Oct 29, 2012

Fanpire by Tanya Erzen

Fanpire by Tanya Erzen

As the title suggests, Tanya Erzen’s Fanpire: The Twilight Saga and the Women Who Love It is a study of the overwhelmingly female fandom surrounding the Twilight series. In the opening chapter, Erzen says she wanted to write a book about “the pleasures of the millions of devoted Twilight fans like Rachel who have transformed the Twilight saga into a cultural phenomenon.” She combines a critical analysis of the books with a real interest in discovering what fans get out of the series – and the best thing of all is that she doesn’t for a moment assume that there’s going to be a single answer to this question.

Before I tell you more about Fanpire, I need to tell you a little bit about my own history with Twilight (or, more appropriately, the lack thereof). I’ve never read the series, mostly because I’ve read far too much about it to ever be able to approach it in good faith. Thanks to the Internet, I became aware of Twilight as a cultural phenomenon more or less at the same time as I became aware of the books themselves. Some of the first things I ever read about the series were Ceolinda’s now famous parodies/plot recaps; and also commentary like Jenny’s excellent post on the troubling gender dynamics in the series, which, as I’m sure you can imagine, rather put me off.

I’m really glad posts like these exist, as I think that calling attention to Twilight’s reactionary approach to gender and romantic relationships is a good and important thing. However, as the series’ popularity continued to snowball, a different kind of criticism began to emerge: one that was more focused on its female fans than on the series itself. As this excellent review of Team Human puts it,
Twilight and the whole sexy vampire phenomenon are easy targets for parody; even people who have read none of them feel entitled to dismiss them. It hasn’t always been easy to tell how much this dismissal of the works has been due to their inherent flaws, and how much of it is simply due to our culture’s disdain for anything made for or consumed by young women.
Clare also addressed this phenomenon on this post about Twilight vs Hunger Games fandom:
Katniss may be better than Bella—okay, she’s totally better than Bella—but not because her gender performance is slightly more masculine (but, of course, not too masculine! Can’t be too butch!) and she rejects (or is read as rejecting; again, I’ve not finished the series) the traditional feminine roles that Bella flings herself at like it’s going out of style. Katniss is better than Bella for tons of other reasons—she’s capable, focused, loves her family, and is able to game the game. The fact that she’s praised as superior to Bella solely because of her gender performance really gets under my skin and bugs me. There’s a way to have this conversation without androcentrism coloring the conversation and denigrating femininity, because I hear that in every other conversation. I shouldn’t have to hear it when we’re talking about successful young adult franchises written by women about women.
Obviously I don’t think that to avoid aligning ourselves with misogynist dismissals of Twilight fans or of Bella we need to stop being critical of the series at all – and fortunately neither does Tanya Erzen. She manages to combine critical awareness with good faith, a willingness to listen, and a refusal do patronise the women she interviews. She doesn’t talk about their need for “escape” with benevolent condescension, and she doesn’t assume she knows why the many different women who enjoy Twilight enjoy it. The assumption that there’s a single fan experience, or that fans of a particular piece of media can only be getting one thing out of it, is a huge pet peeve of mine; Erzen’s approach was therefore hugely refreshing.

Erzen is also very much aware that Twilight’s many reactionary and antifeminist elements don’t mean that progressive readings of the texts can’t exist, often alongside the dominant less than progressive readings:
Are fans merely in love with escapist literature? Because the process of reading can be a rhapsodic form of entertainment does not deprive it of social consequence. The books certainly play a potent role in shaping fans’ hopes, ambitions, and expectations, and some of the saga’s fantasies are delectable indeed. That such fantasies are appealing to so many girls and women does not mean the fans are bamboozled by the patriarchal messages in the saga, however. Fans are not dupes, nor do they only consume the books uncritically. Their interpretations of the Twilight saga’s often-lopsided ideas of gender, sexuality, family, marriage, and celebrity are diverse and evolving. Their contradictory desires reflect the postfeminist culture in which readers are steeped, where the meanings of empowerment, choice, and fulfilment are constantly evolving.
She goes on to say that if anything, she had to make an effort to avoid privileging these subversive readings disproportionately, since they tend to be the ones that she’s drawn to. Again, I found this refreshing, since the dominant narrative about Twilight fans paints them as unthinking consumers of patriarchal drivel who need to be rescued from themselves. But as much as this is an oversimplification of reality, antifeminist readings of Twilight certainly do exist: I’m glad Erzen manages to acknowledge that one trend doesn’t erase the other. A complex approach to the series and the cultural phenomenon surrounding it is necessarily one that emphasises both.

