Friday, December 9, 2011

Married to the Martyr

A few weeks back, I went to a midnight screening of the fourth Twilight film with a friend of mine. I'm not much of a Twi-hard, because I think the books are pretty godawful and the universe is pretty problematic. (Not getting into that right now, Dracula-type fans.) But I find it an interesting cultural artifact, I enjoy some of the laughably terrible dialogue and presentation, and I'm a complete sucker for the appealing way [certain aspects of] sex and romance are presented in the movies.

Breaking Dawn: Part 1 troubled me in a way the rest of the movies didn't. When I got over my midnight-movie hangover, I wrote an essay explaining why. I sent it to Slate (for Double X) and to Salon, but neither one of them was interested, so instead the whole internet gets it for free. Enjoy.

Married to the Martyr

Twilight: Breaking Dawn’s portrayals of sex and babies are troublingly irresponsible.

When I was a teenager, My So-Called Life aired for one short season on ABC. This series is reasonably well-remembered, in no small part because a whole generation of women imprinted one Jordan Catalano (Jared Leto) into their teen fantasies. I was one of them. Even as a married woman over thirty, I will still moon over Jared Leto in just about anything, because I look into those swoony eyes of his and I see everything I wanted from a boy during those formative years of puberty.

This generation’s Jordan Catalano is inarguably Edward Cullen, of the Twilight series of novels and films, and the imprint he has made on the girls of the world is going to be equally long-lasting. Edward, like so many heartthrobs before him, is an empty, objective vessel for female fantasy (with the notable difference that he’s over a century old). The Twilight franchise has successfully turned female otherness inside out, has made men the eye-catching objects of fantasy, and has allowed Bella Swan, Edward’s one true love, to be one of those rare female subjects in cinema. Judge as ye may, for pop trash to accomplish this so deftly is no small achievement.

For the last three Twilight movies, I’ve acknowledged but shrugged off the many criticisms of the Edward-Bella entanglement as being obsessive and misogynistic. I accepted that, yeah, Edward is a wee bit controlling, and that, yeah, the franchise takes delight in setting up situations where Bella must be protected by various male figures. But I argued that Bella was still the mistress of her own destiny (whether or not her choices seemed foolish), and that belaboring – at great length – her very real sexual desire for Edward was actually a colossal step forward in portraying young women in popular culture.

But this one…wow. I went to see the first installment of Breaking Dawn at a midnight show on opening night, and I’m still pretty troubled by the irresponsibility of the filmmakers at virtually every turn in this movie.

For Twi-virgins (spoilers ahead): when last we left our heroes, Edward (Robert Pattinson) and Bella (Kristen Stewart) had decided to marry. (I will note for the record that Bella is eighteen, and little mention of college or a career is made.) During a honeymoon off the coast of South America, Bella discovers she is pregnant with the spawn of her vampire husband. Every last character is horrified about this except Bella herself, who is pleased, and decides to carry the child to term, despite its in utero tendencies to break her bones and cause her to crave human blood.

On no occasion whatsoever during the movie’s two-hour running time is there discussion of the responsibilities of raising a child.

In two instances, Edward’s vampire sister Rosalie angrily corrects other characters who use the term “fetus”, insisting that it’s a “baby”.

Bella never offers a single rational explanation as to why she is willing to die (and she is, and she does) to bear this child.

It’s perhaps too facile to point out that, in Stephenie Meyer’s vision, sex and love (even within safe and sanctioned marriage) lead irrevocably to devil babies and horrible, painful death. But the Freudian aspects of all this are not what bother me; those are fish to fry on another day. What bothers me is the fact that these filmmakers have the devoted ears and eyes of many millions of young women, women who are going to shape our world when they reach adulthood, and the messages they are obtaining from this film about sex and procreation are so desperate, so zealous, so violent.

I am 100% okay with Bella’s desire to get it on with Edward being central to this franchise. It will help girls to find their own desires legitimate and valuable. But for her to instantly settle into her role as suffering child-bearer, with only the tiniest sliver of sexual enjoyment to call her own in exchange; for her to find the potential of abortion horrifying and out of the question, for no obvious reason; and for the film to legitimize all this while whistling past the graveyard – these actions are troubling.

