Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Question of the day: Why *isn't* Twilight's Bella Swan a feminist creation?

In a classical sense, FEMINISM is defined as believing that women should have the same rights, freedoms, choices, privileges, and benefits as men in a civilized society.  Under that relatively general definition, I would argue most rational people, men and women, would classify themselves as 'feminist'.  In my eye, the feminist ideal is not one where women constantly make the 'correct' moral and/or professional decisions or choices that further their own independence, but merely that they have the freedom to do so if they so desire.  So I ask the question, why exactly is the Twilight Saga inherently anti-feminist?  I'm speaking merely to the movies and not the books, but as the series has unfolded, it's primarily been about one thing: Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) relentlessly pursuing a singular goal, to be in a long-term relationship with Edward Cullen, no matter what obstacle or constructive criticism is hurled her way.  We may not agree with Bella's choice in men, but as I've written before (HERE), I'm not entirely sure the films agree with her either.  Moreover, if feminism is about having the choice to, as a woman, live your life as you see fit, isn't her dogged pursuit of Mr. Cullen inherently feminist by virtue of it being absolutely Bella's choice?

Bella is not the only female in the Twilight Saga, something which critics of the series would do well to notice when discussing why the series has such a strong female following.  Even if we disapprove of Bella's 'throw your life away for a guy' mentality, she is not the only example of womanhood on display.  At the very least, we have Bella's school-age friends, who operate as an alternative to what a teenage girl can do with her life after high school.  Hell, Anna Kendrick's Jessica openly rebuts Bella's seemingly close-minded choice, both indirectly in her graduation speech in Twilight Saga: Eclipse, and directly in the opening reel of Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn part I when she wonders out-loud why an 18-year old girl would get married if she weren't already pregnant.  And nearly every human and human/wolf spends pretty much the entirety of the first four films basically telling Bella *not* to run off with that brooding guy she met in her high school biology class (even if Taylor Lautner's Jacob has obviously selfish motivations).  Even Edward himself seems to be trying to talk Bella out of it right up to the night before the wedding.

But no matter where the films stand on Bella's choices throughout the Twilight Saga, they are absolutely presented as 'her choices'.  It is her choice to make a life with Edward, it is her choice to allow herself to be turned into a vampire, it is her choice to refuse to terminate her unborn fetus when it directly threatens her life.  Slight digression, but much of the talk regarding the most recent film has discussed its apparent value as anti-abortion propaganda But said pundits missed the fact that being pro-choice isn't about women choosing abortions but merely about women having access to a legal and safe abortion if they so choose.  Moreover, during that middle hour of the fourth film, Bella is pretty much the only character in the film who doesn't want to terminate the pregnancy, so if we (the moviegoers) disagree with that decision, we're hardly alone or demonized for our opinions.  Moreover, the whole scenario can be read as a young woman rebutting the men in her life who want to tell her what to do about her body.  Also of note, the big fear is that this human/vampire hybrid baby will kill her during the pregnancy and um, Bella indeed dies, so those who favor terminating the pregnancy end up having a point.

Regardless of Breaking Dawn's take on abortion, feminism is not about forcing women to choose an independent path but merely giving women the choice to make that informed decision.  For example it's no more just to shame women who choose to be stay-at-home mothers as 'betraying themselves' than it is to condemn working mothers as doing some kind of harm to her family unit.  We debate back and forth about what is the 'correct' decision for today's women without realizing that feminism is not about the choice that one woman or another makes but merely the fact that she has that choice.  Bella Swan is a fully-functional and intelligent young woman who makes a fully-formed decision about her life.  We may disagree with that choice and may say that said decision makes her a poor role model for young women (that's a debate for a different day), but why exactly is Bella an anti-feminist character?  Feminism is about women having the choice to live their lives as they wish to.  And that is exactly what Bella does for nearly every moment of the Twilight Saga.  Bella Swan may not be a role model in a conventional sense, but she is arguably a shining example of feminism in its purest, if not idealized, form.

Now you can tell me why I'm wrong. Is a female character inherently anti-feminist because she makes decisions that seem to fit in with the stereotypical patriarchy-approved life style, or is Bella a feminist because she fights for her right to both make her choices and have those choices be respected by her friends, family, and peers?  Sound off below.

