At pains to defend the latest chaotic and confused installment of The Twilight Saga, Mathilda Gregory reads it as a transgressive anti-fairytale about perils of femininity
Twilight: Breaking Dawn (Part I) opens with shoes. Well, it actually opens with hot-werewolf Jacob (Taylor Lautner), who realises he’s been on screen for three seconds with his shirt on, so takes his shirt off and runs into a wood. Then we move on to the shoes, as Bella (Kristen Stewart), rehearsing for her wedding, tries to learn to walk in a ridiculous pair of heels that are cartoonishly high and far higher than anything anyone would really wear to a wedding. And so it begins, this complicated mess of a film, which seems to be attempting to answer everything you ever wanted to know about femininity, but were utterly terrified to ask.
It’s now chapter four of Gothic romance juggernaut Twilight and its protagonist, Bella, is growing up. She’s a woman now, and this film is concerned with her attempts to perform femininity. So we get a sequence where Bella – who up until this point had barely removed her hoodie onscreen – fumbles her way through the shaving off bits of body hair and considers wedding night lingerie. It’s as if, after so long a staring at sparkly vampire Edward (Robert Pattinson), Bella’s body is finally up for grabs.
And it starts with the most traditional commodification of the female body: a wedding. Bella’s exact motivations for marrying Edward are, well, confused. Okay, look, Edward cannot have sex with Bella because he is a vampire, and vamp-on-human sexy times will probably kill her, but Bella really wants to have sex with him because he is so sparkly. But he won’t turn her into a vampire, which would make the sex okay, because that would be wrong for reasons unclear. However, for some reason, if they get married Edward will have to have sex with her because it will be their honeymoon. So, apparently, she is mainly marrying him because this is some kind of loophole that will mean them having sex. Even though he doesn’t actually seem to want to: what brooding, tortured Edward Cullen actually wants is of no interest to the plot of Twilight, ever.
Mostly because of author Stephanie Meyer’s own religious beliefs, some people have plucked from this confused marriage plot a message about abstinence, but it’s really not that simple. Similarly, notions that Edward is forcing Bella into violent, damaging sex are a long way from the reality of the narrative.
I tend to respond to people concerned about the abstinence messages in Twilight with a nod towards some of the more bizarre (unofficial) Twilight merchandise available, such as Twilight condoms, sparkling Twilight vibrators and Twilight knickers with pictures of Edward’s face on the inside.
Out of respect for your delicate, ladylike constitutions I am not telling you about vampire-themed sanitary towels – but just think what vampires drink. These items must mean that whatever the intended message of Twilight is, some readers, trust me, are not taking away one about abstinence: quite the contrary.
So, after the wedding they go on a honeymoon and enjoy a ludicrous sex scene where the headboard breaks symbolically as Edward, presumably, plunges through Bella’s hymen (have I mentioned yet that this movie is absurd? This movie is absurd) and Bella wakes in the morning covered in, um… feathers. Symbolical, much, Twilight Breaking Dawn (Part One)?
The thing is, this scene is ludicrous but still pretty cogent compared with some other things in this film. For instance, how they get Bella’s baby out of her womb is jaw-dropping, kinda literally.
For someone who has defended the first three movies, Twilight: Breaking Dawn presents something of a challenge. It is essentially the point at which the franchise leaps off a cliff and, just before you ask, Edward is not around to catch it.
When Breaking Dawn, book four of the Twilight series, came out, it was met with some incredulity. Some even speculated that it was a piece of fevered fanfiction published as the novel by mistake. This strange, strange story must have been a challenge to film makers. It has some utterly ridiculous twists and turns and splitting the book into two films is not helpful as it leaves us in Part One with a chunk of story in which there is no external threat and people are just dealing with their own self-made problems. They are, however, pretty extreme problems.
See, Bella gets pregnant. Look, I am just going to spoil this film for you so go away and watch it if you must and then come back, because I have to talk about these things. And the consequences of the vampire baby inside her are grim. Meanwhile Edward fades into the background. As his spawn eats his wife from the inside, he spends the second half of the film in the background, doing little and voicing no opinions. Not even about the fact that, you know, the woman he is apparently hopelessly, bed-breakingly in love with is allowing herself to die for spurious reasons. If you want to know who the really passive Twilight character is, Edward fits the bill.
Essentially, this flurry of impossibly volcanic honeymoon sex followed by grotesque pregnancy and birth is like a teenage girl’s fantasy of what it’s like to be an adult woman. From the enveloping crush on the monstrous masculine to the horrific reality of another creature living inside your body, devouring you and then breaking you in half to escape.
This makes it frustrating to hear Twilight so often dismissed as meaningless trash. That knee jerk reaction suggests that young women like it so it must be worthless. Oh yes, Twilight is trash, so what? Every demographic has their beloved, problematic trash. And it is not meaningless. Far from it. It is a treasure trove of conflicted, troublesome meaning. What makes that impulsive sight-unseen dismissal of Twilight so wrong is that it is so complicated.
Some people do think that Stephanie Meyer is trotting out a fable about the wonders of morality, marriage and monogamy. But, if she is, she’s not making a very good job of it. Bella doesn’t transgress those rules: she gets married before she loses her virginity and gets straight down to the breeding. Still, the consequences for her are leg-crossingly awful.
Twilight is very true to its roots in Gothic fiction, which at its origins was seen as a trivial form of culture for the consumption of women. Gothic novels were often written by repressed women who, in their lurid prose, revealed far more about their inner desires than they appeared to realise. Could Meyer be giving away more than she realises about the traditional femininity she would seem to be espousing? This story could almost be read as a wholly trangressive one. An anti-fairytale, showing that following a path of lust to the inevitable happily-ever-after of life as a dutiful wife and mother is a horrendous fate.