What if Bella met Bella? Or, Wed, Bed, and Bruised – But Certainly Not Equal (Musings on Women’s Equality Day through a Twilight Lens)

As today is the 40th anniversary of Women’s Equality Day, it is an appropriate moment to consider the continuing inequalities women face. As a scholar of popular culture that tracks the way culture grapples with changing conceptions of gender and sexuality, I am struck by the profound difference between Bella Abzug, staunch supporter of women’s rights, and today’s most popular Bella, Bella Swan.

The November release of Breaking Dawn: Part 1, the first half of the two-part film adaptation of the final book in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight saga, will include the much anticipated wedding and honeymoon of Bella Swan and Edward Cullen.

Fans, given previous reactions to leaked photos of the vampire-human honeymoon scenes, will likely clamor for these racier scenarios. Parents, depending on their views of appropriate sexuality and relationship ideals, will be variously delighted by the “happy ending” in marriage or dismayed by the film’s sexualized content. Traditional vampire aficionados will scoff at the idea that the lead vampire, Edward, Mr. Sparkly Pants himself, is able to impregnate a human, something that goes against typical vampire lore.  But I, as a women’s studies professor, will be viewing the film with an eye to how it romanticizes sexual violence.

From where I sit, Twilight wrestles with gender norms, abstinence imperatives, and that age-old message foisted upon females: true love conquers all. No Buffy the Vampire Slayer nor her contemporary descendent, Sookie Stackhouse, the saga’s female protagonist is instead a rather weak damsel in distress, traipsing after the two leading men, one a domineering vampire, the other a prone-to-violence werewolf.

Though the bruised body of post-coitus Bella in the opening sections of the Breaking Dawn should concern anyone who cares about violence against women, in all likelihood, what instead will interest viewers is Bella’s “morning after” body, which, after a night of Edward’s headboard busting and pillow biting, will be covered in bruises and feathers – a sort of modern day, sexed-up take on being tarred and feathered. But Bella’s battered body, like the bodies of so many women, will likely be largely forgotten in between frames.

Yet the saga, and this segment in particular, begs the question: “Is sexualized violence acceptable?”

Why don’t images of battered women give us more pause, especially on a day like today –  Women’s Equality Day.

Bella shares her first name with the initiator of today’s 40-year old holiday, Bella Abzug.  But any similarity stops there. The one Bella was famous for her hats and her saying “This woman’s place is in the House—the House of Representatives,” the other for her clumsiness, and for promoting the idea that a woman’s place is in the domestic home (whether she be cooking for her father – as in the first three books – or bedding her beloved vampire husband – as in the last).

Sure, Meyer’s Bella gets a super-power at the end, but it is the power to cocoon others in a protective mind shield – a sort of virtual womb space. Yes, you got it: she is allowed the power to mother.

While the Twilight saga has hints of female power– a Wall-Street savvy female vampire and a smattering of female vampire leaders, the overwhelming undercurrent of romance, sexual violence, and female subordination – as well as the “happy” ending of Bella as wed, bed, and bruised – suggests the best path for us women is not the road to equality but true love, a myth as enduring as vampires.

To be sure, the film is hardly the only one to render females as the second sex and proffer such depictions of violence sex as proof that true love is in the air. But, given the rabid popularity of the saga, and the highly anticipated depiction of the sex scenes, we should take a human moment  and consider what the other Bella – Bella Abzug– would make of Bella Swan’s treatment in the film.  Is the type of equality we seek that in which we can choose to romanticize hot, abusive vampire sex?

I, for one, think we’d be better off wearing a crazy hat and insisting, as did Abzug’s resolution, that women not be treated as second-class-citizens, in life or in film.  From the onslaught against reproductive freedoms to the rape-blaming that frames women as at fault for the violence done to them, evidence that Women’s Equality Day is here in name only abounds, and not only in headlines, but also in representations of domestic violence in the pages of the rabidly popular Twilight saga and its film adaptations.

Though it’s been ninety-one years to the day since Congress ratified women’s right to vote, women’s place in the House of Representatives is still far from equal. And, more pervasively, a woman’s body is still not her own.

What if a female screenwriter makes a frighteningly good difference? A review of Fright Night

The following post originally ran here at Ms. Magazine blog.

Debates about whether women’s writing was uniquely female or if there was a “feminine voice” permeated much femininist theorizing in the ’70s and ’80s. While I tend to be wary of claims about difference grounded in biological determinism, I do think that for many female writers their experiences as women, or as what Simone de Beauvoir famously called “the second sex,” often inform their writing. This is partially how I account for the remake of Fright Night being much better–and more feminist-friendly–than the original: The screenplay was written by a woman.

