Sunday, August 16, 2009

Those Fascinating Mormon Women

Yesterday FoxyJ and I attended the Sunstone Symposium. We'd been to Sunstone Seattle before and this past year Foxy attended the California version, but this was our first time at the big one in Salt Lake. My primary reason for going was to meet people, and I wasn't disappointed--Foxy, Green Mormon Architect, and I had a delightful lunch with C.L. Hanson, and I also got to meet a couple of Zelophehad's Daughters, Kaimi from Times & Seasons, and feminist blogger Holly. (Some of you may know that Holly and I have an... interesting history, so it was nice to meet her in person, and to see that she's a complete human being and not just this ominous online presence I've interacted with occasionally over the past few years.) As an added bonus, I really enjoyed all the sessions I attended. Foxy and I caught the tail-end of a presentation on polygamy, and then I went to sessions on the Book of Mormon's 19th-century context, gay Mormon literature (with a comprehensive bibliography, if anyone's interested), two films about religion and sexuality, and finally a panel on feminist and/or Mormon perspectives of Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series.

The Twilight panel ended up being my favorite. I attended not because I've read the books or seen the movie--I haven't--but because my curiosity was piqued when I read my friend Theric's paper about the novels that he presented at Sunstone California, because I'd heard that panelist Maxine Hanks had an interesting take on the series, and because I was curious to hear what panelist Holly Welker had to say about the whole thing. I was not disappointed in any respect. The panel consisted of four feminist women and one man (who may or may not consider himself a feminist, I don't know) with very different takes on Meyer's works. This resulted in a very lively discussion and some great facial expressions from the panelists as they listened to their fellow panelists' differing opinions. All in all, the panel was an excellent reminder that feminism is not a single dogma but rather a wide range of perspectives and ways of interpreting the world.

Holly's portion of the panel is the one that has me up at 4am writing a blog post. She makes a very strong case against Twilight, pointing out with hilariously painful examples how the characters embody truly disturbing gender roles, and drawing comparisons between Meyer's works and Helen Andelin's handbook of submissive housewifery, Fascinating Womanhood. Holly's arguments about the series are based in pretty convincing examples, and they jibe with everything I've heard about the books, mostly from FoxyJ, who finds the character Bella utterly appalling. Maxine Hanks makes a compelling counterargument, that Meyer is portraying a wide range of gender roles and that Bella's powerlessness is just a step on the road to her empowerment, but not having read the books I can't say whether I agree with Maxine or Holly. But I will say that listening to Maxine's presentation is the only time I've ever seriously considered reading Twilight.

The place where Holly's presentation produced a disconnect for me was in her argument that Twilight is both a product of and representative of Mormon concepts of gender as a whole. The primary evidence she presents for this claim consists of (a) the fact that Meyer is a Mormon, (b) the fact that Helen Andelin is a Mormon and her book is popular among Mormons, and (c) the fact that Mormon women and girls love Twilight. This evidence doesn't cut it for me, though, because (a) Meyer is only one Mormon among millions; (b) Andelin is also only one Mormon and her book, though popular in the sixties, is mostly a joke now; and (c) um, hello, all kinds of women and girls (and men and boys) love Twilight. This is hardly a Mormon phenomenon.

I will acknowledge upfront that my experience with Mormondom is by necessity limited and my evidence anecdotal, but I doubt it's any more limited or anecdotal than Holly's--it just seems that we are each limited to very different anecdotes. But I have never known any Mormon woman or man under sixty who takes Fascinating Womanhood or the principles it teaches seriously. (Admittedly, I know one woman over sixty who said she found the book empowering in her own marriage, but in my experience she is definitely the exception.) I believe Holly would argue that whether or not the book is taken seriously, its hypertraditional gender roles are ingrained into Mormon consciousness; I would agree that to some degree and among some Mormons it certainly is, and to that extent I mourn along with Holly the damage such thinking does to women and men alike.

But here's where my limited experience comes in. For most of my adult life, my association with Mormons has been in college settings. This means that most of the Mormons I've known are educated, and though educated does not equal feminist, it definitely skews the population sample in that direction. For the past couple years since I stopped attending church, most of my interaction with Mormons is through FoxyJ, who tends to associate with women like those who can be found on Segullah, Exponent II, and Feminist Mormon Housewives. One of my closest friends is Melyngoch, a very feminist Mormon and sister to the above-mentioned Daughters of Zelophehad. Yesterday I had the pleasure of listening to several strong, intelligent, feminist Mormon women. Even my sisters, who are Mormon and I don't think would necessarily consider themselves feminists, are all strong, intelligent, empowered women. Those who are married have egalitarian relationships with their husbands and interact with them not through childish manipulation but through mature, two-way discussion. The one who's single is a successful, self-fulfilled woman. Among the hundreds of Mormons I know, I can think of only a handful who even remotely fit the mold of Fascinating Womanhood.

