November 30, 2010 / Theology
This essay is neither for nor against Glenn Beck. The philosopher Michel Foucault warns us …
November 17, 2010
I tried to remember this—to remember pain—but I couldn’t.
—Bella, Breaking Dawn
My first visit to Forks, Washington, the setting of Twilight’s fictional locale, was in early 2009 when a friend and I spent a weekend exploring the Olympic Peninsula. Our visit coincided with the DVD release of the firstTwilight film, and so we could not pass a motel or restaurant without being watched by the poster-faces of Edward Cullen, Jacob Black, and Bella Swan. With hesitant curiosity, we stepped into the newly opened “Dazzled By Twilight” store in downtown Forks to see just what kind of paraphernalia this teen craze was producing. And there, among the red apple key chains and Mrs. Cullen T-shirts, was this sticker:
Could the same books that inspire evangelical Christians to endorse its presumed abstinence message also inspire its fans to fantasize about sexual violence? If this were true, what was the evangelical Christian response to the themes of sexual violence in the text? What I found was that where dangerous power dynamics were present in the text, evangelical reviewers tended to focus on Edward’s attempts at restraint rather than the manipulation, subjugation, and literal bruising Bella suffers at his hands. When read alongside evangelical relationship texts for young women, the evangelical Christian response to the sexual dynamics in Breaking Dawnreveals a troubling paradigm, where women must ignore danger for the sake of intimacy.
The Breaking Dawn Paradigm: Overcoming Sin Nature and Naturalizing Sexual Aggression
After abstinence and sacrificial love,1 the final commonality in evangelicals’ positive response to Twilight is the theme of overcoming unhealthy desires or temptations and choosing instead to “do good.” Edward is praised not only for his ability to resist sexual temptation, but also for his choice not to kill Bella in the first place. Christianity Today writer Stacey Lingle notes how Edward exercises his free will, making up his mind that he “will not eat Bella, no matter how hungry he feels or how good she smells to him. He decides that something is more important than his hunger: Bella’s life.” Reviewer Kathryn Darden praises Edward’s “innate sense of right and wrong, his concern for his soul, and his willingness to pursue what is right, even if he suffers greatly in doing so.” Likewise, she points out that much of theTwilight saga is “about exercising free will to choose to turn away from darkness in search of what is noble, pure and right.” The theme of Edward overcoming his monstrous design serves as a symbol for overcoming sin and pursuing righteousness. As one fan commenter on Christian Spotlight says, “It’s the story of a boy who denies his sin nature and works to become a better person despite his circumstances.”2
The idea of a bloodthirsty vampire controlling his dangerous impulses for the sake of love is, indeed, one of the most seductive draws to the Twilight saga. Edward’s moral turmoil about falling in love with Bella, his “prey,” arouses Bella’s compassion and the devotion of his real-world fans. In reviewer Elizabeth Leitch’s words, “the vampire is the bad boy our presence somehow tames and the tortured soul our love somehow soothes.”3
But it stands to question whether the narrative actually reveals Edward being anything other than a monster. Yes, he may choose not to kill humans, and he refuses to have sex with Bella until she is his wife, but when viewed through categories of sexual violence, the character of Edward represents a dangerous view of male sexuality. Unfortunately, it is this very aspect of Edward that has throngs of women and girls purchasing T-shirts advertising their wish to have Edward bust their headboards, bite their pillows or bruise their body any day. For all the conversation about abstinence and virtue, the Twilight saga is ultimately a story that eroticizes dangerous love. Edward may be a moral vampire, but he is still a monster. Although the character might overcome sinful tendencies, the book’s narrative effectively draws on a cultural precedence that links sex to violence. In the final Twilight book, we find evidence for why calling Edward a reformed monster is a gross misjudgment.
Into the Text: Breaking Dawn
The fourth and final book of the saga begins with a wedding. After a year and a half of tumultuous courtship and countless near-death experiences, Bella finally says, “I do” to Edward. She does so reluctantly, however, as her parents’ divorce taught her that marriage dooms love, especially marriage that begins right out of high school. Bella is content to pursue an eternal devotion to Edward that doesn’t involve the words “husband” or “wife.” One hundred-five-year-old Edward, on the other hand, having been born and raised in a more conservative era, presses and cajoles Bella to accept his offer of marriage. The bargain they make is that Edward will agree to change her into a vampire (which he has refused to do out of fear she might lose her soul) after she marries him (which she has refused to do out of fear of becoming a cliché).
