Twilight: "L" is for Madonna/Whore Complex

[Content Note: Rape Culture, Ableism, Hostility to / Invisibling of Asexual People]

Twilight and Philosophy, Chapter 1: You Look Good Enough To Eat: Love, Madness, and The Food Analogy

I need to take a break from Twilight for today, partly because a combination of illness and job-searching has caused me to lose my train of thought for Chapter 13 and have left me sort of mentally flailing about in the sparkle-meadow. I've been wanting for awhile to pick up some Twilight essays here and there, and this seemed like a good opportunity, especially since I got stuck in radiology for an hour with Twilight and Philosophy on my eReader. So let's talk about Plato in a post that isn't related to Narnia for once!

Twilight and Philosophy is a member of a huge series of books (Battlestar Galactica and Philosophy, X-Men and Philosophy, Spider-Man and Philosophy, The Hobbit and Philosophy, Terminator and Philosophy, Iron Man and Philosophy, Mad Men and Philosophy, Arrested Development and Philosophy, Doctor Who and Philosophy, The Big Bang Theory and Philosophy, Harry Potter and Philosophy, Game of Thrones and Philosophy, Hunger Games and Philosophy, and about eighty-billion more.) that can be uncharitably characterized as leaping onto popular bandwagons and riding the gravy train to profitville by slapping together a haphazard collection of philosophical musings on the subject, some of which will be only tenuously related to the subject, and which reviewers will largely characterize as a "mixed bag".

But that's if you're being uncharitable. If you're inclined to be kind, the collection tries to examine popular cultural media from a scholarly perspective in order to provide deeper insight (and, potentially, enjoyment) of the property as a whole. Kind of like we do here, really, but in book form and with fewer quotes from the source material.

And I honestly can't decide if I want to be charitable to Twilight and Philosophy or not because I've only read the first essay and it skeezed me out like whoa. There's something painfully ironic about putting together a collection of essays on a romance novel written by a woman and made into a globe-spanning multimillion dollar franchise largely by female fans ... and opening with an essay written by a man about how to correctly define L.O.V.E. for all times, all people, and all places. [insert pointed look] But then to have that same male-written opening essay be about how everyone, if they're rily-rily honest with themselves, totally goes around imagining raping hot chicks all the time ... well ... yeah. Train wreck in the EXTREME.

And it's not like it would have been hard to get a bunch of essays on Twilight from women authors and professors and bloggers and deep thinkers, I wouldn't think. And I like to think they could have handled the "rape fantasy" aspect of Twilight (that may or may not be intentional but is there as sub-text nonetheless) without painting rape as something that everyone deep down inside wants to commit. BUT EVEN IF YOU COULDN'T find any women authors and non-rapey essays, maybe you might not want to LEAD with the rapey-guy article.

But what do I know, I am not a professional essay-anthology editor person.

So let's talk about George A. Dunn who leads his VERY INSIGHTFUL ARTICLE with a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche about how love always has madness in it, because apparently it is totes possible to be a respected professor at the University of Indianapolis without having heard of the concept ableism or thought of the concept as anything more than one of those fads that will totally blow over soon.

   Edward Cullen is doomed. The new girl sitting next to him in biology class looks and—to make matters even worse—smells good enough to eat. In fact, in the century or so he’s been stalking the Earth, Edward has never before inhaled a fragrance quite so intoxicating. His nostrils have in their delirium taken the rest of his brain hostage. His sanity is on its way to becoming a dim memory, along with all that gentlemanly self-restraint he’s worked so long and hard to cultivate. All he can think about is what he’d like to do with this girl once he gets her alone—and how he can make that happen. Blinded and blindsided by this sudden upsurge of appetite, he’s able to regain control of himself just long enough to bolt out the door and drive to Alaska, where a couple of days of cool mountain air does the work of a long, cold shower, sobering him up and chilling him out.

