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).
November 10, 2010
It’s been some months since last I participated in a synchroblog. But the topic was impossible to ignore! Marginalization remain one of the most important questions in our globalized, capitalist, McWorld. But I am not marginilized. I am white and male. Educated. I speak a language which in a country of 11 official languages receive a lot of special attention. I was part of the privilaged few who could have 12 years of school education and 6 years of university education while always having a teacher of lecturer in class that was able to speak my home language. I have internet access, in a country with quite a low internet penetration. I am Christian, in a country where in many ways on a popular level it is just assumed that everyone is Christian, at least when you are white and Afrikaans. Yes, I am from the South, and I live in South Africa, that does take me out of at certain dominant narratives, and I am 26, which in the world in which I work could be argued that to make me somewhat marginalized.
In many ways I am the example of normality.
But yet white people are only 11% of South Africa.
The world is majority female, the worlds labour force is majority female, and Africa specifically is being carried on the backs of the mothers and grandmothers.
This is a country of second languages. Where children are being taught in languages other then their home language.
Although I’m the example of normality, I’m not normal at all, if normal is defined as the place where “most people” are. But the normalized position it not selected democratically. The normalized position is the position never being questioned. We talk about “female perspectives” or “black perspectives”, but assume the “male perspective” or “white perspective” to be… well, normal. The perspective, all other being a deviation from this normalized position. And this is not limited to popular culture, as academics until recently also weren’t putting any emphasis on white people as a “race like any other“, assuming whiteness to be the position from which others is being studies, and interestingly, this report points out how the behavioral sciences continue to universalize Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic people (specifically young Americans at universities).
Concerning race, South African sociologist Melissa Steyn writes:
As the privileged group, whites have tended to take their identity as the standard bywhich everyone else is measured. This makes white identity invisible, “even to theextent that many whites do not consciously think about the profound effect being whitehas on their everyday lives”. In sum, because the racialness of their own lives is editedout, white people have been able to ignore the manner in which the notion of race has structured people’s life opportunities in society as a whole.
When seeing through the eyes of the marginalized, their might be something more important than recognizing the absolute horrors of life on the fringes of society, the suffering and oppression. If we are serious about racism, sexism, and all other phenomenons which create the marginalized in society (for economic reasons?), as systemic problems, and not simply the evil actions of individuals, then I would need to recognized my own non-normal normalized position. I would need to recognize my own indebtedness to this system of privilege. Yes, simply recognizing privilege is not solving the problem, but at least the privileged position of race (as Shannon Sullivan points out in Revealing Whiteness), and I believe the same can be said about other systems of privilege, has ways to keep itself in place, habits which manifest also among those who claim to be a voice in favour of the marginalized.
Our first task might then be to see ourselves through the eyes of the normalized. Recognizing our participation in different systems of privilege and power, so that we in turn can work for the transformation of systems which is continuing to create marginalized groups on so many different levels.
* * * * *
this part of the monthly synchroblog i enjoy being a part of, bloggers writing on the same topic on the same day. november’s is a topic near & dear to my heart, seeing through the eyes of the marginalized. i encourage you to check out some of the other writers who participated, the early link list is at the bottom of this post & i’ll add to it as new ones come in over the course of today. if you’re a blogger & want to be part of future synchroblogs, you can join on facebook or go to our newsynchroblog site and subscribe.
- George at the Love Revolution – The Hierarchy of Dirt
- Arthur Stewart – The Bank
- Sonnie Swenston – Seeing through the Eyes of the Marginalized
- Wendy McCaig – An Empty Chair at the Debate
- Ellen Haroutunian – Reading the Bible from the Margins
- Christine Sine – Seeing through the Eyes of the Marginalized
- Alan Knox – Naming the Marginalized
- Margaret Boehlman – Just Out of Sight
- Liz Dyer – Step Away from the Keyhole
- John O’Keefe – Viewing the World in Different Ways
- Steve Hayes – Ministry to Refugees–Synchroblog on Marginalised People
- Kathy Escobar – sitting at the rickety-card-table-in-the-family room at thanksgiving dinner
- Andries Louw – The South African Squatter Problem
- Drew Tatusko – Invisible Margins of a White Male Body
- K.W. Leslie – Who’s the Man? We Christians Are
- Jacob Boelman – Seeing through the Eyes of the Marginalized
- Peter Walker – Through the Eyes of the Marginalized
November 5, 2010
OK, I think I’m tired of blogging about Amway now, so I’ll finish up with this post as conclusion.
As the “creating wealth” tract was turned to the last page, it had an image which contained two empty blocks. My evangelist filled in “Amway” and “NW21” into these blocks. Now the secret was out. It was revealed what this guy was selling all along! And somewhere deep down I remembered hearing about these two companies, and what I heard wasn’t good. So I understood why he was hiding the company he was presenting up to now. First had to convince me how poor I was and how quickly I can make money.
There was a second part, however: I could immediately call up the wikipage on Amway, note the recent court cases against them, note the sociological work comparing Amway to religious cults. Had I knew before the appointment what company I’ll be speaking to, I could have prepared for this. When he finished, I asked about some of this. Answers focused on how legal this company are, and on their 90-day money back guarantee.
