Please check out my guest appearance on In the Den with Dr. Jenn where I discuss Twilight from a gender and sexuality studies perspective!
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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!
Well, I will see you there! I am presenting on the following panels and will also be holding a book signing for my just released book, Seduced by Twilight.
Fluid Nightmares in HBO’s True Blood , Wednesday 1:15
Publishing and Blogging on Popular Culture: A Q & A with Natalie Wilson, Thursday 1:15
Queering the Vampire Roundtable , Thursday 3:00
“Twilight Pedagogy: Taking a Bite out of Popular Culture”, Saturday 8:00
(Cross-posted at Ms. Magazine blog here)
Given the official trailers’ focus on mothers as nags whose main purpose is to cook and vacuum, I was very pleasantly surprised by the new Disney film Mars Needs Moms. However, I seem to be in the minority–most view the film as an anti-feminist screed.
Going into the film well aware of Disney’s representation of mothers as either good and dead (see Cinderella, Snow White, Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid), as evil-stepmothers (Cinderella, Snow White), or as non-maternal villains (The Little Mermaid, Sleeping Beauty, 101 Dalmatians, The Rescuers), I fully expected Mars Needs Moms to p0rtray the tired mother as either dead angel or evil witch. To my pleasant surprise, it instead explored gender as socially constructed, parenting as problematically gendered and both sexes as equally good at heroics.
Though the trailers themselves play on sexist, anti-mom stereotypes (using copy about moms such as “we can’t live with them”), the film, a 3D sci-fi tale of the young Milo travelling to Mars to rescue his kidnapped mother, nods to what a difficult job parenting is (noting at one point that the Nanny-bots created to raise young Martians have to be retired after raising only one child even though Martians excel at robot creation).
The film opens with the standard depiction of moms as overbearing nags who limit the fun of (boy) children, but it quickly moves into a nuanced (and entertaining) portrayal of a planet without traditional mothers. Martians are supposedly no good at mothering, which Gribble (sidekick to the young male protagonist Milo) notes is ironic, seeing as Mars is a society run by women. Here, Gribble plays the role of gender essentialist, assuming only women can fulfill the mothering role. Yet what the film ultimately suggests is that either gender can mother and, even more radically, mothering should be re-vamped as “parenting.”
Though one post I read interprets the depiction of parenting as heteronormative, noting “Mars Needs Moms is an incredibly anti-gay film,” I disagree. The post argues that “The movie goes out of its way to show that before Butchy McLes-alien took over, all children were raised by a man and a woman. Just like the Martian bible says it should be! …” It then goes on to claim that the film is “offensive to anyone who has a non-structuralist family … the overall message of the film is ‘Unless you’re raised by one Mom AND one Dad, then you’re wrong.’
However, what the post doesn’t note is that the movie makes a marked shift from it’s opening use of the term “mother” to closing emphasis on the non-gendered term “parent.” In fact, in one scene a slew of male parents holding young Martian hatchlings dominates the screen, indicating that what these hatchlings are missing is not mothers, per se, but parents rather than nannybots.
This same post rallies against the “inter-species romance between Gribble and Ki, since apparently that’s okay, as long as it’s not gay.” I would instead argue that this romance queers the heteronormative model.
Other reviews offer what I see as a misreading of feminism. For example, Alynda Wheat in her People review cites the “nasty gender politics of the film,” arguing that the evil Supervisor is “a vicious caricature of a feminist who thinks men are stupid and raising kids is a waste of a woman’s time. While I see what Wheat is getting at, her wording suggests feminists are man-hating, anti-mother villains and that the Supervisor is a particular nasty incarnation of these tenets.
In another review, Tom Long mocks women’s studies as a discipline, writing that the film’s portrayal of the “ideal mom” as “stay-at-home housewife” is likely to instigate a “stampede of women’s studies doctoral candidates trying to file thesis proposals” about the movie. Again framing feminism as an anti-mothering movement that demonizes the housewife, Long also makes a faulty assumption that the mother of the film is a housewife. She may be, and we only see her at home doing “domestic duties,” but to presume she does not also have a job falls into the old dualist trap that suggests some women work outside the home, some inside it. The reality is that most women do both. This take also falsely promotes the tired notion that feminists are anti-housewife and anti-mother.
While Melissa Harris argues the message of the film is that “ambition turns women into soulless ugly overlords who give up motherhood & dispose of men,” I would counter that the film displays the “power-over” model as the problem–a paradigm that denies the importance of parenting (in the film and the world). Yes, “boy with gun sets the world right,” but Milo also goes through a gender-troubling transformation, learning to empathize, co-operate and appreciate caregiving and nurturance–quite a shift from the boy’s-boy at the outset who talked back and loved zombies.
Other critics were troubled by the film’s representations of race. Admittedly, the dreadlocked hair and tribal-type dancing does smack a bit of the Dances with Wolves/Avatar meme, but the film suggests it is these more communal, non-hierarchical and gender-troubling characters who offer a better societal model than that promoted by the militarized Supervisor. And here, the film again deconstructs norms of gender, revealing that what we presume to be hyper-masculinity is actually a hyper-militarism that can be acted out regardless of gender.
Mars Needs Moms is no uber-feminist utopian film, but it’s a step in the right direction for the notoriously anti-feminist Disney. And at least the mom is not dead.