Stephanie Meyer has said that the idea for the Twilight series came to her in a dream, but it may as well have come to her in a graduate seminar. There are, after all, few other contexts where so much cultural baggage comes together under the sign of so many backpacks.
New Moon, the latest film installment of the colossally popular franchise, opened this past weekend, breaking box office records and putting reviewers everywhere to work. What, everyone is asking, is Twilight “really” about?
Luckily, I have theories. Many theories. Principally: Twilight as fantasy of bodies liberated from all needs save sexual ones—vampires don’t shit, breathe, or sleep, so after they figure out how to manage their raging desire, they become: highly effective capitalists. Highly effective extreme action-hero capitalists with the ability to read minds, control moods, and see into the future. Once you’ve learned to stop screwing and you don’t need to sleep, you can be very, very productive. You have time to study all kinds of foreign languages and become a doctor and develop expert fighting skills and memorize the entire text of Romeo and Juliet and just generally Get Stuff Done. The Cullens are rich (being clairvoyant has its advantages in the investment sector), and consume conspicuously. They collect expensive art and race fancy sports cars around town; they build houses overnight and plan perfect parties and play piano like concert maestros. But knowledge and brute efficiency remain their preferred commodities.
Vampires-as-capitalists is a neat idea, in no small part because vampires have been compared to capitalists at least since Marx. Technically, he compared capital to dead labor, which lives by feeding on living labor, whereas the Twilight vampires acquire capital not by murdering innocents but by pulling all-nighters like overachieving college students with ritalin prescriptions … but you get the general idea.
There is a problem with drawing such pretty conclusions, though. Ultimately, the problem isn’t figuring out what Twilight is “about,” and the problem isn’t that it’s about too many things—the problem is that it’s about everything. Meyer is the transparent eyeball of our time. She takes dictation from the ether; she opens her laptop, and the culture speaks through her.
I say Twilight is about capitalism. Slate thinks it’s about female desire; Newsweek says it’s palefaces and redskins; the LRB—the uniquely female horror of aging. We’re all right. It’s also about sex, abstinence, marriage and abortion. It’s an indigenous American fairy tale about the mythic frontier. And an extended defense of vegetarianism and alternative kinship structures. And a commentary on divorce, with human Bella as the child that werewolf Jacob and vampire Edward can’t stop fighting over. And an allegory of puberty. And crypto-Mormon propaganda that takes naked delight in the pleasure of half-naked teenage boys. It’s a brief on the genteel tradition in American philosophy that endorses miscegenation; and it defends genetic tinkering like an ad for better living through science. It’s about mortality and immortality, so it must be about health care, too. And when we get to Breaking Dawn (Volume IV), Meyer throws in a little pedophilia, just for kicks.
As the man behind me in the movie theater observed: “This is some crazy shit.” It wasn’t clear if he was referring to Edward’s mind games with Bella; or the werewolves; or the vampire overlords; or—and this elicited the biggest gasp in the theater—the cliff-hanger marriage proposal. Properly speaking, Twilight doesn’t have “symbols,” and is more or less impossible to “interpret”—like so much contemporary culture, it incorporates its own commentary. Nothing requires excavating or decoding; it’s all gloriously on the surface, as slightly blurry and subtly disturbing as Robert Pattinson’s face. Plot summary does the work of analysis. (But really: What is wrong with Robert Pattinson’s face? It seems to spread on forever, a cakey white landscape with no end.)
The only thing Twilight isn’t about is anything resembling “character.” So when Vampire Studies replaces Animal Studies as the latest academic vogue, the big issue driving Twilight conferences will be one of translation—the transformation of the female protagonist, not from human to vampire but from first-person fictional narrator to movie star. Meyer’s Bella is a hopelessly incompetent plain Jane, an increasingly annoying and dreary loser who exposes her every vulnerability and insecurity to the reader; you can’t help wishing she would just shut up and go away. Kristen Stewart’s Bella is a gorgeous, regal, mumbly goddess whose blood sings not just to Edward but to the whole audience. Yet she, too, somehow disappears on screen, opening a window onto a grab-bag of thesis statements. It turns out it’s even easier to project an idea onto a girl when you don’t know what she’s thinking.