by Marianne Eloise
“The point of my work is to show that culture and education aren’t simply hobbies or minor influences. They are hugely important in the affirmation of differences between groups and social classes and in the reproduction of those differences.” Pierre Bourdieu
I don’t believe in bad taste. There are a number of films and shows that I adore that many would consider to be ‘guilty’ pleasures: i.e. The O.C., High School Musical, and Desperate Housewives. But while I am grown enough and mean enough to stick up for myself, there are people out there, often young women, who are not. People who upon being told that the media they consume is ‘trash’ or not good or smart enough, will feel that they in turn are not good or smart enough. People who will feel so insecure they mightn’t even allow themselves guilty pleasures.
The term “taste cultures” refers to the constructs of good taste and ‘appropriate’ ways of relating to cultural objects that we have in our society; it’s the way in which we determine who has the ‘proper’ interests, and those who naturally possess appropriate or high taste will receive a privileged position. (Jenkins 1992 p.16). It’s a pervasive force in our societal understanding that prevents us from accepting or respecting media that doesn’t cater exclusively to one demographic: white, male, rich. Media aimed at people of color, poor audiences, women, or younger demographics, can exist; but they can never be art. It is thought by some that there is no true universal definition of good taste, and that we simply prioritize the natural tastes of those in power (Jenkins 1992 p.16). Pierre Bourdieu, who wrote the definitive book on taste, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (1979) also focused on the classist nature of taste cultures; that we dismiss media that is too poor, and that our notion of ‘proper’ taste only serves to reinforce cultural hierarchies. This distinction happens at a subconscious level as we determine what is ‘good’ based on what we have been subliminally taught.
This essay focuses on female-oriented media specifically and therefore focuses on a franchise that is still detested today – The Twilight Saga (2008) discussing that the reason many despised it so instantaneously was due to its association with female genres and fandom. Viewers are often quick to assume that media associated with young women is not important or worthy of their time, despite watching films aimed at male youth such as Star Wars (Jenkins 1992 p.45). While films like Twilight have proven massive appeal and box office turnover, they are never critically or publicly approved.
Women and young girls are considered merely consumers; their tastes are not considered ‘good’, and they are certainly not tastemakers.
What if we accepted the idea that if a product reaches the audience it intends to, it is not failing?
These films are made with young women in mind, and if young women are enjoying them, surely they have succeeded? While there are legitimate reasons for not liking media, it’s important to look below the surface and consider the factors in our dismissal. If nothing else I want this piece to open a wider dialogue about tastes and help to uncover our own prejudices regarding gender, race, and class in media viewing; asking the audience to consider what it means for something to be bad or good, and why they dismiss certain media.
The Twilight Saga is not only a film series, but a notoriously disliked set of books. The author Stephenie Meyer has been the subject of mass derision, with even Stephen King coming forward to say that she “can’t write one bit” and that Twilight is “Tweenager Porn” (Schillaci, 2015). This jab by a revered male writer, even one of a ‘low’ genre, only serves to preserve hierarchies of taste and reinforce popular opinion that the media women enjoy is bad. Within the same interview King also called out 50 Shades of Grey (James 2011) and The Hunger Games (Collins 2008), two franchises written by women and featuring female protagonists. This indicates a larger problem of sexism – why would King only focus his criticism on female authors?
Detractors give many flimsy reasons for their condemnation of Twilight – primarily the acting of the teenagers, the writing, and the fact that they are “not scary”. Such criticisms again appear to forget that this is a series intended for young teenagers. This study will bear the reception of the books in mind, but is primarily concerned with the film series. While not without its male fans, Twilight’s audience are primarily girls and older women – the “Twi-Moms”, as they have been called. Its fans are legion, but so are its detractors.
So-called anti-fans of Twilight that pride themselves on mocking the series are as heavily invested as the fans that they are so keen to mock; they consume the media not just once but repeatedly, scouring it for additional laughing points. They read the books, watch the films, and attend online forums where they mock the series with other anti-fans. They refer to the series as “Twatlight” and call its fans, usually referred to as Twihards, Twitards. They are vehement and vocal in their hatred, mocking the young women who are often afraid to be vocal in their love (Harman and Jones 2013 p.960). These anti-fans go as far as to produce their own anti-fan media, such as New Moan: The First Book in the Twishite Saga (Mayo 2010), which rewrites the entirety of Twilight as a parody. Videos and memes online such as Buffy VS Edward and Twilight in 15 Minutes (Youtube, 2015) perpetuate the endless online joke surrounding Twilight, making it even more difficult for girls to discuss their tastes openly.
