Friday, November 20, 2009

Twilight: a different perspective

To date, I have conducted 17 presentations on the Twilight series at points across northeast Ohio, mostly attended by girls in grades 6, 7, and 8.

The four Twilight series books total about 2,450 pages. That's a lot of reading--and these kids devour it all. Not only do they love the books, but they also sit transfixed for 90 minutes during my interactive discussions--that is until I pose a question. Then their hands shoot up, or they just blurt out answers. Some literally jump from their seats, unable to contain their excitement.

During my discussions, I point out literary devices such as contrast and irony, the references to Wuthering Heights and Romeo and Juliet, and the celestial allusions that steer the series. When kids "see" how the book titles work into the story, their eyes pop to O's and they gasp at the epiphany. I often have to calm a group down. The middle school set is usually a tough audience and I laud Twilight author Stephanie Meyer for energizing them so successfully about books.

*spoiler alert*

What's the secret behind that success? Just ask Walt Disney. The saga of Bella and Edward is really just an elaborate fairy tale. Bella is the clumsy new girl in town who meets and falls in love with the mysterious Edward Cullen, a clandestine vampire. Bella is the hapless damsel in distress again and again, playing perfectly against Edward's knight in shining armor. (I call him a "vampire in a shining Volvo." The kids die laughing at that.)

After much trial and tribulation, Bella and Edward marry and have a child. Edward transforms Bella into a vampire, which makes her graceful, strong, immortal and breathtakingly beautiful. Her daughter is immortal as well. I call it the "happily ever after on steroids" or "the happily FOREVER after." The vamp newlyweds even move into a cottage in the woods.

The Cullen vampires, including Bella and Edward or "Bedward," never feed on humans, opting for the less-satisfying animal blood. They talk about being tempted to feed on humans, but I never felt that temptation. Save a mishap at Bella's 18th birthday party, they never come close to sinking their teeth into a juicy jugular, nor do I believe they ever will. Hence, they aren't really vampires, but more like immortal superheroes, which is a better ideological fit for the fairy tale: these vampires aren't going to hurt any innocent humans.

Plenty of people decry this aspect of the series, but not as many are talking about the truly dark side of Twilight.

* * *

During every presentation, I stop and say, "It's time for me to put on my mom hat." Then I explain that fictional boyfriends that follow you around and never let you out of their sight are fine, but in real life that behavior is inappropriate. The kids are savvy and murmurs of "stalker" fill the room.

Next I say, very purposefully, "And at no time should physical interaction between two people end up with one of them covered in bruises." Then I take off my mom hat because these aren't my kids and that's all I really can say, but I'm going to say a little more now.

If the obsessive boyfriend antics aren't bad enough, Stephenie Meyer commits an unconscionable transgression in the fourth Twilight book, Breaking Dawn.

On their honeymoon, Edward and Bella (still human) consummate their marriage. That part is handled tastefully enough in a pan-to-the-moon sort of way. The next morning, however, Bella is bruised all over because of their physical inequity. Edward is apologetic. Bella tells him that it's nothing and is eager for more sex.

Hey, Steph? Did it occur to you that you just subliminally endorsed the standard abuse template in the most indelible way in front of every tween from New York to California?

There is no context framing the "morning after" other than the implication that when Bella is finally a vampire, the sex will be forever great and bruise-free. The painfully obsessive nature of their relationship makes this even worse. Bella's unhealthy addiction to Edward is exactly the type of situation that breeds an abused woman. The few times I tried to explain how insidious this message is, I was met with knitted brows. No surprise, this is complex and dark stuff many adults can't properly process. Hence I learned to make my comments few and clear, but I am nonetheless furious at Stephanie Meyer over this.

I remember when I smoked. I used to tell myself that plenty of people smoked their whole lives with no health problems even though I knew that was flat-out wrong. I can't help thinking some young girl, desperate to justify the behavior of an abusive boyfriend she adores, is whispering to herself: it all worked out for Bella.

