Twilight: A Pretty Package with Nothing Inside

Inherently entangled within every society is the dichotomy of the majority versus the minority, the voice of one speaking against the voice of many. When viewed within a cultural context, this subversive opposition to the normative authority of mainstream society is embodied by the presence of subcultures whereby the attitudes and values of the dominant culture are questioned, challenged, and ultimately reborn within a revolving, symbiotic process.

Subcultures represent groups whose dissatisfaction with the status quo of a given society’s model of social hierarchy allow them to reflect the social anxieties of their generation, transcending the boundaries of assigned roles such as race, class, gender, and sexuality while promoting new forms of individualism which unite those of mutual belief, style, and consumer consumption under a shared identity. The Twilight phenomenon embodies the perfect, contemporary example of a subculture’s ability to unite and mirror the social woes inherent in the dominant society. Through a blending of Hebdige’s theory of subcultural meaning and style along Hodkinson’s work on subcultural substance, the superficiality of aesthetic appeal inherent within themes of Twilight reveals society’s fixation on physical beauty and sexual enthrallment.

Twilight mania has gripped contemporary culture with an iron fist, growing beyond the confines of a simple fandom into a subculture. Stephanie Meyer’s star-crossed romance between an ordinary teenage girl and a mysterious, brooding vampire has pervaded every aspect of media entertainment, culminating in popularity that rivals and, indeed, extends beyond the Harry Potter experience. The series’ heroine, Bella Swan, a 16-year-old with divorced parents, goes to live with her father in the small town of Forks, Wash. (a real place, and now a destination for fans).

At school, she observes four members of a fabulously good-looking and wealthy but standoffish family, the Cullens; later she finds herself seated next to Edward Cullen in a biology lab and is rendered nearly speechless by his spectacular beauty. At first, he appears to loathe her, but after a protracted period of bewilderment and dithering, she discovers the truth. Edward and his clan are vampires who have committed themselves to spare human life; they call themselves “vegetarians.” The scent of Bella’s blood is excruciatingly appetizing to Edward, testing his ethical limits and eventually his emotional ones, too. The pair fall in love, and the three books detail the ups and downs of this interspecies romance, which is complicated by Bella’s friendship with Jacob Black, a member of a pack of Native American werewolves who are the sworn enemies of all vampires.

Since publication, the four-book saga: Twilight, New Moon, Eclipse, and Breaking Dawn which sold over 42 million copies worldwide on its release date last August, have held the top four slots in USA Today’s list of best selling novels for one hundred twenty-seven weeks straight and has been translated into thirty-seven different languages (hisgoldeneyes). The Twilight craze grew to epic proportions with the release of the film adaptation November 2008 which grossed over $70 million. In reaction to the film, the internet exploded with fan sites, forums, web-blogs devoted to gathering all information on the cast and crew while counting down the days until the film hit theaters (hisgoldeneyes).

Summit Entertainment Studios in conjunction with the punk clothing store, Hot Topic, released a lucrative line of fashion apparel based upon the film. Paparazzi photos and magazines articles have catapulted the young film stars, Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart, into full celebrity status. Popular phrases such as “my brand of heroin” (Meyer 268) and O.M.E., Oh My Edward, (instead of oh my god) have become mainstream. Men are reading Twilight to understand women (Artimaeus). Mothers are using the books to approach topics of sexual intercourse with their adolescent daughters (Dalfonzo). Even aspiring music groups have written Twilight based songs (hisgoldeneyes).

While the impact of Twilight upon the mainstream society is apparent, the motivations behind the development of this subculture are not. In examining why the Twilight fandom has been transformed into a subculture, first the principles of what defines a subculture must be addressed. According to Dick Hebdige, a subculture is representative of an unnatural break, a disorderly rupture from the social and aesthetic conventions of the dominant, mainstream society (Hebdige 587). These subcultures must share a common identity and must be unified under a common language.

In order to attain this shared commonality amongst group members, Hebdige argues through his representation of the Punk movement of the1970s, that subcultures possess styles formed through bricolage: the process of taking one insignia, stripping it of its conventional meaning, and applying to it to a new label. A subculture’s bricolage is understood through the concept of homology which “describes the symbolic fit between the values and lifestyles of a group,” (Hebdige 593). In relation to Twilight, the group’s core ideology, homology, is the superficial indulgences of what has been termed the cult of Edward Cullen; its bricolage is the apple insignia once indicative of the temptation of Eve and now is representative of Bella’s choice to love Edward, “the forbidden fruit,” of Meyer’s fantasy world.