I was told about the 8 couples in South Africa who made it to diamond level, which meant a R1.6 million a year income. This sound like a lot, but since they work with couples, it’s R800000 per person, and then you still need to deduct all your business expenses from this, since the R1.6 million isn’t profit, it’s income for the business. Suddenly the riches doesn’t even seem to be that much riches anyhow. Well, R1.6 is a lot of money, and probably more than I’d even earn, or really care to earn, but in the business world your not really noteworthy. Also, if only 8 couples could actually make it, then I can be sure that with my low commitment to marketing I will never make it. This is like telling a worker the CEO’s salary then he apply for a job. He know he’s never gonna get that salary, so why should this even motivate him?
The last thing that I found really really strange was the gender issues in the approach. The man invited only me, alone. But the whole interview was about how me and my wife can make this huge amount of money. No thought for the possibility that maybe we like to be independent people doing different stuff, and not even considering that if you want the both of us to buy into a business idea, then both need to be invited. And all the examples he used was about married couples running this Amway thing together. Some of my friends who attended similar events in the past confirm that this is always the case, and the Amway South Africa wiki also confirm this.
So with this I’d like to conclude: I have questions about the ethics, and I can understand that people would run businesses which is ethically questionable. I believe a time will come when Amway, as with similar schemes in the past, will be found illegal and end, but I can understand that people would want to make as much as possible from the scheme while it’s still possible. However, not even in the church do we still work with the idea of “pastoring couples”. What is behind this strong emphasis on couples selling Amway? Forget the money. The feminist in me becomes a skeptic…
February 26, 2010
By the time I was finishing high school I have developed strong anti-racism sentiments, and learned to see black peers as friends and equals. I would go into university quite sensitive to the strong undertones of racism in the first residence where I lived (Sonop), and very comfortable with the mixed racial environment at the second one (Taaibos).
But my transformation was not finished. I fell in love at this stage, and no, not to a black girl (not that that would have been a problem in my eyes). I fell in love with the girl that would years later become my wife: Maryke. In the early years of our relationship she challenged me in a number of ways, but the two I remember most clearly was:
- I learned from her that I couldn’t think of God as male. That this was a male construct (without her having any feminist training, she was just being a woman, and sharing the honest experiences of being a woman).
- Although my friendship with Tsidi teached me that black people was equals, I felt like I must be a racist when I met Maryke. She wasn’t only willing to have black friends and think in terms of equality. She was totally comfortable in relationships with black people. I knew black people. She seemed to know the name of every black girl in her year-group! She seemed to be colorblind!
In the years following she continued to challenge by just living a life of total and absolute equality. It was some of the most amazing experiences the few times I went to the movies of to functions with her friends. Catolic, Protestant, Atheist, Hindu, Buddhist. White, Black, Indian, Oriental. Afrikaans, English, Zulu, Mandarin, and a host of other languages I don’t even know. All of this were found in a group of maybe 10 or 12 people. They weren’t making a statement, simply living life together, and finding more in common than that divided them.
Some of these friends still visit us from time to time, and we keep on being enriched by there uniqueness.
January 25, 2010
I’m busy reading Knowledge in the Blood, and Jansen’s exploration of the knowledge of the post-Apartheid Afrikaner children had me thinking at one point that we really need more popular arts to help in the remembrance and and memories of Apartheid. Maybe it was Invictus that also got me thinking. I didn’t really follow the conversation about Skin until I went to watch it, but this exactly the kind of films that we need.
It tells the story of a girl, Sandra Laing, born of white parents, but of polygenic inheritance; meaning that there was black blood in their line, and although it didn’t show in her parents, it reappeared with her. She was a nobody. Officially white, but the older the got, the more she appeared coloured. Times Online has a good article on her story.
The film depicts the complexities of Afrikaner people trying to make sense of the laws which at times simply doesn’t work. It beautifully show how kids were indoctrinated at school, and the culture that taught white kids that only white people require respect. And it shows how powerful political voices can ruin the life of children. It also points out how some Afrikaner people started realizing that they were wrong, in this case the official that was responsible for Sandra’s reclassification from white to coloured.
The school from which Sandra got expelled was Piet Retief primary. The school that I attended as a child. A place that I really loved. The town that rejected her, was my beloved hometown, Piet Retief. The church that didn’t stand up for the voiceless, was the congregation that formed my faith maybe more than any other. Suddenly the perpetrators of Apartheid is no longer people by the names of Botha, Vlok, Malan. But a headmaster from this small school. That not only did what he had to do, but took the initiative to get rid of this kid with her dark skin. I know people who was living in this town at that time, I know a number of people who had to be kids in this school at the time this happened. These people were our friends, people I looked up to, and still look up to. This reality have me want to take the Klopjag route, simply trying to forget that Apartheid ever happened, because the reality of how my own people participated, is just to grave. This is the stories that we would need to work through if we are to develop healthy post-Apartheid cultures.
One thing that I believe the film beautifully portrays, and that I haven’t read anywhere, is the role of gender. Apartheid is a white-man’s system, and the battles are between white men and black men. The woman seem to find ways of overcoming their differences, even in these difficult circumstances, which men find impossible. Sandra and her mother can work on their relationship after she ran away with Petrus, but her father cannot accept this, and rejects his daughter. When the struggle gets bad in the 80’s Petrus continues to blame Sandra, even though she has totally become part of the black culture. But Petrus’ mother, a gogo to Sandra, can keep the relationship open. All over the story woman find ways of building relationships much more effectively than men. Even in the way Sandra two children react to the situation. The importance of woman’s voices in reconciliation is still underestimated! And the importance of woman’s voices in politics, economics and society, to help us in preventing similar atrocities, is still under-appreciated.