In November 2011, when we were still undergoing the labor of love that was the 12-post deconstruction on Chapter 5, mmy was kind enough to send me a link to this Cracked article. And as much as I wanted to smile and laugh and nod, I found myself frowning and sighing and frustrated. Which was, of course, why mmy was kind enough to send the link in the first place: it cries out for a deconstruction post. And I've thought about this post literally every week between then and now. So now I want to take a moment and talk about Twilight and Allies and Misogyny and oh so many other things.
I don't like Twilight. I don't like it for its pacing and idiosyncratic writing style, including some of the more confusing (for me) shifts from past and present tense. I don't like it for its narrative, being a largely tension-free (for me) story about two people I don't care about getting together and staying in a relationship whilst beset on all sides by almost no resistance at all. And I don't like it for a lot of its problematic content, most notably the racism and racial appropriation within, but also for the misogyny on the page.
And I do think that Twilight, as a novel, has misogynistic aspects. I don't think they were intended as such, and I do think a reader can interpret them differently than I do, but I still see the FedEx arrows. I see misogyny in the interactions between Bella and Charlie, as her father tries to tightly control her virginity and blames Bella for her own sexual assault at the hands of Jacob, even offering to arrest his own daughter for defending herself. I see misogyny in the interactions between Bella and Edward, as her boyfriend tries to tightly control her virginity and continually behaves in violent, abusive ways toward her, even going so far as to sabotage her car to keep her where he wants her. I see misogyny in the interactions between Bella and the text, as the narrative continually portrays her as childish, worthless, and infantile for asserting her own feelings of protest at these bad behaviors. Twilight has serious, serious problems on the misogyny scale.
Which is ironic, because in some ways a bestselling novel written by a woman author and with a largely female readership can in some ways be seen to contain some elements of feminism. It's already been pointed out here several times that if you live in a highly oppressive Patriarchy, Bella's story has elements of feminism in the "best I can hope for" sense. Bella doesn't get a rewarding career and become president of the United States, but if she must have a teen marriage and a patriarchal family structure and a child, she at least gets eternal beauty, a gorgeous-and-rich-and-utterly-enthralled husband, and she gets a baby that has the decency to grow into a cute toddler in a matter of days and can communicate her wishes magically without having to bawl all the time. And that may not be feminism in the traditional sense, but it can be seen as containing a seed of subversion. Maybe. If you squint at it just right and hold your tongue just so.
And all this makes deconstructing Twilight an utterly interesting and totally unique experience! Because the culture it's coming from and in turn both subverting and reinforcing is so tricky to analyze! It's so very, very complicated. And I find it interesting and thought-provoking and rewarding. And I hope you do too.
But there's something I've noticed since starting on this Twilight journey and it's this: Not everyone who also doesn't like Twilight is necessarily my ally. And I've broken out this little chart to demonstrate.
Now we come back to the Cracked article. And I feel like the Cracked article wants to be my ally. The author seems to be aware that feminism exists, and they seem to understand that misogyny is something that feminists care about. I mean, they've got the word "misogynistic" right there in the article:
[Edward] So, the next generation of young women are currently flocking to see a female lead starring in a movie by a female director based on a bestselling book by a female author, and in this movie the main character wants to become completely submissive and self-sacrificing for a male.
[Bella] I love you. Put a baby in me.
[Edward] At least the other three books can't possibly be more misogynistic and depressing.
See? Right there in that last line they mention misogyny. And I really think they're trying to understand what that word means, and not just use it as a red flag to try to co-opt the term and look Really Truly Feminist. Though if I were going to enumerate all the reasons why Twilight is misogynistic, I frankly wouldn't start with self-sacrifice and submission which I consider to be largely neutral concepts that can be applied for great good or great evil depending on the author. But my point is that I feel like the author was trying, and I want to hand out cookies for that.
But I can't.
I can't give out cookies for this article, nor for about a quadzillion other online articles on Twilight, because no mater how feminist an author thinks they're being, they're not a feminist ally if they think this is something useful and valid to sink into an article:
[Bella] Wow. I guess this is what it looks like when the unpopular fat girl's pathetic daydreams get written down and published into a bestselling book.
[Edward] Sounds like textbook daddy issues, you fat cow.
[Edward] You have a bright career as a stripper ahead of you.
