At first it seemed just like one of those ubiquitous Twilight t-shirts, but on a closer look, the curly text didn’t say “Twilight”; it actually said “Jesus is The Light”, and then: “you can live forever”.
I know the tagline here is “fiction need not apply”, so maybe I should just forget about the Twilight books, despite the hype over this week’s release of the fourth film installment, “Breaking Dawn Part I”. I’m writing because Twilight saga may be fiction, but the ideas it promotes have real impact.
Before I read Stephenie Meyer’s bestselling quartet about a superlatively handsome, unusually principled vampire at a Pacific Northwest high school, I would not have been surprised to see a chaste evangelical teen choosing her Lord and Savior over the Twilight saga. I assumed the novels were the latest racy vampire romance, and modern vampire sagas are in a delirious contest over who can further media boundaries of sex, sadomasochism and necrophilia. But Meyer is up to something very different.
The teenager who preferred to honor Jesus over Meyer’s vampire, Edward Cullen, certainly is not alone. The key themes of Meyer’s series may have been missed by the What Would Jesus Do crowd: a Facebook group called “Jesus Christ is My Edward Cullen” celebrates joy in Jesus over Meyer’s sensational fiction and the romance it idealizes. “In reality, no man is going to meet the standards of our beloved Edward Cullen. Even our Future Husband is going to look like dirt in comparison…only Jesus Christ will ever meet such standards,” the administrator explains. “Only He is the true gentleman, only He can sweep us off our feet and take us on a journey that far out-weighs any story-book fairytale filled with vampires and werewolves.”
But the whole Twilight saga, despite being billed on the jacket of its final installment as a “spellbinding romantic epic that has entranced millions,” reminds me of nothing so much as my own days in a conservative Christian high school. Instead of pointing out the crucial differences between Jesus Christ and Edward Cullen, chastity-vow teens (and their educators) should embrace these novels.
Meyer’s obsession with abstinence is already apparent to most readers of her novels (and in each successive Twilight film installment). But it worries me to see just how much these wildly popular novels reflect harmful educational tenets that are all too common in America. Religious teens shouldn’t let the whole vampire thing deter them – Edward and his human high-school love Bella are a metaphor for not only the dangers of premarital sex, but also for traditional gender roles which emphasize female naiveté and fragility, as well as the imperative of early marriage for virgin partners.
The question of whether or not Edward will have sex with Bella (or, just as naughty, make her into a vampire) provides most of the books’ suspense. Bella’s trading in her humanity for vampirism becomes intertwined with the question of whether or not she’ll be trading in her virginity, too – the vampirism amplifies a moral message rather than detracting from it.
Like many others who spent formative years in abstinence-only classrooms, I learned that losing virginity before marriage would represent an immediate, irrevocable and probably damning change to body, mind and spirit (a change that could hardly be more problematic than becoming a vampire). For example, in my own high school, a homeroom teacher would offer a candy bar to one boy, and then ask why another boy didn’t want the bitten remainder. This lesson varies in different abstinence-only programs recommended by some US groups. Some suggest that the teacher unwrap a piece of candy to pass around the class, or that the students pass a beautiful rose, each tearing off one petal. The dirtied food and the stripped flower represent people who don’t wait for marriage to have sex.
It’s no wonder that young matrimony (perhaps even straight after the girl’s high school graduation, as in the Twilight saga) seems like a good way to quench the risk. In my own experience, education on this topic also stressed my prime value as someone’s future wife. Just as the “Jesus Christ is My Edward Cullen” administrator capitalizes both her godly pronouns and “Future Husband”, my own unknown spouse-to-be was almost deified as a figure who would transform my life – if I stayed worthy of him through abstinence.
Bella’s Future Husband is a thirsty yet conscientious vampire who’s been seventeen for almost a century. He places Bella in exquisite peril, since he yearns for her body in more ways than one and one little sip is enough to seize her virginity – oops, I mean, make her into a vampire. Edward finally agrees to consider “changing” her (her heart’s desire being to stay with him forever, at any cost), and he also bargains his agreement to make love to her for her promise to be a traditional human wife, as soon as she graduates high school: “I just want it to be official – that you belong to me and no one else,” he says in Eclipse, the series’ third novel. Of course, it’s vital that naïve, breakable Bella wait until after the wedding for everything she wants from Edward.
