THE TWILIGHT DEBACLE
BY ASHLEY MCCALLAN
The Rusty Toque | Issue 1 | Creative Nonfiction | July 2011
I enter my neighbours' apartment without knocking. The long entrance hall is darkened, save for the twinkling of Christmas lights peeking around the corner from the living room. The cheery reds and greens are mixed with a grayish hue flashing in that lackluster way of new age, flat screen televisions. And all is silent.
I cautiously turn the corner.
Unnecessarily extreme close-ups of two mediocre-looking actors alternate on the screen. They are looking at each other with that earth-shattering, oh-so-intense love of seventeen-year-olds. They begin to have a soft, passionate discussion. Or the cinematography and sorrowful music suggest this is the case—the dialogue and acting aren’t much to speak of.
The family of four is glued to the film, donning flannel pajamas and curled up in blankets on the couch. Their attention to the screen has made the plethora of leftover snacks and Christmas chocolate surrounding them go unnoticed.
A bespectacled head pops up over the back of the couch—quick and breathless—with the air of surfacing from water for a brief inhale.
“We’re watching the new Twilight Movie! Watch with us!”
And back down she plunges.
I sit for as long as I can endure the giggles and the general entrancement of my second family before I make an excuse and head home where I promptly step up on a soapbox and complain to my mother.
In my entitled (perhaps arrogant) I’m-a-Literature-Major way, I protest this obsession-induced franchise. I grumble about “good” stories and “proper” role models and characters that are entirely too sexualized for nine- and twelve-year-old girls.
My mother only smiles, and it’s irritating with its mixture of fondness and patronization.
“When you were their age, it was Spice Girls and the Olsen Twins,” she offers warmly. “Were they good role models?”
Mom: 1. Ashley: 0.
Teenage girls falling in love with sparkling vampires: it seems like an innocent dip in a place far more fantastical than our own. Except what happens when the love story has a heavy undercurrent of sexuality and the target market is a thirteen-year-old girl?
The first novel in the Twilight Saga by Stephenie Meyer was published in 2005, and in the short five years since, its three sequels, one related novella, and three box-office hits have followed. The three films have grossed nearly $1.8 billion collectively in the worldwide box office and more than 400 million copies of the books have been sold. And there’s still a two-part movie finale to go.
With figures like these it seems unnecessary to point out that Twilight is a phenomenon—that can be deduced even without the screaming fan girls. It’s here, though, that the job of a parent becomes tricky. With its overwhelming popularity there is no way to ensure that young girls are not exposed to this story.
The Saga chronicles Bella Swan, an average-in-all-ways teenage girl and her tragic, star-crossed and forbidden romance with Edward Cullen. This is made all the more interesting (and teenage girl swoon-worthy) by the fact that—you know this part—Edward is a vampire.
Gabrielle Ceraldi, a Children’s Literature Professor at the University of Western Ontario says, “It’s a very, very sexual book. All of the overt abstinence does not take away from that.”
Ceraldi had Twilight on her syllabus for the 2009/2010 school year but states in an interview that because it was a heated enough choice she doesn’t know if she’ll do it again.
“I do think it’s important to go towards the more cultural questions [when considering Twilight], like what does it mean that our culture has embraced this right now.”
For a while, Ceraldi plays devil’s advocate. She comments on her own positive interest in the novels. She defends the popular claim that Twilight has no “literary value” by questioning what “literary value” really is. She concludes: “You can spend all day picking out grammatical errors in Twilight if you want to, but that doesn’t mean that you can sit down and write anything that will immerse readers the way that Twilight does.”
(Cue flashback to the image of my twelve-year-old neighbour emerging from a Twilight bubble to demand I join her movie watching).
Then Ceraldi, who has a five-year-old daughter, takes off her professor jacket and steps into her parenting shoes.
“[My daughter] is far too young for Twilight. In a way, I don’t want my daughter reading it until I’m in a position where I am okay with her having sex and that may be never!” She laughs and calls herself out for blushing. “Do I think that book makes people want to have sex? Yes I do. Absolutely.”
