Romance, Smart Bitches, and Twilight in the NY Daily News

In an article about the allure of love potentially gone bad titled Why We Love It When Love Bites, NY Daily News Entertainment Editor Olivia Smith takes a look at romance, New Moon, and why so many people are drawn to tales of Love Gone So Freaking Wrong.

She quotes Dr. Eric Selinger, who gives a brief but compelling analysis of what makes the Twilight series so compelling from a structural standpoint:

An idealized, unconsummated romance like Edward and Bella’s, he says, falls in the tradition of Eros, which dates back at least to the Greek poet Sappho in the 7th century.

“The highs are so high and the lows are so low, and its all-consuming and everything else falls away,” Selinger says.

This type of love “is really about desire, but without the consequences that come with practical concerns of negotiating a life together.

“It’s the tradition that conceives of love as something that transforms the self,” he says. In the case of “New Moon,” Bella’s desire to renounce her humanity and follow her beloved into the world of the undead gives this a literal form.

The transformative aspect of this type of love, Selinger continues, may be especially compelling to teens.

“In terms of young readers, the appeal of the Eros tradition can be really powerful because you’re changing so much, and any relationship changes you and introduces you to new emotions, new music, new styles of clothing, potentially a whole new self, as part of your longing for person X.”

Edward’s refusal to change Bella into a bloodsucking creature of the night also creates a potent experience for readers, Selinger says, in that the story prolongs her moment of hovering on the brink of transformation.

“When you see yourself doubly – you see yourself as you are, you see an image of the person that you would be if the transformation took place – the reader holds on to that really emotionally powerful doubleness,” he explains.

“You’re one person – and then you are that plus something else, but without the consequences of actually having that new life,” which in Bella’s case would involve learning to drink the blood of animals.

Selinger’s discussion is echoed by U. Haifa professor Aaron Ben Ze’ev:

“This notion of a love that can’t be implemented is well known,” says Aaron Ben Ze‘ev, author of “In the Name of Love: Romantic Ideology and Its Victims,” and a professor at the University of Haifa in Israel. “It is a kind of unfinished business, and this is part of the attraction.

“We are not excited by a stable situation. We are excited when there is still some kind of change.”

This is part of the draw of a narrative that unfolds through several installments; as the “I want you but I can’t really have you” trope starts to get old, the story brings the characters to a new place.

And after that nonstop analysis and thought-provoking examination, there’s me talking about happy endings.

So the “Twilight” series, taken as a whole, fulfills readers desire for desire itself, and ultimately for a happy, and romantically sustainable ending.

“I think romance is popular in particular right now because happy endings, or even a happy future, may seem so scarce,” says Sarah Wendell, one of the bloggers behind Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.

She adds, “It’s reassuring and affirming to read with the belief that no matter how bad the obstacle is, how awful the present may be, there will be a happy ending wherein everything works out.”

But for now, in “New Moon,” it’s all about the yearning, and for desire junkies, the movie has spawned at least two real life “impossible love” counterparts.

Obviously, our email exchange had more, but column inches are column inches. I do love that Smith looked at the element of the movie and of the series – forbidden love and yearning that might not be satisfied – without looking down her nose. And Drs. Selinger and Ben Ze’ev are excellent additions to the article. Well played, ma’am!

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  1. 1
    MelB says:

    I agree with you, Sarah, on the appeal of romance. Kudos for always supporting romance writers and readers.

    I can understand the appeal of Twilight for those 18 and under. They embody every angsty thought a teen girl could have. I don’t understand their appeal to adults,though. Even with the above rationalizations, Edward and Jacob are boys, nothing about them appeals to me as a woman. I find Bella to be a weak heroine who depends entirely on Edward to fulfill her and she is willing to kill herself to be with him. That is exactly what teens love, the whole Romeo and Juliet ideal, this secret world where parents have no clue and never interfere. If I were sixteen, I’d be all over these books, but reading them as an adult, there was a lot of eye-rolling and “yeah, righting.” I just don’t see how a grown woman enjoys these.

