Those of you who don't normally follow online discussions of YA literature may not be aware that yet another debate about the value (or lack thereof) of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight
series has been raging for the past few days or so. I was going to write my own response, but I realised that to do so adequately, I would have to write about my own attitudes as a teenager towards sex, in horrific and embarrassing detail. Ultimately, I feel uncomfortable doing that. Suffice it to say that in spite of a comprehensive (harm minimization-based) sex education during my teenage years, a mother who was open about such matters and answered my questions frankly, and access to the best in 90s teen advice columns (ie, I read Dolly
religiously), those attitudes were extraordinarily messed up.
I'm going to leave it there, as far as my own experiences go, and instead link to five posts which I've encountered recently. While not all are about Twilight
specifically, the things they discuss are all connected.
YA author blackholly kicked things off
with a post in which she argued that the criticism of Twilight
fails to recognise a very valid reading of Meyer's series: namely, that if you interpret it through the lens of kink (that is, Bella has a submission and masochism kink), it ceases to become such a problematic narrative.It's okay to be a feminist and fantasize about being tied up and whipped. It's okay to fantasize about being in love with an ancient and deadly monster who, perfectly or imperfectly, loves you back. It's okay to fantasize that you're a deadly assassin, slipping through an ancient city. And it's okay to fantasize about even weirder and darker stuff than that.
I'm not completely convinced by this reading, but I agree it's a valid one, and Black's post is something that needed to be said. I'd encourage you to read the comments, as they add a lot to her points.
Next off the mark was sarahtales
, another YA author, who sadly seems to have abandoned LJ for the bright lights and big city of Tumblr. Her post
takes Holly Black's feminist perspective and expands on it.But ladies should be allowed to be into weird business, and nobody should shame them. Being like ‘I am SO MUCH MORE WORRIED about ladies being into Edward Cullen than anything dudes might like’ does carry a bit of a savour of a Victorian papa, who is like, the young ladies must be protected from the world, their brains are too feeble, they will wander into SIN, they can’t even help themselves, they will dump buckets of glitter on ROGUES and go to town on them, they have no sense at all!
And then someone linked to Kit Whitfield's post
, Flowers in the Attic
and Wuthering Heights
. Whitfield, in my mind, gets right to the heart of the matter:[G]iven that both Twilight and Flowers In The Attic are books aimed at the young adult, the blend of innocence and experience has a definite edge to it. Both feel like books addressed to a virginal state of mind - which is obviously not the same as a chaste state of mind: a state of mind whose experience of ordinary sexuality is too limited for it exert much gravitational pull, and to which wild transgressions seem all the more natural because there's no first-hand knowledge of the mainstream sexuality the books are transgressing. Sexuality in these books is so innocent, it doesn't know how far from innocence it strays.
(I'd recommend reading Whitfield's earlier post 'Misremembering the Brontës'
, as it represents an earlier stage in her thinking on these matters.)
It was almost serendipitous that I happened to follow a link one of my friends posted on Facebook to this New York Times article, 'Teaching Good Sex' by Laurie Abraham
, which is about a sex-ed programme at a Philadelphia school which emphasises, along with the usual stuff about contraception and consent, the actual emotional and physical feelings associated with sex.
Nobody wants to talk to teenagers about these things. Partly this is just because it's awkward, and partly it's because the backlash from doing so would be too great, but as I read the article, I began to realise that this is the kind of education all teenagers need.
You may not see the connection between this and Twilight
, besides the fact that both are about sex, but when I post my final link, I hope my thought process becomes clear.
It's from Libby Anne, a survivor of the Quiverfull/Christian Patriarchy movement in the US, and it's about how that movement's panicky attitudes to sex had extremely harmful reverberations that affected her ability to function sexually after she got married
. When I first started dating the young man who was to become my husband, I didn't have any sexual feelings toward him. No sexual fantasies. No sexual desires. None. When I told him this, he became concerned, very concerned. He insisted that this wasn't normal, but I had no way to know, nothing to measure it against.
After a few months, I did start having sexual fantasies. But they were all fantasies of non-consensual sex. Why? Because on some intuitive level that made them safer, less taboo, and less sinful. After all, in these fantasies, I didn't have a choice. I didn't have sexual agency. I wasn't choosing to have sex. I wasn't active. It wasn't that I wanted to fantasize about non-consensual sex; rather, as a result of the purity culture and my suppression of my sexuality, this was the only kind of sex I could fantasize about.
Believe me, I am not trying to kink-shame here - from the glass house of my adolescence, I'm in no position to throw stones (and if I have screwed up in this regard, please tell me). All I am saying is that I see a very clear connection between Twilight
, and the story it tells, the lack of sex-education classes like the one discussed in the NYT article, and Libby Anne's experience of an adolescence spent suppressing all sexual impulses. Texts are not written in a vacuum, stories do not resonate with an entire generation for no reason, and when something is as popular as Twilight
, we need to think about why that may be.
ETA: My boyfriend pointed out this article by Anne Billson in The Guardian
, which seems to be drawing on some of the points raised by the bloggers I linked to before.Twilight caters to the sexual fantasies of teenage girls. I'm not saying in a good way, but at least it caters to them, and there's not a lot else at the cinema that does.