   Philosophy requires a fearless dedication to the truth, so let’s be completely honest with each other right here at the outset: Who among us can’t relate to this experience? Not that your designs on that scrumptious cupcake seated next to you in biology class (or whatever class it was) were exactly the same as Edward’s. Heaven forbid! But there’s not a soul among us who doesn’t have at least some appreciation of what this poor guy is going through. Who hasn’t been ambushed by a desire that strikes with such abrupt force that it becomes nearly impossible to hide its presence, let alone to resist being yanked in whatever direction it wants us to go? Protest all you like, but I think you know exactly what I’m talking about. But if you insist on denying that you’ve ever been slapped silly by a sudden rush of desire, then the kindest thing I can say is that you’re probably not a very promising candidate for the study of philosophy—at least not according to the ancient Greek philosopher Plato (428-348 BCE), whom we shall be meeting shortly.

And that is how I came very close to vomiting in the middle of radiology today! Because HOLY FUCKING RAPE CULTURE BATMAN, I do not know how to read this as anything other than a confession from George A. Dunn that he is constantly on the verge of raping people and he assumes everyone else is too.

Do you want to know all the things I love about this opening? OF COURSE YOU DO.

1. I love that the entire piece is about how "doomed" "poor guy" Edward Cullen is because ZOMG HE'S TEMPTED TO COMMIT RAPE OR MURDER. There is absolutely nothing in that paragraph which suggests that feeling a compulsion to commit rape or murder -- or, for that matter, actually being a rapist or murderer -- might be somehow less bad than being the victim of rape and/or murder. Because being an Accidental Rapist is obviously way more awful than being, you know, raped. If you're an Accidental Rapist, you have to live with the knowledge that you raped someone. (OH NOES.) Whereas if you're a rape victim, it's just another Tuesday and you dust yourself off and get back to whatever you were doing.

2. I love -- OF COURSE I DO -- the conflation of "rily-rily wants to rape and/or murder" with "loss of sanity". Because that whole Crimes of Passion thing is totally not a convenient way for men to get off scot-free for raping and killing women, and it totally doesn't lead to the marginalization of the genuinely mentally ill as totes-violent even though most mentally ill people aren't violent at all.

3. I rily-rily love the insistence that George A. Dunn's experience are UNIVERSAL and that anyone who claims otherwise is a lying liar who lies and additionally could never be as good a philosopher as George A. Dunn, Professional Philosopher. Man who doesn't daydream about rape? LIAR. Woman who doesn't daydream about rape? LIAR. Asexual person who isn't interested in sex much at all? LIAR.

4. I love -- HOW COULD I NOT -- the personification of desire in this piece in order to absolve the person wanting to rape and murder of any responsibility because, hey, it was "nearly impossible ... to resist being yanked in whatever direction it wants us to go"! YES. "It" being the Rape Fairy that forced me to rape the person in my biology class. Damn that Rape Fairy! *shakes fist* It wanted me to go there and I had no choice. That is awesome.

5. I totes love the constant objectification of women into food in this piece. Say what you will about George A. Dunn, the man knows how to pick a theme and run over a cliff with it. "That scrumptious cupcake" indeed! Later he will call women "delectable eye candy" and "apples", because why would you NOT do this thing? I AM JUST SORRY THAT CHEESECAKE DID NOT MAKE AN APPEARANCE.

6. I am UTTERLY HORRIFIED that this piece makes it very clear that this isn't about rape fantasy but about being moments away from actual rape ("nearly impossible ... to resist being yanked in whatever direction") and how it is VERY VERY HARD to not give in to the constant rapey urge to rape shit if it looks sufficiently rapeworthy, which means that I rily-rily do NOT want to be trapped in an elevator with George A. Dunn because HOLY FUCKING RAPE CULTURE BATMAN. (I said that already, didn't I?)

Later in the article, George A. Dunn will demonstrate that he thinks at least part of the definition of true L.O.V.E. is not giving in to the constant rapey urge to rape helpless women:

   Of course, the analogy [between food and sex] isn’t perfect. [...] Nonetheless, the world is full of predatory amorists who exploit others in much the same way the rest of us gobble down our meals, showing as little regard for the welfare of their partners as the lion shows for the lamb.

