Internet culture these days tends to focus on taking the guilt out of “guilty pleasures.” Consider the “Twilight” Renaissance for instance, which started in 2018 as a wave of memes and internet dialogue centered around the 2008 teen-romance movie.
When “Twilight” first came out, it was ripped apart by many critics for the way it catered to teenage girls. Many people have written throughout the years about the misogynistic tone of these criticisms and how the series’ teenage fans unfairly beared the brunt of this anger over a piece of media simply designed to explore emerging female desire.
The recent “Twilight” resurgence combated this shaming.
This phenomenon is described in a 2018 Buzzfeed article as women finally being able to unabashedly enjoy the things they like.
But any reading of the “Twilight” series, even one removed from the world’s hatred of teenage girls, cannot ignore the film’s blatant racism and misogyny.
Author Stephenie Meyers very loosely based the werewolf characters on the Indigenous Quileute tribe, but never bothered to contact the tribe or accurately portray their mythology and culture. In fact, she blatantly fabricated parts of their mythology.
One of the most egregious lies she told about Quileute mythology was that Quileute werewolves could “imprint” on someone as young as a child to mark them as their mate for life. She also blatantly profited from their name without compensating the people and perpetuated racist stereotypes by portraying Indigenous characters as aggressive.
How can you take the shame out of enjoying a piece of media that is, by many accounts, racist and perpetuates abusive relationship dynamics?
Much of what I’ve seen on this topic claims that acknowledging these problems is a central aspect of the “Twilight” Renaissance.
But I find these acknowledgements are often very empty. Many seem to function as a preemptive response to any criticism — a clause at the beginning of a five-paragraph essay explaining how much the world hates white teenage girls. They are disclaimers rather than any real criticisms of the text or film.
I think it is safe to posit that any long-form criticisms of the film’s racism and other issues don’t reflect the mission of the “Twilight” Renaissance. The central premise seems to only be ridding oneself of the guilt of enjoying it.
Another example of this kind of cultural deguiltification is the recent revival of early 2010s alternative culture surrounding the Arctic Monkeys and other punk bands. TikTok users are romanticizing the Tumblr era of pale girls smoking cigarettes and wearing skater skirts.
Whereas these gothic and emo styles were previously mocked and bullied by others, now this subculture is seeing a rise in general acceptance in our cultural landscape.
But much of this nostalgia does not consider how this cultural moment glorified pale skin and worked to erase the legacy of Black rock musicians — who invented rock in the first place — by only centering white rock stars.
It is understandable people would want to rid themselves of guilt for the things they enjoy. I’m not saying we should completely do away with “Twilight” or skater skirts altogether. But I think we should be wary about the way we re-interpret media that had previously been classified as shameful.
It’s as if we can only see art through one of two very distorted mirrors. On one end, we are too embarrassed to really look at ourselves and the actual merits of the piece of media due to our internalized misogyny. On the other, we are too self aware, too gleeful in our ironic enjoyment of something, to look past ourselves and see the ways in which a piece of media continues to be destructive.
As our society becomes more aware of the existence of sexism and other social prejudices, we will have to reassess our past critiques of media. In these re-assessments, I worry we may gloss over valid criticisms of the piece of media in an effort to re-address past wrongs.
There is no clear solution to how we should re-interpret problematic media or resolve the hurt your teenage self experienced while also holding space for discussing how a piece of media may be destructive.
But simply doing away with the shame of consuming cringy pleasures is not the solution. I think a feeling of guilt can ultimately be more productive than one of defiance.
Feelings of guilt for participating in the popularization and financial support of “Twilight” may incentivize you to donate to the Quileute tribe, which is better than acting as if that is not necessary at all.