13 August 2009

Teen Angst

He vants to bite your neck.
Ringwald and Schoeffling in Hughes’
Sixteen Candles

My reading of Stephenie Meyer’s young-adult novel Twilight coincides with the death of film director John Hughes, and follows hot on the heels of my high-school reunion, which I didn’t attend. There’s a connection here, I realize: teen angst is at the heart of Meyer’s book, Hughes’ films, and my high-school experience.

Twilight turns out to be better than I’d expected, but the truth is, I didn’t expect much at all, and was so embarrassed to be reading it* that I didn’t even take it out of my bag on the bus back from Cooperstown. The narrative starts with deceptive slowness and a minute interest in banal detail that one can easily mistake (as I did) for inadvertent mediocre writing. Instead, it’s intentionally mediocre. Meyer is constructing what will be the book’s greatest strength: the thudding ordinariness of a physically clumsy, socially awkward, bright, sarcastic, completely ordinary adolescent girl, Bella. We need that set-up in order to follow the plot, which is mostly a dramatization (though I use that term loosely) of the girl’s most tortured inner monologues. Does the cutest boy in school hate me? Does he like me? Why does he like me — why would anyone like me? Will we go all the way? How will we go all the way?

Sam, the girl played by Molly Ringwald in Hughes’ Sixteen Candles, is prey to all the same anxieties.

Bella (Kristen Stewart) and Edward (Robert Pattinson),
in the film adaptation of

Meyer goes on about Bella’s angst for rather longer than I really needed to read, but she’s hit on the means to keep it interesting to the general audience. Vampires are often used to express sexual anxieties, and Meyer is pretty adroit at adapting the conventions to her high-school setting. Is it natural for him to want me like this? What if he bites/screws me? Will it hurt? Will I die/get pregnant? Or will I become a vampire/sexual being, too — will I become a creature of the night/grownup? The questions that Bella poses Edward, for page after page after page, about what it means to be a vampire are probably not far from the questions that most teenage girls would like to ask a boy. Most are questions that Sam wants to ask Jake (Michael Schoeffling), but can’t.

Edward answers Bella by telling her all those things a girl must want to hear from the cutest boy in school: endless variations on a theme of “You don’t know how beautiful, how special you are.” Most girls get this kind of reassurance only from older family members such as Dear Old Dad (Paul Dooley dispenses it, in one of the best scenes in Sixteen Candles), and in this context it’s worth pointing out that Edward is eight decades years older than Bella, closer to her great-grandmother’s age than to her own. Edward’s a dirty old man in an immortally hunky teenage body.

Yet he isn’t a child molester. He’s sensuous without being sexual: he touches Bella’s face a lot but seldom kisses her, and he goes on at length about how good she smells. He draws the line at doing the nasty — because he fears that in his passion he might hurt her. This is something that very few teenage boys worry about, I think, though many teenage girls do, and probably one reason the book and its sequels have found such a wide audience among girls and women. Edward is the ideal boyfriend, mostly.

He reminds me in this respect of Vincent, the crime-fighting, tunnel-dwelling, leonine hero of the TV show Beauty and the Beast, similarly incapable of fulfilling his desire for his lady love but perfectly willing to blab on for hours about his feelings, in a way that no real human male ever would. A lot of spinsters developed elaborate fantasies about Vincent, wrote them down and mailed them to CBS, when I worked there. I haven’t fully recovered from reading those letters.

Men! They’re animals!
A grownup variation — old enough to shave, anyway.
Catherine (Linda Hamilton) and Vincent (Ron Perlman),
Beauty and the Beast

But I haven’t fully recovered from adolescence, either. The long years of wondering how others viewed me, who I really was, what sex was, and what my feelings meant: riper fodder perhaps for a horror story than for a knockabout comedy like those of John Hughes. In some ways, I’m grateful for much of my adolescent experience. The quality of my education was, in retrospect, superior, and so were a handful of friends, to whom I still turn for solace from the hardships of life. But would I live through it again — much less live it endlessly, as poor immortal Edward Cullen must?

No damn way.

In the words of Maurice Chevalier (and Alan Jay Lerner),
“I’m glad I’m not young anymore.”

*NOTE: I had my reasons for reading Twilight, and some day, if we’re all lucky, I’ll share them with you.

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