Sunday, December 21, 2008

Highly Restricted Desire and the Absence of Living Otherwise in Twilight


I have two questions: How on earth did Stephanie Meyer manage to write a vampire saga that is so profoundly conservative? And why on earth are so many people obsessed with it?

I have an idea about the answers to both questions, of course, and they are both banal and disturbing. And I know that fan response is helped by the fact that, despite the often mediocre writing, there are moments when the stories are actually quite compelling.

But let me back up.

I like vampire stories. Partly I like them because I like a wide range of fantastic literature. But I like them specifically because of three elements they usually incorporate: They are usually about desire. They are usually about living otherwise. And they are often, though not quite so often, about self-loathing. These things interest me. They are difficult and profound and powerful and inescapable.

Stephanie Meyer is the author of the Twilight Saga. The first book in this saga, Twilight, was recently made into a feature film and it is through seeing that film that I first became aware of Meyer's work. Since then, the pull of escapist storytelling has felt a bit stronger than usual for me, so I've read three of the four novels in the series. They are big books but very, very quick reading.

The Movie

This was, as I said, my first taste. The basic story is that "Bella Swan" (played by Kristen Stewart) moves to a small town to live with her father. There is a coven of vampires in the town posing as a family, and some of the family members attend the local high school. This particular coven is unusual because they have given up drinking human blood, though they still intensely desire it, and they drink animal blood instead. Bella falls in love with one of these "vegetarian" vamps ("Edward Cullen", played by Robert Pattinson) and he falls in love back, much against his better judgment. Some other vampires come along and one gets very enthusiastic about killing Bella. Hijinx ensue, the day is saved, and they get to dance at the prom.

I shouldn't be so glib about the plot, I suppose, because the film does have its good parts. The long, slow build-up that takes up the first three-quarters of the movie is pretty good, while the action-filled conclusion is weak and feels poorly connected to the rest of the movie. Building the fantastic element of the world and building the emotional logic of the story happened in the first portion and, as far as Hollywood goes, weren't bad. But, as so often happens with movies in this genre, integrating that with the mandatory "monster-of-the-week" action and adventure component seemed arbitrary, haphazard, and lost the connection to the emotional base they spent so much time building. In that section, the reasoning behind shifts in plot and people's choices were not always clear.

However, the acting was decent. Pattinson, who also played "Cedric Diggory" in the Harry Potter movies, isn't bad, though one gets the sense that the ability of his idiosyncratic brand of hotness to make fourteen year-old straight girls (and their mothers) swoon was expected to make up for him not always being quite bang-on in the acting department. However, I've thought very highly of Stewart's acting skills since I saw her play Jodie Foster's daughter in Panic Room half a dozen years ago, and she didn't disappoint.

My other main objection to the movie was -- well, to be honest, I blamed it on Hollywood to begin with. As I described it to some friends after I'd seen the movie, it felt like too much was determined by some 40-something Hollywood producer's imaginings of what a fourteen year-old girl would think she'd be dreaming of when she was eighteen. Which is to say, desire -- intense desire -- but of a highly restricted and thoroughly conventional nature, culminating in a dance with the cute vampire boy at the prom.

So going back to my essential elements of vampire stories, this movie showed desire and it showed Edward with ample self-loathing, but what was missing was much of a sense of living otherwise.

The Books

Since seeing the movie I have read three of the four books. They aren't as much different from the movie as I was expecting. They have some compelling moments. At least at certain important points they do a good job of portraying Bella's emotional life in engaging and intense ways. However simplistic and limited the romance at their core, at times Meyer's is successful in hitting the right buttons (at least for readers not too turned off by other aspects of the text).

The writing is, as I said, often mediocre in some pretty basic ways. A lot of the book is conversations about feelings, pseudo-teenage banter, or exposition presented through dialogue. There are certainly many points where the dialogue itself is fine, occasionally even compelling. However, Meyer's range of 'beats' -- actions that serve as emotional illustration and as a sort of rhythmic punctuation to dialogue -- is narrow and stilted. Because of the differences in medium it isn't quite so pronounced, but the "monster of the week" stuff isn't the strongest thing in the books, either. And a number of characters that really should be better developed -- particularly vampire characters -- feel quite flat, represented by one or two character traits and behavioural quirks rather than three-dimensional in their own right.

But I'm not sure all of that matters. Schmalz, romantic melodrama, vampires, and mediocre writing are sometimes just what I'm in the mood for, and judging from the sales stats, that's true of a lot of people.

