Monday, December 1, 2008

“I feel very…protective of you”: The Politics of Twilight

Critics and studio execs across the country are currently in shock. A film written and directed by women, based on a bestselling novel by a woman, and largely marketed to and consumed by teenage girls, was the number one movie in America last week. In fact, this movie had the highest-grossing opening weekend for any US film directed by a woman, ever. “Teen girls rule the earth,” Paul Dergarabedian, president of Media by Numbers, told the Associated Press. “The teen girl audience will never be ignored again or underestimated.”

The movie in question is, of course, Twilight, the film adaptation of the first volume of Stephanie Meyer’s popular series of vampire novels. The success of Twilight is certainly a victory for director Catherine Hardwicke (Thirteen), and indeed for all women working in an industry where women directed a mere six percent of the 250 top-grossing films last year.

Twilight
is a hit, hopefully proving once and for all something that should have seemed obvious: girls like movies, too. Unfortunately, the movie that many of them like at this particular moment has some of the worst possible messages to offer young women.

Kristen Stewart, who seems to be a decently talented young actress, plays 17-year-old Bella Swan, a heroine with all the personality of dryer lint. Bella goes to live with her father in perpetually cloudy Forks, Washington when her mother (who the film portrays as nothing but irresponsible and flighty) wants to spend more time traveling around the country with her new baseball-player husband.

For most of the first act of the film, Bella wanders around in a passive stupor, barely opening her mouth as friends and dates find her as if by magic. Yes, I know, she’s the new kid in town, living with a father she barely knows. But the filmmakers miss a vital opportunity to tell us something—anything—about who she is as a person. What are her hobbies? Is she a good student? What classes does she like or loathe? How does she decorate her room? What music does she listen to? What does she do when not in school? She’s a junior—is she thinking about college or a job? What does she want to do with her life?

The film doesn’t get to provide the answer to any of these questions, because from the moment the sparkly, unblinking, pancake-makeuped Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) enters the school cafeteria, Bella has one and only one goal for the rest of the movie (and, indeed, for the rest of the Twilight series.) She and Edward are going to BE TOGETHER FOREVER, and every other ambition be damned. Of course, Edward is a vampire, and even the most milquetoast romance imaginable soon puts her in GRAVE DANGER, but what’s the point of falling in love with a guy if it doesn’t provide ample opportunity for him to save you from danger?

In this arena, Twilight does not disappoint. Bella wanders away from her friends on a shopping trip and within five minutes is in danger of being gang-raped by a pack of drunken guys who apparently hang out behind the local Native American bookstore. Of course, Edward shows up just in time to save her in his product-placement car. In the final action climax, Bella gets to lie helplessly on the floor, writhing in pain from a broken leg and a toxic vampire bite, while the Cullens take care of business.

In between the overwrought action sequences, Edward and Bella embark on a romance that would seem chaste even by the standards of his day. They can’t have sex, Edward explains, because he’s not sure he could control his superior vampire strength in a moment of passion and might hurt her. (Of course, Edward and Bella do have sex later in the series—when she turns eighteen and they get married.) What’s the message here? Hanging out with the undead—even falling in love with them—is fine, but premarital sex can kill you!

If Twilight were just a parable about abstinence (and really, what do you expect from a book written by a Mormon housewife?) it would probably be harmless, if not particularly realistic. Far more insidious, however, are the disturbing undercurrents in the relationship between Edward and Bella, which we’re told is true love.

Edward sneaks into Bella’s room at night and watches her sleep. (The myth of having to invite a vampire in does not apply here.) He does this for months before Bella catches him at it, and when she does, she finds it not creepy but romantic. In fact, she rewards him with their first kiss. Her relationship with Edward takes her away from her friends (they all but vanish from the film once Edward appears) and leads her to lie to her father. In later books, Edward sends his sister to follow Bella around, tries to keep her from talking to particular friends, and even takes the engine out of her car so she can’t leave town.

In any other world, this guy would be a stalker. But in the world of Stephanie Meyer, a borderline-abusive relationship becomes the greatest romance imaginable. He’s doing all this for Bella’s own good, of course, because he’s the only one who knows how to keep her safe. Yes, isn’t that what they all say?

Meyer, and many Twilight fans, dismisses criticism of the series’ gender politics by saying, “It’s just a fantasy.” But a fantasy of what? You can’t dodge the bullet by dismissing something as escapist fantasy when what we’re being invited to escape to is the 1950s. Twilight is the story of an obsessive, all-consuming romance with a controlling, manipulative older guy who’s constantly telling you what’s best for you and admits he’s “nature’s most dangerous predator.” Maybe some people find that romantic, but I find it creepy—and I don’t think it’s something to which any young girl should be taught to aspire.

To be sure, these troubling elements are not the fault of the filmmakers. Hardwicke and screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg have done the best they could with inherently problematic source material.

It takes some real contortions of logic to paint Twilight as anything resembling a feminist film, but Kristin Stewart did try in a recent interview. “Bella wears the pants in the relationship,” she told Film.com reporter Laremy Legel. “It takes a lot of power and strength to subject yourself to someone completely, to give up the power….It’s very courageous what she’s doing.”

Um…yeah. I couldn’t quite follow the logic there, either.

Is the success of Twilight a victory for women in the film industry? Sure. Does it represent the dawning of a new era of gender equity in film, when tons of films made by women, for women, with strong, independent, positive female characters in them will suddenly appear? Sadly, probably not.

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