What if Female Fans Matter? Taking a Bite of Out of Twilight Backlash

(Cross posted at In Media Res)

With Eclipse due to premiere in theatres this evening, this past week has been brimming with Twilight -related events. Last week, for example, a so-called “tent-city” brimmed with fans camping out in anticipation for the Friday night Los Angeles early-release premiere. Then, on Saturday evening, the night of the lunar eclipse, Summit Entertainment hosted “Twilight Night” events around the country that included celebrity appearances, live music, and back to back screening of the first two film adaptations.

A review of San Diego’s “Twilight Night” for Blast by Conception Allen reports such events reveal Twilight “fanaticism” continues to “cause hysterics.” Describing fans’ “ardent screams” and noting those turned away once the venue had reached capacity “threw tantrums,” the piece represents fans as temperamental toddlers.

Such a tone is typical in mainstream depictions of Twilighters that rather uniformly depict fans as childish and/or hyperfeminine. Words such as hysteria, fever, obsession, and mania are often deployed – words that the recent text Bitten by Twilight: Youth Culture, Media, and the Vampire Franchise aptly describe as “Victorian era gendered words.” This rendering of the fandom in terms that simultaneously infantilize and feminize it reflects the historical repudiation of females and femininity generally and the derision targeted at female fandoms more specifically.

Scholars such as Angela McRobbie and Milly Williamson document this enduring contempt for female fans, examining how cultural studies has tended to position male fans as resisting or subverting mainstream culture while female fans are either not considered at all or framed as dupes, uber-consumers, or, most often, as silly girls. This framing is particularly apparent with regards to the Twilight fandom, with fans depicted as crazy, frenzied hordes that shriek and gasp over “anything possessing a penis.”

This gendered backlash dismisses the productive and engaged nature of Twilight fandom, allowing for widespread ridicule that is not only about not liking Twilight but also participates in the historical tendency to mock that which females enjoy (such as romance novels, soap operas, teen idols, etc).

There are, however, exceptions. For example, the Vampire-Con Film Festival (which took place June 24 through June 26 in Los Angeles) distanced itself from the Twilight phenomenon via its promotional clip. Featuring an Edward-looking vampire enjoying the viewing pleasure of fellow cinema goers by “sparkling” in the theatre, this “All bite, No Sparkle” parody distances “real” vampire fans from Twilighters in a way that is humorous rather than derisive, clever rather than mocking. Similar to the “Vampires Protest Z Day” clip that promoted Vamp-Con 2009, this year’s video relies on parody rather than attacking the Twilight fandom directly or framing fans as “silly girls.” As such, the clip proves that differing fandoms can be critical of one another or disagree about what cultural products are deserving of fans without resorting to misogynistic laced disdain.

As argued by Melissa Click, the Twilight fandom “presents an opportunity to disrupt the persistent stereotypes about girls, the media they enjoy, and their cultural activities.” As she insists, cultural studies scholars must not “let the gendered mockery of Twilight fans continue unchallenged.” I agree entirely – Twilight may sparkle, but the critique of it need not bite…

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What if Female Toys Got Equal Play? A Review of Toy Story 3

Toy Story 3 opens on a female-empowerment high, with Mrs. Potato-Head displaying mad train-robbing skills and Jessie skillfully steering Bullseye in the ensuing chase. From there though, the bottom drops out of the film’s female quotient.

Out of seven new toy characters, only one is female – the purple octopus whose scant dialogue is voiced by Whoopi Goldberg. This is far worse than the one female to every three males ratio documented in children’s media by The Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media.

The film revolves around now 17-year-old Andy leaving for college. His mom (who has yet to be given a name) insists (in rather nagging fashion) he store or get rid of all his “junk.” The bag of toys containing Woody et al mistakenly ends up in the trash, resulting in the toys landing in a prison-like daycare (way to turn the knife on working parent guilt, that one).

