WPost: Chaste vampires are not us

twilight-coverAnyone who has paid even the slightest attention to the “Twilight” explosion in pop culture knows that author Stephenie Meyer is a somewhat unorthodox Mormon believer who isn’t exactly shy about letting symbols and themes from her faith, uh, bleed over into her vampire kingdom.

The Rev. EEE took on the topic a time or two here at GetReligion, since the subject has received some mainstream media attention. But the topic is now everywhere. I mean, click here and surf around a bit.

Meanwhile, my dear friend John “HogwartsProfessor.com” Granger is focusing his considerable talents in fantasy analysis on this pop-culture tsunami, as well. You may want to check out the new Forks High School Professor website (especially to keep tabs on his theories until his new book comes out).

Are the books worth all of this heavy intellectual breathing? I have avoided them like the plague, quite frankly. And so have lots of other people, according to one of those snarky, navel-gazing Washington Post features that draw so much attention when they run back in the edgy confines of the newspaper’s famous Style section.

But, wait! This sprawling piece on the “Twilight” craze didn’t run in the Style section, where the lines between news and analysis are blurred more often than not. This story ran on page A1, right there in the sacred territory dedicated to politics. The double-decker headline just about says it all:

‘Twilight,’ the love that dare not speak its shame

Good, smart, literary women tried to resist the romantic-vampire phenomenon. And then, alas, they bit.

You see, this article is for smart women, the kind who still read the Post and not popular novels that are, well, more on that later.

Apparently, it was easy to write off Meyer and her shiny heroes when only the, you know, shallow and stupid women were reading them, the kinds of women who yearn for full-blooded romances and even — shocking — men who are willing to make sacrifices and be faithful to them, well, forever.

Here’s a sample of this buffet line of elitist guilt, at the very top of this journalistic sermon by Monica Hesse:

We know. You hate “Twilight.” You don’t want to hear anything more about “Twilight.” That’s why this is not another story about the “Twilight” or “New Moon” mania, nor will it rhapsodize on the vampire craze, nor does it contain any interviews with Robert Pattinson.

This is a story about shame.

All across the country, there were women who managed to avoid Stephenie Meyer’s series about a star-crossed human/vampire teen couple. (Vampire Edward lusts for mortal Bella, but also for her blood; the books are less plot than endless yearning). They resisted the first three books — refused to read them, didn’t know they existed — and the lunacy that was “Breaking Dawn.”

“Twilight” came for the tweens, then for the moms of tweens, then for the co-workers who started wearing those ridiculous Team Jacob shirts, and the resisters said nothing, because they thought “Twilight” could not come for them. They were too literary. They didn’t do vampires. They were feminists.

So, why is this a GetReligion subject? Precisely because the story never goes there, it never gets into Meyer’s connection with her main audience and never, ever, connects the dots to the franchise’s unique take on love, sexuality, marriage, family and, literally, tribe. We are told that these feminist readers are all offended by the fact that the books are for stupid, shallow women, but the beliefs and tastes of those women are simply painted in negative, in a reverse image.

New Moon PosterThere is very little religion in the story. That’s kind of my point.

Instead, the story gets busy and stays busy describing, detailing and dissecting the exquisite guilt that liberal, secular, feminist women feel because they are falling head over heals in love with these books and movies that are supposed to only sell to, well, you know — those other women (you know who they are).

Guilt. Shame. It’s a sad scene.

However, there is a kind of political/religious angle that appears briefly down in the body of the report. Yes, the Post briefly mentions the A-word:

Witness the downfall of Sarah Seltzer, a freelance literary critic who also writes for a reproductive rights Web site:

“I wanted to write about the abstinence subtext,” Seltzer says, which is why she read the books to begin with. She planned on questioning the allegorical “abstinence only” theme that runs through the series. “But the books are kind of hypnotic, so it’s very much that while you’re reading them you’re sucked in, and then you take a step back and you think, this is kind of troubling. She jumps off a cliff because she misses her boyfriend?” What?!

“New Moon” shows Bella at her most pathetic, and so the grown women who love “Twilight” have methodically come up with rebuttals to the accusations that the character is anti-feminist. Perhaps her single-minded desire for a relationship is actually a Third Wave feminist expression? Maybe it doesn’t matter that she’s choosing Edward over everything else, as long as it’s her choice? Maybe her wish to become a vampire is really a metaphor for asserting her rights over her own body?

Keep reminding yourself that this outpouring of guilt is taking place on A1, in one of America’s most important newspapers.

