It's easy to dismiss the Twilight franchise for entirely spurious reasons, and we certainly do that around here: the films, while well-made, are not tremendously exciting from a plot perspective, certainly not to the point where you can explain the legions of adoring fans lining up to get into midnight screenings or screaming at the actors at red-carpet premieres. Still, rejecting the films simply because they've moved beyond "popular" into legitimate "phenomenon" territory would be to do yourself a disservice. You can indulge in memes or parodies all you like, but doing so seems to be missing the point: these films are not merely bad, but are probably actively harmful.
Re-visiting the first three films for the purpose of our Here's What You Missed last week was an uncomfortable experience; I like to think I'm open-minded enough to admit that things that are popular have to have at least some reason for being so, and the reasoning behind Twilight's popularity is as obvious as it is distressing. We live in a 21st century that is filled with awkward dating rituals and media-driven standards of beauty that are unreachable for most of us even on our best days. Twilight taps into a powerful current in fiction, though, especially fiction targeted towards women: it almost literally doesn't matter who you are or what you do or what you want to do; there's a man out there that is The One. Mr. Right. Edward's obsession with Bella has nothing to do with Bella herself, and in fact the films helpfully leave her as blank a slate as possible, the better to enable wish-fullfilment fantasies on the part of Team Edward fans everywhere. She is a non-person, a hole in the universe waiting to be filled up by the emotions of the men in her life.
As a man, I get targeted with all kinds of wish fulfillment media as well, although the media that's targeted at men often is intent on letting us enact power fantasies, letting us pretend to be an intergalactic warrior-monk or a dapper spy or a tough cop who's three days from retirement. We identify with our heroes and wish to see them act heroically and save the world, because we sure as hell aren't going to do it unless we wind up joining the Green Berets or something. Is it healthy to constantly be living in other worlds where I'm slaying dragons and jumping out of airplanes before they crash? Probably not, but on the other hand, it's clear that these are simply fantasies. Twilight could be considered one as well, but its core isn't the vampire/werewolf mythology it freakishly adapts in hilariously inept ways: it is, at its core, a fable about idealized romance, and that's where it leaves "incompetent" behind and starts venturing into the realm of "offensive."
The affections of Edward towards Bella have famously been compared to a list of signs that you're in an abusive relationship, and come up with multiple matches, when only one is enough to signify that you should probably talk to a relationship councilor. He sneaks into her room at night to watch her sleep, he compares her to heroin, he threatens suicide if anything should ever happen to her, he demands knowledge of her whereabouts, he claims to be the only person that can protect her, etc., etc. It is a fundamentally unbalanced relationship, and one that, perhaps worse, isn't predicated on any kind of real emotional bond. That's perhaps my biggest problem with the films: the relationship is made out to be some kind of grand romance between two equal souls, etc., etc., and that's supported by the language that surrounds it, but Bella as a character is such a non-entity that the notion of a 100-year-old vampire being interested in her is far-fetched, to say the best. She has no stated goals in life, or any kind of real passion for anything except Edward: no favorite authors to talk about, or aptitude for a specific field of schoolwork, or desire to go to college to study something. She is the kind of empty-headed, disposable person that many Twilight fans probably love to hate when they appear on reality television.
Her emptiness is, again, important in that it allows the fans of Twilight to use her as an avatar of idealized romance: the wearisome fanaticism with which audiences divide themselves up between Edward and Jacob should probably speak to that fact more plainly than any psychological explanation could. But the message sent is a fairly terrifying one: don't even bother being interesting, these movies say. Just sit back and eventually hunks will be fighting over you, despite the fact that you can barely function as a person in society. It is an ancient way of looking at relationships and marriage, with a woman to be fought over, a prize to be won, her primary virtues being her pleasing features and submissive tendencies.
Twilight has been called emotional porn, and the relationship between it and actual pornography is probably closer than anyone would like to think: both consist of highly attractive people interacting in highly idealized ways. Porn and Twilight can be enjoyed healthily, but then, they can also become a destructive force in the hands (so to speak) of someone who's not ready to separate the fantasy from their everyday lives. If I had kids, I would certainly acknowledge the inevitability that my son would find some way to look at porn despite my best efforts, as would a daughter find a way to read Twilight, so I'd do my best to ensure that they knew where the dividing line was between reality and the somewhat depressing fantasy world that they were getting into.
I don't hate Twilight; I find it more disturbing than worthy of strong emotion. Everyone worries about movies that send poor messages, and many films do so, but the widespread acceptance of Twilight as an entertainment seems to me to be something to be mourned. I haven't read any of the books, and perhaps they come off as somewhat less damning that the films do. Are any of you Twilight scholars? Do you want to make a defense of the series, or are we mostly on the money here?