Bella Goes to the Clinic: Sex Ed in the Twilight Era
Unlike some of the other drab and probably stupid theses published by Wesleyan seniors in ’10 (with titles like: “The impact of group decision making on indecisiveness-related decisional confidence” and “Methylation and Pigmentation of the Three-Spine Stickleback”), this past spring Julia Pearlman wrote a thesis we can understand. Her project: “Happily (For)ever After: Constructing Conservative Youth Ideology in the Twilight Series” takes the Twilight craze to new heights and right into the halls of academia where there’s no love without dissection. But in the process, Julia has not only gotten a BA out of her love/hate relationship with Twilight, (which is more than most of us can say) but also tapped into some American veins worth draining.
Lilly Bechtel: You write in the conclusion of your thesis that you became inspired to write about Twilight after being exposed to the “religious rhetoric and factually inaccurate medical information” of anti-abortion clinics in Austin TX. Can you say more about the connection for you, between your exposure to conservative propaganda and your interest in Twilight?
Julia Pearlman: My time in Austin was extremely formative; my experiences in Texas Crisis Pregnancy Centers cemented my belief in the importance of comprehensive sexual education. I was charged with the task of visiting Texas CPCs to understand the information they offer to girls in need, girls looking for answers. I am lucky—I had a strong education and the knowledge I needed to form my (strong) opinions. As I listened to the medically inaccurate information these centers propagate, I was struck by how terrifying the “information” would be to a girl who did not know that abortions do not cause breast cancer. I was struck by how scared I was, even knowing that what I was being told was, simply put, propaganda. I began thinking about how beliefs are formed and where teenage girls go for information. I began to really look at television programs, movies, novels, music etc. targeted at teenage girls. My search, inevitably, led me to the insane hysteria surrounding the Twilight Saga and from the first page, I knew had found something worth investigating.
LB: And had you seen any of the Twilight films at that point?
JP: At that point, I had not seen any of the Twilight films. I was fairly unaware of the craze surrounding the series (in fact, my little sister once asked me if I had been living under a rock when I sheepishly admitted I didn’t know who Robert Pattison was). I was studying abroad in Sweden when the series really became popular and missed the beginnings of the Twilight craze.
When I began to really dig in to the Series I felt a strange dissonance because I was at once appalled by the values the series enforces, yet completely enthralled. I think it was this internal struggle that really compelled me to focus my research on the series. What is the intrigue, the connection to the narrative? Why is it so engrossing? Why can’t I put it down? (and more importantly, why am I embarrassed when I bring it out into public?!)
LB: What correlation do you see between a teenage girl who visits an anti-abortion clinic in Texas and the character of Bella? What do you think these two girls have in common?
JP: Bella represents a return to conservative ideals and very rigid gender roles, yet at the same time demonstrates a certain strength that I think many young girls identify with. She describes herself as very average; young girls see themselves in her—Bella’s being is not unattainable. She is not a movie star, she does not represent an impossible body image (though of course, all that changes when she becomes a vampire and we know that Edward sees something in her she perhaps does not see in herself). Bella’s self-description, her totally relatable life creates a deep connection between narrator and reader. The lines are blurred between Bella and those who participate in the Twilight craze. The correlation, then, becomes unavoidable. The twilight readership who allies herself with Bella is also the girl who visits a Texas Crisis Pregnancy Center or a Planned Parenthood. She is still searching for herself, still striving to define herself in a confusing and over-stimulating world. The information she is presented, whether it be through a novel, blog, tv show or crisis pregnancy center has an extreme power to shape the girl’s ideology.
LB: You discuss the ways that Stephanie Meyer has subverted vampire myth in order to create a conservative American fairytale. You note this shift as a kind of vampiric gentrification when you write: “the vampire is no longer a monster, but a hero.” How does Edward transform in Meyer’s Twilight and how is this change significant in what you claim is a patriarchal story?
JP: Though the vampire has evolved over time, the figure had always represented deep social anxiety. The vampire was dirty and immoral. In Twilight, however, Meyer subverts these commonly held beliefs when she creates a vampire that is strong and beautiful. Edward becomes the archetypal heroic figure, the knight in (literally) shining armor. Edward is not a monster but the man who gives meaning to Bella’s life and who by-and-large instructs her to become a woman. His extreme manhood laces the narrative with conservative ideals that enforce a stifling model of womanhood, a model to which young girls subscribe.
LB: But even though Edward isn’t as raunchy as some of the other vampires in pop culture, Bella’s attraction to him, in the context of the film, is dangerous. Do you think that her decision to be with Edward challenges her powerless role as a female or confirms it? Is there value in the risk she takes?
