V. KRISTEN STEWART
January 11, 2022 / Amelia Kushner
Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s brooding celebrity vampire.
Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson met on the set of Twilight in 2008.
Later that year, the world met Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson as mousy high school junior Bella Swan and pensive, sexy vampire bad-boy Edward Cullen. A racy Vanity Fair shoot and some intimate hand-grazing and eye-locking on red carpets ostensibly confirmed that Kristen had gotten the guy in real life, too. At 18, Kristen Stewart became the latter half of the media sensation publicly christened “Robsten.” Thus, at the dawn of her celebrity, she was already fated for the wrath of Twitter.
The Twilight franchise marked a major shift in the international media landscape. For the first time, a major entry in the blockbuster film canon portrayed attraction from a uniquely teenage female perspective. The film’s sex object was the male lead; the female lead was the vehicle through which the viewer experienced the story.
For so long, the everyman vehicle in blockbusters had exclusively been male: Think dorky Shia LaBoeuf scoring Megan Fox’s Mikaela in Transformers (2007), Tobey Maguire’s geeky take on Peter Parker getting with Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane in Spider-Man (2002), Jonah Hill’s self-professed loser Seth ending up with cool-girl Jules in Superbad (2007). As the big-budget blockbuster soared, so too did the regular-guy-gets-seemingly-unattainable-girl trope. Regular boys had plenty of evidence that they could miraculously date supermodel-looking girls, but the regular girls were starving for evidentiary fulfillment of their own romantic fantasies.
Enter Twilight. The books, the first of which came out in 2005, made immediate waves in the tween and teenage girl demographic. At the same time, the Internet was blossoming into the ubiquitous entity it is today. By that time, more Americans had broadband than dial-up, cell phones could surf the web, and nearly three quarters of adults owned a computer. The advent of instant electronic messaging had accidentally spawned pockets of life, each with their own unique sets of vernacular and culture — chat rooms and fanfiction were born.
Fanfiction exploded across sites like Archive Of Our Own (colloquially, “AO3”). As fans used characters and settings from mainstream media like Twilight to write their own works, complete and sustained immersion in the world of a favorite franchise became feasible. A search for “Twilight” returns a combined 32,000 story results across major fanfiction sites, and some fan works, often called “fanfics” or “fics,” have amassed tens of thousands of readers. One Twilight fic on AO3 is over 100,000 words, or roughly the length of a 400-page novel. Many fanfiction authors released the sexual tension that ran through the nearly-chaste books (Bella and Edward have implied sex in the fourth book, but sex is never mentioned in explicit terms, and the two hardly ever kiss), writing overt, graphic sex scenes from a woman’s point of view. In this way, Twilight provided an opportunity for women to express their sexual desire like no major piece of media had before; Fifty Shades of Grey was originally Twilight fanfiction.
Fanfiction quickly developed into its own genre with its own tropes. A trope distinct to fanfiction is the “Y/N trope.” In Y/N fics, the reader is a character within the universe of the franchise; they are most often told in the first person, and when another character says the reader’s name, the writer writes “Y/N,” short for “your name.”
Writers’ and readers’ desire for self-insertion becomes overt with the Y/N fic. This subgenre in Twilight fanfiction, which was incredibly prevalent, did away with the character of Bella completely, confirming that Bella was merely a conduit through which the world of Twilight was experienced.
Y/N fics about Edward Cullen quickly bled into Y/N fics about Robert Pattinson. Access to celebrities was at an all-time high: Twitter was just two years old but booming by the time the first Twilight movie came out, and tabloids were in their golden age. As the paparazzi industry grew, pictures of Pattinson became massively accessible and were endlessly circulated. Meanwhile, social media, particularly Twitter, began to move beyond personal pages and into cult-like fan accounts. In this way,Twilight’s predominantly young, female following began to develop parasocial relationships with the actor behind their favorite vampire. In a parasocial relationship, one party puts forth immense emotional effort, time, and care towards a celebrity who has no idea they exist.
Fans conflated their infatuation from a distance with genuine love. They felt possessive of Rob; they prayed for him; they supported his every move. Parasocial relationships with him ranged in depth — from occasional tweets calling him “my baby” to full-blown declarations of undying love on Instagram accounts dedicated to posting Pattinson content daily. But they were inordinately and concerningly prevalent, all while Kristen Stewart was dating the object of their affections in real life.
Kristen Stewart was on a precipice. An awkward nonchalance in interviews did little to ease the hostility of fans who coveted her boyfriend. Fans’ contempt spilled into industry contempt, as critics ripped into her acting skills, and major TV news outlets criticized her demeanor during public appearances. The envy of teenage girls was so potent that it had led to a real and seemingly universal hatred. But the hatred retained a patina of professionalism, because, really, Kristen had done nothing wrong.
Until she made The Mistake.
On July 17, 2012, Kristen and married director Rupert Sanders were photographed cheating on their partners with each other. Kristen was 22. Rupert was 41. She was starring in his movie at the time.
Finally, all that thinly veiled hatred had become justified.
Tabloids ran the story and social media exploded. Kristen issued a frantic public apology via People magazine: “I love him, I love him, I’m so sorry.”
Twitter in particular was vicious. How could she have done this to my beautiful Rob! thousands of people who had never met either of them lamented. The scandal dominated the internet. Her name was tainted for years. She escaped into small indie projects (The Clouds of Sils Maria, 2014) and serious high-brow filmmaking (Still Alice, 2014), attempting to bury herself back into the arthouse obscurity from which she had come. It didn’t work.
Why was the world so livid? Why did it matter so much that a 22-year-old girl had had a lapse in judgement?
As fanfiction about Edward Cullen blurred into fanfiction about Robert Pattinson, the character of Bella blurred into a public perception of Kristen Stewart. As they found new agency within fanfiction and chat rooms to express their sexual desire, these girls stripped Kristen of her agency as a complex equal in her own relationship. Bella, written to be decidedly unextraordinary, was only special because strong, striking, secretive Edward had picked her — so Kristen was only special because Robert had picked her. As these girls broke free from the patriarchal structures that had suppressed their ability to articulate sexual desire, they entrenched themselves in the misogynistic ideal that a woman must sit pretty and wait to be picked by a man who will never view her as an equal.
Binding female desire within this ideal pits women against each other: They’re fighting to be picked. They don’t have the agency to seek out partnerships and set personal standards. As young girls without long, serious, adult partnerships under their belts, all they know of romance is a fundamental inequity.
Twilight may have been one of the first mainstream offerings to portray female desire, but it was nowhere near the first to portray a patriarchal structure of romance. The danger lies in the conflation of the two within the story. Edward treats Bella as a pet: He controls where she goes, whom she sees, what she does, and when she (spoiler alert) finally gets to become a vampire. He is manipulative and cryptic, and though he looks 17, he is 86 years older than she is. And yet, because everything he’s done is in the name of “true love,” all is well.
Bella finds her agency toward the end of the saga and manages to establish herself as Edward’s equal. All it took was four books and five movies for her to get there.
Kristen has slowly but surely built herself back up. She’s put out at least three films a year over the last seven years. Most recently, she starred as Princess Diana in Spencer, which came out in November of this year to critical acclaim and rumors of an Oscar bid for its star.
Still, the rumblings remain: I still don’t trust her. She’s so weird and awkward. She’s not even talented.
The damage is done. ■
by: Amelia Kushner
layout: Caroline Blanton
layout: Caroline Blanton