Erzen found pockets of non-traditional experiences surrounding Twilight not only in readings of the text, but also in the fandom spaces the series has created for women of all ages. As she puts it,
Despite its traditional messages about girl power and the myth of true love, by virtue of being an almost all-female space, Twilight opens up possibilities for friendship, love, and intimacy for girls, unencumbered by guys. The young women in the aerobics and self-defense classes, listening to the Bella Cullen Project, eating together in the lobby, and gushing over the appearance of Kellan Lutz temporarily shed the pressures to compete for men, jobs, beauty, and achievement. It’s not just an apolitical space of entertainment and consumption but also a potential moment of solidarity for lonely girls, popular girls, sporty girls, alternative girls, mean girls, and fat girls, one that revolves around shared tastes, preferences, and desires.
On the one hand, these women often bond over a “myth of true love” that tells them that real fulfilment can only be found in heterosexual romance and family life; on the other hand, their experiences in fandom, and the fact that sharing these with other women adds so much to their lives, undermine these messages.

Fanpire also explores the process through which large corporations attempt to gain control of initiatives that began as grassroots fan movements, and the consequences this has for these women’s experiences of fandom. I found plenty of parallels with the growing pains the book blogging world has experienced in this section of the book; anyone familiar with, say, what happened with the Book Bloggers’ Con this year will find much of interest here.

As I’m sure you can tell, I really enjoyed Fanpire. However, I’m curious to find out what a) someone who has actually read Twilight and b) someone more familiar with the romance genre than I am would make of this book. My relative lack of knowledge meant that I often had to take Erzen’s interpretations at face value, but I’m sure they’re not the only ones possible.

My one complaint about this book is that it was too short, which means that sometimes it couldn’t address the questions it raises in as much depth as they merit. Additionally, it was strange to see the “Master of the Universe” Twilight fanfiction mentioned but not the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon. This is of course not in any way Tanya Erzen’s fault: I realise that the world of publishing is very slow, which means that by the time she finished this book, E.L. James was not yet a bestselling author. But it’s unfortunate that Fanpire became slightly out of date before it was even published. I can only hope she’ll go on to write a book about James’ trilogy: her critical insight, lack of condescension, and refusal to tut-tut other readers would make for a welcome change to the usual tone of commentary on the Fifty Shades series.

Interesting bits:
At the 2008 Comic-Con, the longstanding convention that is a lure for, mainly, male fans of comics, science fiction, and fantasy, Twilight fans camped out on sidewalks for days to attend the actors’ welcome to the twilight zone panel. “Fan boy culture’s hold on the Con was hijacked by a vampire romance, of all things,” said one outraged online commentator. The invasion of female fans into the Comic-Con stronghold even sparked a backlash. A few disgruntled male attendees sported signs that read, “Twilight Ruined Comic-Con.” Applying adjectives like “screeching” and “stalking” to fans, commentators implied that Twilight-addicted women should just get a life. It is often the case that a phenomenon that massive numbers of women are enthusiastic about is ridiculed as hysteria. But one has to wonder why, for example, equally zealous fantasy-football players or sci-fi geeks, many of whom happen to be male, do not endure the same disdain.

