This review first appeared at the Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog in December of 2012. Since Twilight turned 10 this week, I thought it might be time to direct you all to Tanya Erzen’s excellent ethnography of Twilight fans.
In 2008, I picked up the Twilight series because my youngest sister, then a teenager, happened to be reading them. I had just sent my dissertation to my advisor for final edits, and I wanted to read something that was not related to the Klan, hate groups, or American religions more generally. I wanted to read fluff. A series of novels about an ordinary human girl, a vegetarian vampire “mainstreaming,” and a handsome teen werewolf embroiled in a tortured love triangle seemed to fit the bill. Thus, I turned to Stephenie Meyer’s increasingly popular Twilight novels for casual reading. After finishing Twilight, I rushed to (now defunct) Borders to buy Eclipse.
Much like other women, teenagers or adults, I consumed these books, and so did both of my sisters and my mother. We read them, we talked about them, we criticized them, and we reread them. Despite the bad prose and melodramatic storyline, something about the books managed to appeal to all of us. What was it about the series that drew us in? What kept us reading? Why did we all hate Breaking Dawn? What vision of the world did we consume by embracing this fantasy? What did fandom suggest about us and the series?
The appeal and fandom of the Twilight universe is the subject of Tanya Erzen’s new ethnography, Fanpire: The Twilight Saga and the Women Who Love It. The Twilightbooks, after all, outmatched the Harry Potter novels in the amount of time they remained on the New York Times bestseller list (xiii). More importantly, Erzen provides glimpses of the female, and occasionally male, fans of the series, in an empathetic and thoughtful way. Unlike the media coverage of “Twihards” that documented this fandom as hysterical and problematic, Erzen offers a much-needed gender critique of both media coverage and the larger “Fanpire.” She aptly summarizes each book between her chapters to show the consequences of their anti-feminist storyline in constructions of femininity, romantic love, and normative heterosexuality. Twilight functions as both “a supernatural heterosexual model of eternal passion and monogamy” (xvi) and a postfeminist fantasy that uplifts any choice as empowerment.
Rather than dismiss the books as sheer escapism, Erzen documents fan pleasure (and displeasure) with Meyer’s universe. Moreover, Erzen simultaneously documents the commodification and consumerism attached to Twilight, the glorification of heterosexuality and marriage, and the unpleasant representations of women as damsels (constantly) in distress. Erzen is at her best in both her close readings of the novels and her interactions with fans. What emerges is an indictment on modern girlhood and womanhood in the twenty-first century, in which fiction reinforces the cultural norm of monogamy and heterosexuality despite the dissatisfaction of women in both modern romance and marriage. Fans want to live in the world of Twilight to both escape from and conform to societal demands and pressures. They also want to live in a world rife with enchantment, in which a sparkly vampire or a shirtless werewolf would sweep them off their feet into a world of eternal love and passion. This romance between Bella and Edward, human and vampire, appears almost perfect above the messy ordinariness of mundane lives, which can be remarkably disenchanting. Edward and Bella’s creepy imbalanced relationship, however, is not unquestioned by fans, who quickly point out that the vampire is a possessive stalker. Fans also critique their beloved books to emphasize the obvious flaws of not only Edward but also Bella. The fantasy is not above criticism by fans. Yet the world Stephenie Meyer creates is palpable and desirable, but it also recreates the tired gender norms that fans are seeking to escape.
The books echo a well-worn refrain of all romance novels: love conquers all. But, this love only works if young women sacrifice and suffer for it. Bella’s dependence on Edward and continual effacement of self proves troubling as a model for both womanhood and love. Additionally, the attachment of “legitimate” love to heterosexual marriage is equally problematic. In the Twilight universe, partners are required for each person, not optional, and each coupling is heterosexual and eternal. People are not complete, the books suggest, unless safely enmeshed in the bounds of monogamy. Stephenie Meyer is a member of the Church of Latter Day Saints, and Erzen notes the echoes of Mormon celestial marriage in these pairings. Eternal, passionate love becomes the goal, and the options appear always limited to this vision of romance and marriage.
Moreover, Bella enters a world in which the over-protective vampire Edward makes choices for her. Erzen aptly notes that the now commonplace vision of “empowerment through choice” makes the female fans “weary” (12). This rendering of agency obscures the social and historical realities that make certain choices possible or not for women. The novels, then, illuminate popular postfeminist fantasies, in which women have achieved near equality with men. The novels build on larger trends that suggest that the work of feminism is now done. Bella can be a heroine in her passivity because it is her choice, and thus, it is her empowerment. What Erzen makes clear is that this fantasy of unlimited agency ignores the broader societal restraints and cultural pressures on young women in American culture. Her discussion of the conflicting expectations placed on women in both our public and private lives is as incisive as it is disheartening. The popularity of the series demonstrates the frustration many female fans, young and old, feel with their lives and the seeming plethora of illusive choices. The narratives of empowerment via choice ignore the social locations of fans, economic, racial, and gendered, and the constraints of where they are placed. The power and appeal of this postfeminist fantasy is that choices we are taken away, even if we never had them in the first place.
What Erzen also describes in intriguing detail is both the fans’ hope for a community and the longing for enchantment. Fandom “might actually…allow you to momentarily transcend your ordinary life, transform, and fulfill yourself” (55). Unsurprisingly, products do some of this work. Replicas of Bella’s engagement ring, bumper stickers, conventions, t-shirts, posters, and even sexual aids aim to enchant after the power of the books or films have worn off. For some, the fandom extends farther as some become “devotees” to “Cullenism,” a system that mimics religion and promotes the ideals of Twilight. Some fans oppose Cullenism as an imposter religion that takes fandom too far. Erzen aptly notes that much of the heated discussion about this particular form of devotion “presupposes that we know religion when we see it” and “that it is always distinct from popular culture” (62). What intrigues Erzen is not whether fandom is religious or not but “the collective effervescence and even transcendence of being part of the fandom publicly and privately” (62). Fans, thus, engage one another in what is at stake in devotion to the series and how it fits in with religious affiliations and imaginations. Some push even further to describe Edward and Bella’s love as representative of “the perfect love God has for us” (63).
While Cullenism might capture the attention of some readers, I think Erzen points something more important about the popularity of vampires in contemporary culture. She writes, “Twilight and other recent vampire books assume the supernatural as a facet of everyday life, and for fans, the boundary between the paranormal and the real world is porous” (71). While fans profess allegiance to religious institutions, they also readily embrace the supernatural (71). The supposed disenchantment of modernity disappears in every turn of the page. Why live in a world where everything is explained when one could live in enchanted, still mysterious universe? The embrace of supernaturalism becomes not a flight of fantasy separate from reality, but a keen desire that reality might be supernatural. Vampires and werewolves could fall in love with ordinary girls. Enchantment beckons. Yet, the inequalities remain in the “Fanpire” as unavoidable in fantasy as they are in everyday lives.