Did Twilight Low-Key Cause The Spike In Female Leads In the 2010s?!
Abstract: The popular teen vampire series Twilight was adapted into a film in 2008. This box-office success singlehandedly prompted the current trend of female protagonists in film. Fight me.
I was a Twilight fangirl.
There, I said it. I may fancy myself a literary connoisseur these days, but when I was thirteen I read about sparkly vampires just like everyone else. Because really, who among you could throw the first stone on this one?! Reader, if you were a person labeled “girl” or “queer/ gender-nonconforming guy” in middle school during the mid-to-late 2000s, tell me if my story is not your own. Sometime in 2008, I received a copy of a book, the cover of which featured a pair of hands holding an apple. The blurb consisted of these now-unforgettable words:
“About three things I was absolutely positive. First, Edward was a vampire. Second, there was a part of him—and I didn’t know how potent that part might be—that thirsted for my blood. And third, I was unconditionally and irrevocably in love with him.” — Stephanie Meyer, Twilight
Some of my most vivid memories of adolescence are of exploring my nascent sexuality with Edward Cullen as my guide. Twilight was one of the only movies I ever bought on the iTunes store; that file remains on my parents’ old computer (and my iCloud) to this day. Songs from the soundtrack were always on my Top 25 Most Played playlist, because I was always listening to it on my iPod mini while rereading the books. If you’re feeling old right now, it’s not just because no one uses iTunes anymore. It’s also because the age of Twilight has passed. KStew and Robert Pattinson broke up, Breaking Dawn was split into two movies, and the gender-flipped rewrite Life and Death confused us all a few years ago. Don’t even get me started on 50 Shades of Grey. We now consign our Mormon vampires to the ages, as they sparkle in the sunlight of yesteryear.
If you’ve read my work or know me in person, you might have some questions. Most people are surprised when I tell them I was a fan of Twilight, especially when I start talking about the vampires sparkling in the sunlight of yesteryear. The explanation is that I had a really weird media diet as a kid, because my parents were strict in really weird ways. They showed me Die Hard when I was ten, for instance, but refused to let me see anything involving Adam Sandler, Jim Carrey, or any other comedian my mom considered low-culture. Until I was in high school, I wasn’t (officially) allowed to watch any shows that weren’t on Nickelodeon, Disney Channel, or Cartoon Network, but my parents did show me their DVDs of Seinfeld and Lost. I thought Justin Timberlake was a Backstreet Boy until a couple weeks ago, and I heard most of Britney Spears’s songs for the first time during Glee’s Britney Spears cover episode, but I got to listen to David Bowie and Prince songs that were just as sexually suggestive. *shrug*
Suffice to say that my parents were really, really interested in making sure every piece of media I consumed was approved under their byzantine codes. That meant I was exposed to way fewer box office top-10 movies than the average kid, way more Oscar nominated or classic movies, and way, way more books. My parents found it much harder to filter out YA books that they might have found inappropriate, since there weren’t any trailers to give them a quick overview—they had to read the short summaries on the book jackets, and pray. Thus, YA books, and the fanfiction that sprang from them, became one way I got out into the wider world of culture. It was also one of the things that turned me into a feminist before I even really knew what the word meant.
*Republican voice* In middle school, I read binders full of women! The Protector of the Small series and Tamora Pierce’s many other books were my constant companions, serving up all the female role models a growing kid needs to develop strong bones and weak tolerance for toxically masculine bullshit. Whether the spunky, scrappy young girls I read were witches, warriors, or regular teenagers, I got used to experiencing the world through their eyes, rather than those of their male love interests. I even got female protagonists from books where there were technically no women, because all the characters were animals. Brian Jacques’s Redwall series gave me plenty of female squirrels, otters, and badgers fighting against nefarious female cats, ferrets, and weasels—because women can be villains, too! Villains, and ferrets.
Raised on Midwestern corn and female YA protagonists, it’s not surprising I became a feminist. When I got to the part of my life where representation for women in films became a major conversational point in my social circles, my main thought was, “why can’t Oscar movies just be like books?!” Whenever I thought back to the books I had enjoyed most as a kid, books by authors like Tamora Pierce, Roald Dahl, Veronica Roth, Garth Nix, Libba Bray, Diana Wynne Jones, Phillip Pullman, Cassandra Clare, Scott Westerfield, Suzanne Collins—and yes, Stephanie Meyer—I thought of all kinds of stories I had read about women and girls. Binders full of stories. It’s surprising I decided to study film at all, considering how lacking film is in comparison.
