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Thoughts on media, culture, and the world-at-large bubbling up from the dusty corners of my cluttered mind
May 15, 2011
The Crew

Bridesmaids was marketed like a raunch-com centered on female friendship and the absurdities of weddings, but there's a whole lot more going on. The film's wide-ranging (and, to some, surprisingly cross-gender) appeal appeal is based on something far more universal.

Posted By Saralyn on/at 2/10/2010 05:21:00 PM

After over a year of protest and standing strong against my mother and sister's pleadings, I finally watched Twilight last night. The book and film series has held a bizarre fascination for me ever since an unfortunate episode at the 2008 Comic-Con International convention where a large group of fans nearly ran me over and gave me a migraine with their shrieking (they were trying to get into a line for a raffle where they might have the chance of meeting the actors). The hysteria...the deep attachment of the fans to the story...the way the audience demographic splits between teens and the "Twilight Moms"... I may not find the story interesting or of great value, but I definitely feel all the parts that make up the "phenomenon" are interesting. Thus, my decision to finally watch the first film. I have not yet watched New Moon, but plan to soon - for the sake of thoroughness.

I tried rather unsuccessfully to go in with a fairly open mind. Most of the film confirmed the picture painted for me by clips I'd seen, opinions of other viewers (both proponents and critics), and the little of the books I have read: the camera work was strange and sometimes just bad, the acting often provoked, and the screenplay seemed to do little to improve upon the weak writing of the novel. On a technical level, I've seen worse films, but rarely worse films with such a wide appeal and large box office take.

My biggest bias going into the film, though, was around the Bella/Edward relationship. I tried to clear my mind and approach it as my 13 year old sister might - as a tragic, romantic melodrama. However, when only 30 minutes into the film Edward tells Bella that she would stay away from him, I realized that I would not be able to. I can understand and appreciate the allure of the mysterious stranger - the man you just can't figure out. However, my understanding fails when that man tells you that he has to restrain himself from killing you whenever you're near (minute 53), that you can't trust him (minute 54), that he's sick and masochistic (minute 56), that he's the most dangerous predator in the world and everything about him is designed to pull you in (minute 53), explains your injuries to your family by saying you fell down two flights of stairs and through a window (minute 103), and that you are his "own personal brand of heroin" (minute 54). Ultimately, Edward himself expresses my concern during the film's first half-hour:

Edward: What if I'm not the hero? What if I'm the bad guy?
The most disturbing thing about all of this for me is that no one and nothing about the film challenges the idea that Edward and his relationship with Bella is ultimately good and romantic. The score of the film contains many discordant strains (particularly early on), but what it ultimately seems to communicate is Romance - there is a discordant, tragic theme in their relationship (she will grow old and die while he stays young, they must hide their love for much of the film), but their love is true and good. The soft focus Edward seems perpetually caught in and the way he shines or sparkles in the sun add to the image of Edward as a perfect romantic figure. And, of course, compared to the relatively "normal" and ridiculous boys Bella is surrounded with otherwise, he is. None of the characters in the film seem to have a problem with the relationship, aside from the werewolves. This seems to stem more from ancient tribal conflicts and Jacob's own romantic interest in Bella than any actual problems their relationship might pose.

I feel that there is something wrong here. Many people talk about Twilight as a Gothic romance, and that this explains away the problems in their relationship and its presentation to young women as something to which they should aspire. In my (rather limited, I admit) experiences, it seems that Gothic romances with their brooding, moody, often dangerous heroes usually present the heroes as just that - dangerous. It is not a good idea to get involved with them, and at least one character in the story makes this known. Catherine and Heathcliff's relationship in Wuthering Heights is presented as fundamentally flawed and twisted. Despite their intense attraction (love?) and attachment, it is clear to everyone that nothing good will come of it. In Jane Eyre, we have a brooding, often rude yet somehow charismatic hero, this time significantly older than his heroine - just as in Twilight. Jane does fall in love with this man, but when she finally learns of the danger to both her person (embodied in his mad, violent, and attic-confined secret wife) and her reputation, self-esteem, and values (by becoming his mistress) she decides that love is not enough and leaves. I will admit that this may have more to do with the mores of the age in which Bronte was writing, but I think it is significant that Jane evaluates the effect a liason with Rochester would have on her life. Also, her initial acceptance of her lover's proposal only comes when she can declare they are equals and she is not dependent on him (in the novel, she is able to do so through inheriting a sum of money). Jane does not revel in the power Rochester holds over her or find it romantic. While the Gothic romance shows the allure of the dark and dangerous protagonist, they do so in a way that still exposes the danger and (sometimes) borderline abusive nature of the relationship. Not so in Twilight.

