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Cross Post: Why The Twilight Saga Film Franchise Mattered, What it Accomplished, and Why its Legacy is Ultimately a Positive One

by Scott Mendelson
October 23, 2012 11:15 AM
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Let's discuss...!  Taken together, Twilight, New Moon, Eclipse, and Breaking Dawn Part I have probably inspired more Internet and mainstream media chatter than any franchise in recent history.  

The film's complicated morality, questionable romantic politics, and highly subjective quality has given way to countless essays, reviews, editorials, and even one bestselling fanfiction-turned-soft core  pornography series.  I've often noticed that we spend much time and energy theorizing about the success of anything that doesn't fit into the accepted mold.  Women can't enjoy 50 Shades of Gray purely because they have the same carnal yearnings that draws men to pornography, right?  And white teens can't enjoy rap music for the same reasons minority teens listen to it, right?  No one bothers to ask *why* young men and boys like the Transformers films or the Iron Man series (and of course women can only enjoy such films for their romantic elements, no?).  But a blockbuster series aimed and readily devoured by females?  There must be a deep philosophical reason for that, so let's invent a thousand wacky theories that all basically aim to degrade the fans of this atypical series. "Girls want to be Bella!  Girls are taking the stories' somewhat disconcerting romantic narratives as unimpeachable gospel!  While there may be a dark undercurrent to the gobs of words written about this franchise, as well as the automatic rejection of its (certainly debatable) artistic merits, the fact still remains that the series has created an entire sub-genre of film criticism.

And coming from it as a defender of sorts (I think it gets unduly picked on and condemned because it appeals to females), I've had more fun writing about the Twilight films than I have with perhaps any major franchise.  I've written both about the problems with the films themselves as well as the sometimes goofy critical reaction to the pictures ("Wow, Bella is a horrible role model!  Oooh, isn't Drive romantic?!").  I've written about whether or not the film explicitly endorses its own narrative (Anna Kendrick seemingly exists purely to poke fun at the story) and whether or not the judgment the series faces is rooted in the fact that Bella embraces, rather than running away from, traditional gender roles.  I've written about whether or not Bella is indeed a feminist creation it its purest form (IE - she gets to choose her own life path with the relative support of those around her).  And of course pretty much every other critic, pundit, and blogger has put their two cents in sometime over the last four years.  If we reluctantly admit that Prometheus was at least a success in that it got us talking about the film for weeks on end, if we acknowledge that The Dark Knight Rises inspired two weeks of non-stop chatter about the film's strengths and flaws (as well as alleged subtexts), then we must acknowledge that the Stephenie Meyer series has caused more people to talk about movies in some form or another than pretty much any other major film or franchise in the last five years.

A franchise like no other, for now.

Come what may, there has never been a major franchise quite like The Twilight Saga. It is not a superhero adventure based on a comic book. It is not a mega-budget fantasy loosely based in Campbellian heroic archetypes. It is not an ongoing slasher/horror franchise that sets up ever-more creative/elaborate means for people to die.  It is a Gothic romantic drama primarily aimed at women and girls.  It uses its token vampire/werewolf elements purely as metaphor, be it for the 'danger' of consensual premarital intercourse or the inability of men to control themselves in the company of women they desire (if I had to pick out the most bothersome strand of the franchise, that would be it).  Its success is not rooted in special effects or escalating action, but rather the characters that inhabit its universe. For better or worse, and I would argue for better, the franchise is absolutely unlike any other current blockbuster would-be franchise.  And if it is indeed to inspire a legion of imitators in its wake, let's look at the kind of films we'll soon be getting.  Properties like Beautiful Creatures, Ender's Game (yes, that's not a new literary phenomenon) How I Live Now, and The Mortal Instruments.  These are all young-adult fantasy franchises, many of which revolve around female leads and all of which have ample room in their large casts for any number of fine actors to jump on-board for an extended cameo or a major supporting role, depending on their fancy.  Some may work while some may not (Percy Jackson was an epic disaster, sequel plans notwithstanding), but what a journey it will be finding out.

The Twilight Saga stood apart as an anomaly, a powerful statement against what was conventional wisdom in terms of what kinds of movies could bring about blockbuster business. Be it a good series or a bad one, whether its philosophies on relationships were merely complicated or out-and-out immoral, the series stood alone against an onslaught on boy-friendly hero's journey epics.  For the oncoming onslaught on female-driven franchises, which will hopefully provide a wide-variety of female heroes and villains, we can thank The Twilight Saga.  For four years of endlessly engaging essays, reviews, blog posts, and think-pieces, we can thank The Twilight Saga.  For providing a geek culture gateway drug for girls who otherwise wouldn't have been caught dead at a fantasy or comic-book convention (as opposed to girls who of course were already immersed in geek culture), we can thank The Twilight Saga.  For existing as a proudly 2D franchise even as nearly every other would-be blockbuster series went the 3D route, we can thank The Twilight Saga. If for no other reason, the adventures of Bella, Edward, and Jacob were very much responsible for disproving the myth that girls and women can't power a franchise to towering heights  that you needed boys to top the box office, that fantasy stories told from a female's point of view should be relegated to the small screen, and that girl-centric films shouldn't be taken seriously when discussing major tent pole film-making.

