18 April 2009

Twilight 2: Desire and Denial

So, as I said in my earlier post, the real questions to be asked about Twilight are about our (the general public's) understanding of and relationship to, the interlocked concepts of Desire and Denial. (Please cut me some slack if you feel like I'm cribbing from Neil Gaiman, but honestly, when isn't the guy right?)

Now again, I haven't read the Twilight books. Vampires aren't really my thing (can your symbolism BE anymore obvious?). In my defense, I did try. I read the first chapter at a Barnes and Noble, then when I didn't care and couldn't stand the writing, I flipped through, imagining the bracing plot must be what interested everyone. Nope. So, I will be talking about other people talking about the books. (Meta enough for you? Good.)

Most of the bloggers and their commenters whose thoughts I encountered (No, I can't remember everybody. No I'm not linking to them. Ok, you want a list? Of blogs I read regularly likely commentators include Bookslut, XX Factor, Broadsheet, io9, bOINGbONG, Feministing, Jezebel and ANYBODY they link to. I'm not quoting people, I'm talking about a general impression one gets.) seemed legitimately bugged by the more creeptastic stalkery moments of the book and film. (These do exist, I read enough of the book to get that.) But there also seems to be another thread of their concern which has to do with the theme of abstinence and what it means.

Now the word abstinence has come to only be associated with sex, and with a really ridiculous anti-sex movement. But the first time I ever heard the word abstain (and I thought I was done with the LDS stuff last post) was in reference to coffee. In fact, the word is regularly used in Mormonism to refer to everything from smoking, to Fast Sundays (trans.: first Sunday of the month, everybody skips two meals and donates the money to Church's hunger charity) to dressing modestly (por ejemplar: I abstain from wearing revealing clothes. Or: Her abstinence of inappropriate dress is admirable.) It is a religiously freighted and formal word, so it's not likely to be used in casual conversation. Also, the encroachment of the single meaning of abstinence from society is impacting its use. So the vampire's "abstinence" of drinking human blood really isn't a comment on teen sex. It's a mistranslation.

But it's also about desire.

Desire doesn't function without denial. If you want something and you get it, that want will never elevate to level of desire. Desire is a slow burn, though for teenagers it often is a slow burn at about 10,000 degrees.

For teenagers, denial is not often a choice. Teenagers fail to have sex generally because they don't have a partner or opportunity. Motive is generally not the issue. The number of films in which the (usually male) protagonist's goal is to have sex is astronomical. The protagonist looks for a partner, protection, or a place to have sex, and these obstacles are the only thing keeping the protagonist "abstinent" (though momentarily.) Even the one film teen female protagonist, I can reliably remember discussing her continued virginity, Claire from Clueless, hadn't had sex due to a lack of suitable partner. (Because films most appeal to the largest number of people possible, I'm using them as a thermometer of "social acceptance" instead of books.)

But let's be honest here. Reliable data shows (at least where kids get decent sex-ed) that teenagers are waiting longer to have sex. Not only are they delaying their sexual debut (psychologist talk for giving it up), they are having fewer partners. Teenagers, as a group, are more prudish than they were even ten years ago.

So what does this have to do with Twilight? Well, kids are waiting to have sex. So some of them are probably glad to have characters who are doing the same for REALLY BIG IMPORTANT REASONS rather than just because they can't find condoms.

But aside from that, there's something really interesting, really exotic, really adult (not to mention both really religious AND really liberal) about denial. Not just sexual denial: all kinds of denial. Think briefly about our consumerist culture, the ideas kids are bombarded with all the time: that they should be prettiest, the most athletic, have the most best newest stuff, have the best clothes, the most friends, lots of great sex, and they should have it now and at any cost. When I was little I remember going to the store with my mom and liking clothes, then saving my allowance to buy them. Now stores regularly rotate their entire stock in two weeks. Whether its a clothes store, implicitly saying get it now or never, or a soda commercial saying you aren't good enough unless you have X, our culture is all about fulfilling our desires now, and probably on credit.

Now imagine somebody saying, yeah but wanting stuff is better than having it. That desire itself is the goal. That's heady stuff. That's insane. Imagine if the book was about one of the Clique or Gossip Girl characters NOT BUYING clothes for four books! And it was a decision they made themselves. That's weird. That's just about as weird as a vampire book where they don't have sex.

Self-imposed denial to teenagers is foreign, but it's basically the definition of adulthood. Adults must pay bills and taxes, and quit watching awesome television shows to make dinner an do dishes. They also may decide not to sleep with anyone who is willing, because they realize its a bad idea, or their long term partner would be pissed (or their long term partner would like to be in on the action). Adults with kids go so far as to deny themselves praise from their children be pretending gifts are from Santa and chocolate eggs are from the Easter Bunny.

One of the compelling things about YA fiction is that it offers a template for adulthood. And I think kids are responding to the general concept of denial, particularly adultlike and important denial, rather than the specifics of denial of sex. Especially since the books still (apparently) offer large doses of something our instant gratification/buy on credit culture is attempting to decimate: desire.

1 Comments:

At 2:53 AM, Blogger liznwyrk said...

Well said Ms. Michael, well said indeed.

 

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