I freely admit that there is something of substance here. So you read the story. Do you sense a ghost? Do you see the reflection in the mirror, the women that these smart, informed, liberal, secular, feminist women fear? I think I do.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Chris

    I know it doesn’t address the journalism angle, but I noted that one of the women interviewed indicated that, previous to her infatuation with the Twilight series, Anthony Burgess and Ayn Rand were her favorite authors. A curious duo. Actually, Stephanie Meyer may write better characters than Ayn Rand….

  • Stoo

    So do Liberal Secular Feminist avoid these books cos of Mormon Values or something? Or just cos they’re vapid and badly written?

    (I have no idea, I thought they were aimed at teenagers in the first place. But then I guess people thought that of Harry Potter at first.)

    Also when tmatt talks of Liberal Secular Postmodernist Elitist Feminists it sounds like he’s speaking in graven tones about the armies of Mordor amassing on his borders.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Stoo:

    Did your read the Post story?

    I’m pretty much just summing up the descriptions there.

  • http://www.nocheapshots.blogspot.com Elizabeth Evans

    Terry, thanks for addressing the Meyer phenomenon, which really is fascinating. I think you are spot on — this is an amazingly elitist article. There’s a veritable fantasy explosion, both among teens and adults — and wouldn’t it be possible that some of these express our need for strong moral values in a permissive society? The writer doesn’t address this.

    The only thing I have against Stephenie Meyer is that I find her writing style just awful. Boring. Repetitive. But millions of other women — and men — are proving me wrong.

  • Lucy

    I do find this very interesting, especially that it’s news. But then, maybe it really is news that perhaps the “smart” women aren’t so smart after all. I haven’t read the books. I’ve been avoiding them too, not being into either vampires or romance novels. But, having read John Granger’s article in Touchstone, I may have to reconsider. And honestly, this WPost article makes me more interested. I loved the quotes from the woman for whom the book opened up repressed emotions. Clearly these women are not as self-aware as they’d like to think.

    I do think the article didn’t go nearly as deeply as it could have, but if it had, the conclusions might have been too much for all those “smart” feminists. To me, the author does not explain adequately why it’s so embarrassing to like these books. (Of course, I’m probably not “smart or literary” enough to see why it’s embarrassing – where I live, I’m pretty much the only woman I know who has NOT read the books.) If anything, I think the non-”good, smart, literary women” ought to feel pretty proud of themselves for being more aware than these other women who’ve stuffed their feelings and pretended they don’t want things that they obviously do want.

    I really am going to have to read these books now.

  • Jettboy

    As an aside, Granger really needs to talk with real live believing Mormons who have read The Book of Mormon about his conclusions. His views of Mormonism are simplistic without any idea of the inter-religious controversies and discussions of the topics he talks about. Secondly, he is too quick to discount what Stephanie Meyer has to say about her own writing process, even if he does have a few good points. Then again, that goes for pretty much all the non-Mormon journalists who have mentioned the connections of book and religion. If anything that GetReligion should have learned, its that Mormonism is complicated because its not solidly definitive.

  • Dave

    Where’s the religion ghost here? It’s clearly not a solid case of the press not getting religion, so where’s the ghost? (No, don’t tell me to go read the entire story. This is your blog; you’re supposed to lift these thing up in your post.)

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    DAVE:

    Sorry. You need to read the Washington Post story.

    Blogs are for people who read.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    LUCY:

    Like I said, the article is about an interesting and valid subject. It’s just that there is this whole other religious subject — the reverse image in the mirror — that is implied.

    We are not those other stupid women. That’s the message. Who are the other women?

  • Jettboy

    Dave, I have to agree with you, although they answer that question as, “There is very little religion in the story. That’s kind of my point.” There is a conception about these books that somehow it is really about spirituality generally and Mormonism specifically. Although I agree that there is sub-text along these lines, I don’t believe they were meant to be religious treaties in the same way as Lord of the Rings or the Narnia series.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    JETTBOY:

    My post is really not about the book contents, it’s about the way the Post framed the reactions of its elite readers.

    I’m interested in the LDS issue. Honest. But I would not have written the post simply because the Post didn’t mention that. I took the Post topic on its own merits.

  • Matt

    On the flip side of this coin, did you read the Twilight movie review in the NYTimes? The reviewer’s belief that abstinence is immoral could not have been more clear. They made the New York Times say “worldview”!! I almost fell out of my chair!

  • Liz Busby

    This is a total side-note, but in what way is Stephanie Meyer an “unorthodox Mormon”? I’m a Mormon and I’ve seen exactly zip that makes me believe she’s anything but mainstream. Clarify?

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    LIZ:

    I added the qualifier because church reactions to the books have been so mixed.

