She Pop-Edward Cullen, Face of Girl Power: On The Girliness of Pop, And Why It Matters

You know what's fun about this New York Times article about how the Twilight soundtrack might save the money-hemorrhaging record industry? That it has only one mention of who is most likely to buy tie-in Twilight products.

You know: girls. 

Now: it is not my intent, here, to start another discussion about how creepy Twilight is. I know women who love Twlight dearly! And who do not in any way fit the sad-scary-Goth-lady stereotypes! These are reasonable, smart, cool women, and they like themselves some sparkly vampires. And I recently watched Twilight myself, just to see what the fuss was about, and came to three very important realizations:

  1. Oh, my God, Robert Pattinson is the worst actor who has ever lived.
  2. Oh, my God, Edward Cullen is a stalker.
  3. Oh, my God, when I was fourteen years old, I would have eaten this up with a spoon. And licked the spoon. 

I mean, it has everything! Star-crossed lovers, outcasts with magical powers (which make them superior to the cool kids! Take THAT, Anonymous Cheerleader Who Made My Life Hell At That Age), the thrill of sexy times without the actual responsibility or potential for complications and scariness that comes with actually having sex, Very Dangerous Boys who are actually mushy gesture-prone romantics... sadly, it all started to make sense to me around the Vampire Softball scene, in which we learn that dating a vampire is not a terrifying dance with the devil, but an opportunity to go with some nice boy over to his Mom's house so that she can cook you pasta and you can take part in wholesome group activities and not lose your virginity at any point in the proceedings. These girls aren't looking for danger; they're looking for safety. The point of Edward isn't that he might hurt you, but that other boys might, and that he will protect you. (Yes, this is fucked up. On SO MANY LEVELS. But it is what it is.) The girls want to belong, they want normalcy, they want to be safe, but they also want "belonging" and "normalcy" and "safety" to be somehow special and dramatic and rebellious. And you know what? THAT IS WHAT FOURTEEN-YEAR-OLDS ARE LIKE. So, you know: Twilight. It's not as offensive to me as it should be. Sorry. 

What is offensive to me, however, is that unlike other tweener sensations like Harry Potter, which are less gender specific in their appeal, people are flat-out uncomfortable with the emergence of a large, relatively important (market-wise, anyway) phenomenon that is specifically and intentionally girly. People were initially a bit uncomfortable and dismissive of Harry Potter, and the whole adults-reading-kids'-books thing, but once they got to understanding that it was a part of the cultural landscape that was not going to go away, they started to deal with it on its own terms. That has not been the case for Twilight. Aside from the many worthwhile feminist analyses of Twilight that have been done - some on this very site - there has been a lot of mainstream press coverage that is mocking and dismissive, not just of the lousy craft on display in, say, the Twilight movie (and believe me: it is LOUSY) but of how female it all is. Sparkles! Kisses! Cute boys with no shirts on! EWWWW, says the culture. 

 

Your one-stop shop for sparkly shirtless kisses

WARNING: Image may be offensive to adult males.

 

Which is odd, considering that girls are central to the success of the entertainment industry at large and the music industry specifically. Recently, in conversation, a friend of mine argued that pop was a female-dominated form, and that women in pop were more powerful than men. After looking around for data, I can't say she's all that wrong: the charts aren't strictly or even mostly female-dominated, but the female presence there is telling. So far this year, the only person who is in a position to out-sell Taylor Swift is Michael Jackson, who is one of the more well-known celebrities of all time, and who recently died. The Hannah Montana soundtrack is outselling Eminem's new alum. And then there's the new Twilight soundtrack, which, although it doesn't sound female-dominated (or all that poppy: Thom Yorke, Bon Iver, Ben Gibbard and Grizzly Bear are named as contributors) stands to be a powerful seller. The previous iteration apparently moved 2.2 million copies - more than Cyrus or Eminem have thus far done, if you're curious. And here's the interesting bit: Cyrus, Swift, and Twilight primarily appeal to girls. Girls may or may not be dominating the pop music industry as performers, but as customers they're apparently pretty damn crucial.

Charts are tricky, because they don't show what music people are listening to so much as they show the music that people are buying. Therefore, artists with a base that is not hip to downloading, or that has lots of spare money, will show up even if they aren't necessarily the most culturally relevant or widely heard artists out there. The Hannah Montana soundtrack and the Twilight soundtrack are both tie-in products for multi-media empires, for example; it's not so much about the music as about wanting to be a part of the experience, about proving your fandom through your purchasing power. Still: Eminem and Michael Jackson are established artists - and Eminem, I would argue, is an established artist who couldn't care less about whether girls listen to him - and they're making less bank than albums by and for teenage girls. 

