Sunday, December 7, 2008

Romance has rebirth in pop culture

'Twilight' and teen stars take spotlight off sex
By Don Aucoin and Joan Anderman, Globe Staff | December 6, 2008

"Twilight," the vampire romance taking the nation by storm, tells the story of Edward, a smoldering young bloodsucker who falls in love with Bella, his high school science partner. Sexual temptation abounds in the wildly popular book series and movie, but Edward, unlike most of his kind, has been equipped with a moral compass. The eternal teenager is sick with desire, but true love gives him the will to resist, and in bookstores and cineplexes nationwide the message is clear.

Just say no.

A decade after Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera ushered in an era of hypersexualized images and sounds targeted at teens, there is still plenty of raunch in pop culture, but there are also some signs that the tides may be turning.

Eighteen-year-old music phenom Taylor Swift has scaled the charts with narratives that suggest there is more to romance than sex. Swift's former boyfriend Joe Jonas and his siblings in the pop group the Jonas Brothers wear purity rings to signal their vows to remain chaste prior to marriage. Disney franchises like "High School Musical" and "Hannah Montana" peddle wholesomeness as fervently - and profitably - as then-17-year-old Spears begged her boyfriend to "hit me baby one more time."

Of course, going back to the Beatles and before, there has always been room for fresh-faced innocence, or the appearance of it. (Even Spears marketed her wholesomeness once upon a time). Still, the popularity of "Twilight" suggests the trend could have some traction. In both its book and movie form, "Twilight" has been ecstatically embraced by teenage girls.

On Facebook you will find such proclamations as "My boyfriend's not nearly as good as Edward" and "Since I read 'Twilight' I have unrealistic expectations for men." Go to a movie theater, and you will see teenage girls lining up for their second or third viewing (sometimes consecutively). Glance at the laptop, cellphone, or iPod of a teenage girl and you may well see Edward's visage as wallpaper.

Why? Because it turns out that chivalry isn't dead. It's undead. Edward the vampire has installed himself in the hearts of many teenage girls as their romantic ideal, in large part because the way he treats Bella is so different from the behavior of many real-life teenage boys.

"Edward, he wanted to get married before they did anything sexual," Veronica Lopez-Doherty, 13, of Hyde Park, said approvingly. "That's pretty old-fashioned. You want someone who is there for you and wouldn't hurt you. Someone who wouldn't lie to you and would be protective of you. I think he would be a really good boyfriend."

Colleen Fitzgibbons, 14, of Norwell, who has read all four books in the "Twilight" series and has seen the movie twice, heartily concurs. "Most boys are kind of cocky," she said. "They think they're all that, and that you would be lucky to be their girlfriend. Edward, though, is honored to be in Bella's presence. And he goes out of his way to protect her."

Christine Fitzgibbons, Colleen's mother, has witnessed "Twilight" fever at home (where 17-year-old Meghan read all four books in three days) and in the fifth-grade classes she teaches in Norwell. In her view, Edwardmania stems from the fact that "girls have a yearning for a time when they can have a relationship with boys, and that sexual pressure isn't there."

However, the emphasis on chastity in the "Twilight" series raises eyebrows among some observers.

"If they kiss too deeply, he'll destroy her. It really equates desire with death," said Amy Boesky, who teaches English at Boston College and wrote two of the novels in the "Beacon Street Girls" series under the pseudonym Annie Bryant. "I can see why girls find it enthralling, but I also find it troubling."

While Swift's message isn't likely to stir as much controversy as Edward's, she represents a radical departure from the last wave of teen icons, whose seductive looks and lyrics encouraged girls, like all teenagers, impatient to grow up, to hurry it up.

"Abigail gave everything she had to a boy/Who changed his mind/We both cried," Swift confides in "Fifteen."

"She says everything in a fresh, young way that I get," said Laura Distel, a 17-year-old senior at Newton South High School. She said Swift's is the first country album she ever bought. "It's not cliche at all. It's like she's actually being realistic, instead of what people think sounds realistic. Even though the songs are about a specific situation in her life, I can relate to that a lot better than songs that talk about a 'hella fine' boy."

Swift's good looks and catchy hooks are a classic package, but she bucks pop convention with her grounded embrace of adolescence, and her fans are following suit. Swift forums and message boards have become de facto support groups where girls discuss boy troubles, bad teachers, their favorite books, and which of Swift's songs saved them from making a bad choice.

Spoiler alert: By the fourth book in the "Twilight" series, Edward and Bella get married, at age 18 (his actual age, of course, is much older, being a vampire), and have sex on their honeymoon. Bella eventually enters into the world of the undead. "She's chosen not to pursue her own life; she's going to pursue Edward's," Boesky said. "There's something profoundly retrograde about that. Yes, it comes with immortality, but it's Edward's immortality."

Many "Twilight" fans see it differently. They see Bella's journey as one from isolation and uncertainty to self-awareness and empowerment, and - perhaps unconsciously echoing the language that infuses the nascent pop-culture trend toward abstinence of which "Twilight" is a part - they frame it as a matter of choice.

"She wanted to be with Edward, and she knew that the only way she could be with Edward was to be a vampire," said Colleen Fitzgibbons. "It was a choice that she made. And at the end, she is the most powerful character."

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