‘Twilight’ and True Love-ism

Until I started writing this, my knowledge of the Twilight series isn’t extensive: it’s limited mainly to having noticed the covers of the books on the subway since they had chess pieces on them (for a brief moment of insanity I wondered whether they might be chess-related books — maybe I had missed the birth of the hyper-hypermodern) and a brief discussion I had with a friend after seeing a giant poster of the goofy lead actor in a Target. (It seemed as though the photographer had him say “duh” to capture that perfect look of cuddly harmlessness.) I also know that it is about vampires and the author is a Mormon.

But the series’ popularity can clearly reveal something significant — does it herald something different, or is it a new bottle for old ideology?

Using this WaPo story as a point of departure, Tyler Cowen offers nine hypotheses, including this: “You know from the beginning that the plot twists will have to be extreme. Few movie makers offer up vampires who think pensively, talk inordinately, and live out ambiguous endings, sitting around in coffee shops.” I actually would want to see that show, about the quotidian everyday life of vampires. Pace it like an Antonioni film. Explore the question of whether anything has meaning without death.

Cowen also makes the often overlooked point that “some of the popularity is arbitrary with respect to the vampire theme itself. There is a clustering of production in any successful cultural meme, once that meme gets underway. You might as well ask why there is so much heavy metal music today.” Culture is subject to momentum, to booms and busts, cycles of overproduction. Once a particular solution for an ideological social need is devised, it can perhaps crowd out other solutions. Then “Harry Potter” or “Twilight” becomes the all-purpose answer to a shared wish for fantasy that might have drawn a variety of nuanced responses. That is to say, network effects and the rewards for individuals that come from them begin to preclude the pleasure that might derive from choosing our own fulfillment from a more diverse field of cultural products. Slate had a piece arguing that since 1960 we have always been in the midst of some sort of vampire craze or other.

But what, then, is the underlying issue that we as a culture have settled on vampires to solve? A month ago, Esquire ran this story arguing that vampires are metaphors for gay men — fundamentally inaccessible to teen girls:

Edward, the romantic hero of the Twilight series, is a sweet, screwed-up high school kid, and at the beginning of his relationship with Bella, she is attracted to him because he is strange, beautiful, and seemingly repulsed by her. This exact scenario happened several times in my high school between straight girls and gay guys who either hadn’t figured out they were gay or were still in the closet.

Girls not yet ready to enter fully into mature sexuality find in vampires/gay friends something both threatening and harmless at the same time.

Karl Smith draws a related conclusion: “A vampire wants you, in the absolute worst possible way. And, once he has you, at best you are transformed forever, at worst you are dead. This is a clear metaphor for the most pressing issue in young teenage minds.” Basically vampires are about ambivalence toward sex, and a way of processing in coded form all the mixed messages girls receive about sex.

This Salon article about adult Twilight devotees views the Twilight books as essentially romance novels with enough genre stylization to not seem as such to those who get into them. Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance might be useful, then, in figuring out the appeal — Radway argues that romance novels ameliorate the conditions of patriarchy by dignifying female roles within it. In the Salon article, this is related to the myth of true love:

“This is what I call ‘true love-ism,'” Laura Miller told me. “True love-ism is the secular religion of America, one that all of us can believe in. What’s appealing about Edward is his certainty. He craves Bella monogamously. The book feeds the delusion that an erotic god could love you, and that he’d also be faithful.”

In Miller’s review of the books, she argues that

Even to a reader not especially susceptible to its particular scenario, Twilight succeeds at communicating the obsessive, narcotic interiority of all intense fantasy lives. Some imaginary worlds multiply, spinning themselves out into ever more elaborate constructs. Twilight retracts; it finds its voluptuousness in the hypnotic reduction of its attention to a single point: the experience of being loved by Edward Cullen.

Miller quotes an adult reader, who describes the books’ appeal like this:

Twilight makes me feel like there may be a world where a perfect man does exist, where love can overcome anything, where men will fight for the women they love no matter what, where the underdog strange girl in high school with an amazing heart can snag the best guy in the school, and where we can live forever with the person we love

(Coincidentally, this is how I interpret Just One of the Guys.) Miller’s gloss on this — “The ‘underdog strange girl’ who gets plucked from obscurity by ‘the best guy in school’ is the 21st century’s version of the humble governess who captures the heart of the lord of the manor. The chief point of this story is that the couple aren’t equals, that his love rescues her from herself by elevating her to a class she could not otherwise join” — relates it straight back to the first novel in English to become a popular sensation, Samuel Richardson’s Pamela. So perhaps this is proof that we haven’t progressed very far ideologically; conservatives would perhaps see this as proof that certain roles and fantasies are hard-wired into humanity’s circuitry. (I don’t endorse those conclusions.)