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Twilight has made monsters of us The nation was a tinderbox and vampires were the match

Team Edward! (Breaking Dawn: Part 2/IMDB)


November 16, 2023   5 mins

Fifteen years ago, in a world rattled by economic turmoil and facing impending recession, one of the most influential phenomena of our time emerged — an issue that would dominate the discourse, capture the intellect, and shape the political destinies of an entire generation. I am talking, of course, about the question: Team Edward or Team Jacob?

November 2008 marked the theatrical release of Twilight, the first film adaptation of the romance novels that centred on a love triangle between a vampire, a werewolf, and a teenage girl. By this point, they had already become a transformative force in the book world — but this was only the beginning.

Within a year, you couldn’t swing a cat without hitting something Twilight-themed. There was a Twilight-themed makeup palette, and Immortal Twilight perfume to dab on your pulse points. You could drink your coffee from a Team Edward mug in the morning, roll up to the Burger King drive-thru in Edward Cullen’s Volvo C30, order a Twilight-themed kids’ meal for lunch, then go home and curl up in the arms of your Edward body pillow beneath your precise replica of Bella’s purple duvet. The franchise’s rabid fanbase was a market force unto itself: brand something as a Twilight tie-in, and they’d snap it up.

These fans weren’t just a reliable income stream, though: they were a powerful, even political, faction that was not to be trifled with. I was a reporter on the Young Hollywood beat for MTV News at the height of the Twilight craze, and so great was their cultural power that an editorial edict instructed we refrain from calling them “Twihards”, because they didn’t like it.

At first, Twilight‘s cultural influence was chalked up to its popularity among adolescent girls. Edward and Bella’s romance was a love story, but also an obvious abstinence parable, making it a perfect vehicle for teens to explore the burgeoning passions for which they otherwise had no words. This, at least, was not surprising: every generation has something that both captures the imagination and inspires the lust of a young female audience. I was too old to be swept up in the Edward Cullen craze, but just the right age to spend long hours earnestly debating with my friends which of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles would make the best boyfriend. (Raphael, obviously.)

But the way Twilight captured the broader discourse was more unusual, which had as much to do with timing as with the story itself. Twilight dropped directly into the midst of a digital revolution that catapulted fandom from niche communities to a global, quasi-political force. The iPhone, Goodreads and Tumblr all debuted in 2007; when Twilight the movie was released a year later, it was the spark in an armoury already filled with 10 different types of ammunition.

The resulting explosion wasn’t just in consumption: fans were curating mood boards, making memes, writing their own fanfics, and engaging in direct conversations with creators courtesy of social media. Stephenie Meyer might have written Twilight, the book, but the ever-expanding universe in which it existed? That belonged to the fans — who increasingly felt a sense of entitlement, control, even ownership over the stories, the characters, and the culture they loved.

For this, we may credit Twilight‘s ageing fanbase, who rather than discarding fandom in favour of more grownup concerns ended up simply carrying it with them into the adult world. For teenage girls, the Edward vs Jacob debate offered a way to explore romantic relationships — who you liked and what you wanted — within the safe framework of fiction. But for adult women, Twilight was more than an excuse to be horny on main; it was a framework for discussing literally anything, from race to religion, to romantic mores, to decolonisation. Was Bella a victim of Stockholm Syndrome, or a feminist icon who persisted in chasing what she wanted at all costs? Was Jacob cruelly and undeservedly friend-zoned, or was he a total incel? Was Twilight racist because the vampires were pale — or should it be celebrated for representing Native American characters? Then there was the question of the age gap between Edward and Bella: you say immortal teenage dreamboat; I say creepy 108-year-old man.

All this was happening against the backdrop of a collapse in the distinction between teen and adult content in publishing and entertainment: 2008 was the era of Peak YA. As many not-so-young adults suddenly discovered a passion for content aimed at teenagers, bookstores were overwhelmed by “chosen one” stories, in which a heroine who doesn’t know how beautiful she is has to fight the forces of evil — while caught in a love triangle between two equally strapping suitors. For decades, this type of content had been written off as frivolous, a passing fancy; now, its power could not be denied. Twilight was perhaps the first property to make clear that, in the digital age, young women’s passions are not to be taken lightly.

