The construction of the romantic ideal in Twilight: a ‘youth minister’ reaction

May 5, 2011

Two disclaimers are in order before I start this post: First, I’ve never read any vampire stories, don’t know anything about vampire mythology, or the history of vampire (or werewolf) literature. Therefore, this post contain a lay perspective on those parts of the Twilight series. But then again, neither does most of our youth have these kinds of insights, so maybe my viewing do correlate to a “popular perspective” in that sense. Two, I watched the movies with the intend of seeing how adolescent relations are being constructed, for no other reasons, and carries that bias into my viewing. I owe this to Katie Douglas’ podcast on Twilight.

Confession session: I watched the first three Twilight movies in the past 24 hours. Next confession: I didn’t hate it. It wasn’t so gripping that I didn’t sit and work on other stuff at times, but it was a completely watchable movie. But I watched it with my youth ministry hat on, and I was extremely uncomfortable with what I saw.

I’ve scanned some blogposts from youth ministers on Twilight. Seems like you generally have three types of critique (yes, I know there is a lot of appreciation from youth ministers as well, I’ll refer to this at times, add a few positive elements of my own, but mostly I’m providing a critical perspective, so this is where I’ll focus).

As with Harry Potter 10 years ago or so, there is the obvious religious response to the fact that the film portrayed Vampires and Werewolfs in a generally positive manner. The idea that we are somehow exposing kids to the “occult”. I’m not that worried about it really. Strange vampire saga that frowns upon the killing of humans, actually outright rejects the killing of humans (although it’s accepted as a kind of “necessity”). I guess this is just a default position, but since I’m really not concerned about “vampires” in reality, I don’t think using these myths in stories are problematic purely because vampires are mentioned. I suspect that if I were to study vampire movies generally I might be strongly opposed to the portrayal of violence, but that’s on a different level. Anyhow, the violence scenes in the Twilight series can be described as “mild” to say the most, so except if you chose the road of total rejection of any portrayal of violence  (and then I’ll have to include much of our violent sports), I wouldn’t worry about this too much either as a youth minister. The only scene that is bugging me, concerning violence, is links to “cutting” in Twilight 3, where Bella cuts herself to save Edward. But I guess it’s debatable whether the link can be made to teen cutting. Oh, that and maybe the senseless killing in Seattle by the gang of “newborns”.

The second response some writing from youth ministry has to the films is the portrayal of sensuality and sexuality. A couple of kissing scenes. Again some complain, but except if you are doing a total clamp-down on any portrayals of teen sexuality this shouldn’t concern you too much. On the contrary, if going purely by physical intimacy portrayed in these teen relationships I would say this isn’t even problematic given the age at which characters are portrayed (taking Edward as 17 instead of 109 obviously). Obviously there is the fact that these values are blatantly described as “old-school”, and portrayed as the values of a romantic bygone era that needn’t exist anymore, it is quite remarkable that you have a teen best-seller making any case at all against sex-before-marriage).

I’ll add one more positive to the last paragraph, not concerning teen sexuality, but linking to typical portrayals of teenage relationships. Bella has an abnormally good relationships with her parents. On a first-level analysis quite nice to have this really. I bet most parents in our congregations would love to have this kind of nice and friendly relationship with their parents. Now obviously we must add that parents are portrayed as people who have no understanding of the life their kids are going through and wouldn’t be able to handle it if they did, but hey, parents are portrayer as really caring for their teens, and teens as loving their parents. So lets give recognition where it’s possible, and open up conversations with teens where those opportunities do appear.

However, I want to take on from the arguments on sexuality to get to the point I’d like to make. The film really has very little explicit sexual portrayals. However, the whole thing burns with sexual tension like little I’ve seen before. Maybe the author (apparently a Mormon) heard some of the popular phrases from teen sex education (or Christian high school youth cultures). You know, those saying that you should leave something to imagination, and those saying that you somehow get more “passion” if you let things develop without going into overly sexual experiences too early. Because this film with very little sexual scenes really has you smelling the sexuality every minute of it.

My guess however, is that it’s not the physical stuff that points to this, but the way the relationships is portrayed. From very early on you have this kind-of-typical teenage television relationships where each will do “anything” for the other (even go to high-school together admitting their feelings in front of all the judging eyes). Throw into this a “big story” and a few supernatural elements just to heighten it up. By the end of Twilight 1 you have this kind of super-charged I’ll-do-anything-for-you teenage relationship, where I’ll do anything for you goes somewhat above the normal, but I guess wouldn’t require anything more than a “reality check” if this is to become a model for teenage relationships. Some in youth ministry take issue with any form of commitment in teenage relations, I’m not sure this is bad however, definitely hyperbolic, but that I find an acceptable literary as well as cinematographic strategy. I guess the youth minister in me just have to remind teens that these relations actually happening and being positive at that age is extremely rare.