Scott Mendelson

For other Twilight-essays I have written over the years, go HERE, HERE, and HERE       


Betty b said...

I agreed with you ..Bella tells Edward in the Movie Eclipse that many of "her decisions" that she made were not all about him. She felt she never fit in her world and she wanted "more." .. his world would provide the "More". Her loved for"her" baby trumped her relationship with Edward... Edward had to take the back seat. BD2 will show weakest link( Bella) becomes independent in her own right. .so your perceptive conclusion is on target.. Btw always a pleasure to read your articles. :-)

Cece said...

Great post! I've been reading a lot about the anti- feminist slant towards twilight lately (mostly due to the hype around The Hunger Games/Katniss).
I hate the misogyny that occurs when Twilight is brought up in the media. Bella is far from a heroine but she definitely doesn’t set back “Feminism back 50 years”.
I think that Twilight is a much more effective piece art because it creates a lot more discussion about feminism and what it means than a lot of its contemporaries. Unlike THG, Twilight is a story about Female desire and a girl pulling and pushing to resolve it. Many stories about female desire that are born out sex and not violence are usually labeled as silly or not deserving of merit.
It’s interesting that female characters that are labeled as Feminist (or Badass) are those that have taken on very traditional masculine archetype (Buffy, Lisbeth, Katniss).
Twilight and Bella cause discomfort because it hits closer to home than many would like to admit.
As for BD part 1, many critics went for the obvious analysis instead of considering the subtle depths that were portrayed. An interesting perspective shown in the movie was the horrors of child birth. Many critics complained that they were disheartened that the half vamp half human baby looked normal despite how the birth was shown. However, in reality many births play out just like Bella’s.
Throughout the series it’s been the little moments of darkness and/or romance that have kept me interested. Yet it would seem for many they either can’t see what lies beneath this series or they’re scarred to acknowledge that Twilight and Bella Swan are much more familiar than they would like.

KimberlyS said...

Re: your comments about Bella's decision not to abort, the fact that the baby was a threat to her life doesn't change anything. A mother has the right to prioritize her baby's life over her own. That is often what is involved in real life situations when a mother chooses not to abort even if her life is at risk--she is prioritizing her child's life over her own, just as many mothers do AFTER their children are born.

Yes, Bella makes a lot of independent choices in these movies, but I think people can't get past those moments where Bella seemed to want to die without Edward. At the end of the first movie, he mentions leaving and she hyperventilates. He does leave in the second movie and she lays down in the forest to die. When she's rescued and brought home, she barely exists for about six months because he's gone. Yes, breakups can be devastating, but even after six months, she has nothing to live for? Except the hope of hearing his voice? I don't think it's necessarily a feminist issue, but there's something very pathetic about her life revolving so completely around one man. It's all very "Romeo and Juliet," but you know what? It was stupid when they did it too.

Matt from Phoenix said...

Sometime ago you wrote an unassailable article on Megan Fox and the hatred surrounding her (and basically why it is misguided and wrong). It made me think. This article did the same. You presented a view not previously discussed and defended it. This is why I enjoy your writing so much: it challenges me and makes me think.

Imdelvian2 said...

Great comments. I've actually had this discussion with my husband and we pretty much agree with all your points. Women acting like men does not achieve the goal of feminism I don't think. It reinforces the idea that for women to be 'better' we have to be more like men. A world where a women has choices just like her counterparts is what I'd like to see. And the whole abortion thing you are entirely right. It is not anti abortion. It's clearly pro choice as Bella herself says in the movie. I've never thought of Bella as a role model, but rather a specific tale of one human being. Her actions, her thoughts, her fears. What's right for 'her'. You laid it out very well. I appreciate the perspective.

Lady Jane said...

Another great post, Scott. So glad to see industry-savvy people raising these kinds of questions and issues about cultural touchstones like TWILIGHT and HUNGER GAMES.

Re: the "What if a woman CHOOSES to be what seems to be a more traditional/subservient (insert your word choice here) roles in the workplace and in romantic relationships and at home?" question, I think many feminists would argue their goal is not to judge or assign correct or wrong answers (as their critics may suggest), but it's to create a world where that truly is a choice made without the scales tipped one way or the other.

