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 book news…

A friend asked if I knew the two people that have reviewed my book on Amazon so far, and I pinky- double-cross-my-heart-promise I don’t! I was very excited when I found these two five star reviews, and even more excited when I found out they are from two total strangers – especially as some people have (rather cruelly) asked “who is gonna like a feminist take on the Twilight saga and vampire culture???” Apparenlty, people do! And people I don’t even know!

If you’ve read the book, please consider posting a review at Amazon and/or at Goodreads. Thanks so much!

Here are the two existing Amazon reviews:

5.0 out of 5 stars Review: Wilson, Seduced By Twilight, May 5, 2011

By

MPBridgemanSee all my reviews

This review is from: Seduced by Twilight: The Allure and Contradictory Messages of the Popular Saga (Paperback)

Natalie Wilson’s book Seduced by Twilight provides an excellent examination of the pop culture phenomenon know as Twilight. Countering the simplistic reactions to this incredibly popular series in the media and some feminist scholarship, Wilson presents a nuanced exploration of both the conservative and subversive aspects of the texts. She avoids the trap of constructing Twilight readers as cultural dupes passively consuming a straight-forward conservative message, rather she respectfully considers the contradictory messages at work both in Twilight and in the wider American cultural imagination. In this way she roots her analysis in specific sociohistorical contexts. This lends her work greater impact, as Twilight is used as a lens through which cultural understandings of difference are refracted.
This book is required reading for anyone working in the area of 21st century feminist popular cultural criticism and would also be of interest to those fascinated by Twilight but feeling somewhat uneasy about that very fascination. Well-researched, well written, and highly engaging, it was a pleasure being Seduced By Twilight.

 

5.0 out of 5 stars Seduced by Natalie Wilson, May 20, 2011

By

JamesSee all my reviews

Amazon Verified Purchase(What’s this?)

This review is from: Seduced by Twilight: The Allure and Contradictory Messages of the Popular Saga (Paperback)

I have to start by raving about this author. She was able to create an educational and insightful book that was interesting to read. Her writing is phenomenal. I am anxious to see what else we see from this author.

This book takes a critical and thoughtful look at the messages presented in the Twilight saga that are accepted as the norm. Inspiring us to think more deeply about what this series is truly stating. Not to mention who this is series is targeted to! Thank you for opening our minds about things that are so often over looked!

 

What if Womanism and Feminism were equal?

(A guest post from Renee of Womanist Musings)

When we look at labels to describe activism by women we commonly use the term womanist, or feminist.  Words mean something despite how casually we toss them around.  They are how we order and understand our world.  In an effort to be inclusive when we write about activism many will often write feminists/womanists.  This acknowledges that some WOC have to some degree separated themselves and have taken on the label of womanists because of the history of racism within the feminist movement.

The problem with using these labels is that they often appear in a certain order.  Most will write feminists/womanists rather than womanists/feminists.  This may seem like a small insignificant point but what it does is that it once again sets up a hierarchy about what counts as real activism when it comes to women.  If feminism is routinely placed first it sets up womanism as a ridiculous offshoot.  When we consider that womanists largely identify as such because of racism in feminism, routinely placing it behind feminism only reaffirms the idea that white women still see WOC as secondary bodies.

Even though writing feminists/womanists is an attempt at inclusion, the order of the words appear means something because it speaks to who has power and privilege.  Often unconsciously we reaffirm power dynamics in our society.  Privileging certain bodies has become a naturalized phenomenon and  it takes a conscious effort to decolonize your mind. These small slights do not go unnoticed even if they are unremarked upon.

Many WOC are rightfully distrustful of white women.   There is a long history of betrayal and silencing.  I have watched time after time as we are assaulted and our issues ignored.  We are told that we focus to much on race in an attempt to destabilize our organizing.  Womanism  speaks about our lives, our needs and our existence in a way that feminism never has.  It validates our experiences and places us in the center of the conversation.  To place feminism before womanism  continually only reifies the need for womanism.

The rift between WOC and white women needs to be healed.  Each new slight just adds to the bitterness and contempt and is the equivalent of pouring salt into an open wound thereby further  dividing  us from each other.  When there is such a large history of betrayal we cannot afford to continue to fuel the negativity as it only detracts us from our common enemy: patriarchy.

WOC are always going to have issues that are unique to us, and yet we share many issues in common with white women.  The anger and bitterness often causes us to ignore their valid commentary and make sweeping assumptions.  There will never be one monolithic woman that can represent us and the “sisterhood” will never cure all the hurt, but we need to think about how we speak to each other if we are going to move forward.

