A teenage friend who shares my interest in shirtless hunks introduced me to the Twilight phenomenon, the insanely popular saga for young adults about a love triangle between a vampire, a werewolf, and a young woman with low self-esteem. I confess that I did enjoy the books and movies, mostly for the eye candy but also because the plotting is pretty good. I consider it a guilty pleasure, though, since the relationships and characterization are decidedly anti-feminist. Bella feels completely unworthy of her two superhuman squeezes, and has no interests in life except her romantic obsession. The guys’ treatment of her is also controlling and patriarchal.
The Other Journal , an online journal of theology and culture published by Mars Hill Graduate School, has posted an incisive series of articles by Kj Swanson about evangelicals’ embrace of Twilight. In contrast to Harry Potter, which Christian conservatives denounced for its supernatural themes, Twilight gets approval from evangelical commentators for its promotion of abstinence until marriage.
However, Swanson argues that the common ground between Twilight and evangelical culture is the more disturbing message that good women have no sexual desire, and that it is our responsibility to tame men’s uncontrollable lust by suppressing our own. The series also reflects complementarian gender stereotypes that often pop up in evangelical self-help books about relationships. Men are “naturally” protectors and women are “naturally” victims in need of rescue by a white knight (or sparkly white vampire). Swanson notes how this can lead to an abusive or self-destructive dynamic:
With Edward’s hypervigilance comes Bella’s understanding that aggressive control is an act of care and that protection is conveyed through anger. Consequently, when love is given primarily through protection, being in danger becomes a necessary scenario for receiving love.
For instance, in one distressing scene from New Moon, when Edward has temporarily broken up with Bella, she seeks out a group of men who had previously tried to assault her, so that Edward will telepathically sense her danger and reappear.
This impulse toward self-annihilation recurs at several other points in the book, driven by Bella’s sense that she has nothing else worthwhile to offer her loved ones except the sacrifice of her life. Noting similar themes in evangelical advice guides for young women, Swanson argues that Christian readers of Twilight are too quick to analogize Bella’s sacrifice to Christ’s, when hers comes from a place of shame rather than love. Swanson contrasts this to feminist theologian Phyllis Trible’s view that “the ‘self-effacing woman’ [in Bible stories] is not held up as a Christlike
model to emulate, but as a symbol of what Christ’s death called to an
Meanwhile, my teenage friend most definitely wears the pants in her relationship with her sweet quiet boyfriend, and has never been shy about declaring that she’d like to “bang” Orlando Bloom. Literature is received in complex ways.