It’s quite hard to explain why I decided to watch Twilight without blaming it all on Rachel Penny or making myself sound like the kind of perv who watches High School Musical for libidinous kicks (actually, I just think Zac Efron is really talented and stuff). So let’s just accept that I had some really good reasons for watching a movie intended for people half my age.
Stephanie Meyer’s teenvamp romance is a cavalcade of glorious goth cliché, wish fulfilment and the ridiculous – if you’ve never had the creative nous to imagine a family of vampires playing baseball in matching kit in a thunderstorm (yes, yes they were), Twilight will be a revelation to you. The symbolism is engagingly unsubtle. When Edward (consumptively beautiful and undead) first meets Bella (unthreateningly pretty new-girl-in-town) sharing desks in a biology class, the camera pans around so that the wings of the stuffed owl appear to grow from Edward’s shoulders. Because he is A HUNTER and also LIKE AN ANGEL because he is SO BEAUTIFUL.
And what are Edward and Bella looking at under their shared microscope? A worm. A phallic little worm. Which is another clunking metaphor if you want to see it that way, because Twilight cuts the teen libido into grisly segments and sticks it on a slide for examination.
Twilight doesn’t add anything especially new to the lexicon of teen fantasy. (Except for the sparkling. That’s pretty new.) Dangerous, beautiful boys who appear repulsed by the heroine but are actually only keeping their distance because they are so overwhelmed by love for her – they’re everywhere in popular culture. (Subtext: however much he seems to be disgusted with you, keep cracking on because it’s all eternal love under the hostile exterior.)
When I was the right age to like Twilight, I was deeply obsessed with Gentlemen by the Afghan Whigs, Murder Ballads by Nick Cave (I still put out a mean Kylie on SingStar) and the works of Serge Gainsbourg. Jane Birkin described being in a relationship with Gainsbourg as being “like having a wonderful parrot who bites everyone else but you,” which is exactly the appeal: the imagined relationships you get in these songs have all the risk and glamour of hanging out with a man who loves and fucks and leaves for dead, but the fact that he seems to be confiding in you acts as a guarantee of safety.
And that’s what happens in Twilight. Edward Cullen is part of a vampire family that’s turned away from hunting humans and lives on animal blood (they call themselves “vegetarians”) but he wants to taste Bella more than anything. He tells her he wants to taste her. He demonstrates his hunting prowess in a weird scene of zipping up trees. He reminds her that he’s killed people. He appears uninvited in her bedroom to watch her sleeping. None of these seem like the qualities a teenager should go looking for in a bang-up boyfriend. But Bella trusts him, so that’s ok.
However, Twilight doesn’t take place in a mytho-poetic interior landscape like Dulli, Cavey and Serge: it’s set in a modern-day American highschool, and the characters have friends and families. And the friends and family also take the line that Bella trusts him, so that’s ok. Which leads to some moments of disarming parental casualness about Bella’s personal safety: after the climactic fight in which Edward saves Bella from a ‘hunter’ vampire insatiably drawn by her smell (it’s like a pantyliner ad, or the anti-Wetlands), she’s left with a bloodied thigh, a broken leg and an obvious bitmark in her arm. Edward explains that she “fell down the stairs”, after they were last seen having a massive row, and with that, Bella’s mum is totally cool with Edward just hanging out in Bella’s hotel room waiting for her to wake up. Buffy’s mum kicked Angel out the house, you know. That‘s highschool vampire narrative integrity for you.
Incidentally, it’s only Bella’s leg that gets broken. Definitely not her hyman – Twilight is furiously abstinent, meaning that just a peck on the lips between the two leads turns into a feverishly longed-for climax. Absolutely no sex here. Just the exchanging of bodily fluids. Lots of exchanging of bodily fluids between a troupe of vampires who all live as one family, and a father-figure who ‘initiates’ Edward in a sepia-coloured bliss of homoeroticism. Can I stop now? I feel a bit flustered.
And while I’m used to something like Buffy taking the sexual metaphor of the Dracula story and driving it hard through a realistically-assembled group of teens, what makes Twilight special is that it has no idea how unsuitable this all in. In the great tradition of saddlebacking, as long as it’s not penetrative vaginal sex, it’s probably ok – even if it does involve home invasion and a bit of a battering.