   But even if we follow the chivalrous example of Edward—the lion who fell in love with the lamb—and recognize that our beloved has needs and interests of her own that set a limit to how far we can go in indulging our desires, it remains true that every form of sensual enjoyment resembles somewhat the pleasures of eating.

YES. Yes, that is perfect. Even IF we are rily-rily chivalrous because we refrain from raping ladies left and right (TOTALLY THE DEFINITION OF CHIVALRY), and even IF we acknowledge that women have ladyfeelings and ladythoughts, and even IF we do all that, sex is still awesome and therefore still analogizes nicely to eating which is also awesome but in a totally different way. I mean, obviously raping is funner and more like eating because of LOOK OVER THERE A PUPPY, but non-rapey sex is still pretty okay and is kind of like food because it is an act between two (or more!) people giving and receiving pleasure and cultivating emotional intimacy through physical intimacy in much the same way that eating cultivates physical intimacy through chewing and look, just go with it or we can't carry on with the article.


But you know what would be EVEN DEEPER? A mandatory reference to Socrates and Plato, because Socrates and Plato are to philosophy what Freud are Jung were to psychology: once they came along, there was nothing new or interesting to add to the discipline as a whole and everyone was able to go home and do other things forever THE END.

   Although lacking the outer beauty and grace of vampires like the Cullens, Socrates still seemed like a bloodsucker to many. [...] The families of some of his followers—his victims, if you prefer—watched with alarm as members of Socrates’ clique expressed their scorn for things such as honor, money, and political power—indeed for anything other than the pursuit of philosophical wisdom that Socrates advocated as the only thing worthwhile. But that’s just what erĂ´s does to a person. Everything that isn’t associated with the beloved fades into insignificance. Just as Bella, after all that time spent in the company of immortals, couldn’t help but regard her school prom as “some trite human thing” despite what it meant to her human friends, so the lovers of Socrates tended to lose their taste for the things of the mundane world from which they believed Socrates had rescued them.

DID YOU GET THAT, LADIES? Anything that isn't associated with your beloved is automatically insignificant. Because that is what L.O.V.E. means. God help you if your husband isn't interested in book club night or feminist blogging or (*gasp*) Twilight itself or whatever, because if he doesn't care about those things then you will have to QUIT THEM FOREVER.

And this is the point where I really have to question whether George A. Dunn read Twilight before slamming out this article and going back to Battlestar Galactica essays because Bella didn't like the prom before she met Edward. And, interestingly enough!, she continues to not like the prom even after Edward says that prom is important to him. She doesn't take on his interests or discard her old ones (sparse though they are); she attends under protest because she cares about making him happy (and hopes and expects him to reciprocate by making her a vampire). The "trite human thing" quote obscures the fact that Bella ALWAYS saw prom as a "trite human thing", whether she used those precise words or not.

Bella's interests don't change for Edward, unless you maybe count the fact that she likes the expensive car he eventually gifts her. Nor do Edward's interests change for her. Which means -- and I type this realization with horror -- that Stephenie Meyer's Twilight is More Feminist than the first essay about Stephenie Meyer's Twilight in the book Twilight and Philosophy because, whatever else you may say about Twilight and there are many many things to say against it, Bella doesn't decide that everything Edward doesn't care about is therefore automatically insignificant to her. Because OH MY GOD THAT IS NOT A HEALTHY DEFINITION OF LOVE WHAT THE FUCK.

Then there's a LONG bit about how Socrates loved love and how he defined it as basically a glimpse of divine perfection while on earth. Which, okay, not my thing but I'm not going to worry too much about it except that George A. Dunn channels Yoda only instead of fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering we get a definitive statement that perfection comes from love and love comes from ... drumroll, please ... beauty.

Of course. Of course it does. We're back to delectable eye candies and cupcakes and apples again.

   And so that joy is forgotten—unless and until we fall in love. For there’s one form of perfection that shines in a way that even our feeble mortal senses can’t easily miss: beauty, especially the beauty that shines from some dazzling creature whose presence alone is enough to flood the soul with erotic and romantic longings.

