Engaging Twilight By Lisa Galek


The following is a guest post by Lisa Galek, a professional writer and editor who earned her master’s degree Religious Studies from John Carroll University. In her spare time, she loves to read and write young adult fiction. She is currently hard at work on several novels, none of which involve vampires.

It would be easy to write a post bashing Twilight. As we await the release of Breaking Dawn: Part 1, the penultimate chapter in the Twilight movie saga, countless feminist critics, reviewers, and bloggers have weighed in the troubling messages in the series. The books are poorly-written.  They reinforce antiquated, patriarchal gender norms.  They have a not-so-thinly-veiled abstinence message.

I read all four books over the course of a week and I can tell you, every single one of these criticisms is dead on. I can also tell you
that, upon finishing the last book in the series, Breaking Dawn, I stumbled dizzily into my local bookstore, my head spinning with thoughts of sexy, sparkly vampires, and breathlessly asked the clerk, “Do you have anything else like Twilight?”
Yes, the Twilight books are immensely awful, but they are also immensely readable. Though I am both a feminist and fairly liberal religiously, I sped through the series ignoring both the patriarchal and conservative bent to the story. It was only later, after some reflection, that I realized how strange and potentially troubling the relationship between 17-year-old Bella Swan, and her gorgeous century-old vampire boyfriend, Edward Cullen, actually is.

But, rather than decrying the series for failing to live up to the standards of great feminist literature (which it does), I’d like to ask this question: What makes Twilight such a cultural phenomenon? And is it possible that we, as feminists and theologians, can engage the books and movies in a meaningful way?

One of the ways to gain a deeper insight into the series is to understand the faith and background of the author, Stephenie Meyer. At the time Meyer began writing Twilight she was a 30-year old, Mormon housewife and mother of three young boys. Meyer remains an active member of the LDS church and has said that being Mormon “has a huge influence on who I am and my perspective on the world, and therefore what I write .”

As a result, Meyer’s themes and messages tend to fall on the more conservative side of the spectrum. Marriage and family are central to the plot. The Twilight series has been called “abstinence porn” because Bella and Edward refrain from having sex before they are married. Some feminists have also criticized the series as a “creepy anti-abortion allegory,” because Bella decides to carry through with a dangerous, life-threatening pregnancy rather than opt for an abortion in final book.

Both these positions have their basis in Mormon teaching. Of pre-marital sex, LDS President Kimball W. Spencer wrote, “Total chastity before marriage and total fidelity after are still the standard from which there can be no deviation without sin, misery, and unhappiness.‘” The church also teaches that LDS members “must not submit to, perform, encourage, pay for, or arrange for an abortion.”  Mormons, of course, are not alone in taking these positions. Many religious traditions around the world uphold the value of chastity and maintain that life begins at conception.

But, the series is not so clearly pro-abstinence or pro-life. Bella and Edward do not engage in pre-marital sex, but Bella clearly wants to and tries to convince Edward at nearly every turn. So Meyer is pretty clear that abstinence is possible, but it’s no fun. It’s also hard to imagine that books which feature undead characters and a heroine who’s main ambition in life is to be die so that she can spend eternity with her vampire love is wholly pro-life.

While some have accused Stephenie Meyer of “blatantly shoving her Mormon faith down the throats of kids,” there really is nothing unusual about writers injecting their own beliefs into their work. Just like C.S. Lewis, J.K. Rowling, and even Philip Pullman before her, Meyer’s fantasy world is shaped by her real spiritual beliefs and ideas about life, love, and death. Even while Twilight never rises to the literary level of Narnia or Harry Potter, there is something there to captivate the reader.

In this way, the series fills an interesting place in the market. It may give voice to a more conservative segment of teenagers for whom faith and values play a central role in their young relationships. But it also addresses a wider range of issues that all kids wrestle with – sex, family, first love, friendship, and discovering who you are (even if the person you are turns out to be a vampire).

Even Bella, who commentators have criticized as “plain, clumsy, dull” and “directionless and unsure of herself” has an Everygirl persona that many young women identify with. Bella is not special in any way. She’s described as “average,” yet not one, but two incredibly hot supernatural creatures are in love with her. There’s a reason why the love triangle has been a classic staple of romance for centuries – having too many gorgeous suitors is a problem many women, especially young girls, would like to find themselves faced with.