[Edward] Holy shit, you're a clingy psychotic bitch. Maybe we have a realistic high school relationship after all.
Whooooooops! Haha, that is not actually how feminism and good-allyship works!
The strangest thing about disliking Twilight is not that I'm not alone: as bestselling as the books are, there are plenty of people both online and in real life who dislike the books. (I've actually found that it's safer to volunteer a dislike of Twilight in a crowd than a like of it. At least in the crowds I travel in.) No, the strangest thing about disliking Twilight is that when I look around at the people in this varied and complex group of Dislikers of Twilight, I see people who make me uncomfortable.
Twilight is a franchise written by a woman to a perceived audience of women. It's permeated with a female gaze: the female protagonist goes almost wholly undescribed in terms of her physical body (itself a possibly subversive act of writing, given how often female characters -- as written by male authors -- are expected to be constantly aware of the size, shape, movement, and current condition of their breasts), but the male love interest is lovingly described, page after page, with ever-increasing superlative praise and adoration. It's not a book that cares to cater to the heterosexual male gaze, and seems perfectly happy to exclude that audience entirely.
A good many women are accustomed to being excluded from popular franchises, but it would seem that a good many men are not. And some of those men -- not as many as one might fear, but far more than one might expect -- react with astonishing and almost personal aggression to the Twilight franchise, its fans, and its author in the face of that deliberate exclusion. There is a great deal of difference between pointing out valid criticisms with a series, and using those criticisms as a jumping off point for spewing misogyny at women who dare to create things (yes, even problematic things) for the enjoyment of other women.
It's a valid criticism of Twilight that the warm reception for Bella at the Forks High School subverts usual literary expectations of tension; it is not valid criticism to use that to cast body judgment on an author or her fan base. It's valid criticism of Twilight that Bella's pursuit of Edward despite his violent and abusive tendencies is unhealthy and not something that should be presented as desirable behavior; it is not valid criticism to use that to subject the author or her fan base to dismissive armchair psychology or to rudely reinforce the stereotype that exotic dancers don't choose their careers based on preference or monetary needs but because there is something psychologically different about them. It's valid criticism of Twilight that Bella's insistence on being with Edward in total disregard for her own safety is behavior that would be recklessly dangerous were the book anything other than a fantasy; it is not valid criticism to take that as an opportunity to throw around a sexism term nor to imply that typical high school girls are mentally ill and unworthy of respect.
I don't feel like this should be hard to see and yet... apparently for some people it is. I feel like it would be self-evident that if one is going to address misogyny in an artistic work, one should make an attempt to keep misogyny out of the rebuttal. No one is perfect, of course, but surely this? Should not be hard to see. The language is so obvious and over-the-top offensive that it's difficult for me to believe that the author simply couldn't see it.
And I find myself wondering. Because there seems to be a certain breed of "ally" who simply isn't. They know the words, and sometimes it feels like they understand the concepts, but then you have this huge gaping hole of fail where, for example, an article that calls out a series for misogyny revels in the excuse to throw around terms like "fat cow" and "psychotic bitch". And then when I give the article a Stern Look, I can almost hear it saying back to me: What? It's not like Cracked is endorsing those terms! That's just what Bella and Edward are saying, if Twilight was really honest! It's practically Stephenie Meyer's fault that this Cracked article really exists! Not ours, certainly. Now go away and let us say "psychotic bitch" again. *snerk*
This isn't allyship. Maybe it could be, I don't know. I want to feel like half the battle is done -- the author knows that misogyny exists and even sort of gives lip-service to the concept -- but the other half, the setting down the Privilege and actually listening to why one's behavior is offensive, and then being willing to make the effort to change that behavior simply because it's uncool to be a jackwagon who goes around perpetuating hurtful patriarchal norms and hurting people's feelings? That part is hard. And as long as someone is dancing around feeling like a good ally for the easy stuff (i.e., shooting the problematic fish in the barrel that is Twilight) while giggling gleefully at the latest excuse to ignore the hard stuff (i.e., not using sexist slurs to refer to a woman author and her fan base), I'm not sure there's a lot of time left for self-reflection on why all that righteous anger being leveled at the Twilight franchise might be better invested sometime at looking into one's own writing.
Because I want this author, and others like him, to be my ally. Really. But I can't consider them that until they stop talking about misogyny in others and start addressing it in their own selves.