The Jazz Singer was not the best sound film of all-time.  Journey to the Center of the Earth was not the best 3D film of the modern era.  Dr. No is not the best James Bond film. The very first, or the first major example, of any kind of film is rarely the best.  There will be female-centric franchises that are better than Twilight. They will have female characters who are better developed and perhaps better role models than Bella Swan.  But few can deny that the swarm of female-led franchise pictures would have come to pass without the blockbuster success of Twilight.  So no matter what you think of the films themselves (and I rather enjoy Catherine Hardwicke's wickedly funny original entry), no matter if you think they endorsed potentially harmful paternalistic philosophies (or if you believe that Anna Kendrick and/or Billy Burke's sympathetic father served to implicitly rebut Bella's choices), for four years The Twilight Saga mattered in a way wholly different than those who played in the same blockbuster sandbox.  And, come what may, its overall legacy will likely be a positive one.


Scott Mendelson writes at Mendelson's Memos. You can follow him on Twitter @ScottMendelson.

Republished with permission.

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  • KiraAS | October 25, 2012 8:49 PMReply

    I couldn't help but mention the strong female character "Number Six" who was in "I Am Number Four." She comes in at the end, but is definitely a power force. I don't think the movie was big enough for a sequel, but it came from a book as well and the sequel to it is about the girl "Number Six" kicking ass and taking names.

  • Scott Mendelson | October 26, 2012 11:02 AM

    Theresa Palmer's third act entrance is the only thing that kept me awake during that dreadfully dull picture...

  • Bes | October 25, 2012 12:01 AMReply

    I really enjoyed the Twilight series. Catherine's first film was by far the best. I doubt we will see another series from a female perspective soon. It should be noted though that Harry Potter, Twilight and Hunger Games were all written by women writers. God save us from the male written "female perspective" crap, How many times do they have to fail at these movies before they stop make them.

  • Lesley W. | October 24, 2012 7:41 PMReply

    I would have to disagree about Twilight versus the Hunger Games. In addition to Katniss, there are Rue, Primm, Glimmer, Clover and FoxFace in book 1, and then Katniss's mother, several additional Tributes in Book 2, and a rebel leader in books 2 and 3 (sorry don't remember their names). Also, I would argue that the breadth and variety of women (different races, different ages, good guys, bad guys, politicos, soldiers) is much greater in HG than in Twilight. Most importantly, Katniss's key relationships are with her female friends and family; her feelings for the 2 male "love interests" are never as strong as they are for her little sister Primm or her surrogate sister Rue. Bella on the other hand, is completely in the thrall of a man, and the emotional weight of the story hinges on her desperation to be with him at any costs. There are no female/female relationships in the Twilight series with anywhere near that intensity.

  • KiraAS | October 25, 2012 8:38 PM

    I completely agree with this. It's exactly what I was thinking while reading the article. The movie portrays only part of The Hunger Games book. Katniss is a deep-thinking young woman and through the books you almost get the feeling that she's annoyed at her romantic feelings for Gale and Peeta while trying to find her own way. In the second and third book she becomes VERY close to another female character, Johanna (I think?). The leader of the revolution is also a woman and even with her two suitors Katniss stays with her mother and sister. I don't want to give anything away if people haven't read the books or are just waiting for the movie, but written through Katniss's eyes she is torn at her decisions to fight and be vocal on her own and gets confused and I said it before, but almost annoyed that she has these men in her life that are both seeking her out. It isn't until the very end when she figures herself out does she then open the door to a real romantic relationship.

  • Jane | October 24, 2012 6:38 PMReply

    I completely disagree with this post. I don't believe a film is best for women based on the number of women in it, but rather the quality of women. Bella Swan is a woman who is completely dependent on having a man. She becomes depressed and incapable of doing anything when Edward leaves. She is obsessed with Edward, even putting herself into danger because of it. The writer of this article tries to insist this book is better for women than say Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, or Narnia. And yet she forgets the wondrous women characters in those stories: Hermione who is smart and sensible even when her crush doesn't pay much attention to her, Eowyn who disguises herself as a man to go off to battle even in face of the fact that Aragorn doesn't love her, and Lucy who is complete without any romantic interest along with countless others (Mrs. Weasley, Ginny, Luna etc.). I don't care how many females are in my movies, just give me females who are strong, who stand up for themselves, who recognize their worth in the things they do and not on male attention or beauty.

  • KiraAS | October 25, 2012 8:46 PM

    You hit the nail on the head with this one. I didn't read the Twilight books and just tagged along to see the movies, but crashing a motorcycle and jumping off a cliff just to see a glimpse of the man she loves and waking up screaming because he left... That's not a strong woman to me. I didn't read Harry Potter either and saw a couple movies, but Hermione was studious and smart but also attractive and a possible love interest and went under the criticism of being from parents that were "muggles" (did I get that right?) so she had to find her own ground. And wasn't a woman one of the head professors? "The Cleveland Show" did a Halloween spoof of a girl jumping off a cliff saying "This is how the movies told me to find a boyfriend!" She landed on a rock...

  • Linn D. | October 23, 2012 2:29 PMReply

    What a great cross-post. Thanks for sharing. I had not stopped to fully look at the franchise from this perspective. Very inspiring. I look forward to more films in the future from a female POV. (since I happen to be one who buys movie tickets)

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