    In heaven the sight of unalloyed beauty, contemplated in its pure electrifying radiance, was “the most blest of the mysteries” we beheld. But even after we fell to Earth, “we grasped it shining most clearly through the clearest of our senses, because sight is the sharpest of our physical senses.” Socrates probably should have qualified that last statement, for while sight may be the sharpest sense for us mortal human beings, the sense of smell is the most acute for vampires. No surprise, then, that Edward’s powerful longings were awakened by a whiff, rather than the more common vision, of perfection. But regardless of whether it’s a beautiful form or a beautiful fragrance, beauty possesses a unique ability to remind us of a joy that lies beyond this world and therefore beyond mere carnal satisfactions.

And here is the thing, right? I know that a lot of people like to get worked up about how important BEAUTY is FOR EVERYONE and then they try to politely reconcile this ideal with reality by talking about INNER BEAUTY so, okay, maybe you personally are not beautiful but that doesn't mean you're destined to life without love because you have INNER BEAUTY. I respect that they're trying hard to make the ideal as palatable as possible, but no. Okay? Just no.

Back up. Halt the ideology. Can you, George A. Dunn, accept for a moment that your experiences and preferences are not universal? I know it hurts, the idea that you are not the template creature for all humankind, and that there may be things that other people experience and feel and desire and prefer that you might have NO EXPERIENCE AT ALL with. I get that can be kind of scary, because it means the world is a far, far bigger place than you might like it to be, but if you can accept that for a moment, we'll all be better off.

There is nothing wrong with you, personally, being attracted to things you deem beautiful to look at. There is nothing wrong with Edward being attracted to things he deems beautiful to smell, although having said that I think you need to read Twilight again because the scent of Bella is a torment to Edward as much as it is a pleasure. (But, hey, maybe beautiful-to-look-at things torment you, personally, because of rapey impulses. I don't know! But if that is the case, please get that checked out, okay? Because that is not a good thing. Edward is a rape fantasy, not an awesome example of wonderful human behavior to model.)

But there IS something wrong with insisting that EVERYONE is attracted to beauty. Or that all true love begins with attraction to beauty. You are erasing the experiences of people who love folks they genuinely do not consider beautiful. (And, no, it is not better to insist that they really DO think their loved ones are beautiful and they're lying liars who lie if they claim otherwise.) You're also, incidentally, erasing the experiences of people who can't see. So there's that. Basically, by universalizing your experiences (and, as you claim to be doing, Socrates' philosophy) to ALL THE PEOPLE AND ALL THE THINGS, you are erasing everyone for whom those experiences aren't true. Don't be that guy.

Also, do not be That Guy who pushes his Madonna/Whore complex on us as the ultimate example of true love:

   He thus invites us to imagine the soul as a chariot, driven by a charioteer and pulled by a team of two winged horses, one compliant and well-behaved, the other stubborn and unruly. [...]

   But because the soul is complex—remember those two horses, one compliant, the other unruly—our reaction to the sight (or smell, in Edward’s case) of earthly beauty can be a tortured knot of conflicting emotions. On the one hand, the well-behaved horse is constrained by its sense of decency from pouncing straight away on that beautiful creature that looks (or smells) like a little piece of heaven. But the unruly horse feels no such restraint. It goes berserk and lurches forward, dragging the other horse and the charioteer along with it, all the while forcing them “to recall the delights of sex.” Only when they “see the darling’s face, flashing like a lightning bolt,” refreshing the memory of “beauty itself standing alongside moderation on a holy pedestal,” do the more orderly parts of the soul find the strength to restrain the rampaging lust of the unruly horse. As Socrates describes it, the battle between the unruly horse and the other parts of the soul can be protracted and ugly, but if it ends with that misbehaving beast subdued, “the lover’s soul follows the darling with awe and a sense of shame.”

So, hey, you know what else Twilight didn't do? It didn't make lust out to be automatically shameful. Yes, it's a tale of eroticized abstinence. And yes, Edward policies and enforces Bella's virginity before marriage. (And, yes, these are big problems within the text.) But to its credit once they are married and Bella is safely vampirized (and therefore cannot be accidentally hurt during sex), the text makes it pretty clear that they have wild monkey sex pretty much everywhere all the time and that all the other Cullens find them totes annoying/adorkable for being so hot to trot constantly.