This brings me to my ideas for fulfilling a requirement of my Visual Research Methods course - a video essay on/as visual culture. For my video essay, I want to explore this notion of the unhealthy or abusive nature of the Bella/Edward relationship. I want to shift the focus away from Bella, however. Many people (Twilight enthusiasts included) disparage Bella as whiny, weak, and undeserving of the (perfect, romantic, strong) men who love her. While I don't argue that there isn't validity in these arguments (I find it amusing that Bella gives advice to one of her friends about being a "strong, independent woman"), I think they mask the fact that those men send off a lot of red flags associated with abusive partners.

Thus, my thesis: While the narrative, score, and Twihards present Edward as romantic and the perfect boyfriend - something to aspire to - he much more closely resembles an abusive partner. I plan to explore this idea by opening with images of Edward fans that demonstrate the idea of Edward as romantic and the "perfect boyfriend" (a theme repeated over and over on the message boards I've visited). Ideally, I would follow this with a conversation with my mother about the abusive relationships in which she has seen her friends become involved (in the context of the National Domestic Violence Hotline's lists "Am I Being Abused?" and "Teen Dating Abuse") over scenes/images from Twilight that demonstrate the ways Edward syncs up with many descriptions of abusers. My hope is that removing Edward's actions and dialogue from the narrative and score-related constructs that construe them as "romantic" and juxtaposing them with dialogue about real-life abusive relationships will help give more light to the abusive undertones of the behavior of this "perfect" man/boyfriend. My audience for the essay would primarily be those students in my class, but I also hope it would appeal to young fans of Twilight like my sister who may not otherwise see the links between the film and patterns of abuse.

Obviously, that is a very rough sketch of the final project, but I would love to hear your thoughts!

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bodicegoddess said...

I have not seen the movie, but I've read Twilight at the behest of my mother, who works with a few Twilight moms. I also knew that my cousins loved it, so, despite my own unwillingness, and the fact that I was living on a boat for a week, I breezed through the book in about a day or two.

Setting aside the fact that it's poorly written, moves slowly, and focuses far too much on how terrible it is to live in the Pacific Northwest, I read the same things about the relationship between Bella and Edward.

It's an incredibly destructive relationship, and the most bothersome thing about it to me is that I have 12-15 year old cousins who think that that's the way the world works! I opened a few of their eyes to it this year (at Christmas - HA!) when they started to talk about Twilight. The few that were there - siblings - had their parents go through a divorce this year. They've seen their share of abusive and destructive relationships. After hearing them croon about Edward, I said, "You guys do realize that Bella's in an abusive relationship, right?"
They didn't at first, until I reminded them that he a) causes her to be in a situation where she's on the run from her family and friends to get away from him; and 2) flat-out tells her he's going to kill her if she's not careful. Then they started to think of things on their own - it was kind of nice.

One thing to remember is that Stephanie Meyer is a Mormon, a culture known as having a nice bedrock of abusive relationships. If I were you, I'd interview a few lapsed Mormons who've also read Twilight and get their take from that unique perspective (I can give you at least one e-mail addy). When I found out this fact, the relationships made a bit more sense to me.

I'm 100% with @wilw on this one - the only time a vampire should sparkle is when you push it into the sunlight, right before it bursts into flames.

(Also? The popularity of this book means that the short story I wrote 5 years ago with a character named "Isabella" who goes by "Bella" as an homage to Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" is never going to go anywhere.)

Saralyn said...

While I agree with you on most points, I do feel it's important to point out that Bella doesn't go on the run to get away from Edward - not in the movie, anyway. He does cause her to be in a situation where she must run for her life and lie to everyone about it, though, which I feel is just as significant.

Also, I think I'm going to stay away from the Mormon angle on this. While I've read some interesting things about the connections between the books and Mormonism, I feel like that road can easily devolve into something unpleasant (and outside the scope of the project).

...also, can I just say that I'm sorry about your Bella story, but ask if you've seen "Mickey Mouse Monopoly"? There's a great bit in there about the abusive undercurrents in Disney's "Beauty and the Beast".

bodicegoddess said...

I don't blame you for staying away from the Mormonism angle; it does, however, explain where the author is coming from just a bit more than reading the book would suggest.

As for the running away thing - the point is it's 98% his fault. Sure, it causes the last 100 or so pages of the book to be 100x better than the first 300, but still: the fact is that if he had just stayed away from her, she would not have been in that situation at all.

I haven't seen "Mickey Mouse Monopoly," and yeah, I do acknowledge that there's abusive/unhealthy situations in the film (/story). Doesn't stop the fact that it's one of only two animated features to date to be nominated for the Oscar for Best Picture (the other being "Up"). Also, it's always been one of my favorite movies of all time. I think I can blame Belle for making me learn how to walk and read at the same time. She's also one of the stronger female characters in Disney (behind Jasmine, obviously), and it's probably because of her that I started to feel drawn to the works of Joss Whedon (except Buffy) - lots of strong female characters.

As I'm typing this, my media player, on random shuffle of all of my music, started playing "Belle" - Little town, it's a quite village...

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