Teen girls and genre in the critical reception of Twilight – Bode

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I really enjoyed Lisa Bode’s critical analysis of reviews of the film Twilight – and how constructions of female adolescence are drawn on by film reviewers to patrol the (gendered) boundaries of genre. Great article! …some quotes:

“The critical reception of Twilight (2008), Catherine Hardwicke’s film adaptation of Stephenie Meyer’s first teen vampire romance novel, though, repeatedly mobilizes an idea of its audience that is not just female but adolescent. This is hardly surprising as the Twilight novels were marketed in the young adult sections of bookshops, and the film features a dangerous romance between an ordinary 17-year-old girl, Bella, and a 108-year-old teen vampire, Edward. However, what is interesting in film reviews for Twilight is how [-p.708] often a (mainly) female adolescent audience, and associated mode of viewing, is evoked, and how this is variously used to denigrate or legitimate the film and its pleasures. The lowly cultural status of the teen girl audience has been examined before in Melanie Nash and Martti Lahti’s work on Leonardo DiCaprio’s disavowal of his teen idol identity (Nash and Lahti 1999, 72) in the wake of his role in Titanic (James Cameron 1997). However, Twilight’s critical reception provides us with the opportunity to see some of the variations in how differently situated film reviewers define and deploy the teen girl. [/] For some reviewers, the teen girl audience taints the film, and the film taints the girl, and both are to be reviled. But for others, the film, and the adolescent girl who is imagined to be captivated by it, become objects of a somewhat romantic fascination. This article asks: what can the adolescent girl, her different connotations, and the ways reviewers position themselves in relation to this figure, reveal about Twilight’s cultural resonance, and the ongoing dynamics of distinction in the contemporary cultural field more broadly?” (pp.707-708)

“Film critics perform an important role in pre-shaping audience reception (Barker 2004). In the words of Pierre Bourdieu they often influence ideas of ‘what is worthy of being seen’, what is unworthy, and ‘the right way to see it’ (Bourdieu 1984, 28).” (p.708)

“Film reviews […] are useful to analyse not only for what they foreground of the struggles over cultural meaning but also for what they [-p.709] reveal of the dynamics of power in classification of films and their audiences, and the ways in which such things as gender, age and class are linked in this process of classification.” (pp.708-709)

“…when reading the reviews it is often difficult to separate the evaluation of Twilight from the reviewer’s disposition towards the teen girl audience. For instance, in the negative reviews is Twilight a ‘bad’ film because it is supposedly made for teen girls, or are teen girls deficient because they like Twilight and reveal their intense engagement with the film and, notably, its display of young male beauty, through gasps and shrieks?” (p.709)

“While all the reviews examined describe Twilight’s audience as ‘teen’, ‘tween’ or ‘adolescent’, the more negative the review, the more derisive is the language used to describe the audience, and maintain distance between the taste of the reviewer and that of the audience. Repeatedly, adolescent females are maligned for their lack of cultural capital, described as ‘indiscriminate’ (Ochieng 2008) or said to have ‘insipid’ (Burns 2008), ‘banal’ (Brayton 2008) or ‘less discriminating palates’ (Chang 2008). Dehumanized and de-individualized as the film’s ‘designated demographic’ (Ochieng 2008) and described in animalistic terms as ‘swarming’ (Puig 2009) and ‘mallrat masses’ (Ochieng 2008), they are presented as easily targeted and manipulated by a cynical market-driven mass culture. Accordingly, Twilight is seen as a crass commercial ‘product’ (Hanke 2008), a ‘cash machine’ (Vasquez 2008) designed to feed the gaping maw of this indiscriminate swarming squealing mass, and part them from their money.” (p.710)

“…reviewers use the girl as a means to leverage their own cultural superiority: their individualized and aesthetically informed responses to the film; their detached, rational and critical disposition; and importantly, too, their knowledge of vampire and horror film genres that enables them to distinguish between greater and lesser examples.” (p.710) … “For instance, horror film aficionado Felix Vasquez Jr complains bitterly that Twilight’s trailers promised ‘vampire action’ to ‘non-fans’, but failed to deliver, being hybridized or rather, polluted, by the teen and romance genres. He curls his lip at the way female authors such as Anne Rice have popularized the ‘emo’ vampire who struggles with his or her monstrosity instead of gleefully predating, and reveals that by his definition a ‘good’ vampire film should foreground blood lust, gore and ‘action’ rather than moping introspection (Vasquez 2008). Vasquez’s particular definition of the vampire genre, as a subgenre of horror, appears to exemplify the way some horror fans use their ability to ‘stomach’ onscreen blood, viscera, gore, and transgression as a marker of a rather masculinist distinction, or what Hollows calls ‘the ritual test of masculine hardness’ (Hollows 2003, 44). Clearly, Twilight, Anne Rice and the ‘emo’ vampire provide little opportunity for viewers to test themselves in this way. However, by positioning these films generically, Vasquez and others work to patrol the boundaries of their idea of what the vampire genre should be, and determine who it is for (and not).” (p.710)