In addition to becoming a vampire, what Bella has argued for most is the chance for the two to have sex. Edward initially rejects her urging because of his hard-to-control vampire tendencies, but once he learns to manage hisblood lust, the real issue becomes not wanting to lose his virtue and not wanting Bella to lose hers. Knowing that he has previously succumbed to rage and desire, killing men (albeit criminals), Edward believes his virtue (his word for virginity) may be his only redeeming quality—literally.4 Edward believes that as a vampire he no longer has a soul—or, if he does, that his soul is not worth saving. His virginity-virtue is the one thing he has left that he thinks might enable him to have eternal rest.
With their marriage, Edward concedes to attempt sex with Bella, but he is afraid; even though his vampire instincts are under control, he fears that he could accidentally kill her by his superhuman strength. Bella is convinced that after a year and a half of protecting her, Edward will be physically incapable of hurting her. With caution and nervousness on both sides, they consummate their marriage on their honeymoon night.
The next morning, Bella is shocked and confused by Edward’s terse and distant responses. Although she wakes up feeling “blissed out,” Bella discovers Edward is anything but joyous about their night together. As Bella searches her memory for the cause of his anger, Edward finally asks reprovingly: “How badly are you hurt, Bella? The truth, don’t try to downplay it.”5 Confused, Bella finally looks down at herself:
[. . .] large purplish bruises were beginning to blossom across the pale skin on my arm. My eyes followed the trail they made up to my shoulder, and then down across my ribs [. . .]So lightly that he was barely touching me, Edward placed his hand against the bruises on my arm, one at a time, matching his long fingers to the bruises [. . .]I tried to remember this—to remember pain—but I couldn’t. I couldn’t recall a moment when his hold had been too tight, his hands too hard against me. I only remembered wanting him to hold me tighter, and being pleased when he did.6
What Bella (and the reader) learns is that despite his best efforts to contain his immeasurable strength, Edward’s passion has physically wounded her. What makes this scenario so disturbing are the lengths to which Bella goes to convince Edward that she is unhurt and only remembers pleasure. The self-contempt Edward feels for having injured Bella comes out in his terse, angry responses, but Bella readily forgives him. Even in her narration, Bella is unable to perceive any negative aspect to being physically wounded by sex. She describes her bruises as “blossoming” and her body as “decorated with patches of blue and purple.”7 To Bella, the bruises on her body are pleasant reminders of lovemaking.
We also learn that in the heat of passion, Edward has ripped pillows apart with his teeth, leaving the both of them covered in feathers. On another occasion, Bella wakes to find that Edward tore entire chunks out of their wooden bed frame. As Twilight fandom has proven, Edward’s violent passion, which involves biting pillows, busting headboards, and bruising Bella’s body, is more thrilling than fearsome. Though Edward despises what he’s done to Bella, readers find themselves sympathizing with Bella, preferring to revel in the fulfillment of desire than to consider the ramifications of Bella’s bruises. Bella does not fear Edward’s strength, even when it leaves her black and blue. Instead, Edward’s violence is portrayed as the apex of sexual expression, a passion so strong that Edward literally tears apart the room. Whatever character traits might soften Edward’s physical violence, the narrative portrays violent sex as the ultimate fantasy. Regardless of the ethical code Edward has persevered to live by, it is clearly the monster to which Bella and the reader are drawn.
Into the Culture: Sinful Nature
Of the books written by Christians on the topic of Twilight’s appeal, only Beth Felker Jones’s Touched by a Vampire does the work of parsing out the real-life relational implications of Stephenie Meyer’s fantasy world beyond solely its spiritual aspects.8 Jones writes:
If you, like many readers, find these scenes exciting, it may be because it’s part of a powerful cultural tradition in which sex is seen as dangerous, especially for women, and the excitement and intensity of sex is heightened by that sense of danger. We have to reject these lies.9
Jones recognizes the appeal of eroticized violence and encourages her readers to consider why it is so exciting. And while evangelical relationship texts written for young women may not glorify sexual violence, there is an element of spiritualized violence present in the lionization of male strength.Captivating, the female-geared follow-up to Wild at Heart, John Edlredge’s guide to authentic Christian masculinity, admonishes women to value men’s strength using imagery that connotes danger. Regarding the need for vulnerability in loving both God and men, Stasi Eldredge writes that women “can’t wait to feel safe to love and invite. In fact, if you feel a little scared, then you’re probably on the right path.” Earlier, she explains that “women don’t fear a man’s strength if he’s a good man.”10 By drawing correlations between fear and love, Eldredge encourages a perception that men are naturally volatile but that women should lovingly accept the risk in order to be with them.
