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.