Our future lies in unity and not in separation.  It is important that we leave room for forgiveness and  it is essential that white women acknowledge the ways in which they have wronged us.  This is a problem that we need to tackle together with patience and love.   Both WOC and white women essentially want to see women succeed, we just don’t always agree with what constitutes “woman”.

What if real women need babies? (On Kate’s “finest hour” in Lost season five)

A while back, I wrote the post “What if Lost time travelled to a feminist future,” noting that:

While Kate is back-tracking into the “problem that has no name” this season (re: Betty Friedan), Sun’s presence in season 5 could be hurtling towards a more feminist future. Unmoored from dad and husband, I am looking forward to where this season takes her.

Perhaps this season the show will break with the rather normative way it has presented gender thus far, with females being framed in relation to males and/or to their children (or desire for them).

Well, the season is not taking Sun in the direction I had hoped. Her character has been shoved to the background and, when she is focused on, she is ALL about finding her man.

The other lead females are similarly framed with the Kate/Sawyer/Jack triangle turning into a quad with the addition of Julia. And, on last nights episode (April 1), Kate and Julia teamed up to save a child. How mommy-esque! Problem is, this child they are saving is Ben Linus! Are their lady parts pushing them into maternal mode at the expense of rational thought? This is what the narrative seems to ask us to believe – that they have both forgotten who Ben is and what havoc he wreaks – that all they can focus on is “save the child.” I could not suspend my disbelief to swallow that one. I think the writers made a big gaff here – and a very traditionally gendered (re: sexist) one. If any character would save Ben it would be Jack – the softy surgeon dude with a supposed heart of gold – not the pragmatic Julia or the no-nonsense Kate.

Framing Kate’s decision in relation to her backstory made matters even worse. Drawing on the Freudian “baby as penis replacement” motif, Kate is depicted as trying to repare the great rift losing Sawyer brought about in her life with baby-love. As she coos to this child in his car seat and sings soppily as she cradles him, she seemed very out of character. Shortly after seeing her in ultra-mommy mode, Kate and Cassidy discuss Sawyer supposedly breaking her heart and Cassidy insists Kate “needed” Aron to replace Sawyer. She says “You needed him. Sawyer broke your heart. How else were you supposed to fix it?” Go with the Freudian analysis Cassidy! Replace that penis with a baby, that will fix all your problems!

While Jennifer Godwin refers to last night’s show as “Kate’s Finest Hour,” I think it was the hour I was MOST disappointed in her. I, unlike Godwin, don’t revel in the depiction of Kate as a “full-grown mama lion” – in fact, I take issue with the implicit claim such a description entails – that, in order for her to be the “profoundly magnanimous woman” Godwin claims she has become, she “left behind her selfish, childish petulance” to “become … a wildly competent mother.” Uh, why do none of the childish men have to ‘become men’ via parenthood? Why does it take a baby to make Kate a ‘real woman’? Could this be any more horribly dated and backwards-ass-traditionally-gendered-in-the-worst-way? Yes, let’s throw her in a tight short skirt and ultra high heels, make her run frantically through a grocery store searching for her lost toddler, THEN let’s have her do the whole streaming tears shtick over the sleeping child before showing emotional vulnerability with her “Bye Bye Baby” parting line. Yeah, THAT is what makes here a “magnanimous woman” NOT her bravery, indepedence, strength, courage, and bad-ass island-saving skills. Put her in heels and make her a mommy – finest hour my ass.

What if our supposedly feminist president repealed the Global Gag Rule as promised?

On the one hand, this post is in honor of Blog for Choice Day 2009 . On the other, it is an angry response to the fact that President Obama is already failing to live up to his image as portrayed on the infamous Ms. cover:

obama

While I will not get into a lengthy debate as to whether one must be pro-choice to be a feminist, I will share that FAILING to repeal the Global Gag Rule or at the very least address the 36th anniversary of Roe V Wade publicly (and to address what this means in terms of reproductive justice) does seem to put one’s feminist cred into question.

Now, onto the question for this year’s Blog for Choice Day: What is your top pro-choice hope for President Obama and/or the new Congress?

Well, to start, let me get all professor-of- rhetoric on the question: ‘FOR’ seems to be a very poor word choice. As written, the question asks me to consider a pro-choice hope FOR Obama and/or the Congress RATHER than to consider a pro-choice hope for the world’s people let alone a pro-choice goal or agenda for the new administration.

