Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Why Twilight is not just good prepubescent fun

Bella loves Edward. Edward loves Bella. Bella and Edward won’t have sex because sex is dangerous and evil. Welcome to Twilight, the latest in US-based religious extremism and neo-puritanism currently sweeping the world and making sure all your children are aware of right and wrong. Right of course being puritan morality and wrong being everyone who is different.

In some places, of course, Meyer’s New World protestant Puritanism is downright laughable (the evil and powerful Volturi live in Italy and try to dictate the standards of behaviour of all other vampires…um, do you think that could be the CATHOLIC CHURCH. Geez) but in others it is more insidious.

According to Stephanie Meyer, the apple on the cover of Twilight represents "forbidden fruit" (religoius imaginative). The author openly states that she chose this to represent "the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil" from Genesis, which represents Bella’s temptation and her choice.

This is American (read United States) neo-puritanism at its worst. The idea that in the choice between good and evil, a nearly-adult’s consensual relationship with a boy ostensibly her own age could be portrayed as a classic morality tale on temptation is disgraceful.

In True Blood (and its PG-equivalent Buffy), Sookie the mind-reader chooses a relationship with a vampire in spite of (because of!) her inability to read his mind. This is the metaphor of the danger of sex: opening yourself up physically and emotionally to somebody who can potentially hurt you (he has quite literal fangs) when you are never sure what is happening in their mind.

In Twilight, Edward and Bella believe they can never have sex because she will be crushed. This is not a metaphor for the danger of sex or, as the writer says, for abstinence. The true puritan subtext is that sex between two consenting adults before marriage is akin to suicide, disease and death. This is one of the most disgusting messages I can imagine imparting to the young women in my family, many of will be in the grey area of negotiating their own sexual relationships in a few years.

The subtext is taken to horrific levels by book 4, where Edward and Bella finally consummate their relationship (after marriage, of course); an experience that’s described as painful and dangerous, resulting in extensive bruising on Bella’s body and, even more disturbingly, an unnatural pregnancy that nearly results in her death.

Sex and death may be linked in many art forms, but here Meyer has taken it to a new level. In the world of Twilight and beyond, sex is no longer like death, sex is death.

In a scene that is akin to the resurrection, Bella dies (as a direct result of sex in her human body) but is finally reborn, liberated from all this fleshy sin and disgusting bodily functions by being made into the perfect American aspirant: beautiful, forever young and wealthy. Of course, none of this happens by her own ingenuity, hard work or ambition. No, all this was achieved because a man swooped down and made it happen for her.

Bella loves Edward. Edward loves Bella. Bella and Edward’s love transcends physical appearances.

Not that Twilight buys into any undergraduate attempts at racism. Unlike the tired analysis of some commentators who concentrate on the roles of American Indians and African Americans in the text, Twilight is exclusive in the truly nasty sense of the world as it embodies the cultural-exclusiveness that has begun to underpin the powerful myth of the ‘American Dream’ and the more egalitarian Australian ‘Fair Go’.

Here we have the new, and more insidious, racism found, not in outdated accusations of anti-Semitism or the use of the word ‘nigger’, but in a society that is willing to accept physical differences as irrelevant just as long as the ‘other’ chooses to behave exactly like us. The Cullens embody this philosophy. They are the ‘other’: a different species defined, as most ‘others’ are, by their physical differences and their exotic attraction. We are, however, exhorted to accept them (and by extension Bella and Edward’s love) because, unlike others of their kind they choose to play by the rules.

This concept has been very well explained by Marcia Langton in "The politics of Aboriginal representation" entitled "Well, I heard it on the radio and I saw it on the television -- " : a 1993 essay for the Australian Film Commission on the politics and aesthetics of filmmaking by and about Aboriginal people. She quotes African-American writer Michelle Wallace who discusses the representation of African-American people in films and television and in particular the Cosby Show: "that blacks are shown as characters who possess 'positive' attributes of white culture, which are really the attributes of a hypothetical and impracticable absence (or commodification) of culture. 'Culture' is then reduced to a style of consumption...indeed the show seems to suggest...that no one is ultimately different, since culture is something you can buy at Bloomingdale's, a kind of wardrobe or a form of entertainment."

Meyer has adopted this philosophy wholeheartedly. The Cullens may look different, says Meyer, but so long as they live in a house, go to school, have jobs, and most importantly play baseball and have wealth then prejudice is unacceptable. Otherwise, it’s completely understandable. People are right to hate and despise vampires (read Muslims as the ‘other de jeur’, if you wish but you could just as easily choose Indigenous Australians), unless they choose to completely eschew any outward form of vampirism (you obey all the laws of the country but heaven forbid you want to wear a head scarf to school). This is the horrific flipside of the ‘American Dream’, where people from different cultures are only accepted if they stop behaving like they’re from a different culture.

