The inevitable post about Twilight

I was going to save this post for when the dreaded third installment of the film series came out next week, but the Salt Lake Tribune put out an article already. Incidentally, they got a few things wrong. Mormons are strongly discouraged in the Church Handbook of Instructions to use artificial insemination when the sperm or egg comes from a third party. (In theory, this would mean that the child technically would have to be sealed to its parents as it wasn’t actually Born In The Covenant). And forget Bella’s cooking and cleaning. How about her total acceptance of male dominance? At any rate, begin rant.

I tried to avoid it, but the latest film installation of the Twilight series hits cinemas tomorrow, so it’s everywhere. For those lucky enough to have avoided the books and films, Twilight is the abomination resulting from the mashed-up plagiarism of Wuthering Heights and Underworld: Rise of the Lycans. Comprising four novels and a movie series, it was written by BYU grad and Mormon housewife Stephenie Meyer. As is the case with most “Mormon Art,” I’ve heard plenty of LDS say that the books and films ought to be supported to raise the profile of the church. (That this attitude torpedoes the ability of Mormon art to be worth a damn is lost on most Mormons.) At any rate, because there are Mormons and fans of chick flicks in my life, I have been forced to read the series. More than once I have been asked how I liked the books. I reported that I hated them, and then was told it was because I was an apostate. (Not a joke.)

To my knowledge, Meyer has always downplayed her religion and never tried to be part of the Mormon PR machine. While I think her books are crap, I can respect her stance of keeping her work and her church separate. Despite this, Meyer’s Mormonism comes up constantly in public discussion of the Twilight series. The Huffington Post reported actor Robert Pattinson claiming that Mormonism has nothing to do with the story:

PATTINSON: I think people make up all these Mormon references just so they can publish Twilight articles in respectable publications like the New York Times. Even Stephenie [Meyer, author of the Twilight novels] said it doesn’t mean any of that. It is based on a dream.”

Is this really a fair claim? It’s impossible that something as all-penetrating as Mormon religious beliefs could leave Meyer’s work untouched. Twilight may not be attempting to pimp the LDS church, but it certainly bears the fingerprints of a Mormon author, though perhaps in a less transparent way than Battlestar Galactica did. It’s Mormonish enough that she was inspired by a dream-vision (See book of 1 Nephi). But any dream will be laced with conscious and unconscious parts of the psyche. Meyer’s Mormon fingerprints aren’t all bad, but they are telling. The idea that a person could be sexy, rich, and immortal with their loved ones for all eternity? Pretty Mormonish. Native Americans with Jewish names? Mormonish. Problematic approach to sex and gender? Incredibly Mormonish.

The Native Americans have suspiciously Jewish names

I am ignorant as to the naming customs of Native Americans, and would guess that they vary widely by tribe. People on the Quileute Nation’s website don’t have a high ratio of Biblical names. It seems Mormonish to me that nearly every Native American/Werewolf in the series has got an Old Testament Jewish name, and often their characters have subtle ties to their Biblical roles. Leah, the lone female werewolf, has to deal with rejection in much the same way that the Biblical Leah did. Jacob, who temporarily loses his birthright as leader of the pack, eventually regains his status as “Ephraim’s Heir.” Given the status Mormons feel if they are declared a descendant of Ephraim in a patriarchal blessing, this seems like a subtle, if not plot-influencing, adaptation of Mormon mythos. There are numerous other examples, but that would require delving deeper into the Twilight world than my gag reflex can handle. Have a look for yourself, and I think you’ll agree that given the Mormons’ belief that Native Americans are descended from Jews who arrived in 600 BC (instead of Siberians who arrived 10,000 years ago), it’s hard to overlook this subtle use of Mormon identity motifs on Native American characters.

The ideal is eternal wedded heterosexuality

Esme and Carlisle, Rosalie and Emmett, Alice and Jasper, followed by Bella and Edward, represent the ideals. Carlisle and Esme were happy to provide their adopted children with mates, and expressed like good Mormon parents that they worried Edward would never find his somebody special. (Mormons are told that unwedded men over 30 are a menace to society. At 110, Edward must be an unholy terror.) Bella’s hard-won prize is eternity with her husband and daughter, and lots and lots of sex with their perfect, eternally young bodies. What’s more Mormon than being together forever with your immortal, sparkling white family?

Heterosexuality is a default.

