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'Twilight's' Gray-Area Messages Amplify Allure

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Part of the draw of the "Twilight" series is that its messages about gender, race, class and sexuality are as unstable as the character Bella's moods, says Natalie Wilson in her book "Seduced by Twilight." An excerpt examining the saga's popularity.

Subhead: 
Part of the draw of the "Twilight" series is that its messages about gender, race, class and sexuality are as unstable as the character Bella's moods, says Natalie Wilson in her book "Seduced by Twilight." An excerpt examining the saga's popularity.





(WOMENSENEWS)--The "Twilight" saga is popular by any standard, breaking best-seller lists and sales ranks the world over. In regards to explaining the allure of the series we might ask, to put it in the terms of "Twilight" fans, what makes someone a "Twi-hard" or a "Twi-addict"?

While the popularity of "Twilight" is usually traced to the mysterious romance at the series' core, the way the saga is centered around Bella's choice to become a vampire certainly also appeals to contemporary readers schooled in the rhetoric of female empowerment.

Arguing that the series' messages about gender, race, class, sexuality and belief are as unstable as Bella's moods, this book explores the contradictory messages of "Twilight," a series that presents neither a subversive nor a conservative view of larger social contexts, but is an ambiguous mixture of both. This vacillation is precisely why the saga appeals to such a varied readership.

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The cultural championing of choosing abstinence, the continuing sexualization of women and girls, the backlash against feminism, the bolstering of certain types of masculinity, the political and religious turn to the right, the exhortation to be consumer citizens--all of these are important social contexts that further foster "Twilight's" appeal and make it, to use a popular Twi-ism, as addictive as heroin.

Old-Fashioned Messages

Most of the messages in the saga are rather old-fashioned, encouraging the largely female fan base to head back to the kitchen. The series speaks for the likes of Glenn Beck, who told Sarah Palin to "make him some stew." Yet, some of the textual strands are transgressive, suggesting that religious and cultural mores of sexuality and gender are too strict. Others imply that some of the more delimiting aspects of the current culture--namely, the abstinence-only imperative, the cult of beauty and the sexualization of women and the violence done to them--are acceptable.

This textual vacillation not only can be traced to the author's status as a female Mormon, but also is indicative of contemporary American culture. We are a society that cannot quite make up its mind about our principles and beliefs. We are Puritanical devotees dedicated to hard work and morality and simultaneous crazed consumer gluttons driven by desires for the perfect body, the perfect product, the newest gadget. Neither can we make up our minds about gender, sexuality, race and class. We are a "post-racial" society obsessed with race and ethnicity, a "post-feminist" society trying to roll back women's rights, a "secular" society fanatical about religion.

Bella, in particular, embodies cultural inconsistencies with regard to gender; she speaks to our culture's rampant sexualization of females on the one hand and obsession with abstinence and purity on the other. Our cultural fascination with "MILFs," "cougars" and "hot moms" also takes fictional form in "Twilight." In the fandom, this translates into a bevy of "Twilight Moms" who are just as much (or more) smitten with the series than their daughters.

Product, Reaction to Trends

The claims that our society is "post-racial" and "post-feminist" are tidily fictionalized in a world in which vampires, werewolves and humans get along and battles for gender equality need not be fought. Emerging at a cultural moment colored by conservative politics and religion, by consumer capitalism and the explosion of Internet culture, "Twilight" is both a product of and a reaction to these trends.

Yet, problematically, the series champions rather conventional notions of gender, sexuality, race, class and belief. It focuses obsessively on true love, a focus that also romanticizes violence, polices female sexuality and promotes abstinence. It is imbued with racialized representations that do not take white privilege or racism to task.

The saga offers an uncritical (even glowing or--more aptly--sparkling) depiction of patriarchal capitalism. It upholds norms in relation not only to gender and class, but also body and beauty, giving the message that youth and physical attractiveness should be pursued at all costs. It is underpinned by an unspoken but pervasive religious subtext, one shaped by the Mormonism of the author specifically and our cultural turn to the religious right more generally.

The saga, much like any text, is neither wholly regressive nor progressive, neither all positive nor all problematic. More to the point, to ignore its cultural impact or write it off dismissively as "just a girl thing" not only would participate in the sexism that still shapes wider culture, but also would deny us the opportunity to discover how, why and to what end we are seduced by "Twilight."

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Natalie Wilson is a literature and women's studies professor. In addition to writing the book "Seduced by Twilight," she runs the Seduced by Twilight blog, Professor What if . . . ?, and guest posts regularly at Ms. Magazine Blog, Girl with Pen and Womanist Musings. She can be booked for guest appearances and lecturers via Aid and Abet. Follow Natalie Wilson on Twitter @seducedbytwi, @drnataliewilson and @professorwhatif.

For more information:

Seduced by Twilight:
http://www.powells.com/partner/34289/biblio/9780786460427?p_ti

Natalie Wilson's website:
http://www.nataliewilsonphd.wordpress.com

"Breaking Dawn: Part 1--An Anti-Abortion Message in a Bruised-Apple Package," Ms. blog:
http://msmagazine.com/blog/blog/2011/11/17/breaking-dawn-part-1an-anti-abortion-message-in-a-bruised-apple-package/comment-page-1/#comment-43562