Another feminist defense of "Twilight"

Well, sort of. If nothing else, this phenomenon holds up a mirror to some fascinating parts of our culture

Published November 23, 2009 8:52PM (EST)

On Friday, I speculated there might be a feminist reason to defend the "Twilight" phenomenon (though not necessarily the content of the books or movies): If nothing else, its popularity could teach Hollywood that female audiences matter. In that respect (and several others), "Twilight Saga: New Moon" is off to an even better start than anticipated. According to Entertainment Weekly's Adam B. Vary, the movie shattered a bunch of opening weekend records -- with an 80 percent female audience. Says Vary, "movie theaters have not seen this much business since 'The Dark Knight' thundered into cineplexes in July 2008, and it bears repeating that all those dollar signs this weekend came by far from the purses, pocketbooks, and wallets of women."

All right, I'll officially say that's a good thing. And now Sady Doyle, occasional Broadsheet contributor and blogmistress of the fabulously named Tiger Beatdown, has gone and given me yet another feminist angle on "Twilight" to consider. ("Twilight" is officially the new Sarah Palin: I hate everything it stands for, but since so much of the reaction to it is sexist, I keep feeling compelled to defend it. Sigh.)

Doyle admits to a fondness for Robert Pattinson, who plays vampire Edward Cullen in the series, although she does not admit it's partly because he's hot. Other than that, she covers the reasons why I, too, am fond of the surprisingly candid and self-aware young star -- "Robert Pattinson talks shit about the projects he is in. Robert Pattinson is honest about the fact that he is not the best actor" -- with a bonus articulation of something I'd never considered: "And Robert Pattinson's main source of employment is facilitating his own objectification, which he does, but also complains about all the time. Robert Pattinson is... Megan Fox, basically!

That Fox/Pattz comparison is so apt, Sady's not even the only ladyblogger in my Google reader who made it today. And the difference in our reaction to each of those actors' being subjected to an audience's lustful gaze says a lot about who's meant to be looked at and who's meant to be listened to in this culture. "People outside the superfan matrix don't tend to have strong feelings about The Pattz," she writes, "but they do tend to get all squirmy and giggly and uncomfortable with the way that so many women relate to his filmed image (for example, by screen-printing it on their underpants) and/or his person." All that raw, ridiculous, pointless lust is just so unseemly. And when The Pattz speaks in interviews about how strange and oppressive it is to be the object of a million fangirl fantasies, or how awful his character is ("the more I read the script, the more I hated this guy"), those of us outside the superfan matrix like him more for it. That poor guy! He can't go anywhere! People expect him to be something he's not, just because he's good-looking and plays such a one-dimensional character, desperate people can project whatever they want onto him. Isn't that sad? But that whiny, stupid Fox girl, on the other hand -- where does she get off complaining about getting paid to look hot? "We have no problem with objectifying Megan Fox," says Doyle. "We just have a problem with everything she says, and specifically the things she says wherein she takes issue with being objectified. We just hate her."

Much like we hate those women buying Edward Cullen underpants (among other products) and making Robert Pattinson's life difficult. "Because those women are acting in a way that is typically reserved for men. And they're treating Pattinson like a girl." The objectification of women in pop culture, writes Doyle, is both so common as to go unnoticed and inevitably "tacky as all hell, aesthetically."

[A]nd so criticizing it, in an aesthetic way, seems pointless. Congratulations, you went looking for art in a product intended to provide boners and came up empty. Surprise! But when girls do the exact same thing -- when they prove themselves capable of the exact same sort of objectification, and the exact same goofiness or tackiness or unrealistic fantasy in the name of getting off -- well, it freaks people out. It's weird. Why are they acting like this? Don't they know that Robert Pattinson is a person? Why are they treating him like a big chunk of meat? Why doesn't Edward Cullen act like a real guy would? Etcetera!

Let me be clear: I think those are all perfectly reasonable questions. It's just that I think they're perfectly reasonable questions to ask about the objectification of Megan Fox, and every other Action Movie Girlfriend in history, as well. Treating a man just as poorly as women have long been treated in films made for young male audiences is not the kind of gender equality that gives me hope for the future. But thinking critically about why folks become so offended when they see that happening might, in fact, lead to a bit of progress. Why is it so unsettling to see a young male actor dehumanized, but not his female counterpart? Why do we sympathize with a man saying it's hard to be nothing but a pretty face, but vilify a woman who says it? Whether or not you can answer those questions, if you can at least spot the difference, you are obliged to do one of two things. In Doyle's words: "Be less weirded out by the fact that ladies are getting all freaky about Robert Pattinson. Or be MORE weirded out by the dudes getting all het up about various lady movie stars."

For now, I'd recommend both. Ultimately, I'd love to see more movies made for all audiences that go beyond a cheap appeal to our basest fantasies; recognizing and resisting objectification of anyone in pop culture is a goal dear to my heart. But it would also be nice if, in the meantime, people recognized that women and teenaged girls have our own base fantasies, and quit acting like it's headline news that we have real human libidos, which are sometimes activated by pretty young things who stand around doing very little in blockbuster movies. Just as surely as "New Moon" has proven that catering to a female audience can be as lucrative as catering to young men, it's proven that one-dimensional sex objects can sell to lady audiences as well. So, while it may not get beyond one obnoxious stereotype of female desire -- violent, overprotective dudes get us hot! -- at least it busts the myth that there's no such thing.


By Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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