July 1, 2015 / The Sundance Issue, Theology
This piece explores the social psychology of judgment, how this affects our evaluation of film, and how such influences might be mined for their theological significance.
September 7, 2010
Real love happens between two people of value, not between a girl who thinks she is nothing and the boy is everything.
—Beth Felker Jones, Touched by a Vampire
Since the publication of Twilight in 2005, Stephenie Meyer’s teen vampire romance saga has rapidly gained ground as a pop culture phenomenon to rival that of Harry Potter. The most marked difference between the current media explosion and that of Harry Potter is that the Twilight saga’s fan base is made up almost entirely of females.1 The story of teenage Bella Swan’s courtship and eventual marriage to Edward Cullen, the vampire stuck at age seventeen for over one hundred years, has aroused a fan following more reminiscent of Beatlemania than the school-library boom of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.2 Twifans, Twilighters, and Twihards have tattooed their bodies with text from the books and images of the films’ stars, thrown vampire-themed proms, and caused the small logging town of Forks, Washington, to become a tourist site with sold-out packages to view the setting of the fictional stories.
One of the most intriguing outcomes of Twilight mania, however, is evangelical Christians’ eagerness to join the Twilight conversation. Whereas groups like Focus on the Family decried Harry Potter as inappropriate for Christians to let their children read,3 numerous evangelical organizations have devoted print and Web-space to laud the relational and spiritual relevance of Meyer’s vampire saga. As of March 2010, four full-length books and one Bible study4 have been published, wherein Christian authors explore the themes and lessons of the Twilight saga. The focus of these books is twofold: to use adolescent girls’ passionate response to the books as a springboard for a gospel message and to provide a resource for parents wanting to know whether or not the fiction series aligns with a Christian worldview. What is clear from these books and the larger evangelical media response to the Twilight saga is that there is more at stake with the question of Twilight than deciding what books and movies are permissible for evangelical teenagers to consume. Rather, to respond to the Twilight phenomenon is to enter the territory of female sexuality and desire. The intensity of adolescent girls’ (and thousands of adult women’s) identification with the characters of the Twilight series and the level to which they have immersed themselves in the fantasy offered by it, and the films based on the books, opens a wide door into the world of aroused female passion such as has arguably never been seen in popular American culture.
While feminist critics have called the Twilight saga “an allegorical tale about the dangers of unregulated female sexuality”5 and a tale that raises issues of patriarchal gender roles and rape fantasy,6 the majority of the evangelical Christian response to Twilight has been one of praise for its morality, particularly in regards to sexuality. Conservative evangelical groups like Concerned Women For America7 have celebrated the fact that because Bella and Edward save sex until marriage, the Twilight saga positively promotes an abstinence message. Christianity Today’s college-geared online magazine, Campus Life, published an article detailing how Bella and Edward’s relationship serves as a model for the Christian life.8 What these and other articles and books published by evangelical media sources highlight as beneficial about Twilight can be understood in four categories: resistance to sexual temptation, nobility of the male as protector, sacrificial love, and victory over one’s sinful nature. These categories reveal a great deal about women’s place in culture, for the evangelical response to Twilight, whether it be positive or negative, is ultimately a response to female sexuality.
Beth Felker Jones explains in Touched by a Vampire, “the themes of Twilightare all about what it means to be female.”9 This question of what it means to be female is one evangelicals have been trying to help girls answer for years. Whether it’s the formidable Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood or the franchised Every Man series, the evangelical media has produced an entire industry of relationship advice books that are not primarily about managing one’s love life, but are, rather, instructional guides to help readers personify “authentic” masculinity and femininity. And with the publication of books about Twilight written by evangelical Christian authors for adolescent girls, the evangelical conversation about Twilight has actually merged with the genre of evangelical relationship texts for young women. The manner in which such books respond to the cultural impact ofTwilight follows the evangelical trajectory of placing gender at the heart of Christian faith,10 normalizing and spiritualizing patriarchal interpretations of femininity.