In the end, the romance might be Twilight’s biggest allure. The books strive to sweep you away in the thrill of the thrill of first love. It’s both forbidden (He’s a vampire! You’re a human!) and dangerous (He might kill you!). Does that make for the best real-life relationship? No. But it can be a fun read.

I believe that young readers understand the gulf between fantasy and reality better than we give them credit for. Can girls be influenced negatively by some of the “anti-feminist” messages in Twilight? Certainly. But here, feminist criticism and influence can help.

Read the series. Discuss it with a young girl in your life. Why does she like the books? What does she think about Bella? Bella and Edward’s relationship? What ideas does she think the author is trying to convey about life, love, marriage, and family? Do those ideas mesh with her own, both personally and spiritually? Beginning this conversation can get her thinking about how the books do and do not reflect what she wants for herself out of life and love. The end goal, one hopes, is that she will take the good from the series (the beauty and power of love) and leave the bad (nearly everything else).

In the end, romance and fantasy are fun. The Twilight books caught me up in their web and I’m sure they will do it to many more readers in the future. But, after you become untangled, it’s good to think critically about the series, to understand where it has something positive to say about the state of contemporary women, romance, and faith and where it is leading the reader astray. And if you don’t feel right buying a copy and putting more money into Stephenie Meyer’s coffers (or coffins) – there’s always the library.

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Categories: Feminism

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23 replies

  1. I have read none of the books, and i am a lay theologian, if anything, but while at UCLA for my undergrad in Study of Religion I got to know Angela Aleiss, who teaches film and religion there. In January of 2010, she spoke with J Gordon Melton on “Vampires and Religion: From Dracula to Twilight,” where she expounded on the Latter Day Saint themes she saw in the book, whether written consciously by the author or not. She later wrote an article for AP, HuffPost, et al. titled “Mormon Influence, Imagery Run Deep Through ‘Twilight.'” Thank you for giving a feminist perspective to this series, which I had not yet seen, especially from a fan. In passing, the SeattlePI link seems to be incorrect or dead and may need to be updated. I look forward to reading more of your posts!

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    • Thanks, Jonathan! I don’t know what happened to the Seattle PI link, but here’s another source for it: http://www.sltrib.com/ci_10288977. Maybe someone here can fix it (if possible). I’ll have to check out those two articles – they sound very interesting! Thanks again!

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      • Thank you for the link. Only one of the ones i mentioned is an article- the other was a lecture. Here is a another link in addition to all the helpful ones that you provided: http://content.usatoday.com/communities/Religion/post/2010/07/twilight-mormon-lds-bella-/1 . What i like most about your post is that it is not dry and academic- i read enough works like that, but here your voice really comes through. Thank you again for sharing.

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      • Oh, and as an example of people critiquing Twilight, here is a just published progressive Christian article from Relevant Magazine titled “You Can’t Marry a Hot Vampire” “How fantasies like Twilight damage expectations for romance and reality” http://www.relevantmagazine.com/culture/film/features/27364-you-cant-marry-a-hot-vampire

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        • Jonathan-

          Thans for your post. The article you posted is something I talk about with friends all the time. As Carol cited above, the “Romance Myth” is more damaging than any of the other issues that come up in twilight, and it is prevalent in more than just tween paranormal YA books. I don’t think equal relationships are destructive. I think those are the ones we strive for and have to actively work for. Those are the ones we should write stories about. Unfortunately, it is rare those are the ones presented in these types of books. I think the “romance myth” continues to be the drug that is hard to quit. I equate it to pornography. It characterizes men and women in ways that are just as skewed as pornography. And we l like the characters. We want to be those characters. We want to find those characters. Like I said above, all you have to do is look at the romance section in a book store and you see the ocean of them waiting. So many characters–and yet they all play the same roles. They are all the same archetypes. My friend calls them “boddice-rippers”. I don’t hear anyone calling them “boxer rippers”? I can’t wrap my head around any defense that these are a “feminist space.” I feel like they are the “feminist lie.” I have seen and met many women defend them (friends included), but I can not see them as feminist space. They are just veiled place to find relief and to be seduced time and time again–to continue to fall into the seduction of the romance lie that we have longed for since the first time we encountered it. It is a patriarchal lie. This is a lie that hurts ourselves, our partners, and our daughters and sons. Gender roles and compliminarity to that extreme hurts everyone.

