Sunday, November 23, 2008

Yes, Twilight is sexist, but it's also female escapism.

This will be an essay regarding the alleged political and social undercurrents of the first Twilight movie (for a normal review, go here), and how whether it matters in judging the film. For the record, I have not read the books and I know very little about what happens in the later stories. I will be only taking stock of the content of the first film. I will be dealing with (alleged) symbolic as well as literal interpretations of onscreen events.

Taken as a movie and taken at face value, Twilight is simply a romantic drama involving a young girl and a brooding but handsome vampire (who looks and acts her age, but is actually nearly 100 years old). Like any worldwide phenomenon, the original books (and thus this first movie) have been dissected by the page. Most of the criticisms are in the vein of ‘it’s sexist’ or ‘it’s anti-feminist’, or ‘it celebrates the oppressive patriarchy’. Do these charges apply purely to the first movie? And if they do, is it intentional, or merely an inevitable byproduct of the story that the author and filmmakers wanted to tell?

Much has been made of the author Stephanie Meyer’s Mormon religious leanings, but the movie’s symbolism is generic enough to apply to many religious or cultural dogmas, since all too many of them treat sexuality, especially female sexuality, as something dangerous and to be kept locked up. Bella’s inherent desire to ‘be’ with Edward at all costs, as well as Edward’s constant attempts to brush her away, have disturbing implications, since it is the girl’s (metaphorical) sexual awakening that leads Edward to place her family and his family in jeopardy. One could argue that this is simply a double standard, that far more films treat the male as the aggressor and the female as the one who must ward off his advances. Why should we decry a movie that simply reverses the formula? The issue is the fact that, although Bella is the aggressor, it is still Edward who presents the danger. Thus we have a situation of Edward being dangerous to Bella, yet the primary responsibility to prevent that danger falls in Bella’s hands, not Edward’s.

Further muddying the waters is the fact that the ‘danger’ that does present itself is not from Edward, but from a third party threat from a different vampire. James is presented in the film as a standard variety psychopath, who just happens to be a vampire. If the story did not involve the supernatural, would Bella really be seen as responsible for drawing the prurient interest of (for example) Edward’s old college buddy who happens to be a rape-minded murderer? While most of the movie treats vampirism as a metaphor for consensual sex, the climax does revert back to the vampirism equals rape metaphor that usually exists in such fiction. Thus we are dangerously close to having a film where Bella’s romantic advances toward Edward are seen as responsible for a third party taking an interest in (metaphorically) raping and (literally) killing her.

The problem, and the key to understanding why the story is offensive to some people, is that the core of the romantic drama revolves around two contradictory and troubling connotations. On one hand, Edward keeps telling Bella that he cannot control himself around her, that she is putting herself in danger. Thus the sexual wiles of Bella is endangering all around her, because Edward may or may not be able to control his own lethal desires. But, wait, he is also protective of her, and the movie seems to imply (by her constant run-ins with lethal danger from outside forces) that she cannot take care of herself and must be guarded and watched at all times. Edward states both of these notions outright during the course of the movie.

There are two main classic cultural myths of females, two false assumptions that have been used as the definitive excuses to subjugate and disenfranchise women for centuries in all manner of societies. The first is that women are devious and reckless creatures who tempt men who can’t control themselves. As a result of these fiendish seducers, the weak but noble men do all manner of vice and corruption, deeds that without the temptation of the women they would not have even considered. But, wait, they are also weak-willed and emotionally fragile creatures that cannot care for themselves and must be protected from peril and shielded from emotional complication (‘the fairer sex’). Whether accidentally or intentionally, Twilight revolves around both stereotypes.

Ok, so assuming that the narrative of Twilight is sexist and does play into classic myths that have excused female domination, does that make the film sexist, or merely the very sort of fantasy that it wants to be? As I discussed a few months back (when discussing Sex & The City: The Movie), the core elements of female fantasy is the idea of shirking responsibility, throwing caution to the wind, and living out all of your selfish desires without major consequences. Comparatively, the male escapist fantasy involves immature boys who man up just a little bit, take responsibility, and use their talents to save lives, make a difference, and win the girl without having to make any true concessions to their character and personality).