* * *

The Twilight talks were wonderful and exhausting. I loved the mom-daughter teams. I even had a few boys and a smattering of solo adults. The experience gave me faith in the future as well as a renewed sense of responsibility as a writer.

It's a tragedy that some of that responsibility didn't spill onto the series' author before her work catapulted into the stratosphere.

* * *


jford said...

Thoughtful, insightful and well written.

(S)wine said...

this is a great post. i still applaud you for undertaking this mission; it is why i could never teach; i get too caught up emotionally in the complete horseshit that this is. i know...anything that turns on kids to reading. i know. are a better man than me, Mrs. Goat.

i am baffled, however, by the unbelievable appeal of this amateurish mainstream fiction to ADULTS. i guess most of us still cling to the bullshit fairy tales we read about in our youth. on the same vibe, i bring up the show Glee. i have no living idea how or why adults watch this piece of shit. my wife watches it, rolls her eyes at it, but still watches. it. i've now seen about 5 episodes and cannot go a minute of this show without imbibing profusely with 103-proof gin.

i think we are pre-disposed for shit literature, shit shows, shit movies, shit everything. personally, almost any time i try to engage most of my friends in serious conversations about serious subjects or literature or art, i'm met with: "jesus, man...i'm tired; i don't have the energy to think."

therein lies the problem in this country. we don't like to think. anymore.

jford said...

Swine, I am not sure I agree with that - I will have to think about it...

Erin O'Brien said...

As infuriating as parts of the series is, I had to bite my tongue. I didn't want to squelch their enthusiasm. It was really something to see kids that excited about books.

As for the adults, I'll say one thing, "Twilight" is higher quality than your average pulp romance.

For the record, the books are officially listed for grades 9 and up.

Thanks for reading and commenting, gents.

Steve Brown said...

Wow. Having never read the books, I was unaware of this point.

I've always just been irritated at the way they handled by beloved movie monsters, and segued them into cartoonish soap-opera characters. If I'd been paying more attention, I could have had a less selfish and more valid reason to be irritated. Ha.

THanks for writing this....I'll be spreading it around.

Anonymous said...

Psst---It's fiction. Vampires aren't real.

jmberrygirl said...

Thanks. I've seriously considered reviewing the one book in the series that I've read on my blog, but I'm afraid the few readers I've got will hate me once I reveal my non-love for it and there I'll be... talking to space again! Besides the fact that fantasy writing is not my genre, I despise such errors in any published work. I will say this: The book gave me hope that if somebody with as little knowledge of the English language could be published, then surely there's a place for my book out there, too.

Julie said...

Hey Erin - I've had the same problems with the Twilight series and my 12-year-old daughter. And by the way, I am 40, have my MA, love the classics, etc, and I LOVE the series. I think her character development is super, and I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I don't feel like I have to justify that to anyone (except that I just did! Ouch!) I try not to be judgemental about taste in reading, because I might hate someone's favorite book, but I'm not going to smack them around over it. Better that than MTV Cribs or Real Housewives.

That said, this series made my daughter a reader, and she hasn't stopped. BUT I've had to talk with her about the obsessive nature of the relationship, and that it IS just sci-fi fiction, and not at all realistic or even healthy. I am curious, Erin, as a writer how you would handle that situation in Breaking Dawn...they don't do it? They do it, but for once Bella is right and it's all fine? Maybe the pillows are still torn up but she's okay? I've wondered about that too. And I like that she ends up the powerful one, but it seems like there should have been a price for getting everything. No one gets absolutely everything without a price. Charlie is dead or the Cullens are blackballed from vampire society, or from Forks...Just curious about your thinking on that.
My blog is about Twilight today too, but it hasn't the substance found here!

Word: Honspot, as in "That criticism of my love of Twilight hit me right in the honspot!"

Erin O'Brien said...

Hi Steve and jmberry.

Julie, those are exactly the reasons I call this a fairy tale.

Anon, if you could see how these kids react, you wouldn't say that. Do you really think a young girl wouldn't project an Edward-like adoration on a beautiful and muscular young boyfriend?

