Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Books: "Policing gender and punishing girliness."

The American Prospect takes a look at the Twilight backlash and questions its gender politics. From writer Sady Doyle's article:

Twilight is more than a teen dream. It's a massive cultural force. Yet the very girliness that has made it such a success has resulted in its being marginalized and mocked. Of course, you won't find many critics lining up to defend Dan Brown or Tom Clancy, either; mass-market success rarely coincides with literary acclaim. But male escapist fantasies -- which, as anyone who has seen Die Hard or read those Tom Clancy novels can confirm, are not unilaterally sophisticated, complex, or forward-thinking -- tend to be greeted with shrugs, not sneers. The Twilight backlash is vehement, and it is just as much about the fans as it is about the books. Specifically, it's about the fact that those fans are young women.

Twilight fans (sometimes known as "Twi-Hards") are derided and dismissed, sometimes even by outlets that capitalize on their support. MTV News crowned "Twilighters" its Woman of the Year in 2008, but referred to them as "shrieking and borderline-stalker female fans." You can count on that word -- shrieking -- to appear in most articles about Twilight readers, from New York magazine's Vulture blog ("Teenage girls shrieking ... before the opening credits even begin") to Time magazine ("Shrieking fangirls [outdoing] hooting fanboys ... in number, ardor, and decibel level") to The Onion's A.V. Club ("Squealing hordes of (mostly) teenage, female fans") to The New York Times ("Squeals! The 'Twilight Saga: New Moon' Teaser Trailer Is Here!"). Yes, Twi-Hards can be loud. But is it really necessary to describe them all by the pitch of their voices? It propagates the stereotype of teen girls as hysterical, empty-headed, and ridiculous.

Self-described geeks and horror fans are especially upset at how the series introduces the conventions of the romance novel -- that most stereotypically feminine, most scorned of literary forms -- into their far more highbrow and culturally relevant monster stories. At the 2009 Comic-Con, Twilight fans were protested and said to be "ruining" the event. Fans of Star Wars, Star Trek, X-Men, and Harry Potter are seen as dorks at worst, participants in era-defining cultural phenomena at best. Not so for Twilight fans. What sets Twilight apart from Marvel comics? The answer is fairly obvious, and it's not -- as geeks and feminists might hope -- the quality of the books or movies. It's the number of boys in the fan base.

Doyle ends her piece with a look at why feminists should care about the Twilight backlash even if they think the books are a crock. In a neat judo move, she argues that the Twilight phenomenon, considered through a lens other than the heteronormative knee-jerk male panic of most genre critics, might be a watershed moment in considering the role of young women in the marketplace driven public sphere.

Teen girls have the power to shape the market because they don't have financial responsibilities, tend to be passionate about their interests, and share those interests socially. If a girl likes something, she's liable to recommend it to her friends; a shared enthusiasm for Edward, or the Jonas Brothers, or anything else, becomes part of their bond. Marketers prize teenage girls, even as the media scoff at them.

If you want to matter, though, apparently you need boys. The third film adaptation of the Twilight series, Eclipse, will be helmed by horror director David Slade, who has made such movies as Hard Candy and Thirty Days of Night. Even though it will not hit theaters until June 2010, it is already being touted as "darker," more action-packed, and more "guy friendly." Because the popularity of the Twilight formula guarantees Eclipse will be a box-office smash, the decision to consciously appeal to boys seems more like a grab at credibility than at profit. Romance-loving Twi-Hards be damned! Who cares about disappointing a huge, passionate, lucrative fan base if they're all a bunch of girls?

As Twilight demonstrates, not everything girls like is good art -- or, for that matter, good feminism. Still, the Twilight backlash should matter to feminists, even if the series makes them shudder. If we admit that girls are powerful consumers, then we admit that they have the ability to shape the culture. Once we do that, we might actually start listening to them. And I suspect a lot of contemporary girls have more to talk about than Edward Cullen.


Ed Howard said...

Doesn't everyone know that teen girls have the power to shape the marketplace? That's hardly a radical idea. It's just disappointing that they choose to shape the market towards utter nonsense like Twilight. In the same way, it's disappointing that the equally lucrative guy market tends to lap up crap like Transformers. Is constantly referring to Twilight fangirls as "squealing" anti-feminist? Sure. Doesn't mean Twilight should instead be looked at as some promising indicator of women's increasing prominence in American culture or anything, any more than Sex and the City, which sucked equally hard and yet elicited the same feminist protests about how low-level wish fulfillment targeted at women gets more hate than the same type of material marketed to men. The fact is, different varieties of crap are marketed to both men and women, and by and large both genders eat it up.

zoe said...

i'm going to basically grunt in agreement with the above comment (Ed). well-said. yes, exactly.

