The following is a guest post by Lisa Galek, a professional writer and editor who earned her masters 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.