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Stuart Whatley Headshot

Palin And Twilight: American Pilgrimages

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Two events were cause for Americans to leave the house this past week: Sarah Palin and The Twilight Saga: New Moon. The mass, separate interest in each has left many who are fans of neither wondering: What the hell is wrong with these people? Sure, nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public. But there's more to it than that. The trips to the book store or to the movie theater were in fact pilgrimages of the faithful.

Each event was a form of cultural catnip for its respective, rather homogeneous audience. An indulgence for many who, at least for a stint, would rather see the world not as it is, but as they wish it to be. What attracts the fans and confuses everyone else is one and the same. It's about faith.

Faith is how our society conceptualizes -- and then puts a ribbon around -- intense desire. If one wants something bad enough, they begin to ignore the absurdities and believe that anything is possible. Substance gives way to wish fulfillment, and it's why those who are not fans are left so confounded.

Cinematically, the Twilight films hover somewhere between bad and god-awful -- a fact that some loyal fans readily accept. And yet they flocked to the theaters in droves. For many fans, it's actually quite difficult to explain exactly what the appeal is. But from a number of conversations I've had with them, one strong reason seems to be that element of wish fulfillment that attracts so many young women and teens (who overwhelmingly comprise the Twilight following). The cliché fantasy of being swept away, falling in love, and forever basking in the wardship of what was described to me as a "hunk" becomes an ephemeral reality.

The romance between Bella and Edward is presented as the joining of soul mates, with a theme of Romeo and Juliet-like forbidden love. It's the type of love that most teenage girls long for before learning from life's trials and tribulations. And in actuality, it more resembles an obsessive co-dependency than a healthy relationship.

Which is why the message the Twilight series sends is not without controversy. While young adult fans who enjoy escaping into fantasy for a few hours know full well that Bella and Edward's relationship is far from realistic -- and probably unhealthy -- many of the younger fans do not. Hence the concern of many parents that the films will imbue teen girls with a distorted and damaging view of relationships, to say nothing of their self-esteem. Natalie Hjelsvold, who has a 9-year-old daughter, summed up her concerns to a CNN reporter as such:

"I spent the entire movie interjecting things like, 'boys don't think about girls like that,' 'boys won't stare at you across the parking lot like that,' 'boys don't spend all day thinking about you and wishing you were sitting beside them in class,' 'boys won't sniff your hair,' " Hjelsvold said. "I think it got on her nerves after a while, but I worry that she will develop this totally warped sense of love and it makes me crazy as a parent."

And as it is with the Twilight phenomenon, so it is for the masses who bought Sarah Palin's book, Going Rogue -- which she didn't actually write -- and who are waiting for hours in the cold and rain just to see her. Many cannot explain why, and when they try, it becomes obvious that their adoration has nothing to do with substance or rationality.

As a politician, Palin is a veritable failure. As an abstract idea, she is the fulfillment of millions of Americans' wildest dreams. As it happens, something that stands for nothing can end up standing for everything.

The fact that Palin has no policies or constructive ideas to offer actually makes her the perfect vehicle for wish fulfillment. "Drill, baby, drill" is not a serious policy prescription. It's verbal gold that translates into practical lead. But that doesn't matter. It feels good to say for those who chant it, just as it feels good for the more mature Twilight fans to see the fantasy play out for a few hours. Who cares if the plot sucks and the characters are ridiculous.

The problem though is with that other group. The 'Twilight teenyboppers' who think it's real or possible or even remotely reasonable to believe. Faith of this kind is fine as a feel-good indulgence, but when it blurs the lines between fantasy and reality too much -- which it inevitably does -- one has to wonder what the damage is.

We're in hard times, it's reasonable to expect that people will look for saviors and fantastical escapes -- be they in the form of vegetarian vampires or meat eating pseudo-author/pseudo-politicians. The portion of Sarah Palin fandom who falls into that 'Twilight teenybopper' category -- those who fail to draw the distinction between fantasy and reality -- seems rather large (though it's not easily quantified). Let's just hope that sooner, rather than later, they realize it's just a movie.

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