To answer the question as written, I would say my hope FOR Obama would be that his daughters are given full reproductive freedom and the chance to grow up in a world where they can fully own and control their own reproductive capacity rather than having it be controlled for them. (A secondary hope FOR Obama would be that he could live up to the claim made on the Ms. cover.)

As for a hope FOR the new Congress, I would hope they collectively make (pro)choices that will give not only their children, but all the world’s children, the capacity to control their own reproduction.

Now, if the question was written as I think it should have been, as “What is the top pro-choice change that you hope President Obama and/or the new Congress will bring about,” well, my answer would be “Reverse the global gag rule!!!!”

GW’s first executive order was to reinstate the Global Gag Rule. Obama has already issued three executive orders – one to close Gitmo, one to ban torture, and one to create a task force to review detention policies. These are indeed important – but, a fourth order is in order!

Given that today is the 36th anniversary of Roe V. Wade, why is Obama NOT making good on his promise to repeal the GGR? Is the Ms. cover all photo-shop and no substance? IF he did repeal the GGR as promised, well, we could begin to redress some of the DOWNRIGHT DISASTROUS effects of the GGR (as documented here: “How the Global Gag Rule Undermines U.S. Foreign Policy and Harms Women’s Health.“) And, on a more personal note, he MIGHT begin to restore my faith that the claim made on the Ms. cover is true rather than mere wishful thinking…

What if F-words (fat and feminist) were stripped of their negativity? A review of Bolt

My daughter and I went to see Bolt last night. Probably my favorite thing about the film was the representation of Penny’s mother. She was fat. But, her fatness was not focused on, it was not used to characterize her, it was not used as code for “she is dumb.” Rather, it was represented as normal, as average, as not having anything to do with what type of woman or parent she was. She was a nice character who played a very small role in the film, yet this representation of fatness as something NORMAL, as just another body type, is HUGE as it so rarely happens.

Usually fat is used to indicate a character is dumb, funny, evil, lazy, gluttonous, and/or diseased. Often the fatness of the character becomes the primary focus – they are seen as fat first, and as human second, it at all. Fat is used as a sight gag in many movies – so much so that fat bodies themselves create an expectation of humor. If you are fat and not funny, you are breaking expectations.

Many films have done “fat-face” (akin to black-face and yellow-face). Fat face is like the ‘lookist’ equivalent of the racist tradition of black/yellow-face. Yet, when actors like Gwyneth Paltrow, Edie Murphy, and Tyler Perry don fat suits for laughs, it is seen as funny – rather than discriminatory.

Thus, Bolt broke relatively un-trod ground in its depiction of fat as normal. Imagine if the majority of films and television shows gave us this “fat is normal” message; imagine how this could change the body hatred that has become widespread in the US. Imagine too how it would hurt the sales of the multi-billion dollar diet/fitness/surgical industry that seeks to make us all – fat, thin, short, tall, hairy, bald – find fault with our bodies.

This “love yourself as your are” message fit in with the grander narrative of the film – Bolt learns to like himself despite the fact he is not the super-dog he though he was. We would do well as a culture to learn this same lesson.

My second favorite thing about the film was the representation of Penny. She is brave, heroic, independent, and caring, or, as one review refers to her, she is “fully equipped with the habitual spunk of a Disney New Feminist.” Her lightening speed scooter riding skills are Bond-worthy and, for once, we have a chase scene where the female is neither sexualized nor incompetent.

While in the TV show she and Bolt star in, he is her repeated savior, in real-life, the two are equally heroic – Penny for her refusal to give up when Bolt is lost as well as for standing up to her evil studio boss, and Bolt for his refusal to give up the hope of returning home to Penny. While the end of the film involves Bolt saving Penny from a burning building (in typical male must save female narrative style), it is ultimately Penny’s mother who saves them both by realizing that the Hollywood life is not a good place for dogs or girls.

Thus, while the film does not shout it’s pro-feminist, pro-fat message loud and proud, it certainly goes a lot further than the likes of Wall-e or Kung Fu Panda in putting strong females front and center, and, in the case of Penny’s mother, stripping the fat body of its negativity. For these reasons, as well as for the wise female feline Mittens and the sly debunking of masculinized fan-culture in the character of Rhino the hamster, the film is worth a watch. And, as someone who has never managed to stay awake through a Bond movie (so repetitive, so yawningly macho, so tediously sexist), I would recommend it over Quantum of Solace any day

What if you rape someone while sleepwalking?

