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At the Twilight Convention, Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Sparkly Vampires

by Mary Borsellino

Originally published: Sequential Tart, January 2009

Sparkly Vampires!

Back when Kevin Smith made Jersey Girl, critics gave him hell twice over: first they criticized his movie, and then they criticized him for responding to their criticisms by telling them that the film wasn't "for" them. In the resulting hubbub, the point Smith was making largely got lost: some entertainment is designed for audiences who come to it with a specific context. It's "for" them, and so it doesn't have to be for anyone else.

Many minds cleverer than mine have already analyzed the Twilight phenomenon from perspectives of every kind: what writer Stephenie Meyer's four novels say about sexuality, religion, families, gender, race, and nationality. This is an important and oftentimes fascinating task to undertake, because the only way we're going to learn about our culture is to consider the things which make up that culture. But what puzzles me are the people out there whose main objection to the books is that they aren't "good". The Twilight series is not literary, but there's not a huge number of young-adult vampire romances that are, and it's not whether or not the books are literary that these critics object to anyway. It's that elusive, subjective "goodness" that they look for and declare to be absent.

Twilight isn't for those making these criticisms. It isn't for me, either, for all that I love vampire stories and young adult fiction. In fact, that's exactly the point - there's no such thing as a "young adult". That's just the phrase bookstores use to shelve stories aimed at adolescents. Middle- and high-schoolers. Teenagers.

Teenagers aren't young adults. They aren't big kids and they're not little grown-ups. Teenagers are a species unto themselves, full of emotions large enough to span the sky and bodies which don't obey their owners and confusing, important dramas they live out every day. Twilight is for them.

And, judging by the crowds gathering excitedly at the Economics and Commerce auditorium at the University of Melbourne on a sunny December Sunday, there are an awful lot of teenagers who think Twilight is "good."

The horror stories of similar gatherings overseas are widely known: girls punching each other to the point of broken noses for a place in autograph queues, girls begging the actors to bite them, girls presenting their underwear to be written on while it's still being worn. Twilight's most dedicated fans are a microcosm of teenagerhood in general: they don't feel or do anything by half measures. It's telling that Twilight's star-crossed couple, Edward and Bella, watch Romeo and Juliet at the beginning of the second novel - that's a story which only works if you keep in mind that Romeo is nineteen and Juliet fourteen. Only teenagers love that big, that violently.

At the Twilight convention I feel more like a boring old grown-up than I ever have before, and I've been to numerous Panic at the Disco concerts. Youthful excitement doesn't automatically make me think it's time for dentures and a walker, but this scene's humming at a completely different pitch - in every direction there's ironed hair and hand-made hoodies declaring their wearers "Team Vampire" or "Team Werewolf" and skinny jeans and bows and ribbons and young, excited faces. It's not even all that which makes me feel old, though.

It's the screaming.

These girls - and they're all girls, bar two "Twiguys" pointed out in the crowd by the panelists - scream like their lungs need help staying big enough for their growing bodies. They scream when the program of the day's events is put on the projection screen in the auditorium. They scream when the merchandise tables open for business, swarming over the necklaces and books for sale like cartoon locusts picking a skeleton bone clean in seconds (which is exactly what they do; the tables are devoid of Twilight trinkets in minutes).

They scream when footage of the actors on-set is screened, with the pitch and volume rising to near superhuman levels when the actors in question are Robert Pattison or Taylor Lautner, who play the vampire Edward and the werewolf Jacob, respectively.

Lautner is one of the three Twilight actors appearing at the convention, along with Edi Gathegi, who plays bad-guy vampire Laurent, and Nikki Reed, who portrays Edward's vampire sister Rosalie. Whether Lautner will play Jacob in the film sequels to Twilight or not is not decided as I write this, but it seems less and less likely as more actors put their hands up for a chance at the role. Lautner tells the crowd that it will be no problem for him to play Jacob's progression from a lean fifteen-year-old to a tall, bulky twenty-five-year-old - he informs the audience that he's been working out, and has gained a lot of muscle. They respond to this with enthusiastic screams.

