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Twilight’s resurgence as a meme sparks another fight for fan legitimacy

The 10th anniversary of the first Twilight movie arrives at a heated, grown-up moment for the series  

Summit Entertainment
Petrana Radulovic is an entertainment reporter specializing in animation, fandom culture, theme parks, Disney, and young adult fantasy franchises.

[Ed. note: We originally ran this story in 2018, as Twilight memes started to trickle back onto social media. With a timely Tumblr meme currently going viral, we’ve resurfaced our report to shed light on the persisting online popularity of the franchise.]

It’s 2018 and Twilight is trending on Tumblr.

Arriving 13 years after the release of Stephenie Meyer’s first book, and right on time for the movie’s 10th anniversary, a surge of interest in the YA property is being dubbed the “Twilight renaissance” by internet dwellers. According to buzz-tracker Fandometrics, which tracks tags on Tumblr and amasses a top 20 list based on how many posts were newly created, searched for, liked and reblogged, the topic of Twilight achieved the fervor of Venom, A Star is Born, and Avengers: Infinity War (which mostly amounts to Avengers 4 hype) in late October. The reason: an influx of Twilight memes.

Unlike Harry Potter — the closest contemporary to Twilight as far as young-adult book and film fantasy series released in the late 2000s are concerned — the fandom devoted to Meyer’s series mellowed after the release of the final film installment in 2012. Whereas Potter continued with interactive websites, mobile games, stage plays and a whole new movie series, no new Twilight material has been published in 2015, aside from a gender-swapped redux of the first novel. Meyer, too, has remained out of the spotlight, a celebrity creator experience that sits in stark contrast to J.K. Rowling, who gleefully spins new Wizarding World mythos on Twitter.

Without a sequel announcement or a creator’s polarizing update to wake up the slumbering discourse, the renewed, meme-driven interest may seem random. But anyone enamored by Bella, Edward and Jacob’s story, those who’ve made the books and movies fodder for a new generation of memers, will tell you they’ve waited nearly a decade for this moment.

Of course, not everyone is having it — which makes it a true Twilight renaissance.

Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) confronts Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) about his identity Image: Summit Entertainment

Back in the late 2000s, teens found themselves drawn to the paranormal love triangle between a girl-next-door and two handsome, magical boys. Inspired by the paperback-romance genre, but speaking in a middle-school-ready language, Twilight eventually defined a whole subsection of YA literature.

But during the book’s initial surge of popularity, being a fan of the series came with a sense of shame. Its popularity among young teenage girls was damning. Digging up Twilight content online back in the day usually meant encountering memes created to ridicule your enjoyment.

Poking around Facebook in the early 2010s, one would have found a picture of a plug and an outlet tagged with “A better love story than Twilight,” or Gollum holding the One Ring with the same snarky quip. A more toxic riff saw a man in sparkly unicorn attire stamped with “Still not as ‘gay’ as Twilight.” Others took screencaps of Twilight to post derogatory jokes, insinuating that a love for the series was a sign of effeminate weakness. Mocking Twilight and its fans was a regular part of internet culture that even established, socially conscious webcomics such as the Oatmeal embraced the ridicule.

Know Your Meme

Much like One Direction, lip-sync app Tik Tok and pumpkin spice lattes, Twilight occupied a space of enormous popularity that was supposedly tainted by the fact that it was mostly being consumed by young women. Not only was the franchise hyper-scrutinized because of its teenage fanbase, but Hollywood itself leaned into the “lesser than” narrative. To direct the first installment of Twilight, Catherine Hardwicke — the series’ only female director — was given a smaller budget than normal for a fantasy film. As she explained at the film’s recent New York Comic Con 10th anniversary panel, the shortchanging was the result of the studio being unconvinced that a movie geared towards teenage girls would make money. Twilight grossed over $393 million worldwide, nearly ten times its budget.

Ten years later, Twilight is back with memes of a different breed. The ones sending the franchise skyrocketing on Tumbler trends revel in absurdity for absurdity’s sake. Even fans know Twilight is a robust source for the absurd (even beyond the hybrid vampire-child with the ridiculous conglomeration name): Rosalie breaking the salad bowl on Bella’s first visit to the vampire house; Edward in khakis being described as the “most beautiful thing in the world”; the dowdy outfit Bella wore that Edward found irresistible. That’s only scratching the surface.

As is the way of insular subcommunities (and most corners of the internet), the memes spawned their own memes. Snails became one of the biggest trends in Twilight memes, after, in April, a user in posted about Edward Cullen texting about snails. It’s a big “you had to be there moment,” but that’s the internet at its purest.

We may never know which meme, which stray observation, which ardent fan fought to bring back the series they loved in meme form, but Twilight is buzzing all over Tumblr dashboards because, frankly, it’s finally safe to be buzzing about Twilight again. Fans of the series from back in their teenhood feel like they can finally talk about it the way they wanted to, years later. For them, the initial surge of Twilight popularity was coupled with derision which morphed into a sense of self-hatred about their own hobbies and interests.

Reclaiming Twilight from so-called “cringe culture” — the act of shaming people for enthusiastically enjoying things that are often dubbed childish, embarrassing or inferior by some higher authority — is liberating to devotees, many of whom were in their young teens when the vilification of Twilight fans started. For the first time, they feel they can freely celebrate their love, and turn it into something new that reflects their own identities.

Out of the many Twilight-centered blogs that have sprouted up in the past few months, many proudly proclaim their LGBTQ ties in their usernames. There are blogs like twilightisgaynow, twilightmademegay and bisexualtwilight and many more posts declaring an inherent queerness to the series. Calling Twilight “gay” was once an insult, but now many say that yes, Twilight is gay and has always been gay, but not just because the vampires sparkled.

