Ok, so before I actually start writing about seeing the three movies in The Twilight Saga (so far), I feel like I should add two things about movies and how I view them.
The first is the Bechdel Test. This comes from an episode in a comic strip called Dykes to Watch Out For by Alison Bechdel. In it, one of the characters says that she only goes to movies that have 1) two named female characters who 2) talk to each other about 3) something other than a man. (Website with list of movies and icons to identify how they fair on Bechdel Test.) Now, don't get me wrong. Movies that pass this test aren't feminist or feminist-friendly, but I find it hard to believe that a movie that doesn't pass this test could be feminist or feminist-friendly. When you start to think about this test, you might start to realize how many movies with big female heroes (think Alien/s or Terminator 2) never have two named female characters talk to each other. Also, I would love to find a comparable test for non-racist or non-homophobic or non-hetrocentrist movies. Maybe that a mainstream movie has to have two named minority characters in which they talk to each other but not about a white character? I'll have to think on that. But I'm using this to draw a larger point. I try to look at movies (and books and tv shows and all other types of media) as both entertainment and as a part of the larger society's discourse.
Which leads me to the second thing I wanted to write about my movie viewing habits. What I wrote in the last paragraph about how I view these things - yeah, that IS how I enjoy them. Please don't read what I might say about a movie (or other piece of media/work of art) and tell me/write to me that I should "Just sit back and enjoy it," implying that I shouldn't analyze it or think about it, because that to me is a contradiction. I am trying more and more to accept the contradictions in the things I like, that a really funny comedy seems to be kinda racist or that I like Chinatown even though I think Roman Polanski should immediately go to a US prison to serve a term for rape, but I have to first acknowledge the problem aspects as well as the better aspects before I can come to terms with the contradictions. Now, when I tell my parents about a movie and include any of those bits, my step-dad always asks me why I can't just enjoy a movie for once. I could never really find a good answer for that, until I read a blog post, which I sadly can't find now for the life of me though it was either on a feminist blog or a blog that deals with race & pop culture, in which the author explained just what I wrote above in such a simple straightforward way that I felt stupid for not having thought of it earlier. I guess this is my way of saying that if you don't like looking at movies this way, which is perfectly fine, you might not like my opinions on movies.
So with that out of the way....
The Twilight Saga (so far): Twilight (2008), New Moon (2009), Eclipse (2010)
Directors (respectively): Catherine Hardwicke, Chris Weitz , David Slade
Kristen Stewart as Bella Swan
Robert Pattinson as Edward Cullen
Taylor Lautner as Jacob Black
Billy Burke as Sheriff Charlie Swan
Anne Kendrick as Jessica
Nikki Reed as Rosalee Cullen
Alice Greene as Alice Cullen
Jackson Rathbone as Jasper Cullen
Elizabeth Reaser as Esmee Cullen
Rachelle Lefevre/Bryce Dallas Howard as Victoria
Peter Facinelli as Dr. Carlyle Cullen
(ok, that was a pain, you get the picture)
So last night I went to see the first three movies in the Twilight saga, in a row, in a proper theater. I had seen the first movie previously, with a friend, on DVD, on a less than theater-sized screen and had read the first book before that. I wasn't too impressed with either. But I still felt like I should bear witness to this pop culture phenomenon, especially when it was less than $5 a movie, all on a big screen. There are some good things to the movies, but I'll let others talk about those things. The biggest thing that I took away from these movies is that this series seems to be a primer in creating a dependent, sad-sack young woman who accepts (and participates in) emotional manipulation and is attracted to aggressive, possessive passive-aggressive men. To me, many of the things that happen within these relationships seem to spell out the possibility of an abusive future relationship.
In this vein, there are two events in the movies that really stuck out to me. The first is in New Moon and is pure, but very disturbing emotional manipuation on Bella's part. ***Spoilers Ahead*** After Edward abandons her, after exacting a promise from her that she won't do "anything reckless," Bella proceeds to do reckless things, once she figures out that Edward will appear to her when she does them, in an attempt to stop them. Her last act of recklessness is cliff diving, fully clothed, into freezing cold water, which leads to her near drowning and her would-be killer almost getting ahold of her. Now, maybe you haven't heard this one before, but to me it sounds like, "If you don't come back, I'll kill myself. See, I've got the razor blade out. I'm serious. Come stop me." But not only does Edward not come back but he also doesn't contact anyone to tell them that Bella needs serious help. He also doesn't seem to see that, by appearing to her every time she does something reckless, he is only rewarding her bad behavior, thus driving her to more and worse behavior so that he will pay attention to her again. Take it from someone who's been there: This is not healthy!
