Is the Twilight series a faith-based paean to chastity? That is what author Stephanie Meyers claims. As Kathleen Gilbert notes,
Twilight author Stephenie Meyer is widely known to be a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS), and openly acknowledges that her faith has had an impact on the books. “Unconsciously, I put a lot of my basic beliefs into the story,” she has said.
Hence, several of Twilight‘s LDS elements fall in line with a broadly Christian outlook, such as the emphasis on self-control and chastity until marriage, the centrality of the family, and the dignity of motherhood.
Meyer is a very sick puppy.
The literary tropes of sex and death in the Twilight series, it has to be said, are well worn, as worn as the ruts in the Roman roads that turned into the standard gauge for European railroads. They infest the folklore of Christian (and Jewish Europe) in the form of incubi, succubi, silkies, nixies, Wassermaenner, and fairies. Heinrich Heine’s poem “Begegnung” (Encounter) has the Water-man and the Nixie meet by accident at a village dance where both are Jonesing for youths and maidens to be lured to a watery death; the two spirits treat each other with cold professional courtesy. Every Gothic novel, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula most emphatically, revolves the theme. All literary pornography from the Marquis de Sade through the Story of O culminates in death, for that is what copulation for its own sake leaders us to.
There is a Deuteronomic duality to the sex act, a blessing and curse. Human beings don’t couple like animals. Unlike animals, we know that we are mortal, and that bearing children is the precondition for conquering mortality. The culmination of sexual relations, the petit mort, recalls our mortality, for we produce children precisely because we know we are going to die; the sex act for its own sake is redolent of mortality without the promise of immortality. The subordination of sex to family relations within a faith community whose premise is the conquest of mortality, and the sublimation of sex into romantic love are the means by which civilization links sex to live. Take sex out of this context and it becomes a curse rather than a blessing.
What is new about the Twilight series, whose premise is that the heroine may not have physical relations with her vampire lover on pain of death, is not the theme itself: the same twisted sexuality pervades the whole tradition of literary pornography. Gilbert argues that the result is “girl porn” of a special sort:
the book’s narrative reflects what appears to be a mistaking of healthy boundaries for a wooden set of “thou shalt nots” detached from a realistic understanding of sexual impurity. For example, despite the prohibition against sensual kissing – an obvious and admirable moral in the stories – the books constantly use very vivid imagery in the tradition of seedy romance novels, building to scenes of throbbing sexual tension that are just as explicit, if not more so, than a typical kiss scene. A fine example of this is Bella and Edward’s first kiss; in both the movie and book version, the scene is made explicit (in the uncut film version, extremely so) by the exaggerated sexual tension of what should have been, in real life, a simple, chaste kiss. In these scenes, it’s obvious that the belief that lovers literally “can’t touch each other for fear it will lead to sex” is no exaggeration.
Thus this false idea of chastity contributes significantly to the series’ “girl porn” effect, despite the lack of actual sex – something that might not be apparent to men, but is all too clear to women. Touted for promoting chastity, the books in fact offer a combo of emotional titillation and steamy sexual near-misses, all bound together with a steady undercurrent of rape fantasy, that is deadly for women. These elements, as in sex-laden romantic novels, are geared toward over-stimulating female emotions and sending women hurtling towards an unhealthy escapism. Instead of the selfish male ideal of regular pornography, i.e., the perfect-bodied female delivering the ultimate sexual climax, women reading Twilight can find themselves craving a different and equally selfish fantasy: the perfectly “intense” male delivering the ultimate emotional climax.
There’s merit to this way of thinking of it, but there is also reason to view the Twilight series and its innumerable imitators in an even more sinister light. There’s nothing new to the sex-and-death dynamic in the books; what is repulsively new is the normalization of this pornographic trope. In folklore and literature, the theme of erotic death always was situated at the margin of society, either as a terrible lesson to those who strayed from the path of faith-based marriage, or as a nihilistic statement of rejection of civilization itself. But the heroine of Twlight is an ordinary girl with whom ordinary girls can and, in huge numbers, do identify. The fact that she does not engage in the sex act which inevitably will lead to her physical consumption and death does not change the fact that sex and death are wound together as inextricably as in de Sade.
For the first time in modern history, young girls come of age in a world in which their expectations are limited to hooking up with men who wish to use their bodies for gratification. What young girl today awaits her Prince Charming, her soulmate, her beschert (“apportioned,” in the Yiddish term), the man whose life she can transform and who will transform hers? What young girl believes that the man who loves her will demonstrate his love by marrying her rather than hooking up with her? Young women today typically live with the sort of sexual objectification that folklore and literature associate with death.
That is why popularity of Twilight among young women around the world should horrify us.