Marti Noxon, known for her work on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and then Angel, is obviously no newbie when it comes to vampires–nor when it comes to vampire narratives that take on gender norms and critique them.

In her version of Fright Night, gone is the girlfriend-as-sweet-virgin and the overprotective-but-ineffectual mother. In their place, Imogen Poots is an independent, savvy Amy, and Toni Colette is the smart, successful single mom, Jane. When things turn violent after nice-looking neighbor Jerry (Colin Farrell) is found to be a vampire, Jane drives the get-away SUV, and then saves her son Charley (Anton Yelchin) by staking Jerry with one of her real estate signs. Later, Amy, no damsel in distress, fights alongside Charley against Jerry and the converted Ed (Christopher Minz-Plass).

In the 1985 film, Amy (Amanda Bearse) didn’t do any fighting–she only sweetly hung by Charley’s side–until she was turned vampire by Jerry and became the typically sexed-up evil female. Evil because she is sexual, as has been the case in vampire narratives since Carmilla and Dracula. Contrastingly, in the remake Amy has far more sexual agency–and is not demonized for it.

Further, the film offers an interesting take on masculinity, exploring the ways violent masculinity (as embodied by Jerry) intersects with sexism. Jerry claims women are “ripe” for picking, an attitude echoed by many other male characters, from the “cool kids” at school to magician/vampire hunter Peter Vincent (David Tennant). The script skewers this type of male–both literally, in Jerry’s demise, and figuratively through jokes regarding Vincent’s inability to sexually please his female lover.

Charley, the film’s hero, is held up as a model of good masculinity–not because he successfully kills Jerry so much as because he cares for his mom, loves his girlfriend and helps his neighbors. The film is framed around his “growing up,” something the outset of the film links to his abandoning his superhero playacting days and becoming “cool” so he can snag Amy as a girlfriend. But he is ultimately punished for this “tough guise,” realizing through his interactions with Jerry (the womanizing vampire) and Vincent (the womanizing fraud) that he does not want to be that kind of guy. To add a cherry on top of this already enjoyable meditation on masculinity, we learn that Amy likes him because he is not cool in the tough-guise way. This cinematic portrayal of a lead female refusing to be seduced by violence is all too rare; in fact, it’s usually just the opposite, with women being attracted to “bad macho.”

This is certainly true of Twilight, the modern juggernaut of vampire stories, which Noxon’s screenplay nods to when Amy reads Wuthering Heights (Bella Swan’s favorite book) and knowingly jokes about how “hot” that type of delayed gratification is. Here, Amy is framed as reading between the lines of romance narrative and understanding what it is about such stories that seduce readers. Likewise, she sees underneath Charley’s attempts to be cool, and loves him for not being the type of guy that sees women as “ripe for plucking.”

In the end, Jerry, who Melissa Lafsky aptly describes as “all id and ego: a walking erect cock” is brought down by Mr. Nice Guy. Destroying Jerry also saves the people he has turned, thus suggesting that not only do evil vampires need killing but so does evil masculinity–and that killing it would benefit all of us, not just the men under its thrall.

What if You Would Like to Help Yourself to a Nice Slice of Pie? A Review of The Help

(originally posted at Ms. Magazine Blog)

If Kathryn Stockett’s novel The Helpwas an angel food cake study of racism and segregation in the 60’s South, the new movie adaptation is even fluffier. Like a dollop of whip cream skimmed off a multi-layered cake, the film only grazes the surface of the intersecting oppressions of race, class, gender and geohistory.

Let me admit that I was, in contrast to Ms. blogger Jennifer Williams, looking forward to the film adaptation of The Help, especially as I initially enjoyed the book. However, in hindsight, I realize my initial reaction to the book was naïve (and possibly compromised by a Christmas-chocolate-induced haze).

I maintain the novel is a good read. But its shortcomings–its nostalgia, its failure to really grapple with structural inequality, its privileging of the white narrator’s voice and its reliance on stock characters–are heightened rather than diminished in the film.

While the civil rights movement was a mere “backdrop” in the book, in the film it is even less so: a photo here, a news clip there, as if protagonist Skeeter, with her intrepid reporting, discovers that wow, racism exists–and it’s ugly! And even with these occasional hints that the nation was sitting on top of a racist powder keg, overall, civil rights are miscast as an individual rather than a collective struggle. To judge by The Help, overcoming inequality requires pluck (Skeeter), sass (Minnie) or quiet determination (Aibileen), not social movements.

