The season of the backyard barbecue is freshly upon us, and already I find myself getting into… Well, let’s call them discussions. Discussions of my work, discussions of romance and erotica in general, discussions of sex and sexuality that only go as far as the backyard-barbecue-kids-milling-about atmosphere allows. They’re not generally heartening discussions. There’s something about a woman writing about sex that makes people want to treat her like a wayward child, and that’s always so fun to experience.
Most recently, because this is the common consciousness touchstone for any kind of romance beyond Harlequin right now, I found myself having a conversation about Twilight. I know, it should happen more often with how this ten year old book for teenagers remains a reliable punchline, but I run with a moderately older crowd these days so it’s been largely Harlequin comparisons. Be that as it may, I was having a Twilight conversation and it went where Twilight conversations often go: “I, as a straight guy raised as straight guys tend to be raised, do not understand Twilight. Therefor it’s garbage and nonsense and why do people care about it? I mean- Hey, where are you going?”
Because this is my blog and not a somewhat-too-chilly-still-to-have-a-pool-party party with kids squawking around, I will reply at length: You don’t get Twilight? Of course you fucking don’t, guy I’ll call Craig. I dare say you don’t get it because you (speaking generally of the kind of guys who talk down to me about writing about sex, not about Craig in specific) are part of the reason Twilight exists, part of the reason it resonates so well with so many women. Confused? Let me break down what Twilight is a fantasy about. Not the sparkling dude, not the nonsense magic rules, not the sex house in the woods, not the vampire Mormon baseball game, the real heart of the fantasy that Twilight and stories like it tap:
Twilight is at its sparkly heart a fantasy about a partner who, despite being programmed (supernaturally, biologically, socially, whatever) to destroy you, about a partner who could do so without effort and without substantial personal consequence. I think that might be as far into the fantasy as Craigs allow themselves to go, because Craigs aren’t a people who like to mix with others and take in their experiences. Craigs won’t realize that, yes, it is about this monstrous Bad Boy partner, but it’s also about something that’s hard to capture unless you’ve come to a very human understanding of women and their experiences and anxieties. These partners are monstrous, sure, they are monstrous by a design that they could not control, but they resist their monstrous design. It’s the fantasy of a partner who could destroy you, and would if he succumbed to his programming, but chooses to instead hang out with you in fields of wildflowers and tell you your hobbies are worthwhile and interesting. That’s the fantasy.
Is it a progressive fantasy? Dear, sweet, crispy Christ, no! I think the word currently in vogue for this kind of thing is ‘problematic,’ because we at some point inflated the market on ‘fucked up,’ to the point that it became worthless. I see a lot of amateur takedowns of problematic things, and a common thread in such takedowns of Twilight purports that the books are full of these awful, absurd, harmful things that could corrupt the minds of young women. These criticisms ignore one key fact: Plenty of young women, plenty of older women, and yes, plenty of men already believe all the shitty things Twilight suggests. We are, one and all, tacitly and explicitly taught these things. Girls learn to fear and distrust boys, boys learn to pursue and control girls. We all hear that boys will be boys and watch perpetrators of sexual assault go unpunished. We are not dead to this, but it’s so ever present that it becomes our normal. Twilight and stories like it play on a fearful interpretation of the world in which we are all complicit. It’s an ugly, lopsided compromise like a lot of erotica tends to be.
I say this as someone who loves erotica, as someone who writes problematic and occasionally twisted stories: We make some fucked up compromises in our fantasy lives when we believe that being hurt, being shackled, even being destroyed, is the inevitable consequence of sexual entanglement. These fantastical compromises generally fall into two camps:
“I will find the single mystical exception who resists or surpasses his programming.”
“Subjugation and ruination are inevitable, but that experience is satisfying.”
That Twilight happens to fall in the first camp by virtue of having been written by a woman who very clearly believes the tacit social narrative that necessitates the compromise is not terrible. These ideas were not Twilight’s alone. The book’s sustained popularity and influence bear this out. Twilight works because it speaks in an earnest, pitch perfect way to the anxieties of so many girls and women. I’ll never try to tell you it’s perfect, but I’ll never let you tell me its success is inexplicable.