In 2008, the first Black president of the United States of America was elected. In that same year, same-sex marriage was legalized in California only to be overturned by Proposition 8. Gun sales following election day went up. For all the talk about progress, it was clear there was a fear of change in the air. Yes, the first man of color was elected to run the country, but there were clear anxieties among white conservatives that with his new power, President Obama would encourage Black people to seek some sort of “revenge” on white people. And as evidenced by the passing of Prop 8, there were also fears that the LGBTQ+ community was coming after the “traditional” family.
2008 was also the year Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series gained in popularity after the first of five film adaptations of her books was released. Although its popularity began to fade in 2012, the year the last film in the franchise, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn — Part 2, was released, in recent years, the series has been experiencing a bit of a “Renaissance.” And like most things that make a comeback, fans have been looking at its popularity through glasses smeared with nostalgia. Some have even speculated that the reason so much hate surrounded the series had to do with the fact that it was a series that was made popular by young girls. While there may be some merit to this argument, the argument attempts to paint all critics — many of whom are women, queer, and people of color — in one brush stroke.
Oftentimes, we can attempt to understand what made a story popular if we take a look at the culture it existed in. But I think to really understand why the series was hated as much as it was loved, we have to look at the figure of the vampire itself and what the vampire represented to many fans of the monster.
Many scholars and fans alike have speculated that the vampire is a symbol of repressed sexuality, and no story demonstrates that more than Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu. Written around twenty-five years before Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Le Fanu’s 1872 novel was that of a young woman being preyed on by the seductive vampiress Carmilla. Stories following Carmilla would continue playing with our perceptions of gender and sexuality. Anne Rice’s 1976 debut, Interview with a Vampire, would further launch the popularity of androgynous and queer coded vampires. Her series, The Vampire Chronicles, would see two film adaptations, Interview with a Vampire (1994) and Queen of the Damned (2002). Both film adaptations featured one of her most popular characters, Lestat, and depicted him as highly and unapologetically androgynous while simultaneously alluring. Other popular vampire films included Lost Boys (1987) which featured more androgynous vampires and the Blade (1998–2004) and Underworld (2003–2016) series which featured not only the androgyny we had come to expect from vampires but also stories that offered more racially diverse vampires (though Underworld is still predominantly white and credit should be given to the film adaptation of Queen of the Damned for introducing audiences to a Black Queen Akasha [Aaliyah Dana Haughton] who remains a prominent face in vampire pop culture to this day).
For over one hundred years, vampires were the “outcast.” Vampires appeared human but were detached from humanity. It wasn’t uncommon to even see them depicted as tragic or even sympathetic. It should be no wonder that readers who often felt like outsiders ourselves — readers of color and queer readers — found ourselves drawn to this monster, as the society we lived in often painted us as monsters. Despite the vampire’s popularity in literature and film, however, being a fan of this gothic figure wasn’t exactly something many of us talked about outside of our own social circles, especially in a time when social media hadn’t yet taken off. While the image of Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt in frills and long hair was attractive to many audiences, it trod on “gay territory.” Many younger readers, especially fans of Twilight, probably don’t realize that as better as things are today, it could be dangerous to be perceived as gay back then, especially in the late 1980s through the early 1990s when the HIV crisis was at its height.
The year 2008 brought about an interesting change to both the vampire and the vampire fan. As both positive changes and the expected push-backs were occurring in our culture, the once highly queer-coded figure suddenly became aggressively heterosexual. Fans of vampires were now not just the “loners.” Now, everyone from the “popular kids” to their grandmothers enjoyed vampires. Suddenly, the outcast monster that represented the sexuality we were not supposed to explore — or rather, the sexuality we were not supposed to want to explore — was the idealized, white, heterosexual conservative with a supernatural twist.
Twilight introduced the Cullens, a privileged, well-to-do family of white vampires. The family consisted of the “mother” Esme and “father” Carlisle and their “adopted children” Edward, Alice, Jasper, Emmett, and Rosalie. Throughout her writing, Meyer puts great emphasis on the family’s whiteness and how beautiful that makes them. Along with this, two pairs of the “siblings” are married — Jasper and Alice; Emmett and Rosalie. Our lone single Cullen, Edward, serves as human protagonist Bella’s love interest. Bella, herself, is also incredibly pale, and again, Meyer doesn’t miss an opportunity to remind her readers of that (Bella jokes at the beginning of the first book that her mother is “part albino,” in fact). As a reader of color, it almost seems intentional; a clear message that says, “Remember, this story isn’t about you. You could never be Bella!” But whether or not that message is actually intended is moot. This is not to argue that having white protagonists is inherently problematic in itself, but when we look at the role of whiteness in her story, the problems become clear, especially for readers of color.
