Friday, November 6, 2009

The Daily Telegraph Pontificates on Twilight Phenom

The Daily Telegraph has a recent article on why they think Stephanie Meyer's Twilight Saga books are so popular and why one of her leading characters, Edward, is so appealing. Here is what they have to say on the subject:

Come inside the world of the Twilight phenomenon

THE most desirable man you've ever seen approaches and confesses he is in love with you. He also mentions that he fantasises about killing you and has sneaked into your bedroom to watch you sleep. Would you run away in a blind panic or fall helplessly in love? Unlikely as it may seem, millions of women have fallen under the spell of 17-year-old vampire and Twilight hero Edward Cullen, who longs to kill the love of his life because her blood is irresistible to him.

Despite its twisted foundations, the four books in the wildly-popular Twilight saga by US author Stephenie Meyer have been flying off the shelves of bookshops here and overseas, spawning a movement of fans who call themselves "Twi-hards". Their faith in the phenomenon is as unshakeable as it is impenetrable. Decoding the appeal of Twilight is not a straightforward task and its intrigue lies in the mindset of its vast army of readers.

Beginning in the tiny, isolated US town of Forks, Bella Swan comes face-to-face with the dark side of love when she finds a supernatural soulmate in Edward Cullen, a handsome, brooding vampire.

The Twilight premise is unoriginal and in spite of the sugary cliches, or, one might argue, because of them, the books have become one of those inexplicable publishing goldmines, the first post-Harry Potter phenomenon. It unashamedly targets teenage girls and women in general with the story of a bloodthirsty high school romance and burgeoning love affair with tame supernatural thrills.

A number of elements draw readers to Twilight. "Some girls are looking for romance and this vampire obsession has them thinking it would be exciting to have some danger in a relationship . . . (others) feel the world doesn't understand them and they identify with misunderstood creatures," says high school teacher Jacky Foley.

Twilight lays claim to a dark, gothic-romantic pedigree, but to compare Twilight and other books in the series to classic works such as Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights would be a mistake similar to comparing sitcoms with Shakespeare or the Spice Girls with Mozart.
"Twilight is not aiming to be great literature," University of Sydney media lecturer Dr Megan Le Masurier says.

"It's a vampire novel, but every genre has its merits."

Twilight is pop-culture entertainment, a teen soap opera in book form. To the uninitiated, a vampire romance novel with stock characters such as the Damsel in Distress and the Handsome Undead Hero may seem like schlock-horror, but teenage girls, their mothers and young women have led the charge to demand all things Twilight.

In doing so, they turned the author, mother-of-three Meyer, into a multi-millionaire. "I'm waiting for the rug to be pulled out from under me," she says of her success.

In terms of vampire tales, Twilight is far from original. The vampire/human love story has undergone many incarnations, most notably Buffy The Vampire Slayer and True Blood, both of which predate the Twilight franchise.

What works to its advantage is its unfailingly old-fashioned romantic hero, Edward Cullen. He is pale, mysterious and brooding, a typical gothic leading man. He has genuine attacks of conscience as he muses over killing the love of his (eternal) life, Bella Swan, since her blood is irresistible to him. Women fans can't get enough of him. Perhaps this is because they do not see Twilight as a vampire narrative.

According to the books' publisher, Hachette Livre, the appeal lies in the lighter realm of romantic fantasy rather than in the hypnotic darkness of a vampire tale.

"The books are so popular because they perfectly capture the agonising and fantasising most teenage girls go through when they're infatuated," says Twilight publicist Nicola Pitt. "What surprises me is that teenage girls who read Twilight are pining for a chivalry they've never known."

In this context, Cullen appears to have more in common with Cary Grant than Count Dracula but interestingly, while Edward is lauded for his old-world heroism, many teenage girls find the quiet and submissive Bella irritating and one-dimensional, with neither independence nor interests outside her love for the vampire Edward and her friendship with Jacob Black. In a supernatural conflict of interest, Jacob turns out to be a werewolf.

"The character of Bella . . . really annoyed me," Foley says. "She had no real depth or thoughts of her own, and she didn't make much of an impression on the girls at school. On the other hand, Edward and Jacob did."

For all the books' popularity, Twilight's ultimate conclusion, dealing with themes such as marriage immediately after high school and a vampire baby born to a teenage mother, grates for some of the series's most ardent fans.

It's the reaction of modern girls to a Stepford world view, but Cullen's appeal nonetheless remains strong. It seems his willingness to love a human as flawed as Bella - rather than Bella's readiness to be loved by him - has kept readers and filmgoers coming back for more.
Beauty is another constant of the Twilight series, and for many fans, beauty feeds desire. Twilight's vegetarian vampires could easily pass for a pack of runway models, and an overwhelming amount of Cullen's appeal is cosmetic. Teenage girls were initially drawn to the excessive descriptions of his physical perfection in the books and when British actor Robert Pattinson was chosen to play Edward in the Twilight films, they found a flesh-and-blood target for their affections.