Twilight itself has now faded from view, but its influence lives on; it taught us to see absolutely everything as a question of teams. It wasn’t just the Edward-or-Jacob debate, which would always be a sort of friendly rivalry owing to its predetermined resolution (you could make a good enough case for Jacob, but Bella was never going to end up with him). It was the Twilight fandom itself, and what it became for its adherents. Loving Twilight was a cause, a chance to be part of something bigger than yourself — as was hating Twilight, if that was your thing, for whatever evils you felt it represented.

And by the time the final film in the series was released — one week after Barack Obama’s successful re-election to the presidency — American culture at large was beginning to look a lot like American politics: a highly polarised world of in-groups and out-groups, where the rivalries weren’t so friendly anymore. At the same time, a new mode of cultural critique had arrived in the form of Your Fave Is Problematic, a witch-hunting Tumblr that indicted celebrities and content creators (and by extension, their fans) for various sins against social justice. The whole thing was a guilt-by-association machine. If an admired creator was called out for some -ism or -phobia, you had two choices: denounce the sin and renounce your fandom, or be tarred as complicit.

In this moment, the cult of fandom and the culture of consumption fully collided to create something monstrous — but also, something deeply compelling. If art and politics were inextricable — as both Tumblr users and mainstream culture critics now reliably assured us they were — then so was fandom and activism. Fandom mattered. Fans mattered. And whatever you were into, it was more than mere interest; it was your identity. In this world, what you like is who you are.

And in a world where fandom had become political, it was only a matter of time before politics became fandom: tribal, facile, and tailor made for our current moment. As a mode of engagement, fandom neither rewards nor leaves room for nuance; the whole point is that it’s obvious which team you should be on, which makes it the ideal medium for a political culture that thrives on simple sloganeering, Instagram-sized infographics, and 60-second TikTok explainer videos. Fandom is what fuels the blonde college student in a keffiyeh, rolling her eyes as she explains that once Israel has ceased to exist, the Jews who lived there can simply return to wherever they came from — like Yemen, or Ethiopia. It fuels, too, the pro-Israel activist who thrusts a camera in her face, knowing she’ll beclown herself.

It’s not just the tribalism but the blazing certainty — that there’s a right side, and that identifying it is both uncomplicated and fun. For people coming of age on social media, Twilight offered the first inkling of how good being part of a mob could feel. How wonderful to just pick a side and root for it: fiercely, loyally, unconditionally and absolutely. And once you had done this with sparkly vampires, it was surprisingly easy to do it with everything else.


Kat Rosenfield is an UnHerd columnist and co-host of the Feminine Chaos podcast. Her latest novel is You Must Remember This.

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R M
R M
7 months ago

Years ago before the internet, people used to drink in local pubs. In every town or district there were always a few people you learned to avoid. Like the nutjobs who thought Hitler/Stalin basically had a fair point, even if their methods “went a bit too far”. Or the obsessives who turned every conversation round to how brilliant Level 42 were. The aggressive, tedious, and terminally socially maladjusted.
But their numbers were relatively small and sparse geographic distribution made it hard for them to coalesce into a coherent group. In a big city they might come together as members of some niche or fringe interest group, like Class War, but even so could relatively easily be avoided by simply walking down the road to the next pub.
Then the internet arrived and all of a sudden these people weren’t socially isolated. They might still be small in number relative to their specific location, but when you add them all up across the world suddenly you had a more-or-less coherent mass of connected oddballs boosting each other.
But it didn’t stop there. Very quickly people learned that being one of these hyper-connected oddballs was easier than maintaining IRL relationships with all their uncertainties and compromises. You got to belong and feel validated essentially cost-free and, if you were so minded, experience the thrill of dispensing mob justice to transgressors without even the expense of buying a pitchfork.
Being a tedious monomaniac nutjob used to get you shunned in pubs. Now it gets you clicks and likes and validation. Its become aspirational and a horrible feedback loop has emerged which rewards such behaviour and therefore encourages more and more people to indulge in it.
I don’t think there is any cure for it because social media isn’t going anywhere and it will always reward extreme behaviour with attention. I think we just have to live with it. Like death and taxes.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
7 months ago
Reply to  R M

