Twilight, the Anti-Fan, and the Culture Wars
by Dan Haggard
What is the cause of the astonishing schism surrounding Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight saga? The internet has become a scorched earth of rabid fans (so called twihards) and anti-fans doing battle over the legitimacy of Twilight as a cultural product. What is it exactly about Twilight that inspires these extreme reactions? How exactly should these novels and movies be evaluated? What is the ultimate explanation of the battle lines drawn over such a derivative and ordinary cultural object? In this review I’m going to delve deep into these questions. We’ll learn much about the nature of the fan and anti-fan and explore the dark psychology that drives them both.
The Twilight Fans (Twihards)
That there are Twilight fans is not in itself the most significant component of the strange dualism under investigation. The concept of the “fan” has been around for a long time. They are often lampooned for their extreme predilection for fantasy and escapism – their willingness to disregard societal norms regarding dress and behavior in order to become a part, however ineffectually, of the fantasy they so admire. Hence the fan is laughed at for donning Vulcan ears, parodied for obsessing about irrelevant minutiae of nerdish lore, or dismissed as a silly little teenage girl for screaming at a high pitch tone over the arrival of Miley Cyrus.
One can lament the double standard in fan appreciation – why it is that a sports fan for instance, who obsesses about a ball and its trajectory into an arbitrarily placed net, is not so maligned as other kinds of fans. But this question, though seldom asked, has always been implicit in the existence of fans and their strange behavior. It is not what makes the existence of the twilight fan interesting. The twilight fan is interesting because of reports (however well substantiated) of a degree of extremism that goes beyond what is acceptable, even when considered from a perspective relative to standard fan obsession.
The point here is not so much whether twilight fans are any more extreme than standard fans, but that there is a perception that they are so. This perception is partly caused by websites like My Life is Twilight – a short read of which will reveal a number of disturbing anecdotes. For example:
Today my friend told everyone she was a vampire and was adopted by the Cullens, she then smiled evilly and said Bella was taken care of and Edward was hers. MLIT
Then there are reports (unsubstantiated) of Twilight Fans engaging in acts of violence against anti-fans:
My brother(11) has been an anti-in-training for like ,2 months and he has already had more fangirl encounters than me.
Today a random girl came up to him and wen, “Do you like Twilight?” He said no and then went through all the rational I tell him all the time. Well the girl just turns around an slugs him. No warning, no nothing. Then when he was walking out the door she slammed the door in his face.
ANd this is in sixth grade!
As it turns out, there are no actual reports of fan violence by Twihards that any reputable news organisation has thought worthy of reporting – at least, upon searching both Factiva and Google News, I can’t find any. Of course, if you do a generic search for “fan violence” on either of these you’ll see a huge list of news reports of sports related fan violence by men – and yet male sports fans never seem to have inspired the same kind of internet based campaign of hatred that Twilight fans have inspired.
This perception of twilight fans is probably an exaggeration borne of a pre-existing hatred as opposed to any kind of substantive reality. The My Life is Twilight website is certainly bizarre - but similar silliness can be found in other fan realms. The following video from the film “Trekkies” is a case in point. In the clip, a star trek fan obsessively tries to recreate technology from the Star Trek films:
This pre-existing hatred toward Twilight fans no doubt comes from the content of the Twilight Saga itself. It is derided as so bad that anyone who likes it must be in some way defective. To address this sort of accusation we’ll have to look at the texts themselves. But first let’s look briefly at the anti-fan.
The Twilight Anti Fan
The Anti-Fan is different from someone who merely dislikes a text or film – they actively hate it and seek to modify other people’s perceptions of those texts in a way that more closely resembles their own. They tend to resent the success of the particular cultural artifact in question and seek to undermine that success or even destroy it entirely as a public, cultural object. Somewhat ironically, they usually succeed in neither – often serving to bring in more people who curiously take up the text to see what the fuss is all about.
The notion of the anti-fan has gained a degree of academic respectability of late because of a paper by J. Gray, who argues that the study of the anti-fan is crucial in understanding of how it is that people come to understand and interact with texts (in Gray’s language: how it is they “create texts”). The important questions are why it is that the Anti-Fan ends up perceiving a given text in such a radically different way to the fan, and why don’t they simply adopt a passive non-fan, or disinterested approach. Why is a given text ever perceived as a threat that must be fought and campaigned against?
