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.

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What if every day was women’s equality day?

Today, August 26th, Women’s Equality Day, commemorates the 88th year since the ratification of the 19th Amendment. However, I am not so sure the holiday is appropriately named. If we are celebrating women’s equal right to vote, why not call it “Women’s Suffrage Day” or “Those without penis privilege get the right to vote day.” By calling it “Women’s Equality Day,” there is some indication that we are celebrating the fact that women actually have equality in this country, which of course, we do not.

A number of factors would need to change for women to have equality in the USA. Archcrone from The Crone Speaks reminds us that “women have not yet realized equal status with men,” detailing the following facts in her “Happy Equality Day” post:

  • Women only make $.77 to a man’s dollar. Could you use the extra 23 cents?
  • The US has no guaranteed medical leave for childbirth; we’re trailing 168 countries in the company of only Lesotho, Liberia, Papua New Guinea and Swaziland.
  • The US is near the bottom of the list – again – in our public support for quality childcare for children of working parents.
  • Our access to affordable birth control is now under attack.
  • And our right to safe, accessible, legal abortion is threatened as never before.
  • And finally, women still only make up 16 percent of our representatives in Congress.

George W. Bush, far less wise than Archcrone, in his proclamation released by the White House, puts quite a different spin on the day:

As we look back on the journey to women gaining suffrage, we remember the sacrifices of people like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. More than 160 years after the Seneca Falls Convention, we celebrate the spirit, leadership, and hard work of those pioneering women. We also recognize the women who continue in this tradition by acting as role models in their communities, helping raise the next generation of Americans, leading in their professions, and serving in the Armed Forces protecting our country. These women are continuing on the path set by those who came before them, so that all Americans can realize the great promise of our Nation.

Hmmm, I wonder about his emphasis on recognizing women as “role models in their communities” and even more so about women as “helping to raise the next generation of Americans.” Role models? Who is exactly a good role model according to GW? Can such a role model be a feminist, can she be queer, can she resist the militarized imperialism of this ‘promising Nation’ and still be a good role model?

Even more patronizing though is the nod to women’s primary role being that of mother, of “helping raise the next generation of Americans.” Pardon me George, but your proclamation smacks of paternalism, of letting women be ‘good role models’ and ‘good mothers’ – or, in other words, nice to look at, nice to ‘model’ the supposed ideals of our patriarchal nation, and nice to raise your kids.

As for GWs reference to women “serving in the Armed Forces protecting our country” – well, he conveniently leaves out that on the one hand, women are not allowed to serve in equal capacities in the Armed Forces and when they do serve, they are very likely to be raped and sexually harassed, and on the other, that this so-called war on terror is not about “protecting our country” but about spreading US imperialism. He of course also forgets about that very important mother — Julia Ward Howe– who called for “Mother’s Day for Peace” not so we could all buy Hallmark cards and hothouse flowers, but as a day to resist war and empire.

So, George, forgive me if I find your proclamation patronizing and vapid. I am sure you did not write it yourself. You are hardly qualified to give a speech on women’s equality, let alone a speech that would lend credible analysis regarding just how far we have yet to go before women have full equality in this nation. I look forward to that day. Sadly, it has not yet arrived.