how 'twilight' changed fan culture forever
As the film adaptation of 'Twilight' turns 10, the impact of the teen vampire phenomenon on fan culture is still evident today.
Twilight movie still
The hottest thing in movies a decade ago was a scene where a seemingly ordinary teenage boy caught an awkward girl’s apple in a school cafeteria. The scene itself wasn’t pent up with sexual tension but there was something deeply erotic about the contrast between the red apple and the pale hands of its beholder: the vampire Edward Cullen.
The apple — a signifier for the concept of “forbidden fruit” — weaves throughout each one of Stephenie Meyers’ four Twilight novels and is the backbone of each of the five subsequent film versions. It’s a theme that, naturally, resonates with teenagers (and, let’s admit it, adults as well) with their bubbling hormones, sexual discovery, resistance to authority and penchant for rebellion. All of this, paired with the already sexy notions of vampires, shirtless werewolves and the sheen of the supernatural was the perfect storm for a pop culture phenomenon that would go on to make well over $3 billion worldwide.
Twilight wasn’t unique for this genre blend, of course. The Sookie Stackhouse novels and its related TV adaptation, True Blood, had provided an R-rated alternative to Twilight’s teen angst, and a decade before, Buffy the Vampire Slayer played with similar tropes, albeit with added pop culture quips and vampires that really looked like the undead. Instead, the Twilight Saga, both the books and the films, arrived at an opportune period for the development of new breed of fandom that would alter the way that fans not only interacted with and interpreted the source material, but with each other, too. With Twilight, a whole new breed of fandom was created.
Nowadays, our understanding of fandom and fan communities is almost exclusively digital. But in 2008, Twitter was in its relative infancy and the discourse about pop culture was aimed mostly around popstars and live-tweeting television. Fan communities had existed online, but in secluded forums and online portals. With social media, Twilight fans — the Twihards — and the expression of their fandom was out on public display. YouTube videos, Tumblr blogs and Twitter accounts dedicated to the fandom created a unique network of young people who were obsessed with the sparkly vamps and buffed up wolves, allowing for almost real-time discussions about the most important of things: #TeamJacob or #TeamEdward.
The momentum of the Twilight fandom is mirrored by the growth of other digital-first fandoms, such as the intensity surrounding Justin Bieber or One Direction. In a way, Edward Cullen, with his designer haircut, striking good looks and psychosexual aura, encouraged a similar sort of idolatry. It helped, too, that in both the films and the books, Edward’s sexuality is non-threatening; he may be a vampire lusting after the blood of his beloved, but in the bedroom he’s as cold as his undead skin. That both Edward and Bella are misfits, pushed to the fringes of both normal and supernatural society, only feeds on a teenager’s own outsider syndrome. Here is the ultimate dangerous outcast desperate to be saved, who also exhibits non-threatening sexual behaviour. It’s no wonder it was a hit.
But if social media made it easier to bring Twihards together, it also deconstructed the protective walls that fandoms use to keep their communities safe. In 2012, the film’s Twitter account was the first to reach 1 million followers, and around the cinema release of New Moon in 2009, there were around 81,000 tweets a day about the movie; between 2008 and 2012, discussions about chaste vampires and werewolves were inescapable.
This sort of female-lead teen fandom, however, cannot exist in a vacuum. Whether it’s Beatles mania or the emotional vlogs of Twihards reacting to the release of film trailers, fandoms primarily made up of women, especially young women, are belittled, mocked and hit with venom better reserved for shaming abusers. It’s all very thinly veiled misogyny, specifically aimed against teen girls and queer youth as they learn about and form their own identities away from the dangers of heterosexual male oppression.
Twilight fans weren’t any more extreme than other fandoms, but thanks to social media theirs was the first to become so visible. The media picked up on usual fan behaviours, dubbing these activities “crazy”, fans’ reactions “unsettling” and their love of the franchise an “obsession”. Their critique extended to the source material, too; the books accused of being poorly written and the films unwatchable, with the two lead actors, Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart, performances described as wooden. There was backlash from the general public, too, who resisted the fact that the vampires sparkled, complained about the characterisation of Bella, criticised author Stephenie Meyer’s depiction of Native American culture, hated how vapid the whole thing seemed.
