How the Twilight Phenomenon Doesn't Signal the End of Cultural Civilization
In 1987, the New Kids on the Block came out of nowhere and dominated the airwaves for three years, infecting our female youth with poisonously awful melodies and dividing teenage girls into several camps, most notably Team Jordan, Team Joey, and Team Donnie. Between 1987 and 1989, you couldn't walk down a hall in any high school in the nation without bumping into a girl wearing a New Kids T-shirt. Even the dateable pool of teenage boys at that time were often divided into their own groups, determined by which New Kid they most closely resembled. It's hard to say that the New Kids phenomenon had much to do with the music -- it was bland and manufactured -- or even the dance moves, which were embarrassing on nearly every level. It had more to do with the scarcity of female-oriented choices in a pop-cultural landscape that was dominated by male-oriented products -- in 1989, the top three movies at the box office were Batman, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Lethal Weapon 2, whose audience makeup consisted largely of male moviegoers, obsessed with action, adventure, blood, and guns.
Ten years later, James Cameron unleashed Titanic, the largest grossing movie of all time, which was possible, in large part, because teenage girls kept returning to the theaters to sit through a technically dazzling but otherwise overwrought and dull three-hour movie. There were a multitude of reports, at the time, documenting the amount of times these mostly young women would revisit Titanic; it wasn't unusual for a teenage girl to see Titanic anywhere between seven and ten times. The movie was the number one movie for nearly four months, made Leonardo DiCaprio one of the biggest movie stars of all time, and Titanic fever completely swept the nation. Take Titanic out of the picture, however, and the top movies at the box office were Air Force One, Saving Private Ryan, Armageddon, and The Lost World, a sequel to Jurassic Park, whose audiences were largely men and their often reluctant dates.
Cut to another decade later, and Twilight makes nearly $200 million at the box office in 2008, while its successor, New Moon put up a $140 million opening weekend, thanks to audiences comprised of mostly teenage girls, who again are divided into camps: Team Edward and Team Jacob. And again, I doubt you could travel the length of any high school in the nation without espying a Twilight T-shirt. And what were the biggest box office hits of the last two years outside of Twilight? Transformers, Iron Man, The Dark Knight and Indiana Jones.
The point here is twofold: 1) There's an incredible dearth of pop-culture products aimed at the young female audience, and 2) the New Kids on the Block and Titanic didn't forever ruin pop culture or end the world, so there's no reason to believe that Twilight will, either. The sad reality is that it doesn't take an incredible product to appeal to young teenage girls -- they're so starved for attention that any old love story that involves a good-looking guy sacrificing himself for a woman will probably put up big numbers at the box office. And Twilight is one of the few franchises that have ever been devoted to the female demographic. And yet, even after the examples that Titanic and Twilight have set, studios are no more inclined to make products aimed exclusively at this largely untapped market.
Twilight puts up huge numbers, so what happens? There are more movies about vampires and werewolves. But studios fail to understand that it wasn't the vampires and werewolves that attracted that young female demographic. As I wrote in my review of New Moon, the movie is a "feminine love-triangle wish-fulfillment fantasy about being fought over by the scrawny, sensitive (and glittering) bad boy and the earnest but temperamental protector with chiseled abs. It's about forbidden love and anticipation and bestial sex, the erotic pull between the sensual vampire and the ravenous werewolf."
Teenage girls aren't watching Twilight because of the heinous vampire/werewolf mythology -- that's boy's stuff. They're watching it because of the forbidden love, because a woman -- a whiny, insufferable, self-obsessed woman -- is being fought over by two men, just as they watched Titanic because an attractive man sacrificed his life for a woman. It isn't about special effects; it isn't about monsters; and it isn't even about compelling story lines -- it's about a woman's power to subjugate men. Romantic comedies are a dime a dozen, but the men in those movies don't sacrifice themselves. They run to the airport at the end of a movie and give an impassioned speech. That's a far cry from giving up your immortality for a woman you love.
I'm not making a value judgement here, nor am I defending the themes of Twilight (no one was harsher on New Moon than I). I'm merely suggesting that New Moon is no worse than two-hours plus of transforming robots battling each other or a nine hour quest involved hobbits doing battle. No one with a modicum of taste is particularly happy about New Moon putting up $140 million over the weekend, but it is nice to see the attention shifted away from acne-pocked, boner-ridden boys for a week, even if it is for something as weakly written and directed as the Twilight series. I just wish that the teenage female audiences could get their own Dark Knight, but until Hollywood starts really developing talented female genre directors, it's not likely to happen soon.
And the truth is, even with the success of Twilight, studios aren't rushing out to make another genre movie based on forbidden love. New Moon will end up being one of the biggest box-office hits of the year, but the marketplace will still be dictated by the success of Transformers, G.I. Joe and X-Men (Twilight after all, wasn't even a planned success -- no one expected a movie made on a $37 million budget to make nearly $200 million). Big-budget epic love stories driven by female characters are scarce, and I suspect that they will remain so. After all, Titanic didn't turn the Hollywood marketplace on its head. Twilight won't, either.
But the bigger point here is this: Twilight doesn't signal an end to our cultural civilization anymore than Transformers does. With or without Twilight or Transformers, Paul Blart: Mall Cop is still going to make $200 million. Mainstream movie-going audiences aren't that bright, and they don't expect much, but it's been that way for decades: The three top-grossing movies in 1986 and 1987, for instance, were Three Men and a Baby, Top Gun, and Crocodile Dundee, movies that many of us slavered over in our formative years, but have since come to our senses. Moreover, those New Kids and Titanic fans didn't cause a cultural Armageddon, nor will Twilight fans. They'll grow out of those Team Jacob T-Shirts one day soon, and in ten years time, they will look at pictures of themselves with a sort of proud embarrassment, the way 30-year-old women now look back on ribboned hair and jelly shoes.
Teenagers are dumb and easily swayed by peer pressure -- I once wore hammer pants, double earrings, had stripes shaved in the side of my head, and rubber bands covering my arms -- but it's always been that way, and probably always will. As a movie critic, I loathe the Twilight series, but as an observer of the phenomenon, I don't see anything new or out of the ordinary. I feel a small sense of pity for many of these girls who are swept up into the phenomenon by peer pressure and against their will, but it's also those very girls who are likely to come out of this first, and who are less likely to contribute to the Paul Blart reboot, ten years hence. But I'm not particularly worried about those who have jumped head first into the phenomenon, either, not when I remind myself that I once loved Yahoo Serious and Young Einstein. They'll grow out of it someday, but those teenage boys will grow into 35-year old men and will still keep returning to Transformer type movies unironically. The difference is: There won't be a stigma attached.