Die Booth - has Twilight brainwashed a generation?

Last month as part of the annual Chester Literature Festival I took part in a debate about Twilight by Stephanie Meyer.
Now, anyone who knows my writing will know that I’m not a huge Twilight fan. I’m quite happy for people to read what they want, and for writers to do new things with established genres - so it’s not the sparkly vampires that bother me so much (although I do personally think they’re rubbish!) It’s the fact that, since Twilight’s astronomic rise in popularity, the misunderstood heartthrob vampire now seems to be the only type being written - and subsequently, a lot of horror markets have placed a blanket ban on submissions of vampire stories, which is a shame for writers like me who like vampires (and werewolves, and zombies, and other newly ‘unfashionable’ creatures!) This was actually the entire reason that me and L.C. Hu produced our anthology ‘Re-Vamp!’ in 2011, to counteract all the mopey teenage monsters - but I’m digressing. The thing is, in this debate, I was challenged to defend Twilight. So I thought I’d share my debate notes here, as some of the things I had cause to research in writing them were very interesting indeed.

“This house believes that Twilight has brainwashed a generation”

One of the Twilight saga novel covers
Well, the one thing that you have to concede is that Twilight is ubiquitous. You either love it, or hate it, but you certainly can’t ignore it - much like any part of pop culture. It isn’t really like most pop culture, though. Far from the norm of fake tan and getting your clothes off on MTV, it presents an antidote - rightly or wrongly - that love is forever, not a one night stand, which in itself is quite refreshing. But in terms of brainwashing a generation? I think the first thing we need to look at is that statement itself.

What does brainwashing actually mean in this context?

The dictionary definition of ‘brainwashing’ is ‘a method for systematically changing attitudes or altering beliefs, originating in totalitarian countries, especially through the use of torture, drugs or psychological-stress techniques’ or ‘any method of controlled systematic indoctrination, especially one based on repetition or confusion - such as brainwashing by tv commercials.’
Well - I don’t think anyone can really argue that Twilight equates to a totalitarian regime (no matter how much watching the films might feel like torture!) so we’ll consider the second definition.

Any method of controlled systematic indoctrination, especially one based on repetition or confusion.

So, in what way does Twilight repeat its doctrine or confuse readers? And what is the message that it’s trying to indoctrinate them with?

Well - presuming that you have a working knowledge of the plot of the Twilight saga - a quick look at the many ‘why you should hate Twilight’ websites online, shows that the most insidious messages read into Twilight are the following:

  •  It’s OK for a guy to treat a girl badly, if it’s ‘true love’ she should stay with him anyway,
  •  this flawed youth is the perfect man,
  •  a girl should be subservient,
  •  a girl should wait until marriage to have sex.

I’m sure everyone agrees with me that those are the core messages.

So, how do these messages get reinforced, i.e., how does Twilight brainwash people?

Well - there is its popular nature. If everyone else is reading it, you don’t want to be seen as the person who is not reading it. The approval that comes from reading acts as a psychological reward. And of course, vampires are cool - at least, the sparkly ones are! - and werewolves are cool. That’s a theme that’s certainly repeated often enough in the books. Bella does a lot of moping around and pining after the same often unattainable boy, so perhaps the repetition of that is convincing people that that’s a good way to behave. And of course, the much-quoted ‘religious propaganda’ that sex should be strictly within marriage is another message that Twilight really drives home.

So - if a generation has been brainwashed, then we can expect to see;

  •  a generation that sings the praises of Twilight… (does anyone here know any person who openly admits to liking it?)
  • a generation that thinks vampires and werewolves are cool… like many other generations preceding them.
  • a generation of teenage girls who mope around after teenage boys… oh, hang on.
  • a generation who will absolutely not have sex outside of marriage - well, that’s certainly a popular message(!)

Is any of this remotely evident in the populace as a whole? No. In which case, there isn’t really much argument for Twilight brainwashing to have been very successful.

The thing is, all the ‘bad’ elements of the books - Bella moping after Edward and so on - are pre-existing factors in society, and these books have just tapped into them. Bella was always designed to be a character with whom teenage girls who felt every crush was the end of the world could identify. To quote an online fan source:

“Girls love Twilight because Bella is an ordinary girl just like them, who this perfect, rich, unique physical specimen falls for despite having absolutely nothing in common with her. 

Why worry about whether you're a nice person, or interesting to be with, or friendly, or just the kind of person that anyone might want to spend time with? Edward doesn't care - he'll love you just the way you are, no effort required. Real relationships require effort and compromise. 

In short, it's the sort of fantasy we all have at some point.”

