Bella’s Eclipsed Role in Twilight Lacks Fangs

As The Twilight Saga: Eclipse hit theaters this week, fans and critics alike anticipated a film packed with both more action and more romance, and they weren’t disappointed. But feminist critics ought to be, as Bella (Kristen Stewart) continues to be less a person than a puppet, a character who is pulled from scene to scene, rarely making a move except at someone else’s suggestion or desire. She is not a contributor to the action sequences and is a prize, not a participant, in the love-triangle romance around which the series revolves. When all is said and done, Bella isn’t much of a hero.

As I pointed out in the Spring 2009 issue of Ms., Twilight saga author Stephanie Meyer wrote on her website that she sees Bella as a feminist character because, for Meyer, the foundation of feminism is being able to choose. But if this is the criterion, there is still little to indicate in Eclipse that Bella is much of a feminist. Bella makes few choices. She allows others to manipulate her throughout much of the film and, when finally confronted with making one very important choice, she insists that even this decision has been preordained, manipulated by forces outside her control.

The film centers on the life-altering (or ending) decision Bella must make–choosing between chivalrous, reserved vampire Edward (Robert Pattinson) and hot-blooded, muscular werewolf Jacob (Taylor Lautner). If looked at from a less romantic perspective, one might suggest she take a breath and reconsider making any choice at all. The fact is, both men show signs of becoming potentially abusive partners.

For example, only moments into the movie, Edward disables Bella’s truck in order to keep her from visiting Jacob (a trip endorsed by her father, the local sheriff), because he feels it is “too dangerous” for her. Later, in another attempt to “keep her safe” from some impending danger, he whisks her off for an impromptu visit to see her mother, never giving her the whole story nor giving her the opportunity to make her own decision about whether to stay and face what is coming or to move out of harm’s way.

Jacob is no better. Not only does he insist that he knows Bella’s heart and mind better than she does with an ongoing “you love me, you just don’t know it yet” routine, he goes so far as to force himself on her, kissing her even as she resists him. As noted in my Ms. New Moon review, it isn’t as if these two haven’t gotten physically close, and it’s obvious that Bella sends mixed signals, but by now everyone on the planet knows that no means no. Like Edward, Jacob isn’t offering Bella the chance to make her own decisions so much as he is trying to force his desires on her.

For her part in this whole three-way “romance,” Bella seems content to dither about, playing with both men’s hearts. She accepts Edward’s marriage proposal one evening, only to passionately kiss Jacob the next morning in order to ease the pain he feels upon finding out about it. This isn’t an empowered, “choosing” moment for Bella; she kisses him because she can’t think of anything else to do.

Finally, near the end of the film, Bella must choose between her two suitors. And yet when this big, empowering moment arrives, Bella offers an explanation for her choice that lets her off the hook. Melissa Rosenberg’s script doesn’t have Bella spell things out quite as clearly as Meyer’s narration in the book. Here we have Bella talking in circles about her love for Jacob and what might have been. In the book, Meyer makes it clear that Bella places the blame for her choice on something outside her control.

Bella is the narrator in the Eclipse novel, and she says, “If the world was the sane place it was supposed to be, Jacob and I would have been together. And we would have been happy. He was my soul mate in that world–would have been my soul mate still if his claim had not been overshadowed by something stronger, something so strong that it could not exist in a rational world” (599).

It’s hard to hurt one person by choosing another, and by placing the blame for choosing Edward over Jacob on the insane, irrational world in which she lives instead of on her own needs and desires, Bella abdicates responsibility for that choice, making it no choice at all. If the foundation of feminism is being able to choose, as Meyer insists, and one chooses not to choose, then what sort of feminism is that? It may seem romantic to be swept away by forces outside your control, but it’s not empowering.

One wishes Bella would take control of her life rather than let others make decisions for her or act as if her destiny is preordained. Of course, as anyone who has read the entire saga knows, Bella’s character takes a dramatic turn in Breaking Dawn, the most controversial book in the series. While she’ll never be a feminist hero, and some of the choices she makes makes in Breaking Dawn stir up feminist debate, here, at last, Bella begins to be an active participant in her own life, instead of the passive recipient of others’ well-meaning intentions. That final book will be split into two films, the first of which is expected to be released in 2011.

Photo courtesy of alfredituzz under Creative Commons 3.0.

Comments

  1. I haven’t read or watched Twilight. I have read many critiques, and that is enough to determine my dislike. Twilight haters seem to focus on the liberties Myers has taken with vampire mythology. To that I say, so what? But Ms. Siering here has honed in on my problem with the series.

