysterical consumers, but also as silly fangirls.” It states the important notion that “just because something is popular does not mean it is undeserving of critical, serious” attention, even pointing out that the “dismissive attitude towards the popular seems all the more likely when a cultural phenomena is coded as ‘feminine.'” The link between femininity and cultural dismissal is a topic that will be returned to frequently throughout the pages.
The book is divided into five sections that tackle genre and reception, myth, sexual dysfunction and sexuality, post-colonialism and racial whiteness, and deviating fandom. I found myself most interested in the chapters on genre, specifically those that dealt with the saga’s place within femininity and feminism. An especially eye-opening section of the book appeared in Mark Jancovich‘s essay “‘Cue the Shrieking Virgins’?: The Critical Reception of The Twilight Saga.” Jancovich discusses how many of the films’ reviews focused more on the behavior of its audience than on the relative merits of the films themselves, even to the level of criticizing the teenage girls watching for being “rapt with attention,” instead of gossiping and texting. It is pointed out that the way Twilight‘s fans have been portrayed by the media causes them to be “othered,” seen as homogeneous and irrelevant to the more sophisticated and “rational” people reading the review. Considering how the media’s depiction of the Twilight demographic has gradually widened to include nearly all women, this then becomes a belittling of women in general and gives rise to the interesting situation in which predominantly male critics adopt the mantle of feminism in order to condemn women and their interests. SFX magazine bemoaned New Moon as “a century of feminism down the drain,” yet as Jancovich points out, the same magazines fails to take “the same stance against the anti-feminist politics of more male-centred films.”
“It does seem odd,” the author adds, ” that a man is the only figure who can be found to authorize feminism.”
The Twilight Saga has indeed faced untold amounts of criticism from all directions—often with good reason—giving rise to the anti-fans, a group whose primary love of the texts is in criticizing them. In fact, Twilight is a rare franchise in that loving criticism constitutes a principal interest for many of its fans. In Francesca Haig‘s essay “Guilty Pleasures: Twilight, Snark and Critical Fandom,” a rather brilliant example of this “loving criticism” is given in an extract from Cleolinda Jones‘ “Twilight in Fifteen Minutes” recaps. The essay discusses fan shame, something I have experienced myself and discussed at length when reviewing Fangasm: Supernatural Fangirls, and the understanding that fans can identify flaws and problems within the text (such as Edward’s controlling behavior towards Bella), but still enjoy the text as a whole. This is somewhat similar to the mantra of Feminist Frequency‘s Anita Sarkeesian that “it’s entirely possible to be critical of some aspects of a piece of media while still finding other parts valuable and enjoyable.” Haig looks at the common comparison of Twilight to junk food as “mindless, sugary indulgence,” but also points out that this is flawed logic, unless of course, you regularly indulge in detailed, critical analysis of cake…
While I found myself utterly engaged with many of the essays and having my views of both Twilight and its surrounding media culture significantly widened, there were of course essays and points I disagreed with. Ruth O’Donnell‘s “My Distaste for Forks: Twilight, Oral Gratification, and Self-Denial” brings a Freudian analysis to the saga, describing the saga as “an exploration of [Bella’s] experience of… abandonment and anger toward [her mother Renee].” The essay argues that the vampiric obsession with the oral through motifs of biting, sucking, and “insatiable oral craving” can be linked to Bella’s regression to the oral stage of babyhood. That her relationship with Edward is “a reflection of Bella’s… unresolved issues with her mother”—not a viewpoint I personally agree with. On an entirely different subject, the discussions of the ways race is portrayed within the saga make for often uncomfortable reading, especially the section on the ways white power and privilege is encoded throughout in both overt and frighteningly subtle ways.
As a Twilight fan myself, indeed one identifying close to an anti-fan, I was interested to see how the saga would be portrayed across these collected essays. I found my horizons significantly expanded and my understanding deepened by each one and by the end of the book, I was thinking hard over the significance of countless scenes and tropes that I had earlier paid little attention to. I also found my love of New Moon (often disregarded as a “failed” sequel) validated for the very reasons I love it; the way the film “[visualizes] absence through color palette and editing,” making it one of the most intriguing blockbuster films this millennium. Whatever your thoughts on The Twilight Saga and its impact, Screening Twilight will open your mind.
GeekMom received this item for review purposes.