Fangirls and Fantasies: Why we Love to Hate Twilight3 June 2021
It’s 2008: the era of galaxy-print leggings and Club Penguin. The radio incessantly plays Katy Perry’s ‘I Kissed A Girl’ and ‘Viva La Vida’ by Coldplay. Lounging on your bed after school, you flip through the glossy pages of Seventeen magazine, fanatically poring over the pale, golden-eyed Robert Pattinson and the bashful Kristen Stewart.
Adapted from the novel of the same name by Stephanie Meyer, Twilight tells the story of Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart), a teenage girl who moves to the rainy town of Forks and falls in love with the mysterious and brooding vampire Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson). Directed by Catherine Hardwicke, Twilight boasts some stunning cinematography. Hardwicke constructs a visually dynamic film, submerging scenes in a dreamy, grey-blue filter and creating memorable shots, such as one where a pair of owl’s wings are positioned carefully behind Edward to symbolise his status as a ‘fallen angel’. The soundtrack is unironically masterful, featuring songs like ‘Decode’ by Paramore and ‘Roslyn’ by Bon Iver (Twilight-themed karaoke night? Sign me up!). The audience cannot help but fall in love with the eccentric cast of characters, including Edward’s whimsical adoptive sister Alice Cullen (Ashley Greene) and resident DILF Charlie Swan (Billy Burke).
Twilight has always been divisive in its reception, and the criticisms against it are valid, especially in relation to its troubling, anti-feminist messages. It is not a technically sublime film, but the obsessive ‘fangirl’ craze it created, and its ability to attract such a long-standing female audience, is perhaps a success in itself.
The awkward and restrained acting of the burgeoning Kristen Stewart, which was so shamelessly criticised, is simultaneously the reason why many girls first fell in love with Twilight. Bella represented the jumbling confusion of becoming a young woman, caught in a relatable whirl of divorced parents, moving schools and finding friends. She symbolised the uncomfortable awareness of being an outsider that everyone stumbles upon whilst growing up. She is characterised as so abundantly average, not unrealistically beautiful or smart, allowing young girls to project themselves onto her approachable image.
Unfortunately, Bella is not the most shining role model, displaying a chilling subservience to her boyfriend. Her every action and emotion is controlled by Edward. This unsettling power dynamic is only made worse by the unflinching age gap between the infantilised 17-year-old Bella, and the 104-year-old Edward Cullen. The franchise also espouses harmful notions of paedophilia and racism that are often worryingly brushed aside. Like me, many fans were introduced to the film at a young and impressionable age, where one has a bubbling desire to learn absolutely everything about the world, but also lacks significant critical awareness towards what is being learned. Portraying such damaging stereotypes suggests to easily susceptible audiences that these ideas are acceptable. This becomes especially complicated when the fanbase tends to form such close, personal relationships with these fictional characters, and thus cannot disentangle their idolisation with the disingenuous storylines and fallacious ideas being presented.
However, much of this criticism was also used to vehemently attack younger girls for their adoration of the franchise. How could you love something so wrong? The real question is: how could we have known any better as children? And yet, there is a continuing habit to vilify popular art because its fanbase is dominated by girls. The consistent “still a better love story than Twilight” phrase that was smacked on every other franchise, from Harry Potter to The Hunger Games, created both a rivalry against, and an air of superiority over, the ‘sparkling vampire’ film. A similar phenomenon was simultaneously taking place against mainstream boy bands like One Direction, where the desire to appear cool in the eyes of men resulted in the “I’m not like other girls” pedagogy. I fell for it, in some ways feeling superior because I listened to ‘Centuries’ by Fall Out Boy and scoffed when ‘Night Changes’ began playing.
You can witness this misogynistic dichotomy in the reaction to Transformers, which was released in 2007, not long before Twilight. Featuring the tall, scantily dressed Megan Fox, and showcasing fiery explosions, it catered perfectly to the heterosexual male fantasy. The imaginings of young boys playing with toy cars in their childhood bedrooms had excitedly morphed into reality. Like Twilight, the plot development and writing were subpar. Yet it never received the same degree of vitriolic hatred.
Media that caters to women’s desires, and attracts a predominantly female audience, is constantly criticised because it refuses to limit itself to what the patriarchy considers as having artistic value. Twilight is a film that speaks unapologetically to many a teenage girl’s idealistic fantasies, those not based in tangible reality but thrilling to passively dream about nonetheless. After all, would it not be perfect to be charmed and serenaded by an enigmatic 20th-century vampire? I know I wouldn’t complain. It is troubling to realise that women are constantly caught within the crossfire of baseless attacks against essentially harmless obsessions, simply because the patriarchy has decided these interests are frivolous. In a world where young girls are constantly pressured to mature faster than their male counterparts, partaking in such misaligned, juvenile fantasies rebels against the burden of suffocating female responsibility. And carving out a space that outwardly refuses male influence is in some ways a startling reclamation of womanhood. Fans can attest to its jilted plot and storytelling, but perhaps we should just let Twilight be bad, simply to feel good.
However, the ‘Twilight Renaissance’ heralded by TikTok last year allowed fans old and new to re-envision the film. Some located queer perspectives in the pairing of characters such as Bella and Alice, or used the opportunity to educate fans on the Native American traditions that had been disregarded in the original text. Even the reawakened successes of Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart, who has since come out as queer, further allowed fans to reject the film’s problematic underpinnings and create more open, discursive and free interpretations. Radically, a decade after its release, liking Twilight isn’t embarrassing anymore. It’s welcomed.
My younger self, dressed as a vampire for my primary school’s Halloween disco, with plastic fangs that hung awkwardly across crooked teeth, hoping to brush shoulders with my own Edward Cullen, will forever be grateful to Twilight. For two solid hours of bedazzled vampires, thunderous baseball (the only form of sport I’ll ever watch) and carnivorous babies, it helped me escape my looming fears of growing older. Cinematic masterpiece, indeed.