While Twilight is massively and broadly marketed and discussed, these anti-fans do have the option to not interact with the product that they despise – however, they derive pleasure from their obsession. They actively involve themselves in hate readings, discussions, and rewrites on online forums. The hatred of Twilight is not just a personal venture but also a public performance – it does not exist without others to view and share in it. This disparagement might be innocent enough, but there is a gendered nature to their hatred (Vossen 2013) – the desires of girls are often attacked and dismissed as trivial.
Of course, Twilight is not without its problems. It has been criticized in part for the negative messages that it sends to its young female audience and the ways in which it tells them to be weak and inoffensive. It has also been criticized for its overwhelming whiteness, and the fact that the wolf Jacob and his clan rely heavily on negative stereotypes of Native American people (notgovernedbyreason 2012). It actively promotes unhealthy attitudes and expectations for women towards relationships, with Bella allowing and begging Edward to hurt her. It has been criticized, too, for sanctioning sexuality while toying with the idea of vampiric eroticism (Vossen 2013).
However, this punishment for sexuality is not new, especially in teen and vampire fiction. In the critically acclaimed and well-loved Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Joss Whedon 1997), Buffy’s vampire boyfriend Angel turns evil if he knows a moment of true happiness. Due to this, when he has sex with Buffy, he goes on a rampage and murders her friends. This too teaches young women that bad things will happen if they have sex, but Buffy is still widely applauded; with Buffy fans being some of the most vocal haters of Twilight (Harman and Jones 2013 p.960).
Twilight is not unlike 50 Shades of Grey, not least in that it started life as a Twilight fan fiction and turned into a bestseller and massive cinematic event. 50 Shades of Grey was enjoyed by millions (Harman and Jones 2013 p.955) of women, many of whom proclaimed that they wanted to find their “Mr. Grey”. In fact, the character Mr. Grey has been denounced by feminists and other viewers as abusive – his controlling and manipulative nature is something that readers found sexy, but that is dangerous to promote. Mr. Grey is not unlike Edward in a lot of ways, which is unsurprising as Twilight served as E.L. James primary inspiration and source material. However, despite the issues that these texts clearly have, these are not the reasons that most detractors find to hate them. The anti-fans are not readers who care about the well being and development of women, rather, readers who disparage their tastes for being trivial and idle (Harman and Jones 2013 p.956). Through this anti-fandom, women who simply enjoy media that has been created and marketed for them are pathologized and dismissed. Anti-fandom is interesting because it requires as much energy and time as being a fan – perhaps more – which serves to break down the false dichotomy between critic and fan. Anti-fans perhaps have more in common with fans than critics, as they voraciously consume Twilight as they would were they to love it. They have their own ironic fandom, conducting fan activities as a form of resistance.
The anti-fans of Twilight are legion, but they are perhaps not the most dangerous when it comes to people that dismiss the series. Anti-fans are considered laughable; they represent a minority of the population who dedicate their time and energy to something that they do not enjoy. What is more dangerous is perhaps the public climate and assumption that Twilight and media like it is unquestionably bad. So much as a mention of the word Twilight to most film viewers and the public at large will elicit a vitriolic response, with some going as far as to say that “it can burn in hell” (rottentomatoes.com, 2014). Twilight has been widely dismissed as entirely lacking in literary or filmic merit since its initial release, and the result is that those women and girls who do enjoy it are thus mocked. The masses that dismiss Twilight sight unseen, who shun the tastes of young girls and women – they perpetuate a hierarchy of taste cultures that places older men at the top of a pyramid with young women at the bottom, their tastes invalidated again (Klinger 2010 p.19) The hatred of Twilight is not a dismissal of bad taste or bad filmmaking, it is a gendered exercise that serves to oppress the girls that enjoy it. It further reinforces hierarchies of power, and only serves to make the hater feel more powerful than young females. The danger in the public opinion being that “Twilight Is Bad” and something to be laughed at is simply that it makes it acceptable to laugh at the interests of young girls.
