Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Twilight Series: Teens, Love, and Making Choices

Volumes have been written online and in print about the Twilight series, presently four books penned by wife and mother of three Stephenie Meyers. The lore of vampires and werewolves is definitely a part of the attraction, but I wonder if that's as much at the heart of it as a love for big boats was for the millions who saw Titanic. It's the tale of fated love that seems to draw most people in; a painful and powerful attraction that is so knotted up with teen angst that devoted readers, and viewers of the Twilight films, obsessively turn it over and over again in their hands.

Like the series or not, this fanged version of Romeo and Juliet is sucking in revenue at bookstores and movie theaters everywhere. So let's talk about it, and engage this modern phenomenon with the Sign of the Cross (not just for the presence of vampires, but because we Catholics like to bless everything before we taste it).

We'll start by addressing the monster stuff for a moment, which seems to either attract or repulse some people. The vampire and werewolf mythology (of which Ms. Meyers takes a real revisionist approach, I should add) is a vehicle for getting at something much deeper of course. But like the magic and sorcery of the Harry Potter series, it's murky waters. Why wrap a love story up in such iconic symbols of evil? Traditional vampires are cannibals. Aberrations of the desire in us to be consumed in love, they turn to consuming out of lust.... blood lust, in fact. And werewolves are adulterations of the eros of the human heart, our God-given attraction to what is good, true, and beautiful. Here it twists into an animal passion, prowling and hunting for prey. Ms. Meyer's puts her heroes in these shady disguises. Admittedly, the two leads are not evil, they are quite noble, just a bit tortured by their "condition."

Nonetheless, these trappings tend to obscure the lesson of love, in my opinion, that could be told here; love in fact is nearly overshadowed by an insatiable lust. A lead character confesses, in fact, that the human girl is "my own personal brand of heroin." For the audience this series has targeted, teenagers, I don't think the interpretation of love as an addiction is very helpful. Is that really love?

But I'm getting ahead of myself here. I believe at the core of the Twilight series is a shadowy quest for understanding what it means to be human and what it means to love. So let's focus on the "heart" of the matter.

At the center is an intense story of infatuation involving a teenage girl, Bella Swan, and her romantic involvement with two "unusual" boys:

1. Edward Cullen, wealthy, really white, really handsome, and really dead. He's a vampire.

2. Jacob Black, indigenous, charming, physically ripped, and a real animal. A werewolf, in fact.

This is an interesting distinction, a friend of mine observed; the attention given to the fancy cars and opulent home of the vampires contrasted with the rustic reservation life of the boys who are werewolves. But that's a whole other thought train.

Let's look at this love triangle. I believe the author's Mormon faith, as she has admitted in interviews, has certainly influenced her writing, but perhaps more deeply than we might suspect. What we see here in mythological disguise are the two ancient enigmatic questions of mankind; are we animals, or are we angels? Should we be of the earth, hot-blooded, and mortal, or are we above it, angelic, immortal, and almost limitless in the power of our mind over matter? How do we reconcile our bodily life with our immortal souls?

Enter Bella, a mixed up and misfit teenager “who can’t dance” (as she herself confesses). Courted by Edward the ice-cold vampire (whom Bella herself calls an “angel”) and Jacob the hot-blooded werewolf (a beast), she must make a choice as to what kind of life she will live. Now in Gnostic thought, a kiss means incorporation into a secret world. Oh what's a girl to do? Bella kisses passionately both Edward and Jacob, it's just the temperature of the kiss that fluctuates.

What person, especially the teenager, hasn't struggled with identity issues? Who among us hasn't wrestled with choices we feel may shape the rest of our lives? Ms. Meyers has inserted her series like a surgeon’s tool right into the adolescent heart. The question is whether or not this is good medicine.

From the moment they first meet, Edward’s effect on Bella, and her effect on him, is charged with an unhealthy passion. If there were ten red flags in relationships, Bella would be waving close to all of them. She is emotionally dependent on Edward; she is listless and reckless about her life when he leaves, almost dying in fact on a motorcycle ride and a cliff-diving incident in an effort to see him again. She lies to people to keep the relationship going, a relationship that seems to be based purely on physical attraction. Friends think he is no good for her, but she disregards them. She incessantly whines to Edward to make her like him, a vampire. Bella implores Edward to sleep with her in the third film, though he quite beautifully resists and challenges here to chastity (I must say that was a refreshing scene that leaves most teen romance movies in the dust). This girl is no role model for her peers.