Also gone is the book’s suggestion that male privilege works to disempower and disenfranchise women in the same way white privilege works to disempower and disenfranchise people of color. While admittedly the novel problematically framed black males as more “brutish” than whites, at least it nodded towards the ways in which hierarchies of race, sex and class intersect and enable each other. The relatively powerful white wives are “lorded over” by their husbands (or, in Skeeter’s case, her potential husband), then turn around and tyrannize their black maids in much the same fashion. The movie, in contrast, puts an even happier face on men/women relations than on black/white ones.

Simultaneously, it frames Skeeter, Minnie and Aibileen as a trinity of feminist heroes, but rewards only Skeeter with the feminist prize at film’s end–an editing job in New York. In the meantime, Aibileen has lost her job but walks the road home determinedly, vowing she will become a writer, while Minnie sits down to a feast prepared by Celia Foote, her white boss.

The audience is thus given a triple happy ending. The first, Skeeter’s, suggests it only takes determination to succeed–white privilege has nothing to do with it! The second, Aibileen’s, implies that earning a living as a writer was feasible for a black maid in the Jim Crow South. The third, Minnie’s, insinuates not only that friendship eventually blossomed between white women bosses and their black maids, but also that such friendship was enough to ameliorate the horrors of racism.

Thus, if the book was “pop lit with some racial lessons thrown in for fiber” as Erin Aubry Kaplan’s described it, the film has even less bulk. Instead, it’s a high-fructose concoction as sweet as Minnie’s pies. And like Minnie’s “terrible awful” pie, with which she infamously tricks the villainous Hilly into eating shit, the film encourages audiences to swallow down a sweet story and ignore the shitty Hollywood cliches–as well as the shitty reality that racism can’t be “helped” by stories alone.

As Jennifer Williams predicted, the film indeed offers:

The perfect summer escape for viewers who embrace the fantasy of a postracial America, [where] filmgoers can tuck the history of race and class inequality safely in the past, even as the recession deepens already profound racial gaps in wealth and employment.

To put it another way, viewers can tuck into this terrible awful slice of the past, forgetting how the ingredients that shaped pre-Civil Rights America have a seemingly endless shelf life and, even more pertinent, still constitute a mainstay of our diet.

Further Reading: For an in-depth analysis of the film in its historical context, check out An Open Statement to the Fans of The Help by the Association of Black Women Historians.

What if Cowboys and Aliens offers the same old message wrapped in a “new” alien package?

Orignally posted here at Ms. Magazine blog.

Given that the new film Cowboys and Aliens is the structural and symbolic equivalent of “Cowboys and Indians,” I went to see it in order to discover if this newfangled Western-Alien mash-up is marred by the same racial representations as the majority of its Western film predecessors. And yes, for the most part, it is.

The horrid title, which equates “alien” with “Indian,” was audibly laughed at in the theater. I heard similar chuckles when the film was discussed at Comic-Con, along with comments indicating the film would be a lark–an exciting and wacky new twist on two genres that have been done to death. My reaction to the title was viscerally different: In and of itself, to me it is incredibly problematic from a race perspective. To equate Native peoples with aliens is in keeping with the history of the word “alien,” which has been used to construct the Other, both human and extraterrestrial. Given that the term “illegal alien” is still widely used to refer to migrants and undocumented workers, the word “alien” is equated with both the racialized Other and baddies from other planets. As expected, then, the film did indeed further, rather than undercut, many of the racialized components of Western films–especially in relation to the following six tropes:

Us Verses Them

The film displaces Native people as “the enemy” of whites in the 19th century West, replacing them with aliens from another planet. Throughout, a refrain of “our people” echoes racist terminology such as “those people” or “your people”–phrases used to typically name whites as the good people and everyone else a dangerous Other. Though the film constructs the key enemy as outer space aliens, it still relies on a system of white people at the center–as “us.”

White Cowboys Are the Heroes

As argued by whiteness scholar Richard Dyer, in Western culture whites play predominant roles. As he writes, “At the level of representation…whites are not of a certain race, they’re just the human race.” This is apparent in the film in its representation of all the white characters as “just human” while the characters of color are carefully singled out as types: the hot Spanish wife, the exotic Ella (Olivia Wilde), the good Native American farmworker and so on. As Dyer argues,

This assumption that white people are just people, which is not far off saying that whites are people whereas other colors are something else, is endemic to white culture.

