Twilight, tweens, and abstinence

Twilight Eclipse poster with Edward, Bella, and Jacob staring out vacantly at usSo you might have noticed the latest installment in the Twilight film series came out a couple weeks ago.
A lot has been written about the anti-feminist messages of the Twilight books and films. Stephanie Meyer wrote a very thinly disguised book about Mormon dating from a fundamentalist pro-abstinence perspective. Her books normalize gendered violence, present their young female protagonist as unable to think, defend herself, or even be a whole person without a man, and hammer home an abstinence message. And don’t even get me started on the anti-abortion, pro-sexual violence, pro-pedophilia mess that is Breaking Dawn.
These messages are being targeted at tween girls, Twilight’s intended audience (obviously its popularity has grown beyond this base). What makes this particularly disturbing is that Twilight is not an isolated product in the world of tween entertainment. It is part of an onslaught of pop entertainment subtly or overtly pushing an abstinence-only message from a Christian fundamentalist perspective. And I say abstinence-only to mean all that term has come to encompass in the the educational realm – not just the invisibility of information about safe sex, but also messages about normative gender roles – how boys and girls should interact in distinctly heterosexual ways that perpetuate male supremacy.
There is a culture war, and the abstinence-only side is winning. They’re successfully using entertainment media to reinforce and normalize the dangerous messages they’ve been teaching for decades.
The High School Musical films, also incredibly popular and intended for the same age group, are a milder but no less insidious take on dating that also comes from an abstinence-only perspective (these films were produced in Utah and a number of key players are Mormon). Abstinence is the default in these films. So is heterosexuality. In a musical theater-infused high school world the two characters who were assumed to be gay and lesbian by everyone I know who’s seen the movies end up in a straight relationship together. Thank goodness for Glee which, despite a lot of problematic content about race, gender, and ability has done a fantastic job with Kurt’s coming out. But is Glee reaching the young people who are most susceptible to High School Musical’s messages?
Because these films are not just isolated instances of abstinence pushing pop culture. Couple them with dangerous abstinence-only programs, which are publicly funded in high schools across the country. Add in Disney-managed pop stars wearing promise rings. Sprinkle in shows like The Secret Life of the American Teenager that completely erase possibilities like abortion. What we are left with is the same messages from schools and churches, and the entertainment young folks actually want to consume.
Abstinence pushers have saturated the tween market with their values. By using fun books, movies, music, and tv shows they’ve managed to make sure young folks, especially young girls, are learning the their gendered roles and not learning about sex even when they’re being entertained.

The messages about what makes an ideal man are incredibly disturbing. The fantasy guy options range from Troy in High School Musical, who we hilariously watch jump out of his truck and head to the other side to open the door for Gabriella in one seemingly endless shot in the third film, to the stalkery Edward Cullen, who regularly manhandles Bella and is seen as a hero for not killing (read: having sex with).
I believe young people are much more savvy media consumers than they are usually given credit for. And I personally really enjoy a lot of these products – I’ve enjoyed Taylor Lautner’s abs since he turned 18 on February 11, High School Musical’s a blast, and I have regular Taylor Swift sing-alongs with myself. I’ve written before about our ability to subvert pop art by reading new messages into it – I saw Eclipse with Miriam and Professor Foxy, and we enjoyed Bella’s speech at the end of the film about how she’s basically “transvampire.” But I worry about the twelve year old girl who’s only ever heard the message in Swift’s “Fifteen,” that her virginity is “everything she has.” Pop entertainment aimed at tween girls is a huge industry. When this market is completely saturated with dangerous messages about sexuality and gender roles that are also permeating schools, homes, and communities, where is that twelve year old girl going to find the alternative? When everything a tween consumes it sending one message about dating and gender roles it stops being something that can be critiqued and simply becomes fact, the norm. And this pop entertainment is reaching them at the age when sex starts to really be of interest and accurate information is needed. Websites like Scarleteen are an invaluable resource, but I think we have to admit that a tween’s favorite movie is a more broadly successful vehicle for getting a message to her than a website she has to find and where she has to actually read factual articles instead of angsty romance.
Alternative messages that are actually educational are rare. ABC Family’s 10 Things I Hate About You tv show had a great episode about sex. The lead characters explored their feelings and interactions with each other, got tested, and learned how to use a condom. Of course the show’s been cancelled. There is plenty of sexualized product aimed at this age group too, but where’s the Justin Beiber song about consent or equal gender roles?
The problem with the Twilights, High School Musicals, and Disney pop stars is that they all combine to present one view of the world, one take on how girls and boys should be. Alternatives do exist, but they’re not what’s winning the eyeballs and interest of young people.

Boston, MA

Jos Truitt is Executive Director of Development at Feministing. She joined the team in July 2009, became an Editor in August 2011, and Executive Director in September 2013. She writes about a range of topics including transgender issues, abortion access, and media representation. Jos first got involved with organizing when she led a walk out against the Iraq war at her high school, the Boston Arts Academy. She was introduced to the reproductive justice movement while at Hampshire College, where she organized the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program’s annual reproductive justice conference. She has worked on the National Abortion Federation’s hotline, was a Field Organizer at Choice USA, and has volunteered as a Pro-Choice Clinic Escort. Jos has written for publications including The Guardian, Bilerico, RH Reality Check, Metro Weekly, and the Columbia Journalism Review. She has spoken and trained at numerous national conferences and college campuses about trans issues, reproductive justice, blogging, feminism, and grassroots organizing. Jos completed her MFA in Printmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute in Spring 2013. In her "spare time" she likes to bake and work on projects about mermaids.

Jos Truitt is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Development.

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