The year is 2008. It’s autumn, and the leaves crunch beneath my low top Converse sneakers as I make my way to the bus stop. Once I’m seated on the bus, I whip out my iPod Nano, pop my headphones in, and play Paramore’s “Decode” at a dangerously high volume. Then, I reach into my backpack for it—the glossy black cover with a bright red apple on the front, the worn pages, the girth of the spine. Of course, it’s Twilight by Stephenie Meyer, and I’m rereading the book in preparation for the movie adaptation set to hit theaters in a few weeks. The other kids on the bus scream at the top of their lungs, laughing about something I’m unsure of, and I roll my eyes. “I’m an intellectual,” 11-year-old me thinks. “I read.” I settle into the book and get lost in a world of vampires, werewolves, and ordinary girls until I arrive at school.
As much as present-day 23-year-old me cringes while reminiscing on how seriously I was invested in the Twilight series as a middle schooler, I have no doubt that many women who were tweens at the height of the series’ popularity can attest to what I’ve written, both in the embarrassment and the pure, jubilant nostalgia of it all.
I don’t think Twilight needs much of an introduction. The young adult series sparked a media empire, with four novels, five Hollywood films, and enough internet discourse to last a lifetime. My opinions on Twilight have flip-flopped drastically over the years. I began as an enthusiastic tween fangirl, thinking I was so grown up to be reading my first romance novel. Only a few years later, I became a rampant hater, denying to others that I ever liked Twilight just to seem cool and counterculture. Later, though, I would realize that hating Twilight actually was mainstream, because pop culture is cyclical. The place where I’m at now is much less black and white: I’m still capable of criticizing the harmful aspects of the series, but now I’m less afraid to show my appreciation of its fun (yes, downright fun) qualities.
With the ten-year anniversary of the film franchise in 2018 and a new Twilight book entitled Midnight Sun released in 2020, we are currently in the midst of what the internet has dubbed the Twilight Renaissance. Tumblr accounts dedicated to Twilight memes, TikTok compilations, online video essays—you name it, it exists. Perhaps we’re all just reverting back to childhood interests during the pandemic, as things that once comforted us can do so once more in stressful times.
When the final installment of the Twilight film series, Breaking Dawn: Part 2, was released in 2012, it seemed the cultural phenomenon had mostly been extinguished, and more and more people were pointing out the series’ flaws. There are the funnier ones, such as the stilted dialogue, unnecessarily awkward tension between the characters, and Robert Pattinson not even attempting to hide his disdain for the franchise, to name a few. But the most prominent criticisms are of the abusive relationship between our protagonists Bella and Edward, as well the story basically being Mormon propaganda (as Meyer herself is Mormon) full of anti-premarital-sex and anti-abortion messages.
I’m not here to dispel those criticisms. I wholeheartedly agree with them. But as video essayist and author Lindsay Ellis said in her 2018 video about Twilight, “We, and by we, I mean our culture…kind of hate teenage girls. We hate their music, we hate their insipid backstabbing, we hate their vanity, we hate their selfie sticks, we hate their makeup, we hate their stupid books and their stupid sexy actors they made famous…and then we wonder why so many girls are eager to distance themselves from being the object of societal contempt.”
Ellis’s words struck me. It wasn’t until I watched her video that I realized I’d been taking everything I learned about what could make women “bad” and turning it inward. It’s basically a rite of passage at this point for young girls to experience internalized misogyny, to unleash attack dogs on other girls and think it’s doing a good deed, whether in the name of seeming like a more evolved woman for not liking girl-coded media or to be accepted by men. While Twilight is flawed, there’s no denying that a massive part of its vitriol was born out of the societal hatred for women’s media.
“We’ve seen more than our fair share of bad action movies, bad movies geared toward men or 13-year old boys,” screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg once said in an interview. “And you know, the reviews are like, ‘okay, that was crappy, but a fun ride.’ But no one says, ‘Oh my god. If you go see this movie you’re a complete fucking idiot.’ And that is the tone with which people attack Twilight.” If young boys get to have the same bland action or superhero flick every summer, some with even more sexism than Twilight, why is that media given a shrug and a pass?
Vicious backlash aside, we still can’t entirely dismiss criticism of the franchise, especially when it comes to an issue that doesn’t get enough attention: Stephenie Meyers’ inaccurate and appropriative portrayal of the Quileute tribe, a real Native American tribe which the werewolf characters are based on.
The tribe, located in La Push, Washington, have stated that Meyer never contacted them for research purposes or to ask permission to use the Quileute people for their namesake in merchandise and advertisements. According to The New York Times, the collective cultural property of Indigenous peoples is often not protected by American intellectual property laws, meaning the folks behind Twilight were not legally required to financially compensate them. The tribe hasn’t received any profit from the franchise, and many Quileute families continue to live in poverty.
It’s also deeply unsettling that perhaps the most inappropriate aspect of Twilight—the werewolves’ ability to imprint on someone and mate for life with them, even if that person is a child—is inaccurately ascribed to the Quileute tribe as part of their mythology and culture. Many fans have discussed how unwaveringly disturbing it is that Jacob imprinted on Bella’s newborn daughter in the final book and movie. The Burke Museum, which created the educational tool “Truth Versus Twilight,” has also noted the werewolves as being aggressive, virile, and losing their temper easily—a trope that has plagued Indigenous people since the beginning of cinema.
It’s true that Twilight’s coverage of the tribe brought more awareness to Indigenous struggles; several lawmakers worked with the tribe on their land legislation case in 2012 after watching the films. Still, the exoticized depiction of the Quileute people—written by a white woman who did not consult with the marginalized group she built a story around—has real-life repercussions as to how we as readers and viewers understand and perceive Indigenous cultures. Yes, we all know werewolves and imprinting are fictional, but the impact of harmful stereotypes is not.
So, where does this leave the Twilight fans of 2020? If there’s one thing Twilight taught me, it’s that enjoyment and quality certainly don’t have to be on the same level. There are some things I adore about the saga—the hazy blue aesthetic of the first movie, the amazing indie-rock soundtracks, the fascinating female side characters. I don’t believe that the thesis of the Twilight Renaissance should be that this series was an absolute masterpiece. There has been rightful, thoughtful, and deeply analytical criticism of Twilight ever since it gained popularity back in 2008—criticism that is separate from the mindless hate train. But it’s important to consider that in our current era of people contemplating whether they’re “allowed” to enjoy certain media deemed problematic, enjoying a trashy romance story every now and then shouldn’t mean you have to feel ashamed for doing so. It’s true that a lot of Twilight hate was exaggerated, and revisiting media from the past can be fun and comforting—but nostalgia shouldn’t keep us from wanting better in our media.
By Jordan Currie