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« In Which There Are No Vampires Left In New York »

The Once and Future Fairytale


There are those of us who are too stiff-fingered, too hardened by our many years around the merry-go-round to feel the tug of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight Saga. As stories go, this is one that's come around many times before.

We all know the gist by now: first love; a lion and a lamb; star-crossed lovers; suffering and redemption; a life given meaning by the presence of the other. Twilight tacks on vampires, a YA label, and a happy ending? just enough to make this book appropriate for the younger set. It also gives us a boy and a girl so consumed by their love for another that they are willing to endure any sacrifice, any indignity, any bodily pain or mental anguish for the sake of the other's happiness. For Bella and Edward, the complete erasure of the self would not to be too great a sacrifice to express the totality of their devotion. The Story of O doesn't have much on the Twilight Saga. On the other hand, Jesus might.

A couple of nights after New Moon was released, I gave into the onslaught: to Caitlin Flanagan's piece in The Atlantic, to my married cousin's A++ reviews, to K-Stew and R-Pattz with his sanpaku eyes. I read all four books in one stretch and I dreamt hazy dreams which, unlike Bella, I can't remember, but, like Bella, I awoke disturbed, conscious of things unsettled inside of me: subdued desires, long-resigned ideals.

It's pure fantasy, of course, pure revisionist nostalgia, unrealistic not because of its vampires and werewolves, but because of the way it limns that old story, the first fairy tale: that love is the whole history of a woman's life. To enter into the Twilight world is to slip into a lost continent, a Gondwanaland of the hormones that existed for a brief moment before the violence of experience tore everything apart. There is no shading here, neither in the book's thematic treatment nor in the extraordinary literalness of the writing itself. Light pools. Shadows bloom. Skin is either winter cold or burning hot. The story unwinds like the pet fantasy of teenage girl, lingering on every thought and touch and observation. No action is presented without being analyzed. No misunderstanding is cleared up if it can be dragged on for a hundred pages. And, if that misunderstanding is nearly fatal, if Bella can be pushed to the brink of destruction, and Edward can be left hating himself for bringing her so far, so much the better. The resolution is that much sweeter. The "torture the woman" school of storytelling has never gone out of style.

Despite all the atmospheric gloom, this is a universe of blinding emotional and moral clarity. Twilight is no noir; it's a nighttime soap opera in high key lighting. For Bella, Edward and beleaguered best friend Jacob, love is the light that illuminates everything. Pain is the result of confusion, of trying to force things together that don't fit, or of trying to keep things apart that are meant to be together. And the ultimate lesson Twilight offers, the notion that hooks so many starry-eyed girls, is that love will never betray you. That is: The boy will always come back to you. The best friend will be there for you. Even your parents, however much they question your decisions, will melt in the face of any prospective unhappiness and ultimately support you.

The lesson of modern life, in contrast, is rather the opposite. In life as I know it, among all the savvy boys and girls gliding in dark jeans down the Bowery, it's simply not safe to feel the way Bella feels about Edward. We were seventeen once, but now we know better. After years of dating, of crashing in and out of love, of the resulting flattening of the soul, the damaged ego, the imagined humiliations most of us have learned that it is prudent to set the dial low. To love that much, to have one's happiness revolve so completely around another person, is a recipe for disaster. To love someone that much is to give them the power to hurt you, and which one of us wants to go through all of that again?

And yet, I awoke one morning after consuming some 2400 pages of emotional pornography and wondered at the cost of a highly developed instinct for self-preservation. It's that instinct that separates Bella from me: there's a lot I wouldn't do for love; there' nothing Bella wouldn't. Ever the intrepid heroine, neither college, nor career, nor villainous vampires and nor a rib-shattering Rosemary's baby can swerve her from her single-minded devotion. For the millions of Twilight fans, Bella's is an ideal worth emulating. For the pink-sweatered kids among them, well, life hasn't taught them any better yet. As for the others, the mothers and the grandmothers and the young marrieds like my cousin, there somehow still exists a secret self, one that doesn't belong to the drudgery of car pools or cubicles or two-for-one supermarket specials; a secret self that swells in the night, pleasuring itself with dreams of fevered romanticism.

That secret self doesn't question Bella's sanity when she announces that Edward loves her unconditionally and irrevocably and, to be honest, irrationally. It doesn't find Edward's beauty (bronze haired, angel-like, sparkly in the sunlight) as cheap as a Chinatown trinket. Nor does it wince at the lengthy arguments about who loves the other better, nor cringe at the words forever, soul mate and lines in the tenor of eyes like stars or meteors in a moonless sky. As the sold out midnight screenings across America testify, this is a secret self that still knows how to swoon.