While literature has historically been just as male-dominated as film, literature does not have the problem of only one woman ever winning the Oscar for Best Director. Film is especially shamed by the fact that Kathryn Bigelow chose to use her platform to glorify U.S. imperialism, but just like with 50 Shades of Gray, don’t get me started. Literature has writers like Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters, and the first novel ever was written by a Japanese noblewoman named Murasaki Shikibu. Film has Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler’s favorite propaganda filmmaker. As far as actual female characters are concerned, film is even worse; mainstream films show women being brutally killed while they make orgasm noises, but a film that shows a woman having a genuine orgasm is automatically rated R.
All that said, there’s been some improvement in film diversity in the past decade or so. In fact, there’s been a whole flurry of films with female protagonists in the past five or ten years; films like Mad Max: Fury Road, Bridesmaids, and Pitch Perfect, to name a few. All the actresses are talking about how there are roles for women like never before, and Netflix’s eerily specific suggested categories now include “Social Issue Dramas Featuring A Strong Female Lead,” “Witty Satires Featuring A Strong Female Lead,” and even “Heartfelt Tearjerkers Featuring A Strong Female Lead.” As I perused the random genre tags on my own Netflix account, I came upon a trend—a trend that would lead to a discovery almost as shocking as Bella’s discovery that Edward is a vampire.
While there have been standouts throughout the history of film (Legally Blonde, Double Idemnity, and Pretty in Pink, to name a few), this all started around the late 2000s. Specifically, female-led films didn’t start regularly hitting the box-office top 10 until exactly 2008—the year the film adaptation of Twilight came out.
I couldn’t help but wonder: did Twilight single-handedly start the female protagonist trend of the last decade? It was a good question, good enough to be a research question, so I made it into one and started looking for data.
My methodology was this: I looked at the top-ten box office list for each year from 2000 to 2017. I scored each year for how many films out of the top 10 featured a female protagonist. I also came up with a second, “adjusted” score, based on giving half-points to films with strong female supporting characters (like Hermione in Harry Potter, or Fiona from Shrek). For example, the year 2001 had no female protagonists in the box office top 10, so it got a raw score of 0, but since Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone and Shrek both came out that year, it has an adjusted score of 1.
I also surveyed Oscar Best Picture nominees to see if the Academy was any more progressive than the box office. Until 2010 there were five Best Picture nominees per year, so I gave each year a raw score of the number of female-led movies out of the number of total nominees, and a second “adjusted” score of the same proportion, but out of 10. For instance, the year 2004 gets a raw score of 1/5 for Lost in Translation, and that adjusts to a score of 2/10. This adjusted score lets me directly compare the proportion of female-led Best Picture nominees per year, vs. female-led box-office leaders.
The data speaks for itself. But if you aren’t used to interpreting data, I’ll speak for it as well. The table and graph below show a grand total of 2 films with female protagonists for the entire period of 2000-2007. These were Chicago, and My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Then in 2008, Twilight comes out (along with Mamma Mia). Afterward, there is never another year without a female-led film in the top 10. The trend gets another spike in 2012, the year The Hunger Games comes out—after The Hunger Games, there are almost always 3 or more films with female protagonists in the top 10.
As far as the adjusted scores go, it doesn’t seem like Twilight started the trend of female characters in the supporting cast— after all, Hermione was correcting Harry and Ron’s Latin pronunciation back in 2001. You’ll notice, though, that it still spikes after Twilight in 2008 (I will henceforward refer to the post-Twilight era as “AT” and the pre-Twilight era as “BT”). But that brings me to my point: like the female-led films of the AT era, the vast majority of these supporting female characters, whether BT or AT, are also from YA or kid’s movies.
As I mentioned before, Shrek and Harry Potter are the two half-points that go to 2001. Throughout the decade, these two franchises are consistent sources of half-pointers, along with the Star Wars and Pirates of the Caribbean movies. The Incredibles and other Disney/ Pixar movies makes up the lion’s share of the rest, with superhero movies coming in during the mid-2010s. There are just six films that don’t fit this description: Gravity, Mamma Mia, The Matrix, Erin Brockovich, Chicago, and My Big Fat Greek Wedding. (Compare that to some 3000 films made per year.)
And what of the Oscars, you may be wondering?
Same trend, but slower and less consistent. The Academy fancies itself as more progressive than the box office, but Best Picture nominations experienced the exact same spike in female-led films in the PT era. There was actually less of an upward trend, since there’s a pronounced drop in female-led Oscar movies after the initial Twilight effect. Perhaps The Hunger Games somehow did not affect the Oscars. What we can see did affect the Oscars, of course, was the election—this prompted the (literally!) off-the-charts spike in 2017.
Interestingly, rather than YA and kid’s material being the main source of female-led Oscar noms, Academy women seem to be more successful in biopics and adaptations. Over 50% of female-led Oscar nominated films were films like The Queen about women who were already famous, historical films like Zero Dark Thirty, which have the appeal of depicting events everyone is already interested in, and adaptations of books like Precious which were already popular. Seems like the Academy only backs female-led films if they’re a sure thing, much like how the box-office only backs a female-led film if the huge female fanbase of Twilight and The Hunger Games is sure to buy tickets. So women protagonists started succeeding in Hollywood when they became just as marketable as men. Progress???