What concerns me more than the more technical limitations of the books is their very odd relationship to those three things that I consider essential ingredients for a vampire story, particularly the first two: desire and living otherwise.

Desire in vampire stories may or may not be directly written in ways that relate it to sexuality. Anne Rice's vampire novels hardly ever talk about sex, and even then it is in a curiously indirect way, yet every page is about desire. The figure of the vampire brings this because of the desire for blood, and often human desire for (or to be) the vampire. Twilight is no exception. In fact, within certain narrow bounds some of the ways that it shows desire are actually pretty interesting. That is, it shows Bella, a seventeen year-old woman, as experiencing intense desire and exhibiting agency around this desire. This desire is shown as risky and as overwhelming, yet the story never wavers from affirming her acting to fulfill this desire. Showing this sort of ownership and agency around desire for a young woman is a pretty important and interesting story element.

There's a 'but', though.

You see, as in the movie, there is a shocking absence of attention to living otherwise. Different vampire stories deal with this in very different ways, but it takes a great deal of effort on the part of the author to avoid dealing with it at all -- effort Meyer seems to have decided to expend. Inherent to the nature of most literary vampires is their status as outcasts and their intense, often violent desires. They do not have to follow human rules and they are, in many stories, ruled (or tormented) by passion. This opens a lot of space for exploring ways of being that are quite different from dominant human norms. Often human desire for/to be vampires is tied up not just in a wish to live forever but in desire to live otherwise.

In Twilight, a lot of what is interesting about Bella's intense desire and her agency in the service of realizing that desire becomes a lot less interesting once you realize that everything that is portrayed as legitimately desireable in this universe is entirely within quite conservative, conventional, norms. As in real life, women's desire is affirmed as long as it is desire for what she is told she should want anyway; other desires are refused, erased. The vampires she desires to join are wealthy, skinny, pretty white people with inhuman self-control. Sound familiar? Bella's desire is for the happily-ever-after, hetero, monogamous pair bond with the perfect boy that all young women are told they should desire. When she follows her treacherous body and pushes for sex now, her perfect boy not only insists on waiting (because once they pass a certain limit he might not be able to control himself and therefore might hurt her, dontchaknow) but pushes hard, hard, hard for marriage, of all things. When another boy she cares for enters the scene -- this one is a werewolf, and of course this is one of those vamp vs. wolf universes -- there is no hint of any way to deal with this in narrative except competition between two men who desire her and hate each other, with an ultimate one-and-only choice looming. (I do appreciate the ways in which Bella stands up to both of these boys at various points when they are being controlling jerks, though she rarely seems quite angry enough at them.) And not only is this the assumed and completely unchallenged model for the desire at the centre of the series, but it is shown as the only model. For all that they live collectively with found-and-made family, the existence of all of the "good" vampires is defined by eternal, hetero, monogamous pair-bonds that are shown as more basic, more fundamental, than anything else.

That is, queer desire, understood narrowly or broadly, is completely erased from this universe. Its existence is hinted at precisely once, right at the end of book three, largely as a source of discomfort for 'normal people,' and that's it.

I ask you, how vampiric is that? Pfui.

(I could digress at this point. There is a lot to say about race politics in the series, for instance. Indigenous people of the Quileute nation play a prominent role in the series. On the one hand, it is remarkable to find native people with a major part in white-authored mainstream fiction, and on a certain everyday level their portrayal is, as far as my limited white settler's eyes can tell, pretty good. On the other hand, there is definitely something about the role played by these characters in the story that reeks of what a friend of mine has described as the "magical Indian" stereotype. Even more troubling, the Quileute nation is a real nation in the Pacific northwest of the United States whose name and lands have been appropriated in a virtual sense by this white author for her own ends. And at heart, the position the Quileute characters hold in the series only makes narrative sense because of real histories of colonization and genocide, yet colonization and racism are left largely unnamed and unopposed in the books.)

Anyway. Back to desire. On a certain level, there is nothing mysterious about these choices by the author. Lots of people in North America identify as conservative, or do not identify that way but still highly value patterns of choices around sexuality and desire that are very restricted and oppressive. Publishing exists to make money, and people most often buy what makes them comfortable. So the liberal response to those observations and to my concerns isn't completely invalid: if I don't like it, I shouldn't read it, and leave it to those with different tastes and opinions.

