So, here’s the thing. I’m not old. No, really. I am not. I am only 29 years of age. I will be 30 in March. I am super excited about this, actually. My 20’s have overall been rather on the downer side. They’ve definitely improved dramatically in the last couple of years but if you are going to look at the whole decade, I would say it has not been a win. I am of the opinion that my 30’s will be awesome. Anyway. Back to my point. I’m not old. Despite that, for a number of years now, my friends in my age bracket have started saying “OMG, I feel so old!” to things. Usually it’s things like “You learned how to spell banana because of that No Doubt song??” or “You don’t remember when Jurassic Park came out???” I’ll admit those things are odd to me but they don’t really make me feel old. I love pop culture but I prefer to use it as a connecting point. Most of the time I don’t really even feel like a grown-up, much less old.
However. I have realized in the last few months that there is one thing that makes me notice my age – when I find myself wanting to tell earnest 21-year-olds to just chill out*, or I just get bored of the conversation. I am in this training with some of the sweetest girls. A number of them are quite a bit younger than me and let me make very clear that they are bright and motivated girls and I have a lot of respect for them. When I was their age, I was definitely not volunteering anywhere and I had not made my way anywhere near the opinions that they have arrived at. I was much more unhealthy in probably many ways. Even so. There are times when I am sitting in this room, full of girls saying things I totally agree with that I just want to ask, “Do you get tired of the echo chamber? Because I get tired of the echo chamber.”
Look, it’s not that I disagree with any of these people most of the time. We’re sitting in a room talking about violence against women (primarily), talking about sexual assault. These are easy topics to come together on here (sadly not everywhere but here they are). It is also not that I don’t think these topics are important. It’s the opposite. I think these things are so important that we can be having better conversations, that we can actually have a conversation instead of just going around the room agreeing with each other. Don’t get me wrong, I think validation can be powerful and there’s a time and a place for that. Maybe I’m just not in that place right now? Right now I want to have a conversation that goes beyond “yeah, you’re so right, I totally agree, that’s so messed up and your feelings are totally valid.” I mean, I appreciate that and there was a time in my life when I needed to hear exactly that thing to move forward but what comes next?
I’m going to use a concrete example of this because it’s something that bothers me a lot. The concrete example is Twilight. Twilight comes up a lot in these discussions. It’s become shorthand for all kinds of things. It’s a way that we talk about how pop culture influences young teenagers in bad ways, how screwed up messages turn into best sellers, how abusive relationships are marketed as romantic, how stupid sparkling vampires are and, I think if we’re really honest, how we’re so much smarter than other people because we understand these things. “Look how terrible pop culture is!” we can say. (Let’s leave out the chicken/egg debate of where pop culture comes from.) “Look how I recognize it!”
I will not argue that Stephanie Meyer created a series of books which turned into a series of films, with incredibly disturbing messages in them. What I will argue is that it isn’t the True Believers that made those books or films worldwide sensations. Are there young girls who read and/or watched Twilight and absolutely believed that it was the most romantic thing they had ever encountered? Absolutely. Is Twilight responsible for breaking their brains somehow? Absolutely not. I don’t know if you’ve noticed but we live in a time with some pretty screwed up messages about gender and sex and relationships. I was in a much different place in my life when these books came out but let me tell you, if I had read them at 14, I would have been absolutely in love. You know why? Because I already had really disturbed ideas on what relationships and love and sex should look like. Is it a problem when huge pop culture reinforces those things? Absolutely. But it’s also an opportunity. It means that suddenly we have cultural shorthand. We have something that almost everyone has read or seen, we have something we can talk about, we have a conversation we can start. We can talk about relationships, healthy relationships, unhealthy relationships. Except do you know what no good conversation has ever started with?
“This is the stupidest, most repulsive thing ever. How could you like this?”
I think our conversations about Twilight (and many other things) diminish the complexity of people. They assume that everyone who likes it is a 15 year old girl who doesn’t understand it’s bad for her and is just fawning over Edward. Let me assure you that 15 year old girls didn’t make this a billion dollar franchise. Can I tell you a secret?
I sort-of love Twilight.
Okay, now you can decide you have lost all respect for me, that’s cool. Look, I understand all of the reasons to hate them and I don’t disagree. I have about equal measures of love and hate. They’re badly written books. I’ve read the first 3 twice and the last one once. I saw all the movies in theaters, a couple of them more than once, a couple of them at midnight showings. Am I there partly because I love to mock bad movies? Sure. They’re not great movies anymore than they’re great books. But I would be lying to you if I said that my interest was purely ironic; it’s absolutely not. There was a part of me that was genuinely sad when the last film came out. And I am not the only person who feels this way. There are plenty of other people in the world who have mixed feelings on Twilight, who maybe love it and hate themselves a bit for it. I don’t hate myself for it anymore because I have a really strong opposition to the idea of guilty pleasures. Love what you love and learn to be okay with it because there’s nothing wrong with it. It doesn’t make you a stupid person to love Twilight. It doesn’t make you a smart person to hate it. What I’m saying is that however you feel about them? There are better conversations we could be having with it. I know because I’ve had some really genuinely fantastic conversations about Twilight. And that’s not even getting into 50 Shades of Grey, which is a whole different post. 😛
So here I am, in the basement of this building, surrounded by earnest, young girls who are smart and driven and really want to help people and I think they are all just wonderful and I adore them. And I guess what I find myself wanting to say is hey, stick around a while. I know it seems like this is so important right now and it is. It’s so important that you’re going to find your way to more nuance and more places that are less black and white. I’m sure you’re going to because you’re great and you’re already so much further than I was at your age and somehow I stumbled this far. You’ll realize people are really complex and that that is kind-of wonderful (except when it’s horrible). You may even realize that liking Twilight doesn’t automatically mean that someone has been anesthetized by the terrible cultural messages and needs saving. Sometimes we’re just feeding our inner teenagers and we’ve made peace with that. They get cranky. And in 10 years, I may feel exactly the way about myself at 29 and 29-year-old people that I see as I do now about these girls. Hopefully that’ll mean I’ve grown. I don’t know if it makes me feel old, exactly. But it definitely makes me notice that I’ve grown up.
* For the record, this technically isn’t strictly tied to age. I have a few friends who are younger who I pretty much never have this moment with and there are people who are older than me that I have these feelings with fairly frequently. I’ve been thinking about it in relation to age because of this training but of course chronological age is only one factor in growing up.