The experts say that Bella is a terrible role model, and I daresay they are right. But what they seem to assume is that weaning a girl on feminist approved YA books will set her course straight for life which is not unlike saying that a kid raised on a sugar free diet will always win a battle with an ice cream sundae. As any girl who loved Talking to Dragons as well as Wuthering Heights and still ended up betting it all on the love the first time and maybe even the second time can attest, it's only experience that can work that kind of magic. It takes a broken heart to make lessons about not falling for the wrong kind of guy stick. And then, chastened, wary, more certain of ourselves, instead of mooning over prom dates and first kisses, we learn to focus our energy on work and career, on engaging with the outside world and shaping it in ways we can control. We think in terms of realpolitik. We separate sex from romance. We learn to self-actualize. Some of us do yoga. Some of us are man-eaters. Some of us are in relationships with a good enough kind of guy.

Most of all, we resign ourselves to the knowledge that - irrevocably, unconditionally, irrationally - is only for the crazies. After a while, we forget what it felt like to even harbor that craving. I loved my last boyfriend, though never in the swooning sort of way, and we spent two years together until I decided to take an extended trip outside of the States. I said we'll take a break but then I never came back. This was easy because I never expected us to do anything but fail in the long run; my running out on him was just an accelerated means to an already foregone conclusion.

It is a sign of my apathy that I regard my own romantic history with a certain amount of cynicism. This is in contrast to Bella who catalogs every moment of Edward's courtship and charges them with torrid and terrible portent. I could tell you about my first love (he changed his name after we broke up; I dropped out of school) or my second love (he said, "I can't do this anymore, I need to focus on my art"; I felt my entire existence had been negated) but it's hard to muster the enthusiasm to go beyond the barest details. Somewhere along the way, maybe around the time my best friend called me after watching Vicky Cristina Barcelona to inform me that I was definitely Cristina, or the summer all four of my siblings stayed with me and my boyfriend in our loft on Varick Street and each of them told me separately that they couldn't stand him, or maybe it was just after I quit my last job and realized that I was broke and we weren't in love and that maybe I'd never write a damn thing worth publishing - it occurred to me that love wasn't the most important thing to me after all.

Do you ever really recover from heartbreak? Bella is never unlucky to have to find out. What I know is that the boy from whom you were once inseparable will indeed move on from you, and sometimes good friends, great friends, will disappear so deep into their own drama that they are no longer capable of being there for you. The world spins on. You soldier on. And if you can hold on to your secret, swooning, sweatered self while you do, then so much the better for you. It's not such a terrible thing to wish for Bella's innocence. There are far worse things to face in the daylight.

Shahirah Majumdar is a contributor to This Recording. You can find her website here.

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Reader Comments (16)

I don't think we'd surrender to the "secret self" and fall for Twilight so completely if Stephanie Meyer weren't so good at parading our skepticism around the fringes of her story. As soon as Jacob rolls his eyes at Edward's sparklishness, gooey lines, or freakish overprotectiveness, the familiar gesture looks surprisingly impotent; we're suddenly powerless to sympathize and dying to get back to the over-the-top romancing that nauseated us when we were free to roll our eyes anonymously. It's even more disarming when Bella acts as the voice of cynicism-- all she has to do is gag at the idea of a proposal on one knee, and suddenly we forget how ridiculous it is for her to be getting married at 18. Unlike our cynicism, hers has the power to ruin the moment, and we get so afraid she will ruin it that Edward's saccharine gesture becomes a breath of fresh air. S.M. may not pay much attention to grammatical subtleties, but she's amazingly good at writing scenes where 21st-century ideas I believe in clash with 19th-century ideas I don't believe in and somehow come out looking as inadequate as Bella thinks she looks next to Edward.

December 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterK.Cerena

i enjoyed that.

December 6, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterj

you've said all the things i've wanted to articulate to my twilight-hating friends but couldn't.
i'm an intelligent woman, dammit, but i refuse to apologize for enjoying twilight.

December 15, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAlison

Thank you for this. You have expressed what most of my readers and I have been trying to explain to both ourselves and those who think we are absolutely insane.

I will most definitely pass this on to all my readers.


December 15, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJenny Jerkface

I blog with Jenny (previous commenter) and finally got over her to read this... All I can do is agree with her 110% and commend you for articulating so perfectly what I fell like I have been trying - and failing - to convey over the past year every time someone asks me what it is about Twilight that is so damn appealing.

Thank you.

: )

January 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSnarkier Than You

Dear Shahirah

I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for this amazing article. I can now stop going to the therapy in order to understand my obsession. Just kidding. But seriously Twilight aside it is a great article about love dreams and contemporary world. It doesn't matter that women today want careers money power and freedom, deep inside there are many of us who still believe in fairytales and who want that kind of love. I think it's incredible how many smart educated and independent women still are romantics at heart, and we DO KNOW that this kind of love doewn't exist and is unhealthyt, but as long as we believe it makes us much happier. And to all the cynics out there, I just feel bad for you " a person who doesn"t believe in any kind of magic is as good as dead" (Einstein) ...

