Friday, March 30, 2012

No, Seriously, Why Do Men Like Twilight?

Today was going to be erotica statistics day. But as I was reading through "Best Women's Erotica 2011" and collecting the statistics I became incredibly bored by most of the data I was collecting. And if I'm bored then I will write like I'm bored, and the product will be as boring to read as it was to write. So I won't waste my time with the boring stuff and instead I will write about only the data that interested me and how that interesting stuff relates to Twilight.

One of the most interesting patterns I saw was how often the pronoun "I" is used as the voice of the narrator. 15 out of 19 stories in this book are written in the first-person. I didn't think much of this until I was reading the entire book straight through and came across one that wasn't written in first-person. And that story stuck out because it read more like a story with sex in it and less like erotica.

When reading a book, I have often wondered exactly what goes on in my head. I'm not exactly reading the words "out loud" in my head, because once I start to think about it as reading "out loud" in my head I can feel myself reading differently. But even so, there is definitely some sort of voice in my head as I'm reading. So when reading a novel that takes place in the first-person, it is almost as though the strange voice in my head is talking about itself.

This "I" voice makes sense in the context of erotica. The nature of erotica is to throw oneself into the story as fully as possible. So when reading erotica in one's head, the style of the writing forces the reader to imagine that its happening to him or her simply because the "voice" in your head says that it is.

Twilight is written in the first-person. This was something that I had never really noticed until my attention was drawn to it. But because of this first-person narrator, the voice in your head reads the story about "I" in the same way that it reads erotica about "I." This "I" voice in your head forces the reader to imagine that the "I" in the story is referring to that reader.

I have mentioned the importance of names (or lack thereof) in erotica, and only 9 out of 19 give the "I" character a name, and out of those 9, only 4 of them say the name more than once or twice at the beginning of the story, and out of the 5 that are left, only 1 of them is written in the first-person "I" voice.

I found this really interesting. This means that in all but one of the stories written in the first-person, we get hardly any name at all. The data on description of the "I" character is very similar. When we are in the perspective of "I" we get a description of hair often, or skin color, possibly height, usually breast size, but that is it. As far as we know, the main character, the "I", is a colored mannequin with a wig on. When we're given this generic and nameless "I", the "I" really might as well be us.

But when reading Twilight we do get a name, so it is not exactly the same thing. If we are in this character of Bella, and we are reading this book to ourselves and our inner voice is telling us that the "I" is us, shouldn't we be shocked when we get a name? "My name is not Bella, it's Aimee!"

I thought about this for a while and the conclusion I came to is that the name is generic, feminine, and literally means "beautiful." That's something that anyone can be called. The name "Love" is used a lot in "Best Women's Erotica 2011" (granted, the writers are primarily British). But often "honey" or "dear" or even "beautiful" is used as a pet name. In a way, these generic feminine names, like Cassie and Adele and Miranda and Bella are just pet names that serve to remind the reader of her femininity.

So then why do men read Twilight? If it is about a teenage girl and serves as an enactment of the teenage girl's fantasy, then why do men like it?

Well, I think the answer is that many of them don't, and perhaps that's why they don't. But there are some men that do. The blog I linked to last week says that if you are a man that likes Twilight then you are gay. As in, literally a homosexual. But I don't agree with that.

I posed a question in one of my earlier posts about whether people read erotica that mirrors their own sexual preferences. And I think that in general they do. But I also think you can get pleasure out of erotica that swings a different way than you do. And the reason for this is because of another interesting trend I found in the erotica stories.

In many of these stories there is a theme of moving away from the norm, of becoming something that you're not. In one story, "Opportunity" by Cynthia Hamilton a lesbian girl named Lin is given her first sexual encounter with a man by her girlfriend Celia as a gift. She is blindfolded the whole time and never sees his face or even knows his identity, and in the end she determines that it is Celia that she wants forever, even though a man was fun as a one-time thing.

In another story, "Skinheads" by Jacqueline Applebee, a woman without a name wears a strap-on to have sex with a man to live out a childhood dominatrix fantasy.

In a third, "Tricks" by Lola Olson, a girl puts on a skimpy outfit and pretends to be a prostitute who picks up a cop.

I could continue, but I won't because in 16 out of 19 of these stories I found a sentence or a paragraph or an entire plot arc that centers around doing something once or becoming someone else.

