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Reckoning with Twilight, 10 years later

How Twilight and its backlash are still shaping pop culture.

Bella and Edward lie in a meadow of wildflowers
Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson in Twilight.
Summit Entertainment

Ten years ago this month, the first Twilight movie sparkled broodily into movie theaters. By then, the four-volume book series had already been published in full, made the best-seller lists several times over, and was safely established as a cult phenomenon for its target demographic of teen girls — but with that first movie, Twilight became mainstream.

In the fall of 2008, America at large was introduced to the story of Bella Swan, teenage everygirl, and her fraught, star-crossed love for glitter-streaked vampire Edward Cullen. Twilight introduced us to Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson, and it continued the Harry Potter tradition of the YA book-to-movie franchise as a dominant box office force.

It also became a cultural flashpoint. Think piece after think piece by turn celebrated Twilight’s cultural dominance, mocked its shimmery vampire mythology, and feared the effects that romanticizing its tortured, dysfunctional love story might have on its teen readers. In 2008, Twilight was adored, but it was also hated, feared, and mocked.

Here in 2018, we finally have room to get a little perspective on the whole thing. In celebration of the 10-year anniversary of the first Twilight movie, Vox culture writers Constance Grady, Alex Abad-Santos, and Aja Romano joined forces with deputy managing editor Eleanor Barkhorn to look back at the unlife and legacy of the Twilight phenomenon.

Constance: When the first Twilight movie came out in 2008, I was 19, and I was positive that the entire franchise was a blight on the pop culture landscape. Before the movie even came out, I made up my mind about it. I read the posts about how the Edward-Bella love story ticked all the boxes of an abusive relationship; I shook my head over Stephenie Meyer’s bland, boring sentences; I howled over the whole concept of everything that happened in Breaking Dawn. (He chews the baby out of her uterus!)

But I was also completely fascinated by the franchise. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I picked up the first book to see what the fuss was all about, and even though I thought the love story was creepy and the prose was blah and absolutely nothing happened until about three-quarters of the way through the book beyond some vampire baseball (vampire baseball!), I kept turning those pages. I was compelled. I couldn’t help myself.

I hate-read every Breaking Dawn review, and every review of the movie. I developed opinions on Kristen Stewart (bit her lip too much) and Robert Pattinson (I appreciated his palpable hatred of the franchise). I spent so much emotional energy thinking about the whole Twilight thing that I was, for all intents and purposes, a fan. I was just a fan who hated it.

Looking back 10 years later, I don’t think I was necessarily wrong about most of the things I disliked about the franchise then. Bella and Edward’s relationship does have some disturbing power dynamics (which we’ll get into in a bit). Myer’s prose is pretty bland. The structure of the plot is bananas. (I was wrong about Kristen Stewart, though, and the way she was penalized for sometimes seeming mildly uncomfortable with the Twilight phenomenon while Pattinson was lauded for his outright hatred of it says a lot about gender politics circa 2008.)

But I also think that I clearly found Twilight really compelling when I was 19, and I was mad about that, because smart girls weren’t supposed to like books and movies like Twilight. There’s a weird, creepy eroticism to those books that is calibrated to speak precisely to the sexual and romantic fantasies of teenage girls, and I was a teenage girl. It did speak to me. And that pissed me off.

There are few pop cultural products that our society likes to shit on more than the pop culture created for teenage girls, and Twilight circa 2008 was the pinnacle of that phenomenon. This was a franchise that was built for teen girls, marketed to teen girls, and loved by teen girls, and because of that, it became accepted common knowledge that all correct-thinking people could only despise and revile it. So when I look back 10 years later, I find it difficult to untangle my hatred of Twilight from my own internalized misogyny, and from my profound and at the time unexamined belief that anything made for teenage girls must inherently be less-than.

How did you feel about Twilight back in 2008? Has it changed for you since then?

Eleanor: I was 24 when the first movie came out, and I think being just past teenagehood made all the difference for me. I loved the movie — fully, earnestly, without irony, without reservations. I loved the moody Pacific Northwest setting. I loved the longing glances. I loved the vampire baseball! (But then I am a sucker for the “characters with superpowers show off their superpowers” scene that these movies always tend to have. Ask me how I felt watching Tobey Maguire leap from Queens rooftop to Queens rooftop in the 2002 Spider-Man.)

I had spent my teenage years full of feelings, full of angst, full of deep, painful crushes on mysterious boys. And I’d mostly felt embarrassed by those feelings. I wanted to be calm, detached — a Cool Girl, to reference Gone Girl, another best-selling book turned hit movie. Seeing Bella feel so many of the things I’d felt was tremendously validating. I was normal! I’m okay, you’re okay, etc.

The fact that I watched the movie at 24 instead of 19 also meant that Twilight inspired a fair amount of nostalgia for me. By my mid-20s, I was no longer having those intense feelings anymore. I was turning into a much more practical, grounded person — realizing that I should be looking for stability, kindness, and shared values in the men I dated, rather than hotness or mysteriousness.

