Spoiler alert: This is a post about the connections between the Twilight books and the experience of Mormon adolescence. As such it risks spoiling in two ways: one, by giving away the plot’s general trajectory, and, two, by explaining in critical terms why it bothers me that I like these books too much. But, my aim is not to detract from any one’s pleasure in the books or from Meyers’s accomplishment. Quite the opposite: I have always thought that understanding my pleasure increased it.
I told people who asked that I decided to read Twilight over Christmas, because, for cultural reasons, I was curious to learn more about a best selling series by a Mormon author. That, of course, was a lie: I wanted to read Twilight, because I wanted to indulge in the peculiar kind of romance that I enjoyed since my adolescence—the kind of permissible romance that doesn’t depict graphic sex and yet is unquestionable arousing.
Readers of romance novels know that these books frequently have explicit depictions of sexuality that make them a textual form of what we would commonly consider pornography. However, Meyers’s Twilight series is a more interesting, more Mormon kind of romantic fantasy, because the characters do not engage in premarital sex while still maintaining a relationship that is unmistakably an erotic fantasy. Although the absence of explicit sexual detail (at least in the first two books – the only ones I have read) makes the series an unlikely candidate to be considered pornographic, I want to suggest that the central romantic fantasy that underlies it is not only deeply Mormon in its trajectory, but also pornographic in that it both arouses and generates an idealized form of sublimated sexual romance that achieves what I consider to be the problem with more classic forms of porn: it dehumanizes and exploits the desired object. (If you are skeptical of this claim, check out the fan club “Twilight Moms.” This site markets itself to mothers who have felt renewed hope and sexuality through reading the books, some of who now feel like new brides because they fantasize that their husbands are vampires or werewolves.)
Caitlin Flanagan writes in The Atlantic that nearly all critics mention that Stephanie Meyers is Mormon, but few know what to make of it. Yet as an insider, it is hard to miss the author’s Mormon roots when Bella Swan, the heroine who thinks she is an unattractive outsider but unwittingly attracts males both human and immortal, asks her vampire boyfriend, Edward, about the conjugal relations in his vampire family: “You said that Rosalie and Emmett [his vampire siblings] will get married soon…Is that…marriage…the same as it is for humans?” (309). Bella asks the same kind of question that I would expect a typically modest Mormon young woman to ask: she asks about marriage as a euphemism for asking her real question, which is can she and Edward ever have sex. (The answer, Edward tells her, is that she is too incredibly “breakable” to have sex with him.)
The fact that Bella uses “marriage” to signify both “sex” and “marriage” does not simply signify the sexual repression of a Mormon writer and her heroine. Mormon sexuality is much better than that. Instead, I would suggest that it is symptomatic of and encourages at least two ways of (not) understanding the relationship (or lack thereof) between marriage and sexuality that are played out in the books and far more frequently coexist in our Mormon culture. On the one hand, young women can be encouraged by taboos on discussing sexuality to see Mormon marriage as an ideally sexless love, a kind of never-ending foreplay and protection from sexuality that Meyers’s first book makes so enticingly erotic as Edward refuses again and again to approach Bella sexually while still professing eternal attachment. On the other hand, the habit of using “marriage” as a euphemism for “sex” can encourage men and women alike in the belief that marriage is utterly about sex. Sexual ignorance and obsession with sex co-exist in the Twilight books, as, in my experience, they do within a perfectly “chaste” Mormon culture where it is possible to be both utterly ignorant of how to have sex and convinced that marriage includes not a little bit of physical indulgence.
Books that encourage these two kinds of fantasies, one that values sexless romance and one that depicts graphic sex are, I think, seemingly incompatible modes of exploitive porn: Bella’s longing for love that is unchanging, sexless, and protective is just as idealizing and dismissive of a potential lover’s complexity, humanity, and sexual realities as traditional pornography. And here is my point: Mormon men are constantly chastised about pornography. Mormon women almost never. And, yet, the kind of fantasy that Twilight depicts and that has attracted thousands of female readers, many Mormon, is not substantially different from traditional pornography in its consequences. In my mind, it is pornography by another name, even if it does not describe sex, because it encourages women to be aroused by a romantic fantasy that while sexless also distorts their expectations about men. Although we talk about chastity as a simple commitment to not have sex outside of marriage, this definition is far from complete, since the absence of sex can also lead to distorted expectations and relationships. Chastity, in my opinion, means not simply refraining from sex, but fully committing to thinking about and engaging with people in a way that recognizes their full humanity.
Indeed, with such fantasies, it isn’t surprising that Bella has to find a non-human love interest and that she finds in every male friend a want to be lover. Similarly, this inability for men and women to be friends strongly marks Mormon culture. Indeed, the most lingering consequences of my youthful notions about relationships between men and women is that I have few relationships with men at all, especially Mormon men. Granted, Church provides few opportunities for adult men and women to socialize together outside of singles wards, but the real problem is that after years of learning to search for my eternal companion, I can rarely see Mormon men through any lens other than potential or taken date.
And, of course, it is Bella’s search for an eternal companion that makes Twilight in the end so quintessentially Mormon in its romantic thrust. Bella’s “Plan A” in life is to have her lover/vampire make her immortal and give her a perfect body so that she can leave her broken home and join his immortal (read: eternal), rich family. “Plan B” is to go to college.
It is easy to laugh at Bella and to mock Stephanie Meyers. It is even easier to find the books attractive. But we shouldn’t mock without realizing that the message of Twilight is a virtual blueprint of what we still teach our Young Women: that their way to salvation from the brokenness here on earth is through marriage to an eternal companion. We can’t be surprised if their fantasies evolve to suit that message and if these dehumanizing fantasies are accepted as mainstream and even appropriate romantic goals. Non-Mormon critics say again and again that Meyers captures the sexual frustration that teens experience in high school, and the books’ popularity suggests that they do. But I think Meyers even better expresses the oddity that it is to be a Mormon young woman, who balances enforced sexual ignorance with the fact that it is through marriage, and hence sex, that she becomes exalted. It is easy to dismiss Meyers as writing a sexless romance. But these fantasies, and the often negative consequences that ensue from them, are unmistakably ours.