Hating Twilight is so 2009, and with the newest installment, Breaking Dawn, ruling the box office, the juggernaut hardly needs defenders. But the virulent seriousness of the haters is surprising. Many of the reviews have heaped disproportionate and moralizing scorn on an Oscar-winning director’s fantasy enactment of a young girl’s dreams and fears. Kristen Stewart and her co-stars have been excoriated for their “sullen” and “wooden” performances despite receiving respectable and sometimes highly favorable reviews in other movies in which they have starred.
The negative reactions fall in two camps: The dismissive camp simply mocks Twilight’s incorporation of silly, “moony” elements like undying love and the surprisingly authentic portrayal of wedding ritual, honeymoon jitters and the shock of unintended pregnancy; the topics are apparently too boring and unrelatable for most reviewers. The deluded camp, conversely, takes Twilight far too seriously, faulting it for leading young girls to mistake fantasy for reality in dangerous, disempowering ways.
It makes you wonder if some people missed the memo that hundreds of millions of females, like their male counterparts, enjoy their fantasy life straight-up weird, sexy, and implausible.
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Why is it that female fantasies are such a source of derision and fear? The male species is allowed all manner of violent, creepy, ludicrous and degrading movie tropes, and while we may not embrace them as high art, no one questions them seriously as entertainment, even when sometimes we probably should. (Violent imagery is, after all, associated with violent behavior.) You want to saw someone in half or put their head in a vise? Showcase naked strippers as a fake plot device? Pair a beautiful and successful career woman with a slovenly, unemployed man? Pretend you are Wolverine? Go right ahead. We know you can’t really be serious. But watch a tender wedding night between a virginal, undead superhero and his teenage, human bride, and the scolds come out in force. Are parents worried that their teenage daughter actually wants to be impregnated by a 100-year-old vampire who can crush a headboard with his hands (and perform an emergency C-section with his teeth)?
Maybe part of the reason critics deplore these movies is not only because they are so unfamiliar with kooky heterosexual female fantasies but also because they don’t really like what these fantasies say about men.
The discomfiting reality of the Twilight phenomenon is the way it strips off the veneer of détente between the sexes. For all the progress we promised our daughters, women’s bodily experiences mark them in ways not only unimaginable, but also uninteresting and even repulsive, to men. When was the last time (or only time) you saw a movie that featured menstruation? (The Runaways, directed by … a woman.)
Most mothers know the sense of their body being taken over by aliens, and more than 500,000 women still die in childbirth every year worldwide. Is it really so surprising that we would be drawn to Bella’s gruesome tribulations? For all its tremendous ick factor and craziness, the vampire-hybrid delivery captured with excruciating realism the desperation (on poor Edward’s bloodied face) that attends a birth when things go badly wrong. You could hear a pin drop at the screening my daughter and I attended. The gothic horror felt more palpable because it merely exaggerated, rather than imagined sui generis, what many women go through every day. We sure know blood.
The other thing women know all too well is the lurking danger of men. The idea of a wildly earnest romantic lead who isn’t demanding oral sex in the high school parking lot (and who happens to look like Robert Pattinson) is all very appealing, no? Yet our perfect vampire man, alas, also has the capacity to inflict serious harm — much like in the non-cinematic world, as even 5-year-old girls can intuit.
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You don’t have to read Steven Pinker’s fine new book on violence, The Better Angels of our Nature, to grasp that women have always been its singular victims. The devastating power of rape, which results in pregnancy 5% of the time, according to a 1996 study in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, is its ability to “change the progeny” of a woman forever. This threat often clouds our real lives and it certainly clouds our confused notions of entertainment. Is it any wonder that the young man whose heart Bella tosses aside for Edward is, you guessed it, a wolf? As one of my jaded neighbors once opined, “All men is half dog.”
If this offends you, take a number. Women have long endured men’s insulting and unhinged fantasies. Just lie back and enjoy the estrogen drip.