"Twilight" of our youth

It isn't just a tween phenomenon. Women in their 30s and beyond are addicted to Stephenie Meyer's vampire saga, too

Published November 17, 2009 12:17AM (EST)

Thirty-four-year-old Charlotte remembers when "Twilight" first sank its teeth in her. She was sick and homebound one rainy day when she noticed the movie on her cable on-demand. She blushes to say that, actually, she'd seen Catherine Hardwicke's girl-meets-undead boy romance in the theater, and found herself strangely sucked in by the high-school operatics, the supercharged eroticism between bookish, 16-year-old Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) and her tormented love, the vampire Edward Cullen (the smashingly beautiful Robert Pattinson).

But something shifted that stormy afternoon while she curled up in bed, her husband off at work. She watched the movie. Twice. And then she went to the store and bought the book. Actually, she bought the whole series.

"Addicts talk about losing time, and that's exactly what it was like. I would be driving to work late, thinking, how many hours just went by?"

Charlotte (who, like many of the women interviewed for this story, preferred to remain anonymous) wants you to know this is not typical behavior. "The books I buy are never the ones displayed two feet inside the store," she says. She's currently reading Nick Hornby's "Juliet, Naked." Her favorite movie is "Harold and Maude." She thinks the Replacements' Paul Westerberg hung the moon. And yet, she could not tear herself from a young-adult title charitably referred to as comfort food and eviscerated in one Psychology Today article as "covert lessons of feminine subjection, abjection, and erasure of self." Charlotte refers to her obsession, tongue firmly in cheek, as "the Indian summer of my adolescence." You could also call it the twilight of her youth.

It is common wisdom that girls are cracked out on "Twilight." "No other writer in recent memory has quite tapped into adolescent yearning and girlhood fantasies about being desired," Vanity Fair's Evgenia Peretz recently wrote of author Stephenie Meyer. But as "New Moon," the second installment in the four-part series, prepares its blitzkrieg on mulitplexes this Friday, the phenomenon is still largely discussed in terms of screaming, crush-stricken young girls, like the literary equivalent of the Backstreet Boys. "Twilight's" reach, it turns out, is far greater. You don't sell 70 million books and become the No. 1 DVD of 2009 courtesy of baby-sitting money alone.

Laura Miller wrote about the grown-up aspect of Twi-fandom way back in July of 2008, but since then, the market has exploded: In October, a Nordstrom employee complained that life-size cardboard cutouts of "Twilight" star Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner, his romantic rival Jacob, were being stolen -- by middle-aged ladies. OK! magazine, a tabloid geared toward adult women, has practically transformed into "Twilight" fan fiction, with no fewer than 22 covers of the past year devoted to the stormy relationship between K-Stew and R-Patz, as the on-screen couple is winkingly known. Etsy even offers jewelry for the discerning fan, like this pendant that reads, "Edward prefers cougars."

Last summer, it seemed as though every 30-something female I knew was reading "Twilight." And these were not literary middlebrows who consider Dan Brown the Shakespeare of our time. A 33-year-old magazine editor and frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review lent me her copy. "You'll read it in a night," she said, plopping the massive 500-page tome in my hand. A 37-year-old Ph.D. candidate I know read the book after her dissertation chair recommended it. I saw it on the subway and on airplanes, on the bookshelves and desks of women my age, women just like me.

Part of this was mere cultural curiosity; who hasn't wondered what the hell is going on with Team Jacob and Team Edward, with the "Twilight" action figures, sex toys and slash fiction? Adults' diving into youth culture has little of its one-time stigma. In an essay for the Believer, Sam Lipsyte joked about the "the adult diapers of Harry Potter." How many audience members at "Where the Wild Things Are" wore hoodies and Converse sneakers? (And does that suggest they were 13, or 41?) Today's grown-ups are more comfortable than perhaps any previous generation holding on to the playthings of childhood. They own Wiis. They play Rock Band. They love Hello Kitty. There's a name for this: Kidults.

But there is something particularly profound about women long past their teen years bitten by "Twilight." The relationship can be intense. One acquaintance went so far as to say the book "made her believe in love again."