And this plays into the idea of the fantasy. A fantasy isn't something that happens to you every day, it is something that you would like to happen or something that you imagine happening. Perhaps something that you want but are embarrassed about wanting. In the example of the fantasy from The Marriage Plot that I wrote about in my first post about fantasies, Madeleine didn't necessarily want Leonard to spank her, but it was something she fantasized about.

So perhaps men read Twilight as a fantasy in the same way that the girl in "Tricks" pretends to be a prostitute, or in the way that the woman from "Skinheads" wears a strap-on, or in the way that Lin has sex with a man. It's about curiosity. Perhaps men are curious what it feels like to be loved by a man. Not in a homosexual way, necessarily, just as a curiosity. It's the appeal of Madonna's What It Feels Like For A Girl, or The Parent Trap or Freaky Friday. It's about the curiosity that everyone feels wondering what it feels like to be someone else. And through reading Twilight, a man can get a glimpse of what it feels like to be a woman.

Another reason men may read Twilight is because they want to understand women. There is an old joke that goes something like this:

A man finds an old lamp and rubs it and a genie pops out of it. The genie says, "You get one wish," and the man says "I wish to be the richest man in the world!" Then the genie says "Are you crazy? That's way too big of a wish! If that happens then the world will grow suspicious and genies will be exposed and it's just not worth my job. Anything else though." And then the man says, "Well, I would like to understand women..." and the genie says, "All right you can be the richest man in the world."

So perhaps this is a reason that men like Twilight. Perhaps there is an element of getting inside the female brain, figuring out what they want and don't want, reading their innermost thoughts.

And the final reason that men could like Twilight is because of the story. The story is violent and weird and a little bit creepy, and hell there are vampires involved. Plot is something that can provide a huge amount of pleasure, separate from fantasy, separate from romance, and separate from erotica. Plot is such an important part of the pleasure in a story that it will probably be the next major topic that I tackle in my blog after I finish the idea of fantasy.

So why do men like Twilight? Well, maybe some are gay and like it in the same way that many women do. But some may like it because it satisfies some desire for information that everyone has. It lets them know what it feels like to be someone else. And in that way, maybe Twilight can be erotica for men just as easily as it can be erotica for women.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Whine and Cheese

In response to my last post, one of my friends linked me to this very funny blog that has a post about Twilight. I thought I would share it, as it says some stuff that is relevant to my most recent posts about the fantasy appeal of Twilight. Check it out!

Anyway, as I was going through some of the erotica books taking statistics about names and adjectives and other things (coming soon!), I noticed another interesting parallel between the fantasy erotica story and Twilight. This one is about the form of the fantasy text. 

Many of the fantasy erotica stories begin with a person who is bored or tired, or is doing something exaggeratingly regular before sex comes and changes their routine.

In “Changing My Tune” by Louisa Harte in “Best Women’s Erotica 2011”, we get this paragraph on the very first page:

“This job sure isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. When I signed up, I thought I’d be cruising about in a flash ice-cream van serving up goodies and treats to crowds of eager customers. Instead, while others in the fleet get to go to big gigs and fancy festivals, I end up here, on a beach in the middle of nowhere, next to a building site.”

Then, three stories later, in “Two For One” by Alyssa Turner, we get this as our first paragraph:

“I rarely have the time to treat myself to anything. Call me a workaholic, but starting a PR firm from the ground up has left my days jam-packed with serving the requirements of others. Demanding as they are, I have to be grateful that my list of clients is rapidly growing, and it’s looking like my business will actually turn a profit some day. Still, to keep my sanity I say my daily affirmation: it will all be worth it when I can hire someone else to put up with all the bullshit, and then I get my ass on another plane to work my magic on some new product launch or fundraising breakfast.”

I could continue, but it really is more of the same. People return home tired from work, people are in a rut with their significant others, and so on and so forth.

The idea is that one reason people could read erotica is because they themselves are bored or tired. You wouldn’t read erotica on the train to work in the morning or while you're doing something fun and exciting, but probably at the end of the day after a long day of work. The typical erotica reader is tired and bored, and looking for an escape. So it is easy to relate to someone else who is tired and bored and also looking for an escape. And that, as mentioned in the last post, is one major reason that erotica is enjoyable. The relatability of the main character is what makes an erotica story good. 