On her official website, Twilight series author Stephenie Meyer writes that true feminism is about choice. It means, she says, that a woman can do whatever will bring her the most happiness. The pressure on girls like Hannah to make the right choices and build a successful life is intense. The idea of “girl power,” whether it comes from the corporate boardroom or the National Organization for Women, is that young women can be anything they want, and that there are now countless options available to them. But as Hannah points out, those options are often confusing and contradictory. The proponents of girl power present the idea that girls are assertive, dynamic, and unencumbered by the constraints of femininity. At the same time, popular books like Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia warn that girls are vulnerable, voiceless, and fragile. Both concepts place the onus for girls’ lives solely on their individual choices and personality traits rather than on structural explanations for girls’ inequality and the double standards that plague them. Girl power is proffered as the gentle and nonthreatening alternative to feminism, so that girls view the contradictions in their lives as a result of their own personal failures rather than as part of social and political realities.
This logic of empowerment through choice is now seen as a matter of common sense, treated as self-evident by a generation of girls. But the logic is also double-edged. […] The idea of choice is for many an illusion of postfeminism. In actuality, as girlhood studies scholars have demonstrated, most girls don’t have an abundance of choices at all, and the idea that it’s up to the individual to make her way masks real inequalities in regard to race, class, gender, and sexuality. These mythical choices of careers, college, and the right relationships are only available to girls with certain privileges.

In this and other ways, the Twilight series slyly subverts some stereotypical notions of masculinity. Throughout the books and films, and in the copious merchandise, for instance, it is male bodies that are thrillingly objectified the way women’s typically are in Hollywood fare. Fans ogle Edward and Jacob, who are frequently shown or described as shirtless, while Bella remains clad in jeans except for an occasional tasteful dress. We read ceaseless descriptions of Edward’s “marble” beauty and Jacob’s enhanced muscles after he becomes a wolf-pack member.

Notwithstanding the retrograde messages about violence, fated love, possessive men, and wavering girls, the books have the perhaps unintended consequence of enabling some families to help their daughters cross the chasm between childhood and adulthood more gracefully. Other fan crazes, such as Star Trek or Harry Potter, undoubtedly inspired similar transitions, but because the Twilight fanpire is almost entirely female, and because the books feature a love story written from a girl’s perspective and her explicit views on sex, love, romance, and relationships, it appears calibrated exactly for bonding among women in families.

They read it too: Jenny’s Books


Affiliates disclosure: if you buy a book through one of my affiliates links I will get 5%. I downloaded a review copy of this book via Edelweiss.


  1. This sounds like a fascinating read. I read and really really enjoyed the first Twilight book before it became the phenomenon it went on to become. Each sequel got worse however, and my opinion of all the books just plummeted.
    And the films! horror-ific :)

    But the thing I really object to is the derogatory way fans are refereed to, it is common practice for people who enjoy Twilight to be dismissed because "its bradly written crap" and there are numerous humour blogs out there breaking down just where Meyer's goes wrong in her writing.
    But I recently read a James Patterson book and found it much much worse in terms of the writing style. And yes, Patterson gets dismissed as airport crap in many cases, but people who read Patterson are not regarded in the same negative light as those who read Meyer's. Maybe it is because Patterson, although a huge author, isn't as culturally significant as Meyer. I don't know, but I bet at least part of it is because Patterson writes books that men read too.

    Sorry, this comment seems to have gone on forever :)

  2. No, no sorry! I've read enough excerpts of Meyer's writing that I won't ever be defending her prose, but yeah, she's certainly not the only hugely popular author whose writing leaves much to be desired. I don't think sexism is the motivation of every single person who makes fun of her prose, but when the focus is so disproportionate, you have to wonder what's behind the pattern.

  3. What an interesting book! - and correspondingly interesting review.

    I am not a fan of the Twilight books - I read the first one at the request of a friend when they were first coming out and was turned off. Not by the gender dynamics, actually, but just by how rude the heroine was and how contrived her outcast status was (she was really only an outcast because she was supremely unpleasant to everyone in town who tried to be nice to her).

