Disney, Twilight and Bollywood: Reinforcing the Purity Myth or Fantasy of Safe Sexual Exploration for Young Girls (and Their Mothers)?

by Guest Contributor Neesha Meminger

The other day, I was surfing aimlessly online and happened upon Jessica Valenti’s most recent book, The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession With Virginity is Hurting Young Women. Ms. Valenti is the founder and Executive Editor of Feministing.com.

Here is the first paragraph:

There is a moral panic in America over young women’s sexuality–and it’s entirely misplaced. Girls ‘going wild’ aren’t damaging a generation of women, the myth of sexual purity is. The lie of virginity–the idea that such a thing even exists–is ensuring that young women’s perception of themselves is inextricable from their bodies, and that their ability to be moral actors is absolutely dependent on their sexuality. It’s time to teach our daughters that their ability to be good people depends on their being good people, not on whether or not they’re sexually active.

And then this:

More than 1,400 purity balls, where young girls pledge their virginity to their fathers at a promlike event, were held in 2006 (the balls are federally funded) [Emphasis mine]. Facebook is peppered with purity groups that exist to support girls trying to ‘save it.’…So while young girls are subject to overt sexual messages every day, they’re simultaneously being taught — by the people who are supposed to care for their personal and moral development, no less–that their only real worth is their virginity and ability to remain “pure.”

I thought about these quotes for days after reading them. For one, the fact that purity balls are federally funded, if indeed they are, blew me away (so that–and new sports stadiums–is where all the education and health care money is!). Valenti’s premise kind of made sense when I thought about Bollywood films and the “no kissing” rule — how some of the most successful Bollywood romances are all about sexual longing and tension within the context of safe, non-sexual relationships. And how the concept of safeguarded virginity seems to be a giant moral marker for young girls around the globe. I can’t remember how often I saw a Bollywood film about the men in a family viciously guarding a young woman’s virginity because the honour and reputation of the entire family rested on the moral purity of that young woman. And if, as in some films, she happened to be raped, the only honourable thing left was for her to take her own life.

I compared this to a DVD I recently succumbed to watching–despite my best intentions. I had tried twice to push through the novel, but did not get past the first 30 pages each time. I know that Twilight has been examined and analyzed on this site and others in terms of its racial content, but that was not the reason I was so disturbed by the film. I was prepared for the racial issues since I read various blog entries on that particular topic. What I was not prepared for was how thoroughly the film capitalized on young female sexuality and the concept of innocence, or as Ms. Valenti might refer to it, purity.

Even though Twilight is not the sort of novel I would immediately pick up, the reason I tried to read it, initially, was because I had done a survey with young South Asian teens and almost every single one of the girls was verging on being obsessed with the male protagonist, Edward, and his romance with the female protagonist, Bella.

I thought then that it might be because Twilight is a romance and many teen girls are hooked on that genre (as was I at that age), and that this was evident in the long-lived popularity of Bollywood, as well.

But after seeing it, I have a whole new understanding of why this film has banked as much revenue as it has. And how closely it resembles Bollywood romance films. The success of Bollywood romance films and novels like Twilight are a huge reflection of their consumers’ needs and wants, as well as the accepted social context within which these stories thrive.

Now, this is nothing new — the budding sexuality and innocence of young girls has been exploited historically by media giants like the Disney corporation for years. Disney princesses have been swooning over their prince saviours and waiting for rescue for decades. These are stories little girls grow up reading and hearing at bedtime and many know by heart. (The effects of these on little girls of colour is a topic that deserves its own post.)

Media images bombard little girls with images of objectified women daily. A visit to your local magazine stand reveals walls of scantily clad women on shiny covers — all offering quick fixes for aging, weight gain, wrinkles, and ways to keep one’s man.

On television, there are pop videos with bikini clad young women grinding and gyrating — a dozen at a time against young moneyed men. All these images are available and accessible to young girls everywhere.

My seven-year-old knows the words to the hit, “Get Low” (a.k.a. Apple Bottom Jeans) by Flo Rida, featuring T-Pain. She sings the song around the house on a regular basis — not because we play it at home (which we do not), but because she hears it at school.

Shawty had them Apple Bottom Jeans [Jeans]

Boots with the fur [With the fur]

The whole club was lookin at her

She hit the flo [She hit the flo]

Next thing you know

Shawty got low low low low low low low low . . .