In this archetypal female fantasy, the shy girl moves to a new school, completely unaware of how intelligent and attractive she is (for all the hubbub about how ‘dreamy’ Pattinson’s Edward is, Kristen Stewart’s Bella isn’t exactly Dawn Weiner* either). Without even trying, she gets hit on by every boy in the school (and, in one creepy scene, her father’s much older friend) and manages to draw the attention of the school hunk with absolutely no effort. He ignores everyone else in the school, but he takes a shining to her immediately. When the danger of this forbidden romance is exposed, Bella chooses puppy love over the safety of Edward’s family and her own family and pays no price for it (in fact, she gets to keep Edward and her friends and family). And, let’s not forget, part of the point of fantasy is to indulge in that which is not (or, sometimes, what shouldn’t be so).

In Twilight, the target demographic of young women gets to spend two hours in a prototypical female escape fantasy, and they can also make a choice to ignore the sociological undercurrents. They can choose to revel in the fairy tale stereotypes, and even play around with the female culture myths if they so choose**. Maybe the irony is that the female escapism genre involves allowing women to give into their most selfish possible instincts, while male escapism involves men ignoring their base instincts and striving to be better people in situations of great consequence. Actually, if you take the gender politics of Twilight and view them as a pure fantasy, then it actually makes the very real women who view the film look pretty good.

Scott Mendelson

* For the record, I am referencing the character of Dawn Weiner from Welcome To The Dollhouse, not the actress Heather Matarazzo, a talented and lovely actress who deserves much better work than ‘naked tortured chick’ in Hostel 2.

** Frankly, I was far more disturbed by Enchanted, which aimed its anti-feminist fairy-tale foolishness at a demographic far too young to separate the fantasy from the gender politics underneath the surface.

6 comments:

Nick said...

The blatant sexism of Twilight comes moreso in books 2 and 3 than the first book. Bella becomes so dependent on Edward that she can't function without him constantly being there, which leads to endless and endless amounts of (JUST KILL YOURSELF ALREADY) whining for the majority of the second book. Bella goes from being a somewhat intelligent and witty girl in the first book to a helpless, whiny girl after that. She's spoiled, completely and utterly selfish, damsel-in-distress, co-dependent, (for all intents and purposes, speaking metaphorically) drug-addicted, overly stubborn, a user, and--to top it all off--incredibly, incredibly superficial. And not only is she all of that, but she never overcomes it throughout the entire series. She stays this horrible, terrible role model for teen girls everywhere.

What makes me sick about the series is that so many people (read: teenage girls) look at this series like the bible of relationships and how to act. And if they think that acting like Bella and going after guys like Edward is the way to go in life... this series has done a major disservice.

That being said, I still enjoy the series from time to time :P . But I know better.

Missy said...

I had a hard time making it through the first book. The film looks as crappy as the novel.

Anonymous said...

Once again people are spending way too much time overanalyzing things. Why can't we just go to the movies to have a good time?

LIGHTEN UP PEOPLE!

A said...