    But as someone who is a huge fan of romance novels and their authors and readers and bloggers, I can definitely sympathize with the disdain Twilight fans (and now Fifty Shades fans!) are getting from other readers. Romance fans get it, too - that we're just "lonely housewives."

    The prejudice towards both sorts of readers ultimately comes from the same source - the idea that women and our fragile ladybrains might confuse fiction with reality. Women who read romance "will not be satisfied with normal guys" and thus will end up alone, Twihards will wind up throwing themselves at abusive men and wind up in repressive relationships.

    But you don't see a lot of people making fun of guys who read fantasy or sci-fi, that they might start thinking aliens or unicorns or magic are real. Or if they do joke about it (on shows like Big Bang Theory or Galaxy Quest), it's seen as cute, rather than a societal threat.

    So how come guys are able to tell the difference between fiction and reality, and women can't? Hmmm...

    Excellent post, yet again.

  4. I haven't read Twilight or any of the other books, but my daughter has read them several times. I would love to read this one though, as I just don't get the huge popularity with these books! Very eloquent post today!

  5. >>>The prejudice towards both sorts of readers ultimately comes from the same source - the idea that women and our fragile ladybrains might confuse fiction with reality. Women who read romance "will not be satisfied with normal guys" and thus will end up alone, Twihards will wind up throwing themselves at abusive men and wind up in repressive relationships.

    I think this is an oversimplification of the argument. I am among the people who have complained about Twilight having bad messages, but it's not because I think Twilight readers are going to run right out and find stalkers of their own to love. It's because I think Twilight is reinforcing really, really harmful societal messages about gender roles (traditional) and romantic relationships (primacy of no matter how much they make you suffer). These messages are many and powerful, and they aren't just bad for women, they're bad for everyone.

    The reason people get up in arms about women being oversexualized in video games and comics etc (ie in media traditionally targeted at guys) is the exact same reason we get upset about Twilight -- because these gender-stereotypical messages about women and men are ev. ery. where. already, and they box people in to these very small ideas of what gender/sexuality means. Not any one thing accomplishes it on its own, but in concert with the trillions of other societal messages that say the exact same thing -- women should be beautiful and docile and sexually available, and men should be fighty and masterful and have all the dollars.

    So my problem with Twilight is that it has messages about gender that make me feel icky. What you read/watch/listen to for fun does affect how you feel about those things in real life (even if you are the most beautifully critical thinker in the land), and that is why I get frustrated with, and criticize, books that are all with the traditional gender roles.

    Also, James Paterson sounds awful and I shall never read him.

    Sorry for the very very long comment!

  6. AnimeJune: I would really love to hear what you make of the book, especially as you know far more about romance than I do. I'm all for critical readings of Twilight (and of pretty much every other book/piece of media), but it does bother me when the criticism begins to seep to the fans themselves - and that does seem to happen far more with female fan bases than male ones.

    Zibilee: Erzen doesn't provide one single explanation (that would be pretty much impossible), but the book did give me a glimpse of some of the different things people may see in the series, for better or worse.

    Jenny: No, no reason at all to be sorry! Discussion is good! I agree with you that media representations have a cumulative effect, and also that this kind of stuff is bad for everyone. This is part of why I'm interested in representations of masculinity and wish they were analysed/questioned more often. A lot of people still don't seem to be aware that traditional masculinity can be extremely limiting, and that makes me sad.

  7. Great post, Ana. I haven't read any of the Twilight books yet, although I do have the first one in my physical TBR stack. I've read several articles and posts that say the books are badly written, but I've read a few badly written books in which the authors were such powerful storytellers they were still able to drag you (literally kicking and screaming) into their tale despite all the flaws (not many, mind you, but I've read some like that). So that isn't really what's put me off the series. Mostly it's because I have never enjoyed books where the female protagonist is so traditionally stereotyped - it just annoys me to no end, and reinforces a message that I really dislike. FANPIRE sounds like a very good read. I hope my library carries it, because I'm very interested in reading more from it.