Well, no problem! How could we blame you? You were asleep, after all.

Come on, how many of you have sex while sleeping? Raise your hands!

Ok, now how many of you have accidentally and unknowingly raped someone while sleeping? Not too many of you?

Well, that doesn’t mean that the poor guy in the UK who was cleared of rape in a recent trial on the grounds he was sleepwalking doesn’t deserve to be pardoned.

I mean, it can be very easy to accidentally find a sleeping woman when you are yourself sleeping, to become accidentally and unknowingly aroused,  to accidentally rape her, and then to wake up with no knowledge of your criminal behavior whatsoever.

Come on hetero ladies out there, how many men in your lives sleep-walk around the community with hard-ons and (ooops) rape people while sleeping? It’s an easy mistake to make!

So, why all the fuss about this guy being cleared of rape charges? We can’t BLAME him for something he didn’t knowingly do.

We might, however, blame the woman who was raped – what was she thinking being there in her own home, in her daughter’s bedroom, fast asleep, all ready and willing to be raped? Boy, the ways in which women ask for it never seek to amaze me!  As if having a vagina is not asking for it enough, she had to actually be asleep too? How could we blame the poor sleepwalking guy given these facts?

Are these the kind of thoughts that went through the judge’s head in this recent UK case? Through the jurors? How in the F*** can someone be given the “get out of rape free” card on a sleepwalking defense?

Now, I admit a penis is not one of my bodily accoutrements, but from my experiences with those of penis privilege, sex takes a bit of focus – it does not seem something easily carried out while sleeping. Now, erotic dreams, (wet or dry) are one thing, but actual sex while asleep? Sounds pretty unlikely.

If sex while sleeping is unlikely, rape while sleeping seems damn near impossible. It also belies the imagination that people can violently assault, stab, and even murder in their sleep. Yet, the sleepwalking defense has been used in many such cases.  For example, in May 2008 a 28 year old Florida man was cleared of sexually molesting a 12 year old girl after using a sleepwalking defense.  Further, in 1999, the sleepwalking defense was used by a man who stabbed his wife 44 times then drowned her in the family swimming pool.

While I am no sleepwalking expert, I find this defense extremely problematic – and most definitely so in this recent UK rape case. For one, the man who has been acquitted, Jason Jeal, has NO MEDICAL HISTORY OF SLEEPWALKING. His lawyer suggested to the jury he should be cleared of charges as he was sleepwalking, noting that people do crazy things such as “going to the toilet in the wardrobe” while asleep. Hmmm, so dreaming of walking to the bathroom and accidentally peeing in your closet is equivalent to passing out in your friend’s home and then RAPING her as she sleeps next to her nine year old daughter? Unbelievable.

Worryingly, two other recent UK cases allowed “sexsomnia” to be used as justification for acquittal.  Kenneth Ecott, 26, was not charged with raping a 15 year-old-girl as he was supposedly asleep. James Bilton, 22, was cleared of three counts of rape on a sleepwalking defense in 2005.

Jane McKenna, the woman raped by Jason Jeal, has waived her right to anonymity as she is concerned about more attackers using the sleepwalking defense.  She notes, “These people should not just walk free – they should either be given a prison sentence or medical treatment, otherwise we could find more and more people finding this defence on the Internet and using it.”

Indeed, it seems just about anything can get you acquitted of rape these days. What’s next? The “hard-on defense”?  “I had a hard on, judge, it wasn’t intentional. My boner made me do it.”

According to UK law, a defendant is guilty of rape only if the attack is intentional. Forgive me for my naiveté, but I think being able to claim sleep as a defense is whack. How is it that much different from “I was drunk. I don’t remember. I didn’t do it on purpose.”  How is “not remembering” (Jeal’s defense) because one is supposedly asleep different from “not remembering” because one was intoxicated?

How would these cases be different, I wonder, if it was women doing the rape, murder, and sexual assault? I somehow doubt they would be handed the “get off scot free” card quite as easily…

Rape and sexual assault is a product of patriarchy (as this post at Womanist Musings clarifies). Yet, colluders such as Helen Mirin still use the “she was asking for it” card. When Mirin claims that women are “animalistic” and “sexually jealous,” she entirely forgets the ways in which patriarchy CONDONES and PROMOTES and even ENCOURAGES rape – does so, to such an extent in fact, that now men can pull the “I was asleep” card and get off rape charges with NO PUNISHMENT, NO COUNSELING, NO MEDICAL TREATMENT, NADA!  Absolutely disgusting.