Albums which, I would argue, are given significantly less respect than those of Michael Jackson or Eminem. (Here is another thing I would argue: Jackson, whether you liked the man or not, deserves respect for his music. Eminem, whether you like the man or not, released an album with a terrible first single in which he all-too-often utilized an accent that sounded vaguely like Triumph the Insult Comic Dog.) Girls fuel the industry. The industry profits off girls. And the industry even markets toward girls. Yet people who are Serious Thinkers about Pop Culture And Music often don't honestly reckon with the influence of those girls on the culture, don't paint a picture of a music industry that is bleeding money and could shore itself up by appealing even more to the young women who are proven buyers, don't seem to take this seriously as a factor in what our pop culture currently looks like. If they mention the girl appeal of something at all, it is all too often with disdain and mockery. I mean, I'm no Hannah Montana fan - and I also don't think that all girls who make or listen to music listen to or sound like Miley Cyrus - but if you want to talk about the culture, you might as well take a look at it every now and again. And, you know, not just recoil in pure horror at what you see because it's got a vagina.

As Noel Murray recently pointed out in a fairly boffo essay in the AV Club, people who lament the death of "monoculture" are often only lamenting that the stuff they like isn't more popular. There are acts with mass appeal; it's just that they're not the acts that critics are covering or praising most highly. And then there is the fairly classic essay on rockism by Kalefeh Sanneh, published a few years ago in the New York Times: 

Like rock 'n' roll itself, rockism is full of contradictions: it could
mean loving the Strokes (a scruffy guitar band!) or hating them
(image-conscious poseurs!) or ignoring them entirely (since everyone
knows that music isn't as good as it used to be). But it almost
certainly means disdaining not just [Ashlee] Simpson but also Christina
Aguilera and Usher and most of the rest of them, grousing about a pop
landscape dominated by big-budget spectacles and high-concept photo
shoots, reminiscing about a time when the charts were packed with
people who had something to say, and meant it, even if that time never
actually existed...

Rockism isn't unrelated to older, more familiar prejudices - that's
part of why it's so powerful, and so worth arguing about. The pop star,
the disco diva, the lip-syncher, the "awesomely bad" hit maker: could
it really be a coincidence that rockist complaints often pit straight
white men against the rest of the world? Like the anti-disco backlash
of 25 years ago, the current rockist consensus seems to reflect not
just an idea of how music should be made but also an idea about who
should be making it... in The New York Times Book Review, Sarah Vowell approvingly recalled
Nirvana's rise: "a group with loud guitars and louder drums knocking
the whimpering Mariah Carey off the top of the charts." Why did the
changing of the guard sound so much like a sexual assault?

Look: I am not here to argue that Taylor Swift is a better musician than Michael Jackson. What I'm arguing is that, when it comes time to decide where to put one's extra money, there are as many people who decide that owning a Taylor Swift album is important as there are people who decide the same thing about Michael Jackson. And there are apparently more people who want to buy her albums and consider them important than there are people who to buy Eminem's. Charts aren't an indication of quality; they're an indication of popularity. But, because of that, they're one indication of what the culture looks like. And, if we want to deal with that honestly, that means not just joking something away or ignoring it because it's for girls. 

Comments

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'Aside from the many

'Aside from the many worthwhile feminist analyses of Twilight that have been done - some on this very site - there has been a lot of mainstream press coverage that is mocking and dismissive, not just of the lousy craft on display in, say, the Twilight movie (and believe me: it is LOUSY) but of how female it all is. Sparkles! Kisses! Cute boys with no shirts on! EWWWW, says the culture.'

Someone who agrees with me! HUZZAH! I have thought this for a while, and when I tell people that yes, ok, Twilight is un-feminist, but the intense hatred/disdain for Twilight and it's fans also kinda smacks of sexism, people look at me funny. Now I can just link to this article and THEY WILL GET IT!

Well said! It sometimes

Well said! It sometimes feels like the people most scared by the notion of girly-girl power are other women, as though an admission that pink is pretty or sparkles are fun will somehow see the great institution of feminism come tumbling down and lead to a new Dark Age of 1950s-style housewifery. I'm not much of a girly-girl myself, but I'd contend that any breed of feminism which remains fearful of the trappings of traditional femininity is probably only interested in representing a certain kind of woman, rather than all women. Point being, yay girls! (But not Edward Cullen. Because, you know. STALKER. And of you haven't seen the mash-up of Edward with Buffy the Vampire Slayer on YouTube, go watch now!)

