Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Pop Culture Immersion

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!

Friday, November 14, 2008

I am a Disney Princess

It's been about a year since Disney's Enchanted was released, and in that time I've seen it in the theater six times, downloaded the soundtrack from iTunes, bought the DVD the first day it was available, memorized every song and line, and had my hair dyed strawberry blonde so I could be Giselle for Halloween. I didn't make my costume out of curtains, instead settling for the more conventional "fabric bought at a store" idea, but I had so much fun as Giselle that it was bound to have some consequences.

There's a mouse in my office.

I know exactly why, too. After the middle school Halloween party I gave at the parish, I trilled Giselle's "Happy Working Song" as I cleaned up. ("...come my little friends / as we all sing a happy little working song / merry little voices clear and strong...."). It worked! I have a little friend who has come to live in my office. Though he's not a chipmunk, I've named him Pip, after Giselle's littlest friend. He's adorable. I first discovered him last week before religious ed; I was assembling some flyers and heard a peculier shuffling and scratching in the sparkly orange bowl where I keep (wrapped) candy. It's been there since I began working here, and I always provide candy or other snacks to the kids at youth group. However, Pip heard me inviting him in few weeks ago with my singing a few weeks ago and moved right in. He's absolutely precious.

I know mice are not good things to have in houses or offices, but he's so cute I can't bring myself to set a trap. He has big black eyes and huge ears and has pretty soft brown-grey fur. The first time I saw him he was so scared he was shaking. But I told him it was alright; I wouldn't tell anybody. Of course, he's been visiting other offices too and leaving "presents" behind, so everyone's in an uproar about setting traps and poison, but I hope they don't catch him, because Pip hasn't really done anything to hurt anybody.

Now I just have to train him to clean things, learn charades, and rescue me from trolls and dragons the way Pip helps Giselle. Stay tuned.

Does this mean my Prince Edward is around to the corner? A man with James Marsden's blue eyes, cheekbones, and incredible voice would have me swooning and falling out a tree, too.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Armed and Dangerous!

Unsurprisingly, Jen F. of Conversion Diary gave us another great post today. (seriously, someone give that woman a book deal already!)

Reflecting on her struggles and triumphs with prayer helped me remember my own, and I discovered one of the many reasons I've come to love the rosary: it keeps me focused. I'm more than a tad ADD when I'm talking with people, including God, and I have a tendency to become easily distracted. Wikipedia is like heroin for people like me; I can follow an endless chain of links through a maze of connected information. Sometimes I also have a problem with silence. In my last Integrative Spirituality class we tried out centering prayer and I found it immensely difficult. I love many of the other prayer techniques we experienced this semester, especially Ignatian and Franciscan prayer, but centering prayer was nearly impossible. The litany of internal chattering and list-making simply wouldn't shut up and I didn't experience any actual QT with God.

I've struggled with that for a long time, and when I was first discovering Catholicism, one of the most beautiful things I discovered about the rosary was its ability to focus and deepen my prayer. It's ironic, I think, because many Protestants accuse us of "vain, repetitious prayer" contrary to Jesus' words in Matthew 6:7: "And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words." But if I think about it, many of my extemporaneous prayers (as both a Catholic and when I was a Protestant) fall into that category. I simply loved Jen's "transcription" of her prayers. For me, they often go like this:

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, amen. Hi, Lord. Whew, what a day, huh? Thanks so much for keeping me safe when I was driving home tonight- that deer came out of no where. Please keep other travelers driving home tonight safe, too. St. Anthony, send us a few intercessions. Hmm. Why is St. Anthony the patron saint of travelers? I used to know this. St. Christopher disappeared after Vatican II, but no one really can explain why. Ok, I'll look it up later. Lord, I'm so nervous about [insert lots of family-related issues here]. Please, please watch over us. Dad wants me to look for a job at the CDC that pays twice what I make now but isn't working for the Church... what are your thoughts on that, God? I love my job. Oh shoot, I have to make sure I remember to make the Halloween party flyers to give out at CCD this week. And finish the monthly newsletter and finish making the music folders for youth choir. I wonder when I'm getting reimbursed for all my mileage? Oh, gees, Lord, I don't think I'm doing too well in the financial stewardship department lately. I need to get to confession pretty soon. But ugh, I don't know if I have time to go to Stevens Point this week...

Now, if I pray like that for fifteen minutes, most of which is not really dialogue with God but with myself instead, I haven't really accomplished much. Yes, I've thanked God for the good in my day, gone through my failings and asked for help in specific areas, but I've also spent a good deal of time babbling instead of listening. That's pretty much was Jesus warning against in Matthew 6:7.

However, it's an entirely different story when I pray the rosary. Each mystery focuses on a specifically beautiful moment in Jesus' life or the life of the Church, so for the following few minutes as I pray each decade I'm thinking about the Visitation, Jesus' Scourging at the Pillar, Mary's Assumption, etc. Because I'm focusing on a specific event my internal monologue shuts us. It's awesome. I love it. At the same time, I'm honoring Mary as Scripture predicted ("and all generations will call me blessed," Luke 1:48) and reminding myself of the key events in Jesus' life. Pretty sweet! Finally, I'm asking my Blessed Mother to pray for me, and I know she will.