    Twilight has, in a way, turned a movie trope on its head. We are accustomed to movies that focus on an average looking male lead, who experiences sexual tension with beautiful women. But in those movies, the lead is always his own person, with motivations and choices to whom the women are merely incidental. Not so, Twilight. Even though we are meant to drool over the love interests the way men usually do, the males still drive the story. Bella exists for their sake, not the other way around.

  2. Sue Taylor says:

    I introduced my daughter to the Buffy the Vampire Slayer series as an anti-dote to Twilight. Highly effective.

  3. Rebecca says:

    Oh, finally.

    I personally think the critique on Bella should be more vicious than what the article is making it out to be, but good job anyway. :)

    I think feminism is a combination of the right for a female to choose how to run their own lives, as well as the chance for a female to not let her life be controlled by the opposite sex; a chance for her to find her own identity without men dictating what she should do, and a chance for her to think for herself.

    The Twilight franchise espouses neither. And girls and women are sadly eating this stuff up like it’s Godiva chocolate.

    Palaverer, you are absolutely correct about your conclusion of Bella. I read the books out of curiosity, and because I work in a bookstore. In New Moon, she goes absolutely catatonic after an initial breakup. The author claims she’s being “strong,” when in reality, she’s going around like a zombie…and screaming in her sleep, as the movie does depict rather well.

  4. The article is spot on! I have been a hater of the series ever since I read the book. Stephanie Meyer is one lousy writer. Place her books against JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series and you literally get trash. Loopholes in plot lines, a spineless heroine manipulated around like puppet strings by Jacob and Edward and a mother who is happy to desert her child for the sake of her athlete partner?!

    Like mother, like daughter I suppose.

    What’s even more disturbing is young American teen girls slurping this series up like it was the best literary piece of work ever written when it’s even worse than any Mills and Boon romance. Meyer has definitely swindled the planet with these books.

    The movies are no better and hence the article above which I really agree on. Bella allows herself to drift through most of her situations and she doesn’t seem to have the strength to say ‘No’ in most situations. It also hearkens to her being some sort of passive ego-maniac because both Edward and Jacob give her all the different type of attention this poor girl craves because she herself doesn’t love herself.

    She seeks validation from everyone outside of her and doesn’t see her own inner magnificence and this itself is another glaring example of how bad this sort of behaviour is for young girls and also why people should stop reading the series.

    And that’s my main pet peeve about the series. Perhaps if Meyer had spent more time redefining her idea of feminism, Bella’s character could have been a more action-punching one where her decisions were based on what she wanted out life.

  5. I love this site!!!! Great analysis. Feminism isn’t just making decisions. It’s being able to make decisions that are informed by a clear understanding of our location in a matrix of domination (racism, sexism, etc). Bella is not her own person … she is pulled by the desires of men. In the end, this book is precisely about a young, awkward girl being so desired by men that they battle over their plans for her life. The story isn’t about empowerment it’s about the fantasy of being desired to the point of personal destruction.

  6. As a member of the dark genre fan club I guess I am on a hiding to nothing posting on this site, due to the depiction of females in run of the mill horror movies. Yes we have a lot to answer for in due course.

    The one thing I’ve noted with the “Twilgiht” series, besides the absurd reinvention of the vampire myth, is the depiction of Bella in an even less savoury light than most horror movies. The series has set back the feminist movement by at least ten years and I don’t want to even think about the effects is may have on young women.

    Just a note, loved the review above btw.

  7. Rebecca says:

    You know, Meyer once said that her views subconsciously come through her writing…

    Meyer is a Mormon.

    While I’m aware there are Mormon’s out there that have progressive views (I haven’t met any, but I’m just being optimistic), Meyer clearly isn’t one of those people, judging by the sexist, anti-feminist, mysognistic views that she spews in her books.

    I’m aware that personal beliefs in writing have sent powerful and positive messages in the past, but here’s a perfect example of when that message isn’t quite so positive at all. And people are eating it up because of the abstinence message that the books actually do send. Because of this country’s aversion to sex, people are gobbling it up and not understanding that Edward is an abusive, controlling, stalkerish prick and that Jacob is no better – in fact, his abusive ways are even more colorful and obvious than Edward’s.

    Meyer tapped into teenage insecurities and placed a theme of abstinence and a lack of sex in the books (barring Breaking Dawn). Throw it in with romantic prose, and females everywhere are suddenly eating it up right alongside the sexist media. It’s sickening. I don’t want a protector like Edward or Jacob, I want an equal and a companion to live my life with. Protecting only comes when I’m at my weakest and I voice that I need it.

