The pornography of non-rejection
Sarah Hepola’s somewhat depressing article about the “Twilight” phenomenon—amongst grown women, not just young girls—kicks around a lot of theories about its appeal. Since we know it’s not anything like quality,* it has to be pushing some major psychological buttons to get grown women to act like idiots by tearing through it, right? That seems reasonable to me, but I found a lot of the theories kicked around in the article—that the books address daddy issues, that it’s a form of regression, that women secretly fantasize about giving up their autonomy and identity—to be unconvincing. Except one.
“This is what I call ‘true love-ism,'” Laura Miller told me. “True love-ism is the secular religion of America, one that all of us can believe in. What’s appealing about Edward is his certainty. He craves Bella monogamously. The book feeds the delusion that an erotic god could love you, and that he’d also be faithful.” Miller sees the books as straight-ahead romance novels. In her 2008 review, she wrote, “Despite their gothic trappings [they] represent a resurrection of the most old-fashioned incarnation of the genre. They summon a world in which love is passionate, yet (relatively) chaste, girls need be nothing more than fetchingly vulnerable, and masterful men can be depended upon to protect and worship them for it.”
Hepola is skeptical, because none of the women she talked to were romance fans. But I’m not. They’re probably not romance fans, because that really crosses a line of socially unacceptability. But “Twilight” is easier to write off, because it’s a vampire story, reading it is a one-time thing, and it’s a social phenomenon, so you can always say that you’re just curious about the hot new thing. But I agree with Miller. It’s a romance novel. And we all know that romance novels are basically porn for women, and this is true of “Twilight”, even though it’s notoriously buttoned-up and chaste. But until I read that passage, I didn’t really realize how true it was that romance novels are porn for women. And it’s not necessarily the fantasy of sex that they have in common with the videos aimed at men we think of as “porn”. It’s a different fantasy altogether: the fantasy of being completely desired, with no objections and no real obstacles.
Think about the male-oriented porn’s single most common fantasy, one that exists in the ugliest, most misogynist gonzo porn to the more playful videos marketed as safe for “couples”. For male viewers, porn is all about a world where women are always up for it, with you (or the actor standing in as your cipher), and you’re facing a cornucopia of women who always, without fail, say yes. The more misogynist porn ups the ante, showing that these women are so all-consumed with pleasing you that they will do any humiliating thing, and love it, because it pleases you, which is their only desire. Writing it out, it seems a little disturbing, but I honestly think that many men are perfectly capable of realizing that’s just a fantasy, though I maintain that swimming through too much of this particular fantasy starts to affect the minds of Nice Guys® and douchebags, who start to absorb the idea that horny, willing women really should just fall into their laps. But most men look at some porn and are able to be well-adjusted. When they aren’t, let’s agree that porn is far from the only place they’re getting the message that women exist to serve, and have no desires worth respecting. (Many members of Congress, for instance, push that message.)
“Twilight” speaks to that basic fantasy of being so enticing that rejection is impossible. Bella has not one, but two men who are so completely in love with her and only her that they can’t even think about anyone else. (From what I understand, one of them is only able to escape his obsession by falling in love with Bella’s infant daughter. Gross, I know.) From that angle, it’s understandable, and even a little disturbing that we expect women to be ashamed of having these kinds of sexual fantasies. After all, no one who has even an ounce of sophistication would deny that men have a right to watch all sorts of trashy porn without their general good taste being questioned.
Of course, the chastity angle is disturbing. It’s infantilizing, and it reinforces the negative stereotype that women only care about romance and men only care about sex. (Even though the common theme in all these fantasies is living in a world without the possibility of rejection.) But it makes a lot of sense. In our culture, there’s a lot of space for a man to keep a woman under his thumb by fucking her and then disdaining her, mocking her to his friends, and swearing up and down he doesn’t really find her sexually attractive. I’m sure more women than not have had the ugly experience of being coupled with an immature man who blows hot and then cold, who makes you feel desired, and then dumps on you because he fears that treating you with respect will emasculate him. A lot of people still buy into the idea that a sexually active woman is, by definition, ugly and undesirable. And let’s face it—you can’t really convey the message “you’re unrejectable” by having a woman be sexually available and find takers. That doesn’t actually mean, as women know, that you’ll go unrejected. The escape hatch for this trap in your fantasy world is having no sexual agency of your own. In many romance novels, the sex is based around coercion, if not outright rape. In “Twilight”, there just isn’t sex.
A lot of erotica for women I’ve read avoids the infantilizing trap, and centers around female characters who know what they want and go get it. This has the major advantage of having actual sex on the page, but it doesn’t address this apparently profound need to have protagonists that are ciphers, and who live in a world without rejection. Which is generally fine with me. Every time I’ve ever picked up a trashy book with a cipher character, I’m turned off within seconds, because my mind really resists the fantasy presented by a cipher character who is perfect-looking and every man desires, etc. It’s patronizing, and only serves to make me think of myself not as an idiosyncratic person, but a bundle of flaws. But apparently, that’s a lack of imagination issue with me, because millions of women snatching up these kinds of books clearly disagree.
*Interestingly, I’ve always thought it was interesting the way that there was an explosion of Jane Austen fans in the past couple of decades, and women who joined up felt the need to “justify” their fandom on the basis of having crushes on male characters that I’ve always thought too culturally distant to find attractive. Mr. Darcy would have been a good husband by 18th century standards, but nowadays, he’d probably be considered an asshole who expects way too much submission.(There’s a reason Austen herself never married.) Is there a possibility that women don’t want to come out and say that they like the books because they’re well-written and witty? Jane Austen is indisputably one of the Great Geniuses Of Literature, but because of this, she’s always been a threatening figure to insecure men. Is hiding behind a crush on Mr. Darcy a way to defang Austen, to make being interested in her less threatening to men in your life? You my scoff, but you’d be surprised how many men are uneasy around women who are better-read than they are.