On Taylor Swift and Twilight

***Spoiler Alert: I will talk about things that happen in all four novels by Stephenie Meyer (Twilight, New Moon, Eclipse, Breaking Dawn)***

UPDATE: for Lillian DeRitter’s response to this post, see Response to On Taylor Swift and Twilight. Also, Sinead aptly summed up the attitude of most of my friends towards the Twilight series in her Little Dead Girls comic.

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There has been a question which has been bothering me for a few weeks: what do “Love Song” by Taylor Swift and the Twilight Series by Stephenie Meyer have in common?

It has something to do with the female character’s and their relationships, but I wasn’t sure what. It all started a few weeks ago when I recently taught a great class for Girl Scouts on Alice and singing.

I taught the girls to make music videos for their favorite songs using Alice. Of the 17 girls in the class, 7 did videos using a song from Taylor Swift, another 6 something by the Jonas Brothers, 1 did a hip-hop video, 1 some indie punk group, and 2 girls animated songs from Wicked. Now, I am not ignorant of OJD (Obsessive Jonas Brothers Disorder), but was surprised by Taylor Swift’s popularity because I had never heard of her.

So I look her up on YouTube. A country-turned-pop singer of 18, she famous for her self-written lyrics and golden curls. Watching her “Love Story” music video, something about it harmonized with my memories of Twilight by Stephenie Meyer.

Here is the video of “Love Story”. Go here for the lyrics.

I will publicly declare: I enjoyed reading Twilight by Stephenie Meyer.

I have found this is a dangerous thing to say.

I have had several friends revoke their respect for my opinion upon discovering that I enjoy teenie-bopper fluff. I have had near strangers react with a disgust more appropriate for those who contract Palinism (worship of Sarah Palin) or preferred Xenocide to Ender’s Game.

Here are my friends’ top 10 arguments against the Twilight series.

  1. The lead female character lacks agency
  2. It exults marriage
  3. It promotes Victorian values
  4. Strict gender roles are enforced
  5. It is anti-feminist
  6. It is sex negative
  7. True love is an excuse for self-destructive behavior
  8. It has subversive Mormon morals
  9. It portrays stalking as romantic
  10. Edward is an abusive boyfriend

Now, I believe you could say the top 5 things about Taylor Swift’s “Juliet” in her “Love Story”.

And you know what? I enjoyed “Love Story” as well.

Critics, other than my friends, argue that Stephenie Meyer’s series is anti-feminist because the lead character is allowed to break down when she and Edward breakup. They rip Ms Meyer to shreds for having Edward refuse to have sex before marriage. They moan about the gender roles implied when Edward and Bella marry out out of high school (this is a little complex). They complain Bella enjoys cooking for her Dad. They object to Bella not kicking anyone’s butt.

I agree with some of their other criticisms. Edward watching Bella sleep all the time is creepy, and crosses a line. Edward’s refusal to negotiate on how far he and Bella go sexually is profoundly stubborn, and maybe even a little sex negative. Bella’s self-destruction after Edward leaves her is drastic, but, having recently been a 16 year old, her reaction is not unrealistic.

Parents should talk to their children about relationship expectations after reading the Twilight series (no, your boyfriend should not buy you a car new stereo. No, he should not ignore you at school days after being nice. No, he shouldn’t get so worried about you he watches you sleep all night). But I know my mom talked to me about relationship expectations after reading Anne McCaffrey and Tamora Pierce. Think of it this way: would you let a 13-year-old read Huckleberry Finn with no background on slavery in America? Read Kim without a conversation about British imperialism? Read “A Mid Summer’s Night Dream” without talking about self-respect in relationships?

I am thinking particularly of Helena’s entreaty to Demetrius:

And even for that do I love you the more.
I am your spaniel; and, Demetrius,
The more you beat me, I will fawn on you:
Use me but as your spaniel, spurn me, strike me,
Neglect me, lose me; only give me leave,
Unworthy as I am, to follow you.

SCENE I. A wood near Athens.

Bella is no Helena. Yes, she is self-conscious, enjoys cooking, is absurdly in love with Edward, and gets injured by both supernatural friends and foes.

But she also builds motorcycles, risks her life for her family, tries to get over Edward, and becomes the psychically strongest vampire in known history.

No, Edward and Bella’s relationship is not ideal: he is obsessive; she is naive; both lack a sense of self-preservation within their relationship. But that does not make the series anti-feminist. A series’ value is not only in its positive images, its healthy relationships, its empowering themes. Its value could be in the conversations it fertilizes between friends, mothers and daughters, between strangers on blogs.

I think the critique which bothers me the most about the Twilight series is that it is anti-feminist. Not because I am a crazy Twilighter–but because I feel calling any fiction anti-feminist is a disservice to feminism.

I believe being a feminist means supporting the widest range of choices possible for all people regardless of their gender. Men can be teachers and nurses; women can be programmers and lawyers; both women and men can enjoy cooking–and building motorcycles; both women and men can decide to have sex before marriage–or not.

Given this definition, I don’t know how any literature is anti-feminist. Literature, especially fantasy, is about providing an external window into our world; creating a careful distance from which we can observe ourselves.

The same can be said of music. Listening to Taylor Swift is escapism, yes. But, just as with Twilight, she is not required to present only positive, empowering images. There is value also in comparing college courtship rituals with those in “Romeo and Juliet”, even value in enjoying the lovely dress and the handsome man in her music video.

In real life I would never say:

Romeo save me – I’ve been feeling so alone.
I keep waiting for you but you never come.
Is this in my head? I don’t know what to think–

And I would absolutely never react happily to hearing from a “Romeo”:

Marry me, Juliet–you’ll never have to be alone.
I love you and that’s all I really know.
I talked to your dad–go pick out a white dress;
It’s a love story – baby just say “Yes.”

It is not anti-feminist to think it would be romantic to be swept off of your feet. It is anti-feminist to think you have to be.

Inspirational Quote:

“I decided as long as I was going to hell, I might as well do it thoroughly.”
Edward Cullen, Twilight, Chapter 5, p.87

5 Comments

  1. Yay! I liked Twilight too — and I get annoyed by the same criticisms. For goodness sake, it’s a teen romance novel! Not every girl is physically strong and athletic, and Bella’s softness was intended to be a contrast to Edward’s brittleness. I liked Bella, and sympathized a lot with her, and if I occasionally wanted her to sensible and powerful, I looked at my own daughters, and remembered that she’s a teenager. As you say, this isn’t a guide to girl life, but a story, and powerful in its own right.

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