John Green posted a fascinating series of tweets about teenage girl culture earlier this evening. Most of his tweets focused on Twilight, which as we all know is an interesting phenomenon in that it is intensely popular as well as being the object of intense, widespread scorn.
Here are the tweets:
Now, I am not a fan of Twilight. I was when I was twelve, but quickly the burgeoning feminist in me caused me to have a change of heart. However, as an avid defender of teenage girl culture I agree with these tweets for the most part.
Of course, there are a lot of people who don’t. John Green’s timeline is full of him responding to people who vehemently (and, for the most part, intelligently) disagree with him, mostly on the basis of the misogyny in Twilight. Which is a valid viewpoint - I don’t personally like Twilight myself, for a series of reasons that most definitely includes discomfort about Bella and Edward’s relationship.
I try not to make this blog too academic, but last semester I read Janice Radway’s fascinating essay “Reading is Not Eating: Mass-Produced Literature and the Theoretical, Methodological, and Political Consequences of a Metaphor”, and it applies to this too perfectly not to mention. Radway researched the audiences of romance novels (you know, cheap trade paperbacks with Fabio on the cover) in order to find what, exactly, their readers were getting out of them. Romance novels are, of course, generally looked down upon, and the intelligence of their readers is often questioned. The fact that romance is a heavily feminine genre is not a coincidence here.
What Radway found is that romance novels allow their readers to resist patriarchal hegemony in very slight ways. To begin with, they often collapse the registers between the male-dominated public sphere and the feminine private sphere, as male characters are drawn further into the private sphere and are often encouraged by the heroines to display more feminine traits (i.e. emotion). They’re also a form of socialization for their readers, who are mostly housewives: these readers often connect with other romance fans at conventions, book clubs, and the like. And, finally, Radway found that most romance readers use their reading time to escape the monotony of their everyday lives. Most of them spend the majority of their days deferring their needs to others and taking care of the house; romance novels give them an hour here and there to themselves, to shed their responsibilities as mothers and wives.
Are romance novels going to destroy the patriarchy? No, of course not. But what Radway found was that a pure textual analysis of these works simply doesn’t suffice when it comes to determining their impact on the everyday lives of people and on the larger scope of culture. In her audience analysis, she found that cultural texts that are often seen as unintelligent enforcers of patriarchy can, in small ways, actually allow their readers to challenge the patriarchal structures that dominate them.
I think it’s pretty clear that this can be applied to Twilight as well. As John Green says, millions of people have found comfort and inspiration in Twilight, I’d wager for similar reasons to Radway’s romance readers. Does that justify the uncomfortable undertones? No. But Stephenie Meyer didn’t invent misogyny. There’s a reason that we’re incredibly vitriolic and critical of Twilight while simultaneously teaching Shakespeare and Salinger.
Yes, there is room for criticism of Twilight. There are various relationship dynamics that are uncomfortable and should be scrutinized. But I think it’s hard to argue that part of the intense criticism Twilight has received isn’t, in part, motivated by misogyny, by a rabid cultural need to discredit the work of women created for women. Maybe one day we can direct the force of hatred towards Twilight at T.S. Eliot’s white male canon, which is still largely the determinant of what is taught in English classes. Perhaps if more of us had read texts by women, people of colour, and queer people in school, we wouldn’t have such a hard time accepting that a highly feminized cultural phenomenon could have worth beyond what we personally can see at first glance.
(To be clear: I know this is controversial. Make no mistake, Twilight is badly-written, with a flimsy plot, and there are undeniable misogynistic elements. I’m not a fan, and despite the above I’m conflicted about the series. But a pure textual analysis definitely doesn’t suffice when we’re talking about any cultural artifact, particularly one that has reached and moved such a vast number of people.)
(Also, I definitely disagree that we don’t have to read misogynistic power dynamics in the books, because I think they’re pretty clearly there. My point is that this doesn’t necessarily justify the response to the books, especially when we view it in terms of a very gendered critique.)
(Third set of brackets - you know I’m serious. I just want to mention that while I did focus specifically on Twilight in this post since that’s mainly what John Green was talking about, I believe his larger point was about critique of gendered cultural texts, which is why I was really pleased with these tweets. Twilight remains a particularly problematic and fraught example for me, but it’s nice to see people supporting what is, essentially, teenage girl culture, and attempting to look past the dominant textual critiques to understand why so many people find these texts valuable.)
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