Holly argues--and I agree--that Fascinating Womanhood is really about fascinating girlhood, that it promotes the infantilization of women. If Twilight reflects this, it's because it's a girls' fantasy novel about a teenage girl. Girls like it because that's the point in life where they're at, and women enjoy it for the same reason grown men enjoy sports, video games, and comic books--it's a fantasy of immortal girlhood. I don't see that as evidence that these women (or at least the majority of them) actually buy into this depiction of gender as an ideal for adults to follow. This is escapist fiction; sometimes being a responsible adult gets old, and it's nice to fantasize about being swept away by a strong man so beautiful he sparkles, whether or not this would be a good idea in real life.

I wouldn't go so far as to say I completely disagree with Holly. Truly disturbing concepts of gender do exist within Mormon culture and doctrine--if nothing else, the fact that online classes teaching the principles of Fascinating Womanhood are still taught is evidence of this. But I don't think it's as widespread or pervasive as Holly suggests, and I believe that to make such sweeping claims is a great disservice to the multitude of Mormon women (and men) who have long since moved beyond girlhood.

(And if you happen to read this, Holly, I hope you'll take it in the spirit of open discussion in which it's intended, and respond with your thoughts. If I've misunderstood or misrepresented your argument, please say so.)

NOTE: Holly does make some clarifications in the comments section below, so be sure to read her comment before basing your judgment of her argument on my analysis alone.


FoxyJ said...

I'm still waiting for the Relief Society lesson on being submissive, infantile, and denying all my feelings in public. Still haven't had that one yet.

B.G. Christensen said...

P.S. I realized when reading over this again this morning that I ignored at least one significant aspect of Holly's thesis, which is that in addition to the problematic gender roles, Twilight embodies Mormon doctrinal attitudes toward humanity, comparing Bella's contempt for her own humanity to, I believe, the Mormon concept of "the natural man," who is "an enemy to God." As with her other point, I don't entirely agree with Holly's assessment of how this Mormon doctrine is popularly interpreted among believing Mormons, but I do appreciate an underlying value of the argument: that whereas Mormonism and other religious worldviews can tend to devalue mortality, humanism embraces and celebrates "the natural [hu]man." Nothing makes you appreciate mortal life more than giving up a belief in eternal life.

Th. said...


I would love to hear more about Maxine's views. I have a feeling she'll never type them up (did she give you a different view?). I'm especially intrigued by her view of Meyer as a 21st-century Joseph Smith. Good stuff.

Th. said...


Oh: also: I like your adolescent fantasy take. Did anyone on the panel address that?

B.G. Christensen said...

Maxine's presentation really was interesting. She started with the premise that if so many millions of people love Twilight, then rather than assume they're all stupid, we should try to figure out why. She took a point Jana Riess had made, that Meyer's strength is not in writing but in storytelling, and built on that with the idea that story/plot/myth is the most important aspect of drama (citing Aristotle's Poetics, unless I'm misremembering). She talked a lot about the mythic quality of Twilight, and also touched on the Joseph Smith parallels. She said she takes Meyer's claim to be a feminist at face value, and applauded Meyer's bravery in including a broad spectrum of gender roles, including the negative aspects that a lot of people would like to ignore. She felt that Meyer was exploring her own feelings about gender and religion through fiction. And... that's about all I can remember. I'm not a note-taker.

IIRC, both Jana and Maxine touched on the adolescent fantasy aspect of the series. I'm not sure, though, whether anybody stated my conclusion as such or if that's just what I took from similar things they said. The more I think about it, I am disturbed by the fact that male adolescent fantasies are power fantasies, while female adolescent fantasies seem to be fantasies of powerlessness. That's definitely a problem that goes far beyond Mormonism, though. Now I'm really curious to read the series to see if I agree with Maxine's conclusion that Bella's story is a journey from powerlessness to empowerment, which could be seen as an attempt at addressing this very problem.

Tina said...

I read books for enjoyment, don't spend too much time analyzing them. Either they capture my interest or not. But I would have to agree with Maxine's take. Although it took 4 books to do so, Bella's story is a journey from powerless to empowerment. In fact in the end she actually becomes the heroine not the helpless.

TK said...

Sounds interesting. I read both, FW as a teenager. As an adult, I quit T after the 2nd or 3rd volume, realizing what an unhealthy role model Bella's character was. I liked your comment comparing male and female teens' fantasies - respectively regarding power and powerlessness. Dr. Schlessinger talks about the influence of popular fairy tales like Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, etc, on young girls, in terms of affecting their choices of inappropriate men, leading to unhealthy relationships.

Meyers is a great author in the respect that it's easy reading and really keeps your attention. But for anyone growing up WITHOUT healthy real-life role models, I'd be very concerned!

Anonymous said...

Just thought you might like to "meet" a young mormon woman who actually believes in the principles of the Fascinating Woman. She's in my branch.

C. L. Hanson said...

It's true that there were a number of intelligent, articulate, feminist Mormon women there. Keep in mind, however, that this was at Sunstone -- the land of the already (or soon to be) X'ed. Some of these women (such as the ones who wrote the definitive biography of Emma Smith) are not allowed to present their work an LDS church sponsored (or LDS church condoned) conference.

B.G. Christensen said...