My discomfort starts after the breakup. Two facts might hide the deeply problematic structure for teen relations being portrayed. There is the obvious fact that this concerns vampires and werewolfs, and therefore shouldn’t be “normal”, and here the fact that I don’t know the myths might cloud my interpretation, since there might be long explanations from vampire mythology from what I’m about to say. However, our teens don’t come to the film with degrees in mythology, and not even with having read the books, so hear me out fans (give me the explanations if you want, but just see the links I’m seeing if you can). The second thing clouding our interpretation is that this is a movie and things end well, and we therefore are told that all the decisions made were good (although the speech at graduation might hint that the decisions weren’t good, but that late adolescence should be a time for making mistakes, so therefore again all’s well that ends well.

But I watch Bella in the months after the breakup, and I see teenage girls. The hunk which she believe to be the love of her life leaves her with some corny excuse about how it’s “better for her” if he leaves, and she goes into a depression. This is portrayed as totally disconnecting from all other relations, sitting doing nothing, and combined with the kind of nightmarish experience which if you do find this in teenage girls (I’m sticking to the films constructions of gender roles, but this can probably be applied to teenage boys as well) 6 months after a breakup you might want to get professional help for the teen. Even for a lay person in vampire stories the hidden idea that there must be some “supernatural” reason for this jumped out, but the film doesn’t portray this as far as I could see. All you know is that Bella experiences this hole in her sole which cause these extreme reactions where she can’t work through the end of the relationship in a healthy way. Worst part: it’s portrayed as a positive thing, since she is clinging to some kind of truth even though she doesn’t know it.

Then comes the adrenaline. Where the boy she lost becomes more important than life. Where just one more glimpse of him is worth risking life. This should not be confused with the idea of giving your life for the ones you love (which I think is a tradition we might not want to forget in this individualistic culture), Bella is risking her life for the romantic ideal. Edward, as the character willing to “sacrifice the relationships because of his love for Bella” is another conversation, and one which I’ll skip for the moment, so let’s continue with Bella and youth ministry. Bella remind me of the caricature of the teenage girl coming into the counselling office, not crying anymore, but determined to do anything for the guy she loves, although she has no idea why he is rejecting her. Sex. Alcohol and drugs. Rejection of family. This is the reality which I find connection with in the life of Bella. And this is portrayed as positive. Clinging to this romantic ideal in spite of all evidence to the contrary, going to the extreme “for the relationship”. We even have the “other guy”, the “best friend” whom she will use in any way necessary just to get “one more glimpse”.

All this might be responsible for the feel of extreme sexual tension I find in the film. I think youth ministers and parents can kind of skip over the vampires and werewolfs of the films, I find it just a continuation of the recent upsurge of fantasy (simply because we now have the technology to make really cool fantasy films?), one which we’ve debated in youth ministry since Harry Potter, and I think, at least in typical mainline and progressive environments, accepted as quite positive contributions to contemporary imagination, and hopefully helping along reading ability (which for Protestants should be a good thing). Explicit sexuality and violence I think we might also skip over. Our teens need to learn how to reflect on displays of sexuality which does not reflect reality (one of the biggest problems of pornography), but I don’t think these films provide the greatest challenge facing this.

But as youth ministers we would have to think about the way in which the romantic ideal in teenage relations are begin constructed. Specifically the role of women in these relations. If Edward is interpreted as the “older guy” it might become even more problematic. The scenes from much of Twilight 2 has shocking reflections of what happens to some teen girls after certain breakups, and we have to provide healthier ways of reflecting on this (Twilight 3 will fare somewhat better in my opinion, but I’m getting to 2000 words, so let’s end this for the moment).

The romantic ideal of Western relations are being pointed out as the cause for a lot of relational issues in our society, and the way in which this ideal it rooted in the construction of adolescence today cannot be denied. This I think is deeply problematic within a film which otherwise portray quite ‘conservative’ values of families and teenage sexuality, and even hints at a few counter-cultural (maybe too strong a word, but there is a hint) values (such as anti-consumerism in Bella’s approach to shopping and critique on the high school culture in her approach to prom).

One Response to “The construction of the romantic ideal in Twilight: a ‘youth minister’ reaction”

  1. Shannon Says:

    What I found most disturbing (and I read the books, which are genuinely awful but have a huge cult following not just among teens but adult women) is the portrayal of Bella as almost a non-entity. She doesn’t seem to have much agency or personality, she doesn’t think she’s worthy of Edward, and she comes across as clingy and insecure. I read one critic who said that she thought the reason there is no real physical description of Bella and that she’s portrayed as kind of awkward (her shyness and physical lack of coordination are repeatedly emphasized) is to make her a cipher, a blank slate onto which any girl can project herself. But the fact that any girl would *want* to be Bella as she’s portrayed is distressing.


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