Eldredge mourns how “so many women fear the wildness God put in their man,” while encouraging women to emulate biblical women such as Tamar, Ruth, Rahab, and Mary. In holding these women up as models to emulate for their “courage, cunning and stunning vulnerability,”11 Eldredge overlooks the fact that each of these women had to, in ways either violent or submissive, give their bodies up for men’s use. Tamar was raped by her brother; Rahab, a prostitute; Ruth offered herself sexually to receive a man’s protection; and teenage Mary agreed to carry a child in her womb despite being unmarried. Though each story portrays these women’s courageous perseverance through abuse, neglect, and shame, raising them up as exemplars for vulnerability is tantamount to condoning the violation of their bodies. Eldredge misses the danger inherent in these women’s stories just as she misses the danger in promoting a belief that fear of men is a healthy response to their expression of strength.
In The Twilight Phenomenon, Kurt Bruner also fails to notice the threatening implications of Bella and Edward’s honeymoon night. He writes:
Like every virgin couple discovering the excitement of sex, [Bella and Edward] had to go slow and learn—especially since Edward knew he could easily ruin the marriage by unintentionally killing his bride. But they figured things out, and Bella quickly overcame her aversion to marriage.12
Bruner understands the scene to be about the trial and error of embarking on sexual intimacy, rather than the glorification of violence as sexy. Edward’s violence is apparently secondary to Bella’s unnatural aversion to marriage. Bruner goes on later to critique the character of Bella for lacking “many of the qualities historically associated with femininity—including an upbeat, nurturing spirit that makes a girl appealing to boys.” Furthermore, Bruner highlights that, “until forced, Bella is even averse to the joys of marriage and motherhood.” Bruner implies that “the joys of marriage,” in this case, sex, can allowably be forced on a woman so she will accept them. After combining this interpretation with our earlier readings of Edward’s role relationally and sexually to Bella, it is not difficult to see him fitting Marie Fortune’s description of “male sexuality as defined by the dominant culture” in Sexual Violence: The Sin Revisited:13
a desire that its object be “innocent,” that is, powerless, passive, subordinate; an ability to rationalize the experience “she likes it, wants it, needs it [. . .]”; a lack of regard for the other as an autonomous person; an inability to find erotic or emotional pleasure with an equal [. . .] or with someone who takes the initiative sexually; a sexual orientation that is predatory and dependant on the subordination of the partner; an attempt to avoid rejection by always being in control.14
When reading Edward and Bella’s relationship through these lenses, it appears more rooted in domestic abuse and sexual exploitation than in mutual respect and affection. Bella’s choice to overlook Edward’s monster heritage does not sanctify her willingness to be marked physically and emotionally by his control, anger, and violence. Within the world of theTwilight saga, the reason behind everything Edward and Bella do for one another is “love,” but in the minds of young girls who read these texts, the message broadcasted is that “good” sex is violent sex.15 According to Marie Fortune, the dominant culture teaches girls “to desire a romantic, sentimental love relationship and to expect a sexually aggressive male who is in control of the social and sexual interaction but not in control of himself.” As a result, “in order to have the romance, girls learn to accept the aggression.”16 Like Bella’s acceptance of Edward’s destructive touch, evangelical young women are encouraged to respond to aggression as authentic masculinity. The eroticization of violence that occurs in theTwilight saga is worsened when those who review it on behalf of girls and young women fail to see the patterns of abuse and boundary violation within the narrative. While evangelicals note Edward’s ability to make sacrifices to pursue righteousness, they miss the fact that Bella is the one being broken for his sins.
A Call for Equality
The eroticization of violence functions at a basic level, where sexual violence is misconstrued with sexual activity.17 Author Karen McClintock defines violence as “power over another, aggression, hostility, and intimidation,” whereas sexual intimacy is “shared power, playfulness, love, and risk taking.”18
It wasn’t until the 1970s that Western society began to more appropriately identify rape as a violent act, rather than a sexual act.19 Thankfully, today the message that rape is about power, not sex, is widely disseminated through school health programs and teen advocacy groups.20 What is not made clear, however, is the role that power differentials play in our cultural perceptions of romance. In a culture where “male dominance has become eroticized as has its corollary, female submission,” the belief emerges that “dominance and submission [. . .] power and powerlessness create the formula that sparks erotic desire in both men and women.”21 As writer Kimberly George puts it, “domestic violence patterns, eroticized violence deemed ‘romance,’ and harmful power differentials between men and women that are either not noticed or are mindlessly condoned” are reflections of our culture’s worst patriarchal dysfunctions. McClintock boldly asserts, “Whenever genital contact involves an imbalance of power, it is sinful.”22
Here is where an important clarification is needed. The problem is not in aggressive expressions of sexuality, but when such encounters take place in the midst of an imbalance of power between partners. As McClintock writes, sexual intimacy must involve boundaries and activities that are mutually agreed upon. When power differentials are the only mode for sexual arousal, abuse becomes conflated with sexual activity.