JP: Bella’s attraction to Edward is certainly dangerous, but represents the danger of pre-marital sex rather than the danger of the vampire. Bella’s decision to be with Edward does offer a glimpse of her ability to exercise power, but that power is limited within the confines of Edward’s power. That is, Bella exercises as much power as Edward allows. In the end, they do not consummate their love until they are married. The risk she takes is significant, but it is that risk, the unknowing willingness to sacrifice her body for the ultimate gift—her baby—that allows Bella to become a woman (according to conservative social mores that a woman is only complete once she is mother). Bella exercises her power only in an effort to secure her womanhood and ultimately give her power over to husband and child.
LB: Why do you think a writer with such conservative sexual ideals as Meyer is attracted to the character of the vampire?
JP: The vampire has incredible power and incredible intrigue. Meyer uses the vampire as a metaphor for the intrigue of sex, but more significantly of the pleasure of sex within the confines of a loving marriage. Edward is desirable and has unbelievable sex appeal, but he also has Victorian morals and a strong sense of conservative gender identities. He represents the intrigue of sex, but as a vampire represents conservative sexual ideals. Meyer subverts the traditional use of the figure to market her own conservative agenda.
LB: You write in your introduction: “The myths proliferated by the (Twilight) series instruct the reader on how to be an American.” How do you see a series that glorifies a vampire instructing readers on how to be American? What are the instructions?
JP: Myths have the power to shape a national culture; the myths proliferated by the series instruct the teenage girl readership how to be American, namely to be wife and mother. The teenage girl who consumes Twilight in all of its manifestations, who is subject to the influence of cultural artifacts (the literature she reads, the movies she consumes), is searching to find her place in the American social order. In trying to define herself, the teenage girl looks for examples of womanhood and finds, in Bella, the ultimate example.
The glorification of the vampire is the vehicle used to reinforce the traditional ideals of American gender identity. The reader idolizes Edward, longs for him and wants to become like him. The reader similarly wants to be like Bella, the woman who captured Edward’s heart. When Bella marries Edward, and ultimately becomes a vampire, the reader sees that Bella has achieved her fairy tale ending, her ultimate happiness as wife and mother. The series, glorifying the love between Edward and Bella, instructs the teenage girl that her greatest achievement in life is to become a wife and mother.
LB: You write in your thesis: “The series indoctrinates the young reader into the realm of desire, abstinence, motherhood and a very narrow definition of morality. She is told that any power she holds should we wielded to obtain her end goal, her highest form of happiness- motherhood.” Given this statement, how do you interpret Bella’s apparent choice between Jacob or Edward? What does this choice represent?
JP: This statement describes the implications of Bella’s choice; the reader sees Bella exercise her autonomy to choose Edward and thereby choose the life of wife and mother. The reader sees this as the choice she too should make. Though Bella is “free” to choose, the narrative is constructed in such a way that Bella really has no choice, for Edward is her true love and to deny him would be to deny her own happiness. Though she loves Jacob, we find that her love for Jacob is maternal and couched in paternalistic discourse.
LB: Yet despite some of the ways that Meyer’s story idealizes a classic gender dynamic, why do you think the result is a story that is oddly sexy?
JP: One of the more interesting aspects of conservative gender roles, the very 1950’s gender dyncamics, are that women—wives, rather—are incredibly sexy and sexed. Their job as wife is to please their husbands, hence the corsets, bras and other female enhancements of the 1950s. Girls are allowed to sexy, when it’s in a marriage. Once Bella marries Edward, the series becomes incredibly sexual, but it’s okay because Edward put a ring on it.
LB: Since completing your project, what vampires have appeared on the news or on the screen have you been drawn to?
JP: I must admit that I am a die-hard True Blood fan. In some ways, Sookie is very much like Bella. They are both complicit actors in the performance of femininity, in the dominant ideological formation of the female in American society. Sookie is very sexual, blonde hair, short shorts, sundresses—always in peril, always in need of saving, Sookie is the ideal female for her vampire savior, Bill. I find the show completely entertaining.
LB: What would you say is the most significant thing your project has taught you about the relationship between a society and the monsters it creates?
JP: This project has given me a greater insight into the extreme power literature, entertainment and dominant cultural trends have over individuals. Young teenagers are looking to find their place in the world and over-whelmed by competing forces telling them what’s in, what’s cool, how to live their lives. It is a powerful opportunity to play a role in the creation of those identities, in the ideologies of our future leaders. What I find to be most significant is the ever-growing need for education. We need to give children the tools to be critical of their world and question everything.
Image 1: letterstotwilight.com
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