Further, as most of our ideas about Native cultures come from white culture, whites and white history are glorified. As Native scholar Elizabeth Bird argues, “These stories, at a mythic level, explain to Whites their right to be here and help deal with lingering guilt about the displacement of Native inhabitants.” In the film, whites are the “good cowboys” who make the defeat of the alien invaders possible. It is suggested that the earlier defeat of both Latinos and Natives are a good thing, for now good white cowboys are able to ward off yet another threat–“real” aliens from another planet.

Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) is clearly a racist character, yet we are supposed to like him. As for the other lead white hero, Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig), at the outset of the film he has amnesia, and when asked “what do you know” he bluntly replies “English”–as if knowing this is enough. This was one of the few moments in the film that the audience responded with laughter, again revealing that joking about alien otherness (this time in relation to language) is seen as funny. The absence of Latinos in the film has not gone without comment. Being that the film is set in Arizona, the whiteness of the cast seems historically inaccurate, as the “Shouldn’t there have been more Latinos in the film?” discussion thread at IMDB addresses.

The Good Native

As scholars of Native American literature and film regularly note, Natives are often depicted as types: the Good Indian, the Bad Indian (or Savage), the Noble Warrior and so on. Nat Colorado (Adam Beach) is the film’s Good Native. He clearly loves Dolarhyde as a father and serves as the posse’s tracker (another stereotypical portrait) and defends Dolarhyde when their group meets up with a group of Apaches, telling them they need to open their hearts to Dolarhyde. Just before his death, he says to Dolarhyde, “I always dreamed of riding to battle with you,” to which Dolarhyde replies, “I always dreamed of having a son like you.” Here, the film attempts to ameliorate Dolarhyde’s racist ways in one tender moment, much in the same way that people who have racist histories deny their racism with the “but I have black friends” comment.

Natives as Savage Warriors

Contrasted to Nat’s Good Native character, the film gives us a group of Savage Warriors in the Apaches. When they are first represented, there is an overwhelming sound of their yelping–thus keeping with the tendency to animalize Native people in filmic depictions. The chief blames white people for the arrival of the evil aliens, but as the narrative doesn’t hold up this accusation, he becomes an unlikeable character who wrongly blames whites. In other words, the Natives are the racists, not the whites. The audience is encouraged to take Dolarhyde’s view that the chief is a fool who doesn’t understand battle tactics. When Dolarhyde tells him, “We can’t just run around hollering and shooting arrows at the damn thing,” the film draws on the images in Western films of Native peoples as savage but ultimately unsuccessful warriors. Here, the film asks the audience to side with Dolarhyde, agreeing that “white ways” of battle are better.

Though Dolarhyde, Jake and crew ultimately form mutual respect, and both groups are instrumental in the aliens’ defeat, the fact that the film never shows the Apaches again after the battle is in keeping with their framing as tangential–an undifferentiated tribe that is easily forgotten once the aliens are defeated. Further, the fact that a majority of Native peoples were peaceable groups is once again denied, cementing the representations of Natives as warriors.

Native Americans Live in the Past

The fact that the film closes back in the town of Absolution, Ariz., with no further mention of the Apache people accords with the tendency to depict Natives as a vanishing/dying race that exists only in the past. The future, according to the film, belongs to whites like Dolarhyde and Jake. This is further underscored by Nat’s death–the Good Native does not survive. Instead, Dolarhyde’s son Percy (Paul Dano), is set up at film’s end to carry on his father’s (white) legacy.

The Indian Princess

Though Ella (Olivia Wilde) is ultimately revealed not to be a Native Woman, the trailers and film lead the audience to believe she is–especially through comments such as “they took my people, too” and “they killed all my people.” She accords with the Indian Princess model of the exotic, otherized women who is rendered likeable and heroic through her associations with a white hero. Jake, in defending her and insisting she is not the “whore” others call her, frames her as a warrior princess. She is begrudgingly allowed to join the posse with the line, “We got a kid and a dog, why not a woman?”–a line which both infantilizes and animalizes her. Granted, she is given much more of an action role than females often are in such films, but like Nat she eventually dies. Only white guys get to save the day and live.