Having just read the article

Having just read the article on Libby Spears in the most recent issue of Bitch, I may not be in the right frame-of-mind to comment. However, if it is true that there is a huge problem of child sex trafficking in America, do you think it's wise to just shrug your shoulders at the popularity of stalker-romance amongst teenage girls? Should we just sit back and say, "That's just the way teenage girls are?"

Yes, I get it, the young-female market is highly valuable. I'm hoping, probably in vain, that the popularity amongst children of a series of novels/films, based on rape culture, will be an eye-opener as to the nature of our current entertainment culture as a whole. But then again, most people won't even see that Twilight is anything more than "Ew, gross."

I would be careful to label

I would be careful to label Edward as a stalker. Overprotective, yes. What I do see of Edward is a different kind of young man that is not after sex from Bella, but rather her love and devotion. Edward allows her to be who she is, isn't that what we all want from our partners? Although I am not a fan of the book, it's too mushy for my taste, I can see the pull to a 14 year old girl and I applaud Stephanie Meyer making sure that the rape cultural movies of the past are not present in her literature.

Just because girls "like it" doesn't make criticism misogynisti

"I would be careful to label Edward as a stalker." ?!? Are you high?

HE BREAKS INTO HER HOUSE TO WATCH HER SLEEP
HE TAKES APART HER CAR SO SHE CAN'T SEE HER FRIENDS

Seriously, those things cannot be capslocked enough. You think this is "overprotective"? This IS abusive relationship. Romanticizing this bullshit makes it harder for survivors of emotional abuse (of which I am one) to be take seriously. But I guess I'm just misinterpreting my ex's "protective" gestures, you know the one that caused me to be totally isolated and dependent on him until he dumped me for another victim- er, girl.

He doesn't "allow her to be who she is", the second she meets him she decides to become what he wants. That is codependent, not love.

OP, I'm glad you would have related to it. Okay. Teen girls are not a monolith though. What about girls who are asexual, not into guys, or don't like romance stories? They exist, and they're probably completely not into it. I know I would have *HATED* Twilight, and my experience is just as valid.

I'm glad that you voiced

I'm glad that you voiced your opinion and I respect you for doing so. I was basing my points on the first book, the only one that I read, so I apologize for not being as informed to your points from other books. While I can understand your frustration, I do believe that in the context of my post I was careful to say that I felt that Bella held her own (as least as far as the first book goes). Thank you for sharing!

However, please, do not put someone down for their opinions that they voice by personally attacking me! I am not high, I have not experienced what you have, and I am not saying that those who are female and are asexual are not considered in my post. Your anger towards me, a complete stranger is unjust.

I do have anger toward

I do have anger toward people who justify rape/abuse culture toward women, which I think that the Twilight books promote.

I didn't mean to attack you, I just think it's ridiculous that feminists are justifying the Twilight books because they would read them when they were younger. I read/liked tons of things when I was younger, and now I can see the inherent racism/classism/sexism in some of them. The Twilight books are ALL of those things.

Oh, and when I pointed out queer and asexual girls I was talking to the writer of the article.

For some reason, the system

For some reason, the system keeps losing my comment. SO:

As I said initially, there have been 5,000,000,000 discussions of why Twilight is creepy. They have been good discussions. But they have been had already. If you demand to have exactly the same conversation about how creepy it is (personally, what I found offensive was the limiting retro gender roles, with Bella being the damsel in perpetual distress who always has to be protected or rescued) every time it's mentioned, then it blocks other discussions and other perspectives. Everyone here is aware of its creepiness! The backlash is also creepy in a different way! Let's talk about that, too!

Second: yeah, the fact that I would have liked Twilight at my age is something I included, because it's why I can't take a condescending tone when discussing it or its fans. There are a whole lot of people who talk about Twilight fans as silly girls who just don't know what's best for them, and that's sexist and gross to me. Obviously, people who don't like having sex aren't going to be that into a romance novel. (Although, to be fair, the entire thing is about not having sex! Which is one of the things I find offensive, also!) Obviously, people who are not into heterosexual makeouts might prefer a novel in which the makeouts of their choice can be found! Fine! This blog post - aside from NOT EVEN PRIMARILY BEING ABOUT TWILIGHT - was also not a post about how people who don't like sex are all awful and their perspectives don't matter and also only straight people should have romance novels to read. OK! You hate Twilight! You are angry about Twilight! You would prefer to read one of the 5 billion available posts deconstructing its creepiness rather than the post I wrote! Maybe you should! Demanding that I tell you what you already know - that "Twilight" is creepy - is counterproductive. Not every "Twilight" post can be the exact same "Twilight" post. And this isn't even really a "Twilight" post, so.