While the second event comes from a particular scene between Bella and Jacob, I think that this speaks to the possessive, aggressive nature of the men Bella won't just leave alone. In Eclipse, after Bella breaks the news to Jacob that she is planning on being turned into a vampire just after graduation, Jacob throws a wrench and tells her, "Better you be dead than one of them." I should acknowledge that, as a teenager, I dated a guy who liked to punch walls and trash bins that were near me when he was mad, as opposed to hitting me. Humans can make horribly bad relationship decisions, especially when they are teenagers. Why should I expect Bella and Jacob to be different? I guess I don't expect the teen heartthrob of the moment ("Team Jacob! Woooooo!") to seem like he's on the verge of becoming an abuser while still having our female protagonist want to be with him. (In New Moon, Jacob explains his trepidation in dating a human by telling Bella how his pack leader's fiancee got so injured: the leader got upset, lost his temper for just a moment, and she was too close. While Jacob does say that the pack leader feels horrible and guilty, no one seems to equate this with physical domestic abuse.) This physical violence is reciprocated in the next scene when, after Jacob kisses Bella without her consent, Bella punches him in the face, which, as he's a big buff werewolve, results in Bella getting the injury, a sprained hand. But still Bella kinda sorta pursues something with Jacob, while still committing to Edward, who starts to back down and loosen up on his possessiveness. In the end, when Bella decides to be with Edward, not Jacob, it isn't because of the actions of their men. It is simply because she loves Edward more than Jacob. Now, in real life, I would probably just throw up my hands and let humans be humans. But hundreds of people have worked hard to create these stories, many of them agonizing over these decisions. And I bet not one of them would want their daughter to consider a guy who said he'd rather she be dead than a part of another group. To them, I'm sure that disqualifies that guy for the affection of their daughter. So why are they selling this crap to our daughters?
Now, especially when we are talking about children's or young adult literature, I assume that there are 'lessons' that can be learned from the text. While I read a recent quote from (adult? regular? literature) writer Ian McEwan, "Psychological realism demands that sometimes the wicked prosper," I do not think that the same sentiment prevails in...well, most forms of entertainment, to be honest, but especially in literature pointed towards non-adult readers. Think about all the 'lessons' in Harry Potter books (acceptance of and promoting the welfare of minorities 'Mudbloods' and house elves) and all the positive character traits Harry either already possesses or that he develops as the story moves along. While I think there are supposed to be some morality imparted in the Twilight movies, our protagonist only seems to demonstrate any of these through self-sacrifice, never through actual achievement. Other characters also do things that might get them killed or harmed, but they do it through fighting as opposed to giving up, running away, hiding out, or delivering themselves to their enemy. Midway through the second movie in our triple feature, I realized the real reason why I prefer my smutty supernatural books, like the Anita Blake series, to the Twilight series, and it's not the sex, which is what I was citing as my reason. It is that Anita Blake started out as a badass woman with her own skills and talents, whereas Bella seems to possess none of those things. Yes, I know, the reason Bella is beloved by readers is because she's just like them, average, with some flaws, thrown into a crazy world she doesn't fit into as she falls into love. But if you want to think that you are just like her, so you could be her, well.... don't you want to be able to think of yourself as having something special and unusual about you? Throughout the Blake books, Anita grows in power and self-knowledge, though even in the first book I think many women could relate to a young woman who is up and coming in her career, but sometimes finds it a cold and alienating boy's club. I think that in the start of the books, she's only in her early 20s. I've also read the first two books in the LA Banks' Vampire Huntress Legends, about Damali, a spoken word artist and kickass vampire and demon hunting teenage woman, coming into her own, both in terms of power and sexuality. While both these series are popular, they are obviously not as popular as the Twilight series, obviously not popular enough to get their own movies. But I would argue that these are much better female role models than Bella.
Sigh. Alright, so I'm tired. If this was a formal, classroom /published essay, I'd come up with some bullshit at the end. But this is it. These are my theories about these movies. As for moviegoers who don't want to think about this stuff, well, they get better as they go along, though the pale vamp makeup still looks stupid. (How can they make the werewolves look so good in CGI but their makeup looks so bad? Ugh.) The second and the third movie have decent romance elements and the third movie has some pretty great fight scenes. There is no horror or scare value, despite the vampires and werewolves, but at least there is some (intentional) comedy in the third movie.
PS Among the things I didn't get to are the disappearing minorities in the movie, as the series starts out with quite a diverse cast both in the town and in Bella's high school, but these elements are quickly stripped away to leave the almost all white cast of vampires and Indian werewolves, most not played by Native American actors. And I think that all the color, other than Indian werewolves, in the second and third movies are vamps of color who are quickly killed off. I'll let you think on that.