I went to New Moon last night with my friend Becky. She’s a better blogger than I am, a sincere and unrepentant feminist, and a YA lit fan. She’s also my chosen movie companion, joining me for Where the Wild Things Are, two Harry Potter movies, and even the execrable Transformers 2 (how do you make a robot battle movie boring? Ask Michael Bay.). Anyway, Becky and I have been discussing the Twilight phenomenon, how alarmed we are by its inveterate anti-feminism, how much Becky wants to marry (or something) Robert Pattinson, and how werewolves can be cougar-bait for some time now and so, though we had some mixed feelings about it, we decided to go to a late show on a school night (to minimize the number of squealing tweens we’d have to sit next to).
Chris Weitz, fresh off the colossal failure that was The Golden Compass adaptation, replaces Catherine Hardwicke at the helm of this one, but Melissa Rosenberg is retained as screenwriter, and it looks like she’s on the next one as well (you know, the writer responsible in Twilight for the timeless line “Hang on, spider-monkey.” Yeah, she’s a keeper). To give Weitz his due, he has a handle on the cinematography – the chase between the werewolves and Victoria in the forest, accompanied by Thom Yorke’s haunting “Hearing Damage,” is gorgeous action – recalling to this late-30s nerd the speeder bike chase in Return of the Jedi for all the right reasons. The wolf transformations are explosive and beautiful (recall that Stephenie Meyer predictably avoids the brute physicality of traditional lycanthropy in favor of a mystical “phasing” were the wolf explodes from the boy – not painless, but weirdly bodiless as well), though not apparently done by the same creature shop as the daemons in Golden Compass.
All of the young actors work hard for their money, though with varying degrees of success. I don’t know, for example, if Taylor Lautner can act at all, but he’s going to be a huge star (Yahoo!‘s Lindsey Robertson wrote a fairly superficial critique of the Hollywood double standard that enables the mass objectification of shirtless 17-year old Lautner versus the uproar over Miley Cyrus’s Vanity Fair shoot.) Pattinson grimaces and twitches his way through the film as Edward, the love-struck vampire. I suppose one thing the film does accomplish that’s potentially interesting is the presentation of two distinct types of male beauty: one warm, vibrant, ethnic, and physical; the other cool, Anglo, ethereal, and maybe a little junk-sick. Though now that I’ve typed it out it looks like a post-colonial racist horror-show that’s just as offensive as all the anti-woman crap in the books and the films.
Which brings us to Kristen Stewart. Some commentators have argued that Hardwicke allowed Stewart’s Bella to act on more equal footing with Edward (a notion I have a hard time buying, but maybe I should re-watch Twilight with New Moon fresh in my mind before I smack that idea down too hard). But Weitz reigns all that equality shit in with a vengeance, restoring completely Meyer’s ideal of Bella as so incapacitated and traumatized by love that she resorts to risking her life in order to induce hallucinations of an angry, judgmental Edward. According to Ms. Magazine “Meyer insists that she sees Bella as a feminist character, since the foundation of feminism is being able to choose.” This is the same sort of neocon doublethink that allows a viciously anti-woman politician like Sarah Palin to disingenuously claim, as she did in her infamous interview with Katie Couric on CBS, to be a feminist. Ms. columnist Carmen D. Siering sums it up well:
What Meyer fails to acknowledge is that all of the choices Bella makes are Meyer’s choices—choices based on her own patriarchal Mormon background. In Breaking Dawn, the latest book in the series, Meyer finally allows Bella’s subordination to end as she takes her proper place: in the patriarchal structure. When Bella becomes a wife and mother, Meyer allows her to receive her heart’s desire—to live forever by Edward’s side, to be preternaturally beautiful and graceful, to be strong and be able to defend herself.
There was a great paper at “The Formative Years: Children’s Literature in the University” conference at NYU earlier this year by Judd Staley, a grad student at CUNY, titled “The Values of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Series.” In it he argued that argued that it’s important to critique Meyer’s anti-feminism without resorting to Mormon baiting. Indeed, she doesn’t make it explicit in the books; Bella is, after all, a secular character whose “own life was fairly devoid of belief” (New Moon, p. 36).
But the so-called “values” that Meyer relentlessly and consistently espouses are written into the bodies of her characters. Stewart inhabits the Bella’s twisted, broken body too well, with a hunched posture and downcast gaze that will require months of yoga to recover from. She’s a decent actress – I found her charming in Adventureland and Into the Wild, but I remember her not at all in Jumper – and her gifts, perhaps unfortunately, bring the nightmarish constraint and encapsulation of this character vividly to life. Bella is infuriating (just kiss Jacob, for crap’s sake!!), sour and repellant, stewing in her own repression and despair. There’s nothing empowering or positive in the choices Meyer and Weitz make for Bella. This is no model I’d ever want for my hypothetical daughter, nor for any of the daughters of my friends and family.
Alyssa Rosenberg, in her article “A Condemnation of Sparkly Vampires” in The Atlantic articulates her dismay with the whole phenomenon:
It’s more than a little depressing that after decades of novels for girls in which authors have used magic as a powerful tool to expand the scope of fairytale heroines’ adventures beyond mere romance fantasies, it is Bella Swann—a modified princess in a tower – that’s succeeded in thoroughly captivating a generation of teenagers.
Progressive parents, I’m sure, are at a loss if they want to prohibit their children from seeing the films or reading the books. I’d suggest that they don’t do so, but that they engage with their daughters and sons in some dialogue about the problems these characters and ideas represent. Give the kids the tools to argue against the ideology in the stories so they’re prepared to make analytical decisions about what they choose to believe and feel and don’t leave it up to Meyer (or Weitz and the relentless hype machine around the films) to decide for them. And when parents talk to their kids – boys and girls – I sincerely hope they tell them it’s o.k. to be a feminist, and that being a feminist means more than just “being able to choose” a proscribed role within a rigid hierarchical framework.
Here are some of the better commentaries out there on all things Twilight: