This past weekend I spent a lot of time observing and participating in a pop culture phenomenon: specifically, the much-hyped new Twilight film. I won’t get specific about it because there are many other places that do, but I did really enjoy all four novels and the first movie. A sequel based on the second book, New Moon, got the go-ahead from studio execs when Twilight recouped its entire production cost ($37 million) in the first twenty-four hours after its release. I’ve been to several other midnight-showing experiences with a built in fan base (Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter), but Twilight was different because neither its genre (young adult romance) nor target demographic (teenage girls) aren’t typically big earners for studios and don’t get a lot of recognition. After a $70.6 million opening weekend, Twilight became the highest-earning movie directed by a woman (Catherine Hardwick).
It seems that this year has been kind of a wake-up call for studios. High School Musical 3: Senior Year also made lots of money from a teenage-girl crowd, and Sex and the City: The Movie was a hit with the 20s and 30s yuppie set. Films about women or films that appeal to women have done very well financially. I think Hollywood has long neglected the spending power of teenage girls and young women. This is certainly a mistake, since teenagers have more disposable income than most other groups (assuming they have jobs or allowances and no expenses) and seeing a movie with friends is usually a more popular thing to do for girls than for boys. I'm no film historian or market analyst, but I think that most big movies are aimed at a male or gender-neutral audience: think the Batman franchise, Harry Potter, the Bond films, Bourne series, etc. However, Twilight had a bigger opening than any James Bond film.
This is interesting to me, because while lots of feminist-style “pro-woman” movies (like Sex and the City) have done reasonably well at the box office, not one of them even comes close to Twilight. The Twilight Saga, written by Mormon stay-at-home mom Stephenie Meyer, is an untraditional vampire romance series. There’s all the usual bloodlust, secrecy, and werewolves-versus-vampires action, but the series is also an ode to chastity and traditional values. Bella and Edward (the teenage heroine and her 108-year-old undead boyfriend) barely kiss in the first novel and don’t make love until their wedding night in the fourth installment. His behavior toward her always is protective and chivalrous, and he goes out of his way to be polite to Bella’s friends and family. When Bella becomes pregnant with his half-human, half-vampire child, she opts to carry the baby rather than terminate a pregnancy that nearly kills her. One of the things Bella loves most about her life with Edward is his family: six other “vegetarian” vampires who survive on animals instead of people and love each other as much as human siblings do. Bella, the child of divorced parents, thrives under the loving attention of her in-laws, especially Edward’s sugary-sweet sister, Alice.
The Twilight novels (and now, movie) have been criticized for being anti-feminist, and I can understand that accusation even if I don’t agree with it. Bella does everything a post-modern woman shouldn’t do: she falls in love in high school, has notably low self-esteem, is engaged before graduation, marries at eighteen, is pregnant right away, doesn’t abort her unplanned child, becomes a vampire in order to live forever with Edward, and gives up acceptance to Dartmouth College to stay with her husband and new daughter. From the outside, Twilight is certainly anti-feminist.
However, what does it really mean to be a feminist? There’s a lot of talk about what modern women ought to do and be, and I’ve always been skeptical that things are much better for women now that we’re “liberated.” It seems to me that authentic feminism- the kind John Paul II wrote about in Mulieris Dignitatem and his Letter to Women - isn’t about liberation from the oppression of men, but rather the oppression of Satan. Everyone is struggling with this sort of oppression, not just women, or course, but because men and women are fundamentally different (if equal in dignity), we women have a different way of fighting evil, embracing our vocations, and contributing to the world than men do.
Thinking about Twilight’s unprecedented success, I began to wonder if all the “girl power” and postmodern feminist hoopla isn’t leaving girls empty and cold. It certainly had that effect on me for a while, until I read Stasi Eldridge’s fantastic book Captivating. Her book is exquisite, capturing the longing we women have to be pursued and beautiful, but also emphasizing our innate need (and ability) to be active participants in an epic story; to be warrior princesses like Eówyn or Lucy, not damsels in distress like Snow White or Sleeping Beauty.
My friend Dave Stiennon, a guy who admits to not only reading, but actually liking, the Twilight novels, wrote about why they appeal to so many women a few weeks ago. He writes (emphasis mine):
“#1: Women feel vulnerable, in a way that men really don’t. This was definitely the vibe I got from Bella [the heroine and narrator], partly with her constantly falling into danger either from freak accidents or from malevolent extras, but partly just from the way she sees the world. It struck me that the first thing that makes her really attracted to Edward isn’t that he is handsome or that he is kind to her (other characters, particularly Jacob, are this) . It is that he makes her feel secure and protected.
#2: Many women don’t realize how attractive they really are. I think part of the reason Bella seems like a jerk from an outside perspective is that a large number of sympathetic readers do not see themselves as being particularly loveable. Furthermore, Bella seems to genuinely not realize that she is the most beautiful girl in the school. I know that me and my other dude friends (as far as I can tell) experience lack of confidence sometimes, but it is of a different nature. This seems to be the other thing that makes Edward so attractive to Bella, more than his being kind and handsome. It is that he makes her feel beautiful. It isn’t just by admiring her looks, it’s by doing things like where he spends the entire day grilling her for every detail of her life. It makes her feel special. It makes her feel important. It makes her feel loveable.