CRwM said...


I think the last bit of her argument was that there's a chicken/egg problem with the crap market nexus you're talking about.

Part of her argument is that this stuff is lame - but that we're going to get more and worse crap so long as we recognize a market need, but produce material with the preconceived notion that, because the market's desires are always already illegit, it needs must be lowest common denominator garbage.

Specifically, with Twilight, her argument at the end is that the phenomenon touched some massively underfed vibe among a traditionally marginalized (within terms of the genre, specifically) group. But so long as we simply assume anything pitched to those needs in inherently dubious, then all will get is more crap. Crap made by crap artists to be crap because they don't see anything but crap being eaten.

But, what if we said, "Okay, maybe Twilight was a sketch project, but what does it do? What does say to people? What are its roots? Can it evolve? What's next and could we make it better?" That just seems more useful to me. More interesting at least.

I guess it speaks to me because questions of "quality" have been so debased at this point that all we're doing is stamping "AW3SOM3!!!" or "teh ghey" on stuff. Seems like we're not getting anywhere. We're not finding new ideas.

Eh. Maybe that's not the point.

zoe said...

i'm not sure how on-topic this is, but in reference to what twilight might be speaking to in its audience: i am recalling the non-assigned fiction available to teen and pre-teen girls (school book-fairs) always circling around the protag discovering she had a terminal illness, and through that last 6 months of her short life developing some really important relationship with someone else who was dying. i can imagine that finding a "super-intense" relationship with someone else (who miraculously isn't glued to his wii but also hasn't had anything to drink or smoke in a whole hour) as a result of something other than terminal illness might be kind of exciting. just a thought.

Pauline said...

Just as a "down in the dirty real life of it" aside, I have two "tween" (hate. that. term.) girls, both with a passle of friends. None of them have a shred of interest in the Twilight books or films. What they are geeked about is Percy Jackson and the Olympians, a YA novel series that offers not only subversive religion (the Classic Greek Gods are real - and still makin' bacon with humans) and truly frightening monsters, but kick ass girls like Annabeth, daughter of Athena. My point? The media demographic isn't always the front line reality and the "next thing" is sometimes ignored by the very powers that make such a big deal out of Twilight and friends.

Sasquatchan said...

crap as crap as crap.

How much of a shitstorm did it kick up when Stephen King was given the national book award ?

It's the old pop culture/masses/hoi polloi versus the artistic (aristocratic?) elite that think they are the gatekeepers high culture and are who decide what is dreck. Only now dressed in some fancy pants feminist wraps.

boyhowdy said...

Anything that creates fanpersons (yeah) is going to create just as many anti-fanpersons. So on the one hand you're dealing with your typical nerd culture in-fighting exacerbated by the influx of new (read: mainstream) people.

Also consider that Tom Clancy fans aren't as visible/vocal as Twi-Hards so they don't inspire much in the way of opposition. I can shrug about spy novels because I don't have them shoved in my face at ever retail establishment I visit. They don't apportion entire sections of my local Borders dedicated to Jack Ryan (or, for that matter, Star Trek, Star Wars, LoTR, etc) tchochkes.

That said, it bothers me when folks dismiss any discussion of the phenomenon because it's "crap" art/culture. Which is not to say anyone here (so far) is doing that. The point is, I like Buffy, maybe you don't, but you can't dismiss it's relevance to popular culture just because you don't dig it.

Erin said...

Wow, I never thought about the backlash being sexist. But it completely makes sense that Twilight is being ridiculed because the fan base is largely female. Gosh, now I'm kinda pissed off. Thanks for sharing the article!

AndyDecker said...

Is it me or is journalism ever getting more hollow? Terrible article.

The media is ridiculing "shrieking" teens since The Beatles, so what? The idea that Twilight fans are getting another treatment than Trek fans,Comics fans whatever fans as a group is laughable. There is no "Backlash", there is of course a lot that can be criticised about the content of the books or the movies.

And what Tom Clancy fans? I mean, come on; to cite this as a relevant male escapist fantasy which mirrors the female Twilight crowd is also a flawed argument.