    How have YOU seen her described. I am very open to correction on that.

  • Stoo

    We are not those other stupid women. That’s the message

    Well see I’m picking up a self-deprecatory vibe here. If it’s elitist, it’s knowingly so.

    The writer is a woman who likes to descrive herself as feminist, well-read, having more higbrow interests etc. But in the end she too succumbed to what I saw awesomely described elsewhere as a “laser guided endorphin bomb”.

  • Jettboy

    tmatt, you are very confusing. I am not aware of ANY comments by the LDS Church, although you are probably referring to the membership. I have seen her described as a Mormon who wrote books with controversial views about sexuality, romance, and relationships between genders.

  • Jettboy

    Now Elna Baker, the NYC Mormon stand-up comic has been described by some members who know of her as “unorthodox.” The reasons are for how they approach sex and relationships. For Meyer it might be “erotic abstinence,” but is is followed by marriage. However, for Elna Baker it is a single woman questioning the value of abstinence and marriage even if remaining chaste.

  • http://karenharbaugh.blogspot.com Karen H.

    It’s the same kind of article that’s been leveled at romance novels in general, and the publishing industry generally consideres Meyers’s books to be YA romance novels. What’s usually skipped over in such articles is that ALL romances–regardless of the level of abstention or sexual activity–end up with the hero and heroine married or engaged to be married, and often the marriage happens in the middle of the book or series. YA romance novels focus on the romantic relationship, but most leave out the sex. Meyer’s books are really not unusual in the romance genre; there are plenty of Christian women writing different kinds of romance novels, including those with vampires and other supernatural elements.

    I am often irritated that the media defines romance novels by the sex in them, rather than the far more common element, marriage. In fact, reporters generally ignore the very, very present marriage theme in romance novels. There’s even a whole “inspirational” category that contains no sex at all and has the couple’s relationship to God as an integral component to the story, usually in the context of Christianity.

    There’s probably a good reason for the marriage focus, and for the fact that romance novels are raking in profits even in a recession–Meyers’s books included. But I don’t recall anyone ever really taking a good close look at the reason behind the marriage focus. I hate to say it, but the consensus amongst romance writers is that reporters are possibly as ignorant about the romance genre as they are about religion.

  • Brian Walden

    On a somewhat related note, I got a text from my sister this morning that the Catholic Church condemned the Twilight series. As far as I can tell, it’s the typical situation of some Vatican official spouting off about it and then media outlets reporting it as some type of official Vatican document. I really wish they’d keep a tighter leash on the Curia, it just leads to too much confusion when they speak out on their own – let individual priests and bishops speak to their flock if they think there’s a problem.

  • jkc

    Yeah, my reaction was the same as Jettboy and Liz. How is Meyer unorthodox? And where has she been described that way? I don’t think it’s fair to put the burden back on Liz and ask her how she has seen Meyer described. Isn’t that a large part of what this blog is about—having the writer of the piece justify or at least contextualize casual religious judgments? It’s not enough to say that you’re open to correction, I think you need to justify it. I realize that this post is not a news piece, but I don’t think its unfair to ask the same.

    And what do you mean when you say that church reactions to the books have been mixed? Like Jettboy says, the Church has had anything to say about it. (At least not that I’ve heard.) As for church members, I haven’t read the books, but in my local LDS community (in upstate NY) most of the girls (and their moms, for that matter) seem to be pretty into the twilight series. But even if you’re right and reactions have been mixed, how does that justify the unorthodox label?

    I’m not trying to make you an offender for a word. Maybe that’s all this is—a careless choice of words. But using the term unorthodox brings pretty loaded and it does call to mind some kind of theological issue that isn’t ever developed. Like I said, not trying to make you an offender for a word, but this forum seems to be the place where terms like unorthodox wouldn’t be used so casually.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    I’m not sure what this means exactly, but I do recall that Deseret Books pulled the Twilight series from its shelves this past April. I believe they kept some of Meyer’s other books.

  • Jon in the Nati

    I think this may be an instance not only of the media not “getting” religion (in particular, the LDS one), but also the media not “getting” Twilight and its nearly incomprehensible take on vampire lore.

    I’ll admit, I don’t get it either (the latter, that is).

  • Jettboy

    Mollie, the Deseret Book incident had arguably less to do with unorthodoxy and more with the question of appropriate marketing. Is the series a Mormon book or a book written by a Mormon? The book company came down on the side of the latter, where the company is supposed to be about the former. Now there were complaints about the contents of the books that contributed to the decision no doubt, but it was image before substance that determined the outcome. Orson Scott Card, for instance, isn’t marketed by DB except his direct religious works.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

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