Al Penwasser said...

Last night I allowed my daughter to see the new edition in the sexy monster series, "New Moon." She and her girlfriend thought it was much better than the first movie and not as good as the books (actual reading, what a concept).
The bad parent in me allowed her to do this on a school night (she's 15); the good parent said, "I don't care how late it is, you're still going to school"
Sadly, not all parents were that strict, as a lot of kids didn't go to school today.
Bottom line, I think it's probably a dopey movie. But, I'm a middle-aged dude.
Swine: I have to say I agree with you. Most people are predisposed to garbage entertainment. Think 'Survivor', 'American Idol,' 'The Amazing Race,' et. al.

Al Penwasser said...

Oh, yeah, Erin...? I forgot to tell you, great post! Those kids were lucky.

Kirk Jusko said...

Are these bona fide teenagers that reads these books, or are they pre-teens. I'm asking because when I was teenaget, there was no such thing as a book written specifically for teens. Or if there was, you wouldn't be caught dead reading it. Teens read adult books. Not literary adult books like John Updike, but popular adult books like those written by Stephan King or Sidney Sheldon. That's one way teenagers distinguished themselves from younger kids, by reading books that had a lot of sex and violence and swear words and all kinds of R-rated stuff. These Twilight books sounds awfully PG to me. Not even PG-13. Just PG. Whatever happened to teenage rebellion? Whatever happened to doing things behind your parents backs that you know would absolutely drive them up a wall if they knew about it? Adolescence has come to this? 'Tis a shame.

Of course, I'd feel a lot differently about all this if I actually had teenage kids of my own.

Martha said...

I am so glad that someone is finally saying what I've been thinking since I finished the Twilight series. This is not in any way an appropriate message to send to teenagers. I just really hope that most are able to separate fact from fiction.

Erin O'Brien said...

Thanks, Al.

Kirk, this book is YA--young adult, recommended for grades 9 and up.

Martha--the kids are smart, they know this is fiction. It's that subtle innuendo that bothers me. Parents need to be the ones to talk about this. And I hope parents know what happens in the books.

Simon M said...

Heyo there Erin, this a 'long time reader first time poster' type of post. I've never read any of the Twilight books, adopting the standard 'why would I waste my time on that crap' approach, so I'm not completely qualified to question this, but what's your stance on the 'whatever gets them reading' argument? And if you don't accept such a generalized mantra, do you feel the Twilight series passes the positives outweigh negatives test? Of course regardless it's absolutely a great move to use the books as a jumping off point to connect with kids about literature, so I fully applaud you for that.

I also want to make a somewhat unrelated side note on (S)wine's comments about the TV show Glee.

I love the show. It entertains me greatly. It's ridiculous, silly, completely unrealistic, often extremely funny, and the musical numbers are quite simply a good time.

Now, I've thought extensively on whether this is a case of so-bad-it's-good or not. I've searched the internet for interviews with the creators, I've read various reviews in search of answers. A lot of the reviewers seem to me to be missing the point when criticizing the shows painfully obvious shortcomings.

I'm still not completely convinced either way, but I'm leaning heavily in favour of the authors knowing exactly what they're doing. The dialogue is simply too terrible, the plots way too over-obvious and ultra-blatant, and the cliches too super-concentrated and ever-present, the characters too stereotyped and most importantly the humour often too spot on and biting. A show truly this bad would at least ATTEMPT to hide these facts. This lack of taking itself seriously and complete disregard for any kind of restraint is a large part of the appeal. For me the biggest piece of evidence that the show creators know their stuff are the 'series recaps' at the start of each show. In it, one of the characters narrates the major plot points (which include an unplanned pregnancy with a father switch-a-roo and a fake pregnancy) in callous and cheerful manner in about 3 sentences. That just cannot be chalked of as accidental.

Perhaps this makes me naive, but I feel that to a large degree the show is a parody of what it appears to be (a televized slightly more 'adulitified' High School Musical). The authors of course cannot come out and say that, lest they lose the 'Desperate Housewives' watching portion of their audience who want to get emotionally involved in the shallow storylines. The one statement they make is the ambition to make the show appeal to as 'wide audience' as possible (a fairly understandable goal on a network TV show).