This three-part essay series seeks to compare what evangelicals have praised and critiqued about the Twilight saga with what actually takes place in the books, and to consider, when the two do not match up, where that dissonance may correlate to the sexual ethics and gender roles disseminated in evangelical texts for young women. Part one examines the evangelical Christian embrace of Twilight as a pro-abstinence narrative, showing that, in fact, the praising of Twilight’s portrayal of resisting sexual temptation actually promotes a harmful feminine body/mind dualism. Part two uses examples from New Moon to parse out the complementarian bias of casting males as protectors at the expense of women being envisaged as perpetual victims, as well as reframing Eclipse’s theme of sacrificial love as that of self-annihilation. Part three exposes Breaking Dawn’s linking of violence with romantic love and the condoning of dangerous power differentials that occurs through evangelicalism’s theologizing of gender hierarchies. By confronting the way that the evangelical community embraces Twilight, I hope to lay the groundwork for an embodied, emancipated feminine identity, one that restructures Christian perspectives on women’s spirituality and sexuality in light of a shame-free, egalitarian theology.
In New Moon, when Bella is injured from falling off a motorcycle, her friend Jacob Black approaches her to see if she is OK. Bella quickly says, “Oh, I’m so sorry Jacob.” Jacob offers the important question, “Why are you apologizing for bleeding?”11 This article seeks to shed light on the ways young evangelical women have been formed by a theology of gender that causes them, like the character of Bella, to view their feelings and experiences as ancillary to men, apologizing not just for being hurt, but for being, in fact, women.
The Twilight Paradigm: Resisting Temptation; Promoting Dualism
Pivotal to the plot of the Twilight saga is the danger inherent in Bella and Edward’s love for one another. In the Twilight world that Meyer created, vampires are not demons but creatures with free will that can choose to satisfy their blood lust by feeding on animals rather than humans. In choosing to be “vegetarians,” Edward and his coven family, the Cullens, discipline themselves not to succumb to their feeding instincts, but to instead live among humans, never revealing their true identity as vampires.
What this means for Bella and Edward, once she has discovered his secret, is that Edward is always in danger of losing control and allowing his vampire instincts to take over, thus killing Bella. This makes the simple act of kissing a colossal effort of self-control for Edward and a frustrating battle of mixed messages for Bella. To ensure that Edward does not accidentally kill her, either from his vampire urges or his superhuman strength, Bella must be as unresponsive as possible to Edward’s initially tentative then increasingly passionate physical expressions of affection. These same dangers make sex prohibitive for Edward and Bella, as responding to sexual arousal could quickly and suddenly release Edward’s violent vampire instincts.
Evangelicals have found in Bella and Edward the surprising pairing of teen romance and sexual abstinence. Kurt Bruner, in his book The Twilight Phenomenon: Forbidden Fruit or Thirst-Quenching Fantasy, claims, “the romance between Bella and Edward harkens back to more traditional values because, as fans are quick to point out, they don’t sleep together despite the temptation to do so.”12 Further, in Christianity Today’s Web exclusive “What Shines in Twilight: Looking at Four Key Ideas of the Vampire Saga That Stand Out for Christ Followers,” Stacey Lingle writes,
[Edward] takes temptation seriously. He knows actions have consequences and that if he gives himself one tiny inch, he could lose control. [. . .] When he wants to eat Bella, he doesn’t let himself get too close to her. And when he wants to sleep with Bella, he doesn’t let their physical relationship go past kissing. This is a decent example of the Christian life.13
The Twilight saga has thus become an opportunity for evangelicals to refine the message of what it means to resist temptation. As author and teen-conference speaker Kimberly Powers posits, “It is not the vampire’s passion that is captivating but his self control.”14 But when we look more closely at what occurs between Edward and Bella in Twilight, with particular attention to how Bella is treated in the midst of her desire, it is possible to see that in praising Edward and Bella’s relationship as a “decent example of the Christian life,” evangelicals are contributing to a dynamic wherein female sexuality is portrayed as deviant and male desire is portrayed as irrepressible. There are two scenes from Twilight that exemplify the dynamics of sexual temptation and restraint between Edward and Bella.
