Coming out of an advance screening of Twilight, I was surrounded by throngs of breathless adolescents and young adults. By my count, about eighty percent of the audience was female, while the other twenty percent of the audience that was male was, somewhat unwillingly, towed along. The gender split among theatergoers is no surprise to anyone familiar with Stephenie Meyer’s best-selling “chick lit” series on which Catherine Hardwicke’s film is based.
Twilight is all romance; filled with teen angst, longing, Eros (emotionally felt, but never physically consummated), and salvation. Bella (Kristin Stewart), the beautiful, edgy new girl in town, lives with her divorced dad, who is the local sheriff. On her first day at school she locks eyes with the dreamy Edward (Robert Pattinson). Sparks fly. It is love at first sight, but, like all adolescent love stories since Romeo and Juliet, this one is complicated.
Did I mention that Edward is a vampire?
Despite that difficulty, which is partially overcome by Meyer’s intriguing makeover of what was once thought to be singularly monstrous, Twilight strikes a chord with teens — not because it is great literature (or a great film), but because it speaks to truths that people intuitively know. Twilight is perfect counter-programming to last weekend’s release, Four Christmases. Both of these films are purportedly about love, but Twilight‘s vampire story revives old-fashioned romance, while Four Christmases drives a contemporary stake through its heart.
This star-crossed pairing of films reveals the love strain felt in America, particularly among women. As a college professor for over twenty-five years, I have spoken to many young women who have confided that they wish to be cherished, loved, and protected, but who must navigate a culture that demands that they be single, hot, and vulnerable. Twilight and Four Christmases present two visions of Eros, courtship, and marriage. It is fitting that both films emerge during the holidays, because, like the ghosts that haunt Ebenezer Scrooge, if we can look at what they show us, we might then choose a better path.
There is no sex in Twilight, but that does not mean that the film is not erotic — in the best sense of that word. Eros is desire, what C.S. Lewis, in The Four Loves, equated to being in love. In Mere Christianity, Lewis explained that it is not the same thing as the “quiet love” that keeps a marriage going, but it is often “the explosion that started it.” Bella and Edward begin by being intrigued with each other. Some of that attraction is clearly based in what G.K. Chesterton would call “a veto.” Bella is told that Edward never associates with anyone outside of his family. His is the attraction of the unobtainable. Edward is so intoxicated by Bella that he is compelled to stay away from her, lest his desire for her blood become overwhelming. To be with her would require superhuman self-control. And yet, not without a whole lot of yearning, they manage. Despite the cultural conditioning that tells teens to put themselves out there, as they experience the film they find that restraint does not stifle the feelings of romance, it only enhances it.
Four Christmases is also pitched as romantic fare. Brad (Vince Vaughn) and Kate (Reese Witherspoon) represent the modern cohabiting couple — the kind of relationship we are told in films results in the most inspiring love life. And yet, when we first meet them, they have to resort to role-playing and risky sexual adventures to keep the spark alive. Early and often we are reminded of their commitment to remain uncommitted. No marriage, or even talk of marriage, is allowed. Kids are relationship kryptonite rather than “a gift from the Lord” (Psalm 127:3). Brad and Kate have “safe,” amarital sex. Most people call it premarital sex, but I will suggest “amarital” as a more descriptive term (many postmodern people blanch at the more appropriate word: fornication). The idea of premarital sex can apply only to people planning to get married. Calling most sex in films “premarital” doesn’t really fit anymore, because that would assume that the people involved will someday get married. Brad and Kate begin the film with no such illusions about their intentions. What they want is “safe sex:” safe from children, and safe from commitments.
Amy and Leon Kass, in the introduction to Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar, sum up the emotional and spiritual dilemmas created by the kind of hook-up culture exemplified in Four Christmases: “Thus how shallow an understanding of sexuality is embodied in our current clamoring for ‘safe sex.’ Sex is by its nature unsafe. All interpersonal relations are necessarily risky and serious ones especially so. And to give oneself to another, body and soul, is hardly playing it safe. Sexuality, at its core, is profoundly unsafe… ‘Safe sex’ is the self-delusion of shallow souls.” Bella and Edward take risks — they want each other, but true love waits. Brad and Kate try to offer viewers a sexual relationship without emotional risk. The intensity of the emotional response to both messages is instructive.
Twilight tempts its audience with a longing for love, whose preciousness is determined by the sacrifices willingly made for it. By contrast, Four Christmases is the most romanceless “romantic comedy” of the year. (It can only be recently rivaled by Vince Vaughn’s other Christmas movie, Fred Claus, in which Vaughn, as the title character, demonstrates his emotional maturity and commitment by voicing his willingness to live with his girlfriend. Nobody swooned.) Brad and Kate are so consumed by themselves that they cannot even tell the truth to their closest relatives (Brad quips. “You can’t spell ‘families’ without ‘lies.’”). Their lack of connection spills over into their own relationship — composed of sex and “fun,” but not much else.
As the Twilight screening ended, I spoke with a couple of young women who were excitedly talking after the film. I asked them why they liked it so much. They both gushed over Edward, saying how much he loved and chastely desired Bella, how he wanted to protect her and make her safe, and how he sacrificed himself for her. After extolling Edward’s many virtues, one of them said “Who wouldn’t want a guy like that?”