          I feel like twilight was a tween version of the “boddice-ripper”. The abstinence part doesn’t make it unique. That story line is in quite a few of these other books as well. She is the virginal maiden. Lets not forget, like Lisa mentioned that Bella spends the entire 3 books trying to lose her virginity (so Edward is the maiden), and when she finally does–it is a painful taking, leaving her with bruises and possibly broken ribs. Not exactly the christian loss of virginity? There is no mutuality. But it fits the the horrible stereotype of being “ravished” in a romance novel.

          John I completely agree with you that stories like this damage the expectations of girls of what real relationships look like and then echo Carol’s vein on the “Romance” myth being the foundation for how this is destructive.

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  2. First of all I want to say thank you for your post. As a fellow reader and writer of young adult lit I appreciate it.

    I have to admit that I find it difficult to link the words feminist and Twilight. Yes, Harry Potter and His Dark Materials can be scrutinized for their religious (or lack of) undertones by their writers, but the difference is that the themes of these works are still liberating for women. The worlds that Hermione (or Ginny, Luna, Lily) and Lyra live in are still drenched in liberation for women. Rowling and Pullman still created heroines that could take care of themselves AND everyone around them–heroines with agency. They created heroines we could hand down to our daughters (and sons) with pride.

    Meyers should not be critiqued for writing a novel with Mormon values. What she should be critiqued for is when those undertones became oppressive. This critique can not be avoided from a feminist community. Edward is 100 years old. He may look young but he is not–he is an old man. He is also a predator. He stalks Bella. He does not respect her boundaries. He watches her while she sleeps night after night with out her permission. He followers her. Is this romantic? Also, where is Bella’s agency? She says time and time again she had no choice once she falls in love. She falls in love with an elderly man (who looks young and sexy) who can watch her whenever he wants. He holds all the power. This is not romance. This is a power system that is being encouraged for girls.

    When he decides to leaves her (she has no voice in this decision), she decides to not live. This is not the sign of a healthy relationship. This is not the type of relationship we hand our daughters. When Ron selfishly leaves Harry and Hermione in The Deathly Hallows, Hermione does not curl up into a ball and decide to die. She goes out and saves the world. When Lyra’s father treats her like a outsider and the Magisterium tries to kill her, Lyra sets out on the mission of her life–a mission that changes the world. Meyers has Bella curl up and try to kill herself and die over heartbreak until Edward comes back and saves her. She guilts him into coming back. I am not saying I do not understand romance and heartache. I have been there. I LOVE a good romantic story. I am saying THIS IS NOT ONE OF THEM. This is not a relationship to emulate or pass down. This is not “the power of love”, this is the “power of an abusive relationship”. Bella’s back and forth between Jacob and Edward just shows the distressed state she is in, but the lack of power she has. She will use someone so as to silence the pain but throw that person away as soon as her “drug” shows up.

    Even more disturbing that Bella and Edward’s relationship in the novels is Jacobs imprinting on Renesmee. A grown man decides that he will marry a child (Jacob) and the father (Edward) consents. The passing of a child bride echos a fundamentalist romanticizing that can not be ignored. Where was Renesmee’s choice? What if she does not like Jacob? So is this romantic? Is this the “power of love”? Where was Bella for this decision? Why is the mother cut out of this decision (We have already seen how Meyer’s treats Bella’s mother throughout the series–she is treated as a joke with little credibility)? How is this ok? No only that but Meyers makes a very deliberate decision to have her “grow up” faster than a normal child. Why? Child brides have to grow up fast. She has to grow up and be an adult faster than your average child. She will soon be ready for Jacob–for the arranged marriage that was decided when she was an EMBRYO.

    By the time you get to talk to your child or tween, they will have already romanticized the themes that Meyers has written into her novel. It will be to late. They will be TEAM JACOB or TEAM EDWARD. I don’t think this was done (BY MEYERS) with some type of malicious intent. It is hard to break away from these themes. We see themes like these in every trashy romance novel sitting at the grocery store. I just would not hand a romance novel to a girl that I wanted to be strong. I would hand her Harry Potter or His Dark Materials. Hell…I would hand her the Hunger Games.

