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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 11/08/2010 11:42:00 PM

You may remember the assignment I completed for my visual research methods course with the fantastic Alex Juhasz.  Well, this Friday, November 12, I will be presenting it as part of the Vampire Love area of the 2010 Film & History Conference in Milwaukee, WI.  The theme for the conference this year is "Representations of Love in Film and Television" and the Keynote Speaker will be Laura Mulvey - so you can only imagine how excited I am to participate.  It's a great opportunity to present a unique piece of scholarship of which I am quite proud and will be the focus of future research I do, and I get to visit the "beer capital of the world".

For those who cannot be at the panel (happening November 12, 2:30-4p, Session 236B – Lakeshore C (1st Floor) for those who will be there), I've decided to post the brief presentation I will give before showing the video essay.  After thinking on it, I decided to contextualize the video essay - what drew me to the project, the Twilight debates, my approach in/to the video essay - rather than .  This is partly to avoid being repetitive, but also because .  Part of the reason I chose the medium of video essay to address its specific topic was that it allowed me to do so in a way a traditional paper could not.  Trying to translate the video essay into a traditional paper/presentation format would be very difficult and would destroy some of its impact and insight.  Needless to say, I am curious how my work will fit into the conference proceedings...

That said, my presentation lies behind the jump!  Enjoy and please, please let me know if you have any comments or suggestions.

