While the first Twilight film was directed by a woman, all subsequent adaptations have had males at the helm. The first adaptation, directed by Catherine Hardwicke, featured a Bella that was stronger than her book counterpart. Alas, the subsequent films have not similarly strengthened Bella’s character, and, in various instances, have made her weaker, clumsier, and even more lovestruck than she is in the books.
Granted, a female director does not a more-feminist film make, but, as documented so well by Melissa Silverstein here at Women and Hollywood, and at other feminist film cites such as Bitch Flicks, women behind the camera often result in more nuanced representations of gender, sexuality, and social inequalities. Whether you call it the male gaze or call it the Hollywood Boy’s Club, less women calling the shots and writing the scripts results in LESS complex female characters and MORE hyper-sexualized stereotypical depictions of women. Breaking Dawn: Part 1 is no exception.
The film opens with Bella wobbling around in white “fuck-me pumps,” noting she will likely fall down. Though the night before her wedding Bella has a dream of her and Edward in white wedding garb atop a pile of dead and bloodied bodes, this does not give her pause – no, nothing, not even Edward’s warning that she will become a bloodthirsty “monster” like him, deters her.
Showcasing a wedding to rival the opulence of the recent royal wedding and the over-the-top expenditure of Kardashian nuptials, the “blessed event” is awash in white flowers and a fancy cake the size of a small car. Here, the adaptation ignores the book’s depictions of Bella as someone who eschews glitz, furthering the message that ALL women LOVE big, fancy weddings. Fittingly, Alice then warns Bella in her toast that she will have to learn to like make up and skirts and shopping – the underlying message being “I will teach you to be a real woman.”
During the honeymoon, Bella is shown as full of trepidation, as a “good girl” who has no sexual experience rather than as the “kiss me quick” Bella of Catherine Hardwicke’s Twilight. While in Eclipse she was depicted as a little too eager for Edward’s marble hardness, in the final film, she is appropriately demure. Later, she tells Edward “it’s ok” after he breaks the headboard and brings the bed canopy crashing down, playing the part of comforting female who tells her violent beau not to worry that he can’t control himself. What a lovely message for all the young people in the audience! “Don’t worry if you bruise me baby, I still luv you!”
Her post-coital bruises are highly sanitized (as discussed in my Ms. review) and she doesn’t argue much with Edward’s insistence that sex is now out of the question, until, that is, she literally begs for it, crying “please…please” to no avail. These scenes don’t depict her with powerful sexual agency but rather with whimpering needs that she duplicitously tries to fulfill by tempting the good Edward with tight-fitting, body exposing lingerie. Here, the message seems to be, don’t use your words ladies, use your bodies. Ugh!
Once her pregnancy is discovered, Bella transforms from unfulfilled horny young wife to super-mom – valiantly insisting to carry out a pregnancy that is guaranteed to kill her. Looking skeletal and ashen, with bruised, gaunt features, Bella is depicted as literally wasting away as a result of the pregnancy. Alas, the film does not frame her as crazy for her seeming death wish, but as heroic, according to the common suggestion that the only way women can be heroes is through mothering. This idea is hit home when she tells Jacob, “I can do this, I’m strong enough.” Ah, funny how at the start of the film she was worried about walking in high heels let alone walking down the aisle without falling, yet now that she is pregnant she is suddenly uber-strong and confident. What a difference a human-vampire fetus makes!
As she sits curled on the couch, her toothpick legs tucked under her bruised pregnant tummy, she doesn’t seem all that strong though – instead, she looks like a zombie corpse, too weak to get up or walk on her own – so weak, in fact, that the fetus ultimately breaks her spine and she crumples to the floor, a bony rag doll. The closing birth scene is more sanitized than depicted in the book however –there are no crunching bone sounds, no images of the vampire-human hybrid gnawing its way out of the womb, no vomiting of blood. This less-horrific adaptation is in keeping with the film’s suggestion that her choice is the right one – a choice that is not so much a choice as pro-life message wrapped in a vampire themed happily-ever-after package.
Also problematic and ick-inducing are the poorly handled imprinting scenes, where Jacob “imprints” on baby Renessmee. As he looks into the baby’s eyes, he envisions her as a young girl, a teen, and then a women. He falls to his knees in front of baby Renessmee at the close of the scene, in gooey admiration. With child sexual abuse scandals rocking the nation, it would be hard to pull off any depiction of the imprinting strand of the narrative that doesn’t call to mind sexual abuse and pedophilia – but the director’s choice to have the baby age in Jacob’s mind doesn’t make the ick-factor more palatable – if anything, it emphasizes that Jacob sees the baby he falls in love with AS the woman she will become. Ick ick ick.
Would Hardwicke have done better with these gendered components of the film? Who knows. She was never given the chance. Once the movies went big budget, they also went to male directors. Hmmmm, what a coincidence.
Natalie Wilson, PhD is a literature and women’s studies scholar, blogger, and author. She teaches at Cal State San Marcos and specializes in the areas of gender studies, feminism, feminist theory, girl studies, militarism, body studies, boy culture and masculinity, contemporary literature, and popular culture. Read more.