What Do Girls Want? Chastity By TwilightAs is her wont, the Atlantic's lightning rod cultural critic Caitlin Flanagan has weighed in on womenfolk: in this case, Twilight, the teen vampire phenomenon that's sold millions of books and, according to the Associated Press, is redefining the chick flick. In an expansive essay on girlhood, innocence, imperiled innocence, sexuality, her dislike of YA books, her love of YA books, and the power of fiction, Flanagan examines "What A Girl Wants". What does she want? Well, it's simple.While the essay covers pretty much every facet of girlhood - and does a good job of capturing a lot of adolescence's pain and rapture, Flanagan's ultimate take on Twilight's appeal is in some ways reductive:
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. ...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...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...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.
Flanagan is not the first critic to make the explicit link between Edward's self-imposed restraint (he is afraid, to the uninitiated, that if he loses control with Bella he'll be overcome by the temptation to drink her blood, killing her) and the loss of virtue. In several reviews, critics called this out as a transparent bit of moralizing; or a whitewashing of teen sexuality. At the risk of lowering the discourse, sometimes a vampire is just a vampire. To my mind, such simplification - and co-option - does a disservice to the story's elemental appeal. Whatever the author's own inclinations, the book's moral universe is not a didactic one (except in the good/evil way, of course.) Parents advise using birth control; in a later book, characters aren't adverse to abortion. If Meyer had wanted to impose her moral views; she could have - the book was hardly undertaken as a commercial labor. More to the point, were sex actually morally wrong in this universe, there'd be no real tension to the story. That's not to say that the lack of sex isn't a driving force -vampires by definition conflate seduction and death, hence: conflict. Rather, what some critics describe as chaste and Flanagan as essentially puritanical is a return to the basic principle of the page-turner: make them wait for it. I'm passionate about this because I went into the movie without any particular investment, and found myself so swept up in the maelstrom of teen emotion that I fainted. (Yes.) Had this been rooted in a deep-seated puritanism I don't think this would have been the case. More likely, it was the result of a drama that came from something much more fundamental, tension. Flanagan feels Twilight succeeds because it taps into the innermost wishes of teen girls - for comfort, for love, for reassurance. While we might disagree on the particulars, I won't argue with that: what I will say is that (based on my own humiliating experience) people generally - not just young girls - are moved by simple stories, well-told, and that is not something anyone grows out of. (And it's a pet peeve when teens are treated as a separate species with unfathomable motivations.) Restraints make for good stories (see: the popularity of Jane Austen adaptations) but as society loses them, usually the fictional substitutes we come up with are too lcking in urgency to really command much interest. We've lost a lot of the tricks of good storytelling, and if vampire love is the only way to make people realize that, bring it. What Girls Want [The Atlantic] Twilight Is The New Breed of Chick Flick [AP] Earlier: 7 Vampires Better Than Twilight's Edward Cullen Twilight At Midnight: Smells Like Teen Spirit