Friday, November 20, 2009

Abstinence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

There has been too little about sex lately in this blog and I'm in danger of having to change it's name. So I'll write today about "The Twilight Saga: New Moon" in which sex, although absent, is the elephant in the movie.

The second installment of the film franchise of Stephenie Meyer's long-running book series about vampires, teenagers and werewolves has been heavily promoted in Bangkok. Posters and cardboard more-than-life-size cutouts of the protagonists are everywhere and dozens of companies are co-promoting the film (the Red Cross is noticeably absent from the list). Thais love movies with ghosts and buckets of blood so the "Twilight" series (Meyers has written four books so far) is a natural here. I'm attracted by blockbuster films. How else can one understand modern culture? A week ago it was the end of the world as we know it in "2012," and last night Nan and I attended the opening night of "New Moon" (since our time zone is ahead of most of the world, we were among the first anywhere to see the film). All Thai cinemas have reserved seating, and we bought our tickets early. The audience was packed with a certain demographic that I was not in, but we snuggled under a blanket (theaters here keep the temperature set on frigid) and suspended our disbelief.

The plot was simple: Normal teen girl loves vampire boy who responds in kind but leaves town fearing he (or a relative) might suck her blood (despite her fervent desire to let him "change" her). Broken-hearted and depressed girl is consoled by her hunky best friend who reveals he is a werewolf. After a few plot twists (i.e., an allusion to Romeo and Juliet that requires a quick trip to Italy), the unholy love triangle is resolved, sort of.
Edward: You just don't belong in my world, Bella.
Bella: I belong with you.

Jacob: Have you ever had a secret you couldn't tell anyone?
The critics, of course, do not fall for this stuff. Jacob's secrets, according to Manohla Dargis in the New York Times, "soon emerge, first in the form of some massive biceps. My, what big muscles you have, Bella tells him, nicely exposing her inner wolf." But she doesn't go to first base with either monster. The problem, already evident in the first movie, "is that a vampire who doesn’t ravish young virgins or at least scarily nuzzle their flesh isn’t much of a vampire or much of an interesting character." Unconsummated relations -- even kissing is a no-no in Meyer's books -- do not make good drama. "Chastity is only hot, after all, when it seems like it actually might be violated," writes Dargis. Mick LaSalle hated the movie a little less in the San Francisco Chronicle. "It feels like missing the point to talk about 'The Twilight Saga: New Moon' as a movie. This is a pop culture phenomenon, some weird early 21st century aberration, our equivalent of the hula hoop or dancing the Charleston on a biplane's wing." It's great that there's a movie that makes girls scream, writes LaSalle, since there are so many designed to make teenage boys scream. (Director Chris Weitz was producer and co-director of "American Pie.") LaSalle sees Edward, played by Robert Pattinson, as a young James Dean in whiteface who can't kiss Bella (Kristen Stewart) "without moaning and turning colors, because if he loses control he might open up one of her veins. Edward has been a teenager for almost a hundred years, and he's still no good at it. " Michael Phillips from the Chicago Tribune believes "New Moon," which he calls “Twilight: The Squeakquel,” is better than the overwrought book, unlike film versions of Dan Brown's religious thrillers, "the only two movies ever made with less sex than the first two 'Twilight' films." Phillips situates the plot in the high school setting where it belongs.
Torn between two hunky supernatural theoretical boyfriends and feeling like an emo fool, Bella and “New Moon” wrestle with all sorts of metaphoric issues. Vampirism and werewolfery are just two more high school cliques to navigate. Guys with anger management trouble, hormonal urges that cannot be satisfied, a succession of pristinely objectified boys — no wonder there are a few female teenage fans.
What can I add to the exhaustive analysis of the above? According to Phillips, Meyer's thesis in her tremendously successful books is “No Sex! Ever! Or You’ll DIE!” (Disclaimer: I've not read any of Meyer's books and am relying on the jaundiced view of others). If it weren't for the subtext of vampires and werewolves, this message of abstinence could be embraced by the conservative family values movement in America, not to mention the Roman Catholic Church which prefers to preach no sex before marriage over the use of condoms. In the two films I've seen, the Cullen family of vampires are sophisticates who live in a luxuriously modern house and listen to classical music. The werewolves, on the other hand, come from the Quileut tribe of Native Americans and and run around outdoors, shoeless and shirtless (Philips suggests the film could be called “Abs in the Rain"). Is there the undercurrent of a class or racial distinction here? Jacob's father, the chief, is in a wheel chair in the first film. Is this a commentary on the plight of native people? Desire, in Meyer's universe, is the hunger for blood; the outcome is a kind of death and the incorporation of the "changed" into the vampire community. And you couldn't find nicer neighbors than the Cullens, who've signed a treaty with their traditional enemies, the werewolves (I don't recall this from the old Bela Legosi movies) and promised to only suck the remaining blood from road kills. It's the "bad" vampires from outside who are killing all the hikers and hunters in the hills. Dad Cullen is even a doctor because he wanted to do good. This is a revisionist reading of the old horror standby if I've ever heard one.

