Caitlin Flanagan on the Twilight series

I don’t necessarily look to Caitlin Flanagan to explain, well, much of anything*. But I do think her recent The Atlantic article about the Twilight series is worth mentioning for the simple reason that she notes that reviewers of the books always mention Stephenie Meyer’s Mormon-ness but never quite know what to do with that fact.** And because I think she possibly gets at the appeal for some (especially teenage) Mormon female readers.

Here’s the relevant excerpt:

The erotic relationship between Bella and Edward is what makes this book–and the series–so riveting to its female readers. There is no question about the exact nature of the physical act that looms over them. Either they will do it or they won’t, and afterward everything will change for Bella, although not for Edward. Nor is the act one that might result in an equal giving and receiving of pleasure. If Edward fails–even once–in his great exercise in restraint, he will do what the boys in the old pregnancy-scare books did to their girlfriends: he will ruin her. More exactly, he will destroy her, ripping her away from the world of the living and bringing her into the realm of the undead. If a novel of today were to sound these chords so explicitly but in a nonsupernatural context, it would be seen (rightly) as a book about “abstinence,” and it would be handed out with the tracts and bumper stickers at the kind of evangelical churches that advocate the practice as a reasonable solution to the age-old problem of horny young people. (Because it takes three and a half very long books before Edward and Bella get it on–during a vampiric frenzy in which she gets beaten to a pulp, and discovers her Total Woman–and because Edward has had so many decades to work on his moves, the books constitute a thousand-page treatise on the art of foreplay.) That the author is a practicing Mormon is a fact every reviewer has mentioned, although none knows what to do with it, and certainly none can relate it to the novel; even the supercreepy “compound” where the boring half of Big Love takes place doesn’t have any vampires. But the attitude toward female sexuality–and toward the role of marriage and childbearing–expressed in these novels is entirely consistent with the teachings of that church. In the course of the four books, Bella will be repeatedly tempted–to have sex outside of marriage, to have an abortion as a young married woman, to abandon the responsibilities of a good and faithful mother–and each time, she makes the “right” decision. The series does not deploy these themes didactically or even moralistically. Clearly Meyer was more concerned with questions of romance and supernatural beings than with instructing young readers how to lead their lives. What is interesting is how deeply fascinated young girls, some of them extremely bright and ambitious, are by the questions the book poses, and by the solutions their heroine chooses.

What’s interesting is that although technically Flanagan is correct about Bella making the “right” choices, there are also Mormons who are uncomfortable with some of the other choices she makes. In addition, I’m somewhat amused by all the people who have felt (or been) compelled (and that includes us here at AMV) to write about Twilight and how much our reactions betray our attitudes towards certain feminist issues as well as literary value and Mormonism.

* This is no knock on those who do. We all have varying tolerance levels for gadflies c.f. Camille Paglia, Ben Stein, Noam Chomsky, etc.

** It’ll be interesting to see if Reading Until Dawn can get us beyond some of the basic reactions that tend to come up repeatedly.