There are no gay people at all in Forks. There are no gay vampires. Even the non-mated vampires are heterosexual. There is no polyamoury or non-wedded sex, but there is chaste desire, cuddling, and prom. The only irregularities are that Bella’s parents are divorced, and her mother is a cougar (not the BYU type), but at least the mother married her boy toy. Certainly plenty of literature overlooks gays and not all works need to address sexual orientation to serve the story, but it is unsurprising (unremarkable?) that an LDS author would take heterosexual monogamy for granted.

Virginity, Motherhood and Pregnancy are Fetishes

There is no mention of religion in the Twilight series. If any of the characters are religious or go to church, it is never mentioned. Carlisle is mentioned as being the son of a pastor, and the myth of vampires being averse to crosses is busted. Despite this, Edward insists on no sex until marriage despite Bella’s willingness and her initial disdain for marriage. However, she becomes a convert to commitment. I have no problem with an author who writes about teen characters who choose abstinence, incidentally. Sex in books and on film is usually spontaneous and poorly thought out, and I certainly never hear the characters discussing diseases or birth control before doing the deed. Discussion of responsible sex in chick lit is a good thing. The Mormonish twist is that Edward’s objection is not based on fear of disease or the possibility of pregnancy or not being sure that he and Bella are ready for physical intimacy. It’s based on the idea that waiting until after marriage is How Things Should Be Done. This traditionalist view is rarely held by non-religious people. In fact, the idea that a marriage ceremony is a prerequisite to sex is an idea that originated with organised religion. The story doesn’t necessarily suffer because of this, but it does seem odd that people would subject themselves to the Law of Chastity when they don’t believe in God.

Mormons’ approach to motherhood is complicated and difficult to discuss without someone getting hormonal upset. The practical reality is that Mormon women are not equal to men. Men hold the priesthood, are eligible for leadership, make important decisions, preside, decide doctrine, dictate practise, are the head of the family, perform rituals, act as witnesses to rituals, write scripture, and supervise the activities of men, women and children. Women do not. Elohim, the god or Mormonism, provides a clear example of what Mormon males intend to become like after death. Mormon women can only speculate on who (if anybody) provides the template for their afterlife. There are loads of soppy statements about partnership and warnings about unrighteous dominion, but there is still the dominion. Mormon women are the Victorian Angel in the Home, and saying otherwise will only try the patience of someone who hasn’t had their brain scooped out with a melon baller.

Now that I’ve gotten that out, I’ll say that Mormons will generally say that a desire for motherhood is an innate characteristic for women, and Meyer’s female vampires express regret at never being able to bear children. The males in the family are silent on the subject, and never express so much as an interest in getting a puppy, unless it was to serve as hors d’oeuvre. Esme and Rosalie long for the babies they will never have, and Rosalie acts as Bella’s bodyguard when the men in the family try to force her to have an abortion. Bella’s pregnancy suddenly turns the emo ice queen into a mushy earth-goddess who is fulfilled by domesticity, rubs her belly, drinks pickle and blood milkshakes, and bears her stretch marks and broken ribs (the kid packs one hell of a kick) with a sense of serene martyrdom that I can only describe as suspiciously familiar.

Her determination to continue her life-threatening pregnancy is harder to pinpoint. Mormons are not wholesale opposed to abortion. Unlike Catholics, who insist a woman remain pregnant even if the foetus is dead or the mother will die, Mormons allow for abortion as regrettable but necessary in cases of rape, incest, or threat to the mother’s life. Yet I recall many conversations on the subject over the years where my LDS sisters declared that they would never have an abortion, no matter how grave the threat. I remember stories being shared in Young Women’s and Relief Society about couples who knew their child would live only a few hours about birth, went through with the pregnancy anyway, and then spent the few minutes they had with their child tearfully thanking God for the experience. If a couple chooses to do this, that’s fine. But these stories were never balanced with accounts of people who died because they didn’t terminate a pregnancy, or women who suffered intense mental trauma after going through an experience like that. These harder realities don’t cast a rosy light on the Plan of Salvation(TM), and so girls express ignorant views that they would never, under any circumstances, have an abortion.

Bella’s motives remain hidden. Despite being the narrator of the entire series for the first three books, Meyer oddly gives the second act of the final novel to Jacob, and Bella remains tastefully quiet through the gory process of gestation. However, her actions are too familiar to say that no aspect of Mormon culture shaped her character.