Contrast this with the far-superior True Blood, which asks through the introduction of a wide-variety of complex characters, the extent to which a society should adapt to other cultures with which it comes into contact and the extent to which the other culture should adapt to mainstream society. True Blood doesn’t answer these questions because it accepts that the solutions are not self-evident. Twilight doesn’t even raise them. ‘We’ live the right way; ‘they’ must change or leave.

Of course, there is much more wrong with Twilight than I've outlined; namely its modern disgust of the human body (no, no Puritan antecedents there!), its blatant sexism (fortunately for my readers, a feminist analysis of the text could fill an entire book so I won’t) and the simple fact that Bella is shallow, vapid and self-absorbed. Because the entire series is in first person, this makes all Meyer’s other characters mere one-dimensional cardboard cutouts; ghosts of other people that flitter in and out of Bella’s vision as she walks myopically and self-centredly through life. Despite herself (I suspect), Meyer has actually managed to produce a new genre: emo puritanism. The cult of American individualism and distate for the physical...with beautiful cinematography.


L said...

OK, now as the person vaguely mentioned as already disagreeing (and having forgotten what I put in my last comment) I have to say I think you're thinking way to hard about the hidden sub-texts of "the Twilight Saga" which has, by the way, recently overtaken Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code as the fastest selling book (Breaking Dawn) of all time in Australia - Which probably has your alarm bells ringing at maximum decibel levels, quick someone save the Australian public!

My personal take on The Saga is that its one of the most successful pieces of mary-sue-esque fan fiction since JK put an old grey bearded wizard in charge of a bunch of young-people on a quest he's sure will kill at least one of them in the process - but I digress.

What makes this fan-fiction to me and not a neo-puritanical religious text?
1. Our Heroine is pretty but not beautiful, is smart, but not all that popular- but also has nothing that would make her completely ostracized by her high school peers. It makes her (Bella) easy to identify with and makes it so much better that the awesomely beautiful Edward thinks that she is beautiful. Fanfiction requirement box one ticked.
2. Our hero (Edward) is something of an anti-hero, plus he fits into the "bad-boy" bin, what with the killing people and being a very bad (potentially deadly) choice for Bella. So this ticks the riskevous behaviour fan-fiction box of "put yourself in harms way and your hero will save you".
3. This whole saga is just a series of cliffhangers: it is essential for any successful piece of fan-fiction has to have cliffhangers.
4. The other characters are only there to serve the plot and the cliffhangers, if you write about the extra people too much it makes it harder to build the most important part of a Mary-Sue Fic:
5. The sexual tension.

This is where we really diverge on our understanding and analysis of the books. It may be shallow and yes I get that there are many possible interpretations of the character's abstinence before marriage. But that’s what a Mary-Sue is all about, if your main protagonists consummate their attraction in the first chapter then you've lost your intended audience, and any chance you had to get some kind of story line in other than "you complete me" or some tricky dialogue to resolve issues.

The metaphors are not lost on me but I think that I fall into the majority of readers who don't scratch beneath the surface. I don't say that's a good thing, but I also don't think its such a bad thing to see this a grand romance (oh and it has all the elements of a standard mills and boon - including the dominating male lead).

In fact two of the more obvious and quite admirable themes in the books are compromise and love (of all types). And they aren't such bad things.

Really they aren't.

Wiki has quite a good page about "Mary-Sue's" (noteworthy to some of us for the Wesley Crusher reference)and I would suggest reading the bit about "anti-Sue" while considering Twilight.

Oh and True Blood? To me (mildly prudish - I'll admit) it shares a lot of similarities with Twilight, except for it borders on soft porn more often than not (I get it and its subtle digs at society and stereotypes and TV genres) But while finding it witty at times I don't find it original. But I'll still watch it because it has cliffhangers. :)

genfie said...

A comment! Wow. No, but seriously. I think you've made excellent points. The point about the subtext though that I would have to disagree with you on would be the development of sexual tension. My argument is that this is exactly what the franchise is NOT doing. Sexual tension implies that at some point the characters will be able to have sex, even if they choose not to.

"If you have sex, you will die" is pretty explicitly NOT doing this.

On my list of smokin' sexual tension people on screen, Edward and Bella would rank about 1000th.