"This is what I call 'true love-ism,'" Laura Miller told me. "True love-ism is the secular religion of America, one that all of us can believe in. What's appealing about Edward is his certainty. He craves Bella monogamously. The book feeds the delusion that an erotic god could love you, and that he'd also be faithful." Miller sees the books as straight-ahead romance novels. In her 2008 review, she wrote, "Despite their gothic trappings [they] represent a resurrection of the most old-fashioned incarnation of the genre. They summon a world in which love is passionate, yet (relatively) chaste, girls need be nothing more than fetchingly vulnerable, and masterful men can be depended upon to protect and worship them for it."

Funny enough, none of the dozen or so women I spoke to for this story self-identified as a fan of romance novels  (a genre that is, indisputably, associated with women in their 30s, 40s and 50s). Kirsten Starkweather came to "Twilight" through a different obsession entirely -- a friend in her "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" fan group insisted she read it. Starkweather is a 40-year-old mother and wife who works part-time doing medical billing for a physical rehab agency from her home in the Fresno suburb of Clovis, Calif. -- "not the most exciting place to live," she admits. She bought "Twilight" reluctantly and let it linger on her shelf for months. But when she finally cracked it open, she describes the same magical time-loss as Charlotte. "I think I put it down when I finished it at 4 a.m.," she says. "By the time I had finished two chapters, I had ordered the next two books."

She was drawn in by the "fumbling first love," by the rupture caused when that love implodes. Like Bella, a child of divorce who cooks dinner every night for her father and emotionally manages her unstable mother, Kirsten was a caretaker, a mother of a 7-year-old who had also spent the past decade caring for her beloved grandmother, who had just passed away when Kirsten found the book.

Kirsten ventured online to find others like her. Instead she waded through "page after page of 13-year-old girls cooing over how hot Edward was," she says. "I didn't feel embarrassed so much as I felt alone." But then she found Twilight Moms.

You can't talk about adult "Twilight" fans without mentioning Twilight Moms, or Twi-Moms, as they are known. Many women I spoke with for this story defined their fandom according to their allegiance, or lack thereof, with Twi-Moms. ("I'm not one of those crazy Twilight Moms," one interviewee said. Whereas another bragged about opening her own local chapter.) Founded by Lisa Hansen, Twilight Moms has ballooned into a phenomenon in its own right, with a strong presence at Twilight conventions ("TwiCon," naturally). When Kirsten Starkweather joined in December 2007 she was the 86th member. There are now more than 37,000.

If the idea of "Twilight Moms" sounds comical, well, at least they seem to be in on the joke. A cheeky "history" of the group on the Web site asks, "Have you imagined your husband is a vampire (or werewolf) and suddenly have the libido of newlywed again? Do you convince yourself that 'cold cereal' makes a perfectly wholesome dinner? Is the pizza delivery boy now on your Christmas card list?"

Kirsten is lucky; her husband of 11 years totally gets it. He runs his own community Web site for military-scale modelers. He's even indulged her by listening to the books on tape during a long car trip. And the Twilight Moms have become not merely fellow fans but also close friends. They talk about families and marriages. They talk about their irritation with Bella. (Bella is often an object of annoyance, even among superfans. One dismissed her as "an obnoxious bore.") They talk about Edward, of course. How smart and old-fashioned and well-mannered he is. Like many interviewees, Kirsten sees Edward as a dashing mix of Heathcliff from "Wuthering Heights" and Mr. Darcy of "Pride and Prejudice." (HarperCollins has even rereleased "Wuthering Heights," Bella's favorite book, with "Twilight"-themed covers.) Like Darcy, Edward is rich and talented but also aloof, difficult.

"It sounds like a lot of women have aloof, difficult fathers," says analyst Colette Dowling. "What you're drawn to is what you didn't get and a desire to rework and master that. I can imagine it's a powerful fantasy that this beautiful, aloof guy loves you at last. It's the ultimate oedipal solution."

Dowling has never read "Twilight" but agreed to talk with me about the phenomenon anyway. That's because Dowling is not merely an analyst, but she is also the author of the 1981 book "The Cinderella Complex," which explored women's unconscious desire to be taken care of, even at a time when feminism made independence more attainable than ever. More than a quarter-century has passed since that book came out, but Dowling still sees the same underlying anxiety. "For some women there is a tremendously strong resistance to creating your own life and the effort that takes. Their interest in 'Twilight' suggests there must be some need for a kind of protection, that there is some fear they can't really take care of themselves."