  2. 2
    CaseyL says:

    MelB – Here’s my theory about why adult women are gaga over Twilight (mind you, I’m not one of them; I’m only guessing): 

    They’re in marriages that not only have dissatisfied them, but totally disillusioned them- but they can’t or won’t admit as much to anyone, and barely acknowledge it to themselves, *because* they believe that marriage *should have been* permanently transformative, passionate, fulfilling, etc.  IOW,they bought the retrograde, misogynistic fable about marriage and are unable to disavow the fable, because of the emotional investment they’ve made in it.

    There are more of them than expected, to be a larger part of the audiene than expected, because the antifeminists have been very busy, and very successful, selling their crap over the last 25 years that a woman isn’t really fulfilled unless she marries, that the success of the marriage is entirely her job, and its failure entirely her fault.

    So they buy into the fantasy in full knowledge that it *is* a fantasy, but one they find gives them escape and compensation from RL.  And their fervor for it is in direct proportion to their sadness/disillusionment.

  3. 3
    JamiSings says:

    Casey – I semi-disagree. I could be considered anti-feminist* in many ways and I won’t even touch Twilight because Edward’s too emo and Bella too much of a dishrag. And I am completely unfullfilled romantically. I’m 33, single, and haven’t even been on a date since I was 18. Twilight should appeal to me in that sense, but does not. I prefer my vampires with a little more emotional depth and my women to be able to tell them to shut up and bite them.

    *(I’m not really anti-feminist. I’m anti-false-feminist. To me there’s two types. The feminist whom truely believes in equality between the genders. Then the psychos whom give feminism a bad name by acting like all men should be treated worse then women ever were and seem to believe men should be locked in cages. It’s those ones I don’t like because they make it harder on women to get respect. Sort of like the difference between a true follower of a religion and a psycho fundelmentalist whom gives that same religion a bad name. But I’ve been accused of being anti-feminist because I prefer men whom make the first move and like it when the door is opened for me by a man. So if that makes me anti-feminist, so be it!)

    ANYWAY now that I’m done describing/defending myself – LOL – My personal opinion based on adult women whom check out the Twilight books from the library – it seems to me many are trying to recapture their idealized teenage romances. Not that they are dissastified with marriage, but dissasatified with growing older. Just like I find myself turning back to thinks I loved as a child. Recently I borrowed the DVD The Best Of The Electric Company from the library. A children’s educational program I grew up on. Trying to recapture my youth which wasn’t always happy or great. But seeing Morgan Freeman as Easy Reader…. Well, anyway, that’s what the women whom read Twilight remind me of. Women who think back to their “great high school romance.” Idealizing it even though if they were to see it now they’d either laugh or cry or wonder what the h**l they were thinking going out with such a putz!

    Just my humble opinion based on my observations. As a single, childless woman, I might be wrong and you might be right. Or we could both be right in some sense.

  4. 4
    JamiSings says:

    *sighs* THINGS not “thinks”. Oy vey. Note to self: Proof reading, Jami, it’s a GOOD thing!

  5. 5
    Ash says:

    CaseyL, I think you made a fantastic point. But I’d like to add that I think the appeal of this kind of intense, earth-shattering obsession has a lot to do with the maturity of the reader. (Maturity in relation to mindset, not age.)

    Young women are usually too undeveloped mentally and emotionally to understand that TRUU LURVE comes with time and work and companionship. Therefore, they equate the intense feelings of infatuation with love. Older women sometimes still carry this ideal, plus they have the added disillusionment of “THIS is how my life turned out? That’s not how it’s supposed to happen!”. So I think this dissatisfaction carries in to the desire to uphold the fantasy of what they think TRUU LURVE 4-EVAR is supposed to be.

    Did any of that make sense? It did in my head.

  6. 6
    Suze says:

    I don’t understand their appeal to adults,though. Even with the above rationalizations, Edward and Jacob are boys, nothing about them appeals to me as a woman.

    I couldn’t read the Twilight books, but as a grown woman, I have to say: If a real-life Rob Wilkins (from Meg Cabot’s 1-800-Where R You series) showed any sign of interest in me, I’d need to be forcibly restrained from jumping on him.  Rrrowr.