This was a necessary step in my maturation as a human being. (I’m very glad to be married to my kind, stable husband, whom I met at church, rather than the hot guy in my algebra class who sometimes showered me with attention and sometimes ignored me.) But it came with a sense of loss — intense teenage feelings have a particular joy and drama to them.

Twilight came at just the right moment for me to be a fan: I was close enough to my teenage years to appreciate the validation of my feelings, but far enough away that I could appreciate, rather than be embarrassed by, the romanticization of those feelings.

And that’s why I never fully understood all the hand-wringing about whether Twilight was “good” for women, or whether Bella was a “good role model” for girls. Pop culture doesn’t need to be instructive to be good. It can simply show people as they are, rather than as they should be. Bella isn’t a character I want to be like as an adult, or want my daughters to be — but that’s fine. Fiction for young people is full of spunky, plucky young women role models. It’s okay for Bella to capture a particular way that many young women are — even if, with the benefit of a few years of hindsight, we recognize that’s not the way we want to be forever.

Alex: I mean, I understand the hand-wringing and analysis of whether Bella is a “good role model” because of Twilight’s audience. The books were being consumed by teenage girls (and younger-than-teenage girls), and the natural response from adults, when it comes to any piece of culture as popular as Twilight was, is to fret over “what is it teaching the children?”

Many adults seem to believe that books for younger audiences should follow a certain moral code or provide some kind of moral guidance. Though overhauling the way we teach kids about books and how we approach books ourselves warrants its own entire article.

I read New Moon — the one where Bella wants to die so Edward will come and save her — and I’ve seen every movie except Breaking Dawn Part I. I guess my main impression of that one book and the four movies (I don’t want to speak for Stephenie Meyer’s entire oeuvre) is that Twilight is both a not-so-well-written book and a mildly exciting movie franchise.

But like Constance said, it gets criticized exponentially harder than other pieces of pop culture because teenage girls like it. I think some of that criticism is warranted, in that the book wallows in shallow descriptions, but it gets magnified because of who its target audience is.

One of the things I wish the movies had done more of was lean into the vampire action. There wasn’t enough vampire baseball. If you’re gonna give these vampires magical superpowers — elemental manipulation, mind-reading, pain projection, etc. — then show us those powers. Make it seem cool to be a vampire. Or at least make it seem cooler to be an immortal high schooler than Twilight often did, with the characters just trolling around a Pacific Northwest high school looking for an eternal mate.

Aja: We also can’t really talk about whether Twilight was instructive or not without talking about the kinds of real-world legacies it left us with — including a full decade and counting of YA novels with extremely problematic relationships at their centers. Despite the many red flags flying around Bella and Edward’s relationship — starting with their 87-year age difference, his stalking and controlling behavior, and the fact that he wants to bite her more than any other human he’s ever met, fans loved the couple. And because plenty of Twilight fans were so interested in their codependent passion, publishers started marketing books that featured similar relationships as a selling point.

(One of the most disturbing of these books was Hush, Hush, a New York Times best-seller that featured a hero who literally stalks, threatens to sexually assault, and tries to kill the teen protagonist. It’s a controversial book that’s currently being made into a movie, so the phenomenon is still very much with us.)

But we also have a whole generation of Twilight fans who turned the publishing industry on its head with their insistence and demand for trope-filled stories that indulged their fantasies. And their unashamed consumption of a brand of media that nakedly catered to them arguably presaged the flourishing romantic comedy resurgence we now appear to be in the middle of.

Twilight fans were also responsible for one of the most remarkable and underdiscussed publishing phenomena in history, in that they essentially built an entire new publishing genre from scratch. They started by creating a controversial but very effective system of pull-to-publish Twilight fanfiction — stories that centered on Bella and Edward analogues, without any copyrighted names or details. Then, backed by the money and enthusiasm of ravenous Twilight fans who wanted to read more, more, more, they created their own small-press publishing houses in order to ship those fics-turned-novels directly to their audiences.

It was from one of these Twilight fandom publishing houses, created for and by Twilight fans, that Fifty Shades of Grey — which was originally a massively popular Twilight fanfic called “Master of the Universe” — originated. By blowing the doors wide open on the potential financial power of fanfiction, and introducing it to mainstream culture for the first time, Fifty Shades of Grey forever changed publishing. And it wouldn’t have existed without this very specific way in which Twilight fans commercialized their fandom.

We could debate endlessly whether the marketing of any of these fics was “good” or “morally instructive,” but I do believe these fans were galvanized to do what they did because they were forced to spend years defending their hobby and their reading pleasures. And we all know the best way to defend your hobby is to find a way to make money from it.

Constance: Aja brings up a great point here: Twilight was such a giant franchise that it had a real effect on pop culture. So what do you think is its most lasting legacy?