Speaking of sex and the Catholic Church, the American bishops are putting their obsession with sex ahead of their mission to the sick and poor, according to Adele M. Stan in AlterNet. During their "week of shame," the bishops "proclaimed themselves willing to see health-care denied to millions of uninsured Americans, and to yank the social-service rug out from under the feet of tens of thousands of urban poor in the nation's capital." According to Stan, the bishops refused to bless a compromise on the health care reform bill and strong-armed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi into adding the Stupek amendment which prohibits federally-funded abortions to the House bill which passed (at present, the Senate bill does not contain this language). In addition, "the church threatened to sever its social service contracts with the District of Columbia if the city council of Washington, D.C., passes a measure legalizing same-sex marriage -- a move that would throw services to 68,000 of the poorest and most vulnerable citizens of the nation's capital into chaos." Frances Kissling, the Catholic feminist activist, said that these events demonstrated the church's "willingness to just be a bully."

It's ironic that the Church has appointed itself moral arbiter in the realm of sexuality, writes Stan. "As an institution, it ranks among the world's most sexually dysfunctional. Its demands for life-long celibacy from its priests and nuns attract no small number people who are uncomfortable with their own sexuality -- be it something as benign and normal as homosexuality, or something criminal and predatory, as in the case of the priests who preyed on minors." Stan argues that the Church has long excluded women from the priesthood for no reason other than their sex, and that its claim to defend the fetus or the priest or the original intention of Christ are part of "a dynamic that feeds the misogyny of the church's all-male leadership."

The long struggle for gender equality in the Roman Catholic Chuch is now echoed in the Buddhist community where a decision by Ajahn Brahm to ordain four nuns in Australia last month has divided those who follow the Theravada tradition. Ajahn Braham's monastery was expelled from the Thai Forest Sangha and many leading western monks are supporting the rule in Thailand which forbids women to ordain as nuns because the practice died out years ago and requires labyrinthine doctrinal decisions to reinstate. Pandit Bhikku has written a very measured response in his Little Bang Sangha web site which supports ordination of women in general but laments the secrecy of Ajahn Brahm's action. An overview of bhikkhuni ordination is provided by Dhammalight. On there is a good discussion of community healing. Sanitsuda Ekachai has written two insightful columns about the controversy over ordination in the Bangkok Post, here and here. And Absolutely posted a very moving article by a Bangkok woman named Chdarat on how "gender inequality has blighted the Western perception of Thai Theravada Buddhism."

But to move back from gender to sex, the socialist government of Extremadura, an autonomous region in western Spain whose capital is Mérida, is "tackling masturbation hands on" by launching a major program to help children in their "discover of self-pleasure." According to a report in the London Guardian, "Pleasure is in your own hands" is the slogan of a campaign aimed at teens 14-17 that has sparked political controversy and challenged traditional Roman Catholic views on sex. The government will spend €14,000 on leaflets, flyers, a "fanzine" and workshops for the young in which they receive instruction on self-pleasuring techniques along with advice on contraception and self-respect. The plan has scandalized not a few. "This is an intimate subject that should be dealt with at home," complained local opposition leader Hernández Carrón of the rightwing People's party. "We have become the laughing stock of Spain." The conservative Confederation of Fathers and Mothers of Schoolchildren charged, "They are interfering with the right of parents to educate their own children about a matter as important as their sexuality." In America and many other countries, the effort to teach "sexual self-exploration" to under-18s would be dubbed child porn and all of the adults behind it arrested.

Finally, it's a little know fact (except to those concerned) that Thailand has become the world center of penis reattachment surgery. Penis hacking, according to a story that has gone the rounds of the internet, is a peculiarly Thai form of sexual violence. I can attest to this only from the stories that regularly appear in the Bangkok English language newspapers. And a number of Thai women have confirmed to me that cheating lovers deserve nothing less (said with a knowing roll of the eyes). The reporter interviewed a surgeon in Bangkok who reattached his first phallus in 1978 and who has stitched back many a male member for grateful patients."Doctors and psychologists blame the attacks on a mix of Thailand's tradition of polygamy, which was banned about 100 years ago but still persists, and the fact that the phallus is revered as a symbol of power and fertility." Women, however, are learning how to prevent recovery and reattachment, and have fed the member to ducks, flushed it down the toilet, boiled it, and even attached it to a hot air balloon in one case. The surgeon provided some advice to potential victims: "If you have a mistress they (wives) will get mad and cut it any time, so make her very happy, always carry a thermos to put it in and keep the name of a good doctor close by," he said.

Nan has assured me that this could never happen, so long as I tell the truth to her. But that does not necessarily make me feel secure. Recently we had our first real upset after I left the computer on and she read some of my emails to an ex-girlfriend. When our relationship was still new, Nan had left to take care of her father who was dying and I had no idea when or if she would return. So I succumbed to temptation. After she came back to live with me following her father's funeral, I was not exactly truthful when she asked what I had done in her absence. It took a couple of days, but the storms of jealousy passed. I pointed out to her that reading your lover's emails is not a good way to build trust. Now that the past is put away, I keep an eye on the knives in the kitchen and make sure she has nothing to worry about or fear.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

nice post. thanks.