This is the problem with the kind of politics that relies on the public being saved by big-budget franchises like Twilight, or the Clintons. The merit of teenage girls creating social change through buying power is dubious, since we can all agree it’s not exactly ideologically pure to push your agenda by getting big companies to market your ideas back to you in consumerist forms. But the fact remains. Whether it’s cynical marketing or the most feminist generation ever, the source of the progress in film representation for women in the past 10 years has come from a romance trilogy famous for its shittiness, and secondarily from a dystopian trilogy that doesn’t have a much better rap. What does this mean for artists trying to make change?
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my path forward as a writer, namely about how much and in what way I want my work to engage with our culture’s mainstream. On the one hand, I want to make the mainstream better, but on the other, engaging with the mainstream would make me worse. Since many people I talk to don’t seem to have read a book in the past year, but everyone is always telling me about some random new Netflix show they just saw, it’s pretty clear to me that we’ve entered a predominantly visual mode of culture. Guy DeBord theorizes that in the age of mass media, our relationships with other people, with our own identities, with and reality itself are all mediated by images projected at us from those who would use media to control us. In this era, the camera is mightier than the pen.
If I were to become one of the curators of these mass media images, I would be able to affect the lived reality of millions of people, but I would have to do so within the confines of the agenda of the curator class. If I went against the interests of the monied class, I would risk expulsion from power. Theory aside, women have a very limited space to work in when it comes to big-budget art, since the amount of money sunk into that art by huge corporations confines them to art of a certain type. The most successful women artists are always those that choose to sell out their own gender by reproducing patriarchy and other oppressions in their work—Kathryn Bigelow, Scarlett Johannson, and Taylor Swift, to name a few. Twilight itself is essentially a story about Christian purity and the dangers of sex. And this is our feminist watershed moment??
If the place for women protagonists is in young adult fiction (or just, you know, books), then I’m happy to join the authors I’ve loved over the years. I went to school for film, and ideally would like to work in film eventually, but it’s absolutely mindnumbing to have to talk about James Franco like he matters when Miranda July is literally right there. (She even makes movies too, sometimes!) Especially after the year I just spent in LA, I’m exhausted. I haven’t seen a mainstream movie in a long time, and the main TV shows I’m watching right now are Steven Universe and a couple magical-girl animes. I also just started She-Ra, and it’s amazing. The rest of my artistic nourishment is coming from the Grisha trilogy by Leigh Bardugo, and a playthrough of Undertale I’m doing with a friend.
I’ve written before about how Steven Universe [link] is one of the finest shows on TV. It’s better than Game of Thrones and its ilk, since it doesn’t rely on cheap, contrived rape scenes or random character deaths to achieve its aims. Now that we have statistical proof that children’s and YA films are more progressive than the rest of the film world (except for biopics and book adaptations I guess?), we have an explanation for the phenomenon I’ve been seeing across all my different social circles in recent years. People of marginalized groups have sought out the media the mainstream denies them by either creating their own, or consuming children’s and YA content. Kid’s shows may include songs about ice cream sandwiches, but they’re also apparently the only medium where two lesbians can get married without either of them dying.
I think Adventure Time was the first piece of children’s media I consumed as a (putative) adult. While the aesthetic was something I’d never seen before and the whimsical humor drew me in immediately, the reason I stuck with the show was because of characters like Princess Bubblegum and Marceline the Vampire Queen. I go in and out of that show and haven’t watched the finale yet, but I do know that Bubbline is made canon in the finale, thanks in part to the huge queer feminist fanbase. And it’s not just YA and kid’s stuff that have female and queer protagonists; games like Undertale and Night in the Woods offer all this too! The indie game darling of a few summers ago, Dream Daddy, lets you play a single dad (of gender presentation, assigned sex, and race of your choice), and date a cast of other single dads as diverse in their racial identities as in their body types.
These are the kinds of stories I want to tell! For so long, I focused on getting to the top of the ladder in the mainstream and then making changes from the top down, but maybe choosing the form for my work first and then trying to make the stories conform to that wasn’t smart. Maybe I should go where the work I want to do is being done, and fit the stories to those forms, whatever they may be. After all, the people I know, the people who would be my audience, are doing that too. If we leave the mainstream to its dessicated straight romances and fill the Internet with stories where everyone is queer, won’t that create a new mainstream? Or at least make the old one irrelevant?