In some cases, the answers to these questions are relatively straightforward. In the case of texts that are put forward as fact and present a negative view of a particular society or group, it’s understandable that the maligned group would feel threatened by such a text and would no doubt want to try to undermine its influence. A good example of this is the controversial, anti-islamic documentary: Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West. Whatever the factual legitimacy this documentary actually possesses, it’s a no-brainer that it would be negatively received by Muslim communities since it is put forward as being factual.
But it is much more difficult to find straightforward answers where the text in question is unambiguously fictional in nature. The Satanic Verses by Salmon Rushdie obviously comes to mind here. But there are countless other examples. Part of the concern of the anti-fan is that the fan is incapable of engaging with the text as ‘mere’ fiction and is therefore getting a warped view of what the world is like. A related concern is that although the fan might not be so deluded to think the fantasy real, they so want it to be that they end up aping elements of the fiction in a way that is either dangerous to themselves personally, or generally damaging to society as a whole.
Perhaps part of the anti-fan’s reaction to a text stems from a deep intuition about the nature of fiction itself. Philosophers have long argued about the semantics of fiction. Philosophers like Peter Van In Wagen, for instance, take all fiction to express straightforward falsities and hence aren’t used assertively to express truths. But other philosophers like Kendall Walton take, what is to my mind, a more commonsense view:
Is the absence of normal illocutionary force at least a necessary condition of a work’s being fiction? Writing fiction has often been said to be somehow incompatible with writing assertively. But it certainly is not. Assertions can be made in any number of ways: by producing a declarative sentence while delivering a lecture, by raising a flag, by honking a horn, by wearing a rose, by extending one’s arm through a car window. There is no reason why, in appropriate circumstances, one should not be able to make an assertion by writing fiction. Indeed there is a long tradition of doing just that. There is what we call didactic fiction – fiction used for instruction, advertising, propaganda, and so on. There is the not uncommon practice, even in ordinary conversation, of making a point by telling a story, of speaking in parables.
From Mimesis as make-believe, by Kendall Walton
The Anti-Fan may well approach texts from this intuitive perspective. While fiction may not be literally true, still they can be taken as parable – a structural representation of various features of reality. As such, certain fictions can be seen as threatening or dangerous, because it is a natural thing to view a particular text as parable. And the thought might be that many will be led astray.
The Twilight Story as Parable
So what exactly is so threatening about the Twilight Story? What is so dangerous about it that we need to take up arms with the anti-fan and fight against it? Is it a dangerous parable that threatens the mental health of our female youth?
There are an enormous number criticisms leveled against it that I can’t hope to cover them all. One that I think we can dismiss straightforwardly is that it is extremely poor literature and thereby retards the literary appreciation skills of its young female audience. There’s no doubt that the Twilight saga is extremely poor when viewed from a literary perspective. But that its audience is not developing a sophisticated literary sensibility is hardly the fault of Twilight. There are very few mainstream cultural products which are deserving of any literary kudos. So why should Twilight be singled out for this particular failing? Blame the overall culture which produces a market for the Twilight books.
The more damning criticisms involve the nature of the content itself. The female protagonist Bella is described as an enormous leap backward for feminism because of the way she obsesses over her dreamy vampire love, Edward Cullen. The relationship is described by many as abusive because Edward constantly puts her down, stalks her, tries to control her, abandons her and then takes her back.
Another criticism is that the novel is a form of abstinence porn. Edward and Bella can’t have sex because he fears he would lose control and kill her out of a desire for her blood. They only finally do so after marriage on their honey moon in the fourth novel. This belated carnal acts leads to Bella’s pregnancy and near death (because the half-breed vampire almost kills her on the way out) This leads the likes of Christine Seifert to argue that:
In reality, the abstinence message—wrapped in the genre of abstinence porn—objectifies Bella in the same ways that “real” porn might. The Twilight books conflate Bella losing her virginity with the loss of other things, including her sense of self and her very life. Such a high-stakes treatment of abstinence reinforces the idea that Bella is powerless, an object, a fact that is highlighted when we get to the sex scenes in Breaking Dawn.
Particularly when viewed as parable, the abstinence message would be threatening to progressives and secular activists. The abstinence debate is particularly vigorous in the United States, with many arguing that it leads to teen pregnancy.
One final criticism concerns the fact that Jacob, Bella’s other love interest falls instantly in love with Bella’s daughter as soon as she is borne. Far from perceiving this as romantic, it is perceived by many as encourage pedophilia. This is about as damning as you can get and doesn’t really require any further comment.
