©Branding and Gothic in Contemporary Popular Culture: the case of Twilight

Posted by Glennis Byron on December 31, 2010 in Blog tagged with , , , , ,

We all know Gothic sells, that Gothic has become a product. That’s now a critical commonplace, and in itself, of course, as E.J. Clery first demonstrated in The Rise of Supernatural Fiction, is nothing new: from the late eighteenth century onwards, the ghost is caught up in, and endlessly recycled through, the capitalist machines of the entertainment industry. But in popular culture today, Gothic is not just a product, it is also a brand. Once it becomes clear that Gothic sells, that Gothic is a lucrative business, then an increasing number of things get marketed as Gothic, get Gothicked up. Whether they are or are not Gothic isn’t particularly the issue: the point is that this is how they are represented to us by promotional strategies and the media. Indeed, to a great degree perhaps the issue is no longer that Gothic sells, but that the Gothic increasingly sells things:

Advertisement for American department store Sears

And because Gothic sells things, then perhaps it’s not surprising that things are increasingly produced as Gothic. Anything can be, and pretty well has been, stamped by the Gothic brand.

Branding today is a cultural form that functions primarily as a commercial version of storytelling, a form of communication that tells stories in the context of products and services. With brands, we buy not the product but the story that is offered with the product. For example, we might buy these

rather than these:

because Sainsburys Woodland brand tells us that ‘Hens love trees’. And when we buy this (right) we don’t buy the pimply fleshed carcass in the package, we buy Sainsbury’s narrative: their

‘Taste the Difference free range chickens reared in the Woodland free range system have 20% tree cover in a large outdoor paddock, with access to indoor space [and there is] evidence of a nine-fold reduction in feather pecking among woodland hens.‘   (http://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/en/support-us/company-supporters/corporate-partners/pages/sainsburys-woodland-eggs.aspx).

Makes us feel much better about our pot pies and cacciatores.

So what happens when fiction becomes a brand – finally on to Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight. The usual brand extensions begin to operate,  and the narrative associated with the brand is transferred to various mundane goods, intensifying their symbolic qualities.

Edward Body Shimmer

The Vamp

T-shirt, action figures, perfume, jewelry, t-towels, thongs etc. and such delights as Twilight Edward Body Shimmer and, demonstrating all too clearly how the stories associated with brands can be shifted and rewritten in ways beyond the brand guardian’s control, there’s even the sparkly ‘Vamp’, which the manufacturers recommend is cooled off in the fridge before using to get the appropriate cold vampire flesh feel.

There’s a big difference, though, between branding a t-shirt, body lotion or a sex toy, and branding a book, which, after all, already has its own narrative to offer. So what happens in the case of the branding done by Harper Collins to a series of classic texts.  The Twilight books are vaguely inspired by 3 novels: Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice, and Romeo and Juliet. You’ll no doubt have seen the Harper Collins reissue of Wuthering Heights in 2009.

As well as being branded with the Twilight colours, Wuthering Heights is given its celebrity endorsement; it is, we are assured, ‘Bella and Edward’s favourite book’. There’s a quite fascinating process of framing going on here as a result of branding. Wuthering Heights, appropriated by Meyers in her series, is retrospectively reframed by that to which it gave issue, and constituted in a different way, for a different (and particular) readership.  Intertextual relations far exceed any notion of ‘influence’ here, and are instead inscribed in a circular and backward-looking loop.

While there were cries of outrage from some, on one level, perhaps there’s nothing wrong with this: if it gets young adults reading Wuthering Heights when they normally wouldn’t have done, then it’s probably a good thing, and everyone wins since sales of Wuthering Heights in the UK apparently have quadrupled after this reissue (see the Bookseller). I guess we really do judge a book by its cover.

What is more disturbing is how the branding process involves paratextual elements being used to market the book in rather distorted ways. The tag line for this edition of Wuthering Heights is ‘Love Never Dies’, the tag line first used for Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The connection is of course appropriate, given the way Coppola rewrote Dracula as a love story, but it also points to the distortion produced by the branding. I’m reminded of the point Fred Botting makes in a discussion of Coppola’s film – and that tag line – in Gothic Romanced. ‘Romance, as it frames gothic,’ he says, ‘seems to clean up its darker counterpart, sanitising its depravations’ (1). The emphasis on romantic love in contemporary Gothic serves to ‘mop up’  the blood and guts of horror, to serve a kind of hygienic end. While on the one hand the branding of Wuthering Heights may be seen to be gothicking up the text through the Twilight connection, on the other hand both the Twilight connection and the tag line from Coppola’s film actually serve to conceal and mask horror.

This is even more notable in the publisher’s description of Wuthering Heights in promoting this edition: it becomes a book I barely recognise:

‘Love the Twilight books? Then you’ll adore Wuthering Heights, one of the greatest love stories ever told. Cathy [shouldn’t that be Catherine] and Heathcliff, childhood friends, are cruelly separated by class, fate and the actions of others [surely one should mention how much their own actions contribute to their separation.]. But uniting them is something even stronger: an all-consuming passion that sweeps away everything that comes between them. Even death!

Despite serving as a description of Wuthering Heights, isn’t this, more accurately, a paraphrase of the plot of Romeo and Juliet, another of the texts that Meyer’s Twilight series rewrites, and another which it also brands.

This is a Romeo and Juliet which is, as we learn on the Dazzled by Twilight website,

beautifully presented for a modern teen audience with both the original play and a prose retelling of the beloved story … All books purchased from Dazzled By Twilight™ include a “Purchased in Forks Washington” bookplate sticker.’’

So no ‘Greetings from sunny Verona’.

Whichever text is echoed, romance, once again, serves to occlude horror. The books are digested and regurgitated as part of the bland world of Twilight Gothic fluff where there’s nothing really nasty lurking in the corners. As Edward says to Bella when he first takes her home to meet his family: ‘No coffins, no piled skulls in the corners; I don’t even think we have cobwebs … what a disappointment this must be for you.’ A house full of vampires and safe as mother’s milk.

So Twilight rebrands and rewrites Wuthering Heights, Romeo and Juliet, and even Pride and Prejudice, all of which have already been subjected to the current fad for the monster mash up…
and then we get Wuthering Bites, Twilight brand plus mash up in which Heathcliff, vampire, must, like Bella’s Edward,

‘choose – between his hunger, and the woman he will love for all eternity… ‘

It’s one thing to imbue a mundane object like a t-shirt or toothbrush with symbolic and informational content that has nothing to do with its function, and quite another thing to do this with a work of fiction. The more recent fiction, branded in a particular way, is imbued with the power to brand the original, thus shifting the readerly horizon of expectations in which it is read and interpreted. No wonder it looks like Gothic is everywhere. I wonder how many young readers are going to assume Heathcliff sports fangs and Pride and Prejudice is a gothic text, with or without zombies?

© G. Byron 2010

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