If the Internet can help people self-sort, help artists find audiences for the kind of work they want to do and help people find the kind of art they want to consume, maybe it’s time to give up on Hollywood as an arbiter of social progress (and taste). After all, when was the last time anyone watched the Oscars? Big-budget movies are losing viewers, even as inflation-adjusted ticket prices make it seem like they’re breaking box office records every year. If a significant majority of the country would vote for Donald Trump, why should progressive artists try to capture that audience? If it takes a Mormon allegory to get a woman onscreen in a lead role in America, maybe the “turn on, tune in, drop out” maxim of the 60s has a place in the present day.
But then again, in all these big-budget movies about heroes and monsters, there’s one trope that keeps coming up again and again: when the hero tries to escape from the evil, even if they manage to create a sanctuary from the villain’s forces, they can never really run away from the fight. Eventually Katniss has to go back to the Capitol and defeat President Snow, because if she leaves his government unchecked he’ll be able to find District 13 and destroy her and the rest of the resistance once and for all. And it’s not just a matter of saving herself: she also has to save the people who stayed behind in Panem, the people who can’t escape.
Artists can’t do much good speaking to a room full of people who don’t want to listen, but if we cloister ourselves in enclaves of the like-minded we risk leaving so many behind who we arguably have a responsibility toward. Speaking of red-state America like it’s some kind of benighted Handmaid’s Tale dystopia whose citizens need to be saved might sound condescending, but I hear firsthand accounts of how it lowkey is like that on a regular basis. Besides, every queer person knows That One Piece of Media that they can look back on as a stepping stone toward realizing they were queer. Those pieces of media are often fairly mainstream. If I could make That One Piece of Media for someone else by giving in to the system and compromising myself to hell, shouldn’t I do it?
But after all, the Internet changes this, too. Maybe Avatar gave me a crush on Azula, but it was the queer fanfiction about her online that made me go oh, this is a crush. I know even luckier people than I who started reading Homestuck early and got a headstart on me in so, so many ways. Homestuck is probably the perfect example of the super weird, wildly popular Internet thing that would never make it in the mainstream, and since it’s done what I just described for so many people, why not go that route? Andrew Hussie’s level of success is hardly something to sneeze at. And I mean, the narrative that you “have to” engage with fascism in order to change people’s minds and get them to respect you is both dehumanizing and untrue, so why wouldn’t it also be untrue when it comes to art?
Come to think of it, books like The Hunger Games become box-office hits, but they start out as That Book The Nerd Girls At Your Middle School Read. Perhaps the avant-garde can be seen as a substrate for mainstream society’s next advances, a true vanguard of the proletariat. If the once-unpopular corners of culture are on the rise, I can seed the mainstream by creating cult classics that will be grittily rebooted decades later with a bunch of weird cameos from my older self. Sure, the adaptation wouldn’t be as ideologically pure, but it could lead people back to my original work just like HBO’s Game of Thrones led me to A Song of Ice and Fire. If Game of Thrones hadn’t happened, would I ever have read aSoIaF? *shivers*
Hang on, though. It’s noble of me to want to save people with my art, but isn’t it a little presumptuous of me to assume I’m the Katniss Everdeen who has to defeat evil once and for all? The idea that by not spreading my art to as many people as possible I am actively hurting humanity isn’t idealistic so much as egoistic. Western culture is obsessed with the idea of messianic figures like Katniss, Tris of the Divergent series, and Jesus of the New Testament series (there are 27 books in that one, plus the prequel series!). I want that to be me. I imagine that could be me. I can barely even save myself most days, so how am I supposed to save all of humanity? After all, none of the people we’ve put on a pedestal to save us actually have; if I become one more of those figureheads I might amass personal wealth, but I probably wouldn’t help many more people than I would in obscurity. Maybe just saving a few choice humans is enough.
Right now, I’m fucking tired, and I hate palm trees and LA conversation and networking and self-censoring for success and capitalist standards of professionalism and cars, cars most of all, so I’m leaving the film industry right now to regroup. We all have to find our places in the world where we can do the maximum good, but few of us succeed, and even fewer are ever truly sure they’re exactly where they belong. I guess few of us ever really end up doing measurable good in the first place, and those who do don’t see it coming. Perhaps to just do what one can, from moment to moment, is the best (and only possible) path.
The series of events that got me to leave LA and start having this conversation with myself in earnest were some of the scariest, saddest, most painful times of my life, but they ended with me leaving a place I hated and going back to the world of people and places I love. Progress, whether on the societal or individual level, comes from the weirdest places. Perhaps my big watershed “Aha!” moment will be something completely unexpected, like a teen vampire novel taking America by storm, and perhaps it effects will be even more unexpected, like measurable long-term progress for representation in film. Or perhaps I’m a person like any other, and I’ll just try to do what makes me happy until eventually I die in the global warming apocalypse. If you live in New York, hit me up; we can find out together.