Kate Forget, a stay-at-home mom from Cobalt, Ontario, allows her twelve-year-old daughter, Jenna, and nine-year-old daughter, Taylor, to watch the movies, but not to read the books.
“The movies are okay because they can pick out little pieces to focus on. From discussions afterwards I know they’re not keeping the romance aspect with them. What attracts them is the idea of being different, the coming-of-age bit; they don’t literally see the love story. They like the adventure and progress.”
Both girls back their mother up in separate interviews. When asked what she liked best about Twilight Jenna answered enthusiastically, “Vampires, because they’re fast!” Taylor agreed that “action parts” were her favourite also.
On the love story aspect, Jenna jokingly answers, “Love story? I don’t think people actually go out with vampires…” And on all the kissing in the movies she says, “Disgusting! Gross! Look away!”
Of course, this may be just that Jenna and Taylor appear less “girly” than some girls can be. Beth Klaassen, seventeen, from Haileybury, Ontario read the books when she was fourteen and only now realizes that even then it may have been an inappropriate read. “At least the fourth book [Breaking Dawn] is too mature,” she says. (Breaking Dawn notoriously has an indirect sex scene that, though wisely skipped over in the book, results in a broken headboard and ripped up pillows).
Klaassen adds that Bella is not a very good role model for young girls as she teaches them that it’s okay to lead more than one boy on at once.
Ceraldi counters: “The whole history of didactic Children’s Literature is giving children these insipid, annoying role models. I mean there’s nothing more nauseating than reading about a role model. So we don’t want role models, we want female characters who fascinate us, who compel our attention.”
Another multi-billion dollar franchise, the Harry Potter series, Ceraldi points out, is central now to the way Children’s Literature is conceptualized in our culture. While it too has been criticized for its mature themes, this tends more towards increasingly dark issues and frequent deaths throughout the series, rather than sex.
Though it is defined by the idea of love, just as Twilight is, it is more a love for family, life and what is good, while in Twilight love tends to be eclipsed by lust. In fact, Harry Potter falls quite well in line with the British prudery stereotype.
Of the Harry Potter series, Ceraldi says that her children “can read it whenever they can read it.” She will not, however, show her kidsthe films until after she knows they can handle the books.
Forget agrees that Harry Potter is a fine choice, but she adds that Twilight needs to be for a more mature reader. “Perhaps mid-high school,” she says, but even after they can read it, being a parent means “getting into it.” “We check everything from their education to what they do on the Internet–it’s just another part of their lives we need to keep an eye on.” This idea tends to fall to the wayside as reading is such a solitary journey even for kids, she says.
Twelve-year-old Jenna adds, “Parents should realize that kids are smart enough to know that it’s not real life.”
Ceraldi pulls her professor gear back on and says, “What I will say about the Twilight thing is I don’t feel that my daughter needs to be protected from the idea of romance. I don’t buy in at all to this idea that girls should only be made to read about psychologically healthy relationships because they will immediately and passively imitate whatever they read about and make no distinction between fiction and reality.
“Stories about emotionally healthy relationships are boring. If you adopt this viewpoint that girls aren’t capable of reading romance without destroying their lives then you’ve got to take away Jane Eyre, you’ve got to take away Wuthering Heights, you’ve got to take away pretty much every good story that there is. And no, I’m not going to do that.”
Chagrined, I once again enter my neighbours’ apartment without knocking. The Christmas lights are still twinkling but conversation flows around the corner as well. The movie is over, but the gushing continues.
I ask how the movie was and the response from the two girls is full of enthusiasm and sparkling eyes.
I patiently listen to their eager passion for a little while longer and throw a few questions their way: Why do you like her? Why do you think he did that? What was your favourite part?
As I leave their home a little while later, I think that maybe we really don’t give kids enough credit in handling our media-driven world.
Still, before I pass through the door, I casually leave my copy of the first Harry Potter book on the table. Just in case.
ASHLEY MCCALLAN just completed her third year of an Honours Specialization in English Literature with a Minor in Creative Writing. Besides taking the Writing for Publication, she has taken Fundamentals of Creative Writing as well as Screenwriting for both feature and short films. After graduation she hopes to pursue a Creative Writing Masters Degree.