Tom Matlack talks to his 16-year-old daughter about the Twilight phenomena, vampires who love too much, and healthy teenage relationships (if that’s not an oxymoron).
I’m driving with my daughter, Kerry, and we’re approaching a traffic jam. We’re headed out of town for the July Fourth weekend. Kerry went to the Eclipse midnight show last night, and now she’s sitting copilot here and we’re going to talk about the movie, manhood, girlhood, and all things related.
Buckle up. My daughter has some things to say…
ME: Kerry, sweetie, you’re on the record.
KERRY: Hi. (Laughs.)
ME: So, let’s qualify your Twilight stats. When did you read your first Twilight book?
KERRY: I read them all before the first movie came out. Part of the reason why the movies are so successful is because there was this very devoted fan group from the books.
ME: You’re 16 and going into your junior year of high school. You told me earlier that at school you’ve had some Sex & Relationship education that made you think about what a healthy relationship might look like, and the warning signs of an unhealthy relationship.
KERRY: Yeah, we had to do this thing where we determine when a relationship becomes abusive or not healthy. And if you look at Edward and Bella in Twilight, they kind of hit a bunch of the marks. In the beginning of this movie, he takes apart her car so she can’t go see Jacob, who’s her best friend. He also watches her sleep. If you pick apart the movie and take things out of context, there are a lot of things that are definitely creepy. (Laughs.) And yet they get portrayed as being romantic.
ME: And what do you think about the power dynamics of a teenage girl dating a vampire? Clearly, they don’t have the same powers.
KERRY: Yeah, that’s definitely part of their relationship, because he’s portrayed as just so much—I don’t want to say better than her, but yeah, better than her. He’s incredibly attractive and intelligent, and he’s a vampire. He has superpowers. He’s incredibly strong, incredibly fast. And so it isn’t at all a fair power relationship, and he’s incredibly protective of her and incredibly possessive.
ME: So why would you be attracted to a movie that portrays a girl about your own age being as submissive and overpowered as Bella is?
KERRY: Well, I think it’s interesting. I think the Twilight movies and books do a couple of things. First, they make it seem like having that type of a relationship—like having a guy take care of you—is what you need to be happy. I also think they show that type of dominant relationship as the ideal type relationship. But you’re right. Why is that so attractive? There’s so much pressure on the way you look and how much you weigh and all that craziness. And I feel like teenage girls often feel they’re never good enough.
And when you’re a teenager, you’re constantly trying to find who you are and figure things out. You just want to be wanted, and teenage girls have problems with being insecure and feeling unwanted. And the whole idea with this Edward guy is that this incredible, amazing, superhuman guy is in love with her and will do anything for her.
Even though it borders on being totally unhealthy, it’s like somebody wants you that much, and that’s appealing to girls. Someone is there to value you when you don’t really value yourself, and that’s incredibly attractive, even if it’s not necessarily healthy. And I think teenage relationships now—there’s so much hooking up or whatever, and there’s the whole idea that guys don’t actually care about relationships. I feel like at my school, even, it’s not a relationship-driven place.
ME: The writer of the book is Mormon, right? So there’s no sex in the book.
KERRY: Exactly. Yeah.
ME: But don’t you think girls should be taught that they shouldn’t need a vampire to make them feel good about themselves?
KERRY: Yeah. (Laughs.) I do.
ME: So, why’d you go to the movie?
KERRY: Because I can sit here and intellectualize it, but at the same time, I’m a teenage girl who kind of likes the idea of this incredible romance where this guy is head over heels in love with this girl and will do crazy shit to keep her.
ME: Do you think it’d be possible for there to be the same kind of popular cultural phenomenon built around a different dynamic, where a girl was able to find romance where she was more dominant?
KERRY: I don’t really have an answer to that question. I feel like I’m generally pretty strong for a woman. But, like, being a stronger woman, does it feel less romantic? I don’t know.
ME: So there’s something unsexy about a teenage female character who is strong?
KERRY: I don’t think I’d say that.
ME: Or it’s less attractive?
KERRY: I wouldn’t necessarily say that—I think it’s more of a weak guy thing.
ME: You don’t want a weak guy?
KERRY: Yeah. (Laughs.) I think that’s what’s unsexy.
ME: So if Bella was the vampire and Edward was the human, then it wouldn’t work because he would be weaker than her?
KERRY: It might not work. It could potentially work. It couldn’t work—I don’t know.
ME: So what are Bella’s supernatural powers? She has some, right?
KERRY: Sort of, yeah. Her supernatural power is that she can deflect supernatural powers.
ME: Which makes her harder to get, which is the whole paradigm. Women are hard to get, so therefore it makes her more mysterious.
KERRY: I guess so. Well, it’s funny, because Edward can’t read her mind, but the reader is in Bella’s mind.
