Girlhood, Agency, and Pop Culture Literacy: The Twilight Saga as Exemplar
Often clad in a black t-shirt featuring the image of a brooding cinematic Edward Cullen, twelve-year-old Liza is known as “thetwilightreader” on YouTube, a popular video streaming website. She usually ﬁlms herself speaking to a camera amid the backdrop of her cluttered bedroom, which is decked out in posters and homemade artwork honoring the Young Adult (YA) Twilight Saga, a popular vampire romance by Stephenie Meyer. Over the course of a year (2009-10), Liza directed, edited, and posted more than eighty videos on her personal YouTube channel, which began as a project to celebrate the novels, characters, ﬁlms, songs, and actors associated with the Twilight phenomenon. In her “10 Reasons Why I Love Twilight” video, Liza enumerates factors that led to her fascination:
Number Seven. It’s AD-DIC-TING! It really is, I mean really, okay, like the ﬁrst time I read Twilight, I wasn’t-I knew I’d probably like it but I wasn’t quite sure that I’d get that into it, so I didn’t buy the book. I just borrowed it from my teacher. (I own it now. [chuckles knowingly] Second time I’m going to read it.) But, like, when I ﬁrst got the book, my Language Arts teacher came into my Social Studies class, handed it to me real quick and said, “Don’t lose it” (because I lose things all the time) and then walked out the door. I read the ﬁrst sentence: “I”—[begins to mime the action, but runs back to her unmade daybed for the book, which she opens] “I’d never given much thought to how I would die-though I’d had reason enough in the last few months-but even if I had, I would not have imagined it like this.” [closes the book, then reconsiders, giving the novel a double take] That’s a run-on sentence, but oh well. [shrugs before looking intently into the
camera] I was already addicted to it. I didn’t want to go to PE class. I wanted to go home and lie on my couch and read the rest. But [sighing] really, it’s addicting. If you haven’t read it-warning: it’s going to be like your “own personal brand of heroin.” HAHAHA. Ahhhhh, you need to see the movie.
Ending on an allusion to vampire Edward’s characterization of girl protagonist Bella Swan, Liza goes on to explain how another novel in the Saga became a welcome, but forbidden, distraction from her science class. Liza’s story provides a thought-provoking starting point when thinking about
girls, popular culture, and the role of English teachers. Acknowledging her initial skepticism, Liza provides anecdotal evidence of the importance of her English teacher’s endorsement, which has a direct inﬂuence on Liza’s literacy and, subsequently, her sense of belonging to what Frank Smith in The Book of Learning and Forgetting calls a “literacy club” (25). Liza reveals how Twilight inspired her to read and think critically about reading, as evidenced by her textual allusions and commentary about Meyer’s opening sentence. This particular video also suggests how contemporary novels and their cinematic counterparts oﬀer girls a pleasurable escape from the daily demands of adolescence through a medium teachers encourage, written text. Other videos on Liza’s channel disclose her self-conscious tendencies while illustrating how Twilight became an avenue to friendships with other girls (both at school and online), encouraging her to embrace her selfconsciousness. Liza chooses media production to build connections, channel her creative energy, and gain conﬁdence, a trend common, as I will show, among other girls as well. In responding through “girl-made media” (Kearney, Girls) to a phenomenally
popular text featuring an adolescent female protagonist, Liza’s example embodies a contemporary moment concerning girls in twenty-ﬁrst century Western popular culture. This moment, as feminist scholars observe, is in part a continuation of conspicuous mass-mediated eﬀorts to position girls as desirable consumers, an ideological disposition whereby consumerism is the primary means to female empowerment (Kearney, “Coalescing” 14; Durham 28-29; Griﬃn). On top of that, the incorporation of feminist themes in mass media, coupled with a discursive emphasis on the female body as a site of contest (i.e., “Girl Power” rhetoric), mean that ostensibly empowered female adolescent protagonists are still bound by narratives that ultimately favor hegemony (Durham; Harris; Griﬃn; Saxton xxi). In other words, as Durham argues, especially works that tend toward the supernatural (such as Buﬀy the Vampire Slayer) reﬂect a version of female empowerment that is constrained by ideologies that privilege whiteness, blondness, thinness, and heterosexuality, “all in the interests of capital” (3). Those familiar with the history of texts directed at girls recognize the pattern and contradictions inherent in these narratives. For example, it remains unclear for some even today if the groundbreaking Nancy Drew of the 1930s was a feminist role model or only a modern day daughter of patriarchy.