January 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAlex


Thank you for an excellent article!

"Do you ever really recover from heartbreak? Bella is never unlucky to have to find out. What I know is that the boy from whom you were once inseparable will indeed move on from you".

Yup he did move on and it was ok, I survived, thrived even. Twilight brings me back to a time when I had my whole life ahead of me. Now my days are consumed with being everything to everyone else, my kids, my husband, my employer... but I'm still 17 in my heart.


January 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMickiMartini

That was so beautifully put without necessarily hanging out your tw-flag. I'm older, educated and usually rational but I've honestly been at a loss at my infatuation with the series. Thanks so much.

January 7, 2010 | Unregistered Commentersuzspetals

Such a well written article - you definitely have captured and articulated how I feel about Twilight, and really have never been able to express right. Thanks to the gals at Twitarded that highlighted this article,and thank you to you Shahirah, for writing it.

January 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTwi_Chic

Firstly, thank you for this wonderful article.
Your ability to put down your thoughts onto paper is wonderful. It captured so many of my thoughts that I had not been able to articulate or even format at times.
Thanks to JJ and STY for mentioning this article in their blog.

Regards from southern Mexico.

January 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJaima

I came here thanks to Twitarded. I'm glad someone penned this down - I know it's not the complete reason why these books make me feel the way they do - but it certainly captures many of the feelings (both positive and negative towards the books) that I've had. Thanks for the article.

January 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJust Erin

This was a touching piece, well written. I have been wrestling with the question about Bella as a character and what our identification with her as readers says about us as women. I don't think she's a so much a terrible role model as much as she's a brilliant projection of the ineptitude that nearly all women feel at some time or another in the process of becoming who we are. As a 40 year old, I am amazed at how easily Bella brings me back to that self - someone I thought had been long buried beneath the accomplishments of adulthood and middle age. I wasn't so sorry for that, either. Because along with that painful memory another memory of my younger self was revived - the passionate "anything is possible & I sort of kind of still believe in magic and miracles" me. And I am happy to feel that part of myself stirred to awakening. Twilight did that, and I'm grateful.

I haven't read the entire series yet - I am late to this strange party, so I'm not sure where it's all headed for Bella or me (though having read enough Harlequins as a youth, I am fairly certain where it's all going). Your ability to pull from your personal life to help explain the mass fascination and adoration of this story is commendable and light-shedding in a way most analysis wouldn't be. Thanks for that.

January 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMyg

Thank you so much for this piece. I was alarmed/amazed/embarassed at how much this series sucked me in. I am a 32-year-old mom of 3 and a working professional. You captured the essence of why I feel so attached to these books. There is a sense of me apart from the "carpools and cubicles and 2-for-1 specials". Thank you for helping me understand what it is about this saga that captures my heart. I would never trade in my crazy life for Bella's, but the romantic in me can still dream about it.

January 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterThankssomuch

For over a year, I couldn't figure out what it was about this story that I loved so much. It doesn't help that I have found wonderful friends in the Twilight fandom to feed this "healthy interest" as one friend calls it.
Being a very cynical, once-heartbroken, single 36 y/o mom who, really at this point could care less about relationships, I still am a hopeless romantic for the perfect love that Bella and Edward have. However, if I had that same perfect love, I would be bored as hell in the first year, but to dream of that is what Twilight is about.
Thank you for representing the voices of the grown-ups. :D

January 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterReliefInAnArticle

This is so beautifully observed and written. Thank you for sharing the adult, intelligent perspective on these stories.

January 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterWordyDoodles

This is a very beautiful artcle that helps me understand, a bit better, why the Twilight bug has chosen to bite me. A college student of mine chose to review New Moon as a course assignment, a new story for me. She later loaned me the Twilight movie to view... that was it. I read the four books in one gulp over our winter break. And then what? I was an addict... to the story, to the author, to Robert Pattinson's profile.... It brought me back to my first love,,, prettier than Edward, I sitll believe. Who broke my heart one seventeen year old day, while reading a letter to his sister left in his hallway locker for me find that said he was breaking up with me. My heart fell through my body to my feet; and it never fully returned, not all these many years later. He died a few short years after that,,, a young cancer victim. All the beauty, immortal now; all that hope and promise stopped in time. Do we want Edward and Bella to stay together and find love immortal? Of course we do, because we, who have survived a bit longer, know that it is not possible. We know that sickness and death, infidelity, money troubles, depression, and dailly mortal life will prevent this. Yet, we read on, our Meyers, our Austen, our Bronte, to live ourselves,, for a stolen moment within the love that was stolen from us too soon, or will never be known, because like vampires and werewolves, it lives within the deark magic of our hearts, but does not do well in the bright light of day.

April 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBelladonna

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