Twilight's Hidden Morality Plays

Illustration for article titled Twilight's Hidden Morality Plays

When will mainstream media stop claiming there's a "positive" message in the Twilight books that inspired the eponymous teen-bait movie? The Twilight book series is many things, but empowering it is not. The more you examine author Stephenie Meyer's themes, the more obvious it becomes that her books are a thinly-veiled religious screed against teen sex. Spoilers for the Twilight series after the jump.

Of course Meyer should be allowed to write her own values into Twilight and its sequels, but we are doing young readers a disservice by rubber-stamping these books without a forewarning of what lies within.

Twilight, a book ostensibly about supernatural vampires, werewolves, and adolescent angst, is featured at Mormon bookstores and supported by the Church's followers. The Salt Lake City Deseret Times named Meyer its favorite author behind Orson Scott Card. While it is refreshing to see an influential religious group embracing alternative genres instead of shunning them, one has to wonder what makes Twilight so special. Meyer has said that there are elements of her devout Mormonism in the story (it opens with a quote from Genesis), and those who have read her know she is an unselfconscious writer. It is not hard to view many of the motifs as inspired by the author's religion: even her vampires enjoy an exquisitely gifted eternal life together as a family after choosing the path of virtue rejected by others of their kind.


All this adulation is not earned because the books are fine works of literature. I'm consistently amazed by how many critics, bloggers and reviewers have given Stephenie Meyer a free pass. Twilight features some of the least-polished published writing I've ever read and is the sort of unrepentant Mary Sue wish-fulfillment most of us construct when we first sit down to write.

Bella Swan (because 'Lovely McGirl' was taken) moves to the foggy town of Forks for some reason. Her main personality traits are terminal clumsiness and total self-effacement, and most of her activities involve cooking and cleaning for her estranged father while Weird Things Happen at her school. Speaking of school, it turns out everyone there wants to be her friend and the male population falls all over her (Bella doesn't know how gorgeous she is, of course). The only person who's even more gorgeous than Bella is Edward Cullen, sparkly vampire extraordinaire, and the reason we've all been subject to Pattinson's face on 20-foot billboards.

We're meant to love the perfectly muscled, handsome, rich, perfect, flawless Edward, of the auburn hair and topaz eyes, as much as Bella and Meyer immediately do. And it seems that a great majority of the book-buying public — especially female adolescents, and their mothers — have fallen for the vampire hook, line, and sinker. But they would be so much better off spending their time with seasons of Buffy. Edward makes Buffy's boyfriend Angel seem a cheerful fellow and her lover Spike's antics romantic by comparison.

Illustration for article titled Twilight's Hidden Morality Plays

Edward and Bella fall into swoony "love," defined by little else than their declarations of it and adjectives lavished on Edward's beauty. He also wants to eat her. Along the way, Edward increasingly takes away Bella's agency: he stalks her, watches her sleep at night, drives her everywhere, isolates her from family, limits her movements, and carries her off at the drop of a hat. While critics have mostly ignored the underlying misogyny, many web comments and reader reviews have mentioned that Edward's behavior evokes that of an abusive partner. Were he not a vampire, he would be in prison.

Meyer has received infinite praise for not allowing her characters to engage in premarital sex. Twilight's "chastity buzz" is no doubt a large reason it has been given to many children as "safe" reading material and featured prominently on display and in many book clubs. But open Meyer's books and you will not find soft ruminations on spiritual love. Instead, Bella's teenage passions are consistently thwarted by her decades-old suitor. If she doesn't faint while kissing him, Edward will pry her off and get angry, unable to control himself. What a wonderful lesson for little girls.


Since Edward won't sleep with Bella until they're married, and will hurt her because he's a vampire, the denouement is saved for the fourth book. It's in the highly-anticipated Breaking Dawn that Meyer goes too far pushing her personal values on unsuspecting readers. There is nothing wrong with chastity, and nothing wrong with sex, either. Science fiction and fantasy fans are used to a long tease: we watch shows and read series for years without our favorite characters hooking up, and the relationships are often the better for it. We'll wait.

But after making readers pine for more than a thousand pages, Meyer finally gives the couple a fade-to-black: "'Forever,' he agreed, and then pulled us gently into deeper water." Then Bella wakes up bruised and bloodied and angsty Edward never wants to do such horrible things to her ever again. Another wonderful lesson for little girls. The book then manages to completely jump the shark and become a virtual pro-life P.S.A. when Meyer falls for the easiest of amateur fanfiction traps and makes her protagonist pregnant.