It's not about being paternalistic or snooty or judging stay-at-home moms, it's about every girl and woman TRULY having the ability to make choices for themselves among many options, including pursuing a career in engineering or playing professional sports or acting on stage or screen as something other than the object of a man's lust. Right now there are many arenas where the scales are still tipped; sure a woman can "choose" (I use air quotes lightly) to forgo a career in mathematics or engineering to stay at home with the kids while her husband pursues his own career in mathematics or engineering -- and who's to judge her? A lot of women will eagerly and happily make that choice with no regrets and don't deserve to be judged for it. But do we really live in a world where that path is as easy for her as it is for her husband? Nah.

Incidentally, recently saw MONA LISA SMILE which explicitly dealt with this question. Julia Stiles' character calls out Julia Roberts free-spirited feminist character for presumably judging her "choice" to skip law school and cook pot roasts for Topher Grace (It's what she really wants!), and I think we're supposed to cheer that Julia Roberts was also learning a lesson in tolerance, but it's hard to look at Stiles' character and think she truly had a meaningful choice. One path provided immeasurable resistance, one path provided none.

ida said...

I do not think many of today feminist know what the women’s movement is all about or what a feminist is and who can be a feminist. There definition of who can be a feminist is very limited and if you do not fit into that definition, they look down on you and some of them are very snob about it. Sometimes they come off as being misogynist when it comes is to Bella. There is a season why so many women around the world from different cultures and class can identify with Bella. I think Bella makes them uncomfortable and scared. They don’t understand Bella but instead of have a serious discuss about they hate. As a young woman It is very sad for me to watch.

Rick said...

Very interesting essay... which I'm finding hard to disagree with. Congratulations on turning one of the most hated protagonists in recent history into a great character example. (I don't have any feelings towards her, I haven't read or watched any of the Twilight series)

Diane Lowe said...

Scott's articles make me think also, and it's nice having a go-to critic who is sensitive to feminist issues.
I watched only the first Twilight movie (and then on YouTube), and was pretty disgusted with how Edward treats Bella. Call me wrong here because I haven't seen the other films, but the fact the series glorifies that relationship isn't really all that feminist or positive. Her self-destructive behavior seems destined to breed unhappiness in the future. If anything, it's a warning to other women not to get too wrapped up with the one dude in high school who is a jerk to you.
I'm an engineer by education and occupation, and let me tell you, I often think it would be sooo much easier to find a sugar daddy and cook/clean/have babies at home. I keep at it because I have too much self-respect (or is it pride?) to give up. If/when I get married, will I become a stay-at-home mom? I don't know. Possibly. Hopefully I'm smart in picking a spouse who will support whatever I decide to do, without screwed-up power dynamics or gender roles getting in the way.

dailydana said...

I was going to say something along these very lines. The second book/film aren't feminist in the slightest. I see nothing about being a woman who can't find value in her own life after her man leaves her as feminist. Who puts her life in great danger just to hear his voice in her head.
Choice or not, when a woman decides the value of her life rests solely in whether a particular man is in it or not, we've left the realm of feminism. If a woman chooses to live a traditional married life with a man she loves, yes that's feminist. If he leaves her and she can no longer find a reason worth living? No, afraid not.

Lisa Bello said...

Thank you for so eloquently stating what I try to tell my anti-Twilight friends all the time. Feminism in it's heart is about having the CHOICE to make your own decisions as a female and not having ANYONE (your family, your man, your government) tell you that you can't. It's not about acting like a man or shunning all traditional female stereotypes, its about being what YOU want to be for YOU. Not anyone else. Wonderful post!

bcbeth said...

Thanks for writing about this, as I take a lot of abuse from the men in my life about liking the Twilight series. I agree that while Bella may not

Jeanne said...

Very well said...you put what I think on "paper". Bella even had the choices (in the book) of staying with or leaving her Dad's house and the way she handled it was to give him a choice...same with Edward in letting him know she would become a vampire without Edward's help by going to Carlisle (book again)...It was all Bella's choice...I really don't know where these other guys are coming from.

Evelyn Ann said...

Loved your perspective on Bella and how you were able to see how as women are damned on either choice we make or follow in life. Thanks for being so insightful. ;-D

Adrian said...