Noble Patriarch leads and Sweet Spirit supports

The vampire clan’s mother, Esme, has hardly any lines, is never really described physically, and her role is to be sweet and bring out food once in a while. She does not participate in planning, advising, strategising, or fighting and has no hobbies other than interior design. On the other hand, Carlisle could be the Bishop of the Forks First Ward. He’s a doctor and a font of all knowledge. Older than the rest of his family by hundreds of years, he provides guidance on all topics, temporal and spiritual. But he is just a hot bloodsucking two dimensional cut-out of the idea of a Noble Patriarch. His goodness is insipid because he has no flaws, and that makes him as boring as the vapid Sweet Spirit who supports him and stays home like a good vampire homemaker.

Bella is one of those dosy cows who can’t stand to be without a boyfriend

Not much to say here, just that Bella’s pathetic shell of a personality and her obsessive need for Edward to give her a purpose in life reminds me of all the girls I was in the dorm with at BYU who married at 19 and dropped out of school at 20. Funny how the plan to go to college goes out the window as soon as Bella finds out she’ll be a mom. “Suddenly things like that just didn’t matter anymore” is something I heard often from pregnant co-eds, who often had two babies before they were of drinking age.

Woman’s body = Man’s property

When Jacob pins Bella down against her will for a bit of tonsil hockey, her dad (also the local top cop) congratulates him. Problematic? Don’t worry. Jacob later redeems himself during Bella’s pregnancy when Edward explains that Bella refuses to terminate her potentially lethal foetus and — oh no wait. Jacob recommends that they knock her out and drag her to the abortion clinic. Not one character takes note of how messed up it is that all of the male characters around Bella take it for granted that her person is theirs to do with as they please. Mike Newton assumes that she is his prom date. Jacob assumes that he has the right to sexually assault her. Edward explains how easy it would be for him to provide Bella with a horrible agonising death, and then congratulates himself for not doing so. (That’s a bit like telling someone that you could socking them in the nose, but since you won’t your potential victim ought to give you five quid.) Wherever Bella goes somebody wants her body and it never occurs to her that she ought to tell them to piss off. Her choices are made for her by her stalker boyfriend, gang rapists, and coercive arseholes who wish they were her stalker boyfriend.

Probably most disturbing is the girlfriend of one of the werewolves. While in his wolf form, he lost his temper and mauled her, leaving horrible scars across her face. In wolf form Jacob and his furry pals can communicate telepathically, and while more “clear and simple” in mindset, they communicate more or less like humans. These are not mindless creatures. They’re just bigger, hairier, smellier and fangier. So the “sorry baby, I didn’t mean to hurt you” routine doesn’t really hold water. Man horribly mutilates woman. Man goes unpunished. Woman continues to love man because “he didn’t mean” to hurt her. And the characters see it as a tragic incident, but admire the couple for the strength of their love. Nobody once questions the ethics of werewolves having girlfriends if they really are that dangerous. But then, that’s a nuanced and isolated case, right?

Not quite. After three books’ worth of oh-so-boring sexual longing, Bella and Edward finally tie the knot and are able to get down. While the sex itself is modestly skipped over (sparing us the horrors of speculation on the physiology of Vampire penises) we’re treated to the morning after, in which Edward makes Bella an omelette and she downplays the fact that her body is absolutely battered from the previous evening’s rumpy pumpy. He’s very sorry it happened, and Bella dismisses it as no big deal. Then it’s on to swimming with the porpoises and having bacon sandwiches because “I’m sorry baby, I didn’t mean to hurt you. I just couldn’t help it” seems to make everything better. It’s difficult to read this passage and not hear echoes of LDS women telling their husbands that it’s okay that they haven’t got time for a date or attending the kids’ football match because they are too busy counting tithing or preparing a lesson. Even worse, I know how tacitly Mormon women accept the Church’s infringement on their time, sanity, and resources, and how well trained they are to express gratitude for all of it.

Edward expresses concern for Bella’s life when he learns she is pregnant, probably the most rational moment he ever has with regard to her safety. But this rationality is short-lived, because after Jacob recommends a forcible abortion, Edward says he’d be happy to let Jacob impregnate Bella so that she could have children. When Bella finds out, she laughs it off. Perhaps all the blood milkshakes gave her brainfreeze, but the correct response would have been being horrified that your husband is inviting someone to diddle his wife without asking her how she felt about it. Twat.