None of this was beneficial when Twilight descended on San Diego Comic-Con (SDCC). A blog post on a site called “Furious Fanboys” details how the film’s “crazy fanbase” disrupted the normally sleepy convention as fans camped out for days ahead of Twilight’s panel discussion. As The Atlantic notes in a piece called “How the Nerds Lost Comic-Con”, the convention was developing beyond just comic book fans already. What a phenomenon like Twilight emphasised was the mainstreaming of “geek” and “nerd” subcultures.
This mainstreaming is perhaps best exemplified by the Twi-moms, adults (usually mothers or middle-aged women) who were also fans of the books. Writing for Wired, culture writer Jenn Tylbon explained that her love for the series and #TeamEdward stemmed from the fact that the portrayal of heterosexual men in the books and on screen was “so ideal”. “[Edward] is impossible,” she wrote, “ the vampire part aside even, but ideal, utopian even.” For others, it’s Bella who is the entrance into the series, with Kirsten Starkweather, media director of TwilightMoms.com telling New York Magazine in 2009 it was the character’s domesticity and broodiness — her maternal traits — “that a lot of moms can relate to”.
Perhaps the most famous Twi-mom of them all is the author E.L. James, whose 50 Shades of Grey series, which created its own fandom, was originally a piece of erotic Twilight fanfiction. James ultimately changed the names and various details before the publication of her novels, but they were a sea change for the publishing industry. Nowadays, publishers have turned to sites like Wattpad and fanfiction.net to find the next behemoth of commercial fiction. The public and commercial acknowledgement of fanfiction was perhaps the last wall surrounding the cult of fandom, the last of their dirty secrets to find mainstream success.
Inevitably, the franchises’ star diminished as the film series ended. Likewise, the fans grew up and realised the flaws in the romance they’d so lusted after. But the fandom does remain, albeit a little depleted. Nowadays, away from the glare of public scrutiny, they can enjoy the story and the connections they’ve made with other fans at festivals and in online communities. There’s an element of catharsis, too. As Buzzfeed News reported, the film’s 10th anniversary sparked a plethora of memes and memories, with one Tumblr user writing about how “therapeutic” it was to be able to embrace their fandom without the fear of being judged. “Embracing Twilight 10 years later feels like embracing the silly teen girl who I hated for so long,” they explained.
While Twihards are now making peace with their pasts, the darker aspects that gestated in that fandom have become more prominent. Death threats are dished out by fans of all sorts, so much so that the threat has nearly lost all meaning, and the toxicity that perhaps always lay hidden in the corners of fandoms has made itself public, too. Recently, a small group of Star Wars fans targeted the franchises’ new star Kelly Marie Tran with racist abuse, causing the actor to delete her social media and write an essay for the New York Times in which she refused to be marginalised. Filmmakers and TV producers have been accused of pandering to fans, too, spinning films out into franchises and altering plots and casting decisions because of responses on social media. There have even been reports about how Russian trolls posed as Star Wars fans online in order to spread discontent on social media.
Like the vampires from Twilight, fandom can suck the life out of something, but it can also sparkle in the light, too. Communities are formed and friendships are made. The way that stans prop up their favourite popstars is admirable. The love surrounding a TV shows like Skam or Sense8 showcases how positive fandoms can be, helping create narrative justice for their favourite characters while also providing support for one another in the shape of translations and links to episodes.
It’s unlikely that when writing Twilight author Stephenie Meyer pictured the snowball effect on fandom that her series of vampiric romances would have. Sure, it’s easy to look back now and criticise the writing, the acting and the teenage hysteria. But for a phenomenon whose peak lasted just five years, the mobilisation of the Twilight fans and their synchronistic arrival with the boom of social media was the perfect catalyst for a fundamental change to the DNA of fandoms. Let’s hope that, like with the romance between Edward and Bella, that change has a happy ending.