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    • Hi, Martha, thanks for your excellent comment. I actually agree with everything you’re saying. I don’t think the books have a lot of redeeming qualities, but I do think it’s important to read and understand what they’re about. I believe that feminist criticism can do exactly what you’re saying – offer a critique of the damaging and oppressive ideas in the books that can enlighten young women who wouldn’t otherwise realize how unsettling the themes in the books are.

      I’ve read a lot of articles about Twilight that simply slam the books and movies from every angle, so I was trying to come at the topic from a slightly different point of view. How can we use feminist criticism to educate the young readers of the series without denouncing everything they like about the books? I agree that I’d sooner hand over a copy of Harry Potter or Hunger Games, but so many young women have already read or seen the Twilight movies that I believe it’s helpful to understand what is appealing about them. I know I was shocked at my initially positive reaction to them (as someone who identifies as a feminist), so I know there is something seductive and appealing about them that needed to be acknowledged.

      I agree with you about Meyer’s Mormon beliefs. I only addressed it here, because I know she has been criticized for writing from a Mormon point of view and I didn’t really think that was fair.

      Thanks again for your comment!

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    • Martha,
      I just recently got a great book called The Gospel According to Twilight. I think you would really enjoy it. I am working on a post about Twilight and Feminism for this blog that will hopefully go up soon (I look forward to your comments on it) but in the meantime, I thought you would enjoy that book (if you haven’t already read it!)

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  3. Lisa,

    Thank you so much for your response. I do think we have the same views. I wonder if you have read John Granger (He is more a Potter scholar). I know he has a new book on Twilight that he was promoting at a conference this past weekend. I questioned him on his views on the series a bit but we had to agree to disagree. He was working along more conservative lines (I don’t think he acknowledges some of the points above) but I think was articulating some of what you were touching on and some of the undertone that readers can’t put their finger on when they read it and are drawn to the books in spite of themselves. I include myself. I could not put the books down when I first read them. I knew they were problematic but found them so addicting. He calls it ring composition and thinks its tied to the “triangle relationship” you mentioned (Potter, Games, and Twilight all have them) and then going back we see it all over in literature (Pride and Prejudice and Wuthering Heights). He sees this as spiritual pointing back to a trinitarian theme (or mind, heart, and spirit).

    Here is an article he had in TIME magazine in defense of Twilight (this doesn’t touch on his ring theory though)…I thought you might find it interesting:

    http://techland.time.com/2010/01/20/what-twilight-means-john-granger-professor-of-meyerology/

    I disagree with some of his Twilight stuff for things we both stated above but his ring composition theory ties into that “numinous” feeling people get when reading the story that they cling to. Maybe through that vein the discussions can be had that you are touching on–very important ones because as you said, girls will have read them and the discussion do need to be had. Once again thank you so much for you post!

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    • Thanks for the link, Martha! I actually met John Granger at a Harry Potter fan conference this summer where he spoke at length about ring composition and all those good things. I haven’t read his book or anything he’s written about Twilight, but I will definitely check out the article in TIME. He did off-handedly mention that he was surprised so many Potter fans seem to loath the Twilight series (it’s probably because people tend to compare the two and there really isn’t any comparison). I’d be interested to hear him talk more about Twilight because I enjoy all his Potter anaylsis. Thanks again!

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  4. Hi Lisa, thanks for this post! I love your approach here. I too have seen too much stuff slamming Twilight for being un-feminist. While I might agree it has few redeeming features, simply dismissing it seems to be as ludicrous as banning Harry Potter books from the library!

    I think it’s very feminist to believe that young girls are smarter than we might otherwise give them credit for: they’re not just swallowing the Twilight values and story but are evaluating it for themselves at some level, and that we can help them further in that deconstruction.

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  5. Well let’s hope that young girls are evaluating the romance myth, but it is soooo powerful, who among us has not felt we were worthless if we did not have romance in our lives, and who among us has not hoped that relationships could come to us by “fate” or “destiny.” The romance myth does great harm to women, it has done great harm to me, and it does not have to come to us by way of trash, because it is everywhere. “Love is all you need.” Well yes in a metaphysical sense, but definitely NO in terms of making a relationship work and NO romantic love is not needed to make the world go round for any of us, because love comes in so many other forms.

