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Erica Wright: The Tempter or the Tempted

December 3, 2008

I stopped going to church shortly after refusing to sign the abstinence pledge. My parents were amazingly supportive of their thirteen-year-old daughter ranting in the kitchen about why such a pledge is an invasion of privacy. Of course, this wasn’t the first time I vocally objected to Baptist doctrine. I had been equally upset about the sermon against homosexuality, and I couldn’t understand why discussion was not allowed during Sunday school. The format was always the same: scripture reading followed by teacher explanation. Questions weren’t exactly encouraged. On my own, I tried to make sense of large swaths of the Bible, including Revelations, Job, and Proverbs. I read and reread the Psalms (my first introduction to poetry). But I wasn’t quite precocious enough to make heads or tails of any of it. I wanted guidance, not rules.

I remembered the thwarted abstinence pledge when I started reading about Twilight, the wildly popular young-adult series about vampire/mortal love by Mormon author Stephanie Meyers. My friend Kristen mentioned them to me about a month ago, guiltily admitting how much she enjoys them (“They’re terribly written, but still!”). She also mentioned all the snarky reviews the series was receiving. I missed the book reviews, but the movie reviews can’t be avoided. Manhola Dargis at The New York Times couldn’t disguise her disgust: “It’s love at first look instead of first bite in “Twilight,” a deeply sincere, outright goofy vampire romance for the hot-not-to-trot abstinence set.” That one’s pretty good, but my favorite is from Martha Brockenbrough over at MSN who compares the humor in the film to, “a taco burp[. I]t arises unbidden at all the wrong moments.” Despite the snide comments, Brockenbrough gets it—this book is for adolescent girls. Or as Kristen says, “The point is that it’s a love story, and you don’t need a big budget for that.” I should mention that Kristen is a high school Spanish teacher in Tennessee (at the school where we became friends actually) and can provide first-hand knowledge of the weird world of today’s teenagers in a way that, thankfully, I cannot. However, I don’t see the harm in making chastity seem, well, hot. Brockenbrough explains, “the book captures that awful ecstasy of yearning,” which is something that teenage girls nearly have a monopoly on. (I can make this sort of grand statement because I was once a teenage girl.) And aren’t romances always about the yearning not the consummation? The kiss or sex happens in the final moments (unless, of course, you’re watching The Princess Bride, in which case there’s kissing then pirating, i.e. my kind of romance). Twilight is just more self-conscious than other texts. It’s also why crushes are fun.

In September, Kristen was in town for a visit. She used to live in the city and still has a large number of devoted friends as well as a handful of puppy-love admirers. At dinner with this assorted crew downtown at Havana Café (an amazing Cuban place on Bleecker and 7th Avenue), Sarah Palin came up in conversation. She had recently been named the Republican Vice Presidential nominee, and most of the table was up-in-arms after imbibing quite a bit of sangria. Myself included. “She’s an idiot,” I mumbled to nods of agreement. Kristen laughed and disagreed: “She’s not an idiot; she’s just in over her head.” My friend was right, and I was embarrassed that I had used such an easy, inaccurate insult to discuss something that was actually very important to me.

When news of Bristol Palin’s pregnancy hit the news, I felt bad for her. This was my personal worst nightmare as a teenager, an end to all plans, and the main reason I partook of a lot of yearning and not a lot of satisfaction until I was out of my teen years. I was irritated at how my liberal compatriots greeted this news. I heard many variations of “That’s what abstinence-only education gets you,” which may be true, but it doesn’t make me feel any less sorry for the young Palin. Margaret Talbot used the news to frame her New Yorker piece, “Red Sex, Blue Sex,” an article I greeted with relief. Finally, someone is talking not judging. She writes, “Like other American teens, young evangelicals live in a world of Internet porn, celebrity sex scandals, and raunchy reality TV, and they have the same hormonal urges that their peers have. Yet they come from families and communities in which sexual life is supposed to be forestalled until the first night of a transcendent honeymoon.” What this landscape needs is a middle ground where sex is neither glorified nor vilified. And maybe that’s where something like Twilight comes in. The scariest part of Talbot’s article is the revelation that teens who make abstinence pledges are less likely to use protection and therefore more likely to contract sexually transmitted diseases. Seriously, could we make growing up any harder on kids?

