What do Teens Really Want? — Romantic Desire, Courtship, and Marriage in Twilight and Four Christmases

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?

twilight.jpgDespite 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.

Eros

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.

Courtship

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.

Marriage

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.

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  • CherylDickow

    I admit that I am stumped by this review. Having spoken with many 20-something women who have read the entire series, I cannot imagine using a woman’s God-given desire to be chastely loved and valued and apply it to a vampire. What are you suggesting we teach our young girls? That they are daughters of the King and deserve to be chastely loved and that one good option is to be chastely loved by a vampire so that after the “courting” and he finally gets his teeth into her, it will be so she can spend eternity with him? Vampire-serpant, what is the difference if both tempt in a way as to take our girls from the eternal goal of heaven?

    The real teachable moment exists, here, for young and old alike, in how easily it has become for us to convince ourselves that bad is good and good is fairly easy to attain because, after all, it hasn’t required much of us. All it really required was for us to skew our reasoning a bit here and there and voila’ we now can elect a pro-death president, we can teach our young girls to love vampires…

  • stutmann9

    I was VERY cautious about Twilight, simply because of the vampire theme. Bella says she’s not afraid of Edward, I think he’s puzzled as to why she isn’t because getting involved with him would mean that someday she would most likely end up just like him-a vampire, and he doesn’t want her to be, which is why his restraint is so strong. She is like a magnet drawn to him, and he even says that part of who he is means that she WILL BE drawn-that’s all part of luring in for the kill. What troubles me about Bella is that she is willing to give up her mortal life to be a vampire-a creature of the dead. Mythical or not, vampires are traditionally from the dark side-occultic.

    This movie, though it has its admirable features, makes young girls “comfortable” with the occultic and mysterious and sets them up for present or future vulnerability to “mysterious” (aka dangerous in my mind) men who are intriguing but involved in the occult lifestyle. Young girls are being taught through this film to desire being courted and desired and not care that the person is a dangerous vampire(ie..one who can steal their souls).

    Translate that in real life. Your daughter could fall in love with someone like Edward, honorable, restrained, truly protective of her, ( keep in mind that’s because his manners were formed in another time earlier in the century, where men DID court women) but he may be luring in for the “kill” if you will where he will eventually have her soul as well if he is involved in the occult or is godless in his lifestyle.

    In musing with our 15 year-old daughter about how Bella would celebrate Christmas with Edward, I told her I thought it would have to be a “Christless” Christmas, (ie totally secular without manger scenes and crucifixes). It would be interesting to see a scene like that, since vampires are repelled by Christ or anything referring to him, which to me is cause for alarm right there! You would probably see Edward uncomfortably “bearing” a celebration of a savior’s birth for the sake of Bella, but what unnerves me is that Bella would sooner give up celebrations of Christmas if it meant she would have Edward instead and wouldn’t want him to be “uncomfortable”. THAT’S the danger I see-giving up Christ for a guy! That’s what I cautioned my daughter about.

    Bella places more importance on Edward, even desires to become a vampire herself, which she says she is ready for, (Edward pretends he is going to bite her, but kisses her instead). Wise parents would point that out to their daughters before they become smitten with someone. Girls who are love-starved and crave the kind of love that Edward (a fictional character)offers are more prone to give up Christ who they don’t know. Here is where a teachable moment comes in-there IS a man like that who would sacrifice themselves for them, that person already did-that person is Jesus Christ, and he loves them more than life itself and proved it with his death. Only, when we give ourselves to Him, there is no danger of losing our souls and becoming a creature that is monstrous and dead. Knowledge and love for Jesus is the antidote to vulnerability to the idolatrous kind of love of a creature. I pray to continually be able to convey that to our daughters and to offer them the love that will satisfy, the unconditional total love God has called us to give!

  • Mary Kochan

    The author of the article, who is a very committed Christian, is obviously NOT recommending that any one give up her relationship with Christ for a guy. I think all the cautions that we have already published about this are warranted. And we will be publishing more. But we still need to understand WHY this book and movie are popular and be able to talk about it.

    stutmann9, I think your Christmas question is brilliant.

  • Piper

    My young teen has not been allowed to read this series as I felt, after research it was best to not expose her to the undesirable elements it contains….I have endured endless hours of crying with her telling me how left out she feels at school.

    My decision has caused marital arguments and differences with great, Catholic friends. Please pray for me and other parents like me to remain strong in our convictions.