When being pressured to have an abortion by the Cullens, it’s not surprising that Bella never goes on a pro-choice rant telling her would-be aborters that it’s her body, her baby, and the lot of them can get stuffed. But the utter absence of even rudimentary feminism — i.e. being opposed to rape — is surprising until you remember that Meyer went to BYU, where the only feminist organisation (VOICE) is routinely mocked by students and professors, and expressing a viewpoint that women shouldn’t be automatically assigned a role as babymaker/June Cleaver is a good way to get called a lesbian. I think that these ideas simply never would have occurred to Meyer, because nobody ever would have taught them to her. I doubt she’s read the feminine mystique and she bloody well wouldn’t know who Germaine Greer is. She belongs to a culture where women “give” themselves to husbands who “receive” them in the temple marriage ceremony, and whose role is to “strengthen home and family” while her husband tends to the tedious business of making important decisions and choosing a career and identity that isn’t based on his genitals. I can’t blame her for not being a feminist. Feminism is the other F-word in Mormonism so it’s unsurprising that Meyer would write a tale that has glaring gender problems that she never noticed.

Mormons don’t advocate wife-beating, and are in fact quite outspokenly opposed to physical abuse and actual rape. But there is a glaring lack of gender equality and stereotyping in the culture, doctrine, and practices of the LDS church, and it shows in subtle ways. Jacob didn’t force Bella to have sex, but he did violate her personal space, ignore her repeated “no” which meant “no”, and held her down and kissed her against her will. In Meyer’s chaste universe, this is rape. Apologists who explain that no harm was done overlook Bella’s reaction: after realising that she can’t fight him off, she lays there and waits for him to finish. What kind of viewpoint would inform the creation of a female character like this? When feminism is absent from an author’s culture, is it so surprising that her female character would not only give up fighting against her rapist, but continue to be close friends with him afterward? Mormon women are expected to always be sweet, to be peacemakers, and to always forgive. This means that they often perform tremendous acts of kindness, but it also leaves them vulnerable to terrible acts of abuse.

4 thoughts on “The inevitable post about Twilight

  1. OMG I agree completely!!! I could never have put it this well, though. I want to mail copies of this post to every person I know. It always seemed obvious to me, from the beginning, that the book was Mormon PR–“hey, tween girls, being subservient and virginal can be cool! And it produces results!”

    I was given the first “Twilight” book by Mr. CJ, who didn’t even realize, at the time, that Meyer was LDS. He bought it on the strength of the fact that I, in his words, “like other vampire porn”. Read: Laurell K. Hamilton and Simon R. Green. Don’t judge. OK, judge, but I spend enough of my life actually thinking.

    It astonished both of us when, literally within weeks of that first book purchase, *everyone we knew* was reading that book. I seriously considered buying Mr. CJ an Edward make-out pillowcase (come on, what other purpose can they possibly serve?), but I might give it to my MIL instead. She really digs on the idea of male dominance. When Mr. CJ and I first got engaged, she said I “disrespected” him by having my own opinions and considering myself his equal. He then shocked her by saying, yes, he valued my opinions and yes, I was. Ever since, I think she’s been slightly suspicious that I might be possessed by Satan.

    • I don’t judge anybody based on their chosen form of mindless entertainment. I confess my own vice to be films starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.

  2. As I type this I am wearing my t-shirt that says, “And Then Buffy Staked Edward, The End.”

    I see Mormonism in the Twilight universe especially in what is left out. In the original vampire mythos there is a ton of Catholic imagery. Vampires fear the cross, priests, and churches. They are harmed by holy water. The sun (metaphor for God) burns them up. The wooden stake in the heart (symbolic of both the cross and the piercing of the heart by God) kills them.

    The one mythos she does keep is that decapitation (combined with burning) kills vampires. It’s also the least Catholic way to harm a vampire. Since most Mormons reject Catholic imagery it’s no surprise the the Twilight vampires are immune to that imagery. Even secular presentations of vampires, such as Buffy, tend to keep the Catholic imagery. Even though it doesn’t mean much to a secular audience, it’s not regarded as wrong, while to Mormons there is something vaguely icky about the Catholic symbolism.

    The part of the vampire mythos that I though she would keep would be the idea that vampires cannot enter houses without permission. Since Mormons trumpet the home as a temple and as a pure sanctuary from the world, it would seem that would be an ideal fit in a Mormon produced universe.

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