What is needed instead is the eroticization of equality,25 wherein mutuality becomes not only the sexual ideal, but the relational ideal as well. Indeed, the image of love expressed through shared power is fundamentally Trinitarian. In a culture that relies so heavily on the commoditization of sex, perhaps one of the greatest impacts the church could have is to lead the way in extricating hierarchy from the heart of intimacy.26 When equality is eroticized rather than violence, trust and vulnerability are honored and the cowardice of violence is exposed. Such a message of compassion overcoming the urge to control is at the heart of the gospel, and would be for women in particular, truly good news.
Conclusion: When to Stop Apologizing for Bleeding
The most famous quote from the Twilight saga is Bella’s confession to herself, after putting together the pieces of Edward’s secret:
About three things I was absolutely positive. First, Edward was a vampire. Second, there was part of him—and I didn’t know how potent that part might be—that thirsted for my blood. And third, I was unconditionally and irrevocably in love with him.27
In Escaping the Vampire, Kimberly Powers rewrites Bella’s words as an encouragement for young Christian girls:
About three things you can be absolutely positive: First, every girl longs to be loved with a vast and endless passion. Second, there is a fiercely protective Immortal Hero who longs for your heart. And third, He loves you with an unconditional and irrevocable love.28
Powers urges young women to seek fulfillment for love and security in Christ, rather than in the fantasy of Edward Cullen. Although this may be a valuable message to convey to girls who find that their lives do not live up to the drama and romance of Twilight, the categories being offered girls are still those of unmet desire, need for rescue, and love that overpowers. All the statements in Powers’s rewrite may be true, but the medium of the message aligns her meaning with a story rooted in female subjugation and male dominance.
By supporting a narrative wherein the female protagonist must dissociate from her body, silence her voice, sacrifice her life,29 and submit to violence in order to receive intimacy, evangelical Christian reviewers of Twilight reinforce patterns of misogyny present not only in the dominant North American culture, but specifically in the implicit theology of popular evangelical gender role texts. The evangelical embrace of Twilight symbolizes a willingness in Christian culture to view women as expendable for the sake of men. Like David Nilson of The Evangelical Outpost who says, “Edward Cullen is one of only a few role models who takes sexual purity seriously, and who actually embodies it in an attractive manner,”30 the evangelical response to Twilightculminates in acceptance of splitting from self to resist temptation, domination as loving-care, self-annihilation as expression of love, and the acceptance of violence as healthy sexual expression. If Twilight represents a worthy model of the Christian life, then Christian girls have little to hope for beyond being rescued, then silenced, and then broken.
Instead, the overwhelming popularity of the Twilight saga can serve as ground for conversation about how love could look when equality, rather than violence, is eroticized and about how women’s voices and bodies should be respected and honored, rather than controlled and subdued. Although Bella may resignedly spend her life apologizing to others for bleeding—for being female—a Christian response to Twilight can and should be one in which young women are taught to recognize their bodies as their own, their voices as beautiful, their love as life-giving, and their pleasure as gift. Saint Augustine wrote, “Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are Anger and Courage: Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.”31 Beauty such as this does not need to be rescued, for she can see for herself in which way lies danger and in which way lies life. The gift of Twilight is its ability to shine a light on the ways destruction of female beauty has become the common story. May we find, beyond anger and courage, a hope that empowers us to tell a truer narrative of relationship other than that of dangerous, vampiric, and consuming obsession.
1. See Kj Swanson, “‘Why Are You Apologizing for Bleeding?’ Confronting the Evangelical Embrace of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Saga, Part I,” The Other Journal 18 (2010), https://theotherjournal.com/article.php?id=1020&header=examination; and Kj Swanson, “Grateful Victimization, Joyful Suffering: Confronting the Evangelical Embrace of Stephenie Meyer’sTwilight Saga, Part II,” The Other Journal 18 (2010),https://theotherjournal.com/article.php?id=1035&header=examination.