I think it goes a bit deeper than that, though, and I don't feel it is illegitimate for me to be disturbed by the popularity of this series. As I understand it, in each of our lives there is a sort of ongoing exchange among our bodies and the discursive and material social factors that regulate our lives. This exchange shapes our experiences of desire and shapes even more strongly how these experiences get edited into our actual practices and our narratives of our selves. Flickers, flashes, images, impulses surprise us, challenge us to grow, make us blush, make us hot, make us fear ourselves or jolt us into charging forward into uncharted but welcome ecstasy. Yet we reflexively deny, erase, blot out many of those flashes and flickers, even in the privacy of our own mind and even before we are fully conscious of them. Overwhelmingly, our impulses, our passions, the reactions of our bodies don't fit naturally into rigid boxes, though a certain amount of the social shaping of desire happens even at this level. I think an active editing process is necessary for us to fit into those boxes, and this process constantly erases bits of ourselves so that we fit. At times we resist and resent this editing, this erasure; at other times we are enthusiastically complicit.

The point isn't so much which specific avenues for desire this series endorses or fails to endorse that bothers me as its enthusiastic support for self-editing of those chaotic impulses to precisely fit the definitions by powerful interests that seek to control our lives. What I am disturbed by is the implication of the popularity of a series that so emphatically is about putting desire into very rigid conventional boxes and what that says about the power of the enforced and embraced erasure of parts of self, that deadening of possibility, of imagination, by so many young people. Of course, I realize that youthful desire is delightfully resistant to constraint, and many who pick up this book with full approval of conservative, queer-hatin', patriarchal parents will take it up in ways that further their own becoming and rebellion, whatever the most obvious messaging might be. Yet I remain concerned. The social relations through which we are ruled function in powerful ways through mobilizing shame, especially sexual shame, even in areas not obviously connected to sexuality. By affirming for so many people the most acceptable directions and expressions of desire and erasing the rest, Twilight reinforces rather than challenges that shame, and so reinforces those mechanics of ruling. It is also a missed opportunity for enriching our public narratives and practices around liberatory, anti-oppressive desire -- we often do not know we desire something until we encounter it and our public cultures of desire are so warped and oppressive, every loss of possibility in that area is something to be mourned. And I think part of the point of the powerful training we receive in limiting our imaginations in this specific area is about training us more generally out of expansive imagination and the expectation that our actions can create better lives and a better world in all spheres of existence.

As always, it is not that simple. Safety is also an issue. I like how strongly supportive the stories are of Bella making her own choices about safety, even in the face of overprotective men and of concerns about very real dangers. But I suspect part of the attraction to this series for many young women is that Edward, a few instances of being controlling "for her own good" aside, is a profoundly decent man. Sure, there is something disturbing about the blurring between "decent" and "conservative," about how "decent" is not defined by mutual negotiation of mutual deisre (though this begins to change in the third book) but rather by him repressing his own desires and effectively ignoring her articulations of hers. That is, a good man is one that stops you from making bad choices in the heat of the moment even if that means imposing his will on you. However, this is also a product of the profound ambivalence, risk, constant danger, and quotidian exasperation of women desiring men in the context of patriarchal social relations. That is, him not being a jerk is so profoundly desireable to many young women-who-desire-men reading Twilight precisely because so many of us are jerks in real life. Or, to be a bit more accurate, because so many of us who can identify as gender privileged and not-conservative also do not take very seriously in our everyday and collective practices the experiences of lack of safety and lack of power that for so many young people make desires that do not have high levels of social approval unthinkable, inexpressable, for very understandable reasons.

So. Obviously, I would prefer if my intense teenage vampire melodrama romance stuff had better writing and way better politics. But Twilight has still managed to draw me in at moments, even if it insists on spitting me back out a few moments later. And the fact of its intense popularity means the text has a lot to teach us, whatever its flaws.



melanie said...

I enjoyed reading the books but the more I think about them the more I would not recommend them to teenage girls - I think the relationship between Bella and Edward is a little too intense and obsessive. On one hand I can kind of see where Meyers is going with the whole "one person for me forever" thing because she is a Mormon but as a non-Mormon I wouldn't want any daughter of mine to think that life begins and ends with one dude. Just a personal opinion.

Scott said...

Hi Melanie...yeah, I can definitely see that. She skillfully sidestepped too much criticism for the you-or-death theme at the centre of Book 2 by pointing emphatically and repeatedly to Romeo & Juliet, but just because you have predecessors with literary street cred doesn't make suicidal obsession with one person any less dangerous an idea.

Scott said...

Just reread this. Note to self: reduce usage of word "profound" and derivatives.

Sorry about that, readers.