  8. This sounds like a VERY interesting and worthy study. I reread New Moon last year, which I think is the book that people have the most problems with in regards to Belle's dependence on Edward, and on the second read found it to be actually pretty liberating as far as advocating women following their dreams and standing up for what they believe in. Here's the review link if you're interested: http://heidenkind.blogspot.com/2011/11/thoughts-on-new-moon-by-stephenie-meyer.html

  9. it was strange to see the “Master of the Universe” Twilight fanfiction mentioned but not the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon.

    Hmm when was the book published? I don't think anyone anticipated 50 Shades being quite as big as it is, but the fact that she mentions it under its original name means at least it was addressed!

    This book sounds sooo interesting and like the perfect thing for me because of how I never know how to react to Twilight!

  10. Belle: That was what put me off too, more than the quality of the writing. I hope your library does get this!

    Tasha: Thank you for the link - definitely interested in your take!

    Amy: Yes, of course she couldn't have known. I wanted to make it clear that I don't think it's her fault, just an unfortunate consequence of publishing timing. The book is being published just now, but I've had my ARC since July, so I bet she finished writing it at least a year ago.

  11. It's interesting to read your review after having read Jenny's because you've both picked up on the same thing, lack of detail being an issue. I think this could be off-putting but the rest of it sounds fascinating, and that it worked for you having a broad idea of the books but not reading them means it must address a lot of things that would make it valuable overall. I'm thinking I should consider it.

  12. Charlie: I think the lack of detail bothered me a bit less than it did Jenny exactly because she's read the books and I haven't. A lot of information that was fresh and interesting to me might not interest someone who's already read the books as much. Anyway, do give it a read!

  13. Interestingly, none of this touches on the group of ironic fans. These are the girls who were urged (by my local bookstore owner, for one) to read Twilight, found how badly it was written and how "stupid" (my daughter's word) Bella is, and read the rest of it to make fun of it together. They still go to see the movies together (on college breaks, now) and laugh. It's another kind of fandom.

  14. In Joan Marie Verba's Boldly Writing (a twenty year history of Star Trek 'zines), she talks about when Shatner's "Get a life!" SNL sketch hit the airwaves and the fandom was perturbed by the fact that they, mostly adult women with actual jobs and stuff, were portrayed as whining, overentitled teenage fanboys. And this is the next step in devaluing female fandom—Twilight's female fandom is acknowledged because it's a romance and it's bad, so we can mock them for it. Uuuugggghh.

  15. I have not read the Twilight books, but I have seen the movies. I tried to read the first Twilight book and stopped a couple of chapters in because I could not stand the writing.

    I am not a fan of Bella. To me, she represents everything that is wrong with girls- she cannot seem to function without a guy. I guess I am pretty over the whole damsel in distress thing, which is why I go more for heroines, such as Katniss, who can take care of herself and finds love as a part of her life- not her entire identity. To me, that is a big distinction.

    I really like this post. I think I will include it in my Bookish Discoveries Friday. :D

  16. Jeanne: That's a very good point. Erzen's work is focused on earnest fans, but engaging with the books and movies in the way your daughter and her friends do is also worthy of attention.

    Clare: Yep. I thought of you so many times when reading this book! I definitely think you'd get tons out of it.

    Becca: There's a lot about Bella that I find troubling, but it also worries me to think of it in terms of "what's wrong with girls" because it establishes links between her lack of independence and her femininity that are more part of the problem than part of the solution, you know? You can definitely argue that girls are socialised into this model of behaviour (and have been for a very long time), but I like seeing it critiqued in a way that doesn't denigrate femininity as a whole.


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.