Masculinity, Reading, and Twilight
Dennis Wilson Wise
The long national nightmare is finally over—or, if “nightmare” is too strong a word, then at least the really bad national daydream. The final Twilight movie has been released. Audiences horrified at sparkling vampires and angst-ridden teen melodramas can now safely consign both books and movies to the oblivion they deserve. Already the bookshelves at Wal-Mart have removed their depressing shelves filled with teen vampire romances. Still, with the nostalgia industry being what it is, perhaps the memory of these trying times will never entirely go away. Certain consequences will endure—sometimes even personal consequences.
Some time ago my younger brother Nick approached me with intriguing news. He had, apparently, read a book. “Not just a book, either,” he said to me, “but an entire series!” Suitably impressed, I naively asked which series. As a doctoral student in English literature, you see, I had several times over the years suggested books that he might like, but I gave Nick up for lost after he ignored even Harry Potter. So I was curious to see what great piece of literature had finally broken through to him—what stunning plot, which colorful character had finally reached through to someone bibliophobic since being forced to symbolism-hunt The Scarlet Letter in high school?
My brother beamed at me. “Twilight by Stephanie Meyers,” he said.
Not literally the entire series, he hastened to assure me before I could disown him. He’d only read the final three books of the tetralogy. The first Twilight movie had utterly absorbed him, for whatever reason. He could not wait until the release of the second movie, so he decided to turn to the books. (No need to read the first book, he patiently explained, seeing as how he’d just seen the movie.) Habitual book readers will understand what my brother felt, though—that keyed up feeling of gotta find out what happens next.
Typically, we call such books “page-turners,” and such experiences usually drive our love of reading. Movies much more rarely facilitate that what-happens-next? experience, however. First, movies almost never come out in a series. (Sequels do not count.) Second, and more importantly, movies tend to rigidly control the viewing experience. Books are page-turners because readers know that faster reading will get them to the end quicker. Films offer no such incentive; they are inflexible in their refusal to give up control to the reader. Thus we might say that books are a liberal democracy while movies are a totalitarian regime. So I could scarcely believe that my brother received a book-reading experience from a (mediocre) film.
My shock worked on a number of other levels as well, which leads to why I think this incident so revealing about contemporary notions of American masculinity. Cutting down to the heart of the issue, Twilight is a romance novel. You know, the genre of heaving bosoms, restless passions, excessive adverbs, etc. Judging by the covers of the newest books, the genre plays a little more subdued now than in its Fabio days, but the basic formula of a woman finding fulfillment through a relationship with a man remains the same. More importantly, romance is a female oriented genre. The first mass market publishers began distributing romance novels in supermarkets and drugstores precisely because it was easier to reach the “bored housewife” demographic that way, and feminism has done little to change the basic selling patterns. The success of 50 Shades of Grey—originally fan fiction for Twilight—in fact pays tribute to the generic roots of its parent. The Stephanie Meyers novels had created a teenage market for romance, and now that audience—older and more mature—has contributed to the success of the Twilight imitators.
And Twilight’s romantic roots are what make my brother’s literary revelation so startling. Nick is a guy. Not only that, but he’s a guy’s guy. While the Romance Writers of America (RWA) reports that more men are reading romance fiction than ever before (about 9% of the total romance audience in 2012), the genre nonetheless remains strongly gender specific. Does Nick feel embarrassed about liking a convoluted, cardboard, conventional teen romance? Apparently not in the least. When I tried to explain why Twilight was so bad, Nick cut me off and excitedly began a plot synopsis. This coming from someone who in his younger days was the quintessential clubber and male socialite! Although he never drinks, he dances well and dresses even better. Like other suburban white boys, he loves hip hop. Girls often find him irresistible. Even now that he has turned 30, he is most comfortable with people in their 20s. I have often been amazed at how positively people respond to him. He rarely meets anyone he dislikes. My little brother is a charming, gregarious crossbreed between Will Rogers and the Backstreet Boys.