When I went back to read the first chapter of Twilight I noticed the same type of paragraphs from the ones in the erotica stories:

“In the Olympic Peninsula of northwest Washington State, a small town named Forks exists under a near-constant cover of clouds. It rains on this inconsequential town more than any other place in the United States of America. It was from this town and its gloomy, omnipresent shade that my mother escaped with me when I was only a few months old. It was in this town that I’d been compelled to spend a month every summer until I was fourteen (1).”

She continues to complain about the weather throughout the first chapter, saying things like:

“When I landed in Port Angeles, it was raining. I didn’t see it as an omen—just unavoidable. I’d already said my goodbyes to the sun (5).”

The complaints about the weather continue, although I won’t bore you with all the examples. Another thing she likes to complain about is her school:

“Forks High School had a frightening total of only three hundred and fifty-seven—now fifty-eight—students; there were more than seven hundred people in my junior class alone back home. All of the kids here had grown up together—their grandparents had been toddlers together. I would be the new girl from the big city, a curiosity, a freak (9-10).”

And, of course, like many teenage girls, she complains about her appearance:

“Maybe if I looked like a girl from Phoenix should, I could work this to my advantage. But physically, I’d never fit in anywhere. I should be tan, sporty, blond—a volley-ball player, or a cheerleader, perhaps—all the things that go with living in the valley of the sun (10).”

Many people complain about how Bella is too whiney in these first chapters. One Amazon customer review (the first one on the one-star page, actually. I really had to do very little digging to find support of this claim) says:

But I think that, like the shallowness of the characters, the complaining is something that actually draws people into the plot of the story. Haven’t we all been there? First day at a new school and, of course, it’s raining so we’re nervous about how our hair looks? I certainly have. 

And Bella’s trouble with her parents? What teenage girl hasn’t felt annoyed with her parents for no reason:

"But it was sure to be awkward with Charlie. Neither of us was what anyone would call verbose, and I didn't know what there was to say regardless (5)."

This is standard teenager stuff!

And when might a teenager want to escape into a fantasy? Perhaps when she is mad at her parents and needs an escape. Perhaps when she has recently moved to a new city and switched schools and been forced to make new friends. Bella is relatable in these chapters. Sure, she’s whiney, but to a teenager, that’s home.

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Empty Vessel

One of the most common complaints readers have about Twilight is that the characters are weak, boring, and average. If you read the one-star reviews of the book on Amazon they all say the same thing:

And my personal favorite…

Well fine. They are shallow. I agree. But you know what other well-loved genre of text has shallow characters? Erotica. That’s the point of it. There is only one reason people read erotica (well, one reason unless you’re reading it for research for an entry on your blog about Twilight) and that reason is masturbatory. You crack open your copy of “Cumming and Going,” light a few candles, and lock the door.

Erotica is used as a masturbation tool because the characters are empty, which allows the reader to place herself into the main character of the story. The pleasure of erotica does not stem from beautiful prose and complicated relationships, but instead from the vicarious pleasure that the reader gets from pretending that she is the main character. That’s why erotica is often titled in specific and uncreative ways. If you look up “Erotica Books” on Amazon the top eight results are:

  1.  Do Not Disturb: Hotel Sex Stories
  2.  Lovers and Beloveds: An Intimate History of the Greater Kingdom
  3. Caught Looking: Erotic Tales Of Voyeurs And Exhibitionists
  4. Best Bondage Erotica 2
  5. Carnal Machines: Steampunk Erotica
  6. Best of Best Women’s Erotica 2
  7. She’s On Top: Erotic Stories Of Female Dominance And Male Submission
  8. Can’t Help The Way I Feel: Sultry Stories Of African American Love Lus, and Fantasy

A reader can look at the title of an erotica book and know immediately whether or not she would enjoy the erotica contained inside. And, I do not know this for a fact, but I would assume that people read erotica that mirror their own sexual preferences. Heterosexual women probably read erotica where the narrator is heterosexual female. Homosexual men probably read erotica where the narrator is a homosexual male. (That being said, it would be interesting to interview erotica readers and see if this is actually true. If anyone knows any studies let me know!)

