"God showed me something small, no bigger than a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand… and it was round as a ball. I looked at it with the eye of my understanding and thought: 'What can this be?' And it was generally answered thus: 'It is all that was made.' It was so small I thought it might disappear, but I was answered... everything has being through the love of God." --Julian of Norwich

Monday, December 7, 2009

Twilight and me, Part 2: The Trouble with Fearless, Shameless Sexuality

Well, my obsession continues. For some reason, I’m not done writing about Twilight yet and I hope that at least some of this is helpful for you. I guess after all these years of University Education (and so little to show for it all!) I’m trained to respond to reading with a reasoned argument. Perhaps this is only half about Twilight and half about Twilight inspiring me to write about other issues around feminism and Christianity. Either way, both the reading and the writing are addictive.

In my last post, I argued that The Twilight Saga books are empowering to feminine sexual identity because they reject fear and shame as valid reasons to abstain from sexual activity. In this post, however, I would like to explore the dangers of this newly uninhibited feminine sexuality.

You see, I feel a tension, something pulling me back from really being able to endorse the books. As my friend Jen commented, Bella and Edward are so obsessed with each other and that can’t be healthy. There also seems to be something unhealthy about the addictive nature of the books themselves. The story is written in a compelling way to keep you turning those pages. Then there is the odd media phenomenon. The screaming mob that follows Robert Pattinson wherever he goes. The women willing to take off their clothes for attention from Rob and Taylor Lautner. The merchandise which bizarrely includes Team Edward and Team Jacob panties (But maybe I’m being too harsh about panties with a seventeen year old boy’s face emblazoned on them. I suppose they’re as good as a chastity belt. Any man who saw them would probably run screaming). Have these women collectively lost their minds? Was it such a good idea to empower them in the first place, or have we only unleashed the Furies?

As I see it, there are a few dangers latent in the unqualified affirmation of feminine desire. The first is the danger of autonomous desire or fantasy. It is not healthy for single women to read the books and just smolder in their rooms, dreaming of their own Edward or Jacob. The books are most empowering when women use them as an opportunity to talk to other women at different life-stages about the issues raised: love, choice, desire, addiction, etc.

It’s important that young girls also learn that desire is not an end in itself. As Luce Irigaray puts it, desire is best seen as the interval between men and women, the line that connects the two points. In order to love, we must be in relationship with people other than ourselves. It is not sufficient to imagine a million conversations with someone in the comfort of your own private world. You have to actually take the risk of getting to know them, entering into relationship.

Bella gets a lot of flack in the media for being with someone as dangerous as Edward. Meyer is adamant that the feminist element of the books is Bella’s choice. The writing makes much of Bella’s walk in the woods, about 135 pages into the first book, when she makes a conscious choice to pursue a relationship with Edward, knowing that he is a vampire. She decides to take the risk. Her faith is not completely unfounded: despite Edward’s dangerous tendencies, he never eats her because he also has qualities like self-control and respect.

Perhaps this is a pitfall of translating the books onto the silver screen, making words into images. Images that are not connected with human relationships can be abused because there is no accountability. As Edward goes from a complex imaginative character in the books to the handsome face of RPattz in the movies, we are divorced from any ability to look him in the face. Rob is completely objectified as the object of desire, while girls can allow their desires to go wild outside of the accountability of actual relationship. I have a weird theory that this is why Edward is present in Bella’s room at night. It is a stretch, but perhaps on a subconscious level, it is Bella’s accountability even for her dreams. She doesn’t have to fantasize about Edward or idealize him by night, he is right there with her in all his… imperfection. (This does not mean I advocate this behavior in relationships. Human males would not be able to provide this sleepless accountability. This is where we acknowledge that Edward is described in inhuman terms to accomplish something in the story that takes us outside the “real world.”)

The second major danger in the unqualified affirmation of desire is obsession: the belief that a person or a love relationship can be the solution to the struggle with desire. On this point, Irigaray argues that mutual relationship is only possible in an environment where there is a remainder, a part of each of the individuals involved in the relationship which is not consumed by the other person. The tension of desire never disappears, but it is controlled by coming up against its limits. She speaks of God, children, and transcendent spiritual reality, like that of angels, as the limits to desire.

Bella and Edward are often accused of unhealthy obsession with one another. They do spend a lot of time together, especially at first, but they also spend a considerable amount of time with other people: with Bella’s friends at school (thought it’s hard on many levels for vampires to have human friends and this is not as obvious in the movies), with Bella’s parents, with Edward’s family, and eventually, with their child. Perhaps even more significant, Bella does not cut off her relationship with Jacob after Edward returns—she is even willing to fight with Edward for it. Their other relationships form the limits of their relationship, as do their spiritual beliefs, like Edward’s somewhat vague belief in “preserving his virtue” through abstinence and through his protection of Bella.

Here, it is interesting how their close relationship goes profoundly against the cultural ideal of the emotionally detached “hook up.” The whole point of a romantic relationship is that it is exclusive. It ought to be between two people who experience a strong connection and a strong desire to spend time together. But I think that many people in today’s culture find even this simple idea puzzling and “obsessive.” It is also difficult for couples to maintain other relationships in today’s “dating” culture, especially relationships with singles. The “double date” is cool, the “third (or fourth, or fifth) wheel” is not.

In conclusion, my major concern for women who read the Twilight novels is that unqualified affirmation of desires is not healthy. We need the limits in our lives: limits of being accountable to the person we love and holding the relationship itself accountable to other relationships. The ultimate limit for Christians is our relationship with God. This is what I want to deal with in the last post. But in the mean time, an exhortation from one of the wise voices of feminine desire in the Scriptures:

I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem,
By the gazelles or the does of the field,
that you do not stir up or awaken love
until it pleases.

and later:

Set me as a seal upon your heart,
as a seal upon your arm,
for love is as strong as death,
jealousy is fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
the very flame of the LORD.
Many waters cannot quench love,
neither can floods drown it.
If a man offered for love
all the wealth of his house,
he would be utterly despised.
~Song of Songs 2:5, 8:6-7

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