Guys are not supposed to like romances. The general “go to” stereotype of masculinity entails watching ESPN or sports, drinking beer (or drinking beer as a sport), tinkering with cars or motorcycles, or venturing forth into lush woodland areas to shoot at Bambi’s mother. Any random survey of the History Channel’s programs will show anyone “typical” guy behavior. (Good luck finding any actual history on there, though.) Granted, general notions of masculinity have shifted over the last few decades. Toby Maguire has replaced Sylvester Stallone as the conventional Hollywood action hero, and nowadays only video games and toys have those hyper-muscled sorts of heroes. What does not go into this general image of male-ness, however, is novel reading.
Even stranger is that my brother—like myself—grew up in an area of the country where standardized notions of masculinity hold great sway. Western Pennsylvania is a predominantly working class area on the fringes of the Rust Belt. Sports and drinking are our largest community-building activities. When Art Modell, owner of the Cleveland Browns, moved the team to Baltimore in 1995, the event marked something like a regional tragedy. Likewise with Lebron James—who had temporarily made Cleveland basketball a national force—deciding to “take his talents to South Beach.” Our population, additionally, is rapidly aging. Many of our young people leave to more economically flourishing areas as soon as they are adults. Now that I no longer live in Pennsylvania, my facebook newsfeed is my primary way of keeping in touch with people from home. Overwhelmingly, their posts are about the Browns or the Pittsburgh Steelers or some other sporting events. To complete the standard stereotypes, western PA is also even one of the best places in the country to hunt deer.
Given such an area, it seems perfectly rational that my brother never became a novel reader (and perfectly odd that I did). Once, a long time ago, I stumbled upon a marketing website that offered to “define” any area for prospective businessmen. You simply type in the zip code and it provides the three most popular activities. One of the things that Western PA excelled in, apparently, was “video games.” Then out of curiosity I entered in “90210.” Interestingly enough, Beverly Hills emphatically did not excel at video games. This could have given us some regional pride, I suppose, as it is nice to excel at something. Still: video games, sports, drinking. These are the pensions of a rust-riddled region populated by blue-collar workers. The nearby city of Youngstown—a miniature Detroit, semi-abandoned, which was once known for its levels of mafia-related crime—has a small theater and a few other outlets for “high culture,” but generally such things are not typical for us. The book culture does not flourish to any exceptional degree. There are small pockets, of course, but never to the extent of any of the college towns I have lived in.
As such, although I complained about my brother reading Twilight of all things, I was nonetheless secretly happy that he had read anything at all. Any books, even bad books, are good for people. But I also felt real surprise at how much he actually enjoyed the series. When I asked my brother for an explanation, his answer was both obvious and enlightening. “Yeah, Dennis, but the books had good plots. They kept me interested. I wanted to find out what happened next.” And that was all he felt needed to be said.
Those are important sentiments, I think, and they show how our stereotypes of “masculinity” often fail to live up to the richer and more complex reality of maleness. Yes, my brother likes sports and clubs and poker. And yes, apparently, he also somehow likes a cheesy teenage romance novel. Growing up, both of us knew our fair share of working-class sports junkies, and today they’ve become adults with families and political passions. (Indeed, most of the conservatives I know today were high school classmates.)
But the stereotypes—as stereotypes always do—fall short, as the case with my brother shows. It is altogether too easy, sometimes, to attribute a fondness for ESPN and deer-hunting with a certain type of masculinity, ignoring how our categories are never really set in stone. Room exists for Twilight. Since that experience, my brother has ventured out into other books, and he recently bought a Kindle. Does he feel himself any less of a guy? I have never bothered to ask him because I knew he would find the question ridiculous. He likes what he likes, tending to follow his instincts in such matters. This is a healthy attitude, I feel. And, personally, seeing his example helps me avoid the various prejudices that evolve when all one’s friends are graduate students or university affiliated. And his attitude helps me remember that even a book-lover like myself, who no longer remains passionate about sports, can still feel a special knife-twist when the Baltimore Ravens win the latest Super Bowl, even eighteen years after Art Modell stole our football team.
Dennis Wilson Wise is a PhD student in English at Middle Tennessee State University.