Rachel, the blogger behind twilightmademegay, tells Polygon that the LGBTQ community’s interest in Twilight in 2018 has everything to do with vampires in general.

“Since vampire novels like Dracula or Carmilla, the vampire has been used as a metaphor for “deviant” sexuality,” she says. “I think that had Carmilla and Dracula come out in the early 2000s, we’d all be running blogs about those vampires being gay. Our generation has a huge community for LGBTQ people online, and since these people happened to grow up with Twilight as the most popular vampire fiction, we’ve latched on to that series because of the inherent queerness of vampires.”

Many share passages from the books and screenshots from the movies that further justify this reclamation. The women of Twilight — Bella in particular, probably due to openly bisexual Kristen Stewart’s status as an LGBTQ icon — have been hailed as women-loving-women characters.

Some share anecdotes about their own experiences with Twilight, and how the characters made them realize their own sexualities, celebrating not only the characters of Twilight but how they shaped adolescence for teens everywhere.

Rachel was a huge fan of the books in her younger days, but after Breaking Dawn - Part 2 came out, she felt ashamed for liking Twilight, even funneling her polarized feelings into a high school research paper about Bella and Edward’s abusive relationship. This has all changed, however, and the franchise’s meme resurgence has helped her be more open about her love of the series — and her own sexuality.

“I think reclaiming my love of Twilight is a huge step in fully accepting myself, which is something that’s often hard for LGBTQ people to do because off all the internalized homophobia,” she says. “It’s been nice to be able to have some lighthearted, gay fun with like-minded people.”

Twilight still has its critics — even from inside the readership. While the early clapback towards the franchise was tailored mostly towards the teenage girl fanbase, the mid-2010s saw a strong social critique of the storylines and relationships. This was the era when arguments on gender and relationship issues became more accessible to internet-goers, which caused many fans to reexamine works of fiction.

There were valid reasons to criticize Twilight during its initial wave of popularity: Edward and Bella’s relationship fitting all 15 signs of an abusive relationship; the warping of traditional Quileute mythology for Meyer’s interpretation of werewolves and the reduction of Native American characters to “savage” stereotypes; and the implications of Jacob Black “imprinting” on Edward and Bella’s newly born baby and potentially falling in love with her as she ages rapidly into physical adolescence, but is still the age of a toddler.

Critical backlash suggests that the reclamation of Twilight still ignores the problematic foundation of the series. It wasn’t just the association with teen girls that made Twilight unlikeable; it was the loads of questionable content that many felt should not be idolized. It’s one thing to take a stance against “cringe culture;” it’s another to blatantly ignore the deeply set racism, glorification of abusive behavior and potentially pedophiliac implications that are rampant throughout the Twilight saga.

“How did y’all get less woke?” asks one post.

Another recognizes that eliminating “cringe culture” is a good thing, but urges fans to remember the inferred racism of the saga.

There’s a counter to this, too: rejuvenated Twilight fans say they’re aware of everything wrong with their preferred franchise. While there are those that insist that Twilight was “good all along,” there are more that claim that they recognize the issues with Stephenie Meyer’s portrayal and that much like other works of fiction with issues deemed “problematic” — the whitewashing in the MCU; J.K. Rowling retroactively peppering diversity into the Potter books; Game of Thrones’ sexual violence towards female characters — they can recognize the problems within, be critical of them, yet still enjoy the world and characters.

In fact, many Twilight renaissance fans actively speak out about the problematic aspects, whether it be acknowledging them with memes or making more explicit posts about how they’re aware of the issues with Twilight and by no means condone the material.

“We are all well aware of the more problematic aspects of Twilight,” Rachel says. “There are a lot of issues with how Stephanie [sic] Meyer portrayed Native American tribes, among other things. We have a lot of discourse about that in the community and even though we’re having fun and making memes we aren’t ignoring the negative aspects of it. We can appreciate art while still being critical of it.”

Some go beyond just acknowledging the bad stuff to actively take uncomfortable situations in the books and reimagine them to address concerns. On top of the memes, Tumblr is now populated by single-post works of fan-fiction that detail “what if” scenes of canon course correction. Instead of romanticizing Edward’s controlling behavior, Bella turns to his sisters for help; instead of copying her father’s behavior and laughing at Bella’s attempt to punch Jacob after he forcibly kisses her, one user points out that that reaction was totally justified.

Meyer’s vague backstories have also elicited ire from fans. For instance, the character of Jasper is revealed to be a former Confederate soldier in Eclipse and is brushed off without much questioning from the characters. The treatment has not sat with will fans over the last decade. “YOU CAN MAKE IT WORK IF YOU DECIDE TO WIKI IT FOR AN AFTERNOON,” reads the final hammer drop of one rant.

Not all of these corrective posts are full blown essays and critiques; following on the heels of Midnight Sun, Meyer’s own gender-swapped rewrite, fans simply add to and cut away at a Twilight that they want to see — vampires and werewolves and love triangles without the emotionally manipulative undertones and surface-level cultural examination. But in true Twilight fashion, the text may never work for everyone — the fanbase included.

It’s 2018 — half a decade after the last meaty bit of content — and Twilight is trending on Tumblr. There’s more nuance to this Twilight renaissance than simply painting it as a joyous reclamation of source material or the ultimate failure of fans to recognize problematic material. There are arguments of cringe culture and social awareness and counter-arguments to those arguments. But the conversation is no longer happening between teenagers brushed aside by conventional pop culture. They’re grown up now and owning what they love, even if that means taking to their keyboards to defend it, even if that means adopting a critical view and waking up to the flaws.

Twilight is flawed. Twilight has problems. Twilight has been picked apart and scrutinized for all of its questionable content. But ten years after becoming a phenomenon, one thing is clear: the world underestimated Twilight fans back in 2008; clearly, it underestimated them ten years later.

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