Twilight attempted to appeal to the oft-neglected so-called D-Quadrant audience – young women and girls – with a de-fanged version of the vampire myth (Click, Aubrey and Behm-Morawitz, 2010 p.100). For this it has been widely disparaged by all kinds of viewers – but it has simultaneously been obscenely popular. The Twilight Saga is one of the highest grossing franchises of all time, at $3.3 billion (boxofficemojo.com, 2013). It is absurd that a franchise that has had such a massive impact culturally and economically could be so easily dismissed and by so many people; but the fact is that it has been dismissed for its appeal to girls. Claims that dislike comes from the sloppy filmmaking or bad writing may be in some cases true, but it is often only media aimed at women that inspires this kind of vitriol.
Media for men that is deemed bad is often not only forgotten, but also picked up again and reclaimed by cult film fans and writers (Klinger 2010 p.15).
Despite Twilight fitting many of the conventions of what Jeffrey Sconce would refer to as “badfilm”, it has not been reclaimed or cultified. Matt Jenkins (Jenkins 1992) describes Badfilm as something that is “so stupefyingly artless that it is art” and often something that is read as something other than it is (Jenkins 1992 p.64). Despite repeated claims that Twilight is artless trash, and despite its anti-fan readings, it does not appear to have been picked up by so much as an ironic fandom. Cult is notoriously masculine, and cult viewers are often men who reclaim bad films that are masculine oriented – women do not have the privilege of claiming reclamation over their guilty pleasures. Ian Hunter in his essay My My, How Did I Resist You? (Hunter 2012) posited that cult is often about private viewings and “masculine nostalgia” i.e. in the case of Taxi Driver (1977). So while Twilight is perhaps seen an artless coming of age story for young women, it is not in the market to be picked up by cult audiences.
In the case of Twilight, it is not only anti-fans and the public that disparage it. Even its stars are ashamed of their involvement, with actress Kristen Stewart actively trying to separate herself from the series and move on to become a more “serious” actress (Hypable, 2015) However, Robert Pattinson is the most vocal detractor of Twilight, often laughing about it in interviews and saying that he wishes he hadn’t done it at all Despite the films pushing English actor Pattinson to the Hollywood mainstream and allowing him to work in a number of projects afterwards, he is still vocal in his shame. He reinforces the societal idea that it’s okay to hate Twilight, because it’s just for girls – going as far as to say that were he not in the saga, he would just “mindlessly hate it” (Hypable, 2015).
Despite accusations that Twilight is in ways anti-feminist, there are a few conventions that mark it as a landmark occasion. Firstly, that the source material was of course written by a woman. The crew was primarily comprised of women, and Meyer has repeatedly stated how much she enjoyed this. Thirdly, the film turns Hollywood conventions around by prioritising a female perspective and experience. These are things that make the film conventionally and historically worth something, and yet, they are frequently skimmed over or used as further reason to disparage the series (Vossen, 2015).
Twilight is a hugely popular franchise that made massive box office returns and had a worldwide cultural impact. It turned its stars Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson into household names overnight and sold insane amounts of merchandise. Young children, primarily girls aged 9-16, were and still are huge fans of the franchise. Despite this, and despite it being incredibly successful in targeting its demographic – it is widely despised, considered artless and anemic by people who were never in the intended audience. Anti-fans who engage in thorough and productive readings of the texts for the purpose of tearing it apart are often older men, who understandably do not “get” the films. Their criticism of these films are others like them are a group performance that help to reinforce their own “good” taste and intelligence, but it serves to prove that these men are not subversive and are simply oppressing a group of young fans that are often looked down without their input. Despite the spending power that women and children now have, they are simply considered vapid consumers of film and television rather than active tastemakers. Those in power uphold notions of good taste – and as this piece has noted, they are often white males. Anti-fans who believe their tastes to be subversive often serve only to uphold dominant structures of taste.
Marianne Eloise is an MA film graduate and freelance writer who has been published on Dazed, Noisey, Hello Giggles, and more. You can follow her on Twitter @marianne_eloise
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