    Hee! himself83

  7. 7

    @MelB: I generally disapprove of the notion that people read fiction to make up for a lack in their own life.

    Maybe, y’know, they read it because they like it? I don’t read Barry Eisler’s Rain series because I have a secret desire to murder people; I read it because it’s a good story. I don’t read romance because I secretly wish my husband were an alpha male who would punch all my male friends for daring to breathe in my direction; I read romances because they are good stories. I don’t read fantasy because I desperately want to be able to fight dragons; I read it because it has good stories.

    Maybe middle-aged women like Twilight because they think it’s a good story, rather than any dissatisfaction with their own lives. Are there some of them who might be drifting into fantasy-lala-land? Sure—but I think you should be allowed to like a book without it signaling that there’s some dire lack in your life and you’re helpless to do anything but read fiction to fix it.

    I say this as someone who adores Richard Armitage in North and South out of all proportion and yet has no desire to replace Mr. Milan with a potentially exploitative cotton-mill owner.

  8. 8
    Melissa Blue says:

    As a disclaimer, I am not the first commenter. Lol. ‘Cause when I saw @MelB, I kept thinking, did I post on that thread?

    That is all.

  9. 9
    AM says:

    @MelB: I generally disapprove of the notion that people read fiction to make up for a lack in their own life.

    @Courtney – First, it was a comment after MelB’s that contains this notion. I don’t think that she meant to apply it to general fiction.  The way I understood it was that *one* reason might be a series targeted at teenagers is also appealing to grown women. 

    And some people do read for this reason.  LOL-you can “disapprove” of the notion, but it doesn’t change that it exists.

    And sometimes people read because they just like the stories. 

    In either case, it hardly matters.  Everyone has the right to read what they enjoy for whatever reason—- any other standard turns it into English class.

  10. 10

    I haven’t read Twilight books, but I love the analysis by Eric and company, which I believe really hits the heart of what romance novels do.

  11. 11

    Whoa posted before I read previous comments.

    Are we reading the same article?  Is desire itself not politically correct, or immature? 

    (And btw, haven’t read these just cause I’m not into vampires, but I think the article has some great insights into the appeal of the romance novel in general.)

  12. 12
    Ash says:

    Are we reading the same article?  Is desire itself not politically correct, or immature?

    I did state that I was talking about “obsession”. I meant that the emotional development of the obsessive fans seems to be immature. (And it’s only worrisome when appreciation for desire strays into dangerous territory, like superseding reality.)

    I do understand that there are “middle of the road” fans of Twilight that aren’t frothing at the mouth, though they seem to be rare.

  13. 13
    katiebabs says:

    Sarah, I I didn’t know you read New Moon! Eclipse is the best out of the whole series.  New Moon is such a superior novel from Twilight. Bella saves “Edwards boo hoo I want to suck her dry” sparkle boy. As for Eclipse, that movie is going to blow everyone away.

  14. 14
    Chrissy says:

    Edward’s not a boy, he’s over a century old and hanging out in high school.

    Best response evah:

    http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20091118/REVIEWS/911199998

    GENIUS

  15. 15
    Michelle says:

    That was the BEST review.

  16. 16
    lunarocket says:

    “We are not excited by a stable situation. We are excited when there is still some kind of change.”

    Yup, it’s the journey, not the destination, though in Bella’s case, she should have thrown herself in front of the train wreck. I loved Roger Ebert’s review:

    Since they know it all and we know all, sitting through this experience is like driving a tractor in low gear though a sullen sea of Brylcreem.

    heh, heh, heh

  17. 17
    Deb says:

    I’ve mentioned before that I work in a junior high school library and the Twilight series is tremendously popular (well, duh), we just can’t keep the books on the shelves.  As you would expect, most of the readers are girls, but we get the occasional boy checking the books out (looking for romance tips perhaps?).  I read a lot of Y.A. material as part of my job—I like to be able to discuss books with the students and make recommendations—but I could not make it through any of the Twilight books.  Perhaps it’s my perspective as an adult woman not a starry-eyed adolescent, but Edward comes across as creepy and controlling not romantic to me, and Meyer’s writing style is absolute drek.  On the other hand, when I was a starry-eyed adolescent (back in the plaestocene era), I used to love to read Victoria Holt gothics with their brooding, unknowable heroes (and sometimes villains), so I suspect some of my failure to enjoy Twilight is generational.