I often feel that conservatives are at a disadvantage in the art arena. Most writers, filmmakers, and painters are left of center for principled reasons (pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, pro-gun control, etc.) as well as for practical reasons (money). Therefore, the balance of discussion is uneven. While there may be more conservatives in the U.S., there may be more liberal promotion via films, articles, books, etc. Recently someone was criticizing Joan Didion for being conservative, and I couldn’t help but think, “Really?” Even when she called Obama supporters naive in last week’s post-election talk at the New York Public Library, she wasn’t questioning the president-elect, just his supporters who dress their kids in Obama gear. I wasn’t alive when Didion called herself a conservative, but she doesn’t seem particularly red state to me. In fact, she seems rather disparaging of provincialism. In “Marrying Absurd,” a meditation on Las Vegas weddings, she writes,

“The marriage had just taken place; the bride still wore her dress, the mother her corsage. A bored waiter poured out a few swallows of pink champagne (‘on the house’) for everyone but the bride, who was too young to be served. ‘You’ll need something with more kick than that,’ the bride’s father said with heavy jocularity to his new son-in-law; the ritual jokes about the wedding night had a certain Panglossian character, since the bride was clearly several months pregnant. Another round of pink champagne, this time not on the house, and the bride began to cry. ‘It was just as nice,’ she sobbed, “as I hoped and dreamed it would be.’”

This passage reminds me how much I dislike wedding showers. The wedding night jokes embarrass me. In most cases, the bride will not lose her virginity on that night, and if she intends to, stop teasing her about it. Do you want her to be disappointed? Or run away before the hapless groom gets the hotel door open? Enough with the furry lingerie!

I should probably have prefaced all of this by revealing that I am unromantic. Earlier this week, I watched Where the Heart Is, a particularly cheesy romantic movie, and when the guy finally kisses the girl and confesses his love I actually said “Eww” aloud like an eight-year-old boy and hit the mute button. But on a theoretical level, I understand. Fairy tales may be old-fashioned, but they do have a certain usefulness. One of my college freshmen recently turned in a paper dissecting the terms “American dream” and “Cinderella story.” He didn’t quite make the connection I thought he was going to, so I’ll make it. It’s Emersonian; the idea of a happy ending is necessary so that we strive for something.

Since I’m already about three embarrassing confessions in at this point, let me make another one. What really turned me on in high school was Measure for Measure, another text (slightly better written than Twilight) about the dangers and power of sex. Angelo’s yearning leads him to offer a deal: future-nun Isabella’s virginity in exchange for her brother Claudio’s life. The brilliant irony is that Claudio is sentenced to death because he impregnated his fiancée out of wedlock. Angelo is clearly the villain in the story, but he’s also a mouthpiece for the tempted: “What’s this? what’s this? is this her fault, or mine? / The Tempter, or the Tempted, who sins most? ha? / Not she: nor doth she tempt: but it is I” (2.2.161-163). And in this respect, Twilight‘s protagonist Edward Cullen is superior (though, at the risk of sounding snarky, I apologize, not as interesting). And while Angelo clearly answers this question of who’s to blame, Isabella’s guilt is more complicated. Is she right to refuse Angelo even if it means her brother’s death? Along with The Merchant of Venice, Troilus and Cressida, and All’s Well that Ends Well, this play has the dubious distinction of being called one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays.” It is refreshingly un-didactic, and yet can’t help but stir up some musings about morality. This play is, fundamentally, about law versus common sense.

And that, finally, brings me back around to the issue of discussions versus dictums. As Kristen wisely cautions me: “Twilight‘s a fairy tale; it’s not pushing an agenda.” But even if Meyer’s does hope for social influence, it’s nothing to get fired up about. There are plenty of pro-sex texts (from Juno to Romeo and Juliet) for teenagers to imbibe. And having both views on display, gives them and us more to talk about.

To read more blog entries from Erica Wright and others at GUERNICA click HERE .

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