Through a few painfully coy kissing scenes per book, the novels iterate a visceral supernatural danger that closely parallels an evangelical perspective on worldly premarital sex. Meyer repeats ad nauseam the danger of Edward’s strength on fragile Bella as a barrier to the desired consummation. “‘Do you imagine I would ever take that kind of risk with you?’” Edward asks Bella one heated bedtime in Eclipse, reminding her that his magical strength would harm her, a feeble human, should they attempt to have sex. “Bella, I could kill you.” But the overt danger to Bella, instead of drawing me into the supernatural romance, reminds me of the way some educational programs teach that sex is an emotionally – and even physically – fatal choice, especially for young women.
For example, we’re accustomed to the language of conservative organizations like the Heritage Foundation on this topic: their website warns that “teens who engage in sexual activity” risk not only disease and out-of-wedlock pregnancy, but “emotional and psychological harm.” The Sexuality Information and Education Counsel of the United States (SEICUS), in reviewing many popular contemporary abstinence-only curricula, criticizes the programs’ repeated assertions that premarital sex often causes not only incurable disease and unwanted pregnancy, but also poor grades, loss of social respect and self-esteem, increased risk of sexual assault and suicide.
Meyer evokes a similar perspective on premarital sex by dwelling on the danger of Edward and Bella’s sexual consummation, swapping the usual warnings about pregnancy, chancres and HIV/AIDS for the more entertaining prospect of a woman facing death by supernatural bloodlust in her boyfriend’s arms.
Meyer also has no qualms about echoing the grim moral and spiritual concerns which underlie many religious educators’ abstinence-only lessons on STDs and unwanted pregnancy. In Breaking Dawn, the fourth novel, the message comes from Edward himself. Convinced that a vampire is a soulless being barred from heaven, he initially refuses to “change” Bella because she will then be damned. However, vampirism isn’t the only potentially damning change the virgin Bella is after. Edward worries for her soul on all counts, discouraging her amorous embraces by alluding to “rules that have to be followed” for “a shot at heaven” – he suspects that premarital sex will damn Bella in God’s eyes, even if it turns out that being a vampire is ok.
“You’re trying to protect your virtue!” Bella exclaims. “No, you silly girl,” he scolds. “I’m trying to protect yours.” It’s hard to tell what’s more important to Edward: waiting to have sex until Bella’s an indestructible vampire, so that he does not risk killing her, or waiting until they’re married, so that they won’t sin.
“You silly, beautiful, oversensitive girl,” Edward scoffs manfully in Eclipse, to assure Bella of his desire despite his maddeningly principled refusal. “It’s not possible now. Later, when you’re less breakable. Be patient, Bella.” Whether it’s not possible because she’s not a vampire or because she’s not yet his wife is unclear in the third novel, but by Breaking Dawn, the final installment, Meyer makes it the latter.
Edward, who has spent three books explaining to Bella that sex will be impossible for them as long as she is human, suddenly decides that they can risk it after all (as far as I know, the main selling point of the Twilight film that opens November 18th starring Robert Pattinson and Kristin Stewart), because Bella has made her walk down the aisle. Clearly, the risk of the vampire killing his sweetheart –or turning her into an immortal bloodthirsty being – is not as dire as the moral and spiritual risk of having sex before the wedding.
My virginity certainly seemed like the most breakable thing about me in a Christian high school. But this isn’t the only Twilight plot point that reminds me of my school days. In Breaking Dawn, Bella becomes pregnant practically in the same instant that she finally leaves her virginity in the tropical honeymoon surf. I can’t help but wonder if Meyer is taking a break from the vampirism/premarital sex allegory to drop in a more literal, traditional message: if you have sex, you’re likely to get pregnant immediately. And, as the newlywed Bella faces the terrifying unknown of being pregnant with a supernatural being (her child’s birth is the bloodiest, most violent scene in the series), Meyer echoes the message which framed my younger years: think what a dangerous and impossible crisis a pregnancy would be if you’re not married.