Somehow, I think that throughout the series you keep hoping Bella will do something dignified, and then "Breaking Down - Part 1" happens - that scene after Edward bones Bella for the first time - she is left with bruises, but somehow that was all too much for HIM and so he will never touch her again, again she is reduced to chasing him, comforting him and begging even.

I am a huge fan of women. I love strong women. Not looking to a character from a movie/book for life lessons should be rule, though there are many exceptions. In this case, forget about feminism, just as a person, Bella is a mess - based on her actions, I am not sure she would be prepared to overcome some of the hardships that come with being and adult and/or marriage - maybe Edward will get his act together and stop being a prick, but if I let my imagination fly (and I will just to make a point), if he continued with his knack for really rough sex, became an alcoholic, cheated, started beating her, was just not very attentive to her needs, something makes me think that she would stay. And if he up and left her (eternity is a long time), she'd be fucked with just her high school education in this economy. She suffers from a paralyzing codependent personality and that never ends well. Forget about feminism, she is not prepared for life.

She might not be anti-feminist, she is just anti... ugh, where do I begin?

LaMont said...

I think that it's very difficult to play this line in a truly feminist way - yes women should be able to choose to stay at home while a husband works, but that's a real-life consideration. So is marrying young because you know you truly love someone. But choosing to negate your own existence to be in a relationship is a phenomenon truly unique to women, and buying into this idea that you are a blank slate "revolving door female lead" (great turn of phrase, Mr. Mendelson!) in your own life story, to be arm candy to a man, is horrifying. Yes you have a choice, but choosing to negate your own identity (not just stay at home, or marry, or have kids) is disgusting. Yes, deciding to devote yourself to your relationship is doable and admirable if you respect your partner. Deciding that your relationship *is your life* is insane. Men don't do it - even men in romantic comedy fluff tend to have some hipster lifestyle that they are devoted to, and the woman fits into it as a muse/pixie/whatever. Men are people, women are types. Bella, quite frankly, isn't helping the cause.

And by the way, in relation to the "inspiration" for Twilight as a few people have brought up (sorry, hazards of being a Shakespeare nerd), Juliet retains a fair bit of spunk and personality while falling in love with Romeo, it's a *tragedy*, not a *romance*. This means that higher tragic forces are at work to pull them together and apart, and they suffer through their own flaws the same way Hamlet or other tragic figures of Shakespeare do. Bella and Edward aren't cursed by the deep abyss of fate, they just seem stupid.

Anonymous said...

When I hear or read people's comments about the second movie/book along these lines I can't help but think they really didn't get it. It was not about how her life had no value without Edward. It was how she had found a family she loved, and really for the first time she became part of real family with two parents and brothers and sisters, and she knew what she wanted for her life, her ETERNAL life no less, and then it was all taken away. Everything she knew she wanted and felt passionately about was no longer an option for her life, and although that included Edward it was about SO much more than him. If I remember right, I read or heard an interview with Stephenie Meyer in which she explained when she wrote that part of the story she imagined what it would be like to loose a child. Now I don't remember all of the details, but I do remember how much sense that made -- what would it be like to loose a part of your family, suddenly, and believe you would never see that person (or those people) who you love so much ever again. Within that context I think the depression and behavior she exhibited would not be far from realistic at all, especially remembering this is a 17 year old. (Do you remember when everything in High School felt like the end of the world, anyone?!)

Bigbskt said...

While I agree with the premise about choice being the hallmark of feminism, for Bell it is actually deeper. Bella is actually very cagey. She didn't want to get married, she wanted to have sex before marriage. She didn't want Edwards money, didn't want him buying her things. Because she is the care taker for both her mother and father, Bella is quite independent. Maybe being with Edward allowed her to be who she really wanted to be.

Also, it is very interesting how if one wants to be a pro athlete or a doctor or lawyer from a young age, we hold that in high praise. If one wants to be a mother or housewife, we tend to see that as weak and anti-feminist.

Anonymous said...

Much has been made of Bella's collapse when Edward and his family left in New Moon, leading many to proclaim Katniss of The Hunger Games a stronger role model than Bella (though why either must be a "role model" rather than just a protagonist is an open question).