Twilight's Romantic(?) Hero"
    My presentation today is going to be a bit different from most of those here at the conference, as my “paper” itself is actually a video essay that I'll be showing in a few minutes and hopefully everyone in the back of the room will be able to see and hear. In the films Twilight and New Moon, the fandom, and the media frenzy surrounding the films and books, the character of Edward Cullen is constructed as the perfect boyfriend – a romantic ideal that young women should desire. However, early in Twilight Edward himself poses the question “What if I'm not the hero? What if I'm...the bad guy?”. While the score, script and mise-en-scene of the films seemingly negate this possibility, my video essay questions the construction of Twilight's Edward as an unquestionably idyllic romantic hero by probing the abusive or borderline abusive undertones in the first two films. As the video essay does most of this work, I'm going to just give some contextualization about the Twilight series and phenomenon, what brings me to this project, and the video essay itself before showing the video.
    Because, in truth, I am not a Twilight fan - my work proceeds from a different place from that which Henry Jenkins has deemed "aca-fandom." From my first experience with the global phenomenon – in which a mass of (mostly female teenage) fans drawing autograph line tickets at Comic Con 2008 gave me a splitting headache from their excited and constant screams at winning tickets – to learning that both my teenage sister and my mother (who, interestingly, is a college professor in speech and theater arts) are fans (although not to that same extent), I've been both confused by (and fascinated with) all things Twilight.  As I mentioned, this is not the fascination of an aca-fan, but something that takes my own confusion, although that's probably not quite the right term, as a motivation for study. The more I look at the books and films, the more interested in and distressed by their representations of gender and relationships I am, particularly in the case of the Bella and Edward relationship.
    As evidenced not only by this panel but by a plethora of articles in major newspapers, threads on Twilight and anti-Twilight message boards, blog posts at feminist sites like Jezebel as well as mainstream and independent blogs, I am not alone in my critical stance toward Twilight. It often seems as though there are just as many “haters” or critical voices as there are Twilight fans, the more intense of which are called “Twifans”, “Twilighters”, or “Twihards”. Some distaste for the series is chalked up to the perceived poor writing quality of the books and the poor quality of acting/directing/screenplay/plot in the films. While Ebert tepidly recognized that Twilight does exactly what its “target audience” needs/wants & is therefore somewhat successful, he wrote of New Moon that “The characters in this movie should be arrested for loitering with intent to moan” (Ebert) and another reviewer stated “For the uninitiated who have never read the books (such as myself), Twilight is the sort of cinematic sludge that will result in hair loss as you frustratingly pull strands from your head while watching” (Grimm). Much criticism (popular and academic alike) has also focused on the characters themselves – especially how weak, passive and/or stupid Bella is (in fan communities this is sometimes expressed as an lack of identification with her or stating that she's “whiny” and not good enough for Edward/Jacob) or, sometimes, questions over the desirability of Edward/Jacob (the more inflammatory forms of this manifesting in the “Edward is so gay!” etc “flamers”).
    These criticisms, while sometimes useful and well-founded, often elide the very aspect of the series that gives me such pause: the abusive undertones of the Bella-Edward relationship. As someone with a background in a feminism and sociology and personal experience with friends and family members who have experienced abusive, borderline abusive, or unhealthy controlling relationships, the construction (and acceptance, if Edward's fan following is any indication) of behaviors by Edward that are distressingly close to those of abusive partners as romantic concerns me. When I first created the video essay I'm showing today, it didn't seem like many people were talking about this aspect of the series, but I am finding more and more. One brief, humorous, and fantastic example is Feminist Frequency blogger Anita Sarkeesian's brief video “The Real Reason Guys Should Hate Twilight”, where she responds to the homophobic, patriarchal “Edward's so gay!” viewpoint espoused in so many videos on the internet by inviting the men to (say it with her) “I hate Twilight because Edward is a creepy, manipulative overprotective stalker” (Sarkeesian). It's even illustrated Sing-along style with the text and a bouncing ball on screen.
    Unfortunately, many of the critiques of the Twilight saga on this point (as with others) often seem (either explicitly or implicitly) to be mocking or chastising the fans of the series for enjoying it and not “getting it”. For example, Sarah Haskins, host/creator of Infomania on CurrentTV's section Target: Women – usually a sharp and funny look at how advertising and the entertainment industry try to represent and “capture” female consumers – spent most of her segment on Twilight conducting “interviews” with female fans seemingly designed to make the women look like idiots. I know from personal experience that such an approach tends to shut down conversation with fans about what are very real issues in the series, as they go on the defensive.
    I thought that this could be approached in a different way, which was the driving force for this video essay. Despite my own personal distaste, ambivalence or concerns with the books and films, I don't think we can completely discount the pleasures fans get from the series or the very legitimate social and/or psychological factors that make the series appealing for them. It's a little outside the scope of my presentation today, so I'll just touch on it briefly, but in her essay “Vampire Love: The Second Sex Negotiates the Twenty-first Century” Bonnie Mann does a lovely job of briefly arguing that, while legal oppression of women in the West in the 21st century has largely abated, much of the oppressive sexualization and the pressures of gender conformity have shifted to the media and “private” spheres (137-139). Personally, I wonder if the attraction of what detractors have called Twilight's “abstinence porn” isn't somewhat rooted in the seemingly ever-present sexualization of young and ever younger women in our media saturated environment. But, back to the task at hand. I tried to create the video essay as something that could open up dialogue about the potentially distressing nature of Twilight's supposedly romantic hero, Edward Cullen.
    The essay – which, I promise, is coming in just a moment – is focused on the first two films, as Eclipse had not yet been released when I created the video, and the way the aesthetics and narrative mask abusive (or unhealthy or borderline abusive) undertones of Edward's character and behavior, which are instead coded as “romantic”. I was originally going to talk a little about the structure of the essay, but I think it's fairly self-explanatory so, in the interest of time, I can just address it in the Q&A if anyone has any questions.
    As you watch, those of you familiar with the films may feel like some things are “taken out of context” - which, incidentally, was actually my mother's first criticism of the video. And, honestly, it isn't an unfair one – there are incidents taken out of context, but this is a very conscious part of the project. The very aesthetic and narrative “contexts” of the situations legitimate and rationalize the situations, so removing them from those contexts is one way to start breaking them down and reevaluating them. My mother's reaction is also one that I hope would actually come up if or when I get the opportunity to actually screen the video with teenagers/Twilight fans, as I think it might provide a fertile gateway to dialogue about the films and what work they do regarding the representation of Edward's creepy and questionable behavior.

    Creative Commons License
    Twilight - The Epitome of Romance? by Saralyn Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

    Ebert, Roger. “The Twilight Saga: New Moon : Reviews.” rogerebert.com 18 Nov. 2009. Web. 7 Nov. 2010.
    Grimm, Bob. “The Moping Undead | Cinema Feature.” Tucson Weekly 27 Nov. 2008. Web. 7 Nov. 2010.
    Hardwicke, Catherine. Twilight. Summit Entertainment, 2009. DVD.
    Haskins, Sarah. “Target Women: Vampires.” infoMania || CurrentTV 4 Dec. 2008. Web. 7 Nov. 2010.
    Mann, Bonnie. “Vampire Love: The Second Sex Negotiates the Twenty-first Century.” Twilight and Philosophy: Vampires, Vegetarians, and the Pursuit of Immortality. Ed. Rebecca Housel & Jeremy Wisnewski. Hoboken, N.J: John Wiley & Sons, 2009. 131-146. Print.  
    Sarkeesian, Anita. The Real Reason Guys Should Hate Twilight. 2009. Web Video.
    Weitz, Chris. The Twilight Saga: New Moon. Summit Entertainment, 2009. DVD.

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