And now I am having to explain why Erotic Abstinence -- as harmful as I think it is as a model of behavior for sexually inexperienced people -- is LESS harmful than a good old fashioned Madonna/Whore complex.

Edward isn't restrained from wild monkey sex with Bella because she has SUCH A BEAUTIFUL FACE and he doesn't want to DIRTY HER WITH THE DIRTY SEX. He refrains from having wild monkey sex with her because (a) he only wants to have sex with someone within the bounds of a life-commitment (which is a valid sexual choice, when it occurs in a non-policing non-enforcing environment, which is not what Twilight is but nevermind that for right now) and (b) he doesn't want to hurt Bella while she is in a vulnerable state (i.e., human). Neither of those things make sex out to be BAD; they just make sex something that can only occur under the proper conditions -- in Edward's case, marriage and vampirism.

Lust restrained by a desire for your beloved's safety is something entirely different than lust restrained by beauty. The former means that you care more about your beloved's needs than about your own needs. The latter means you care more about the ideal of your beloved than about your physical needs. And when you only care about the ideal of your beloved, your actual beloved can take a flying leap off her pedestal because her actual wants and needs don't really matter.

And I'm not saying that Edward Cullen doesn't flirt with precisely that problem, but I am saying that doesn't make it okay for George A. Dunn to embrace the problem whole-heartedly as the one and only meaning of L.O.V.E.


   But there’s another aspect of Socrates’ myth that we must not overlook. That boiling cauldron of lust that Socrates depicts as an unruly horse is the very thing that rouses the soul to approach the beloved in the first place! Without that troublemaking scalawag called concupiscent desire, no one would ever draw close enough to mortal beauty to detect within it intimations of something higher. Consequently, our lives would be like Edward’s before he got his first whiff of Bella—sane, sober, and steady.

SO IN OTHER WORDS, it is those wonderful rapey impulses that cause us to notice the hot cupcake women that we then (once our Madonna/Whore complex kicks in) put on holy pedestals so that we can watch them from a safe distance, constantly enjoying the urge to rape them but never actually doing it because we don't want to defile their beauty.



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AnnaLK said...


I'm surprised (and kind of impressed with your persistence) that you made it through the essay: if it were me, I'd have given up in disgust near the start, and flicked on to the next chapter in hopes that the book had *some* decent essays to offer despite their poor choice of lead.

That said, I wasn't immediately disturbed by the first passage you quote - the "he's struck by desire that he can't hide or resist, and haven't we all been there?" I did notice the unfortunate erasure of asexuals, but I didn't construe the passage as being about rape. This is because my immediate response was "yeah, I have been there" - many years ago, with a girl in my church group. I didn't want to be attracted to her (because my church back then was the kind of church that taught that all good Christians were heterosexual), but I couldn't get rid of the desire or prevent myself from following it to its natural conclusion - which was nothing to do with rape, and everything to do with finally admitting to myself that I wasn't straight, and starting to look for a more gay-friendly church.

So yeah, I would have been willing to give the author the benefit of the doubt on that first bit... had it not been for the MASSIVE amounts of fail that followed.

Myriad said...

A couple of things ... from a PhD candidate in philosophy who works in feminist ethics and feminist bioethics among other things:
1) These books are not well looked upon by philosophy; I would never allow a student to refer to an essay published in one of these books. I have a friend who was published in "Doctor Who and Philosophy" and treated it as a bit of a lark. For that reason alone, I am not surprised that even apart from the horrendous rape-culture affirmation in this, it's just terrible philosophy to boot. It's not a good argument, for many reasons, but most of all it's poorly researched.
2) Philosophy is one of the last bastions of male dominance in academia. The gender ratio in academic philosophy is very skewed - only physics, and mathematics are still worse. In addition to that, there is a large degree of the old boy's club in philosophy, and the environment is often extremely and overtly sexist. That this guy thought he could get away with the awful sexism in this essay is completely unsurprising to me. I find this more offensive than the terrible quality of his argument, but I am far less surprised by this than that.

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