Into the Text: Twilight
Once Bella discerns the incomprehensible fact that the mysterious boy who has captured her heart is indeed a vampire, she and Edward embark on a treacherous journey toward intimacy. Initially, Edward tests the boundaries of his self-control so he can know what parameters to stay in while close to Bella:
“Be very still,” he whispered, as if I wasn’t already frozen. Slowly, never moving his eyes from mine, he leaned toward me. Then abruptly, but very gently, he rested his cold cheek against the hollow at the base of my throat. I was quite unable to move, even if I wanted to.15
Already, we see the theme of Bella being forbidden to move or participate in the intimate exchange with Edward. In this case, she is literally told to “be very still” but is also restrained by the intensity of her experience. Shortly after, during their first kiss, both Bella’s experience of pleasure and her expression of desire are restrained, literally by Edward’s physical strength and psychologically by his response:
[. . .] his cold, marble lips pressed very softly against mine.What neither of us was prepared for was my response.Blood boiled under my skin, burned in my lips. My breath came in a wild gasp. My fingers knotted in his hair, clutching him to me.[. . .] Immediately I felt him turn to unresponsive stone beneath my lips. His hands gently, but with irresistible force, pushed my face back. I opened my eyes and saw his guarded expression.“Oops,” I breathed.
“That’s an understatement.”
[. . .] I tried to disengage myself, to give him some room.
His hands refused to let me move so much as an inch.16
In this passage, Bella indicates shock at her response to arousal. Neither she nor Edward was “prepared” for her to have an equal, if not more passionate, response to Edward’s seductive kiss. Despite previously being told to restrain herself when close to Edward, Bella has a natural physical and emotional response to being kissed by the young man she is deeply attracted to. The moment this happens, however, Edward becomes unresponsive and distances himself while still maintaining a restraining grasp on Bella’s body. In this fictional setting, Edward may be a vampire trying to protect the young woman he loves, but the fundamental paradigm of the text is one wherein a girl must restrain both her experience of pleasure and expression of desire in order to receive physical intimacy from a male. When the female breaks this rule, she is punished by physical and emotional separation from her male partner. While Bella’s experience of shame may be implicit in the above passage (“Oops”), a later scene in the book shows the level of shame she has internalized as a result of the blame placed on her by Edward for arousing him rather than merely being a recipient of his sexual advances:
[. . .] he took my face in his hands almost roughly, and kissed me in earnest, his unyielding lips moving against mine.There was really no excuse for my behavior. Obviously I knew better by now. And yet I couldn’t seem to stop from reacting exactly as I had the first time. Instead of keeping safely motionless, my arms reached to twine tightly around his neck, and I was suddenly welded to his stone figure.He staggered back, breaking my grip effortlessly.“Damn it, Bella!” he broke off, gasping. “You’ll be the death of me, I swear you will.”17
Because Bella did not remain “safely motionless,” she is parted from Edward in two ways: physically by Edward separating himself from her embrace and emotionally by his shift from tenderness to anger.18 This time, however, she calls her aroused response inexcusable, having internalized the connection between her expression of sexuality and Edward’s loss of control as being a benign fact, rather than tragic irony. Moreover, Edward angrily incriminates her for crossing the lines he established about their sexual intimacy. As the scene continues, Edward remains angry with Bella, presumably for taking advantage of his weakness. Thus, although Edward is free to kiss and touch Bella, any participation or initiation from her is severely punished with anger, blame, and separation. In Twilight, resisting temptation means resisting women’s shameful sexual responses.
Into the Culture: Temptation
Although Twilight is ostensibly a love story, literary critic Carmen Siering notes that its “overriding message is that young women are incapable of understanding or controlling their own sexuality; it takes a man to keep them in check.”19 In many cases, evangelical commendation for Edward’s virtuous example of resisting temptation is paired with derision for Bella as the threat to Edward’s virtue. Bruner states that “as much as we may want to sympathize with Bella, we can’t overlook the fact that she lacks moral fiber and allows herself to become so caught up in the passion of romance that she becomes the temptress.”20 Bruner directly follows this statement with the “woman of vice” passage from Proverbs 5,21 through which he compares Bella to the allegorical immoral woman who leads virtuous men astray. Bruner concludes that “considering the parallels between what the Scriptures call a ‘crafty harlot’ and the actions of Bella Swan, she is hardly the kind of girl we want our elementary-aged daughters celebrating or emulating.”22
What statements such as Bruner’s ignore is that while Edward is the ultimate decision maker when it comes to setting sexual boundaries, he also freely initiates sexual contact with Bella whereas Bella rarely is the initiator of sexual encounters. Instead, she follows Edward’s lead. The message, therefore, is that the expression of male sexual desire is natural and nearly uncontrollable, but the expression of female sexual desire is unnatural and sinful.
