By Kelly Foster
“I even got rid of all my Colin Firth movies just in case they consider that erotica.”
—Tina Fey as Liz Lemon on 30 Rock
Around 8:30 this past Sunday evening, I got a call from my fellow thirty-something friend, Amanda.
“I just finished Twilight, and I will DIE if I don’t get New Moon tonight! If we rush, we can make it to Barnes & Noble before it closes! Throw on some shoes and come with me! I’ll be there in five minutes!”
So my friend (possessor of a graduate degree, former university level instructor of English, homeowner, mother, wife, and all-around mature, responsible, taxpaying adult-type person) and I sped off to Barnes and Noble in our jammies and tennis shoes to pick up our respective next copies of Twilight. She was beginning Book 2. I was about to begin Book 3.
It is important to note that the day before (just this past Saturday) neither of us had ever read a Twilight book. Now three days later, she’s done with the entire series and we’ve both seen the movie at least once.
Within a five day time period we’ve each read over 2,000 pages of subtly sexualized prose about teenage vampires and seen a two hour movie with less subtly sexualized stories about teenage vampires. I would also like to briefly point out that my MOTHER also just finished all four Twilight books in record time, so it’s not just me and my friends. Also, one of our hyper-masculine football coaches who prefers to remain nameless.
Now, I can’t speak for my mother, or for Amanda, or for the millions of teenage girls (much like my students) who’ve turned out in droves to read the book and see the film (one of my students confessed to me yesterday that she’s seen the film five times since its pre-Thanksgiving release date), but I can speak for myself. Twilight is an almost addictively fun story, easy to get lost in. And since I finished Harry Potter (yes, I know that’s a Greg Wolfe can of worms waiting to happen—I know, I know, it’s a sign of the apocalypse of reading—I’m helping bring on the end of the world because I adore J.K. Rowling), I haven’t really found myself able to escape quite so completely into a work of popular fiction.
One of the main reasons for Twilight’s appeal is the heroic and dashing male lead Edward Cullen, a kind of undead Prince Charming, rushing in time and time again to save his damsel in distress.
I read Twilight with glee because of Edward, much as I read Anne of Green Gables for Gilbert Blythe or Little House on the Prairie for Almanzo or Pride and Prejudice for Mr. Darcy or Jane Eyre for Mr. Rochester or Wuthering Heights for Heathcliff. I read Twilight for the same reasons I still watch Last of the Mohicans or Out of Africa or Gladiator or Bridget Jones’s Diary. I read Twilight for the same reasons I obsessively monitor the state of Jim and Pam’s relationship on The Office and for the same reasons I still swoon over Aidan on Sex and the City.
I love stories of kind-hearted heroes and complex damsels in distress. I love stories about love. I love that scene in Gladiator when Russell Crowe turns to face Joaquin Phoenix to let him know vengeance is coming. When I read Twilight and I sense that the female lead, Bella, is in trouble, I can find myself thinking what every endangered damsel in distress shouts to every mustachioed villain, “Just wait till Edward hears about this! He’ll save her!”
I recognize that thinking these things is terribly unpopular in so many ways. If I admitted this in grad school, I’d be scorned out of academia. If I admit these things among the literati (well, hello there, Greg), then people will mostly think I’m just a silly sad girl who has bad taste and probably secretly TiVo’s All my Children (I don’t, by the way).
In Girl Meets God, Lauren Winner describes the dream that helped prompt her conversion to Christianity, as Christ in the form of Daniel Day-Lewis coming to sit and talk with her. She knows he will not let up. She knows he will find her, wherever she goes.
I’m not quite ready to spiritualize my life-long absorption in hero worship to that point. My friend Phil calls these books and movies “girl porn,” and so he clucked disapprovingly at my friend Katie and me when we watched Mr. Darcy brooding through the mist in the most recent adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. Phil says girls watch these movies and read these books and then get disappointed with every man in their lives who isn’t as handsome as Mr. Darcy or as passionate as Heathcliff.
Maybe. And in that sense, maybe it’s no better than pornography. And I hear distant echoes of my evangelical upbringing: “Men are visual. Girls are emotional....”
Yadda, yadda, yadda.
But maybe it’s something else. I read an Alan Jacobs article last year defending Harry Potter. He brought my attention to a Chesterton essay with which I was not familiar: “A Defence of Penny-Dreadfuls.” In that essay, Chesterton makes what I think is a compelling statement: “The vast mass of humanity, with their vast mass of idle books and idle words, have never doubted and never will doubt, that courage is splendid, that fidelity is noble, that distressed ladies should be rescued and vanquished enemies spared. There are a number of cultivated persons who doubt these maxims of daily life.”
So here’s to heroes and here’s to the vast mass of humanity. Maybe they’re on to something after all.