Third, I find it really interesting how people get this worked up over Twilight, when a lot of the very same messaging is included in the Buffy/Angel relationship on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a feminist favorite. Angel is older than Buffy; Angel stalks Buffy in the name of protecting Buffy; Angel can't have sex with Buffy because he will kill Buffy; etc. I was watching a Buffy episode just yesterday with a classic Twilight-y True Love Waits or Else It Will Kill You scene, in which Buffy is figured as the girl who is OMGSOHOT for her boyfriend but must withhold sex to protect herself from her man's bestial desires, and Angel as the boy who is OMGSOHOT for Buffy but must restrain himself lest his sexual urges destroy her. "Twilight" is not the only thing we have to worry about, people!

minor point

There are a whole lot of people who talk about Twilight fans as silly girls who just don't know what's best for them, and that's sexist and gross to me.

It's really super gross to me how many of them write for sites geared towards women, like Jezebel. Okay, especially Jezebel.

I totally agree. With the

I totally agree. With the article, and with what you just said about Twilight not being the only thing we need to worry about, IF we are gonna worry (I'm not lol).

Oh, and bonus point:

When I said "that's what teenage girls are like," I was referring to the urge to be independent and special and also to be protected and part of a group. The need to be in danger but safe, rebellious but accepted. It's a common adolescent fantasy. You can find it in X-Men, Buffy, a whole bunch of media for nerdy teens. Twilight capitalizes on those fantasies as well, but it adds more makeout sessions. And, yeah, the stalking. Not a fan of the stalking!

Those who fit into the

Those who fit into the "sad-scary-Goth-lady stereotypes" are powerful consumers and women too. Many of them are cool and kickass. And we like us some good literature and scary, non-sparkly vampires.
It's great that Stephanie Meyer and the music industry have finally managed to market to a group of often-overlooked people. It's fantastic that young women are recognized as having massive consumer power; however, this is the same fucked-up, misogynistic system as it was in the pre-Twillight, pre-Swift days.
Yes, the backlash is often not justified and sometimes sexist, but that doesn't mean that feminists and non-fans can't appreciate Twillight's few "good" qualities or flip our sociological thinking caps the other way. I think what is most disturbing is what some of these powerful consumer icons support and suggest to young women and the fact that more women should be involved in the selling processes-- not just consumers.

aka snobographer

The thing about the Beatles, Elvis, Sinatra, Michael Jackson, Madonna - all the pop artists with the most ridiculously humongous sales numbers and the longest-running careers? For at least the earlier parts of their careers they appealed largely - and by largely, I'm talking like 80+% - to young women and girls. At the same time, with maybe the exception of Sinatra (or maybe not, I haven't looked into it) all of them were initially disparaged as artistically frivolous and shallow. Yes, the Beatles too even. There is some very telling footage on that Anthology DVD, namely of a reporter at a Beatles concert passive-aggressively deriding a male concert attendee for being into something that's "for girls."
The artists on that above list of best-sellers who've been disparaged the most, unsurprisingly, are the woman (Madonna) and the black guy (Jackson).

Girls take their fandom seriously and they tend to get into it for life. Fact: David Cassidy still makes a totally decent living. You think Fred Durst will have that kind of draw in Vegas when he's pushing 60? When's the last time anybody even heard from that asshole? I'm not getting the impression Eminem's latest album is really selling like hot cakes either, despite everything the industry's trying to do to push it.

Not for nothing, I love that Lady Ga Ga won the Best New Artist VMA (notice she was the only female nominee) and that Eminem had to present the award to her. Ha!

Honestly, all the hate

Honestly, all the hate against Twilight book has just peaked by rebellious curiosity and made me want to read it. I read plenty of fine literature, as do my cousins and nieces who are into this book. So as soon as I finish the two books I am reading now (the fourth installment of the Lonesome Dove series and Hawking's Brief History of Time), you just might find me reading Twilight. Behind closed doors, of course.=)