The young man who competes for Bella’s love is Jacob Black, a werewolf belonging to the Quileute tribe. Making the Native people of a story the werewolves — the less human monsters — has its own problematic implications. It reinforces the “savage” stereotype for Native people, especially Native men. The Cullens, however, are depicted as more civilized. Compared to Jacob, who is more emotional and has trouble containing his natural animalistic qualities, the white and sometimes sparkling Edward is a perfect gentleman. Edward is stoic. Edward, for the most part, can remain composed, which lines up perfectly with conservative ideals for men. Meyer’s stories feed into even more stereotypes against men of color when Jacob forcibly kisses Bella in Eclipse after confessing his love for her. Historically, Black men and Native men (along with other men of color) have been portrayed as obsessed with white women and white women have been portrayed as needing to be protected from them. One of the earliest portrayals of this is in D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915), and as evidenced by Twilight, this harmful stereotype is still going strong. It doesn’t help matters that the Quileute tribe is a real tribe that has had to go out of its way to dispel misconceptions and harmful stereotypes that Meyer made popular through her books.
To add, the importance of marriage and establishing a family at a very young age is highly emphasized (Bella is 18 when she marries Edward and becomes a vampire in Breaking Dawn). There is also a strong pro-life theme in the fact that Bella is firm on keeping the baby she conceives with Edward even though the half-vampire fetus could very well kill her. It is, again, ironic how such a highly conservative series of books could be so popular in a time when more women were deciding to put off marriage, deciding to wait to have children (if they chose to have them at all), and more likely to be pro-choice. How was it that such a conservative story could be so popular at a time when liberalism was rising?
I think the answer is simple: The popularity of Twilight was reactionary to progressive changes taking place at its height. This is not to say that every fan of Twilight had the conservative ideals that exist in the books and movies. The series had many liberal fans, queer fans, and fans of color. This makes it clear that it is quite possible to enjoy the story despite the problematic flaws. However, those flaws being present indicates that the books and the films were not created with us in mind.
The hatred towards the series, I feel, was also reactionary. The fans who made the vampire popular were now suddenly excluded from the stories. Most young adult authors who created their own vampires seemed to attempt to have Meyer’s success rub off on them, as the image of the clean-cut vampire who would probably glare at us if we walked into the Abercrombie and Fitch he worked at saturated the genre for a good while. And very few Twilight fans seemed at all interested in learning about the other stories that all but paved the way for Twilight to even exist.
Luckily, Twilight’s hold on the genre didn’t last. Months after the release of Breaking Dawn was the murder of Black teen Trayvon Martin. The death of Martin would eventually lead to the Black Lives Matter movement. In June of 2015, almost two years after the birth of this movement, same-sex marriage was legalized in the US. Although the conservative themes in Twilight are mostly subtle, progress was starting to gain ground and the world had changed from 2008. The world we live in now is a world where Twilight doesn’t quite fit in.
This all, of course, is not to say that there were no problems in earlier stories involving vampires. The only Black person mentioned in Carmilla, for example, appears very briefly and is described as “hideous.” Louis, the main protagonist in Interview begins his story as a slave owner. As a whole, the gothic and horror genres have always had their problems. Like with most things, however, marginalized fans do not have the option to seek out stories where we are 100% included or welcomed. We can only seek out stories where we are less excluded. However, I believe there is hope for this genre to get a little better as Hollywood is slowly becoming more diverse. Jewish Maori director Taika Waititi, for example, is responsible for the highly popular short film What We Do In The Shadows (2014) that lovingly satirizes the vampire. The film would later earn itself a spin-off television series in 2019. Fellow Maori actor Jermaine Clement who appeared in the movie also works as a writer, director, and actor for the show which portrays vampires of varying sexual orientations, races, ethnicities, and even body types.
With all of this said, I would like to go back to my earlier point. With the current Renaissance taking place for Twilight, I think it is really easy to try to paint the hatred it received as plain old misogyny when it is a lot more complex than that. Yes, it is important we examine how we view things made popular by girls. Yes, things made popular by girls are often seen as being of “lesser quality” than things made popular by boys. However, acting as if this is the main or only reason Twilight received the amount of criticism it did erases the fact that many of us who criticized it were girls and women. Along with this, many of us were queer fans and fans of color. We suddenly felt excluded from a genre we helped build. With the current push for entertainment, regardless of medium, to become more inclusive, it’s important that all voices are heard in criticism. And it is important that we resist the urge to view stories of the past through a strictly nostalgic lens. Twilight was problematic and it does deserve criticism, and no amount of trying to paint the act of liking the series as “woke” or “feminist” changes that.