Monday, July 06, 2009

Twilight Not a Feminist Faux Pas, Not Really

My friend Michele offered me a copy of Ms. Magazine's spring edition so that I could read Carmen D. Siering's critique of the Twilight Saga by Stephenie Meyer, "Taking a bite out of Twilight." Michele knows I'm a fan of the Young Adult book series. She knows I've read the books, seen the movie and discussed it with glee with my teenage daughter, though I was introduced to the books by women who worked for Barnes & Noble while at a writer's conference, initially as suggestions for my daughter though they all fessed up to reading them. But I put off reading the Ms. article for a couple of weeks, unwilling to have my harmless idyll skewered and roasted over a socio-political barbeque.

But a couple of days ago I finally read Siering's piece. Ironically, this was just after reading Judy Blume's Forever, which is considered a YA masterpiece in the coming-of-age genre—Michele said it was handed around from friend to friend in her circle as a young teen. Ironic, because while Twilight is all about abstinence and choosing to love forever, you could say that Forever is about promiscuity and giving up faith in a forever love. And let me say, abstinence comes out as waaay sexier and appealing.

Partly because Blume's book is almost unbearably realistic; the protagonist's boyfriend, Michael, is always pushing Katherine toward home base, despite promising again and again to keep hands off, and yet we're supposed to agree that he is a “nice guy” and loves her. The description of his lesson on giving a “hand job” may be typical (and many a former teenage girl will corroborate that) but the focus on “Ralph” the penis has all the romance and sweetness of a traffic education textbook. Even the initial sexual forays into “going all the way” are painful and frustrating for Katherine, who gets to have an orgasm somewhere around the sixth or seventh attempt.

Yet seemingly he wants to be with her forever, and they plan to stay together, even though separated by evil, well-meaning parents who eventually sour their summer romance by sending them to jobs far from each other. In Katherine's case, they want to test the couple's attachment and make sure their little girl doesn't shack up with the first guy who gets in her pants, rather than sampling the sea of guys out there—something I have a hard time imagining as a parent. Forever ends with the message that there are plenty more fish in the sea, and inserts a pro-abortion message in the beginning, a family planning session in the middle, and a blithely lighthearted portrayal of an unapologetic-ally promiscuous teenager giving birth, giving away her baby, and going off to an Ivy league college as if nothing happened, near the end.

Twilight, on the other hand, arrives in readers' hands decades later, when we've learned that promiscuity can kill, abortions aren't that simple for anyone, and giving up a baby can have lasting consequences, even when it is the right thing to do. The divorce rate has doubled and all the fish have been sampling each other ad infinitum; no wonder a vampire fantasy about staying seventeen and in love with the perfect guy forever is garnering a huge audience of girls and women alike, wishing their Edward would rush in to save the day from STDs and swimming with the sharks.

To put my response to Twilight in perspective, I have a Women's Studies degree, have been in a monogamous lesbian relationship for twenty-two years, have given birth to three wonderful kids, two of them now teenagers, and slept with a handful of boys and men between sixteen and nineteen, three of them longish relationships, one of them I was in love with. I know a little about being a seventeen year-old girl (both protagonists are seventeen in Forever and Twilight).

I'm also a dyed-in-the-wool atheist, capable of sniffing out the faintest whiff of proselytizing, and in all honesty, I never knew Stephenie Meyer was Mormon until I read her bio. There are one or two god and heaven questions in the course of the books, though Bella, the main character, is a nonbeliever, and the wedding service in book four is summed up in a way that defies my understanding of marriage tradition throughout history, but certainly tallies with most of America.

So Carmen D. Siering's allegation that Meyer's Mormonism is the motivating factor behind Bella's choices—marrying young and not aborting a fetus that may be killing her—and that Meyer wants girls to make those same choices, doesn't ring true. And if it did, what of it? Every writer brings his or her experience to the book, chooses the characters' choices, and there is nothing wrong with that. I am writing a young adult novel now and what the characters choose is absolutely decided by me and guided by my beliefs. We, the reader, get to choose whether to read the book, and if we do, decide what we think about it.

For that matter, many a woman, Mormon or not (consider Steel Magnolias and my own father's deceased sister) has chosen to give birth even though it compromised her own chance of survival, many a woman has chosen to marry the man she loves fresh out of high school, without it being an advertisement for early marriage or necessarily doomed from the get-go. I'd also like to point out that Stephenie Meyer has a degree in English Literature so she didn't drop everything to get married straight out of high school (in fact, she indicates on her website that high school is horrid but college is fun). And thank heavens my spouse didn't take the Forever message to heart, or, as her first love, I'd never have made the final cut.

Though I would say that the Twilight Saga is an unabashed endorsement of heterosexual sex that never made coitus look so good. While Bella and Edward wait until book four and marriage to have sex, when they do Bella says “It's everything,” even if she came out of it black and blue from Edward's enthusiastic Vampire super-strength (though I kept thinking there were at least a dozen ways Edward could have had sex with Bella without “crushing her like a bag of potato chips” as Jacob, her best friend and fervent admirer, fears when human Bella's on her honeymoon, though for some reason he sees no problem with his six foot eight inches of werewolf having sex with a five foot four Bella, hmmm). Teenage boys, real teenage boys, can never measure up to a dazzlingly beautiful Edward who smells like flowers, has smooth porcelain skin, perfect hair, sweet breath at any time of the day or night and never suffers from premature ejaculation.

What I suspect girls and their mothers like about the romance in the Twilight Saga is something Judy Blume failed to mention in Forever and Siering in her critique: affection. Every touch between Edward and Bella (once he's determined that his love trumps his lust for her blood) is full of affection, caring and love. In a world full of reality shows, pole dancing exercise classes, books like “How to Make Love Like a Porn Star” and politicians caught with their pants down, the idea of every touch being about love and caring instead of lust, power, need, compulsion or expectation is an appealing fantasy indeed.

Twilight is a romantic vampire/werewolf fantasy with a female protagonist who saves her family in the end, stronger, fiercer and more strategic than the centuries-old vampires around her. The books are part of a fantasy genre popular with teenage girls, leading to more reading about strong heroines in the supernatural world, more exposure to literature, and that is always a good thing for girls, even if occasionally, overprotective Edward saves the day during Twilight.

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