Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Twilight and the tale of a one-woman quest for pop-culture omniscience

I have a terrible addiction, and it is called Twilight.

It’s not the content of the books themselves that interests me – I’ve read all four, and they really are dreadful – but it’s the phenomenon I find so fascinating. I don’t always know what to do with pop-culture crazes that seem to sweep the world along. When the Harry Potter craze started, I embraced it; as it continued and I passed into my teens, I turned my back on it entirely.

Nowadays, I can look at the fads sweeping our nation’s youth with a more disinterested eye, and consider the question why? Why is this particular series capturing young people’s imagination?

I have read many, many, many, many, many webpages that analyze, spork, recap, parody, or edit the Twilight series. I have put way more thought into the subject than most fans, and probably more than the author herself. Now the craze is on the wane, with only two movies remaining, but I haven’t really figured it out, and I am not bored yet.

It’s probably because the whole environment of pop culture is still relatively new to me. I grew up in the third world, and as a child I took active pleasure in remaining ignorant of popular culture. I had never heard of Pop Idol or Jerry Springer; I couldn’t hum you a single Destiny’s Child song; I thought “the matrix” was a super-awesome topic in my math class (actually, I still prefer the mathematical matrix to the overrated movie).

Only in 2004/5ish did I start to realize that pop culture is both interesting and valuable. It’s the window into our society’s mores. “Television is America's cultural campfire, where we tell stories about ourselves” says Sarah Warn in this After Ellen article, but that’s also true of movies, the Internet, and popular YA book series. Without the creators of the material necessarily knowing it, they reveal a lot about the messages our society sends to individuals and the things we collectively believe. Wolfgang Iser believed that the blanks and negations in a text are at least as important as the things that are present, because they show us what an author (reader, society) takes for granted and because they allow for an interplay between the author and the reader.

That’s definitely a huge part of Twilight’s appeal. I’ve heard it described as a “first-person shooter” of a book: Bella’s life is deliberately left empty of hobbies and suchlike so that the reader can easily insert herself, filling in the blanks as it suits her.

Similarly, we expend so much virtual ink analyzing a book that was written as slight, thoughtless escapism because we want to find the values and messages that subconsciously pervade it, be they Mormon, misogynistic, or moral. If I study all pop culture, perhaps I can come to a thorough and complete understanding of not only my particular society, but also human nature itself.

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