Monday, November 23, 2009

New Moon lunacy

I don't mean to offend anyone who might be reading this (too much), but I have become absolutely sick of hearing female thirty-something friends and acquaintances rhapsodize about the New Moon movie. Apparently it's not just the women I know, either: CBS News reported a couple of days ago that, although "the movie is about teenagers and aimed at teenagers," half the audience is over the age of 21. CNN ran a story on November 16th entitled "Older women crave 'New Moon' vampires" that explored the phenomenon of "Twilight Moms" (more on that later).

It's not that I find this kind of obsessive fandom annoying in itself - after all, I got hooked on "Lost" when we actually had no TV, just by reading the transcripts online. What irritates me and, frankly, gives me a little bit of the heeby-jeebies is that New Moon appears to me to be a convergence of two really disturbing trends in our society: the sexualization of children and the infantilization of young adults.

Diane Levin, co-author of So Sexy So Soon: Protecting Children in a Sexualized Society says
she hears from worried parents about how pop culture and the bombardment of product advertising are making their young daughters focused on their appearance and being sexy, starting with girls as young as 5, and how that sets them up to believe it is fine for boys to see them as objects. ...[T]he sexualization of young girls disrupts their ability to develop meaningful relationships with peers, disrupts their ability to be empathetic to others and from developing normal sexual relationships later in life.
The Twilight series, of which New Moon is the second part, has been defended in many circles as a "love story that promote[s] chastity, among other virtues." But NPR reports that "if Twilight is trying to send a new message about teen abstinence, it might not be getting through," quoting one 17-year-old as saying, "That [Twilight] is completely selling sex to kids."

It's hard to argue that New Moon isn't selling sex to somebody, anyway, when the media blitz for the movie includes Ashley Greene, the female lead, posing suggestively on and in the most recent issue of Maxim magazine. And male lead Robert Pattinson tells Rolling Stone that "it's really strange" for girls as young as eight years old to have an "incredibly sexualized thing around [him]," considering the books are said to promote chastity. "I think it [the series] has the opposite effect on its readers though," he says.

Twilight has that effect on more than just its young fans (i.e., its "target demographic"), though, and that's where the intersection of social phenomena really seems to happen. Pattinson in particular seems to be of special interest to "cougar" Twilight fans, according to the CNN story cited above. A 32-year-old woman named Jenny tells the reporter, "We love to talk about how sexy Rob Pattinson is and what we would do if we got close... No one's being judged for being married and saying, 'I'm 54 and I think this 23-year-old is absolutely delicious.' " Another woman says she knows people who justify their attraction to Edward (Pattinson's character) by telling themselves, "Edward is just in a 17-year-old body, but he's actually 108."

What I think is at the root of this is not only that these women are not "acting their age," but that many of them never really learned what it means to do so. Many people in their 20s and 30s today were raised in an environment in which parents often tried to be more "buddies" with their kids than authority figures. The extreme example of this is the infamous "Cool Mom" of Arvada, Colorado who told police she had sex with some of the friends of her teenage children and "also provided marijuana, methamphetamine, and alcohol to the teens because she wanted to be a 'cool mom' and it made her feel like she was 'one of the group.'"

I believe this style of parenting is one of the factors that has brought us to a point at which, according to Robert Epstein - who is a psychologist and the author of The Case Against Adolescence - "most Americans now believe a person isn't an adult until age 26." This artificial extension of childhood, or "infantilization," has numerous negative effects on both young adults and society, according to Epstein. "Imagine what it would feel like," he says, "when your body and mind are telling you you're an adult while the adults around you keep insisting you're a child. This infantilization makes many young people angry or depressed, with their distress carrying over into their families" and causing tension and conflict with those around them.

So, we now have pre-teens who think they are adults and thirty-somethings who think they are teenagers, and they all come together to lust after the sexy 17-year-old vampire. But besides provoking something of an "Ew!" reaction, is there anything really wrong or harmful with a 15-30 year span of people essentially viewing themselves as peers? I think the answer is clearly yes.

To cite just one area in which these trends are problematic, think about the seemingly dramatic increase in inappropriate student-teacher relationships in schools. Charol Shakeshaft, an expert in teacher sexual misconduct, says young teachers are "certainly more at risk" of engaging in problematic relationships with their students for a number or reasons, including "[p]roximity in age to their students, immaturity and a classic novice-teacher mistake of wanting students to like them." These "inappropriate relationships" can range from the dramatically ill-advised, such as telling a class of eighth-graders about how you were unexpectedly impregnated by your boyfriend of just a couple of months (as recently happened in our little town), to the criminally sexual (as has been alleged to have happened in our little town during the past year).

The common thread is that these teachers are not the stereotypical "dirty, old men" many people envision. They may not be "dirty" or even necessarily predatory. It's just that both the students and the teachers are under the illusion that, rather than being an authority figure, Mr. X is the "big man on campus" or, rather than being the tough grader everybody struggles to satisfy, Ms. Y is the cool older sister in whom you can confide. I think this is symptomatic of a much broader breakdown in appropriate generational boundaries and our understanding of authority... and so is the New Moon phenomenon.


Tienne said...

Excellent post! I agree, and have been completely horrified when I hear stories about, for instance, 40 year old mothers of teenage girls going to New Moon promotions and asking the stars to sign their underwear, or things of that nature. What sort of example are we setting for our children if we are whipping ourselves into a frenzy of immaturity over a series of books/movies? If we want our kids to be chaste and save themselves for marriage, then we need to be sure we're not sending the message that our marriages are unfulfilling, or worse, that our fantasies include boys of an age with our children.

I confess, I am a Twilight fan, but not for the reasons so many women are stating. I am drawn to the type of star-crossed love story where choices have eternal consequences. I am also very taken with the way the hero (Edward) models the type of sacrificial love Christ has for His Church. It's an imperfect analogy, of course, especially by the 4th book. Still, I wish more people were talking about how Edward and Bella's relationship can be translated into a healthy, human marriage and not fixating on the attractiveness of the characters (or the actors who play them.) I feel the books are an excellent talking point for chastity or the Theology of the Body, yet all I see are Werewolf vs Vampire debates and questions about whether the co-stars are in a real relationship or not.


Christine said...

WOW!!! Very well said.

I have next to no knowledge on the Twilight series. I have avoided it, and have attempted to keep my step-daughter away from it.

I wonder, how many of the adult viewers are watching the movies with their teenage daughters? How many are pre-screening the movies? Probably not a whole lot, but I'm sure it makes up a few adult viewers.

I'm a huge fan of pre-screening and pre-reading material that adolescents and teenagers are into. It ensures that no one is teaching your child something contrary to what you believe, it allows you to know what they are being exposed to, and it may even give topics of conversation that is so lacking in this day and age.

Dietrich said...

vampires and werewolves and cougars! Oh my!