In the end, regardless of whether the how is intentionally satirical or not, that's the manner in which I interpret as I watch it, and that's why I enjoy it. A lot.

Simon M said...

As a side note, sure some of you may find the fact that a stereotypical scene about bulimia where a teacher finds a student trying to throw up in the washroom but failing due to a lack of gag reflex is followed up by a thinly veiled crack about oral sex stupid and juvenile.

I find the mere fact that the show managed to coat this with just enough plausible deniability to sneak it onto primetime television hilarious. And the joke itself was pretty funny too. :P

Ms Amanda said...

My 14 year old totally got this from the very beginning. When my 12 year old read the first two all she could say was that Edward is a jerk. Many a time the word stalker entered into the conversation. I am relieved they 'get' it. So many of their friends do not.
A friend of mine is a therapist and uses Edwards bad behavior as an example to the teens she counsels. So many are from bad homes/situations and looking for any kind of knight, even an abusive one...

Lauren said...

I've not read the entire Twilight series, but the aspects that you mentioned are what really made me hate it. Yes, HATE it. I am not into romance in general, but I can appreciate the occasional romance like, The Time Traveler's Wife, for instance. I read Twilight (as in book one) a year or two ago when it had started to pick up in popularity. The subliminal messages are my biggest issue with these books. One thing that you didn't mention: this story is giving hormonal teenage girls everywhere the illusion that a boy exists who will hang on their every word and want to wait until marriage to have sex.. at 17. Come on, let's be realistic. I like that you are brave enough to put these things out there for everyone. When I say anything negative, I usually get berated for having an opinion that is not good about this series.

Bill said...

Nice job e! Very impressive. No wonder you get the big bucks. A fan.

priquifo said...

I love reading your post. =)

Btw, that 'vampire in shining volvo' made me really laugh.
Thanks. =)

Me said...

I'll admit it - I read the books. And they are kind of fun, although they'll never rank up there with the literary greats, will they? ;)

I truly never thought about the Edward/Bella relationship from this perspective before...and what makes that especially strange is that I was in a somewhat abusive relationship in my late teens/early twenties - and his "stalker-like" M.O. was quite similar to Edward's...

On the surface, what girl wouldn't love a boy who adored her to this degree? But wow...the message just below the surface is indeed a scary one.

Great post!!

Earl Tesch said...

First, great post Erin. There is definitely something to be said for responsible writing if your audience is young and impressionable.

On to comments about comments...I think Shakespeare is overrated. I think Pablo Neruda is brilliant. I think To the Lighthouse is crap. I LOVE J.L. Borges.

Hoitie Toitie, right? Well, how about this? South Park is among the most intelligent and socially important texts in history.

De gustibus non est disputandum.

Erin O'Brien said...

Hi Simon, Ms. Amanda, Lauren, Bill, Priquifo, Me (ha!), and Earl.

A few general comments, Edward is surely a fantasy boyfriend, but that's part of the fairy tale. Whether or not the positive aspects of the series outweigh the subtle negative implications, I have no idea.

In order to use the "Twilight" experience as a springboard to more literary avenues, I urge the kids to watch the 1968 version of "Romeo and Juliet" by Zeffirelli, which is heavily referenced in "New Moon."

I've never watched "Glee," but I dig my share of junky culture. I don't judge what entertains others. I don't judge anyone who loves or hates "Twilight," I'm only offering my own opinion.

(S)wine said...

the problem with parodies (like Glee, for example) is that people don't realize they are that.