This is not to say fans do not have a deeper attachment to the books. In fact, question the merits of Twilight and hardcore supporters bite back ferociously. Some even sport elaborate Twilight tattoos, with many flocking to online forums to compare body art.

Others gather to discuss scenes as translated from page to screen and congregate in bookshops to celebrate Bella's fictional birthday. The phenomenon cannot be attributed to teenage delirium. Official figures show women over the age of 25 are a driving force behind the Twilight machine.
"(We had) a diverse group, from teens to the 20-somethings, who were the real experts, up to a much older crowd, and they were as excited as the teens," says Megan O'Brien from Shearers Bookshop in Leichhardt where Bella Swan's birthday party was held on September 13.
"For women waiting for a real-life love, Twilight is the perfect fantasy vehicle," smiles 40-something fan Melinda Bilbey. "Also, as an older reader, Bella's experiences echo back to my youth and I remember what it meant to fall in love for the first time."

Danger drives excitement, and whether it's an attraction to a not-so-suitable boy or extreme sports (one may argue being courted by a vampire is a form of extreme dating), Cullen has the potential to thrill. With his supernatural abilities and unearthly beauty, he bewitched Bella and millions of girls.

"Every generation has its own bad boy," says Le Masurier. Cullen just happens to be the sort of bad boy who advocates marriage before sex in an age when it's no longer fashionable to do so. With one notable exception in the fourth book, Twilight (which some jokingly refer to as "the abstinence manual") stops short of titillating its readers, possibly in keeping with Meyer's strict Mormon views. "The cultural context for this position is obviously religious and tells us much about the power of the religious right in America," Le Masurier says.

Foley believes the books' conservative message could have positive implications.
"Twilight stressed the need to get to know someone well before any intimacy could really take place. The schoolgirls appreciated the tension of the relationship as it left them guessing what would happen next, unlike lots of teenage relationships seen on TV," she says.

While sex is canvassed throughout the saga, the action is limited to conversation. Curiously, the characters think about it, discuss it, and then launch into lengthy explanations about the necessity to abstain until marriage. In the case of Edward and Bella, abstinence may be common sense. Human/supernatural relations are unlikely to have positive outcomes.

The success of Twilight raises another obvious question: why vampires? The answer is just as obvious: why not? Vampires have never completely faded from the pop-culture radar. Ten years ago, it was Buffy and Angel. Before Buffy, Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles introduced a tortured Vampire Louis and cackling Vampire Lestat to millions of enthusiastic horror fans. Before that, Salem's Lot, Dark Shadows and Nosferatu and, of course, Count Dracula himself, intrigued, frightened and delighted scores of readers and viewers with searing glimpses into the darker side of human nature.

Such tales traditionally centre on outsiders, but the vampires of Twilight are outsiders because they are perfect, airbrushed versions of human beings and thus do all their intimidating via hair gel and designer labels rather than fangs and bloodlust. The harmlessness of Twilight's vampires provides fodder for jokes as a result, with True Blood star Stephen Moyer labelling Cullen the "Diet Coke" of vampires. As such, it might be argued Twilight is a romance novel that happens to involve vampires, rather than a vampire novel that happens to involve romance.

So what about the appeal of intense, undying love and the fantasy of the perfect man? This is a thorny area. Edward and Bella enter into a frightening everlasting love-or-instant-death relationship, with Bella gravitating towards a boy who openly admits to fantasising about taking her life, and this situation is rife with implications of an abusive relationship.

What redeems Edward in the eyes of readers is his willingness to battle his own vampire nature so he can be a proper boyfriend to Bella.

"Edward is well-educated, youthful yet mature, and he is the ultimate protector," Bilbey says. "He is a romantic at heart. He's also wealthy, but doesn't shower Bella with expensive gifts. Instead, he gives her priceless gifts like her lullaby." (For non-readers, Cullen composes a lullaby for Swan, which gave rise to initiatives such as The Bella Cullen Project, a group of American girls who released an album filled with Twilight-inspired songs.)

The success of the series and the female obsession with Cullen understandably leaves some wondering what all the fuss is about: "I read Twilight after a friend told me it was the next Harry Potter, but it didn't really appeal to me and it's lots more sexual than people let on. It's like a Mills and Boon novel for teenage girls," law student Chris Parkin, 22, says.

Regardless, it is increasingly apparent the success of Twilight lies in the fact it is driven by female desire. The books provide a guide to what many women secretly yearn for. Whether young girls are discovering chivalry with a modern face, or older women are recalling first loves or dreaming of dangerous love to come, Twilight as a piece of popcorn fiction, and the dashing Mr Cullen, are feeding unfulfilled desires.


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