I see my teenage self in "Twilight." I never fell in love with a vampire per se, but as an evangelical Christian teenager I was taught that all men were vampires of a sort -- threatening and hungry -- but that the right vampire would, like Bella's Edward, protect me from himself.
Author Stephanie Meyer has said that her Mormon faith played a role in the creation of her characters, but I didn't have to hear that to recognize in Twilight's erotic mix of want and withholding the stuff of religious girls' lives.
Perhaps I see myselfmost in Bella's desperate desire not to grow up. Bella begs Edward to grant her eternal girlhood, making her a vampire before she turns 20. Likewise, my friends and I "girled" ourselves -- giggling, pretending not to understand sexual references and more -- in an attempt to avoid becoming the thing we most dreaded becoming: women.
Whereas good girls were prized in our community, women were often mistrusted. We were warned that if not careful women could be sexual temptations to men and boys, and the especially brazen ones might even try to take men's rightful places of leadership. A friend of mine was once told she was getting dangerous close to this and could no longer lead her Bible study because her voice was too low. Good women in my community retained the qualities of little girls -- sweetness, purity, receptivity and a certain degree of passivity. It was these qualities that allowed the adolescent mother of Jesus to be chosen by God. It was these qualities that gave her life purpose, that gave her life power. By the time the Virgin Mary grew up and demanded Jesus to turn water into wine at a wedding, even calm and patient Jesus was annoyed. Mary had become pushy, too bold for her own good. My evangelical friends and I were determined that these things would never happen to us.
But could we avoid it? we wondered. How could we-junior high girls growing breasts, teenagers picking up sass, and fully grown women who knew suffering and had developed a wisdom and confidence that made us feel like anything but kids-force our fleshy bodies into the shape of children?
The answer was: we couldn't. Whereas Bella was successful in stopping time, my girlfriends and I failed. And the consequences of this failure lasted well into our adult lives.
I was 21 when a college performance poetry professor played me a recording of my voice, demanding to know why I spoke in such a squeak when my singing voice implied that my true vocal register was actually much lower. (In fact, she was right, though it took me many more years to come into my authentic voice.) I was 25 when an evangelical friend and I went to a fairy festival wearing homemade wings and discovered that we were the only adults there without a child. And I was 26 when I quit my job at a library in Montana after having left the evangelical community and returned to my Midwestern hometown, driven by my desire to know how many of the young women I grew up with were struggling with issues of sex, sexuality and gender the way I was.
I spent the following year sitting in coffee shops, bars and living rooms interviewing evangelical and ex-evangelical women in their 20s, all of whom had grown up in my own church. The next year, I moved to New York City and performed two more years of interviews with evangelical and ex-evangelical women from various backgrounds. Among the many issues that came to light was the recurring issue of eternal girlhood.
One of my friends and interviewees, a 28-year old woman, told a story of being at a Christian conference when she realized what her future would be were she not to address her own girling. My friend sat down at a workshop beside a woman in her 50s, who was wearing sparkly red slippers. Throughout the workshop, the woman kicked her feet out from under her chair and asked the group if they agreed with her that her shoes were just the sweetest, cutest, prettiest little princess shoes they'd ever seen. Every time she kicked out her feet and again asked the question, my friend said she felt like throwing up. Then she remembered: Just a couple of months earlier, we were at the fairy festival. She gulped.
This may seem relatively innocuous. Harmless even. Who cares if there are a few girly women out there? What am I, afraid of the color pink?
My concern is not about girliness. My concern is what happens when this girliness cannot be turned off, when a desire to avoid womanhood overwhelms an individual and seeps into her life in ways she is not even aware of, and sometimes cannot escape.
Within today's overall culture of eternal youth -- with its proliferation of anti-aging products, Cover Girls, Hooters Girls, and even knee-scraped roller derby girls -- the way in which girling plays out in religious communities is unique. Sexualizing secular girling sometimes verges on performance; girlhood can be put on and then taken off. Whereas de-sexualizing religious girling goes deep. Real deep. Girls are told that if they become the wrong kind of woman not only will their eternal life be threatened, but the eternal lives of men and boys who trip over them on their path to God will be at risk. (For this reason, women and girls in my church were often called "stumbling blocks," a term that makes me shudder to this day.)
But we are set up to fail. We can't actually remain girls forever. So we develop into women, and hate ourselves for it.
There is very little research on women and girls in the evangelical Christian church, but I am reminded of an older study performed by researchers from the evangelical Christian school, Wheaton College, that still rings true for me. In their 1995 article for Youth & Society, "Do Religious Institutions Resist or Support Women's 'Lost Voices'?" the researchers report having surveyed 30 evangelical girls and women between the ages of 8 and 30, half of whom were members of complementarian communities (who believe that men should be loving leaders and women their supportive helpers) and half of whom were members of egalitarian communities (who believe that men and women can play equal roles in church, home, and society life). Both the egalitarian and complementarian women between the ages of 20 and 30 described feeling more comfortable with themselves than they had ever felt before as they transitioned from the age of a girl to the age of a woman. However, women from the egalitarian church viewed this as a strength, a sign of maturity. Complementarian women, on the other hand, saw this adult confidence as a personal weakness, an indicator that they were being "selfish," "proud" or "disobedient." Some even saw it as a sin.
Meanwhile, some secular women have claimed girl-status as a form of personal empowerment, embracing the boldness they had as kids before they were told what was required of them as women. The Guerilla Girls bring attention to feminist issues while wearing oversized gorilla costumes; the Power Puff Girls kick broccoli's butt in cartoon land; Buffy the Vampire Slayer cheered by day and slayed demons and vampires by night; the punk band Bikini Kill taught us that "grrrl"s shouldn't be messed with; and in the latest "Twilight" film, we can anticipate a little of this kind of girling too.
Though in many ways we can still expect to see Bella as the good girl by religious standards, adhering to Mormon rules of avoiding drinking alcohol and coffee and dutifully cooking and cleaning for her father, what feminist doesn't feel a secret thrill when, in the trailer, we see her throw herself onto a wild cat?
This latest version of Bella is part girl and part grrrl. No longer a human, she is now unbound by human rules. If only my girlfriends and I could have found a way around the effects of eternal girlhood on our lives so quickly.