I suppose one can work to save him or herself and The Children from at least a portion of it.
You make a series of good and robustly expressed points about the newness of this metastasized phenomenon, but there have always been a few monomaniacal whack-jobs that found a major, eager audience. Think dictators, demagogues, and wellness gurus. Sure, many were just cynical imposters, but they tapped into a similar validation loop, and some of the worst were true believers in their own brand of snake oil.

Martin
Martin
7 months ago
Reply to  R M

Good point. I think this also applies to adolescents who have strong opinions about television shows like Twilight. Before social media, they would just be considered nerds. They might join a fan club and get posters to put up in their rooms. As they grew older they would learn to keep quiet about nerdy topics if they wanted to get laid or promoted and, in the process, develop a range of conventional social skills. But that development has been shortcircuited by social media, not only for Hitler/Stalin apologists but also for run-of-the-mill basics.
It’s too early to say whether the pattern will persist. Look at cocaine/crack: very popular for quite a while, then people noticed that it ruined your life. Could happen with social media too.

Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
7 months ago

I was part of team Making Fun of Sparkly Vampire Books at the time.

Mustard Clementine
Mustard Clementine
7 months ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

Me too, and I’m actually, often enough, a sucker for the romantic vampire trope…when it’s good (even campy good, like Buffy). I found the whole sparkly thing just too stupid, it repelled me almost immediately.

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
7 months ago

Look at that picture. Best love story of our time, I’m telling you.

Max Price
Max Price
7 months ago

Yeah, I try and fight it but I love it.

R Wright
R Wright
7 months ago

Anyone who has been terminally online for the last 15 years knows for themselves the damage Tumblr’s userbase has caused to wider cultural and political discourse.

N Satori
N Satori
7 months ago

For people coming of age on social media, Twilight offered the first inkling of how good being part of a mob could feel. How wonderful to just pick a side and root for it: fiercely, loyally, unconditionally and absolutely.

Maybe… but it does sound like the kind of thing football supporters have been doing for generations. That too has a parallel in energetic yet dim-witted political activism.
And let’s not forget those besotted pop music fans who pay large sums to attend concerts, not to listen to music but in order to be part of an adoring uncritical mob.

Last edited 7 months ago by N Satori
Benjamin Greco
Benjamin Greco
7 months ago

I’m not buying this. You could plug in any teen fad here, Harry Potter, Hunger Games or Hula hoops, and make the same weak argument. Some people are sure the sixties sexual revolution was caused by Hula hoops.
Our tribal politics and culture have no one cause and YA fiction isn’t on the list. I had the feeling while reading this that the author was stuck for a column at deadline and discovered some old notes from her MTV days, 

Max Price
Max Price
7 months ago

Everyone (should be) team Edward. Nobody likes wet dog smell.

Mark Phillips
Mark Phillips
7 months ago
Reply to  Max Price

Ever smelt bats?

Max Price
Max Price
7 months ago
Reply to  Mark Phillips

I smell a team Jacob member, ewww.

Katja Sipple
Katja Sipple
7 months ago
Reply to  Max Price

I love the smell of dogs – wet or dry.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
7 months ago

Rosenfield’s turns of phrase are hilarious: “you say immortal teenage dreamboat; I say creepy 108-year-old man”.
I didn’t read these books or watch these movies and I don’t enjoy what I see as the related, ongoing cultural fixation with vampires, zombies, and various monsters and superpowered badasses. I also thought the argument about the central or pivotal place of Twilight was a bit much. But then again, I was in my thirties when this stuff came out, and I’ve never been a teenage girl (at least in this incarnation). The part about the coincidental rise of social media and “magnified problematics”–the word was stripped of any clear meaning and the shorter list became what isn’t problematic–was of interest. And the writing saved me from nodding off in a coffin before daybreak.
Who wrote the clickbait title to this piece? Do they think that sort of thing works? Oh wait–never mind.