Since the pleasure of erotica lies in placing oneself into the character within the story, it is the job of the erotica writer to make that as easy as possible for the reader to do. As such, characters in erotica stories are often unnamed and even more often not described in any detail. In the book “Best Of Women’s Erotica 2011” we get 19 stories by 19 different authors and only in 9 of those stories do the narrators get names. In the 10 stories that do give the main character a name, usually they are only said once or twice, and often they are very common and unambiguously feminine like Anne, Cassie, Miranda, and Wendy. The men in the stories, interestingly, are usually given a name, but they are also very standard and unambiguously male like Joe, Gus, Sean, Mark, Luke, etc, but these names, like the names of the women, are not repeated very often. 

(Possible future blog post: statistics about the names of characters in erotica. Number of times mentioned for men, number of times for women, syllables in names, etc... stay tuned!)

What is more is that the characters in the erotica stories are rarely described using any specific adjectives. There is a prevalence of words like “toned,” “hot,” “sexy,” “gorgeous,” and other words that mean “attractive” without providing any sort of concrete visual. In the story “Changing My Tune” by Louisa Harte, Luke, the man who the main character (Cassie) has sex with, is described like this:

“It’s another builder, only this one is different—he’s gorgeous. Like a hot builder from an advert on TV, he has these sexy gray eyes, gorgeous red lips and a rocking body that looks great packed into his T-shirt and shorts.”

There is literally no one who cannot be projected into this person. The adjectives here are “hot,” “sexy,” “gorgeous,” “rocking,” and “great.” He is wearing a T-shirt and shorts and his lips are red. Aren’t most lips red? Isn’t that how lips work?

This is a pattern that crops up in many of the more fantastical erotica stories. I have noticed that there are two general categories of erotica. One that seems to be pure fantasy (example, a woman gets a massage and two hot masseurs come to her hotel room and have to compete for their tip. About three pages in they all start to have sex with each other) and one that seems to be more memoir-esque (example, a girl and her boyfriend watch porn together on Friday nights. Multiple orgasms are had by all.)

But almost unanimously, the more fantasy-like stories use meaningless adjectives and fewer (and more generic) names than the ones that are more realistic. This implies that there is something intrinsic to the fantasy text that requires an emptiness of characters. And it makes sense in the case of erotica. Erotica expects the reader to project her ideal form of beauty onto the men in the story in addition to projecting herself into the women. Erotica works because of the emptiness of the characters.

Twilight works in the same way. Bella is simple and, in many ways, the envy of the average teenage girl. As a former teenage girl, I understand the trials and tribulations of the average one. There is a pull to fit in and to be the same as everybody else, yet, at the same time there is a desire to stand out and be different. And here is Bella Swan (speaking of names...), as average as they come, somehow managing to fit in at a new school remarkably well. She is the object of everyone’s love and envy within days of coming to Forks. In fact, within the first 120 pages, a total of five, yes, five boys fall in love. 

And yet, in spite of all this fitting in, she manages to be special. Here is an interaction between Bella and Edward on page 50:

Bella: “My face is so easy to read—my mother always calls me her open book”
Edward: “On the contrary, I find you very difficult to read.”
Bella: “You must be a good reader then.”
Edward: “Usually”

And then on page 90, we see this interaction:

Edward: “Your boyfriend seems to think I’m being unpleasant to you—he’s debating whether or not to come break up our fight.”
Bella: “I don’t know what you’re talking about. But I’m sure your wrong, anyway.”
Edward: “I’m not. I told you, most people are easy to read.”
Bella: “Except me, of course.”
Edward: “Yes. Except for you… I wonder why that is.”

In these two brief interactions the average teenage girl has a whole lot to wish for. Edward Cullen has been described as “perfect” more times than I could count, and suddenly he is engaging Bella in a flirty conversation in which she is separated from her peers. She is different. She is the only one that Edward can’t read. And isn’t this exactly what so many teenage girls want? They want to fit in but they want to be different. They want a beautiful mysterious stranger to fall madly in love with them, to choose them and only them from a crowd of sheep.

So maybe Bella and Edward are shallow characters. Perhaps Bella’s name literally means “beautiful” and she isn’t described physically until page 10, where she spends two pages basically calling herself pale and brunette (which describes, like, two-thirds of the readership of this book). And maybe the Cullens are described as “devastatingly, inhumanly beautiful [with] faces you never expected to see except perhaps on the airbrushed pages of a fashion magazine. Or painted by an old master as the face of an angel (18).” (BTW: doesn’t this remind you of the description of Luke in “Changing My Tune”?)

