I watched a lot of Buffy the Vampire Slayer during my last semester in college. I wanted to decompress after classes, and I deemed it to be the best thing on television one afternoon around 2 o’clock. That was it. I used to make fun of people who watched that show, too. It just so happens that Joss Whedon is a very good storyteller.
Buffy is not the only vampire story I’ve liked, though. I was enmeshed in the Twilight series earlier this year; I read all four books in about three weeks. On the one hand, I like a good plot. On the other, I eschew pretty much all things scary. I’ve decided that I can stomach vampires because they have super powers and are surrounded in mystery. It’s the same reason I enjoy comics so much: Supernatural powers + mythological saga = Lloyd is hooked.
Given my Buffy and Twilight affinity, it’s not surprising that this article, written by self-described feminist Latoya Peterson, grabbed my attention. If I am understanding correctly, her premise is that recent vampire lore fails to exhibit feminist values and actually retards the liberation of women, as it were. She sees a trend in which women are relegated to a weak position: they are the object of violence and in need of protection. She believes that, compared to newer implementations, Buffy is more faithful to true feminist ideals. I’m not going to spend any time criticizing Ms. Peterson’s understanding of Buffy or Twilight (it seems a good number of people have already done so in the comments), nor am I going to try to judge this application of feminism (I’m unqualified to do so). What I will do is contend that followers of Jesus can learn something from the argument presented in her column.
In case you haven’t read the article, let me present a few quotes (links have been removed):
The latest wave of novels and series … reflect our culture’s deep ambivalence about women’s sexuality and our obsession with glorifying chastity and sexual violence.
Stephanie Meyer … has been criticized for emphasizing chastity in the story arc between Bella Swan and Edward Cullen. Quite often, their scenes together felt like an extended tease … Alan Ball, the creator of True Blood, may have more progressive politics than Meyer … But, from a feminist perspective, he is still transmitting the same idea: To be desired, a woman should be beautiful, virginal, and submissive.
In Buffy, there is also a slight whiff of the virginity good/sex bad dynamic. … Buffy’s approach to sex is remarkably third wave. After a relatively celibate Season Three, Buffy proceeds to sleep with three more men (two human, one vampire) before the series closes. … This attitude toward sex also extends to the rest of the cast … most of the characters, after the initial awkwardness of adolescence, go on to have healthy and varied sex lives with a variety of other partners.
When I first read this, my initial response was heavily critical. Peterson’s view presupposes that extra-marital sex is not a moral problem; she vilifies media she perceives as “glorifying chastity.” From a christian perspective, chastity is an asset to be desired — an ideal to be encouraged. The concept that celibacy results from awkward feelings or that it hinders a “healthy” lifestyle is clearly contrary to the assertions of scripture. It’s very easy to focus on these warring philosophies and miss the common ground. If we look closer, however, we will see that both camps act from a thirst for what is just and a disdain for what is counterfeit.
A Double Standard
We have to remember that Peterson writes from a feminist perspective; she is concerned about how media and literature influence social perceptions and expectations of women. She specifically complains that the modern vampire sagas promote a notion that women should be chaste and subject to a man’s protection (or lack thereof). Inherent in that complaint is the recognition that men are not subject to the same expectations. Can anyone claim that such a double standard does not exist? It is an ancient injustice that continues to find traction today. Followers of Jesus should deplore this double standard more than anyone.
I’d like to examine the Hebrew narrative of Tamar and Amnon. Even though it was forbidden for kings, David had many wives. Tamar and Amnon were half sister and brother, both children of David by different mothers. Amnon actually fell in love with his sister, but because of the familial relation, he could do nothing about it. He became so obsessed that he was nigh physically ill. On the advice of an evil friend, Amnon tricked Tamar into being alone with him. Then, he made his sexual intentions clear. Tamar begged for him to reconsider, and even suggested that he ask David to let them marry. It’s hard to tell if she honestly thought they might marry, or if she was just desperate for a way out of the immediate situation. Either way, Amnon did not listen; he raped her. Of course, this is plenty of injustice for one story, but it actually gets worse. After the rape, the scripture says, “Then Amnon hated her with intense hatred. In fact, he hated her more than he had loved her. Amnon said to her, ‘Get up and get out!’ “ In the end, Tamar goes to live with her full brother, Absalom, as “a desolate woman.” That is the last we hear of her.
If there is a more apt display of this double standard that includes both sexual violence and the degradation of a woman due to her sexual status, I don’t know what it is. The point I want to make abundantly clear is this: Scripture never condones any part of this situation. Clearly, the reader is intended to react with disgust at Amnon’s actions and to mourn the travesty to which Tamar is subjected. We are told that David is made aware of the rape and is angry, but apparently he does not punish Amnon. Amnon is eventually killed by Absalom, but it appears that Absalom’s actions are politically motivated. Worse still, Absalom may have even helped plan Tamar’s rape in the first place. In the end, Tamar is never afforded true justice, and all parties involved (including David) suffer. Scripture does not condone Amnon’s actions, nor Absalom’s, nor David’s. Instead, we are shown exactly what can happen when God’s laws are subverted: there is only disaster.