The too-predictable plotline would be bad enough without statements like this from Bella: "This child, Edward's child, was a whole different story. I wanted him like I wanted air to breathe. Not a choice — a necessity." Never mind that Bella, 18, had never wanted children and had been arguing with her husband about going to college, which he summarily dismissed.

But then bad Edward wants to give Bella an abortion because he knows their half-vampire/human baby will kill her! "He leaned away and looked me in the eye. 'We're going to get that thing out before it can hurt any part of you. Don't be scared. I won't let it hurt you.' 'That thing?' I gasped...Edward had just called my little nudger a thing. He said Carlisle would get it out. "No," I whispered." You see, Bella often refers to her unborn child as "her little nudger," since it grows inside her at an unnatural rate. Yes, she does.

Illustration for article titled Twilight's Hidden Morality Plays

Once Meyer is over her anti-abortion hysterics, she has Bella endure a truly horrific pregnancy and birthing sequence, stretching untold pages. I found much of it so gruesome and awful as to be almost impossible to read — and I was in a horror film class where we watched Rosemary's Baby and The Brood for homework. I shudder to think of the preteen readers who waited on line for Breaking Dawn and found their heroine getting her ribs and spine cracked from the inside out by a hybrid vampire baby.


Is the Twilight series pushing its own kind of morality along with its love story? I think so — and it is an element that parents and teachers need to be aware is in the books. The narrative suggests that it is better to submit and sublimate yourself to a superior being than to be your own person. Having a will of one's own is not conducive to Meyer's brand of love and living. Only heterosexual relationships are explored, and (married!) sex is always a power play with painful consequences. Plus it is preferable to be a teenage mother above all else, even if it kills you.

Some fans were in an uproar over Bella's easy dismissal of Native American werewolf Jacob Black, who had long been a rival for her affection — but don't worry too much about Jacob. In what may be the most disturbing development of Breaking Dawn outside of its snapping ribs, Jacob "imprints" on Bella's infant daughter (the unfortunately-named Renesmee), meaning he'll loom around creepily all her life waiting until she's of marriageable age to claim. These are the family values that have buoyed up Stephenie Meyer's sales figures.


There's no denying that Meyer can evoke a visceral reaction, and that her writing, no matter how flat, has taken hold of the public imagination. Her ear for dialogue and capacity for action is stronger than her description, and the books will likely be that rare creature — better in film than on paper. The studio will no doubt be green-lighting sequels after the Twilight movie takes off, but I'd love to see how they'd handle Breaking Dawn's reproductive issues. The insane popularity of Bella and Edward's overwrought romance would warm my heart (kids are reading!) were it based on substance and self-respect, but both are strangely lacking in the world Stephenie Meyer made. They never needed sex; these two were damned from the start.

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Kaila, I think you need to think outside the box a little more as to why these books appeal so much—not just to moral schoolmarms, but across the spectrum socially. I'm a teacher who works with middle school kids, and these books are beloved by my students. And to be quite honest, I understand why.

Girls nowadays are growing up in such an exposed cultural environment, where they are taught to sexualize and objectify their bodies very early nowadays. There is a lot of peer pressure for girls to give out oral sex casually. And that's what it is—give out basically. Because oral sex works as a sort of social negotiating tool to get you up higher on the social ladder. Sex can be used similarly. I can't tell you how many girls have confided in me about some really disturbing scenarios where they are expected to offer sexual favors in exchange for popularity,etc.

If that's the world many young girls are growing up in, where sex is such a cynical bargaining chip to use as a navigation tool socially, Edward freaking Cullen is looking really good to them.

I realize from an adult perspective that TWilight seems school marmish. But for a young teen girl who is expected to do things sexually she's not ready for, Twilight offers them a picture of boy who doesn't expect them to get down on their knees in a friend's bathroom and get to work while 8 friends are on the other side fo the door cheering her on(one of the many wonderful scenarios I've had to hear about).

Twilight for girls is a bit of a buffer from their realities and social peer pressures, where the idea of sensuality and intimacy are distinguished from sexuality. Girls at this age have traditionally used books as a sort of thinking pool to dream and aspire. The fact they dream about Twilight says more about the culture they are growing up in than them if you ask me. I see very bright, very capable young girls fall for these books, and it's not because they just want the hottest boy in school.