Further research, which elaborated upon Hebdige’s defining characteristics of subcultures, was developed by Paul Hodkinson in his work upon the subcultural substance. Subcultural substance, originally created to account for the emergence of the Goth Scene of the early 1980s, is a re-worked consensus of subcultural theory adopted by the Centre of the Contemporary Cultural Studies; Hodkinson hypothesized that there are four indicators of a subculture: consistent distinctiveness, shared identity, commitment, and autonomy. In the analysis of the Twilight craze, Hodkinson’s indicators are quite noticeably apparent. The collective distinctiveness is represented throughout the diverse female population who identify with the protagonist, Bella Swan- shy girls and popular girls, girls who meet the standards of beauty within the mainstream society and those who do not.

Twilight unites all types of women, the young and the adult alike are all connected with the shared identity of being obsessed with Edward Cullen and the realm of Twilight. The commitment of the self-proclaimed ‘Twilighters’ is visible with one click of a mouse: fan message boards, fanfiction, fan sites of the characters and actors are updated daily., the number one ranking fansite devoted to Twilight, receives hourly updates where fans can access the autobiography of the author, see videos of interviews and news articles of the stars of the movie, book reviews of all four installments, be supplied with playlists of music which have the moods and themes of twilights, take part in fan discussions on the books and film, post and/or read fiction, and even shop for clothes, jewelry, or accessories containing Twilight designs created by fans for fans. The autonomy of consumer consumption may have been hindered by the participation of the commercialized giant, Hot Topic, but fans continue to operate within and outside the mainstream markets to supply their fellow peers with all sorts of Twilight apparel. The homology entangled within the Twilight subculture is the ideology which fuels the cult of Edward Cullen.

“Some imaginary worlds multiply, spinning themselves out into ever more elaborate constructs. Twilight retracts; it finds its voluptuousness in the hypnotic reduction of its attention to a single point: the experience of being loved by Edward Cullen. Edward, not Bella, is the key to the Twilight franchise, the thing that fans talk about when explaining their fascination with the books.” (Miller).

Despite being written from Bella’s point of view, it is Edward that motivates fans’ obsessive behavior; the appeal of Twilight is the appeal of Edward, the appeal of the ideal man, and his love for Bella.  This appeal centers around two points: The first is that the entirety of the fan-base is almost exclusively female and thus, because the story unfolds from Bella’s eyes, the reader drawn into Bella’s narcotic, addictive obsession over Edward. Essentially, the story is designed to have the reader identify with Bella and yearn for Edward. Also, Bella “is purposely made as featureless and ordinary as possible in order to render her a vacant, flexible skin into which the reader can insert herself and thereby vicariously enjoy Edward’s chilly charms” (Miller). The second basis for Edward’s appeal is his perfection. You’re good at everything,” Bella often sighs dreamily (Meyer), and it’s true. Edward has super speed, strength, and reflexes. He can play and compose music, has two degrees from Harvard, drives fast cars, read’s people’s minds, and most importantly will sacrifice himself for the woman he loves.

However, there exists a darker side to Bella’s and by extension society’s attraction to Edward; his appeal is utterly tainted by aesthetic vanity. Every adjective describing Edward centers upon his physical beauty, phrases such as beautiful, gorgeous, the face of an angel, looking like a Greek god are but some examples of the shallow feelings which constitute Bella’s enthrallment with Edward. “The characters, even Edward, are stripped down to a minimum, lacking the texture and idiosyncrasies of actual people which permits the return, again and again, to the delight of marveling at Edward’s beauty” (Miller). The emphasis on Edwards appearance, his perfection, reflect society’s obsession with a rigid standard of what pleases the eye. The message of Twilight’s success is clear, sex sells, beauty sells!

Janice Radway discusses why such principles of male idealism which encompass most romance novels appeal to women. In conducting an audience study of romance reading and the types of readers it attracts, Radway concludes that the intoxication of such literature is a double-edged sword. The process of reading romance novels provides women with a way of protesting the social norms of a society, a way of expressing dissatisfaction with the social institution of marriage and with the patriarchy of contemporary culture. Yet, ultimately these novels reinforce the same social relations to which the women seek to escape because it provides them with no means of changing these social conditions. By enjoying romance novels only in their spare time, women can enjoy the longings of love and desirability of the ideal man but ultimately their isolation emphasizes female limitations.  With Twilight, the same concept applies even though the audience is primarily but not limited to the teenage girl population; this is especially indicative of the Twilight moms, middle-aged mothers with families of their own who have become addicted to Twilight.

According to Radway, Romance novels set a dangerous precedence. Romance novels leave women identifying with a narrative which justifies anger and hostility toward women as being proof of the man’s true feelings for her. Women then project, proof of love unto their own spouse or lover as evidence that the women are in fact loved by their emotionally distant and/or abusive other. This is exactly the case in Twilight. At the beginning of their romance, Edward is nothing resembling cordial to the plain, passive Bella. He’s rude, antagonistic, and emotionally abusive with his drastic mood swings. During their relationship, he acts less like Romeo to Juliet and more like a predator who is drawing in his prey.