In contrast to the way that the audience is portrayed in the negative reviews as swarming indiscriminate mallrats, positive reviews have an empathetic or affectionate regard for Twilight’s perceived or imagined audience, and for female adolescents and adolescence in general. While the positive reviewers still mostly identify themselves as ‘not the film’s target’, these writers strive to reconnect with their own adolescent yearnings (either as romanticizing or wryly commenting on their younger selves) or produce a reading of adolescent imagination as a complex and liminal state, on the cusp of cultural and sexual knowledge. This attempt to see the film in relation to a teen girl perspective is in part predicated on the way the positive reviewers tend to frame Twilight generically as a teen romance film, rather than as a vampire film. Evaluating it as a teen romance produces a very different set of cultural and cinematic reference points, and it means that if there is evidence of an affective link between teen girls in the audience and the teens represented on the screen then it testifies to the film’s success. For instance, Sukhdev Sandhu, writing for the Daily Telegraph (UK), refers to the vocal responses of girls in his screening as evidence that the film has succeeded in conveying an ‘emotional truth’ that connects with its audience (2008). [/] While this type of assessment casts the teen viewer in a more favourable light, it is nevertheless the case that neither in the positive nor in the negative reviews is the adolescent girl mode of engagement imagined as rational, mindful or critical. If negative reviewers see the female adolescent as uncritical and easily enthralled, the positive or more ambivalent reviewers describe her as ‘estrogenic’ (M. O’Sullivan 2008) or ‘hormonal’ (Knight 2008). Such labels do not in this case necessarily mark the teen girl viewer as ‘more easily seduced’, but rather as one who experiences a natural, complex and mysterious state, that makers of teen films rarely manage to connect with or capture.” (p.713)

“In the reviews of Twilight I have surveyed, the affective contagion of the teen or preteen girl audience is much more usually disavowed or resisted. Even positive reviewers of the film appear to need to bring in references to legitimate culture, such as the nineteenth century romance novel, not just as a means of elevating Twilight but invoked as a kind of talisman against a teen girl pop contamination of their adult critic identity. How does this reconcile with the fact that grown men and women happily confess to enjoying Transformers (Michael Bay 2007) or The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan 2008), and that so many reviewers of Transformers in particular tap into a 13-year-old boy viewing mode? For instance Ebert, who as we saw above was keen to delimit Twilight’s audience, but in his review of Transformers, however, he self-consciously slips out of his stuffy adult critic persona with lines like: ‘it’s goofy fun with a lot of stuff that blows up real good’ (Ebert 2007). Ebert willingly submits to an uncomplicated joy in dumb kinetic violence and spectacular explosions, and revels in the hoots and cheers of the audience with which he shared the screening. Perhaps, then, more so than age, it is gender that functions here as a key factor in the relative status of taste formations....” (italics in original, p.716)

“This article has examined some of the different ways in which film critics, in their reviews of Twilight, construct the film’s teen girl audience and, in relation to this figure, reaffirm both their own taste formations and their cultural values. Although film reviewers are often reporting upon the vocal behaviour of actual girls attending their screening, these writers use the adolescent girl as an imagined ‘other’. Thus, references in reviews to girls as a dehumanized swarming mass or as the giggling bearers of complex longing, reveal more about the cultural values and social position of the film reviewer than that of actual adolescent girls. Moreover, childhood and teenhood (unlike other social categories such as race, ethnicity or gender) are thought to be temporary states, transitional phases that are passed through on the way to an adult identity imagined as ‘fixed’. Because of the teen girl’s temporary occupation of her identity, and the sense that she is not yet properly initiated into systems of culture, and not yet fully sexual, reviewers appear to denigrate or sentimentalize her without guilt. Where does this leave the adult audience and fandom, those of us old enough to ‘know better’ and yet confess to drawing pleasure from Twilight?” (p.717)

Ref: (my emphases in blue bold) Lisa Bode (2010): Transitional tastes: Teen girls and genre in the critical reception of Twilight, Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, 24:5, 707-719

Abstract: “Reviews of Twilight (2008), Catherine Hardwicke’s enormously popular screen adaptation of Stephenie Meyer’s teen vampire romance novel, reveal a focus on both the gender and age of the film’s audience. The teen, tween or adolescent girl, her tastes and affective response, are evoked in different ways by many reviewers to denigrate the film. However, the adolescent girl is also used in positive reviews to legitimate Twilight and its pleasures. This article asks: what can the adolescent girl, her different connotations, and the ways reviewers position themselves in relation to this figure, reveal about Twilight’s cultural resonance, and the ongoing dynamics of distinction in the contemporary cultural field more broadly?” (p.707)

One thought on “Teen girls and genre in the critical reception of Twilight – Bode

  1. Gday! I hope you don’t mind but I decided to post your web site: https://cityfantasy.wordpress.com/2013/03/09/teen-girls-and-genre-in-the-critical-reception-of-twilight-bode/ to my internet directory website. I used, “Teen girls and genre in the critical reception of Twilight” as your blog headline. I hope this is ok with you. In the event you’d like me to change the title or perhaps remove it entirely, e-mail me at kassiemeek@freenet.

    de. Thanks a ton.

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