Edward is a bit nobler. He's a complex character who is struggling to resist his blood-lust. He was transformed into a vampire over a century ago when he was on the brink of death by Carlisle, a kindly physician and strictly vegetarian vampire. Edward is the victim and the perpetual youth in angst, having unwillingly entered into this new state of being a vampire at 17 years of age. This adds a tragic note to the story that is a powerful one. He must use his will to overcome the addiction for human blood. Carlisle has initiated others into the Cullen Clan, but all of them resist their fallen nature and serve the humans, protecting them from "bad" vampires.

Back to the complexity of this relationship... Bella, the perplexed and forlorn teenager says she’s always felt unfinished, and clumsy. What teenager doesn't? Now she has the offer of an everlasting life in which to work it all out! And a perpetual cute teenage boy to do it with! This is a place many teenage girls, I dare say, would like to fall into (and a good number of ex-teens it would seem as well. Twilight has a huge following of "older" women). But ladies... he's a vampire. A cute monster is still a monster. “I’m the world’s most dangerous predator," Edward tells her. "Everything about me invites you in. My voice, my face, even my smell… I’m designed to kill… I’ve wanted to kill you. I’ve never wanted a human’s blood so much in my life… Your scent, it’s like a drug to me. You’re like my own personal brand of heroin.” Not exactly the kind of guy you want to bring home for Sunday dinner.

Jacob is the werewolf, struggling to be top dog in Bella's world (sorry, I couldn't resist). In my mind he is a bit more likable. He's a member of a shape-shifting tribe of the Quillayute, with the ability to change into a wolf, heightened senses, and a sometimes hot-blooded temper. 
He's Bella's best friend early on, before we see his secret, and he shared childhood memories with her. When Edward abruptly "abandons" Bella (for her own safety we later learn) it is Jacob whom Bella finds companionship with, and solace in her isolation. I'd have to say it seems like puppy love for this werewolf at first, then he steals a rather forceful kiss from Bella, much to her disapproval. Eventually, he develops a real concern for Bella, for her happiness and safety regarding her attachment to Edward. Both beaus reveal this altruism in time, pondering what's best for her. This is refreshing in light of the boys who can be both wolves and vampires in the high school arena today. Edward and Jacob truly rise above their twisted natures.

Bella however remains a self-centered character, and flip flops for a good deal of time between Edward and Jacob. "I love him, but I love you more," she tells Edward after passionately kissing Jacob. OK then. Back to the earlier question; is all of this good medicine for the teenage heart? The books are wildly popular, winning heaps of awards, like the British Book Award for “Children’s Book of the Year” and the 2009 “Kids’ Choice Award for Favorite Book.” They have sold nearly 90 million copies and been translated into almost 40 languages.

You can read more on the topic, you can "test everything and retain what is good" as St. Paul encourages us, (and there is some good here) but I personally feel the series preys on the infatuation teens can fall into, and offers foggy advice if any on how to determine love from obsession and lust. As Pope John Paul II states in his epic teaching Theology of the Body, lust “is not always plain and obvious; sometimes it is concealed, so that it passes itself off as ‘love’…. Does this mean that we should distrust the human heart? No! It is only to say that we must remain in control of it” (TOB 32:3).

Teen infatuations can be tumultuous waters to ride. But let's note that there is nothing inherently wrong with sparks of passion, and the sexual attraction we feel for those of the opposite sex that draws us out of ourselves. It's been called by Pope John Paul II "the raw material of love." The problem comes into play when this blind passion is all you've got. Pope Benedict stated in his first encyclical letter God is Love, "True, eros tends to rise “in ecstasy” towards the Divine, to lead us beyond ourselves; yet for this very reason it calls for a path of ascent, renunciation, purification and healing."

What Edward promises is not truly life together, but unending death. And Jacob's bark is stronger than his bite. Who can truly fulfill Bella's heart, or any teen seeking a lasting love for that matter? God knows.

I'd say let's use this rekindling of a desire for unending love as an invitation for all of us. Let's step into the enthralling journey of real love, not obsession and lust. For "Love is indeed “ecstasy”, not in the sense of a moment of intoxication, but rather as a journey, an ongoing exodus out of the closed inward-looking self towards its liberation through self-giving, and thus towards authentic self-discovery and indeed the discovery of God." (God is Love, 6)

Originally published in the Catholic Standard and Times
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