Alternative Readings of the Twilight Saga
I could go on to provide other examples but we have enough on the table for now. The point I want to make is that none of these readings are set in stone. I want to suggest a number of alternative readings which subvert all these criticisms. I don’t mean to suggest that any of these are the correct readings. I don’t think any such thing exists. But what I want the anti-fan to ask themselves, is whether they really do have any definitive reasons for choosing their readings over the alternatives I suggest.
Let’s start with the reading that the story glorifies and celebrates what is in reality an abusive relationship. The alternative reading is that the story is actually a critique and deconstruction of just this sort of relationship. After all, it portrays many negative consequences of Bella’s obsession. She suffers great amount of violence toward her person repeatedly and keeps going back for more. But isn’t this just what abused women actually do? If the argument is that Twilight celebrates this abuse on account of Bella’s choice to continually go back for more, then that would mean any honest presentation of domestic abuse against women would be similarly labelled as sympathetic.
It does transpire that Bella gets her happy ending at the end of the fourth novel – being allowed to spend eternity with Edward in supposed romantic bliss. But to get this she loses her humanity, her family and friends and, as Edward continually points out to her, possibly even her soul. It’s therefore fairly easy to argue that the happy ending has a fairly significant cost attached to it.
In terms of using a vampire allegory to explore the nature of an abusive relationship, it’s not even anywhere near the most extreme example that you can find in popular culture. In the television series created by Joss Whedon – Buffy the Vampire Slayer – the heroine Buffy also has a vampire lover called Angel that actually stalks her for years (as opposed to the months that Edward stalks Bella). When they end up having sex, the act causes Angel to lose his soul and turn into his evil counterpart Angelis who then spends his days trying to murder her and all her friends. Edward never achieves such an extreme. When he regains his soul Angel similarly abandons Buffy with the excuse that he puts her in danger, just as Edward does. And just like Edward, he is never able to let her go – even six or seven seasons later when he goes hunting for her in one of the final episodes of the Angel spin off series. Nor does buffy ever seem to learn from her mistakes as the abused victim. In a later series she has a torrid affair with a vampire called Spike and their sexual feats are violent in the extreme.
Rarely is Buffy criticized as a glorification of such abuse. Yes, she knows Karate, has super powers, and is much more capable of physical self defense than Bella. But to focus on the physical abilities granted to our heroines is somewhat superficial. Emotionally they are as weak as one another. In real life, if a woman learns some form of physical self defense to the extent that she can protect herself against physical attacks from an abusive husband, this is no defense from the emotional abuse a partner can afflict (from both men and women).
What about the fact that Bella abandons all her family and friends for someone who is such a bastard? What positive spin can we put on this? How can I deny that this signifies Bella’s obvious dis-empowerment? Well, the comparison that one can make between the Cullens and Bella’s normal friends and family is pretty obvious.
Bella ‘s father is shy and awkward – something that she has clearly inherited from him and is arguably a feature of her actual dis-empowerment. Her mother and step dad are flighty and seem to move around a lot, preventing Bella from grounding herself in a single location. Her friends are superficial and somewhat tedious – being into shopping, clothes and the like. When Bella satirically mocks their interests, they don’t even seem to possess the wit to notice.
The Cullen’s on the other hand are alluring in a way that her real life family are not. They seem functional and supportive of one another. They are traditionally nuclear in style, although the children are officially adopted. In one respect they represent everything a traditional conservative should want in a family. Yet the irony is that they all want to eat Bella (though they all work hard to suppress this urge). And what’s more, as I mentioned earlier, as vampires they are all soulless beasts. How can we reconcile this aspect?
Well – one thing you might do is read this as being symbolic of the way that traditional conservative values are in fact threatening to progressives. Perhaps the vampirism is symbolic of some of the negative features of the conservative view. For example, conservatives often argue for a free market with no regulation which many argue leads to exploitative institutions that literally suck an economy dry. The Cullen’s understand these negative aspects but reject them (reject feeding on humans), preferring to concentrate on the better aspects of the conservative view – family, conservative moral values… etc.
The fact Edward wishes to prevent Bella from being a vampire could be construed as symbolic of conservative shame in the face of progressivism. The conservative male figure is too afraid to assert his moral paradigm over Bella because of the shame that he feels over what he is (those bad tendencies he fights to control). Yet, the negative aspects of progressivist values are starkly portrayed in the failing of Bella’s mundane situation. In this respect, Bella is the conservative hero because she asserts her choice over the influences of her family and even Edward who in his shame tries to deny her wish.
