Opinion

Is Twilight a feminist movie or not? Wrestling with the series on its 10th anniversary

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Hannah-Rose Yee
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Female director, female writer and a female star vs subject matter that left a lot to be desired. We reckon with the vampire love story’s legacy a decade after its release. 

Never have I felt the passage of time more keenly than when I think about the fact that it’s been ten years since the release of Twilight.

The film was based on the first in the bestselling Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer, which told the story of Bella, a shy and introverted girl who moves to a new school and falls in love with Edward, a pale, enigmatic, Byron-esque boy with implausibly floppy hair who – surprise of all surprises – turns out to be a vampire.  

The story revolved around the particularly problematic dilemma of Edward and Bella’s relationship: yearning for each other, they couldn’t truly consummate their love because, unless Bella became a vampire, she would die. 

Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson in Twilight

Critics derided the film’s un-feminist subject matter. “Twilight is a loving slave fantasy”, Tanya Gold wrote in the Guardian at the time of the final film’s release.

But the Twi-hard fans, mostly female, adored the series. They held release parties when the books were published, declared their allegiance for Team Edward or Team Jacob (the fiercely loyal and ripped werewolf played by Taylor Lautner, objectively the correct team to be on) and swarmed ComicCon in 2008 when Stewart and Pattinson presented at a panel. (“Twilight ruined ComicCon,” male critics moaned at the time.) 

When the final movie premiered in Los Angeles in 2012 fans slept on the streets for four nights to guarantee a prime position from which to scream, A Hard Day’s Night-style, at Pattinson and Lautner on the red carpet. 

Taylor Lautner, Stewart and Pattinson at ComicCon 

Twilight mania is a strange thing to revisit, considering that its stars have distanced themselves so spectacularly from the series and each other. 

When you do revisit the series through the gaze of 2018, it’s easy to see the glaring, blood-red flags in the story of a man who – at times – stalks, controls and emotionally abuses his girlfriend. Edward meets all 15 signs of an abusive relationship, from threatening to commit suicide if he and Bella can’t be together to isolating Bella from her friends and family over the course of the series. 

Twilight’s politics are seriously regressive, arguing that the only thing women need in life is a rich benefactor, from whom they withhold sex until marriage, at which point they become a housewife and mother who never has to work again. No wonder it went on to spawn a terrifying pop culture hybrid: E.L James’ Fifty Shades of Grey series, which began life as Twilight fanfiction.

And yet… 

I’m not a Twilight apologist. (I was always much more of a Harry Potter girl.) But there is a lot of good in this series, when you look hard enough for it. The movie, told from a female perspective and centring the lives and desires – however misguided they may be – of young women, was one of the first blockbusters of its kind. 

Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, Twilight’s director Catherine Hardwicke recalled that she was told that, because of its supposedly boring female-centric subject matter, the movie would make around £22 million. It doubled that in its first week alone, and went on to gross more than £258 million worldwide. In total, the five movie adaptations, which began in 2008 and elbowed their way into cinemas annually until the franchise belched up its inevitable conclusion in 2012, broke box office records and banked an incredible £2.5 billion worldwide. 

Because of the success of the movie, Hardwicke is one of the most financially successful female directors of all time, an accolade she shares with Anne Fletcher (The Proposal), Sam Taylor Johnson (Fifty Shades of Grey) and Patty Jenkins (Wonder Woman). It’s not a stretch to argue that Hardwicke walked – with a teeny budget, we might add – so that Jenkins and Taylor Johnson could run. Without Hardwicke’s proven success on Twilight, female directors like Ava Duvernay and Cathy Yan, who will helm Margot Robbie’s Birds of Prey movie, might never have been handed the reigns of a blockbuster movie.

The success of Twilight led to a boom in young adult movie production, with the release of series like The Hunger Games and Divergent. Like Twilight, those films focused on young women and kickstarted an actress’ career. (Jennifer Lawrence became box office gold because of The Hunger Games and Shailene Woodley moved from Divergent into the television success of Big Little Lies.) But every movie in those two franchises – plus the remaining movies in the Twilight series – were directed by men.

Ten years after it was first released, Twilight is still one of the most successful movies directed, written by and starring a woman. And it was also one of the first movies that spoke to the immense cultural power of teenage girls. 

Lautner and Stewart

Critics might have looked down on the franchise, but young women flocked to Twilight, embracing its romance and fantasy and melodrama and sex. (Vampires are inherently sexy, all that blood and all those sharp teeth. Jacob, a man who appeared to own approximately zero shirts give the amount of time he spent running around the Pacific Northwest without one, was also very sexy.)

Twilight was a vehicle, however problematic that vehicle might have been, for young women to carve out a corner of popular culture that was just for them when everything else at the time was geared towards boys. 

Ten years later young women now have a myriad of pop culture objects for them to love, many of them smarter and more thoughtful and, yes, more feminist than Twilight, like Outlander or even One Direction. 

But let’s not forget that Twilight came first, and the first one through the wall always gets a little bloodied on the way. Edward would have loved that. 

Images: Summit Entertainment, Getty

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Hannah-Rose Yee

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