It’s a presidential election year, and it seems like with one of those comes a cyclical look at the various values and beliefs that we operate under. Moral issues are always big platform points during campaigns because people always know how they feel about things that aren’t actually affecting their lives. Things like taxes and war and education, the things that actually affect all of us, are a lot more complicated and nuanced. It’s much harder to fit all of the possible angles involved in one of those on a bumper sticker than it is to just keep shouting what essentially amounts to stuff like, “I would never have an abortion therefore no one else should either!” It’s a good way of getting people to the polls.
With the issue of same-sex marriage becoming much more prominent this election season, now that couples can marry in six states, expect to hear the words “culture war” a lot more. Members of the religious right see the legalization of same-sex marriage as a sign of our imminent doom as a society and want to prepare their members for life in this new reality. Or something.
A new documentary, Virgin Tales, offers a glimpse into the world of “purity balls,” ceremonies in which evangelical Christian girls commit to remain “pure” and “unsoiled” until their wedding night. The balls have similar elements to other rites of passage, like debutante balls, but with a more specific agenda. The girls make a covenant with their fathers, who swear to protect their purity. Virgin Tales follows the Wilson family, who are credited with inventing the ceremony, as they prepare and execute the last ball that one of their daughters will participate in.
To offer a brief recap of the ball itself, there’s a virginal dance number performed by a group of little girls (it’s not clear whether they are ball participants or not) set to a song about saving yourself for the Lord, then there’s the covenant portion in which both fathers and daughters sign a document agreeing to her purity. The dads also give their daughters a ring as a symbol of their covenant which will presumably be replaced by a wedding ring later on. Then it’s time for the Cha-Cha Slide.
I found it a little…creepy. I mean, there’s obviously a lot of love involved, and there’s plenty of popular wisdom about how a girl’s relationship with her father will affect her relationship with men the rest of her life, so having a strong bond there is great. I’m just irked by the idea of a little girl kind of “marrying” her dad (and Christ) until she marries her husband.
What was kind of refreshing about this documentary compared to others about conservative Christians, is how calm it is. The Wilsons are depicted as a fairly average, upper middle-class American family. Though it is worth noting that Papa Wilson works for the Family Research Council, the folks who have brought you such statements as, “If you look at the American College of Pediatricians, they say the research is overwhelming that homosexuality poses a danger to children.” But I think that their beliefs and activities are presented plainly and respectfully and there’s not much manipulation on the part of the filmmakers. Other documentaries like Jesus Camp are like two-hour long reels of zealots acting completely fucking unmedicated.
We do see some juxtapositions presented in Virgin Tales. The girls have these elaborate, public purity balls while the boys have manhood ceremonies. The boys seem to be older at these ceremonies, while the girls are around 9 and, I would assume, less aware of what they’re getting into. Also, the boys are supposed to remain virgins until marriage as well, but their sexual path is not presented to their community. And while Papa Wilson is in Washington D.C. to strategize lobbies with FRC, older daughter Jordyn is at home teaching a “Purely Woman” etiquette workshop to young girls.
The rhetorical approach that the Wilsons and evangelical Christians take is that girls should not give themselves to men who don’t care about them. And they act like this is some unique perspective. They don’t hold the copyright to this value. Most parents who are not shitheads will tell their kids some version of the same thing. Don’t do anything you’re not ready for. Respect yourself and don’t settle for someone who doesn’t respect you. They also position themselves as moral underdogs. There’s a lot of victim talk, like, “It’s not popular to talk about war and Christianity…” Uh, yeah, because when Christians or any other religious group get that war-boner, things tend to get really, really shitty. They also suggest that practically everyone that they come in contact with will attack them for their purity, which just isn’t true. The only person whose sex life, or lack thereof, has any effect whatsoever on mine is my husband’s.
Screening times and dates aren’t yet available on the film’s website, but it is available to view on YouTube. Check it out and let me know what you think.