“He spies on Bella while she sleeps, eavesdrops on her conversations, reads her classmates’ minds, forges her signature, tries to dictate her choice of friends, encourages her to deceive her father, disables her truck, has his family hold her at his house against her will, and drags her to prom against her wishes (Dafonzo).”

Yet, as is consistent with Radway’s analysis of romance novels, the love of Bella and Edwards hinges upon Bella saving Edward from himself, revealing another side to Edward’s appeal: that of the tragic, doomed hero, cut off from normal hopes and fears, isolated in despair — until Bella’s love offers him redemption. On this point the disordered and destructive side of Edward’s thirst is integral, not incidental, to his appeal: He isn’t just the bad boy, he’s the bad boy who can be saved if only the good girl loves and trusts him enough. He really is a romantic addict, dangerously seductive, proudly resentful, drawing Bella in with those most irresistible words: Stay away from me for your own good. This warning, of course, only proves how much he needs her — and Bella responds by falling “unconditionally and irrevocably in love with him” (Meyer 195).

Another characteristic of the core ideology of Twilight is the sexual subtext that lies beneath the surface of Edward’s and Bella’s supposedly chaste relationship as sexual abstinence was a message the author wanted to convey; her attempt was in vain. Vampires have long been an analogy for wanton, sexual desires and Meyer’s sparkling predators are no different. The desirability of Bella’s blood calls to Edward the way a young girl’s body calls to a teenage boy and though the two do not consummate their relationship until they are married in the fourth book, every page oozes with sexual tension, the tension of Edward denying himself, the tension of Bella wanting nothing more for him to ravage her is the symbolism of the apple insignia, the bricolage of the Twilight subculture.

Chastity is a precious thing, and the struggle to be chaste is both an inevitable part of moral life and a legitimate subject for narrative art. In part, this quest for chastity may legitimately form some part of Twilight’s appeal. At the same time, a narrative that wallows in the intoxicating power of temptation and desire, that returns again and again to rhapsodizing about the beauty of forbidden fruit, may reasonably be felt to be a hindrance rather than an affirmation of self-mastery. This is all the more problematic in a story in which, unlike normal adolescents wrestling with desire, lover and beloved dance around an act that is inherently monstrous and destructive. For some young readers, the darkness of this struggle might resonate in part with distorted adolescent fear of sex — but on a larger level, their temptation speaks to unhealthy, disordered appetite, like an addict’s craving for his drug of choice. “Exactly my brand of heroin” is how Edward describes Bella. Yet, ultimately the sexuality of Twilight further adds to Edward’s appeal. Because of Bella’s carnal desire for him, he could easily take sexual advantage of her, but he does not. He offers her what every woman wants, unconditional love with nothing in return. Edward’s extravagant declarations of love come with no strings attached…thus, he is represented as the ideal man.

Through the theories of Hebdige and Hodkinson, The Twilight phenomenon establishes itself as a subculture whose core ideology revolves around the very lust-driven vanity which veils the dominant society. Twilight’s success is nothing more than the success of the narcotic paralysis of narcissism, inducing today’s youthful generation with a most disturbing mindset: that in order to attain the fairytale, equality in a relationship must not exist.  True love negates feminism and men are held up to an impossible standard of perfection, creating a crisis of masculinity while the pleasures of sexuality are impressed upon girls barely reaching the age of adolescence. It appears that beauty truly is only skin deep.

Works Cited

Artimaeus.  “Twilight’s Appeal.” 18 January 2009.
Dalfonzo, Gina R. “In Love with Death.” National Online Review.  22 August 2008.         
 Flanagan, Caitlin. “What Girls Want.”  The Atlantic.  December 2008.      
Hebdige, Dick. “Subculture: The Meaning of Style.” Cultural Studies An Anthology. Ed. Michael Ryan, Malden, USA, Oxford, UK, and Victoria, Australia: Blackwell Publishing, 2008. 587-598.
Hodkinson, Paul. “The Goth Scene and (Sub)cultural Substance.” Cultural Studies An Anthology. Ed. Michael Ryan, Malden, USA, Oxford, UK, and Victoria, Australia: Blackwell Publishing, 2008. 599-609.
Meyer, Stephanie. Twilight.  New York: Little Brown Publishing Company, 2005.
Miller, Laura.  “Touched by a Vampire.” 30 June 2008.   
Radway, Janice. “Reading the Romance.” Cultural Studies An Anthology. Ed. Michael Ryan, Malden, USA, Oxford, UK, and Victoria, Australia: Blackwell Publishing, 2008. 1112-1118.
West, Kimmy. A Twilight Fan Site.  17 December 2007.  

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