With a sense of trepidation and mild disbelief, I bought myself a ticket on Monday to see Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part One, with the idea that I should see what all the fuss is about. I emerged two hours later, rueful, even a little shell-shocked: there really are some things that you’ll never be able to un-see, and Twilight, as it turns out, is one of them.
The important question, though, isn’t “Just how bad is the new Twilight flick?” but “What is it about these certifiably awful films that has captured so many people’s imaginations?” Like so many Michael Bay movies, the Twilight series has overcome generally poor reviews to ride to box-office success, yet it bears little resemblance to Bay-type blockbusters. Beyond its vampires and werewolves, Breaking Dawn has none of the characteristics of a fantasy or sci-fi film, without spectacular set pieces or epic battles or even the darkness of tone that one might expect from something dealing with its subject matter. Its closest cinematic kin isn’t Harry Potter but the Underworld films, which have been reliable, if unspectacular, earners for Sony.
Where Twilight has found its success, of course, has been in its appeal to women: an incredible eighty percent of the opening weekend audience was female, and when I looked around a crowded-if-not-packed Monday night theater I couldn’t have counted more than four or five men, including myself, in the audience. Deconstructing the appeal of Twilight, then, must mean understanding what it is about these films that is so attractive not ‘to people’ in general but ‘to women’ in particular. We’ve all heard of the chick flick, but Twilight isn’t that – it’s a chick blockbuster, something that Hollywood has never really seen before.
Actually, let’s stay with the ‘chick flick’ angle, because I think it is a revealing one. The stereotypical chick flick – the one that husbands and boyfriends groan about when their significant others bring it up, then go anyways – is the romantic comedy, a familiar genre going back to the Golden Age of Hollywood and before. Boy meets girl; hijinks and misunderstandings occur; boy and girl split; boy tries to win girl back; they all live happily ever after. This seems to be, more or less, the storyline of the Twilight movies: they may not be comedy (at least not intentionally), but they are romantic, and with the added bonus that ‘happily ever after’ can be read as ‘happily forever and ever.’ Twilight simply does what any successful genre hybrid does. In reappropriating the tropes of the romantic comedy for a fantasy film, it rejuvenates and re-empowers them. What was in Letters to Juliet a recipe for sentimental schlock suddenly becomes a treatise on everlasting, undying love.
In that vein, there’s much to be said on the film’s portrayal of its male characters. Feminist critics like to talk about how Hollywood reduces women to objects of male fantasy, sex objects that exist to please and titillate their mostly-male audiences. Hollywood has responded to this criticism by trying to insert ‘strong’ female characters into its movies, a la the fight-evil-and-look-good-doing-it female action characters of The Matrix or, most recently, In Time. These characters still end up being hypersexualized, however, either because we are at some point made to see that they look good in a dress (I refer you to the the trailer for the new Mission: Impossible movie, among any number of possible examples) or because they invariably end up taking their clothes off.
Well, turnabout is fair play, after all; Twilight, in my view, is just as much a female sex fantasy as any Lara Croft-type character is a male one. Sure, part of that is in Taylor Lautner’s never-out-of-sight-for-long abdominals, which make an appearance within the first minute of Breaking Dawn: one female friend of mine told me that one of the reasons that she watched the Twilight films was that it gave her a chance to look at bare-chested men. Really, though, the men who figure in Twilight, not just rival love interests Edward and Jacob but even Bella Swan’s father Charlie, aren’t so much sex objects as they are ‘affection’ objects, emasculated adorers whose only function is to make Bella feel loved.
If this seems like an unlikely claim, one need only consider what these three characters do over the course of Breaking Dawn. Charlie Swan puts aside his distrust of Bella’s choice of mate and walks her down the aisle; later on, when she is pretending to be sick on her honeymoon (actually pregnant with a half-human, half-vampire demon child, by the way) he states his intention to fly to wherever she is and bring her home immediately. Okay, but he is her father: perhaps it is to be expected that he would be so protective, though to be so after she has just been married seems mildly overbearing. Edward, meanwhile – the vampire that she weds at the beginning of Breaking Dawn, if you’re not familiar with the story – refuses to touch her after the headboard-annihilating consummation of their marriage because it has left her with bruises on her back and arms, even though such noble submission of the self seems misguided when she herself is unbothered by it. (That said, Edward may be forgiven for not believing it when Bella asks, “Why can’t you see how perfectly happy I am?”, given that Kristen Stewart’s wooden acting comes off making her seem like she isn’t happy at all.) Submission of the self characterizes Jacob’s interactions with Bella as well. His conflicts with the protagonist are never about how what she does affects him but because he worries about what the consequences of her decisions will be for her. Similarly, when Jacob and Edward argue, it is because of their rivalry over Bella, and when they join forces it is likewise because they agree that Bella’s safety is more important than their disagreements.
Admittedly, the I-know-best attitude that all of them take with Bella may smack of misogyny. The problem with such a rebuttal is that it ignores that fact that none of them have much of a personality or identity beyond their love for the protagonist. They really think that they’re behaving in her best interest, and in the end they always let her do what she wants, swearing to support and protect her no matter what. Despite his temper tantrums and his musculature, no character is as emasculated as Jacob, who rejects his tribe for Bella even after she has gone off and married someone else. To the women who had made Twilight a blockbuster, this may be read as the ultimate romantic sacrifice and a testament to some sort of twisted modern ideal of courtly love. Such an idea of romance, however, is one that denies men any interiority except insofar as it is overpowered by their love – some might say obsession – for a particular woman.
The point, of course, isn’t that women (necessarily) desire the attention of such emasculated males but that this form of emasculation works, however meretriciously, towards constructing the movie’s ideal of perfect, undying romance. Crucial to this as well is the fact that this movie has no ambitions to be about good and evil or right and wrong in the way that more male-oriented fare usually is. There are no ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys,’ not really: conflicts are personal, not political or moral, and so, in Twilight’s romantic ideal, they are insignificant, and therefore resolvable, in the face of the power of love. Twilight is a character-driven movie in a genre and medium that are almost always plot-driven, and women tend to prefer more character-driven fare, as the fact that so many girls (and so few boys) like Pride and Prejudice and stories of its ilk is indicative of. At least part of Twilight’s success is that it’s a cross-genre spectacle that’s aimed at women and that plays its brand of misandryst romance to the hilt.
The reason that that fact alone can overpower its obvious cinematic and narrative weaknesses has as much to do with the scarcity of female-slanted offerings as it does with any actual strengths of the film. I can’t believe I’m writing this, but Twilight isn’t a phenomenon so much as a beneficiary of Hollywood’s almost willful ignorance of half of its potential audience. We could have drawn the same conclusion when Mamma Mia! grossed twelve times its budget back in 2008 and Meryl Streep went off on how Hollywood ignores women, but the sample size at that point was too small. What Twilight has definitively proved is that there’s a huge female audience out there that’s just as willing to pay for schlock as the male audience is. It just wants that schlock to be something that caters to its own interests, not to its boyfriend’s.