  • sdelange

    I agree with stutmann9 about the message of the movie (and the book series). I have read two of the books in the interest of “researching” whether or not it would be appropriate for my young teens. While I have to admit, the story grabs you and it is, at times, actually fun to read, the messages contained within are disturbing. I do not believe that most girls are going to think that vampires (or werewolves in the second book!) are real but, what if they fall in love with a boy who is nice and courteous and fun to be with and he happens to, oh say, sell drugs? Is that okay? Bella KNOWS that it is wrong to be with Edward but she does it anyway, despite her conscience directing her otherwise. In the second book, she says “If I’m with you, I don’t need Heaven” (she is trying to get him to let her become a vampire, to which he is opposed because he knows she will lose her soul and be damned-let’s give Edward a little credit here!) That is my concern more than anything else, the message of it’s okay to give up your entire self for a boy!

    That said, I think the author is just trying to point out the differences in the usual modern day relationships and what girls really desire-to be loved and cherished, not used. In that regard, Edward IS dreamy.

    Stick to your guns, Piper. I am in the same boat!

  • Bruce Roeder

    While I suppose at one level a vampire is a pretty good analogy for a lustful person, I agree that the series and movie are not very good at nearly every other level.

    And if I understand it correctly, the vampire DOES eventually give in and bite the girl, PLUS they do end up sleeping together in one of the sebsequent books, so the whole aspect of chastity is lost in the story as well!

    As I think Chuck Colson wrote in his review, it is neither romantic nor safe for a girl to take the attitude that she can change a bad boy while pursuing a course towards a sexual relationship with him, nor for a girl to be followed and spied on by a boy, nor for a girl to say “I don’t care” and “I’m not afraid” when a boy admits he’s killed people, nor for a girl to see how far she can go with her boyfriend without actually doing it.

    Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?

  • CherylDickow

    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.

    Having taught middle school for more than a decade (parochial at that), I can say that should this author have said to my students what he has said in this article – see above quote – well, I can guarantee that would have been seen as a nod of approval for the whole scenario that is being portrayed here. My goodness, “wants to make her a part of his family life?” Vampires are now a family life? And we were concerned about same-sex marriages?

  • Paul

    I suggest a simple word substitution replace vampire with drug addict and if you have ever heard Fr. Corapi speak about the young starlet who introduced him to her “best friend” cocaine it is quite fitting and very real. Sure the addict might have the best intentions and thinks they have their habit under control and are wanting to protect a young romantic interest but nature will take its course.

    Dado

  • Narwen

    (WARNING ! Deliberate spoilers for the books !)
    The movie(s) will serve to draw in many more readers for the books. From what I have seen quoted on other sites, while Edward and Bella do not have intercourse until after their marriage, their behavior before marriage includes pretty much everything short of actual intercourse – hardly a model of chastity !
    Also, after the wedding night, Bella is covered with bruises, inflicted by Edward’s inhuman strength. When Edward tries to apologize, Bella cuts him off and says ‘it’s nothing “. A young bride shrugging off bruises inflicted by her ‘loving and apologetic ‘ husband ? Anyone with a half a brsin should see the twisted message this is sending….
    The final outcome has Bella becoming a vampire herself. When Edward asks her if she is willing to risk her soul in order for this to happen her response is something like this, “For me, heaven is being with you and hell is being without you. ” Bella has made Edward her god.
    That all this is wrapped in the attractive packaging of ‘romance’, ‘chivalry’, and ‘self-restraint’ only adds to its evil. “The abuse of the best is the worst…”

  • BerenCamlost

    I really and honestly think that these stories are a mixed bag. They are confused in their representation of things (much like most contemporary thinking is confused or disordered). There are some very good aspects to the messages presented in this book. Even the vampire aspect is not traditional vampirism. The vampires in this story are basically just superheroes, the difference being that they don’t have to breath and they want to drink blood. The main problem with these stories is that things are mixed that shouldn’t be mixed and are a taking to extreme the modern tendency to have anti-heroes instead of heroes and other similar things. In other words where vampires are typically evil and are just monsters with no souls, she tries to write a story in which their vampirism is shown as just a force that the good person burdened with it must struggle against or succumb to. The vampires in the story struggle against the traditional perception of vampires and it is unknown to them whether they really are monsters and have souls or not, though at least one of the characters believes they do. The problem being that even though this is the case it is shown that being a vampire has tons of benefits even though it is horrible. This is what I mean by it being a mixed bag.