Now I’m no fan of conservatism myself – but it’s difficult to deny that Bella displays this individual resilience with respect to her choice toward conservative values. And this fact is what reveals her internal strength. This is in stark contrast to the interpretation that construes her as weakly running back to an abusive boyfriend. Whatever your views of conservative values – it’s hard to deny that a case can be made for Bella’s independence and internally driven strength.
Finally, it’s worth pointing out that the entire vampire story was born of concept of the feminine hero rejecting her friends and family in order to love her monster, vampire lover. Just read Bram Stoker’s Dracula and you’ll see what I mean. There’s no particular reason why Twilight should be singled out. Hate Twilight? Hate the genre – it’s as simple as that.
As I’ve said, I don’t mean to claim that any of these readings are authoritative. I do claim that one can adduce substantive arguments in their favour. The question I posed concerning the anti-fan is what it is that leads them to choose their negative readings over these more positive interpretations? Given that it would be entirely rational to pick any of these interpretations – deferring to rational motivations is clearly not going to be enough of an explanation.
Now of course, you might argue that the second interpretation I just gave contradicts the first. It’s not consistent to view the novel both as a critique of abusive relationships and a celebration of conservative values. But it’s no part of my argument that the novel is particularly coherent in this respect. All these interpretations are possible, and none of them cohere. But this just suggests to me that as an instance of parable, the novels are simply incoherent. When carefully taken to pieces, it’s very hard to find any singular coherent parable that makes any sense at all.
But this just reinforces my point. Viewing these novels to me as genuinely threatening instances of parable seems to me to make about as much sense as viewing Star Wars – The Phantom Menace as parable. They are about on the same level of coherency in my opinion. It’s astonishing that so many people would come to feel threatened by a story that is as thematically incoherent as it is.
(There are of course plenty of anti-fans when it comes to star wars, but not because it presents a reality that many are disturbed by, but because it ruined a franchise that was much beloved. Twilight, though part of a genre, is it’s own franchise and only ruins itself. )
Explaining the Twilight Anti-Fan
If the Anti-Fan can’t be explained by reference to a rational and coherent, yet threatening parable that underlies the narrative structure of twilight. How is the Anti-Fan to be explained?
I think this is ultimately a question that has to be answered by empirical research. My own hunch is that the phenomenon is a largely irrational reaction designed to signify to others within a group, a person’s rejection of an opposing group. As is often the case in group politics, group cohesiveness is reinforced by the identification and rejection of an opposing paradigm or group. The process of ridicule and social violence enacted against the opposing group is a device designed to foster feelings of belonging among those seeking a greater degree of affiliation with one another.
I don’t think it’s any accident that the extreme levels of identification on both sides has occurred with this particular cultural object. As was shown in the famous Stanford Prison Study conducted by Philip Zimbardo, people tend to adopt the roles of the fictions in which they participate. It may be the case that the same occurs when people merely watch a fiction. Hence the twilight fan adopts the Bella role and plays out the fantasy of being the victim of abuse, from not only an Edward like character, but from those who criticize her for engaging in such obsession. The abuse comes from those playing the role of the friends and family who provide this criticism – yep, you guessed it: the anti-fan.
This would no doubt be an unwelcome conclusion for both fans and anti-fans of Twilight. Anti-fans in particular attack twilight fans for engaging in the kind of fantasy role playing related to the Twilight story. They would be particularly aghast to find that they too were adopting a role from the story and playing it out in real life. Hence, I think that such an explanation would be given short shrift by the anti-fan.
Yet, an explanation is still needed. Some academics like Dr Catherine Strong argue that anti-fan reactions to the Twilight series is simply an act of social violence toward a very vulnerable social group – teenage girls. I would agree, but to say that it is merely social violence doesn’t give us an explanation as to why this violence occurs. After all, teenage girls are extremely vulnerable. Why would anyone in their right mind try to make them feel worse about themselves? But that’s exactly what anti-fans of twilight actively seek to do. It’s a disturbing phenomenon and we need an explanation for it – and we need one that doesn’t demonize the anti-fans as well, as I feel Strong tries to do.
Ultimately, very few of us really understand the reasons behind the various actions we take toward our fellow human beings. The trick is to step back from the accusative and aggressive language and try to look at one another with a more neutral aspect. What we find is that most of us are determined by fairly unconscious and irrational forces. It’s fairly easy to spot such flaws in others, far harder to realize it in ourselves.