ME: At least in True Blood, Sookie can read everyone else’s mind, which gives her a lot of power. But she’s still not a vampire. Twilight has kind of multiplied such a big cultural phenomenon that there’s a dozen shows now of vampires having sex and sucking blood of poor human women all across the screen. (Laughs.)
ME: I was disappointed, because some of your most intelligent friends, who I thought were going to hold out, apparently are fans.
KERRY: I don’t think they’re necessarily fans. I think there’s a cult-like phenomenon, you get swept up in it. Even if it’s just to laugh and make fun of the actors.
ME: I just think it’s really unhealthy, though, that even the most intelligent young women aren’t getting this message and buying into the message that this is the way it should be.
KERRY: They don’t necessarily think that’s the way it should be.
ME: So it’s like eating ice cream at night? It’s a guilty pleasure?
KERRY: Maybe. I think it’s looking at what it is about society that makes girls feel unwanted.
ME: So you don’t think Twilight is the problem? You think it’s the underlying phenomenon that makes Twilight successful that’s the problem?
KERRY: This is addressing why Twilight’s so attractive. In high school, guys can just be not nice. And I think sometimes, the idea that yeah, there’s something not quite healthy about Edward and Bella, but it feels like relationships often aren’t healthy and at least with Edward and Bella, he really cares about her and loves her.
ME: So if you’re a vampire but you’re nice, that’s okay? That’s kind of what you’re saying.
KERRY: Yeah, I guess so.
ME: All right. Got it.
KERRY: I feel like girls, for whatever reason, want to find this soulmate that’s just going to completely love them, and then for whatever reason, it’s guys who want to hook up basically with as many people as possible. And it creates this really painful thing where I guess you could say everyone gets screwed.
KERRY: I’m not saying that it’s that black and white. But I think as a whole, girls want a relationship more than guys do. And guys seem to want to just hook up with people.
ME: So girls have to participate in that?
KERRY: Yeah, because girls convince themselves that the guy is different, that they’re going to hook up with a guy and he’s going to actually care and want to date.
ME: So you feel like very few teenage boys are actually interested in—
KERRY: I don’t think it’s necessarily that no teenage guys want a relationship. I think there is something where a lot of teenage guys find the idea of a relationship scary.
ME: Relationships are scary, and so for immature adolescent boys, a physical exchange is a hell of a lot easier than revealing yourself and exposing your emotions.
KERRY: Is it really that surprising in a culture that has made it acceptable for guys to hook up and screw over girls all the time that a movie where there’s a guy who really, really cares about a girl would be so popular?
ME: You think that’s what’s driving the popularity—the yearning of teenage girls to recover some emotional connection to boys and their lives? That Edward represents what’s been lost in our society?
KERRY: Yeah. More or less.
ME: All right, now I’m going to move on to some of our standard questions that we ask of people. Try to ignore that it’s your dad asking you these!
ME: So, who do you think taught you about manhood?
KERRY: My dad. (Laughs.)
KERRY: I don’t know. (Laughs.)
ME: Okay, and what two words would describe your dad?
KERRY: I don’t have two words.
ME: You got to try—
KERRY: OK. Does “real guy” work?
ME: Sure. So, how are you different from your father?
KERRY: I think I’m more of an appeaser. I think we’re both pretty introspective, but I generally make it focused about other people. I’ve seen you make a lot of people mad, just because of reactions, and you’re fantastic. But, for whatever reason, I feel like I have a fear of making people angry that sometimes causes me to not say what I want to say.
ME: From which mistake did you learn the most? I know there are so many. (Laughs.)
KERRY: Oh my God.
ME: This is on the record, so leave out the illegal stuff.
KERRY: I’m not going to use a specific mistake, but lying and hiding from people you love ends up hurting people more than helping your situation.
ME: That’s a good one. When was the last time you cried?
KERRY: When my grandmother died. On Tuesday. I was sitting alone in my grandparents’ house listening to a song I used to listen to with her.
ME: What advice would you give teenage boys trying to figure out what it means to be a good man?
KERRY: (Laughs.) Thinking outside of themselves a little bit would be a good one. I think teenage guys sometimes get lost in the sort of, like, camaraderie of what they’re supposed to be doing, and doing the guy thing. I think honesty would be a good thing. I also think taking into consideration the consequences of actions and people’s feelings, and that it’s not just a game.
ME: Who is a man you respect? Who’s the first person that comes to your mind?
KERRY: One is my grandfather—my mom’s father.
KERRY: He has an incredible love for his family, and even though he’s made a lot of mistakes in his life and there’s definitely been a lot of times where he’s not necessarily been what you might consider a good man, he has risen through life. And he was unbelievably amazing to my grandmother through the end of her life and completely took care of her. It was really beautiful.
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In September, 2009, Tom Matlack, together with James Houghton and Larry Bean, published an anthology of stories about defining moments in men’s lives — The Good Men Project: Real Stories from the Front Lines of Modern Manhood. It was how the The Good Men Project first began. Want to buy the book? Click here. Want to learn more? Here you go.