But that shallowness of the characters allows for a more fun reading experience. Because Bella is an empty vessel, we can place ourselves inside of her. And because Edward is only ever described as “perfect” and “gorgeous” and “beautiful” we can project our ideal form of beauty into him. Maybe that is why readers around the world adore (and, in fact, obsess over) Edward Cullen as though he were their own boyfriend. Perhaps in some way readers see him as their own boyfriend because during the course of reading Twilight they have projected their ideals and fantasies into him.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

I Gotta, Kn-Kn-Kn-Know What-What's Your Fan-Ta-Ta-Sy

When used to describe a genre of text, the term fantasy often conjures images of elves and wizards traveling through forests of tree-monsters to carry out a world-saving quest. And, of course, classification of this genre as fantasy stems from the fantastic natures of the plot and creatures. But we hardly ever use this definition of fantasy in our everyday lives. When we do talk about fantasy, we mean it primarily to describe our desires.

When I hear the word fantasy, I think of three things. The first is this song:

The second is this scene in Friends:

And the third is this passage in The Marriage Plot:

“Her secret secret fantasy was something she’d never told anyone and could barely admit to herself. It was this: whenever Madeleine masturbated (this was hard in itself to confess to) she pictured herself as a little girl, being spanked (350).”

Although the desires implied by the term fantasy are often sexual, they do not have to be. For example, Fantasy Football refers to a dream team: If you could create the ideal football team, who would be on it?

And of course, elves are fantastic, but (most of the time) we do not fantasize about them. Fantasy books are given the title of fantasy because they are not rooted in reality. They are fantastical, imaginary, probably not going to happen, and that is very related to what fantasy means in the sense that we use it in conversation.

Our fantasies are our private desires. We don’t expect them to happen, and maybe we don’t even want them to, but we like to think about them.

So why does the idea of fantasy come up so often in the media? Without doing much digging at all I managed to find a song, a clip from a TV show, and a passage from a book that refer to this idea of the sexual fantasy.

So the question is, why do people enjoy hearing, reading, and watching about the fantasy? The mere fact that I remembered them means that they struck a chord with me, and the fact that I found them online by selecting the first Google hit that came up implies that they struck a chord with other people as well.

And what does all this have to do with Twilight?

Twilight is categorized as a fantasy romance, but this categorization is redundant. Romance novels are inherently fantasies. That is why people read them. When people want to escape the uncertainty and stress of their own lives they dive into someone else’s.

This is probably one of the major sources of pleasure in the book Twilight. We feel Bella’s pleasure vicariously through her narrative without the stress of actually living her life.

Throughout the next couple of posts I will delve into the idea of Twilight as a romantic fantasy (not just a fantasy novel and a romance novel), pulling from passages from the book, online reviews and criticisms, as well as some expert opinions of the subject of the fantasy.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

"Still A Better Love Story Than Twilight"

In the last decade, no other book has caused a greater division among its readers than Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight. For every enthusiastic member of “Team Edward” there is an equally enthusiastic subscriber to Reddit posting images of Kim Kardashian and her 72-day husband with the caption “Still A Better Love Story Than Twilight.”

The naysayers have a point. The book is simplistic. The characters are shallow, the symbolism heavy-handed, and the language repetitive. But despite all this, I, like millions of other readers, found myself actually enjoying the book. So the question is, despite all of the eye-rolling and face-palming, why did I enjoy reading Twilight?

In Roland Barthes’ The Pleasure Of The Text, Barthes analyzes the pleasure of the intellectual text, discussing the source of our pleasure in texts by authors like Zola, Balzac, Dickens, and Tolstoy. And in some ways, this is cheating. It is easy to talk about the pleasure of the text when the text is something that is widely considered pleasurable. But there is pleasure to be found in books that aren’t high-brow, that aren’t intellectually simulating, that many people don’t even consider good. What can be made of the pleasure we get from popular fiction, like Twilight, and how is that different than the pleasure we derive from unraveling the Joycean text?

This blog will address this question over the course of this semester. My goal will be to update about three times a week. Once on Monday to discuss how our weekly readings relate to the pleasure of Twilight, once on Thursday to analyze people's reactions to Twilight, and once over the weekend to link to and discuss experts’ opinions on this subject and subjects related to it. Although, these are rough estimates, as I will go where my research takes me.