Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Meaning of the Twilight Craze

Stephenie Meyer's The Twilight Saga has become a significant cultural phenomenon. Teenage girls go crazy over these poorly written books*. They write an incredible number of reviews for these books on Amazon. They create fan-sites and write fan-fiction. They make movies based on the series an instant hit. They go crazy over this - I'm sorry, I have to be blunt - rubbish. So why do so many young girls become fans of The Twilight Saga? Why all the Twilight craze?

For me, this is a particularly interesting question because The Twilight Saga is a female Bildungsroman**, which has been my main research interest for a while. A Bildungsroman is a story of growth and development of a young character, a story of coming into one's own, becoming an adult. Dickens's David Copperfield is a Bildungsroman. So are Dreiser's An American Tragedy, Bronte's Jane Eyre, Stendhal's The Red and the Black, Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, and many others.

When female Bildungsroman came into existence and began to flourish in the XIXth century, it concentrated on exploring how the patriarchal society forced women to stunt their growth, to grow "down" instead of growing up (to use the apt terminology introduced by Annis Pratt.) In order to be accepted by their societies, women were forced to infantilize themselves, to resign themselves to never becoming fully mature. The entire history of this genre is the story of women struggling against the society's attempts to infantilize them and, for the most part, failing.

In the 1970ies, when women's rights movements achieved so much, critics and readers of female Bildungsromane expected that now, finally, novels of female development will talk of actual growth, of women exploring their newly found options, making their own choices, and enjoying the same wide range of growth-related experiences as the protagonists of male Bildungsromane.

Contrary to these expectations, a massive appearance of these female Bildungsromane that would celebrate women's choices, growth and development never came about. In reality, the exact opposite took place. The genre began producing an ever-growing number of novels that concentrate on women refusing to grow up, infantilizing themselves of their own free will (and not because of any societal expectations or demands) and asserting their right not to grow, not to become adults, not to make their own choices. Often, these female Bildungsromane experiment with the Gothic genre. This happens because the theme of fear (fear of the world of adults, of a complex reality awaiting them when they grow up) can be explored very productively within the Gothic genre. So it is not surprising that Stephenie Meyer decided to bring vampires into the mix. The constant sense of dread, of danger that Bella Swan experiences is symbolic of the terror that she feels at the unwelcome prospect of coming into her own. Like so many of the heroines of these new Bildungsromane, she delegates all responsibility for her life to a man.

At the dawn of this genre, female characters were often forced into marriage and childbirth at an early age. They realized how limited their life choices were and struggled to find some opportunities for growth, to escape their stultifying environment. Not so the contemporary heroine Bella Swan. Unlike - to give just one example - Jane Eyre who longs to "reach the busy world, towns, regions full of life I had heard of but never seen", Bella has every opportunity to carve out a life of her own filled with personal achievements of pretty much any kind. But she chooses not to. She elects the very lifestyle that her predecessors of 150 years ago struggled to avoid. At a very young age, she gives herself over to a man so that he can possess her, impregnate her, and integrate her into his clan. As if that were not enough, she makes sure that her daughter is integrated into this very patriarchal existence from an early age of six.

Today's female Bildungsroman is very often a story of women choosing never to grow up and defending passionately (and often violently) their right to eternal immaturity. The enormous popularity of The Twilight Saga shows that this narrative of voluntary female self-infantilization resonates with many young women. In my book (which is now under review at a publishing house), I analyze this phenomenon as it takes place in the contemporary Spanish literature. The Twilight craze demonstrates that it is not limited to Europe. Now we have a very similar development here in the US.

* This is probably the only positive consequence of the Twilight craze. Hey, at least these kids will find out that reading exists and that it's supposed to be an enjoyable activity. Of course, the question immediately arises whether it is better to read rubbish than to read nothing at all.

** When I speak of female Bildungsromane, I mean novels written by women about women.


eric said...

I ran across a book a while back by Oxford Literary Critic Alan Kirby called "Digimodernism: How New Technologies Dismantle the Postmodern and Reconfigure Our Culture." He dedicates a chapter (or so) to the "narrative of endlessness," and there he elucidates the emergence of movie serials with no apparent conclusion and with fantastic themes, which advocate for decidedly atavistic values. Post-post-modernity, he indicates, is marked by a mass culture of infantile regression and conformity. But the backlash against feminism has been 30 years in the making, and culminates in Palin being paraded now as a feminist figure. Bella's predicament reminds me of the old lyric by Devo (a band with much to say on infantile regression, and whose running theme of human "devolution" is more pungent today than it was 30 years ago): "Freedom of choice is what you got/Freedom from choice is what you want."

D.N. said...

When IS your book coming out? I'm intrigued by your take on the topic.

NancuyP said...

Feminist science fiction is one genre that produces female bildungsromans.

Brianna said...

Women ARE allowed to fall in love and get married without being accused of psychosis. I have never figured out why the Left thinks that the only option they simply CANNOT tolerate is a traditional marriage. As a woman in a male-dominated field, I am obviously just find with women who pursue non-traditional careers, but at least I don't automatically sneer at someone and assume they're wasting their lives when they tell me they want to get married and have kids. Somebody has to have kids, and they're not going to shack you up with someone and chain you in the kitchen, so how about you just lay off once in a while, K?

Clarissa said...

Erm. . . what was this all about?

You do know that you are commenting on the blog of a woman who is in love and married (to the man she is in love with), right? :-) :-)

Clarissa said...

I tremble to ask. . . have you even read the books under discussion? Do you believe that marrying off your child at the age of 6 (six) is a good idea? If not, then what are you so angry about? Don't you think that it's not very intelligent to express opinions before you even figured out the topic that's being discussed?