Twilight, for me, is the exact equivalent of MTV cribs; garba-jee my friend. and, as a parent, i don't go for that "whatever gets them reading" bullshit. as my parents did to me when i was a boy, i am instilling the love of story, character, improvisation, and books to my 5 yr. old. so, later, I won't have to be grateful that 'at least she's reading crap.'

high horse? maybe. but when it comes to my kids, i want to nurture love of art from the beginning, so they don't need to be coaxed by crappy, pop cultural bullshit.

this is who i am, so i don't make any excuses and i take it all as it comes to me. i say, why lower the bar, why set the standard low? give us high quality stuff from the beginning.

ah, no one's watching or reading yes? yes. which brings me back to my original point: Americans are intellectually lazy. We want to be fed bullshit. it's nice and easy on the brain. it doesn't have to work.

word up babies.

Erin O'Brien said...

All I can say is that my kid is consuming a lot of pop culture right now that I do not like AT ALL. It suprises me at every turn. You dutifully feed a kid Dr. Suess and Newberry winners, and seven years later, they're gulping down Eminem and Pink.

I tell her when I dislike something and why, but I don't control her reading/listening. I am loathe to invoke censorship. I am loathe to tell her something she loves is "crap." That cuts through a kid's self-esteem like a knife.

Mostly, I hope it's that phase a kid enters when peer pressure overcomes parental influence and that she'll grow out of it. But I'm very careful. The more disdain you show for a kid's cultural choices, the more they cling to them.

Bekah said...

I have read and enjoyed the Twilight series. My girls are too young for it, but I think I can still identify with parents of pre-teens and older. I'm all for reading. I'm all for letting your chldren decide what they read. I am also all for the parents reading the same and having an actual conversation about the material. It's the old, "parents need to take more responsiblity" argument. A valid one. Yes, the Edward/Bella relationship has some negative aspects. There is more dangerous crap out there in books, movies, music, and the world than we can imagine. Just talk to your kids, people. Chances are, they are pretty smart.

Charlotte said...

Thank you. I've been bothered by the sex scene at the end of "Breaking Dawn" since I first heard about it, but couldn't quite put my finger on why. And what you just wrote is why.

I know these books are "meant" for students grades 9+, but that isn't who is reading them. There are girls 10, 11, 12 years old. Impressionable girls. I can only hope there are people out there to talk to these girls and explain what is NOT okay about Edward's behavior throughout the books, and specifically, the sex scene at the end.

(S)wine said...

erin, it's the way it's gonna be. i fully expect that from my kiddo when she's your daughter's age; but i think that having a sort of a "base" helps. it did for me. i vividly remember my teenage years; i appreciated it all--everything i had learned and read and everything that was pop culture then (shudder!! early 80s pop culture!! shudder!). peers are the most influential when it comes to our kids; i have no delusions about that. but giving our kids a base from which to fly, also means there's a base to which they can come back. i will never censor my kid's choices (age appropriate now) in music, reading, art, film, whatever (age appropriate decisions, i'm talking, not complete lack of parenting and no structure). i went for that stuff too when i was young; i consumed it all...and most of it didn't stick. i may have dug it at that time, but within a few months, my verve for the latest fad or band or book or movie, was gone. it's amazing how time and time again i seem to gravitate back to my "base" or "anchor" in art that my parents provided (and this coming from someone who is estranged from his dad and doesn't like his mum/never has). but i give them credit for just having the stuff on the shelves. they never pushed me; i just saw them reading and writing and, as a kid, was curious and picked up stuff. i was raised on traditional fairy tales, and Jules Verne, and King Arthur type stuff, and i remember the most influential book i read as a child (and still holds now as an adult) for me was Antoine de Saint Exupery's "Little Prince."

all the pop culture crap came and went for me, but i always seem to go back to the Little Princes and the authors that followed for me after that (Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, then Kafka, Camus, Sartre, Mann, Kierkegaard, then Hunter S. Thompson, Carver, Updike, Roth, etc. etc. etc.)

Erin O'Brien said...

Exactly right, Bekah. Talk to the kids, that's the simple secret.

Thank you for dropping in Charlotte.

Alex, amen brother. But it's scary when you're going through it. All I can say is the Eminem phase can't end quickly enough.

roadtoabudhabi said...