    Edward and Bella really do try to do good in loving each other and do some admirable things, but in writing the story with the circumstances this story has it leads to some clashing ideas and even some unhealthy ideas. So while I would not COMPLETELY condemn it out of hand, I do say that its good points are rather spoiled by the pessimistic and impure aspects that they mingle with in the story.

  • sdelange

    I think some author should start a series like this to hook the kids in then, in the last book of the series, have the main character stand up for her values and turn to GOD and say,”even though I love you, I cannot desert my God for you”. Wouldn’t THAT be an interesting twist? Any authors out there??

  • CherylDickow

    If there are any authors out there ready and willing to write it, as sdelange suggests, consider keeping your own rights to it as http://www.BezalelBooks.com!

    In the meantime, for some books that don’t mix messages that a young girl’s loyalty should be to Christ…

    Friends, Boys, and Getting Along
    Mirror, Mirror on the Wall…What is Beauty, After All?
    Girls Rock!
    Modern and Modest

  • BerenCamlost

    I am getting my sisters some of your books for Christmas Miss Dickow!

  • BerenCamlost

    I meant to say the books you are supporting

  • Warren Jewell

    The fine Madame Dickow said she would look out for my order of the All Things Girl books – as good as her word, I ordeed yesterday and they arrived today.

    Permit me to attest that my granddaughter Rachel is a Twilight series lover, and I have asked her to let me read the books. If I am ‘hooked’, it is because I am hooked on Rachel, and may bring up my readings that give me enough pause to caution her.

    She does not know that I am giving her these traditional-alternative view and course books about herself from Godly woman’s perspective. She doesn’t know that I will read them before she does, to guide my own questions to her later.

    I note that all these books, from the doubtful Twilight series to All Things Girl, would give any truly interested male a grand glimpse into the inner works of girls becoming women. And, why not get a step up into one’s developing manhood by knowing the ladies better? Mothers, maybe you ought to get the ATG series for you to read and pass on to and discuss with your sons, as well.

    This 62-y-o ‘tweenager’ – ‘tween empty-nest and going-Home – will read the two series with interest.

  • CherylDickow

    Warren,

    First, I’m so glad that the “All Things Girl” books you ordered arrived quickly! May your granddaughter be blessed by them and may you enjoy the conversations that will undoubtedly ensure about being a daughter of the King.

    Second, I thought I would use your perfect opening regarding our young boys to say that the authors are currently writing a two book series for boys that is expected out in Spring, 2009. They are:

    Becoming a Man that Matters: Your Family, Friends, and Future
    Becoming a Man that Matters: Your Body and Soul

    Like the ATG series, there will be great color and graphics and stories and saints and examination of conscience questions and real world insights all under the Truths of our Catholic Church.

    Anyone wanting to get on a mailing list to be notified when these books are available should send an email to me: BezalelBooks@gmail.com and write “add me to boys book mailing” in the subject line.

  • http://elizabeth-kathryn-gerold-miller.blogspot.com/ ekmiller

    There are two things that really bother me about this article. First of all, that Twilight could be considered a “Christmas movie”. Second of all, Dr. Marc’s use of C.S. Lewis. C.S. Lewis was very clear on his symbolism. Witches, warlocks, and ugly creatures of the deep always symbolized the evil side. Good and evil were black and white, and good always won. When everything gets all murky (vampires being a little bit good and “normal” girls being attracted to vampires) kids’ developing values get all confused. I have taught my children how to spot literature and media that are wholesome vs. not. The symbolism of subject-matter is important in the quick identifying of the sheep vs. the goats in this arena. Unicorns, for example, are a symbol of Christ, and many beautiful stories can be found based on them. I have heard that vampires are the antithesis of Christ. He gave His blood that we might live; vampires take others blood so they can walk the night. I have also heard that the first pornography was based on vampires; both are based on the degradation of the human body.*
    I would like to see an article that thoroughly dissects the morality of vampirism in a film intended for teenagers.
    *For an article about these points please see this link:
    http://books.google.com/books?id=JpdHiOnYgrEC&pg=RA1-PA31&lpg=RA1-PA31&dq=vampires+and+antichrist&source=web&ots=MKxZKP3vco&sig=UEOpibZoNV12dk50U_IsCvh_Tko&hl=en&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=4&ct=result#PRA1-PA32,M1

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