Brainwashing implies that readers are being coerced into a way of thinking that they wouldn’t normally adhere to. Whereas research shows that Twilight is merely catering to a previously existing fantasy that people have anyway - the only difference is, that in these days of mass media and e-books, it became massively popular. And for most readers it would have been a passing phase - sure, perhaps a passing phase with all the brief intensity of a teenage crush, but a phase all the same. The fans whose life it takes over (in the same way as some One Direction fans, or Justin Bieber fans, or football fans, or trainspotters - you see what I’m getting at?) are in a tiny minority. But again, due to modern media coverage and attention, they’re a lot more visible than the thousands who read the books, enjoyed them, and put them away on the bookshelf.

Face it - if it hadn’t been Twilight, it would have been something else.

It’s the same in every generation - they’re not brainwashed, they just know what they want - be it Judy Blume’s ‘Forever’ (the equivalent book from my generation!) The Sweet Valley High Books in the 80s or the Babysitter’s Club in the 90s.

I mean, look at Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet - for centuries regarded as the perfect couple, and just as ‘romantic’ as Edward and Bella..!

All this going over a certain message (true love is forever, you will find your perfect man) isn’t a new thing - you can trace roots back to the original gothic literature of the 18th century. Let’s have a look at how the ‘gothic classics’ differ from Twilight:

  • Gothic horror, combines elements of both horror and romance;
  • a threatening mystery;
  •  an ancestral curse;
  • helpless heroines - beautiful, young, pure and kind - often found crying or fainting;
  •  brooding ‘Byronic heroes’;
  • usually female writers.

That’s right - the classics don’t differ a whole lot from Twilight, except that the passage of time has lent them much more credibility to a modern audience. When you look at it, people have been reading variations on ‘Twilight’ for centuries! The only real difference is that Meyer has transferred Twilight from a crumbling castle into a modern setting.

The gothic classics were absolutely the Twilight of their time. Romance, even then, was usually disparaged by the educated reading classes and even the original gothic novel ‘The Castle of Otranto’ by Horace Walpole faced initial rejection by critics when they realised it was a modern piece and not the ‘mediaeval translation’ it was first marketed as.

Bronte gets a Twilight makeover
Take also as an example Emily Bronte’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ (1847) which transports the Gothic to the wild Yorkshire Moors in the same way as ‘Twilight’ transports it to the small town of Forks,  and features an abusive hero to rival even Edward Cullen.
Following the success of Twilight, Wuthering Heights (apparently Bella Swan’s favourite novel) was rereleased with a ‘Twilight’ cover makeover, designed to appeal to fans of Twilight. Did the new cover have the intended effect and sell lots of copies? Probably. And what is being achieved by this? Well, it’s encouraging ‘Twilight’ fans to graduate on to a book that’s mentioned in the text and considered a classic, a book nobody would surely complain of anyone reading. But why would nobody complain, when there are actually great similarities between the two texts?

To look at it another way - it’s also been argued that ‘Wuthering Heights’ and other examples of the Bronte’s fiction represent woman's entrapment within domestic space and subjection to patriarchal authority as well as the transgressive and dangerous attempts to subvert and escape such restriction. It could be argued that Twilight represents the same…

But of course, nobody dare compare Stephanie Meyer with Emily Bronte! But let’s quote from a source about Ann Radcliffe, one of the early and most popular gothic novelists, “Radcliffe made the Gothic novel socially acceptable.” (ie widely popular) “Her success attracted many imitators, mostly of low quality, which soon led to a general perception of the genre as inferior, formulaic, and stereotypical … Radcliffe's novels, above all The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), were best-sellers, although along with all novels they were looked down upon by well-educated people as sensationalist.”

Sensationalist best-sellers by a female writer looked down upon for their popularity, eh?

Another key gothic classic, Polidori’s ‘The vampyre’ of 1819 sparked a craze for vampire literature and theatre that has never really ended to this day - multiple generations - which kind of puts Twilight, merely hanging on its cape-tails, into perspective!

And what does ‘a generation’ refer to, anyway?

Me and proposer Helen Jennings
Certainly Twilight is marketed at teenage girls, but Twilight isn’t just read by teenage girls - certainly statistics show that the readership is mainly - thought not exclusively - female, but there is a vast age range amongst its audience. Older readers are criticised for ‘regressing into a fantasy world’ by reading the books, however again, we must acknowledge that the readers who become detrimentally obsessed with the books are in a tiny minority. For others, it’s a fun read and a bit of escapism and far from brainwashing, some people (I’ll use as an example a woman recently featured on television) have found confidence through the books. The woman in question was lacking in confidence and unhappy with her life until she discovered her new hobby, in reading the Twilight books and watching the accompanying films. She ended up getting lots of tattoos of the Twilight characters - which some people may argue is not a sensible thing to do, but her increased confidence and happiness due to her hobby was plainly evident. Apparently the story of ‘a normal, plain and shy girl who became something greater’ inspired her to lose weight, gain confidence and take charge of her life - which goes to show that you cannot assume what message people will take from a book. Fans of Twilight will tell you the benefits they gained from reading it - making friends with other fans, being encouraged to write - when sometimes it will have been the sole reason they started reading in the first place. Because most Twilight fans will not remain reading solely Twilight or writing solely Twilight fan-fiction forever: it is a starting point from which to explore and develop.