In typical Pixar fashion, male characters dominate the film. Though the film ends with young Bonnie as the happy new owner of the toys, making way for more sequels, Woody would have to become Wanda and Buzz become Betty in future films in order for the series to break Pixar’s male-only protagonist tradition (as in Wall-E, A Bug’s Life, Cars, Monster, Inc, The Incredibles, How to Train Your Dragon…).

Bo Peep is inexplicably missing in this third installment, leaving even fewer females. Barbie has a larger role this time around though, as an overly emotional, often crying girlie-girl. She is also a traitor of sorts, breaking away from the gang to go live with Ken in his dream house.

As for Ken, he is depicted as a closeted gay fashionista with a fondness for writing in sparkly purple ink with curly-Q flourishes. Played for adult in-jokes, Ken huffily insists “I am not a girl toy, I am not!” when an uber-masculine robot–type toy suggests as much during a heated poker match. In the typical way homophobia is paired with misogyny, the jokes about Ken suggest that the worst things a male can be are a female or a homosexual.

Admittedly, Barbie ultimately rejects Ken and is instrumental in Woody and Co’s escape, but her hyper-feminine presentation coupled with Ken’s not-yet-out-of-the-toy-cupboard homophobia make this yet another family movie that perpetuates damaging gender and sexuality norms.

While the girls in the audience are given the funny and adventurous Jessie, they are also taught women are coy and  talk too much (as with the flirty Mrs. Potato-Head, who, according to the new character Lotso needs her mouth taken off), that when they say something smart it’s so rare as to be funny (as when Barbie says “authority should derive from the consent of the governed”), and that even when they are smart and adventurous, what they REALLY care about is nabbing themselves a macho toy to love (as when Jessie falls for the Latino version of Buzz – a storyline, that, yes, plays on the “Latin machismo lover” stereotype).

As for non-heterosexual audience members, they learn that being gay is so funny, that the best thing to do is hide one’s sexuality by playing heterosexual, and that it’s quite normal (and humorous) when others mock homosexuality and/or non-normative masculinity.

Yes, the film is funny and clever. Yes, it was enjoyable and fresh. Yes, it contained the typical blend of witty dialogue coupled with a virtual feast for the eyes. But, no, Pixar has not left its male-hetero-centric scripts behind. Nor has it moved beyond the ‘everyone is white and middle class’ suburban view of the world. As such, it’s associations with Disney, the mega-animated-instiller of gender and other norms (as so well documented in Mickey Mouse Monopoly) indicates that animated films from Pixar will not be giving us a “whole new world” anytime soon…

What if you’re in the market for a vampire daddy this father’s day?

If you have been following pop culture over the past 5 years, you probably know the genesis of vampire fathers: He’s the vampire who turns you into a vampire via toothsome bite or venom injection. The most popular contemporary vampire series, Twilight and True Blood, don’t feature any vampire mothers. But they do present us with a number of good, even godly, vampire fathers. Twilight’s Carlisle Cullen is a perfect undead dad to permanently teenage vampire Edward. And when Bill Compton, the hunky undead leading man of HBO’s True Blood, becomes a reluctant father to vampire Jessica, he steps up quite well.

It’s clear Twilight author Stephanie Meyer would put Carlisle up for the prize for best vampire dad. He literally MAKES his vampire Brady-Bunch family, by, yes, turning people into vampires. How preferable to having to reside in one of those icky woman-wombs for nine months! And, in a saga that so values the sex-free life, he is a surprisingly good matchmaker, turning first the seductive Rosalie into a vampire to provide his century-long-virgin-son Edward an opportunity for bumping uglies, then, when that doesn’t fly, voting to make Bella undead. (Imagine if he sought sex partners for DAUGHTERS–now that would likely cause quite the stir, no?)