Tina--Thanks for your take. I'll let you know what I think, once I get a chance to read the books.

TK--There are few things on which Dr. Laura and I agree, but I'm glad to hear she agrees with my assessment of the way women and relationships are portrayed in those fairy tales.

Anonymous--Thanks for that counterexample. It doesn't surprise me at all that there are people and blogs like that, which is why I say I can't completely disagree with Holly's point.

Chanson--I absolutely agree that Sunstone is not a representative sample of the Mormon population. But the women there, and others like them, do exist, and I distrust any feminist argument that denies the existence of a significant subset of the women it makes claims about. I have no doubt that the Mormons Holly is talking about exist, and I know the Mormons I'm talking about exist, but I honestly can't say how representative either sample is of the general LDS population. I'm not in a position to make conclusions about all Mormons everywhere, and I would say that someone who has been outside the church for 10 or 20 years is in even less of a position to do so. There's going to be variation between the current population and the one Holly or you or even I grew up in, and there's also going to be variation within the current population itself. This is why I'd be much more inclined to fully buy into a more nuanced argument than the one Holly presented--or at least the way she presented it, which admittedly may have more to do with her personal style than with the argument itself. It may well be that she's intentionally overstating her case for rhetorical effect. Which is still problematic, but I'd be happy to hear that she at least recognizes the fact that she's painting with broad strokes to the point of caricature.

As for whether or not feminist and other non-fascinating women are able to present their perspectives in official church settings is, I think, a separate question. There is church doctrine as it is written, doctrine as it is interpreted, and doctrine as it is practiced. I would argue that these three exist on a spectrum, with the written doctrine being the most sexist and the practiced doctrine being the least (generally speaking). Holly's argument seems to be speaking to practiced doctrine and/or culture, whereas I think she'd have a stronger argument against the doctrine as it's written--though I suppose it would be less relevant an argument, because written doctrine is just words on paper.

ambrosia ananas said...

Escapism/adolescent fantasy = exactly why I enjoyed Twilight. Reading it felt like being a teenager with my first real crush all over again. The problematic gender roles are a large part of this--Bella behaves stupidly, and so did I.

B.G. Christensen said...

Thanks for that input, Brozy. I feel validated. :)

Holly said...

Hi Mr. Fob--it was nice to meet you too, and see that you're a real person--with a great haircut!

I want to clarify something you raise in your analysis:

The place where Holly's presentation produced a disconnect for me was in her argument that Twilight is both a product of and representative of Mormon concepts of gender as a whole.

I realize it likely got lost because I read so fast and had so much to say, but I was actually careful to specify that Bella "fits a specific ideal of Mormon womanhood." Not every ideal, not the entire ideal, but nonetheless a specific ideal that once held considerable traction in Mormondom and still has its adherents. Twilight, I argued, is "both product and perpetuation of really gross Mormon ideas about gender and relationships." Not the best ideas--and I won't deny that Mormonism has some strong, interesting ideas about gender--but the super-duper gross ones. And they are real and part of what Mo feminists fight against.

FoxyJ, if you want to go back through old RS manuals, you can find lessons calling women to be infantile, though the lessons usually prefer the term "childlike."

And if you really haven't heard an RS lesson on the importance of accepting and supporting the priesthood of one's husband in specific and the brethren in general, which is code for "submissive," well, perhaps you're just really, really lucky.

B.G. Christensen said...

Thanks for that clarification, Holly. I was worried I would miss something because I was working from memory and not your actual words. Now that I better understand what you were saying, I can definitely agree that Bella fits one specific ideal of Mormon womanhood and that within all the Mormon ideas about gender, there are some super-duper gross ones. I'm glad to see you acknowledge that there are other possibilities within Mormondom, and I share your concern for these specific problems, however widespread they might be.

artemisandollie said...

I could just cry. You AND Foxy J were both there and I never met you? I love your blog and hope we meet at next years's Sunstone!


B.G. Christensen said...

We'll probably go again next year, so we'll have to meet up then.

Anonymous said...

I certainly haven't gone around asking everyone in my ward what they think of Fascinating Womanhood. But I did ask one friend, who is under age 45, and she had read it and did like the principles. I am also a member of some online LDS/mothering forums where the ladies tend to be ultra-feminist (at least when compared to your stereotypical Mormon). These women have a book study going on FW. They love it and have bought the men's book for their husbands as well.

So it seems to me that a lot of young LDS women do still like the concepts in FW.

Katie in Provo

B.G. Christensen said...

Thanks for that perspective, Katie. Any sample based on a single person's experience will be limited, so it's good to hear from a lot of people.

Dan Brewer said...

You don't even want to hear my theory on these books. Yes, I have read them. While not representative I believe this book delves into what many young LDS women experience: their particular desires to satisfy their sexual (read: natural) yearnings while continually being challenged to live a higher-law, often one they may not understand.

I can go on...but this reflects my feelings from the time Belle exclaims: "Edward, Edward, Edward"

B.G. Christensen said...

That's an interesting take, Dan. Did you enjoy the books?

Thanks for stopping by!