Nevertheless,(and risking a slight spoiler here), Katniss also has a complete breakdown in the third Hunger Games book as a result of terrible trauma and tremendous loss. Bella's adventures may not be set in a horrific post-apocalypse, but she does endure physical and emotional trauma and wrenching loss. Specifically, she loses in one blow what she wants, needs, and loves most in the world: her soul-mate and her adopted family. A loss of that magnitude requires time to come to terms with.

Who among us should determine what anyone else wants, needs, or loves? Whether it's our career, our house, our spouse, our child, our best friend, our cat, or even our car, it can't be dictated by others what we will die to protect, or fall apart over when it's taken from us.

For most of us, it's not going to be a thing, it's going to be a person. We'll need time to deal with losing the person or people we want, need, and love most in the world, and we'll need to discover our own way of handling it. Since when should anyone be reviled for that?

Girish said...

I love reading your thoughts. You hit the nail on the head everytime! What people seem to forget while talking about Bella is, they don't view her as a fantasy character, but rather see her as a real girl who has to take moral, responsible decisions. The only thing she seems to do wrong is her over-dependence on Edward, only for love. She doesn't want or need any other stuff from him. And almost every choice she makes, is on her own, even though many are questionable. I agree with you, Bella isn't a good role model, but she's ultimately a fine example of feminism.

Bunburyme said...

if I vote pro-life, and in favor of women not making decisions for themselves, that is an act of feminism simply because I have a vagina? Even if it hinders feminism overall? The only way that Bella can survive in some form after this relationship is by making the decision to die and conform to Edward's identity, and what about that is being true to oneself? In children's literature there is the idea of "conform or die" and while I think it's been argued that Bella is strong by not listening to her friends and her parents, that's not really the society she was ever swayed by. Edward and his family were the only current she would really have had to fight against to maintain a sense of self and she doesn't fight it. It's like Bella has constantly ignored other options until it has escalated to this awful point where everyone is forced to let her decide between dying entirely or dying and taking on Edward's life. It's like Meyer corners Bella out of her own stupidity into making a choice between death and traditionalism. And that doesn't really feel like a choice.

dumplingsmmm said...

Good point! It's amazing how many adults want to tell teenage girls what they should be into

RidleySays said...

The male protagonist stalks her, sneaks into her bedroom, isolates her from friends and family, bruises her then 'apologises', with-holds sex, tries to control her fertility - by impregnating her, then demanding she get an abortion - and in the end, kills her. The series glorifies each step of a typically brutal and abusive relationship.

It also promotes the idea that if your foetus is going to kill you, you should still keep it.

Choice is one of those insidious words, frequently appropriated by the anti-choice / pro-life lobby. If your daughter 'chose' to stay with a man who would ultimately murder her, would you regard that as a feminist choice? Or would you say, perhaps I should get her some help? The family and friends that criticise her actions follow the same pattern; the bad guys who are stopping her being with the man she wants. Why? Because they recognise he's a bad person.

Could it be that Bella made her 'choice' because she was a teenage care-giver to a drunk and neglectful father, which left her predisposed to seek out damaging relationships? Probably. Should Edward's faux-resistance be taken as him being a decent guy? No. He exploited her vulnerability and isolation, putting up token resistance so he looked like the good guy.

She's a damaged character in a decidedly anti-feminist series.

Bubbles said...

Okay, you're right about the first two points, but that's about it. He doesn't isolate her from her friends and family, but from the friends who were dangerous to her (the werewolves). He witholds sex because he's afraid he will kill her, that seems to be a pretty valid reason, don't you think? He isn't trying to "control her fertility", he didn't know he was capable of impregnating her, and he wanted her to get an abortion because he knew if she carried the baby to term, she would die, and he valued her life over the baby's. I'm not quite sure what you mean by "kills" her. The baby being born (a result of her decision to keep it) technically killed her, and he merely turned her into a vampire, which may or may not constitute killing, depending on your perspective.

It doesn't really promote the idea that if the fetus is going to kill you, you should keep it. At no point in the books is it implied that her decision to keep the baby was a good one. But it was HER decision, nobody forced her to do it.

It also isn't an anti-feminist series. All of Bella's decisions were hers. She has a right to choose what she wants to do with her life, which she did, and it didn't turn out too badly.


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