Work the pole, I got the bank roll

Imma say that I prefer them no clothes

I’m into that, I love women exposed

When I hear these words coming out of the mouth of my seven-year-old, I am distressed beyond words. It is too early. Not that these words wouldn’t be distressing at ANY age, but seven is TOO. EARLY. We have no cable in our home and we do not play music with overtly sexual themes. There are no music videos playing in our home, and there are no magazines with scantily clad women on the covers, draping themselves around well-dressed men flaunting cash.

But, still, I cannot protect my daughter. Whether she knows the meaning of the words or not, they fall easily from her mouth and she knows that her friends at school do the “booty dance” to the beat. She knows that big boys like girls who do that booty dance. And she idolizes the big girls — wants to be like them.

Pair this with the Disney fantasies of rescue by a man, followed by true, everlasting love based on nothing more than a glance, and you have a whole generation of young girls who understand without even being aware of it, that their value is in their physical bodies. A whole generation of young girls who have not had a chance to explore their sexuality gradually, safely, playfully, and above all, innocently.

Enter Twilight. Enter Edward Cullen, the indestructible, all-powerful anti-hero who wants, more than anything else, to protect Bella. In the film version of the novel, images of Bella in danger are juxtaposed with images of a fawn being chased by its predator.

Edward Cullen is morally superior. His is the universal, colossal battle of mastering the beast within. What makes us as a species, different from the animals around us is the fact that we have the capacity to rise above our animal natures. And with Bella, Edward’s struggle meets the ultimate test.

Initially, Edward is only attracted to Bella because of her physicality: her smell. This then turns into an inexplicable urge to protect her. So, in this relationship, Bella is safe, protected fiercely, cherished, and her innocence is allowed free roam. She is a child on the cusp of womanhood, exploring her sexuality, her sensuality, her womanchild-ness.

Edward cherishes her fragility and innocence, even as it causes him great pain. At the expense of his own basic, animal hunger, he offers her a safe place to explore her budding sexuality.

And this is key: their relationship can never become sexual. Even a simple kiss requires Herculean effort and self-restraint on Edward’s part. If they were to go “too far,” Edward could lose self control and consume the very innocence he cherishes in Bella. He could kill her.

The final scene, with Edward lifting Bella onto his feet and dancing under the lights of the gazebo at her prom, is the ultimate little-girl-in-daddy’s-arms fantasy — safe, protected, cherished…still innocent. And if we take it a step further based on Valenti’s quote above, still “pure.”

In a world where little girls are bombarded with images of sexuality before they lose all of their baby teeth, that rare place of safety where innocence and wonder are alive is more than enticing. It is an intense need that never gets met. And it is a need that stays alive with yearning, with longing, well into womanhood.

Teen girls especially, on the cusp of womanhood, who have grown past the Cinderella stories (but not the need for them) are looking for a space to explore their burgeoning, often overwhelming sexuality — and Edward Cullen, Bollywood films, and romance novels, provide just that space and that escape.

Purity balls, on the other hand, treat a young girl’s virginity like a prized and fragile crystal ornament that needs protection and safeguarding — much like Bella needs protection and safeguarding from the vampires and wolves who would consume her.

Stephanie Meyer has capitalized on the one niche that Disney and women’s romance novels left open: the hunger for teen girls (and their mothers) for a safe place to explore the wonder and excitement of their own sexuality.

Mature (and by this, I am not referring to age, but personal emotional and spiritual evolution) adults see sexuality as a connected and spiritual part of a whole. There is no requirement that makes it necessary for men to view sexuality through a mature, adult lens. On the contrary; men all over the world have easy access to prostitution, porn magazines and videos, strip clubs, and the constant validation of objectified, dismembered images of women’s bodies in mainstream media. This renders Edward’s protection and adoration not only swoon-worthy, but an absolute craving–verging on obsession–for women, young and old alike.

And until things change in our world, the kind of safe, protected, innocent spaces that Disney and Edward Cullen provide will remain myths and fantasies that earn the creators — Walt Disney, Stephanie Meyer, et al — many joyful trips to the bank. And phenomenon like purity balls will not only continue to exist, but will be upheld and staunchly defended by those they most subjugate.