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A Twilight Genderbend Could Never Work

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On Tuesday, Stephenie Meyer announced that she had released a genderbent version of Twilight. The tenth anniversary edition contained a retelling of the novel where every single character (minus Bella’s parents Charlie and Renee) had their genders switched. According to Meyer, she started the project to challenge the idea that Twilight is sexist because Bella is a damsel in distress. She is a human in distress, and this retelling was intended to prove that.

Before you get excited, or overly horrified, this isn’t a new story. This isn’t, as I originally thought, a case of Meyer wondering what the story would have been like if Bella were a guy and Edward were a girl and writing it. The vast majority of this retelling is a find-and-replace job, switching out the names and leaving the context intact, with a few bigger changes when necessary — most notably the ending, where Beau is turned into a vampire, avoiding all that messy “love triangle, half-vampire baby” stuff from the sequels.

Initially, I intended to read the new book, and maybe do a side-by-side comparison of the changes. But as I mused on it, I realized that such criticism is an exercise in pointlessness. No matter how Meyer has rewritten Twilight, no matter what she changed or left the same, the result is going to have incredibly troubling implications about gender and about relationships. The relationships and gender dynamics in Twilight are so flawed that Meyer’s experiment was doomed from the beginning.

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The Power of Fangirls

Several months ago, I saw an interesting discussing about the Beatles on Twitter. Teenage girls, the tweets said, were responsible for the huge popularity of the Beatles, yet nobody thinks that the Beatles are therefore bad. They were the ones screaming at the concerts, but the Beatles themselves are no longer associated with teenage girl-dom. They’re just associated with being good.

I wish I could remember the source of the tweet, because it’s been playing on my mind recently. No matter how much people disparage teenage girls and their tastes, teenage girls are one of the most powerful taste-making groups in popular culture. They have the passion and the commitment to catapult anything that they love into superstardom. And that, I think, makes people very uncomfortable.

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Stephenie Meyer and Women in Movies

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Did you guys know Stephenie Meyer is a movie producer? Since she finished writing her Twilight series, she has started her own production company and produced several movie adaptations, including the two Breaking Dawn movies, The Host, and, most recently, Austenland.

I am not a fan of Twilight. The books have an addictive quality to them, and it’s awesome that lots of people find a lot to love in them, but the series has many problematic elements that make me beyond uncomfortable. When reading them, I had to resist literally throwing the books against a wall on numerous occasion because of how horrified I was by what I was reading.

But after Stephenie Meyer was interviewed yesterday in Variety, I’ve been doing a little research on her work. And, you know, she’s actually pretty awesome. And she’s doing a lot for women in the movie industry.

She founded her production company, Fickle Fish, in 2011 with another woman, Megan Hibbert. Of the four movies she’s produced since then, three have been written by women. Austenland has two female writers, not including the author of the original novel. Austenland was also directed by a woman (another rare thing). And all four movies have a female protagonist. That’s an impressive record, considering that only 11% of movies have a woman as their protagonist. Women are only 18% of all directors, executive producers, writers, cinematographers and editors, making up only 15% of writers in total, and only 9% of the directors of top 250 grossing movies.

With these statistics in mind, Meyer’s track record is impressive. She not only proved that a series of movies aimed solely at women can be a massive blockbuster success, but has also now attempted to expand on that success by bringing other stories about women, written by women, and directed by women to the screen. As well as Austenland, she’s currently optioned two books — Down a Dark Hall by Lois Duncan and Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake. Both books written by women. Both books that will be exposed to a wider audience by the simple fact that Stephenie Meyer optioned them, and both opportunities for more stories about women to hit the screens.

No matter what you think of her own books, that’s pretty good work.

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Teenagers, Twilight and the Hunger Games

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The media machine around Catching Fire is heating up. Stills and trailers have been released. People are getting excited. And I’ve been interested in how the media has presented and discussed The Hunger Games sequel, especially in comparison to that other YA blockbuster, Twilight.

Both are mega-selling book series targeted primarily at teenage girls. Both led to blockbuster movies and tons of merchandise. Both have a female protagonist, action, and romance, although the general tones and themes of the books are as far from one another as can be. But since The Hunger Games launched, the two series have been discussed in very different ways.

As I wrote about on Thursday, some parts of the media have attempted to make The Hungers Games more like Twilight, so that they can fit it into the “things teenage girls like” box and be done with it. I’m not sure I ever heard people being “Team so-and-so” before Twilight, but the media borrowed the term for The Hunger Games, discussing “Team Peeta” and “Team Gale” as though they were the only things that mattered in a movie where Gale plays only a small role and Katniss’s romance with Peeta is all an act to gain popular support. Our world seemed to mirror the Capitol in the stories, as the doomed romance, and not the political message, became the only thing worth discussing, even though it wasn’t real.

However, I’ve noticed that people rarely discuss The Hunger Games as a novel aimed at and loved by teenagers any more, as they do with Twilight. “Aimed at teenage girls” or “popular with teenage girls” is the ultimate insult. “Teenage girls” means boy bands and giggling and stupidity. They are constantly mentioned in connection with Twilight, because the world doesn’t like Twilight that much, and it’s much more fun to mock the series’ popularity with some snide remarks at its fans than it is to try and seriously understand that popularity. And mocking it isn’t very hard. Just say that teenage girls love it, and that seems to be enough.