I think the point is to cast Bella as sacrificing not just for a child, but for Edward’s child. Yet again, her sublimation to her vampire boyfriend-cum-husband is cast as a matter of her choice rather than his innate male superiority. I have always kind of liked this tightrope act of Twilight’s, because it’s so easily teased out: Bella has to be protected because she’s a ridiculously clumsy human being in a den of graceful supernatural killers, not because she’s just a girl. Bella has to marry Edward at eighteen because it’s the only way she’ll finally bed her old-fashioned boyfriend and realize her dream of immortality, not because he wants to make her his property. It has the aroma of the current tide of feminism – as in, I choose to give up the life of a high-powered attorney to be a trophy wife and a stay-at-home mom. That’s what first-wave feminism granted us, that choice, to do as we liked rather than as they liked. But the series has lost its balance in saying that Bella chooses to die for Edward’s child because it’s her choice to do so, not because it’s the nature of women and mothers to suffer and die. I don’t buy it, and I can’t endorse it.

The other problem is that Bella as heroine, as subject, is making this choice. The safety of her child is paramount. She loves it more than her own life. How many teen girls are going to empathize with Bella, and be persuaded by her choice into carrying unplanned pregnancies to term, only to find that their children are decidedly not the perfect, immortal, supernatural child that Bella and Edward produce?

The girls imbibing Twilight now will grow up to make their own decisions, certainly, and I don’t think of them as incapable, the way that Edward tends to see his beloved Bella. But the power of the messages consumed during puberty should not be underestimated. Those messages inform our choices for many years to come, including critical years for forming relationships.

The appeal of the franchise is very precise, almost calculated. At times, it’s an advertisement for itself. Melodrama, despite the disdain that surrounds it, is a very powerful method of storytelling, one that tends to penetrate impressionable minds with greater depth than even its creators may have intended. It’s easy for me to dismiss the more outlandish romantic aspects of Twilight, because I’ve lived through failed romances and made adult decisions. But as a teenager, how can you look at Bella’s wedding in Breaking Dawn and not want one exactly like that? (As if we needed more wedding pornography foisted on female minds in this country.)

The nature of the sort of cultural junk food that the Twilight franchise typifies is to be disposable. Transformers: Dark of the Moon, and its message, ultimately does not matter to the sweep of history, and it would be absurd to demand moral responsibility from the creators of all such pop fare. But Twilight as zeitgeist is unique, and important, because its ways and means are going to be stamped into the consciousness of an enormous swath of the current generation of teen girls. For Stephenie Meyer’s anti-abortion agenda (however unintentional she may protest that she meant it to be) to be published and voraciously read is one thing. But for the cadre of people it takes to create and promote a studio film to endorse that agenda, without a thought to the message it will send to millions of girls who fervently wish they were Bella, is quite another.

Those girls, when women, are going to have to carry on where my generation’s feminists have left off. And if Angela Chase had insisted on carrying Jordan Catalano’s baby to term, despite mortal risk, for reasons of vague moral certitude, you could bet my own perspective on Roe v. Wade would be quite different.


Anonymous said...

Many people have intense but irrational desires. "Baby" is one of the more popular ones.

Katharine Coldiron said...

@Anonymous, true dat, but the film just presented her desire to keep the baby as mysterious and correct, not irrational. I would've liked more clarity.

Kristen said...

Great essay. And may I say, as an over 30-year old woman married to a woman, OH Jordan Catalano. Be still my heart.

Katharine Coldiron said...

@Kristen, see? SEE?!?! That stuff from puberty stays with you forever!

Anonymous said...

Interesting! I am surprised I didn't read an anti-abortion message into the film, although I was also troubled by the pregnancy plot. To me, Bella's pregnancy felt like an intense metaphor for anorexia. She is clearly killing herself by refusing to give up the parasite that is making her emaciated and weak (and the loving caress of the camera over Bella's emaciated body in various scenes of the film was quite chilling to me as a previously eating disordered person) and slowly killing her, despite the pleas of the people around her. Her willingness to die in order to stick to her convictions is portrayed as strength, and it struck me as incredibly disturbing - and yes, possibly irresponsible - to show teenage girls an emaciated woman who would rather die than let her body heal and call that strength. It struck me as a pro-anorexic kind of message.

Katharine Coldiron said...

That's an interesting take, radicallyvisible. I am also a formerly eating disordered person and that didn't even occur to me. I think because she is so NASTY as she gets sicker and sicker, and no one in a right mind would think that she looks better like that. It's certainly true that the camera spends more time than necessary on her emaciated body, and that her sacrifice is portrayed as a good thing...both of which are truly effed up.