Once Bella and Edward decide to pursue their relationship, Edward courts her. The only deviation in his chosen course occurs when Bella, following current fashion, essentially offers her body to him. But in a completely counter-cultural move, Edward resists her advances, and sets the boundaries. After that they meet with his family, play some superhuman baseball, climb trees, are forced to run when Bella becomes the object of the famished desire of a rogue vampire, and they dance. They get to know one another through family interaction, play, adversity, and public social functions. They court.
Nancy Pearcey, in her book Total Truth, explains that self-control, currently demanded of women, but often excused in men, was once the hallmark of manly virtue. She notes, “In the older ideal of ‘communal manhood,’ the key word was duty: duty to one’s superiors and to God. Manly virtue was defined as keeping one’s ‘passions’ in submission to reason (with passion defined primarily as self-interest and personal ambition). The good man was one who exercised self-restraint and self-sacrifice for the sake of the common good.”
Edward is a passionate man, but he holds to lofty ideals that still find resonance in the hearts of the viewers of Twilight, and with the readers of the books. His willingness to reveal his inner life and secrets to Bella, accompanied by his purposeful denial of his undeniable desire, make him admirable. Bella respects Edward, adheres to the boundaries he sets, and he saves her — from both external and internal danger.
Brad and Kate can’t really court, because courtship intimates that a relationship is moving toward marriage. Rather than court, they coast. But when their plans to go to Fiji together for a Christmas vacation are thwarted by bad weather, and exposed to their families by a nosey television reporter, they are forced to make appearances at the homes of each of their divorced parents. Along the way, they discover that they are walking masks, concealing from each other even commonplace aspects of their lives. Brad’s given name is really Orlando. Slender Kate went to “fat camps” as a child. Other revelations are unfit to print in a family publication.
As the film reveals, Brad and Kate aren’t really a “couple” in any reasonable sense of the word. They are each sealed off from the other. The one day spent with their families reveals what they most desperately wished to hide: his feelings of inadequacy and his selfishness; her manufactured exterior and her ulterior motives. They represent the postmodern couple, people Pearcey would describe as “de-moralized.” They are so damaged that when Kate applies pressure on their relationship, it shatters. Kate wants to change the rules to allow them to at least talk about marriage and family, but Brad bails out, leaving her alone at her father’s house. Despite Brad’s professions of love for Kate, he is incapable of sacrificing any part of his personal freedom to prove it.
Twilight is the first in a series of novels. Only the first has been made into a film. I have not read the books, but I suspect that Meyer will have Edward and Bella head to the altar. It is the only move that makes narrative sense given the build-up. Still, to those only familiar with the single film, the jury is out. But if I were able to give my “Titanic quiz” to adolescent girls or young women, I think Edward would pass.
I have ruined Titanic — the top-grossing love story of Jack and Rose amidst the sinking ship — for a lot of romantics by asking the simple question: “Knowing what we do about Jack’s moral character — that he is a gambler, he is unemployed, he spends his time drawing naked French prostitute amputees, he has no regard for the engaged status of a woman, even having sex with her outside of wedlock, etc. — had he managed to survive the boat sinking, would he have been able to sustain a lifelong marriage to Rose?” Upon careful reflection, most people admit that he probably could not. But based on what we know of Edward’s character — that he loves Bella alone, he sets aside his own passions to insure her safety, he places himself at risk for her, would even separate himself from her to save her, chooses to restrain his sexual desires, wants to make her a part of his family life — I would wager on him.
But I would not risk a cent on Brad. As is a holiday movie, Four Christmases is required to have some semblance of a happy ending. So even though actual abandonment would have likely been the real-world outcome of Kate’s ultimatum, Brad, of course, comes back to her. Brad does not get down on his knees, beg for forgiveness and ask Kate to marry him. Instead, he just agrees, in a panic-stricken voice, that they can talk about marriage and maybe having children. But they don’t have to do that right now. Maybe not even for a long time. What a guy. By the end of the film we see that they have managed to procreate, but wedding rings are prominent by their absence. There was no excited chatter as people exited the theater. No sighs, just nervous laughter. Many were, perhaps, mortified by seeing their own attitudes, writ large, on the big screen.
Don’t Give Up
Regardless of what one might glean from MTV, reality television, or most films, real romance is still alive. It might be easy to dismiss Twilight as nothing more than a “chick flick,” but discerning parents should take note. It isn’t just the exotic vampire mythology that is drawing young women to these stories; it is the deep, sacrificial love they find in them. Young men often aspire to be what young women like. There are teachable moments here for those willing to see them.
Four Christmases will come and go, probably quickly. It is a lamentable film on almost every level. But Twilight will be followed by sequels, each of which (if done right) is likely to build on the themes established in the first film. Since the books are universally known among the junior high and high school set (and a lot of college students as well), it would pay for parents to familiarize themselves with the themes, praise what is of value, and confront what is lacking. Kass and Kass write that they “subscribe to an erotic view of marriage in which the marital constraint on erotic attachment and sexual desire is seen not as a deprivation of freedom but as a true foundation for a superior way of life and happiness.” So should we. It is a biblical view; and one that is shared, at least to a great degree, in Twilight.
Obviously, fiction films and books should not serve as the authority in people’s lives, but they are powerful cultural conditioners that can also serve as a catalyst for meaningful conversations. Next week we will visit another Christmas film, ranked as the number one Most Powerful Film of All Time by the American Film Institute in 2006, to continue our look at how the films of the season can help us to see and discuss eternal truths about love.