Thinking Sociologically about Twilight
Tanya Erzen is an associate professor of comparative religious studies at Ohio State University and visiting scholar at University of Washington.
A teenage fan of the Twilight series explains that she thinks Edward Cullen, the brooding and gorgeous vampire hero, is controlling, creepy and even violent in his relationship with Bella, an ordinary human high school girl with whom he is passionately in love. While the fan criticizes Bella and Edward’s tumultuous relationship, she is simultaneously wearing a button on her jacket with the text, “Edward can bust my headboard, bite my pillow and bruise my body any day.” This refers to the part of the story when Bella awakes with her entire body black and blue after losing her virginity on her honeymoon. In the aftermath, there are feathers from the pillow Edward has bitten drifting around the room, and the bed is shattered into pieces.
As I set out to write about Twilight fans in online surveys, interviews and participant observation, one of the central questions that arose was how to make sense of fan practices and the seeming contradictions in the above scenario. What categories enable the sociological study of fandoms?
What is a fan? Henry Jenkins writes that one becomes a fan by translating your viewing or reading into some type of cultural activity, by sharing feelings and thoughts about the content of a book, film, sport or television show with friends, and by joining a community of other fans who share common interests. Fandoms are certainly not monolithic. They’re constantly morphing and adapting. Fans are also nomadic and move from one kind of allegiance to another. One way to think of fandoms is as a struggle over interpretation among fans, texts and producers that is continually reformulated and contested.
Fandoms as subversive or normative? Scholars of fandoms have repeatedly asked whether fans are subversive or merely reinforcing social norms about gender, sexuality, race and other identities that are the status quo. In Twilight, the cultural scripts about gender, sexuality, relationships and romance are a bewildering mix: Edward is both devastatingly romantic and a creepy stalker. Bella is heroic and a quavering damsel in distress. The sex or lack thereof harkens back to an era of gentlemanly chivalry, and it can kill you. The Cullen vampires are a model family of Leave It to Beaver vampires, yet they are simultaneously self-obsessed and materialistic. Fans both reinforce and resist these broader cultural messages when they talk about the books. Twilight is compelling because its contradictory strands present something for everyone. Girls see them as empowering, anti-feminist, a guilty pleasure and a site of belonging.
Fandom as Consumer Practice: Twilight fans imaginatively engage the series by writing fan fiction (one of which became the bestselling Fifty Shades of Grey), organizing Twilight literary symposia and creating giant corn mazes with the character’s faces. Many of these practices seem to be situated outside of a commercial context. Or are they? As fans use multiple forms of media to display their commitment to the objects of their fandoms, the distinction between producers and consumers is no longer clear. The erosion of the differences between popular and high culture, the changing relationship between physical and virtual spaces, the social interactions occurring in them, and the ways identities arise out of consumption and production mean that niche media has started to blend in to the mainstream. The Twilight franchise, a multi-million dollar enterprise that capitalizes on the tweens, teens and older women captivated by the series, is inseparable from these other fan-driven forms of cultural production.
Community and Belonging: Fans participate in virtual and actual communities whether members are alone or part of a giant convention. Pins, shirts, vampire contact lenses and tattoos become an insignia of affiliation that links them to a broader community with shared tastes. Dancing at vampire balls provides fans with a form of collective effervescence, Emile Durkheim’s concept of a communal, amplified reaction when a group of people experience something together that elevates them from the ordinary and moves them temporarily into a different space and time. Here they momentarily transcend ordinary lives in the company of others. Often in these moments, aspects of societal norms are transgressed, suspended, and overturned.
The fandom community offers affiliation, friends, recognition, and sometimes a way to make a living. One girl who is agoraphobic and barely leaves her house has thousands of friends through the Facebook fan page she runs. These relationships blur the distinction between online and offline. One fan site creator talked about meeting someone in person that she’s only known online. “It’s like you get here and it’s like, ‘Oh, I haven’t seen you in—Oh, I’ve never actually met you before!’ and, like, it just doesn’t feel that way because you’ve talked so many times.”
Self-Transformation: How are identities performed online and in person? When a girl alters her appearance with amber-colored vampire contact lenses or tattoos her body in passages from the books, she is experimenting with her identity. Twilight fans also engage with the books and films in visceral ways that defies some logical constraints, blurring the boundaries between real life and the supernatural. On a tour of Forks, the setting for the series, the fans and town residents engaged in an unspoken mutual agreement to allow the real and fantastical to briefly merge. Here they banter about whether the impenetrable curtain of green forest conceals vampires and werewolves, and if that the droning roar from the drag races at the track is really a pitched battle between the wolves and vampires. In these interactions, fans temporarily transcend the rigidity of social expectations for behavior and become someone more extraordinary.
Social Engagement: Scholars have defined some fandoms as participatory cultures to describe how the social bonds and shared experiences of fandom engage the fans with other civic and political issues, creating a trajectory from popular media fandom to political engagement. Out of Harry Potter–fan obsession emerged the Harry Potter Alliance, an organization with a mission to draw on the values of Harry Potter to instigate social change via what they call Dumbledore’s Army. TwilightMoms, a fan site for women fans, organizes conventions to benefit Alex’s lemonade stand, a cancer charity. However, the idea of Twilight fans connecting and organizing around the themes for the books for social justice has not materialized. Harry Potter fans champion an issue with parallels to the book, identify with fictional characters, and surround themselves by like-minded readers. Aside from the charity baseball games, though, the themes of the Twilight books such as romantic love with a vampire, resist this kind of politically engaged identification.
Returning to the girl with the “bust my headboard” t-shirt, how might concepts of community, identity-formation, participatory cultures and consumption enable us to understand her desires and pleasures as a Twilight fan or why she is wearing that shirt?