In evangelical relationship texts geared toward young women, this message is communicated implicitly by perpetuating the false belief that females do not have the same sexual desire as males. Rather than suggesting that women express their sexuality differently from men, these texts speak from a perspective that believes women do not naturally desire sex. Instead, women only want emotional intimacy. In Every Woman’s Battle, Shannon Ethridge explains to readers that “the physical act of sex isn’t an overwhelming temptation for women like it is for men,”23 and that rather, it is a woman’s emotional needs that drive her. Ethridge concludes, “That’s why it’s said men give love to get sex and women give sex to get love. This isn’t intended to be a bashing statement, it’s simply the way God made us.”24 Although Ethridge’s opinion may reflect common experiences among men and women, by claiming the dichotomy of women having to give sex in order to get love as not only a fact, but as God’s design, the stage is set for women to reject the physical experience of sex as man’s territory and thus, to distance herself from her own body, her choices, and her experience of pleasure. A dualism is set up wherein female sexuality becomes disembodied—sex being relegated to an emotional experience rather than a physical one.
Girls who respond to their physical desires are then labeled “temptress” or “crafty harlot,” as in Bruner’s example. A young woman who feels free to express her sexuality crosses over to male terrain and thus threatens his self-control. The logic behind this position encourages a status quo in which all female sexual encounters are predicated on male desire. Like Bella’s experience with Edward, sexual intimacy becomes linked to separation, loss, and shame.25 In Young Lady In Waiting, Jackie Kendall and Debbie Jones explain:
Once passion is introduced into the relationship, it is difficult for the man to stop and be satisfied with just developing friendship. The man becomes distracted by the physical. This is why so many women enjoy the relationship until the “friendship” changes to “dating.” Something is lost when physical passion begins.26
Women may give sex to get love, but they are also told not to give sex or they will lose love. Girls who are exposed to these messages from evangelical texts written specifically for them may find themselves confused and ashamed, like Bella with Edward; pursued by sexually expressive males, they may find themselves unable to respond—desiring to respond but aware that they will be abandoned emotionally and relationally if they do. If this is evangelicalism’s recipe for sexual purity, then purity requires women to fear their desires as barriers to relationship.27 When evangelicals praise Twilightfor its abstinence message, they are in fact praising a story that teaches girls the dangers of desire, a story that fits within the guidelines of what evangelical girls are already being taught.
A Call for Embodiment
Clinical psychologist and Methodist minister Karen McClintock writes that “one’s spiritual self and one’s sexual self cannot be separated without the danger of shame and violence.”28 She further states that “the theological underpinnings of women’s shame reaches back to the concept of virginity as the purest and holiest state for women before God.”29 In Religion & Sexuality: Passionate Debates, Georgia Newman acknowledges this harmful standard, wherein “the appellation virgin is wedded to the role of mother in the figure of Mary,” suggesting “that the feminine ideal is, quite simply, unattainable for women.”30 This unattainable feminine ideal is further reflected in the challenges of girls’ adolescent development in the midst of an androcentric culture. According to Carol Gilligan’s developmental psychology research, it is in adolescence that “girls often discover or fear that if they give voice to vital parts of themselves, their pleasure and their knowledge, they will endanger their connections with others.”31 It is at this same time that girls are introduced to the concept of good women versus bad women, as a girl’s body “becomes a woman’s body and thus an object of men’s desire and attention.”32 Gilligan explains:
The ascendance of the split between good and bad women marks the moment of change [in a woman’s fear of sharing vital parts of herself] and also fills in its motivation. With this split, pleasure—once associated with vitality, with love, with light, and with life—becomes the marker of the bad woman.33
When experiencing, expressing, or even desiring pleasure is seen as “the marker of the bad woman,” the only option for young girls becomes dissociation: separating physical intimacy from emotional intimacy.34 Girls are encouraged to crave emotional relationships but taught that sexual desire exists in opposition to their spirituality.35 According to McClintock, it is in this gap between sexuality and spirituality that shame grows.36 This split fosters the belief for girls that “sex is something done to them by a male”37and that their “proper sexual role is passivity.”38 When sexuality is compartmentalized, choice is replaced by shame.