Yet the world at large seems to like The Hunger Games. While Twilight always remained a subject of mockery (much of it admittedly well-placed), The Hunger Games has been praised and embraced as a mainstream hit. It’s not uncool or girly to like The Hunger Games. And so the book’s target market, its initial fans, the readers who first made it a bestseller in the YA section and lined up at midnight for the premiere? They are not mentioned. Their very connection with the books, any mention of them in related articles, would discredit the series, changing it from a cool new cult thing into something shallow and poor quality and a bit ridiculous. Occasionally, they’re thrown a bone in the form of “Team Peeta or Team Gale?” discussions, but this only separates the original audience even further from the idea that The Hunger Games is a worthwhile mainstream series. By bringing out “Peeta or Gale?” every now and again, separate from its other discussions, the media is able to praise the series itself for its action, the characters, and the commentary on politics and the media and compliment the mainstream audience (aka the white male grown ups) for enjoying them, while simultaneously suggesting that teenage girls only care for “shallow” things like boys and romance. The Hunger Games is not a series for teenage girls — only its Twilight-like elements are for them. Elements invented by the media itself, because girls liking a violent dystopian series with lots of serious themes? Impossible. It must be the boys.

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Banned Books Week

If I were ever to ban a book, it would probably be Twilight.

The books are full of harmful, anti-feminist ideas. The “perfect” Edward Cullen displays many traits of an abusive boyfriend. Bella has all the personality and personal strength of a wet noodle, and her story basically tells us that stalking is romantic, that we should fall apart when our boyfriends leave us, that growing older than 18 is icky, and that we should die before we abort our babies. And all of this is held up as a fantasy, as a dream relationship, to its teenage audience.

In my Most Hated Book Olympics, Twilight is definitely a serious contender.

But banning it — or any book — is only contributing to the problem.

I think liberals like myself typically associate banned books with the Christian Right in America, but a look at the books banned over the last 10 or 20 years (and the reasons behind them) paints a different story. Many books are banned for containing homosexuality or sexuality, but more liberal concerns also make many appearances. Books like Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird are banned for their use of (historically accurate and non-condoned) racist slurs. Twilight itself has been banned because of its (admittedly, in my opinion, harmful) religious perspective.

And banning these books is not justified on either side of political divide.

Firstly, of course, I never would ban Twilight, or any book, simply because I don’t like it. Like everyone else, I have no right to tell other people what to read, or to make assumptions about how they will react to the book or what they’ll carry away from it. Heck, I’ve read all four (well, three and a half… Breaking Dawn was too much even for my book-finishing determination), and even though I wanted to hurl the books against the wall at various points, I also kept reading, completely addicted, until 4am. On multiple days. They were the perfect relief for a stressed out college freshman. Who I am to judge anyone else or prevent them from having their own experience with these books?

But most importantly, books like Twilight do not exist in isolation. They provide a window into some of society’s subconscious beliefs, and they provide a starting point from which to open discussion. Twilight itself has sparked extensive debate, about relationships, about expectations, and about the messages our society gives to young girls and to women in general.  In a society where we like to pretend that “sexism is over,” these discussions are desperately needed, and fiction (whether pro or anti-feminist) is one powerful way to get started.

Banning books that include racism, or sexism, or “harmful messages,” is nothing more than an attempt to shove a real problem in society under the rug instead of addressing it head on. It is the coward’s way, and it will only allow these problems to continue, bubbling out of discussion and out of sight.

Check out Banned Books Week.

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“Special” protagonists in YA Fiction

A few weeks ago, a post did the rounds on Tumblr, declaring that the reblogger was “not like other girls.” The idea that “girly” is negative is so pervasive that many young women  feel compelled to assert their worth by pointing out that they don’t fit those assumptions, rather than challenging the existence of that bias in the first place.

In young adult fiction, a genre that is mostly written by women for young women, I have found far too many examples of the “not like other girls” syndrome. Usually, this is part of a romance — the guy is attracted to her because she’s “special,” because she’s not like the other shallow, superficial girls he encounters every day. The stories work as a kind of wish fulfilment: girls who don’t fit in, or who see themselves as plain or unremarkable or “weird,” are considered superior, are more desirable, and so are more worthwhile than girls who are more “girly” or stereotypical. But in creating a relatable protagonist, one who doesn’t feel pretty or popular or special, these books often feed into sexist ideas about women, suggesting that “normal” women are not worth much, and a girl must be “different” or “extraordinary” to count.

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Dawn is Breaking

Can you feel the insanity in the air? Can you hear the swooning?

It’s that time of year again. A new Twilight movie is in theatres now.

I have a strange relationship with this series. I find its themes and characters utterly repellent, but I tore my way through the first three, relishing every little sparkle and declaration of love, even as certain scenes made me want to throw the book against the wall. The only book I was unable to finish was Breaking Dawn, where Stephenie Meyer lost the plot entirely and went all demon-baby-spawn on us. And hating Twilight is so in vogue that it’s almost created a safe place for people to hate women and their “ridiculous” taste. It’s used an excuse to lament women’s presence at events like Comic Con, not because they have reasoned critical arguments against Twilight, but because it is pulling girls and girly things into their sacred nerdy space.

So yes. I look to these movie releases with a certain amount of morbid fascination, mixed with fear about the misogyny that is present both in the stories themselves and in many people’s reactions to its popularity.

As I have a busy weekend coming up, I won’t be able to view the movie for myself for a few days. But check out NPR’s review of the movie, which makes some excellent points about the series, and about people’s reactions to it, as it moves towards its conclusion.

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