  18. 18
    Susan/DC says:

    I read the first three books in the series but couldn’t quite bring myself to read the last.  I consider them literary crack—compulsive, propulsive, couldn’t put them down while reading them, but when I was done all I could remember were the flaws.  The books pick you up in floodtide, and it’s only once you put them down that you realize that characterization and logic have been left behind on the shore somewhere.

    Edward is appealing because he’s perfect:  beautiful, musical, smart, physically powerful, and, best of all and certainly compared to either Jacob or a real teenage boy, controlled.  Jacob was appealing (to me at least) precisely because he reminded me of the actual teens I know in his confusion and messiness.  Bella’s appeal was the mystery to me, since she seemed uni-dimensional.  Once she decided she was in love with Edward, all she did was whine.  One reason to read books, certainly romance, is to see the character arc, but I didn’t feel that either Bella or Edward truly changed over the course of the books.  And at least when Romeo and Juliet were going on and on about each other and the unfairness of the adult world, they spoke in beautiful poetry and their story took place over a few days, not two years.  So, in the end, I’m with MelB in that I understand why teenage girls love these books, it’s the adult fanaticism that mystifies me.  As a grown-up, I’d much rather gush over Ruck of Ms. Kinsale’s For My Lady’s Heart or Mick in Judith Ivory’s The Proposition than Edward or Jacob.

    Spamfilter:  cent52, or, I’ve given 50 more than my $0.02.

  19. 19
    Rose says:

    I’m a U of Haifa graduate, and I certainly never thought I’d find the president of my university quoted at SBTB. Wow! Who can I share this with…?

    Also, the article is great. Well done to all involved.

  20. 20
    Marianne McA says:

    @Susan – you should read the last – just for the baby.

  21. 21
    Julia Sullivan says:

    Something that makes me a bit nuts is that Eric Selinger is always being quoted about romance, despite all the female academics who have been working in this field for longer than he.

    It’s like nothing is real until a man says it as far as most media outlets are concerned.

  22. 22
    Marie says:

    Of course grown women like to read books that appeal to teenage girls.  We WERE teenage girls.  Some of us not alllll that long ago.  ;P I still like to re-read Tamora Pierce’s Alanna books, but those don’t get the snark that Twilight does because they’re full of all sorts of feminist independent goodness.  But let’s face it, being a teenager includes all the angsty nonsense, and frankly I have fond memories of being obsessed over my BF in HS (side note: we’re still together 10 years later!). 

    I disdained the books when the craze first started (I mean, antifeminist and Mormons!  not my fave things), picked one up in desperation while traveling and utterly out of things to read, and was swiftly sucked into crack- I mean Twilight- addiction.  That’s not to say I can’t acknowledge the stalkerness of Edward, the rapeyness of Jacob, the sheer awfulness of the writing (we’re talking multiple uses of “perfect” in a paragraph…), and of course the amazing ridiculousness of scenes where E. walks around in his “sleeveless collared white shirt,” etc.  But. 

    The first book is exciting, nostalgic, atmospheric, romantic wish fulfillment at its gooey best.  The fourth book is an amazing gothic horrorfest that cries out to be directed by Tim Burton/and or read aloud as a drinking game at a party.  The middle two books are filler, but haven’t we all stuck by a series through sucky middle books out of curiousity/loyalty?

    At any rate, I think the Twi-hate is a little overdone.  People who can acknowledge having enjoyed or at least being entertained by the rapefest that is 1980s Catherine Coulter, or the absurd virgin bride type Harlequin’s should probably be a bit more sympathetic to the Twilight phenomenon.  Besides, poor Edward… can you *imagine* being 17 without a girlfriend for 100 years? =(  It might make me a bit creepy too.

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