While this Western may not be as odious as many others in its representation of white/Native relations–and actually allows for a somewhat positive depiction of Native peoples–it nevertheless still accords with dominant racial ideologies in which white males are center and others are peripheral. As such, it can be viewed as an “old movie,” which media scholar Stuart Hall defines as “synonymous with the demonstration of the moral, social and physical mastery of the colonizers over the colonized.” Though the main enemy in the film is the “alien race,” the white colonizers are shown as superior to the colonized Natives. Ultimately, the film frames “us” as white cowboys and “them” as alien and Native

What if you don’t want to be Smurfalicious? (A review of The Smurfs)

The following review was originally published here at Ms. Magazine Blog.

In her classic 1991 article, Katha Pollitt named the tendency in media where “a group of male buddies will be accented by a lone female, stereotypically defined” the “Smurfette Principle.” Twenty years later, this principle is still all too common–including in the new movie The Smurfs.

In the film, Smurfette–the first and usually only female Smurf–is certainly stereotypically defined, as she was in the cartoon. But in CGI her blonde locks are even more obvious, threatening to weigh down her feminized Smurf body. Near the start of the film, Smurf-antagonistic sorcerer Gargamel (Hank Azaria) has a rather creepy sequence praising “the tawny locks of Smurfette.” In a later scene, we see Smurfette distracted in a toy store, first with unicorns then with doll dresses, at which she exclaims, “Dresses! I could have more than one kind of dress. What?!?” Shortly after, she is angry when told it’s time to go, insisting “Wait! I am shopping!” She wears heels, again in keeping with the cartoon, and has a wide-eyed made-up look to her blue face.

As asked in the post “Gendering Smurfette” on the blog Feminist Media, “Why, decades after the original Smurfs were trotted out, are we still portraying the only female Smurf as an essentialized cliché of femininity?” Why indeed. Even if the filmmakers wanted to stay true to Smurf-lore, they could have brought in the later added female Smurfs Sassette or Nanny, or how about one of the witches instead of only including Gargamel?

Or, they could have made up for only one Smurfette with the inclusion of more female human lead characters. Instead of Patrick Winslow (Neil Patrick Harris) being an ad exec, why not give that job to Grace (Glee’s Jayma Mays)? Instead, she is almost entirely defined by her pregnancy and her niceness. How feminine!

At Smurf.com we learn, as we do in the film, that Smurfette was created by Gargamel to cause trouble for the Smurfs. Ah, the evil that is feminine. To add a nice twist of colorism to her origin story, she originally had black hair but it turned blonde when Papa worked all night to make her a real Smurf! She is described as “the charming Smurfette that melts the hearts of the other Smurfs. She’s one of a kind, full of feminine grace and frivolous. She can also be very much a woman, playing with the feelings of her sweethearts.” Oh my Smurf!

In the film, Smurfette uses these feminine wiles–”making sexyface“ at the camera and coyly telling Patrick, “Ohh, someone looks Smurfalicious.” The poster featuring her character has the same word on it printed in huge letters, metaphorically shouting, “Look, girls, you better be Smurfalicious too. Your looks are all that matter.” In one of the worst instances of sexing-up Smurfette, she has a Marilyn Monroe moment where she models a new dress and her skirt blows up. One of the male Smurfs smirks “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”

The emphasis on female beauty (vs. empowerment) is furthered by Patrick’s work at the cosmetics company Anjelou, where his boss Odile (Sofia Vergara), is marketing a new anti-age cream with the name “Juvenel.” In one scene, Gargamel uses his magic to turn Odile’s mother beautiful, which, by the film’s standards makes her younger, thinner and larger breasted. Odile, like Smurfette, uses her “feminine wiles” as she flirts with Gargamel in hopes she can buy some of his magic.

The film is stereotypically gendered in other regards as well. A male Smurf is told to “smurf up” (i.e., “man up”) to be a real Smurf. And when a customer tries to buy a Smurf at the toy store, he asks, “Do they come in pink? My daughter wants pink.” Ah yes, because all girls like pink. This is why Sassette–the second-ever female Smurf, who doesn’t make it into the film–wears pink overalls. Of course. Blue is for boys–and is even the name of the boy child born to Patrick and Grace at the film’s close.

Through such gendered depictions, as Pollitt argued so well 20 years ago,

“Little girls learn to split their consciousness, filtering their dreams and ambitions through boy characters while admiring the clothes of the princess. The more privileged and daring can dream of becoming exceptional women in a man’s world–Smurfettes.”

Like others of her ilk who play by and benefit from patriarchy’s rules, Smurfette is not doing women and girls any favors. Instead, she just shakes her blonde mane and coos in her Katy Perry voice, “I kissed a Smurf and I liked it.” Poor Smurfette, if only she had instead kissed stereotypical femininity goodbye