#3 Women tend to be more binary about being in love. In other words, either you are or you aren’t. Girls, I invite you to correct me if I am wrong here, but I think that us guys are unique in this attitude: That we see every girl we meet as a potential mate. We might rule you out pretty quickly, but we always evaluate the possibility. Furthermore, when faced with breakup or rejection, I think it is easier for us to say, “I think I could have been happy with her forever, but it just wasn’t meant to be. Broken hearts heal eventually, and there are lots of good fish in the sea”. Bella seems to have a remarkably different approach. Even with boys who obviously like her, such as Mike and Jacob, she seems to have zero interest in them, and to be a little annoyed by their advances. With Edward, in contrast, there is little development before she is irrevocably in love with him.
#4: You might notice, I’ve hardly mentioned the theme of vampirism so far. That’s because I don’t think that whole vampire thing by itself is at the emotional core of the story. However, I do think vampirism is important to the story in how it is used as an analogy for marriage and for sexual desire. Consider: For Bella to really become united with Edward, she would have to become a vampire herself. To do this, she would have to leave behind her family and friends, not in the sense of never seeing them again, but in the sense of parting ways, in favor of Edward and his family. The commitment would be forever. It is appears to be wonderful and desirable, but at the same time it is a terrifying leap of faith. I know that’s how I feel about marriage, and I bet it is even more so for women.
I also think that Edward’s thirst for Bella’s blood is meant to be an allegory for the desire for sex that all men have. Ladies, if I guess right on the significance of Twilight, you understand this already, but just in case, let me explain: all men want sex all the time. It’s a constant, aching hunger, it starts around the age of twelve, and it never stops. We aren’t consciously thinking about it all the time, but it’s always there in the background. Most boys get some level of civilized control over it eventually, but in the mean time, we are in junior high school, and this is a big part of why every one of us is a total jerk in junior high school.”
(it's a great post; but the rest is on Facebook and so not available to the general public).
One of the biggest (if not the biggest) reason Twilight has such rabid fan base among teenage girls is the character of Edward Cullen. At the various movie events these past few months, it's Robert Pattinson, the actor playing Edward, who elicits the most screaming, fainting, and marriage proposals. This is probably pretty uncomfortable for Rob himself, but I can understand the mania. Edward (and Rob) is incredibly attractive, but that’s not the main reason women love him. Twilight is written from Bella's perspective. Because it's first-person, and she has love-goggles on, we very rarely see any flaws in Edward. To Bella, he's perfect. It's not until the fourth book, which is partially narrated by Bella's best friend and Edward's rival Jacob (a werewolf, of course), that we hear anything negative about Edward. Like Bella, millions of young girls have fallen in love with the idealized version of Edward, one without any flaws. Edward embodies an old-fashioned Byronic hero in his chivalry, concern, and love for Bella, but it's always struck me as a tad unhealthy that Bella (and fans) see him as utterly perfect. No one is perfect! However, Bella (and fans) are willing to overlook his flaws because he is so willing to put himself second. Edward puts himself in danger time and time again to save his girlfriend/fiancée/wife, and that protection is incredibly attractive to women. Even though we are certainly capable of fighting alongside guys, we like them to man up and do what they’re supposed to do.
This is something sorely lacking in many guys today, especially the teenage guys young girls see on a daily basis. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not male-bashing, and I know a lot of incredibly good men who are like Edward- strong, protective, loving, and all that. However, the average fifteen year old boy just isn’t. As Eldridge writes so often in Captivating, women are designed for pursuit. This pursuit is intended to lead us to Jesus, but lacking that relationship, we’ll settle for any guy that pursues because it’s what we’re made for. Millions of teenage girls are in love with Edward Cullen because he’s everything they think they need but can’t get from their male peers.
Culture tells young men that they should be James Bond, not Edward Cullen. Bond has a different partner in every film. Women are transitory and unimportant, pretty accessories pursued solely for the chase and the drive for sex. For Edward, his love for Bella couldn’t be more opposite. He's in love with her for her beauty and her brain and personality, but is aware that he might not be the healthiest person for her. In fact, he spends much of the first novel and part of the second trying to convince her that he's not good enough for her. Edward knows they can’t sleep together or his bloodlust will take over. Additionally, he strongly believes in saving sex for marriage, and he and Bella save intimacy for their honeymoon. It takes four very thick novels to get Bella and Edward in bed together, and Edward is so worried about hurting Bella that he would’ve been content to wait longer.
It was certainly entertaining and interesting to watch the Twilight movie phenomenon unfold. I'm glad millions of young ladies are swooning over someone like Edward rather than a less "moral" hero, but at the same time, I'm sad that they don't have the same intense longing for Christ. I guess that's why I have a job!