The trait which all three guests have in common is that they treat the crowd with warmth and sincerity, not the condescension and vague mockery the tastes and passions of teenage girls typically face in the ordinary world. Gathegi and Lautner are good-natured jokers, flirting gently with the crowd without stepping into any inappropriate territory, and tell stories of how the vampire/werewolf feud has become a war of practical jokes and vegemite.

Nikki Reed, while as good-humored as the boys, opts for a more earnest tone for her turn at the front of the auditorium. Reed co-wrote and co-starred in the critically acclaimed film Thirteen when she herself was in her early teens, and seems to have a deep understanding of the girls who make up the vast majority of the audience - many girls leave their convention-photo session with her in overwhelmed, happy tears.

She tells stories of her own childhood, and how self-sufficient it made her - she was responsible for her own homeschooling, and got a tongue ring when she was eleven years old. What strikes me most about Nikki Reed is that the things she tells the audience, and the way the audience responds, shows that what Twilight's readers respect in a role model - and what the young women revealed to them through their love of the story - are far more varied than Twilight's critics would like to admit.

When Nikki Reed says she has lost acting jobs because she refuses to lose weight for a role, the crowd cheers in admiration, louder than they do for almost any other response from any guest. She speaks glowingly of Catherine Hardwicke, Twilight's director, and tells of how she doesn't like sitting next to Robert because he doesn't shower very often - this makes the audience giggle. These girls may be starry-eyed for a story about a perfect vampire lover, but they're also girls that know that sometimes boys are smelly, and that girls and women can write or direct movies which get good reviews or make a heap of money.

Loving Twilight has given the kids in this crowd the chance to learn from a variety of people and perspectives, and nowhere near all of those influences are negative. Only concentrating on the restrictive and conservative elements in readings of the Twilight phenomenon does a disservice to the stories and to its critics both.

Much has been made of Twilight's pro-abstinence message regarding sex; the books equate potential physical intimacy between Bella and Edward with the threat of gory death. As with so much to do with Twilight, I find myself having a double-edged response to this: on one hand, holding chastity up as a path to salvation rankles, but on the other I can't help but want to challenge those making the criticism to show me a vampire story worth its salt where sex doesn't equal death. That's the fundamental wellspring of eroticism in the genre.

And, while they're at it, these same critics can show me a teenage girl who's taking vampire fiction as the central text for her attitudes to romance. Whether Twilight offers flawed role models or not is utterly beside the point; vampire romances aren't where teenagers look to to learn about how actual relationships work, any more than they use roller coasters as a how-to-drive primer. It's all about the illicit thrill, the forbidden treasure - there's a reason Twilight's cover is a pair of pale hands offering the reader an apple.

The two central love stories of the books - Bella and Edward, and Renesmee and Jacob - are, without doubt, completely creepy relationships. But the way people have reacted and lashed out against these books, you'd be forgiven for thinking that these are the first creepy relationships ever to grace vampire novels read by teenagers. When I was fourteen, I gobbled up the books of Anne Rice and Poppy Z Brite, and yet somehow I managed to grow up into an independent, thoughtful adult woman. Are Bella and Edward creepier than Claudia and Louis? Is the love Jacob feels for Renesmee worse than the affair between Zillah and Nothing?

After the formal elements of the convention are done for the day, the audience files out into the foyer to queue for a signing session with the guests. Two of the girls navigate around the lines of people, settling themselves down at the now-bare merchandise table and pulling out notebooks, scribbling down furiously.

That sight, more than anything else I've seen at the convention, makes me feel that criticisms against Twilight fail to see the positives which have come along with the perceived negatives. Because one of the many stories that the Twilight phenomenon has told a generation of teenage girls is the story of a woman who wanted to write a book, and so she did, and millions read it with rapt attention. And that's a story it's hard for me to see the bad in.

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