0 0
0 0
7 months ago

We a least got Robert Pattinson out of all that nonsense, he shown himself to be very talented, and he rules as Batman.

Jennifer Lawrence
Jennifer Lawrence
7 months ago
Reply to  0 0

RP is that you?

Kirsten Bell
Kirsten Bell
7 months ago

This is a fascinating analysis of the ways in which Twilight fandom reflected broader cultural shifts. I was in my early 30s when I read the books and quickly got suckered in, even though I kept telling myself how dreadful they were. Notably, Twilight was prior to the popularisation of Kindle, so if you read the series, people knew about it. 50 Shades of Grey, which, of course, started as Twilight fan-fiction, came at just the right time to capitalise on the rise of Kindle. Interestingly, the love triangle isn’t featured there (as far as I know). Also, you have forgotten the core legacy of Twilight: the worse baby’s name of all time: Renesmee. You can read my ode to the name here: https://silentbutdeadly.substack.com/p/an-ode-to-renesmee.

Mike SampleName
Mike SampleName
7 months ago

Twilight was the starter.
MCU and Star Wars are the main course. Sides of pretty much anything else.
If you didn’t go watch The Marvels, you have declared yourself a Very Bad Person, apparently (considering the box office numbers, that makes 99.99% of the world a misogynistic white supremacist by my calculations). If you didn’t like The Last Jedi, you’re a Trump-voting MAGA-loon, whether you live in the USA or not. Your opinions on the new Little Mermaid and Snow White determine which social circles you are permitted to occupy.

All based around people playing dress up to tell childrens’ stories.

I have noticed a high volume of people withdrawing from fandoms altogether because they’re simply tired of the constant aggro from both sides (even if they tend to identify more with one). I used to be a huge star wars fan (watched the first one in the theatre in ’77), and don’t like the sequel trilogy. But I’m tired of constant “Disney has destroyed Star Wars! Kathleen Kennedy is the devil! Star Wars? More like Star Woke hahahaha” from “my” side or constantly being derided as an istaphobe by the other. I know people who quite liked “The Last Jedi” who’ve given up on the fandom because it’s become a statement of identity rather than just a movie.
As a result I’ve just withdrawn from it so much I haven’t watched any of the new stuff in years, and I stay away from fan spaces. I know many who have done the same for SW, DC and MCU.
The fan bases are more and more occupied, like everywhere else, entirely by extremists screaming at each other, whilst the “normal” fans just back out the door.
The creators of many of these properties have seemed to enjoy the controversies in cases (Rian Johnson: “Your Snoke Theory Sucks”, Taika Waititi: “I’ll destroy your mythos in a minute baby!” etc) – they would do well to remember that they are no longer loved like they were, and the opposite of love is not hate, it is apathy. And, as Darth Kreia famously said: “Apathy is death”. Especially for multi-billion IPs that nobody cares about any more.

C Horton
C Horton
7 months ago

Everything must now be part of a social cause and splits must and will happen in every major fandom. I’ve majorly backed away from the Harry Potter fandom because it has become polarized with insanity due to Rowling’s beliefs about the trans community. Why can’t it just be fun and avoid politics? But no, not gonna happen, so I just read the books and wish the world wasn’t crazy and making a cause out of everything.
I read Twilight and 40 pages or so of the 2nd book and I was good. I never liked it enough to keep reading. I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t love it, so for me, that’s reason enough to just let it go.
If fans can’t recognize fatal flaws in their favorite stories then there really isn’t much hope for them. I love the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, but I’ve still got major issues with some changes made that deviated from the books. Loving something while still acknowledging it’s failings. It’s really not a hard concept to grasp.
But people can’t even do that with authors or actors anymore, so I think we’ve forgotten how.

Last edited 7 months ago by C Horton
Steve Murray
Steve Murray
7 months ago

I’m a fan of twilight, but wouldn’t give these types of series the time of day.