However, the alternative to promoting the dualism of the female mind and female body in regards to Christian sexuality is not a counter-pendulum swing in favor of unbridled promiscuity. Rather, it is a call to understand the spiritual and emotional cost to young girls when shame (as bad woman) or dissociation (as good woman) are the only options provided for how to comprehend their sexual development. Acknowledging the existence of sexual impulses is not the same as acting on them. A first step to providing girls a way out of shame and into healthy body/mind integration is removing the lie that it is males alone who have sexual feelings.39 When fear and shame are relegated away from sexuality, the power of agency and choice is returned to its rightful place.40 The fallacy of aberrant female sexual desire and irrepressible male sexual conduct only serves to degrade both sexes. Abstinence need not mean a splitting between sexuality and spirituality, nor body from soul.
It is ultimately fitting that Twilight should be so often called a “guilty pleasure,” for at the very core of its narrative, we find guilt being linked topleasure; a teenage girl wooed into physical intimacy but denied that intimacy the very moment she acts on her feelings. The mixed message of Edward’s pattern of seductive arousal, followed by shaming rejection, puts Bella in the position of needing to break Edward’s rules in order to honestly express what she feels. Bella is called a “bad girl” not because she is kissed, but because she kisses back. Kurt Bruner worries that Twilight will teach young readers that “even good girls are eager to have sex before marriage,”41 but he has no words of critique for Edward’s erotic pursuit of Bella. The cost of evangelical praise for Twilight is a deepening of the split between sexuality and spirituality wherein young girls have no recourse but to remain frozen like an obedient Bella would or become “bad” by reciprocating as Bella actually does. Either choice allows shame to reign where dignity should abide.
Editor’s Note: See Part II of this essay series, in which Swanson continues her analysis of evanglical responses to the Twilight series by critiquing New Moon’s portrayal of men as “protectors” and women as “perpetual, self-sacrificing victims.”
1. John Granger, “On Critical Reception of Harry Potter and Twilight: ‘It’s Deja Vu All Over Again’ Part 2: Culture War,” Hogwarts Professor: Thoughts for the Serious Reader of Harry Potter, February 10, 2009, http://22.214.171.124/search?q=cache:gzhKo2LfgXYJ:hogwartsprofessor.com/%3Fp
2. Vicky Hallett, “The Power of Potter,” US News and World Report, Money & Business, July 17, 2005, http://www.usnews.com/usnews/culture/articles/050725/25read.htm.
3. Apologetics Index, “The Harry Potter Debate,” Apologetics Index, The Harry Potter Controversy: Research Resources, http://www.apologeticsindex.org/p03.html.
4. Kurt Bruner, The Twilight Phenomenon: Forbidden Fruit or Thirst-Quenching Fantasy? (Shippensburg, PA: Destiny Image Publishers, Inc., 2009); Beth Felker Jones, Touched By A Vampire: Discovering the Hidden Messages in the Twilight Saga (Colorado Springs, CO: Multnomah Books, 2009); Kimberly Powers, Escaping the Vampire: Desperate for the Immortal Hero (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2009); Dave Roberts, The Twilight Gospel: The Spiritual Roots of Stephenie Meyer’s Vampire Saga(Oxford, UK: Monarch Books, 2009); Diane Schantin, Parables from Twilight: A Bible Study(Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2009).