I couldn't agree more. I am a mom of two boys and i absolutely loved the series. My boys are 10 and 13 and aren't interested one bit in reading this vampire love story, but my friends with daughters are. I have often thought, if I had 10 and 13 year old girls I would not let them read anything beyond the first book. I especially don't think the 4th book is appropriate for those ages at all. Not just the sex scene with the bruises, but the child birth scene as well. Thanks for sharing your insight. On a side note- can't wait to see New Moon tomorrow. ;)

Anonymous said...

This is facinating for me. Thank God my daughters are adults and I don't have to deal w/this now! You are such a good writer Erin! I will keep up w/these trends for future grandchildren!

hair salon london said...

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Glass Houses said...

I have not read the series. When I was the age that these books are tergeting, I was cutting my teeth on Anne Rice, so these books don't really appeal to me.

However, I can't turn up my nose at them either. The older I get the more I find myself irritated and turned off by people who take themselves too seriously. It is possible to turn young minds on to great literature using not-so-great literature. It is possible to be intelligent and well read, and still enjoy silly romance novels. It's entertainment. And I think too many people take their entertainment much too seriously. If it isn't a classic, or intellectually stimulating, it's crap.

There's something to be said for having fun for the sole purpose of having fun. I think these books fall into that category.

Think about it. How many kids who listened to that awful Vanilla Ice song discovered Queen in the process? How many kids who listened to Bohemian Rhapsody discovered classical music? It does work like that, if you stop turning up your nose at the fluff.

(S)wine said...

your queen example doesn't fit. Queen is/was a great band, Freddie Mercury, imo, has if not the best, then one of the best, most unique voices in rock history (Plant and Geddy Lee figure in there, as well), so that parallel sorta doesn't work. the Vanilla Ice one does, though; something tells me not too many listeners of that track moved on to the Bowie/Queen version; just a hunch.

i hear what you're saying; i'm not a snob; i'm just pissed that crap like that gets published, and that we sort of excuse it. if we held the publishing world to higher standards (and voiced our dislikes with our pocketbooks) they might pump out better stuff.

i'm with you on the Anne Rice tip. go for that, instead of this crap.

i'm not an elitist; i want to see better quality product, and i want to raise my kid on that. i don't want to use the shit as a conduit to other, perhaps more worthy stuff. why not go for it from the beginning?

Joannah said...

Kirk Jusko-
I was wondering if you had read Catcher in the Rye when you were a teenager...? I always thought that was maybe the book written only for teens, that you wouldnt get it when you got older.

Kirk Jusko said...

Joannah, I read Catcher in High School--literally, it was assigned, believe it or not, this was back in the 70s--and then again as an adult about ten years ago. I liked the book as a teen simply because I thrilled at seeing swear words in print. And these were teacher-assigned swear words to boot! But, as much as I may have enjoyed it, I really didn't "get" it. I remember the teacher having us explain the book's title, and I literally described Holden Caulfield's dream. The teacher then patiently explained to me that the dream was a metaphor, that Holden wanted to save children from disillusionment. That went right over my head. As far as I was concerned, it was just a weird dream. Plus, as much as I enjoyed Holden's four-letter word vocabularly, I didn't identify with his problems too much. Like most teenage boys, I was obsessed with sex and popularity, or the lack thereof. Holden seemed indifferent to both.

As I said, I read the book again as a grown-up, and I have to say I'm much more like Holden Caulfield as an adult than I ever was as a kid. Holden frets that phonies rule the world, and so do I. Holden feels disillusionment is the inevitable outcome of all our striving, well, as much as I hope Holden's wrong, I fear he's right. I still obsess over sex. I'll never outgrow that. Status? Only when the phonies who rule the planet put me in a corner where I have to obsess over it. So I guess in my 40s I'm a combination of my teenage self and the teenage Holden.

By the way, I don't really believe that book was meant for teenagers any more than Animal Farm was meant for livestock. Teenagers read and apparently identify with it, obviously, and some have become so obsessed that they badgered poor old J.D. Salinger to becoming a hermit. But teen fiction back in the 50s was basically the Hardy Boys. That book was written for adults.