The sexual double standard survives in our own culture, despite advances in feminist thinking. A number of comedic movie plots revolve around a young man’s quest to lose his virginity. Virginal men are viewed as weak, inept, and unattractive to the opposite sex. After all, why else would they choose to remain celibate? On the other hand, men who engage in sex with multiple partners are viewed as desirable, adventurous, and more masculine in general. Conversely, women who have sex with multiple partners are viewed as immoral, self-debasing, and undesirable as a mate. In a perversion of logic, women who are chaste find themselves equally accosted as prudish or non-affectionate. In this scenario, men are encouraged to pursue sexual pleasure while women are relegated to the untenable station of being judged no matter what they do. It is no wonder, then, that feminists (and anyone else who cares for justice) would reject these terms.
Unfortunately, this is not the only sexual double standard that exists. Some followers of Jesus have allowed an even less equitable arrangement to survive over the years. What else can we call it when homosexual practices are attacked as immoral, but a blind eye is turned to premarital heterosexual activity? Surely it is unethical to apply God’s standards to one group of people while failing to do so with another. If that injustice is allowed to continue, we can be sure that very few among those who do not follow Jesus will ever be persuaded to start.
In both cases, we would do well to follow consider the thoughts of Jesus: Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when you yourself fail to see the plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.
Let us not miss the main point here; Jesus is not saying that we should all walk around with sawdust and planks in our eyes. That would be ill-advised. So what, exactly, is He saying?
It isn’t really rocket science; both sawdust and planks make it impossible to see clearly. We need to cleanse our eyes. It is not wrong to help a fellow believer clear their vision if they are stumbling (sexually, or otherwise); we simply need to make sure our own is clear before we get out the tweezers.
The truth about sex is that God designed it for our benefit. Whether one believes in God or not, and irrespective of gender, the plan attributed to Him in scripture still works best. It was devised to be shared between a husband and wife, exclusively. When we engage in it any other way, we miss out on the full benefit that God intends.
An Impossible Battle
Nonetheless, even those who submit fully to scriptural teaching about sex find it difficult to wait. Remember Peterson’s Twilight observation? “Quite often, their scenes together felt like an extended tease.” I have to agree with her… that can’t be right. Surely God is not interested in seeing us suffer while we fight against the desires He established in our bodies? Yet, almost every christian dating couple I know struggles with maintaining chastity before marriage. Is God just setting us up for failure? I don’t think so.
Secular thought tells us that the solution is for everyone to satiate their sexual desires as they please. However, followers of Jesus are not free to pursue that course; it is incompatible with biblical teaching. So how can we date and have limited physical contact without wanting to consummate the relationship?
Part of the difficulty arises from facets of our contemporary culture. Humans usually reach sexual maturity around our early to mid teen years. Despite this fact, in most states we are not even allowed to marry on our own cognizance until age 18. Even then, the average age of first marriage for men in the U.S. is 27.7, with women marrying slightly earlier at 25.6. That means most followers of Jesus in the U.S. are dealing with a decade of sexual maturity before they are able to consummate in a chaste way.
Christians have also taken secular dating norms and attempted to merge them with a christian lifestyle. Simply put, it is nearly impossible to abstain from sexual activity if one is constantly engaging in what is normally considered foreplay.
The solution is not to adopt unscriptural sexual values, but rather to effect practical standards by which we can live out true chastity. First, we may need to consider whether we want to discourage marriage at a relatively young age. As Paul said, it is better to marry than to burn with passion. I think many concerned parents have opted to encourage later marrying ages to ensure financial and emotional stability, with the tacit understanding that chastity is difficult or impossible. Perhaps we need to reconsider our priorities as we raise new generations of believers. Second, we need to assess why we’ve embraced our culture’s dating standards. The simple fact is that foreplay without consummation amounts to an “extended tease.” We should be able to agree that this is not good.
A Look in the Mirror
One characteristic of the newer vampire series is a habitual deviation from traditional vampire lore. For instance, vampires in Twilight and True Blood cast reflections in mirrors, but those in the Buffyverse do not. In yet another unlikely convergence with Ms. Peterson, I like Buffy’s world the best. I like the idea that soulless, parasitic creatures cannot see their own reflection. If that is true, then creatures with souls who spread life, rather than take it, must surely see a reflection when they look in the mirror.
As followers of Christ, it is high time we take a look, ourselves. If the mirror we need comes in the form of someone with whom we do not fully agree, then all the better. We cannot refuse to learn from what is reflected back at us. Perhaps by making the necessary adjustments and cleaning up our act, we will better match the image God desires for us in the first place. Perhaps that image will be more appealing than the counterfeit version that some non-christian thinkers have seen.
We can refuse to look at the mirror at all, or choose to see nothing when we do. If that is our choice, we may have more in common with the vampires than we think.