The final instalment of the Twilight saga, Breaking Dawn: Part 2, premiered in Los Angeles last month, and the streets were thronged with its core audience of teenage girls and middle-aged gay men. But as the handsome cast strode up the red carpet, they were greeted by more than just hormonal screams. A group of religious conservatives showed up with placards and loud voices. The head of security rushed over to confront them, assuming they were there to protest against the film’s mix of ‘satanic’ vampires and dark eroticism. But he was wrong. The demonstrators had come to cheer the stars and promote the movie. It turns out that some on America’s religious right think that Twilight is one of the best tools they’ve got in the fight against legalised abortion.
America’s religious conservatives have traditionally disliked fantasy fiction like Twilight, and it’s not hard to see why. The saga is about an everyday girl called Bella who falls in love with a dashing vampire called Edward. After several adventures with a race of hot werewolves who seem contractually obliged to take their tops off every three minutes, the couple finally marry and produce a baby fang of their very own. Some fundamentalists are concerned that all this occult sexuality is a gateway to devilry. Literally. The preacher and former Republican presidential candidate Pat Robertson claims to have met a girl who was possessed by a demon while watching Twilight.
But Robertson’s paranoia is starting to look old-fashioned. Kate Bryan, the young pro-life activist who organised the Breaking Dawn demonstration, told me that Twilight contains ‘elements of chastity’ that encourage more responsible behaviour among teens. Vampirism is a metaphor for sex and at the beginning of their relationship the lovers struggle with an adolescent sexual impulse that could prove fatal — there’s always a risk that Edward will lose control in flagrante and suck his woman dry. Bella is keen to run the risk anyway, but Edward insists that they save the magic for their wedding night. ‘Young girls watching see how well [Edward treats] Bella,’ says Bryan, ‘and they make the connection between that and chastity.’
Bryan isn’t alone in detecting religious cues in the Twilight Saga. Author Stephenie Meyer is a Mormon, and although she denies it’s her intent, the books are full of little Mormonisms. As is prescribed for Mormon wives, Bella avoids coffee, tea and alcohol and performs an awful lot of the kind of household chores that Mormons touchingly call ‘industry’. The Church of the Latter-Day Saints also teaches that humans can eventually become divine, and Edward seems to exist in a probationary incarnation before ascending into godhood. His skin sparkles in the sunshine, just as the Mormon angel Moroni’s did.
But it’s the influence of Mormon moral teaching that really interests conservatives like Bryan. After Bella and Edward get married and give in to those primal lusts, Bella falls pregnant — and bearing the half-human, half-vampire foetus almost kills her. Abortion is discussed, but Bella refuses. Although the book and movie are at pains to stress that the choice is hers (Mormons prefer to emphasise individual ‘agency’ over peer pressure), the choice that she makes is one that Ryan’s pro-life activists applaud. ‘There’s a very powerful moment in the moment when one character says that “it” is a baby … and Bella’s decision to keep the baby is a strong message about love and life.’
It’s a message that social conservatives believe is starting to get through. It was recently announced that the US abortion rate had hit an all-time low. And it’s not just fewer pregnancies — more women, once pregnant, are deciding to carry on and have the baby. The shift appears to be cultural. Searching around for explanations, some observers are talking seriously about the effect of Juno, a movie that was released in 2007. It’s the story of a teenage girl who gets pregnant, weighs up the options and, without any moral pressure being placed on her, chooses to have her baby and offer it for adoption. What’s empowering about the movie is its emphasis, again, upon ‘agency’ — making it less negatively anti-abortion than it is positively pro-life. Like Twilight, it asks frank questions about sex and pregnancy and makes some culturally fresh observations: sex can wait and pregnancy isn’t a disaster.
Of course, a couple of movies can’t explain a 20-year decline in the abortion rate, Hollywood is more likely to reflect cultural changes than to precipitate them — and America has no shortage of conservative role models. But there is a case to be made that American teen culture has taken a turn for the puritan. The Jonas Brothers band have pledged virginity until marriage. The TV personality Kourtney Kardashian has spoken about her decision to go on with an unplanned pregnancy. ‘For me, all the reasons why I wouldn’t keep the baby were so selfish,’ she said. And America’s biggest teen ‘power’ couple are the actress Selena Gomez and the squeaky-clean Christian singer Justin Bieber. Until recently, Selena sported a purity ring as a sign of her commitment to virginity. When it disappeared from her finger, speculation was rife that she had failed to live up to Bella’s standards and surrendered to Justin’s mysterious charms. Whatever the truth, Selena was statistically more likely to remain a virgin without a purity ring than with one: a federal study found that teenage girls who wear the rings are actually more prone to getting pregnant than those who don’t.
The complexity of America’s new sexual consensus is reflected in polls that show young people are more liberal than their parents about gay marriage but at least as conservative on abortion. The Twilight generation aren’t freaked out by the concept of ‘difference’ or ‘diversity’ (anyone who lusts after the undead is unlikely to be a bigot), but they might be a little more keen on the idea of monogamy or chivalry than their parents were. Even among the wannabe bloodsuckers, it’s hip to be square.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 29 December 2012