  8. I am brand new to the Twilight saga, but I am so glad you pointed out the abusive tendencies of Edward and Jacob. I just watched Twilight to see what the hype was about and was horrified at how easily her relationship could have gone really, really wrong in the real world. I’m not pleased to know that it isn’t getting better. On the flip side, though, I am proud of the potentially feminist choices of the women behind the Twilight machine. They are making money in a man’s world with a woman-centered story. Perhaps, the final installments will right old wrongs.

  9. Melissa C says:

    I haven't read or watched Twilight, but it seems to me that a great feminist twist at the end of the saga would be for Bella to forget about both of these guys and decide that she doesn't want either of them!

  10. Well, first of all, I think its important to let Edward off the hook. If the author of the above article bothered to consider Edward's character more carefully, she would have discovered that Edward to all intents and purposes is a 100 year old man, not a teenager. His obsession to protect her stems not from a teenage obsession but rather at his, recent to him, connection to the human world. Edward has been all but indestructible for a 100 years, and has spent most of his life listening to everyone's thoughts. He finds it extremely frightening that now he's developed feelings for someone so fragile compared to him. Imagine having his eternal life and power and compare that to the fragility of the human body, every day exposed to countless dangers, aging and dying with every minute – his reaction is very rational, and not at all childish.
    Bella is not a character to be admired in the beginning of the book and she is not meant to be; she is not an idol, but is representative of one of us, a confused High school teenager, still trying to discover herself. Because in the end Bella says that something stronger draws her away from Jacob doesn't mean that she abandons her right to chose; is it true that if one describes one's feelings as a powerful larger then ordinary world love that becomes a driving force in one's life, that means that the person is no longer responsible for making a decision on that love? Absolutely not! I've known many people who've shied away from the strength of their love, who've chosen to walk away, albeit with regret. Ms. Meyer is using an elegant way of expressing the strength of Bella's love, not taking away her choice.
    I undertand that some feel that Bella is toying with the hearts of both of these men; unfortunately, that is so many of us would do and what both of these men would encourage by not abandoning their quest. These are human frailties and we all, especially while 17 year old teenagers in high school, are capable of these.
    Unfortunately, everything Bella does is what so many girls do in high school – I recall commiserating of my lost boyfriends in high school the same way. We may no like what we see in Bella, but perhaps its because she represents the less glorious qualities of us.
    There is a large theme of destiny in the Twilight series; but what everyone seems to miss is the one lesson that Twilight hopefully has taught women – stop settling. We settle on acceptable relationships every day. In every modern movie, we accept the less then perfect man and all his drawbacks. In Twilight, Bella gets the guy that we as women don't seem to fight for. Modern romantic stories are full of flawed men. Enters a perfect female character who we know can look beyond these flaws and love him anyway, because we women are such creatures. For a while it seems as if the flaws have disappeared. Then the very flaws that we thought were gone suddenly re-emerge during the climax of the story, and usually make the man act boorish, disrespectful, treacherous, mean, callous, or whorish. Then the female lead, because we women are naturally so maternal and forgiving, forgives him.
    Twilight stories tell our daughters – and us – that a man who is worthy of us would not act boorish, or disrespectful, that he wouldn't leave us to "sow his oats" to return later regretful, that he wouldn't treat us with disrespect, or use the excuse of our feelings for him (when we are 18) to stick his tongue down our throats, he will not forget to open the door for us or treat us like property. It tells us that if a man has flaws, those are here to stay and if we decide to stay with him, we will have to deal with the repercussion of those flaws. But, mostly, it tells us to hold out for the right man, the man who is worthy of us. I find too many of us who never do. People keep saying how the books are anti-feminist, but they are the very opposite, that's probably why so many women subconsciously flock to the stories. The books are about not settling. They are about holding on for the right guy, the real right guy.

  11. You mention Jacob kissing Bella without her permission and yet don't mention that she punches him in the face after? I think that was a pretty ass kicking move! Also there are many places in the book that Bella talks about choice, not just the one that suites your needs. She talks about all different choices in life (Not just Edward vs. Jacob) but choices about where to go to college, whether to get married, if she is going to want children, etc. Choices that many young women think about. Bella is stubborn and always fights to get her way. I mean I know the book wasn't written to be feminist, it was written to be entertaining. But honestly I wish I had these books as a teenager. When I was younger I felt a lot of pressure to be a certain way, dress a certain way, I felt pressured by boys to go out, etc. Bella dresses however she wants, acts however she wants and is never scared to say no. Not the worst thing to teach a girl.

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  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Ms. Magazine, Nicole Leffel. Nicole Leffel said: Another reason to despise this series (and yeah, its creator). RT @msmagazine: Bella Swan, alleged feminist, lacks fangs! http://ht.ly/25ZVM [...]

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