Meyer makes a point of explaining why Bella’s near-fatal pregnancy with Edward’s half-vampire baby is so unexpected, even to the scientific vampire patriarch Carlisle Cullen, MD. Vampires are apparently not able to become pregnant, but besides some brief allusions to the myth of the incubus, apparently nobody wondered what could happen the other way around: could a vampire be your baby-daddy?
Meyer explains the science of her childless female vampires: childbearing requires bodily changes, both that of menstruation and pregnancy, therefore Edward’s adopted vampire sister “could not conceive a child, because she was frozen in the state in which she passed from human to inhuman” (good God, if a vampire ever bites me, it better not be during my period). But in Twilight’s world, it turns out, a male vampire’s body clearly can achieve the “changes” necessary to human conception (perhaps these functions, to Meyer, don’t measure up to the vagaries of the menstrual cycle).
During her honeymoon in Breaking Dawn, upon first discovering that her period is late, Bella muses that human men “pretty much stayed the same from puberty to death…Men had no such thing as child-bearing years or cycles of fertility” – so that’s why undead male beings like Edward can continue to father children, given a human partner, while their female counterparts make the ultimate reproductive sacrifice.
To be fair, perhaps a more logical or even-handed version of the steamy mechanics of Bella’s baby’s paternity are just TMI for Twilight’s target audience. The graphic details of Bella’s life-threatening pregnancy, on the other hand, are obviously deemed more appropriate and play out at length. Meyer, after countless prudish, clichéd narratives of Edward and Bella’s boudoir, seems to have no creative reservations about the violence of Bella’s subsequent delivery: with “a blood-curdling shriek of agony” Bella vomits “a fountain of blood” before her husband performs an emergency C-section with his teeth.
This not only reminds me of the way many of my educators would probably have preferred me to watch a violent movie over a sexy one, but also recalls the way many of them made a consistent and conspicuous mystery of sexual facts and anatomy (for example, in my own senior year anatomy class, the human reproductive system was covered with a single video of childbirth on the last day of class). SEICUS criticizes some abstinence-only programs for similar omissions, like describing and depicting only internal rather than external reproductive anatomy, focusing exclusively on the failure rates of contraceptives while neglecting to describe their proper use, and emphasizing only worst-case, incurable STD symptoms instead of early, treatable symptoms. In other words, the facts are much less important than a moral message – the less teens actually know about sex, the better.
Maybe the mysteries of Bella and Edward’s consummation, conception and shocking birth scenario are simply hot-n-heavy teen plot twists. Perhaps it’s an accident that Edward’s new wife, as we’ll see, seems as naïve in the final novel as the virgin brides lauded by abstinence-only programs. But it seems strange that the otherwise worldly, sensual, long-lived and sophisticated Cullen family is at a complete loss for practical sexual precautions.
In Breaking Dawn, Edward admits to asking his vampire father for guidance on sex, with very little practical result: “I asked him what I should expect. I didn’t know what it would be for me…what with my being a vampire.” Edward learns merely that sex is “a very powerful thing, like nothing else. He told me physical love was something I should not treat lightly.” This vampire foster-dad seems to have about as much useful information on sex as the average abstinence-only classroom, and the impending pregnancy shocks everyone.
But even after her protagonists’ wedding, Meyer highlights a strange sort of sexual ignorance that amounts to female amnesia. Bella awakes after nighttime cavorts with Edward in “layers of bliss” and a “glowing sphere of happiness.” However, her memory is oddly blurred. She does not realize that Edward has slaughtered the pillows in his ecstasy: “What had happened to me?…Why am I covered in feathers?” Even stranger, it’s a mortified Edward who must point out that she’s covered in bruises from his vampire embraces. “I tried to remember this – to remember pain,” she thinks, “but I couldn’t.” In a later episode, it’s also Edward who notices that her nightgown has been torn to bits – somehow this has escaped her both in the moment and upon waking. Edward’s destructive power is not limited to her negligee: “I followed his gaze and was shocked to see that large chunks of wood had apparently been gouged from the left side of the headboard.”
