I’m not an art historian; I’m not a professional critic, nor would I even pretend to be one. But I am a student of politics and history, of the way social power is manipulated, and the way it controls us who would try to understand it. I’m not Theo Adorno, nor would I pretend to understand what he had to say about the culture industry; but you don’t have to be a philosophical genius to understand the subversive techniques of manipulation and domination inherent in some manifestations of art. Imbued in the seemingly banal essence of the Twilight saga is a history of domination as old as the art of fantasy itself—it is why Plato wanted to banish the poets from his Republic, and why authors like Ovid were expelled from their countries. Literature is a vehicle for the expression of social power and social norms, and while we shouldn’t ban or censure artists, it is important to recognize the subversive themes that permeate popular culture: for example, the discourse of sexism in Twilight.
Like most problematic fantasy novels, Twilight’s sexism is carefully veiled by the exterior of a fantastical, “fake” world. Bella’s great act of agency, choosing whom to love, is not seen as problematic because she is choosing between a vampire and a werewolf (they don’t exist, silly!). The problem is of Bella’s existence as an object of abuse and desire; the idea that a woman’s identity is tied to the man she’s in love with; the sexist notion that that is what women should be; all of these problems are covered, buried under the “fantasy” world of Forks, Washington.
Even the problematic dialogue of race, the notion that Native Americans are dangerous, savage people, liable to go off and physically abuse their partners, who should just take it because “it’s a burden he has to bear,” is obscured by the fact that the Native Americans are werewolves. I mean it’s fine if a werewolf beats up his girlfriend—it’s just his burden. Just like it’s fine if a vampire stalks and emotionally abuses his girlfriend by being incredibly jealous and keeping her from seeing other people—it’s for her own protection.
The fact that these characters are placed behind the veil of “fantasy” removes their responsibility for their actions; because Bella is human and in love with a vampire, though, she needs to be protected at all costs, removed from society, shut up in a house. She may have entered into a more powerful world, but it is a world that justifies the patriarchal structure via physical power, a world where her ideal man stares at her when she sleeps, and tries to keep her from seeing other people. The cruel reality of Bella’s condition is that she has only subjugated herself more by “escaping” the real world.
The problem with unconscious sexism (and racism) is that when it’s pointed out it is very viscerally rejected; readers who call out works of popular culture on their unconscious discourses of domination are accused of reading too much into the works, or of being racist or sexist themselves. The problem with Twilight is that people seem to take the saga at face value, without stepping into the essential critical role that viewers should take. It’s all fine and good to step out of our world into another one—just think about which world you really want to go to, and the consequences of our tweens living in it.
We shouldn’t censor art—we should talk about it; we shouldn’t dismiss Twilight—we should figure out why this narrative, and its problematic undercurrents of sexism and racism, is so appealing.