Laura Miller offered a similar analysis in an e-mail. "Bella relates to Edward much as a child does to a parent. His superhuman strength and powers, his wealth, his competency at all sorts of challenging activities, his vastly superior knowledge of the world and experience -- that's what adults look like to small children. He will protect her and provide for her, but also encourage her within the limits of that protection. That overwhelming power dynamic is both attractive if you're resisting adulthood and also erotic just as a sexual fantasy. But you're not supposed to want it, so it helps that it comes dressed up in the vampire guise."

"Twilight" fans are hopelessly split on the nature of Edward and Bella's relationship. Many described it as romantic, tapping into a craving for love that is practically embedded in our DNA. "The idea that someone you think is amazing sees you in a way that you want, a way that's different than you see yourself? It's intoxicating. We all want to be seen and appreciated," says Charlotte. Others expressed a frustration approaching contempt.

"I hate that Bella subordinates her whole existence to Edward's," writes Melanie, a fellow writer who leapt at the chance to rant about her guilty pleasure. "I really detest that the message to young girls is that marriage and motherhood -- even at the expense of your independence and even your life -- are the ultimate goals for women. Some people call 'Twilight' 'abstinence porn'; I prefer to think of it as heteronormative porn. I really wish Bella would have chosen neither boy, gone on to Dartmouth, gotten her degree, maybe experimented with lesbianism, and established a career before settling down and making babies."

But "Buffy" this ain't. (The popular video mashup "Buffy vs. Edward" mocks the stalky paternalism of our "Twilight" hero.) Stephenie Meyer is a Mormon whose book reflects her traditional values -- no graphic language, no graphic sex (one fan called it "three books of blue balls"), and sure as hell no righteous Sapphic interludes. It's so stodgily old-fashioned as to be almost funny. As the wry, self-mocking "Twilight" blogger at Cleoland puts it, "Twilight means never having to say you're kidding." In her hilarious write-up of "New Moon," Cleo fumed, "I hope the Twilight Moms are talking to their daughters about the role models set forth in this book. 'Honey, I know it hurts when Robert Sparkleson breaks up with you, but in real life, you're going to have to deal with it. Attempted suicide by thug is not healthy.'"

Of course, who said every piece of pop culture we consume has to be healthy and empowering? I don't remember the Rolling Stones doing much for feminism either, but "Under My Thumb" is still a damned irresistible little tune. " I am clearly not reading the books for any literary merit," says Jenny, a lawyer and mother of two who went to an Ivy League school. "I think that 'Twilight' is the ultimate teen girl’s fantasy -- and we all still have that teen girl buried somewhere inside of us, no matter how old we are."

"Maybe this is too personal," says Charlotte, "but I wasn't as careful with my virginity, with my heart and my body, when I was a teenager, and maybe that's where I'm escaping to. I'm rescuing the shy virgin in me that didn't get to be a shy virgin as long. I want Bella to be protected. And Edward does that. Albeit in a scary, dangerous way." She's careful to say, however, that her regression is pretty benign. It's not like she actually wants to be 15 again.

"How much more grown-up can I be?" she asks. "I'm married. I pay taxes. I own two businesses. I'm working through a marriage. Marriage is grown-up. I like my life. But there's probably some deep need to shut out the world for a while. Because the world is so fucking intrusive."

Actually, what "Twilight" has brought flooding back for many fans is not just the high drama of first love and betrayal but warm memories of a different relationship altogether.

"For so many of these women, this is the first book they've read cover to cover in 10 years," says Kirsten Starkweather. "Now they're grabbing the new book, whatever it is."

Charlotte agrees. "Reading is an act of defiance in the world today. I owe Stephenie Meyer a thank you note for reminding me of that."

And at a time when smart movies for women still seem frustratingly, mind-numbingly rare, Chris Weitz's "New Moon" has already sold out in thousands of theaters. Kirsten will be at a midnight showing at a two-day Twilight Mom event in Salt Lake City. Charlotte is planning to go with two other women -- one two years older and one a decade younger.

"I’m curious how many people like me are going to be in that theater," says Charlotte. "I know I’m not alone. I’m just not sure if I’m scared or comforted by that." 

By Sarah Hepola

Sarah Hepola is the author of the New York Times bestselling memoir, "Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget."

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