Perhaps Meyer is simply attempting to give her young readers sufficiently titillating allusions without courting an “R” rating. Or perhaps Bella’s bizarre, “blissed-out” amnesia, in contrast to a “hard, cynical” Edward’s chagrined, hyper-aware superiority, maintains the girlish innocence iterated in Meyer’s novels almost as much as it was in my high school classrooms.
Bella certainly seems to face the long-awaited consummation with more terror of the unknown than anticipation. In Breaking Dawn, she ritualistically prepares herself alone in a bathroom, dumbfounded with fear: “I started to feel a little dizzy, apparently a full-scale panic attack on the way. I…put my head between my knees. I prayed he wouldn’t decide to come look for me before I could pull myself together.” She’s so alarmed “because I had no idea how to do this, and I was afraid to walk out of this room and face the unknown.” It is striking that after three books of overheated teen romance (with a boy who can silently leap into your bedroom at all hours of the night) that the reality of sex with Edward, even after the wedding, is still a panic-inducing “unknown”.
“How do people do this – swallow all their fears and trust someone else so implicitly with every imperfection and fear they had – with less than the absolute commitment Edward had given me?” Bella wonders in Breaking Dawn as she huddles on the bathroom floor. I have to look again at the cover of the book to convince myself that I’m reading a romance novel, and not a religious tract on the rewards of waiting for marriage. Given Bella’s awed reflections on the impossibility of finding true personal acceptance without the “absolute commitment” of marriage, I’m surprised that the Twilight series isn’t required reading in abstinence-only classrooms across the nation.
Perhaps I sense that Meyer is reaching for a message on sex and relationships because Bella herself is such a colorless character. Her biggest distinguishing trait, besides her obsession with Edward, is her tendency for violent, life-threatening crises from which supernatural boys must save her. She seeks alternate relationships only when Edward leaves her briefly in the series’ second novel, New Moon. She has few ambitions, besides eternal partnership with Edward. She doesn’t like to dance, shop, go to parties, work, play sports, or even eat (until she’s eating for two, of course). As some critics have suggested, this may help readers project themselves into the character, the better to fantasize about devotion like the beauteous Edward’s. But it also could be that Bella’s generic presence helps to elevate certain messages in the story, the way stock characters emphasize morals over plot. The peril of premarital sex and the traditional imperatives of female chastity and ignorance, along with haste toward marriage at all costs, are dressed up in the consummate good looks and gallantry of a sexy 21st-century vampire.
If all of these moralistic overtones were leading to an image of love girls should aspire to, they might be easier to stomach. I argued at length with knee-jerk Twilight-haters that the kind of youthful infatuation Bella experiences for Edward is a legitimate, universal theme. But that was before I finished the series.
I don’t think Meyer describes a love readers should aspire to any more than a repressive, simplistic and misleading abstinence-only classroom teaches teens about the reality of lust and love. In Bella’s world, love is giving up everything and everybody else in your life as long as you can drink in your partner’s beauty and devotion with no risk of mortal interruptions like sleeping, bathroom breaks, or adult employment. “We didn’t have to catch our breath or rest or eat or even use the bathroom…he had the most beautiful, perfect body in the world and I had him all to myself,” Bella thinks in Breaking Dawn, during the intimacy finally allowed by her two vital changes: from human to vampire, and from virgin to wife.
But if Bella’s fans grow up to embark on successful real-world relationships, they will find that mature partners look out on and engage in the world together, serving challenging, constantly evolving mutual roles. In contrast, I presume the eternally teenaged Bella and Edward (like the rest of the Cullen “kids”), are going to go to high school again and again in the world’s cloudiest places until the end of time. No wonder everyone is swooning.
I don’t mind Meyer or anyone else writing about the intoxication of all-or-nothing teenage love. But I’m disappointed that when she maroons Edward and Bella there forever, girls call it a favorite epic romance and drape themselves in all things Twilight. Perhaps teens who favor religious slogans over the Twilight franchise are on to something. But even if Twilight never does catch on with the W.W.J.D. crowd, there may be an untapped market for a new bracelet, given Edward’s almost paternal care for Bella’s body and soul: W.W.E.D.