people are NOT spending too much time OVERanalyzing, this is what novels are there for, to be analyzed and broken down to be understood. And as a matter of fact I did go to the movies and just enjoy myself. I didn't really pick up on that much sexism at first, just the whole damsel in distress thing, Bella becoming dependent on Edward and not being able to move much when he was to close to her in case he would kill her.. etc.. in an either 'he'll make love with her or kill her' kind of way. I didn't think that much more about the content of the movie...
...until I started to read the books. have just read 1 & 2 and am very shocked at the blatant sexist and religious undertones.
Bella becomes so pathetic in the 2nd book and can't even function without the strong man to hold her up. It isn't until Jacob, also a very strong & potentially 'dangerous' man (boy becoming man) that Bella is able to fill the void in her and function semi normally. Not to say she can save herself. She can't save herself to hell. By the end of the book she is surrounded by men who are controlling her life, unable to hardly even walk straight without falling over, so pathetically weak that all these strong men in her life are the only things keeping her alive.
She is a VERY bad role model for young girls. It is horrible that the men around her have such control over her that she can't even do anything for herself.
This book is more about the backwards roles of men and women than it is about love. The series doesn't do itself justice by making comparisons with romeo and juliet.
I liked Bella at first, she was cool and independent and able to make life changing decisions for herself. Then she changed into an obsessive, whiney girl who cant do anything but follow Edward around like a lost puppy who is able to be crushed at any moment.
She fulfills the role model of a 'woman' by cooking and cleaning for her father who cannot even cook after 17 years of being on his own. There are hardly any positive female role models in this book except for Alice, (who is actually considered to be loopy). Her mother is flighty, and instead stick around and fulfill her duties and look after her husband, she leaves him to live a life of her own, which is not once spoken of positively, just with shaken heads and 'tut-tuts', for the man she abandoned for her own 'selfishness' .
Anyway, after that said, it is still a good 'page-turner' and a gripping read that had me unable to put the damn thing down. But it left me feeling unsettled....

A said...

people are NOT spending too much time OVERanalyzing, this is what novels are there for, to be analyzed and broken down to be understood. And as a matter of fact I did go to the movies and just enjoy myself. I didn't really pick up on that much sexism at first, just the whole damsel in distress thing, Bella becoming dependent on Edward and not being able to move much when he was to close to her in case he would kill her.. etc.. in an either 'he'll make love with her or kill her' kind of way. I didn't think that much more about the content of the movie...
...until I started to read the books. have just read 1 & 2 and am very shocked at the blatant sexist and religious undertones.
Bella becomes so pathetic in the 2nd book and can't even function without the strong man to hold her up. It isn't until Jacob, also a very strong & potentially 'dangerous' man (boy becoming man) that Bella is able to fill the void in her and function semi normally. Not to say she can save herself. She can't save herself to hell. By the end of the book she is surrounded by men who are controlling her life, unable to hardly even walk straight without falling over, so pathetically weak that all these strong men in her life are the only things keeping her alive.
She is a VERY bad role model for young girls. It is horrible that the men around her have such control over her that she can't even do anything for herself.
This book is more about the backwards roles of men and women than it is about love. The series doesn't do itself justice by making comparisons with romeo and juliet.
I liked Bella at first, she was cool and independent and able to make life changing decisions for herself. Then she changed into an obsessive, whiney girl who cant do anything but follow Edward around like a lost puppy who is able to be crushed at any moment.
She fulfills the role model of a 'woman' by cooking and cleaning for her father who cannot even cook after 17 years of being on his own. There are hardly any positive female role models in this book except for Alice, (who is actually considered to be loopy). Her mother is flighty, and instead stick around and fulfill her duties and look after her husband, she leaves him to live a life of her own, which is not once spoken of positively, just with shaken heads and 'tut-tuts', for the man she abandoned for her own 'selfishness' .
Anyway, after that said, it is still a good 'page-turner' and a gripping read that had me unable to put the damn thing down. But it left me feeling unsettled....

Nick said...

The blatant sexism of Twilight comes moreso in books 2 and 3 than the first book. Bella becomes so dependent on Edward that she can't function without him constantly being there, which leads to endless and endless amounts of (JUST KILL YOURSELF ALREADY) whining for the majority of the second book. Bella goes from being a somewhat intelligent and witty girl in the first book to a helpless, whiny girl after that. She's spoiled, completely and utterly selfish, damsel-in-distress, co-dependent, (for all intents and purposes, speaking metaphorically) drug-addicted, overly stubborn, a user, and--to top it all off--incredibly, incredibly superficial. And not only is she all of that, but she never overcomes it throughout the entire series. She stays this horrible, terrible role model for teen girls everywhere.

What makes me sick about the series is that so many people (read: teenage girls) look at this series like the bible of relationships and how to act. And if they think that acting like Bella and going after guys like Edward is the way to go in life... this series has done a major disservice.

That being said, I still enjoy the series from time to time :P . But I know better.

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