2. Stacey Lingle, “What Shines in Twilight?” Christianity Today, October 2, 2008, http://www.christianitytoday.com/iyf/advice/mediaqa/Twilight.html; Kathryn Darden, “A Christian Look at Twilight Books and Movies: Part 1 of a 2-Part Series,” Examiner.com, September 13, 2009,http://www.examiner.com/gospel-music-entertainment-in-nashville/a-christian-look-at-twilight-books-and-movies-part-1-of-a-2-part-series-new-moon-trailer; Kathryn Darden, “A Christian Look at Twilight Books and Movies: Part 2 of a 2-Part Series,” Examiner.com, September 13, 2009,http://www.examiner.com/x-11989-Nashville-Gospel-Music–Entertainment-Examiner%7Ey2009m9d13-A-Christian-look-at-Twilight-books-and-movies-Part-2-of-a-2part-series-with-cast-slideshow; and Brittany [pseud.], comment on “Movie Review: Twilight,” ChristianAnswers.net,http://christiananswers.net/spotlight/movies/2008/twilight2008.html.
3. Elizabeth Leitch, “The Eternal Romance,” Preview of Twilight, HollywoodJesus.com, http://bit.ly/e7to7b.
4. Stephenie Meyer, Eclipse (New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company, 2007), 453-454.
5. Ibid., Breaking Dawn (New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company, 2008), 91 and 87.
6. Ibid., 89.
7. Ibid., 95.
8. Dave Roberts, The Twilight Gospel: The Spiritual Roots of Stephenie Meyer’s Vampire Saga (Oxford, UK: Monarch Books, 2009), offers an excellent critique of the saga’s promotion of materialism and cultural beauty stereotypes, but his criticism largely misses the presence of violence within the relationships that are portrayed.
9. Beth Felker Jones, Touched By A Vampire: Discovering the Hidden Messages in the Twilight Saga (Colorado Springs, CO: Multnomah Books, 2009), 57.
10. John and Stasi Eldredge, Captivating: Unveiling the Mystery of a Woman’s Soul (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2005), 141 and 18.
11. Ibid., 158 and 155-156.
12. Kurt Bruner, The Twilight Phenomenon: Forbidden Fruit or Thirst-Quenching Fantasy? (Shippensburg, PA: Destiny Image Publishers, Inc., 2009), 146.
13. Ibid., 159; and Marie M. Fortune, Sexual Violence: The Sin Revisited(Cleveland, OH: The Pilgrim Press, 2005), 20.
14. Fortune, Sexual Violence, 20. Formatting not original.
15. Ibid., 44.
16. Ibid., 23-24. All italics are in original unless otherwise noted.
17. Ibid., xiii.
18. Karen A. McClintock, Sexual Shame: An Urgent Call to Healing(Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2001), 49-50.
19. Fortune, Sexual Violence, 15.
20. Nemours, “Rape,” KidsHealth.org,http://kidshealth.org/teen/safety/safebasics/rape_what_to_do.html.
21. Fortune, Sexual Violence, 19.
22. Kimberly George, “Normative Restrictions: from nineteenth century Victorian ‘Ideals’ to Twilight,” 72-27: A Cross-Generational Dialogue between Two Christian Feminists, December 1, 2009, http://eewc.com/72-27/2009/12/01/normative-restrictions-from-19th-century-victorian-ideals-to-twilight; and McClintock, Sexual Shame, 49.
23. Although this essay deals exclusively with heterosexuality, the issue of damaging power differentials is relevant for same sex relationships as well.
24. McClintock, Sexual Shame, 50.
25. Fortune, Sexual Violence, 45.
26. Carol Gilligan, The Birth of Pleasure: A New Map of Love (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2002), 21.
27. Stephenie Meyer, Twilight (New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company, 2005), 195.
28. Kimberly Powers, Escaping the Vampire: Desperate for the Immortal Hero (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2009), 111.
29. See Swanson, “Why Are You Apologizing for Bleeding?”https://theotherjournal.com/article.php?id=1020&header=examination; and Swanson, “Grateful Victimization, Joyful Suffering,” https://theotherjournal.com/article.php?id=1035&header=examination.
30. David Nilson, “The Power of Twilight,” EvangelicalOutpost.com, July 1, 2009, http://evangelicaloutpost.com/archives/2009/07/the-power-of-twilight.html.
31. Saint Augustine, as cited by Shari MacDonald Strong in “The Slope,” inJesus Girls: True Tales of Growing Up Female and Evangelical, ed. Hannah Faith Notes (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2009), 137.
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.