Bulking up the queues for the latest Twilight movie released this week are, from all accounts, thousands of women who are old enough to know better. Mothers of families, working adult women, even grandmothers are reported to be “official fans” of the brooding, melodramatic girl-meets-vampire saga by Stephanie Meyer, stretched over four books and now a third movie, Eclipse.
One expert estimates that nearly 40 per cent of the fan base is over twenty, and while 20 does not make one an adult these days, 39 — the age of one devotee quoted in the Los Angeles Times — should. “Twilight Moms” have websites where they confess their addiction to the love affair between high-school girl Bella Swan and the un-dead Edward Cullen, who is 104 going on 17. Some claim their obsession has caused marital strife.
Of course, there could be a large dollop of media hype, not to mention clever marketing, in the Twi-Moms story. But it kind of fits with the blurring of the category “adult” in these days when many women leave school in their early twenties, marry or resign themselves to cohabitation at 30-plus and have an increasing chance of never bearing children. “Does the warm blood of a teenager still flow beneath your icy grown-up flesh?” asks Slate’s movie critic. “Yes!” is supposed to be the right answer here.
It is understandable that women still waiting for their romantic destiny to materialise, or perhaps discontented with the reality of marriage and family life, should indulge in a little escapism. There is nothing new in that; from the appearance of the first novels (Pamela, falling in love with her abductor…) through morning radio serials and afternoon television soaps, to the long reign of the ever more sultry Mills and Boon tales, it has ever been thus.
Trash aside, there is nothing wrong with romance. I am as susceptible to a good romantic intrigue as the next person, and very happy when an Elizabeth Bennet or a Little Dorrit is rewarded with true love after the virtue of all involved has been thoroughly tested.
But identify with a modern teenager who is in love with a vampire and courted simultaneously by a werewolf, high-school hunks both of them? No thanks. I have nothing against fantasy as such, although it took a master like Tolkien to really get me hooked, but from all that I have read about Stephanie Meyer’s oeuvre her fantasy is formulaic and the books depend heavily for their effect on the sensuality evoked in descriptions of the teenage lovers. (The much-touted “chastity” of their relationship seems more like a plot device to keep the story going than a virtue being celebrated.)
So, if Twilight boils down to Mills and Boon with fangs — or rather, sharp teeth — but without sexual intercourse before marriage, what exactly is the attraction for women who might otherwise be watching Sex and The City?
One answer seems to be the modern obsession with youth, its freedom from responsibility, its options, sexiness and style. Of course, the popular models must be wealthy or lucky enough to be fashionably dressed and accoutred at all times, but it is the sexiness that counts most. And this has a dark side: a woman has to be not only forever desirable but forever on the brink of being bloodthirstily, savagely desired. This darkness takes a particularly nasty turn in the crime stories of Stieg Larrson.
Related this to refusal to grow up is the new concept of marriage as a meeting of soul-mates, the crowning of an intensely romantic relationship in which questions about future children and family life are much less important than the mutual fulfilment of the couple. A recent United States study, for example, found that the proportion of adults who said children were very important for a marriage dropped from 65 per cent to 41 per cent between 1990 and 2007.
One could add to these factors the eclipse of religion for a growing number of people and a corresponding growth of interest in the fantastic and the occult, so that anything with vampires and werewolves in it will have a certain appeal, regardless of any other merits — or none. (It remains a mystery to me why a Mormon mom would write the Twilight series.) The effect, again, is regressive with regard to maturity.
It is not as though Twilight is alone in stoking the trend towards perpetual adolescence.
In an interesting article on popmatters.com Frances McInnis demonstrates that the popular US television series, Gossip Girl, like other shows in the genre, is really “a teen show for adults”. Based on a series of books about high school teens and supposedly for 12- to 18-year-olds, the TV show is loaded with sexual and other objectionable content. Criticised by the Parents Television Council as “mind-blowingly inappropriate”, the producers claimed that its target demographic is actually 18 to 34 and the median age of its viewers 26.
Says McInnis: “Rather than worry about the effect that such hyper-sexualised teen shows have on today’s youth, we might ask ourselves what they say about us, the adults who are actually watching. It’s tempting to argue that these shows offer a temporary and harmless escape from the responsibilities of adult life. To project teenagehood as that escape, however, is essentially an act of hopelessness, an admission that the best life has to offer is long gone.”
She concludes: “We aspire to look young, and to act young. At what point will we just become a nation of teenagers?”
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.