5. Carmen D. Siering, “Taking a Bite Out of Twilight,” Ms19, no. 2 (Spring 2009): 51.
6. Christine Seifert, “Bite Me! (Or Don’t),” Bitch Magazine: Feminist Response to Pop Culture42 (Winter 2009): 25.
7. Concerned Women for America, “Breaking Dawn Presenting Abstinence Message to Teens,” Beverly LaHaye Institute, mp3 file, http://www.beverlylahayeinstitute.org/articledisplay.asp?id=15641&department=BLI&categoryid=commentary&subcategoryid=blicul.
8. Stacey Lingle, “What Shines in Twilight?” Christianity Today, Campus Life’s Ignite Your Faith, October 2, 2008, http://www.christianitytoday.com/iyf/advice/mediaqa/Twilight.html.
9. Jones, Touched By A Vampire, 3.
10. Kristin Kobes du Mez, “Beyond Knights and Damsels: Evangelicals and Gender,” The Gospel and Culture Project, Culture, March 19, 2009, http://www.gospelandculture.org/2009/03/beyond-knights-damsels/.
11. Stephenie Meyer, New Moon (New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company, 2006), 188.
12. Bruner, The Twilight Phenomenon, 99.
13. Lingle, “What Shines in Twilight?”
14. Powers, Escaping the Vampire, 24.
15. Meyer, Twilight (New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company, 2005), 275-276.
16. Ibid., 282-283
17. Ibid., 363.
18. The implications of Edward’s rough and “unyielding” sexuality will be addressed in part three of this essay series.
19. Siering, “Taking a Bite,” 51.
20. Bruner, The Twilight Phenomenon, 120-121.
21. “For the lips of an immoral woman drip honey, and her mouth is smoother than oil; but in the end she is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a two-edged sword. Her feet go down to death, her steps lay hold of hell. [. . .] Remove your way far from her, and do not go near the door of her house, lest you give your honor to others, and your years to the cruel one [. . .] when your flesh and your body are consumed.” Proverbs 5:3-11 as cited by Bruner, The Twilight Phenomenon, 121.
22. Bruner, The Twilight Phenomenon, 122.
23. Shannon Ethridge, Every Woman’s Battle: Discovering God’s Plan for Sexual and Emotional Fulfillment (Colorado Springs, CO: Waterbrook Press, 2003), 13. Italics in original.
24. Ibid., 13. Italics in original.
25. Carol Gilligan, The Birth of Pleasure: A New Map of Love (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2002), 17.
26. Jackie Kendall and Debbie Jones, Young Lady in Waiting: Developing the Heart of a Princess
(Shippensburg, PA: Destiny Image Publishers, Inc., 2008), 158.
27. Gilligan, The Birth of Pleasure, 24.
28. Karen A. McClintock, Sexual Shame: An Urgent Call to Healing(Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2001), 94.
29. Ibid., 65.
30. Georgia A. Newman, “Woman’s Place or Women’s Spaces: Intertwining History, Herstory and Christianity,” in Religion and Sexuality: Passionate Debates, ed. C. K. Robertson (New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing Inc., 2006), 72; italics in original. See also Glen Scorgie, The Journey Back to Eden: Restoring the Creator’s Design for Women and Men (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005), 174.
31. Gilligan, The Birth of Pleasure, 29.
33. Ibid., 152.
34. Ibid., 23.
35. A telling example of how this encouragement/shaming of young women with regards to intimacy is communicated can be found in two sections titled “The Guy’s Responsibility” and “The Girl’s Responsibility” in Joshua Harris, I Kissed Dating Goodbye: A New Attitude Toward Romance and Relationships, Updated Edition (Sisters, OR: Multnomah Publishers, 2003), 98-101.
36. McClintock, Sexual Shame, 12.
37. Marie M. Fortune, Sexual Violence: The Sin Revisited (Cleveland, OH: The Pilgrim Press, 2005), 25.
38. Ibid., 25.
39. Ibid., 84-85.
40. Ibid., 25.
41. Bruner, The Twilight Phenomenon, 123.
Kj Swanson is a doctoral student at the University of St Andrews in the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts. A graduate of Bennington College and The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology, where she received her master’s of divinity, her research interests include feminist theology, literature, and pop culture. She blogs about such things at http://kjswanson.com/blog/. These essays are drawn from her MDiv thesis.