Seeing as Meyer allegedly knew nothing about vampires before writing the book, has never read Dracula or seen a vampire film, then Twilight is naturally nothing like any other vampire book ever written. She does something - rightly or wrongly - entirely new with the vampire myth. And doing something completely original can hardly be called brainwashing.


Jan Needle said…
dead interesting that (no pun intended). i've never read a twilight book, but i do love the way critics, and others, tend to scrag anything that proves popular, especially with their inferiors (young people, the non-literary classes, etc). and then it changes 'subtly'. some of hammer horror's crappest films are now discussed on t'telly as if they're some sort of newly discovered 'genre,' and will probably be on university courses one day.

shamefully (shamefully?) i only finished wuthering heights this year, having tried and rejected it several times, and i loved it. does this make me more mature than i was, or is my brain deteriorating?

and the reason i love stoker's dracula is because you don't have to read very far between the lines to realise that the author himself had some terrible psycho-sexual problems. as dracula is predicated on the male terror of the female, could twilight be a discourse on the female terror of being rejected by the male? or worse - accepted.

but as i say, i haven't read twilight. maybe i should...

fangs again, die
Susan Price said…
Loved reading this, Die. Well argued and thought-provoking. It made me even sadder that you're leaving us now. I understand that you can't spare the time - but I wish you could! - You're welcome back any time.
Dan Holloway said…
This is a brilliant piece. Not really anything to add - other than to say that what goes for Heathcliffe goes doubly so for Rochester
Debbie Bennett said…
I admit. I've read Twilight - and some of the sequels. I further admit I rather enjoyed them. I wanted to strangle Bella, though, for being such a needy wimp and I think she'd an appalling role model for young girls. But personally, given the choice, I'd have the hot, sexy werewolf rather than the cold, dead vampire any day.
Lydia Bennet said…
Vampires just are sexy and cool and have been getting fitter and fitter since poor old Nosferatu, who badly needed a make-over. it's well known Twilight was partly written to preach abstinence to girls (interestingly, it seems to be only possible with dead boys), and though I don't like that kind of message, it won't do any harm amidst all the pressure in other directions. An ex of mine worked on the films and said R-Patz has exquisitely good manners in real life. I've not seen or read the films/books but I can't stand Harry Potter and I don't see these as any worse. if they get people reading, good for them. Beautifully argued piece Die, you will be missed.
Lee said…
While 'brainwashing' is probably too strong a word, I wouldn't like to argue that certain books don't have a strong influence on readers - and even a longlasting one, if we take books like the Koran and the Bible into account. I may not have been thoroughly brainwashed by the Ayn Rand novels at a certain point in my life, but they did admittedly mark my thinking back then. And, indeed, there's a good number of novels which have a not inconsiderable didactic purpose. Pullman, anyone?

The so-called brainwashing can also be relatively subtle, alone in the choice of words. Think about gender bias, for example.

As to which which comes first, 'chicken or egg', the pre-existing fantasy or the books that disseminate it, it seems likely that few books could become popular without tapping into either certain basic human needs/dreams/pains or the Zeitgeist (or both). This really doesn't help us to determine the extent of influence of such novels as Twilight.

Twilight as the Gothic novel of our times: a good comparison, but I'm inclined to think that a better writer (Bronte?) may make use of certain genre conventions while going well beyond them. You can't just take the themes on their own without examining how they're developed; how elegant the language.

Reading rubbishy stuff may lead fans on to better, more challenging books, but then again, it may not. Turned on its head, this reminds me of the argument that smoking weed leads to heroin addiction.

Nick Green said…
This reminds me that my friends and I used to play Vampires and Werewolves in the playground at primary school, aged 8. If only I'd taken out a patent back then, eh?
Susan Price said…
Debbie - have to agree with you about werewolves! Especially as compared to vampires. Once the werewolf of my choice understood that I was alpha-bitch in this relationship (something I'm still working on with the Scot, the Scots being harder to train/tame) I think we could have a very happy time going for long walks and playing fetch. Heel! Sit!

Whereas, what are you going to do with a vampire? Hang around graveyards - or night-clubs, which I feel are pretty much the same, just noisier.
Dennis Hamley said…
Die, this is a very interesting post which goes a long way to showing how literary genres form and progress. Stephanie Meyer is in a long and noble tradition which never brainwashed anybody, including Catherine Morland. I think your argument holds well. Hunger Games and its sequels are also books which have had such charges made against them. Wednesday's Guardian had a brilliant article in which Donald Sutherland made the case that they are actually brilliant calls to action for a young generation being exploited by the old, which evidence all round us suggests is true.
Lee said…
Dennis, what is the difference between a Hollywood call to action and brainwashing? Is it one of degree? (I'm not being snarky, but am genuinely not sure. I'm of the 1960s generation, remember.)

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