An interesting counterbalance to the wave of YA romances about creepy, mysterious, controlling boys that Aja correctly pegs to Twilight’s popularity is that Twilight also fundamentally changed the way we talked about those romances. Before Twilight, they were considered silly and fun and not really worth critiquing, but the criticism of Twilight was so heated and so pointed that it ended up influencing the discourse around practically all relationships built on the Bella-Edward model.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a lot more sophisticated about the power dynamics of its relationships than Twilight was, but I don’t know that it could have gotten away with a ship like Buffy-Angel in a post-Twilight era. When Buffy first aired, a scene where Buffy wakes up in the middle of the night to find Angel sitting on her windowsill passed without comment, but after Edward Cullen, it became one of the scenes that people brought up when they talked about why they don’t like that pairing. That’s because one of the things the hand-wringing over Twilight established is that it is creepy when a boy breaks into a girl’s bedroom to watch her sleep, the way Edward does with Bella.

And The Vampire Diaries, the next big vampire romance franchise after Twilight, went out of its way to subvert any Twilight comparisons with its central romance between Stefan and Elena. That show very pointedly played the big reveal that Stefan was a vampire in an echo of the famous “Say it!” / “Vampire,” scene in Twilight, but in this version, Elena ran screaming in the other direction as soon as she realized what Stefan was. There’s even a scene in one episode where Elena is watching Stefan sleep, rather than the other way around, and he tells her it’s creepy.

There’s plenty for us to critique about the gender politics of The Vampire Diaries, but it’s a show that clearly wanted to be the woke alternative to Twilight, and the way it positioned itself to take that slot was by subverting the tropes that the Twilight discourse had established were gross.

Eleanor: The only love triangle YA story I really got into after Twilight was The Hunger Games, which provided an interesting (but also maddening) foil to Twilight. I saw The Hunger Games get treated a lot more seriously as a franchise because of its apparent critique of income inequality (the movie came out just months after Occupy Wall Street), and because Katniss was in so many ways the anti-Bella: tough, resourceful, independent. Also in The Hunger Games’ favor: Jennifer Lawrence, who played Katniss, was much, much better at the celebrity image game than Kristen Stewart.

But I found everything about The Hunger Games a little too perfect; the good role model protagonist and the “serious” commentary on today’s social issues was all a bit much. I still appreciate Twilight’s stubborn refusal to be anything more than what it was: an evocative, albeit problematic, teen love story that took its characters’ feelings seriously.

Would it be a stretch to call movies like Brooklyn and Lady Bird part of the legacy of Twilight? Of course, they’re in an entirely different genre; they’re also more nuanced and better acted, and the relationships at their center are largely absent of the troubling power dynamics we discussed above. But they fill a place in my heart that Twilight once did, for the way they show that the stories of young women and their romantic choices are important and worthy of deep study.

Alex: The world would be a better, kinder place if everyone was required to watch Brooklyn. Though I’m not sure if it and Lady Bird are a part of Twilight’s legacy or are simply terrific stories about teenage girls growing up that haven’t been given the credit they’re due.

Twilight’s more direct legacy is Fifty Shades of Grey and the phenomena — the backlash and the fandom — that followed it. Right? When Fifty Shades came out, article after article depicted and chided its readers as desperate, horny middle-aged women. The book was considered “mommy porn.” Like Twilight, Fifty Shades is no beautiful tome of language. But the criticism of it seemed amplified because women, particularly women of a certain age, were really into it. And If there’s one demographic whose taste people like to judge more than that of teenage girls, it has to be moms. Poor moms.

Aja: I definitely think we can’t discount the fact that a lot of the teen girls who got vilified for loving Twilight grew up and got vilified for loving New Adult erotica, so I’m doubling down on the stance that Twilight’s legacy is creating a generation of women who became loud and proud about their fictional kinks as a result of being perpetually shamed for them. I want to think that ultimately, this confidence outweighs all of Twilight’s problematic tropes.

I will add that Twilight sparked a weird purity backlash in YA literature whereby depictions of sex and sexuality between teens became newly taboo, in part because of all the hand-wringing over Twilight and its ilk. I think that’s taken a while to wear off, in part because Twilight’s imprint was so indelible.

Also, there’s one really obvious thing Twilight bequeathed us, simple but huge, and that’s “Team X” and “Team Y.” Twilight made shipping, and discussion of shipping, a standard part of the pop culture discourse around media franchises, and it did so specifically via “Team Edward” and “Team Jacob.” (And the perennial underdog, Team Bella.) These ideas — and the specific concept of shipping as rooting for your pairing or character, or “team,” to win the love triangle — entered the pop culture landscape with Twilight, and now they’re ubiquitous. And crucially, by framing shipping as a pastime akin to rooting for a sports team, they made shipping into something harmless and fun rather than yet another toxic, galling thing to shame fans for doing. If only for this, I am Team Twilight all the way.

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