Flunking Sainthood

Flunking Sainthood


Mormon Women, Twilight, and Internalized Sexism

posted by Jana Riess

A couple of years ago, I published a BYU Studies article about Mormon themes in Twilight that was picked up by Meridian, an LDS website. I received some feedback on the piece, mostly positive, though several readers took issue with one criticism I made about Stephenie Meyer’s series:

“I find myself concerned about the retrogressive gender stereotypes in all of her novels, particularly the ineptitude of Bella.  Although the novels repeatedly tell the reader that Bella is smart and strong, they repeatedly show her powerlessness. She passes out; she trips repeatedly; she is victimized three times in the first novel alone, only to be rescued by Edward.  Worse than Bella’s damsel-in-distress shtick is her disturbing tendency to blame herself for everything, expose herself to serious harm, take over all the homemaking chores for a father who seems incapable of the most rudimentary standards of self-care, and sacrifice everything for a man who is moody, unpredictable, and even borderline abusive.  Many women readers will also be troubled by the extreme self-abasement of Wanda in The Host, particularly one scene where she mutilates her own flesh and another where she lies to protect the man who tried to murder her.  These are themes I hope do not originate with Meyer’s Mormonism.  But while they are cause for concern, they do not mar the creative spirit and theological integrity of Meyer’s work.”

One of the emails I received after the article’s publication took me to task for this, defended the romantic themes in Meyer’s fiction, and asked, “What’s wrong with looking for a knight in shining armor?”

What, indeed?

It’s not surprising that Stephenie Meyer’s books have found a strong and loyal audience among Mormon women. She is, after all, one of our own, and we are as proud of her success as we would be if our own biological sister suddenly became a superstar. She has achieved success while remaining faithful to the Church, committed to her family, and (from all reports) interested in sharing her good fortune with others.

I can like and appreciate Stephenie Meyer without agreeing with everything in her books. Or even most things.

So, to the LDS woman who thinks it’s appropriate for women to wait for a knight in shining armor to save them, I would ask a simple question: Would you want your daughter to date Edward Cullen?

Do you want your little girl’s first boyfriend to:

  • Stalk her movements daily and sneak into her room every night while she sleeps (T 174-5)?
  • Slam her against a wall at full force (T 345)?
  • Break up with her with no explanation, then leave her in the woods to die of hypothermia (NM 70ff)?
  • Pin her wrists down and hold his hand against her mouth so she cannot speak (E 441)?
  • Drive like a maniac with her in the car, going 100 miles per hour (T 83ff)?
  • Hire someone to kidnap her so she can’t visit a male friend who may be a romantic rival (E 145ff)?
  • Abuse her physically the first time they have sex, so that her entire body is bruised? (BD 87ff)
  • Become enraged when she gets pregnant with his child (BD 130ff)?

On what planet is this romantic? And how is it that we’ve created a Mormon subculture in which such behavior would be seen not as a red flag, but as desirable in a boyfriend?

 

 



  • http://www.lifeasareader.blogspot.com Macha

    What’s wrong with looking for a knight in shining armor? How about purposefully making yourself a powerless person? What happens if he dies? Are you going to have the skills and strength of personality to take care of yourself and any children you have, or are you just going to put yourself at the mercy of the world?

  • http://blog.beliefnet.com/flunkingsainthood/ Jana Riess

    Yes, all good questions. In Mormonism, it seems sometimes like this passivity is precisely what is encouraged in women (e.g., the YM lesson is called “Choosing Your Eternal Companion” while the corresponding YW lesson is “Becoming an Eternal Companion”). The message about waiting for Prince Charming to pluck a girl out of obscurity is definitely there.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment stephanie

    Thanks Jana for coming out and saying it! I’m not LDS (just your garden variety progressive evangelical), but I read these books mid-college and quickly realized that I wanted to sit down and have a serious talk with some of the younger girls in my church who were reading them as well. [Incidentally, I was leading a summer book club at the time and we were reading Shannon Hale, another writer you Mormons are lucky to claim as one of your own.] I pointed out that stalking and controlling might make for a great story, but they do not make for a great boyfriend! We had a good discussion about enjoying literature without forgetting to think for ourselves. Now I just wish some of my grown women friends could do the same…!

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Gina Colvin

    Surely this is less about values in Mormonism making their way into popular culture than about values in popular culture informing a Mormon romantic fiction writer, who ‘successfully’ used vows of chastity as a smoke screen for building sexual tension . Mills and Boon made a bucket out of this kind of self indulgent, masculine hyperbolic bollocks. Anyway, I see the Twilight narrative more as a derivation of Extreme Makeover. Protagonist has brutalizing self doubts. Surgeon saves her. She wakes with bruising and pain. She gets dressed up. A sexy reveal and a romp in the hay with smug surgeon and everything is roses for ever!

  • http://www.essediemblog.com Elizabeth Damewood Gaucher

    One year ago, I wrote a post about the whole “vampire thing” after finally watching Twilight: http://essediemblog.com/2010/08/03/what-do-women-want-go-ask-a-vampire/

    I certainly agree with your excellent points here, but do also think the issue dives much deeper than a particular religious philosophy. I am fascinated by the female instinct to be desired, to be wanted, and how the power of that instinct creates space for some of the dangerous situations you describe.

    Even the scenarios and behaviors in the comments can be tracked to the female instinct to be wanted. Vampire lore is not just about the undead’s eternal blood lust – there is a matching craving that completes the addtictive picture, namely the eternal desire to be “lusted after.” It is an extreme characterization of the lives of many everyday men and women.

    How does it stop? Let’s be honest, “Wanting to be wanted” never will disappear. I think as with anything, we start with open recogition and discussion. And compassion, not blame. The lightbulb went on for me when I read about the power and influence of this instinct, and it seems that helping young women (all women) identify the role this dynamic plays in their decision-making about relationships, body image, and sex is very important. Unless we acknowledge the driver, we can’t change the trip.

    Thanks for a great post, Jana!

  • http://brettcottrell.blogspot.com/ Brett Cottrell

    I’ve talked to my teenage niece – and many other men and women – about Bella’s portrayal. It’s like talking to a brick wall.
    But whatever you think of Mormonism, the fact that they have locally ordained Patriarchs should tell you all you need to know about its inherent sexism.
    http://brettcottrell.blogspot.com/2011/11/five-things-you-didnt-know-about-mitt.html

  • http://weistfamily.blogspot.com ern

    It’s refreshing to hear LDS women speak out against the themes in Twilight only because they seem to be the minority. The books were less of a problem for me than the movies. I wrote a blog post about the latest ‘Breaking Dawn, Part 1′ movie, for anyone interested. Letter to Stephanie Meyer

  • Pingback: Frances Bean Cobain Called Twilight ‘A Sexist Mormon Piece of Shit’

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