Even the non-vampire dads in these series compete for best dad status. In Twilight, Charlie is a benevolent dad to heroine Bella Swan, giving her the space and independence most teens desire and even supplying her with cool wheels. Billy Black is touchingly protective of both his werewolf son Jacob and Bella, and Sam is the dedicated, if overly authoritarian, muscle-daddy of the werewolf pack. True Blood is full of touchingly queer fathering arrangements: queer cook Lafayette serves as a quasi-father to his cousin Tara, shapeshifter Sam acts as dad to waitress Arlene’s kids when she is on a bender induced by an evil manead (don’t ask!), and the town yokel Hoyt plays the role of compassionate, forgiving father-figure to his unlikeable mother.

But, if I were in the market for a vampire daddy to call my own, I would pick the surprisingly progressive Bill of True Blood. Despite his reluctance to vamparent, he is patient with his new vampire daughter, Jessica, helping her to find a synthetic blood she can tolerate and carefully teaching her the rules of vampire life. And, with heroine Sookie’s help, he recognizes Jessica is a sexual being and does not go all Edward-in-Twilight-crazy with talk of her “virtue” or how sex will damn her soul. The final episode of Season Two included a particularly touching scene where Bill and Jessica are each dressed to the nines for impending dates. Bill tells Jessica “you look quite the vision.” She worries this is a nice comment to soften his coming complaints about her dating a mortal (the goodhearted-but-hapless Hoyt). Instead, Bill admits “times have changed” and tells her “I hope you and Hoyt have a nice time.” What a nice trade from dad as quasi-virginity warrior (a concept Jessica Valenti explores in her book The Purity Myth). I would much prefer this kind but not-overbearing Bill to Carlisle’s creepy matchmaker habits!

The uber-pale good vampire daddies in Twilight and True Blood certainly outclass the bad vampire dads of older texts. Such narratives represent vampire dads as crazy, violent and racist (as in the 1987 film Near Dark), as creep-fest, power-hungry patriarchs (1987’s The Lost Boys), or as tooth-happy ghouls who turn innocent girls into wanton, lustful beasts (as in Stoker’s paradigmatic Dracula). In contrast, the human daddies are the bomb. In Near Dark, for example, protagonist Caleb is turned back into a human by his kindly father. Daddy even saves Caleb’s vampire love Meg, who turned Caleb into a vampire in the first place. How sweet.

While these dad-saviors that populate vampire narratives are appealing–they allow us to envision fathers who approve of our chosen mates (as Bill and Carlisle do) –they fail to have equally satisfying mother figures. They reveal the sad fact that our culture still assumes that fathers, even when vampires, werewolves, or shape shifters, know best.

Twilight takes “father-knows-best” to an extra level of creepiness with the notion (one fostered by Freud and certainly held by many Mormon polygamists) that females are seeking daddies via their romantic relationships. In a horribly irksome piece originally posted at Save the Males (who knew they needed saving!), writer Henry Makow argues that men “ought to be more ‘father-like’ in their approach to women;” they “should seek younger women who ‘look up’ to them.” Meyer seems to agree with this notion, providing Bella with a man who has 100 years on her and matching up baby Renesmee and toddler Claire with much older wolves via the imprinting meme (were the wolves “imprint” on a mate – a sort of love at first sight which involves male wolves imprinting on much younger female humans). Such May/December romance is only natural, according to Makow:

Many men want a daughter-figure, someone who will demonstrate the loyalty, trust and devotion that a girl feels for her father. A man wants to be affirmed in his authority as husband and father, not mothered like a child.

So there you have it people: If you are a hetero woman, go find yourselves an older daddy-man to look up to! If you’re not hetero, you can read more (PLEASE DON’T!) from Makow on how homosexuality is destroying capitalism, the family and the world.

To close, here’s hoping that you, dear readers, have a good father or father-figure in your life to celebrate this Sunday. And, nope, I don’t mind at all if that figure happens to be a vampire, werewolf or even a woman! Seems to me we should celebrate parenting in general rather than gendering the phenomenon…

(cross-posted at Ms. blog here)