Twilight was problematic – do its stans want a sequel?
12 years after its last edition, this week the Twilight book series relaunches with 'Midnight Sun'. But is it welcome in a world that’s moved on from its questionable politics?
Back in 2005, Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight set alight a fire in the hearts of preteens and Young Adult fantasy lovers. The book, and its three subsequent follow-ups — New Moon, Eclipse, Breaking Dawn — became the four bestselling books of 2008 and 2009. It’s created an indelible legacy; a formative step in stan culture. Just last year, the BBC hailed it as one of the 100 novels that shaped our world.
Back when Twilight fever was at its peak, the series found its niche amongst us awkward, prepubescent tweens who lacked the relationship experiences our more confident peers possessed. “I wanted to live vicariously through Bella and I just assumed all teen flings were supposed to be brooding and dramatic,” says Rylee, who first read the book when she was 13 and swiftly joined Team Jacob. Bella was our outlet, even if we didn’t realise it at the time: A person through which to channel all our horny fantasies of having not one, but two mysteriously dark and sexy guys vying for our affection; and a voice for those angsty feelings we had of being misunderstood.
It’s no wonder, then, that alongside teen straight girls, a considerable proportion of the fandom was made up of those who would later identify as LGBT+. “I didn’t really understand myself yet or my sexuality or the notion of gender,” says Kyle, who read the books aged 10 and is (controversially) Team Charlie. That’s Bella’s dad, btw. “But I kinda felt I was Bella especially seeing her sadness and being out of place.” Thus grew one of the earliest cases of modern day organised digital fandom -- also known as Twihards -- as these socially awkward preteens gathered online in ‘Jessica Stanley Fanclubs’, ‘Alice Cullen Propaganda’ pages and ‘Gays for Bella Swan’ accounts.
But despite the love for the series and its undeniable success, its criticism and controversy is no secret. Christian parents feared the effects of occultism; liberals feared the overt pro-life messaging; Native Americans critiqued the inaccurate representation of their culture, and psychologists feared the impact of Bella and Edward’s intense shared obsession on the young readership. “An absolute stranger watching you sleep at night? That’s on some Ted Bundy type shit” says Debz who, despite his serial killer vibes, would still consider herself Team Edward. An investigation by io9 found that Edward and Bella’s relationship fit all 15 criteria for abuse listed by the National Domestic Violence Hotline and critics were worried that Edward’s violence, darkness and outdated morals were being masked and validated by the fact he was a century-old vampire.
So naturally, when Stephanie Meyer announced that Midnight Sun, the long-awaited fifth novel in the series — that tells the original story from Edward’s point of view — would be published on August 4, there was inevitably some blowback.
Writing for Marie Claire, Kathleen Walsh thinks that the Twilight series has no place in 2020. “None of it can realistically fly in today’s cultural landscape”, she says, pointing out that the bulk of the Twihard fandom are gen Z, a generation that is “far more liberal than earlier generations.” Kathleen is right: a decade later Midnight Sun is entering an entirely different world its predecessors lived in, and gen Z are known to steer clear of things they disagree with. “If I did read it, I think I’d have to get a library copy or borrow a friends” Maddy, a fan at the tieme, who agrees with much of the criticism, says. “It would sit better with my conscience if I wasn’t supporting it financially”.
Midnight Sun had a messy start. In 2008, the first 12 chapters leaked online causing Meyer to pause writing, delay the book indefinitely and make the leaks available on her own website. Further delays came when Grey, a companion novel to E.L. James’ Fifty Shades series from the perspective of its kinky-dom male lead was announced. In those early chapters, Midnight Sun revelled in the predatory and aggressive nature of Edward’s vampyric status. Although Meyer may well have updated these for a new world highly changed by the #MeToo movement, there’s only so much that can be done when its original narrative is inherently rooted in abuse.
But that doesn’t mean OG Twihards, now mostly in their early 20s, are not entirely turned off. As series like Netflix’s You show, many still see a space in today’s world for content with problematic leads. “I think you can be critical of a text while also enjoying it on a base entertainment level” says Lydia, who is vehemently Team Edward. “I think it can be really useful to use texts, like Twilight, to help explain concepts like toxic masculinity.”
Perhaps this is where the criticism of the Twilight series becomes a little disjointed and complex. It doesn’t give gen Z enough credit. “A lot of teen and YA books at the time had relationships that appeared romantic but were not healthy at all,” Sorcha, a Team Jacob stan says. Although we loved and enjoyed the series, the majority of Twihards weren’t looking to find a vampire figure for a partner; they were obsessed, but not deluded. This was partly down to the fandom itself. With the Twilight series also coming out within the same period as Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram, fans were able to make tight knit communities online that could discuss their love for the books, revel in their vampire/werewolf fantasies together, while also openly discussing the relationships and themes.
“I definitely think the audience has more agency in this series”, Mella, a rare member of Team Nikki-Reed-In-A-Blonde-Wig says. “I think what’s great about my generation is that we tend to be great cultural critics. We can go back to the nostalgia of a time when our biggest problem was choosing Edward or Jacob and still be aware of the implications the series has.” Since her Twihard days, Mella has gone on to study Film at NYU. She believes Twilight is an example of young people shaping cultural discourse online (“the more memes, images and tweets you see online the more you think about what it is you’re actually seeing”).
We can see it in the numerous TikTok videos, much like the dissection of Glee and America’s Next Top Model that has opened our eyes -- and even Tyra’s herself -- to just how problematic those shows were. We can learn from them, while still enjoying their merits. “If I ever had a daughter who wanted to read Twilight I would let her,” Pebbles, who is Team Edward and read the series at 14, says. “I would use it as an opportunity to educate her on all the things wrong with it, while still enjoying it as literature.”
There’s no doubt that Twilight is rife with problems. The cute teams we fans divided ourselves between had us choosing between an obsessive, ancient, ex-serial-killer-turned-stalker or a temperamental (ripped) teen whose anger issues could erupt into violence at any given moment. But fandom culture allows us to understand, evaluate and reevaluate things together, informed by other fans’ perspectives. That doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy the ridiculous, emo-wet-dream-abstinence-porn that Twilight very much is as well.