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    • Thanks, Carol! It’s so true! I know I’ve struggled with that, too, especially as a teenager. I was lucky that I married a wonderful man, but letting go of the harmful ideas I had about romantic love as a girl has been a process for me as well. I think the Twilight books tap into this core desire in all of us, but ultimately it isn’t a very realistic picture of what a healthy, stable relationship should be like.

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  6. Lisa, thanks for your great post! As a Mormon feminist, I’ve read a lot of reviews and articles about Meyer and the series. And I admit that like you, I found them page turners, despite the disturbing patriarchal messages embedded in the books and the not so great writing. But to me, these tropes of controlling older men, women with little agency and relatively little power, obsessive love, etc. are no different than what we find in standard romance novels, particularly novels of the 70’s and 80’s. (Flame and the Flower, anyone?)

    What I find interesting is why romance novels, with all these disturbing anti-egalitarian messages, often hold (shameful) appeal for feminists. Do they tap into something mythic? I don’t know, but I do find it interesting that scholars studying the romance genre have found something feminist in the act of reading romance. Many women are stepping away from the demands of family and carving out time and space for themselves to read these books, often excessively (over 100 a year). They are saying to their families, “This is what I want to do right now — go take care of your own needs.” Reading the Romance by Janice Radway is the main scholar for this somewhat feminist angle on the act of romance reading. I’m sure not all would agree with her, but I think her points are interesting.

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    • Caroline,
      I would really love to talk with you more abou the role of Mormonism in the Twilight movies/books. Especially in regards to the “traditional” roles women are suppose to fill. Maybe we can talk after our class together one day for a couple of minutes?

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  7. Caroline, that’s fascinating! If I’m reading what you’re suggesting, it’s the idea of romance reading almost as a form of protest?

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    • Hi Tamie,
      Maybe I’d phrase it like this: it’s the act of romance reading that is a form of agency and self-assertion. At least that’s what Janice Radway might say. (She also says other things about what the act of romance reading does. For instance, she also talks about how reading romance enables women to deal better with unsatisfactory husbands. After all, if heroes in books are cold and unfeeling, but really love the heroine, then an emotionally distant husband must also underneath it all adore his wife.)

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  8. Thanks, Caroline! That is really fascinating. I’m going to have to look more into the ties between the romance genre and feminism. A large section of the Twilight fandom are the “Twilight Moms,” older women, often married, with children of their own who love the series and the romance between Bella and Edward. I think it’s an interesting idea that their reading of the Twilight series could be seen as a form of escape from the everyday needs of the family and husband. With Twilight conventions and events all around the country (and lots of opportunities to have some “me time” centered Twilight) I’d say that’s a big possibility. Thanks for your comment!

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  9. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/21/twilight-wedding-dress-breaking-dawn_n_1105945.html

    For $799 you can get the wedding dress connected with the series!!!

    What is the world coming to?

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    • The world is coming to a place where everything can be bought and consumed (Caroline’s excellent post explores this).

      With being consumed, as Bella is in the books (both symbolically and literally), her dress will soon be “eaten” up by hoards of young adolescents waiting for their perfect vampire to consume their entire being.

      Have you read the books?

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  10. Lisa,
    I was so excited to see this post when it streamed into my email while I was at the AAR/SBL conference.

    I must say, I, like Edward, “devoured” it from start to finish. The issues you discuss are important because of the negative messages they are sending to young girls (and boys).

    However, I wanted to take the topic one step further. I think we need to discuss how Bella “becomes” a vampire and what Edward has to do to make sure she “survives!” I don’t want to be to graphic, but I would love to hear your (and others) opinions about it.

    To me, it is the most disturbing part in the entire series. The TIME review for “Breaking Dawn: Part 1” asks the question: “What has Twilight: Breaking Dawn, Part 1 taught us about women and pregnancy within Meyer’s world?” Their quick retort, that “It sucks for women even if you date an undead bloodsucker,” are all to similar to the heteropatriarchal and heteronormative themes that stream through Meyer’s texts that lock women into a relationship where they strive towards death in order to be with their “true love,” forever.

    Thank you for your brilliant post!

    Like

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