Discipline in prayer life can be a hard habit to master. It's far, far, far, far easier when I have a systematic way to approach prayer. Notice this doesn't mean I make my prayer static or cold or only a matter of fulfilling a duty. This is the beautiful thing about the Liturgy of the Hours. On days when I pray the Liturgy of the Hours, I stop at specific times to focus on God. The handy-dandy Magnificat has the whole month's worth right there, along with a reflection about a Saint or the day's readings.

Using prayer as a weapon is another relatively new concept in my faith understanding. As a child and teenager, prayer was to either ask God for things or thank him for things that happened. It wasn't until college that I became conscious of the true (and sometimes very scary) reality of spiritual warfare waging in our world and learned to use prayer as a tool against He-Who-Really-Sucks-Bigtime (stupid satan. Hate him. Ugh.) When I discovered the St. Michael Prayer and the story of how Pope Leo XIII wrote it, I was so excited. Maybe it's because I have kind of a crush on St. Michael the Archangel, but knowing that angels will rush in to help me if I ask is pretty sweet.

If I were to be a religious sister (note the slight quickening of my heartbeat- because I'm not yet totally sure whether I'm called to marriage or a sisterhood...) I would totally be a Dominican of some sort. More specifically, a Dominican Sister of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist. There are lots of things about Dominicans I love, but one of the smaller details is the reason they wear rosaries on their left sides. Soldiers in medieval times wore swords on their left sides, and the rosary is a great weapon against evil, so religious sisters and brothers often wear them there to signify their fight against evil via Mary's intercession. More on Mary's impact on spiritual warfare here. For a while I kept my rosary in the left-hand pocket of my pants/skirts to remind myself of this, but it kept getting tangled up, so I reverted to keeping it in my purse. The sentiment is still there, though.

I was thinking about this sort of thing today, especially. Beginning Monday is the 72-day Inauguration Novena, inspired by Rosaries for Life. We here on earth are the Church Militant. Not the Church-Sit-On-Our-Haunches. There is real evil in the world - genocide, poverty, hopelessness, abortion, exploitation, disenfranchisement - and one of the best ways to do our part as soldiers is PRAY.

St. Michael and all angels, pray for us!

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

For dominion is the Lord's

For the past week I've been having nightmares- literal waking-up-shaking nightmares - about this election. I haven't had nightmares like this since the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in July, 2007, when I was terrified that someone would leak information about the book and the surprises would be ruined. This time the stakes are just a *tad* higher.

I'm nervous about the Obama-mania. Of my 700-odd friends on Facebook, over 2/3 have status updates pertaining to "Baracking the vote" or "voting for change" or "donating their status to spread the word about Obama." I guess that's only to be expected; after all, my generational cohort is particularly obsessed with the One. I'm nervous about FOCA, I'm nervous about the many important referenda also up for vote today. I'm nervous about judges; I'm nervous about marriage.

I'm encouraged, however, by this very excellent post about the wrongness of poll data. I'm encouraged because many people all over the country (including myself) spent the better part of last night/early this morning/today in a vigil before the Blessed Sacrament. A Solemn Novena to Our Lady of Victory, encouraged by Father Corapi, has been prayed all over the country.

Today is the feast of Saint Charles Borromeo, bishop of Milan and council Father of the Council of Trent. Trent was the Church's response to the Reformation; a clarification of doctrine, a time of new growth for the Church. Saint Charles is also the person responsible for organizing the religious education of children in a program called the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine.... or CCD. Saint Charles Borromeo, pray for us! Pray that voters might vote their consciences, not what "feels good" or is popular, but vote as the Holy Spirit directs them, to uphold the dignity of all human life.

I've done all that I can. I've prayed. I've fasted. I've voted. My work is done.

However, my (very wise) mother made a good point yesterday. No matter who wins- if it's Obama, McCain, or Joe the Plumber - God is still in control. Today's readings are absolutely beautiful, especially this part of the psalm:

For dominion is the LORD’s,
and he rules the nations.
To him alone shall bow down
all who sleep in the earth.

To him my soul shall live;
my descendants shall serve him.
Let the coming generation be told of the LORD
that they may proclaim to a people yet to be born
the justice he has shown.

In other words, "He's got the whole world in His hands."

I had a thought last night. My adoration shift was over at midnight, but I was having some pretty fruitful prayer time, so I stayed at the Cathedral until three-ish. During that time, I wondered if we can ask the souls of aborted children to pray for us. I don't see why not. After all, they have immortal souls, just like I do. They're part of the Communion of Saints. And there are over fifty million of them- just in the past forty years! That's quite a prayer army!

So, to all the souls of unborn children unjustly murdered, pray for us. Pray for healing for your mothers. Pray for the doctors who killed you. Pray for our nation.

The Forty Days for Life vigil saved over 400 children this fall. Praise God!

I'm not going to watch television tonight or stay up late feverishly checking my computer for updates. Instead I'll pray and go to sleep early, trusting in the Lord who has rule over everything. I'm pleading for the intercession of all holy saints and angels, but especially St. Thomas More, St. Michael the Archangel, and Our Lady of Victory.

Not my will, but thine. No matter what, my soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord.

My soul magnifies the Lord,
And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.
For He has regarded the low estate of His handmaiden,
For behold, henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.
For He who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name. And His mercy is on those who fear Him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with His arm:
He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has put down the mighty from their thrones,
and exalted those of low degree.
He has filled the hungry with good things;
and the rich He has sent empty away.
He has helped His servant Israel, in remembrance of His mercy;
As He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to His posterity forever.

~Blessed Virgin Mary, Luke 1:46-55)

All you holy men and women, pray for us!