The Twilight Saga’s Breaking Dawn: Part 2 tries hard to be epic, and in ways it is. Not all of them good.
On the plus side, it has a grander scope, better cinematography, action scenes my 13-year-old literally described as epic, and more camp. The camp part is its best feature, and this time around there is more metatextual nods to its own status as pop culture juggernaut. On the not-so-good side, it is epically sappy, and shows us the TRUE LOVE of Edward and Bella has happily resulted in mind-alteringly good sex and a baby so cute she has to be CGI’d to be believed.
The characters we have come to love (or loathe) in this Twi-era look better than ever. While it was nice to see the supposedly mega-attractive Cullen vampires not look like overly lip-glossed, deathly white statues, part of me wishes the final film in the Twilight series wasn’t the best-looking one, the most entertaining, the least slow, because, dang it, I don’t like the “happily ever after” it offers! I didn’t want Bella to be Ms. Powerful because she is in tiger-mom mode, I wanted her to go to college! Or, at the very least, to don a “This is what a feminist looks like” t-shirt. (As I am sure you all know, thanks to Stephenie Meyer, feminism is about CHOICE and our feminist-super-heroine, cough cough, CHOOSES to marry Edward, have a baby and become a vampire. Hurray!) Why can’t I get my happy ending too? That would be Breaking Dawn: The Feminist Version, with screenplay by the late Nora Ephron and direction by Jamie Babbitt.
To be fair, Bella is stronger than she has ever been. Gone is the clutzy, timid, lip biter; in her place, a fierce, determined young wife and mother–a status the film, like the book, emphasizes greatly. For example, the camera seems obsessed with showing us her wedding ring, especially when she is doing the nasty with Edward. Throughout the film, she is also a supermom to Renesmee, reading to her, protecting her, calling her pet names. Now don’t go thinking I am trying to say that it’s problematic for women to be wives and mothers–of course not–but it is troubling that this is so often women’s only route to power and the only identities that result in their positive media depictions. That and looking good, and Bella certainly also does this. Which leads me to the film’s fixation on beauty.
“So beautiful” are the first words of the film, uttered by Edward to Bella. Not much later, Alice says, “You look amazing, Bella.” And throughout the film, the camera lingers on many beautiful vampires, codifying them as the dream bodies of the 21st century–thin, chiseled, impervious to death and decay, unhindered by pesky bodily realities such as the need to sleep, let alone breathe.
Bella’s trajectory from a teenage nobody to a gorgeous and powerful vampire heroine is certainly alluring to females who are schooled to hate their bodies and to believe that the correctly applied makeup and styled hair, coupled with the right outfit (Bella picks a form-fitting blue cocktail dress for her first hunt) are the preferred routes to success. Such beauty, the movie assures us, can lead to not only a hot husband but keys to the vampire kingdom and all the power and wealth it affords. Oh, yes, and to sex so good you start hallucinating (as Bella does in the film).
In addition to championing the vampire body beautiful, the film also revels in the joy of parenting. Miracle child Renesmee. has turned bitchy Rosalie into a cooing auntie, angry Jacob into a sweet older brother/eventual lover figure (yeah, ewwww) and icy Edward into the dream daddy. In her first scene with Bella, the kinda-creepy, too-perfect Renesmee places her sweet little baby hand on Bella’s cheek, showing her mother her first memory of her–from the ulterus. Now that’s a “pro-life” message in an oh-so-sweet vampire/human baby package if ever I have seen one! But wait, not only are we supposed to feel all warm and fuzzy over this lovely little life that bonded with her mother in utero, we are also treated to a narrative that treats her birth as solving the longstanding Quileute-vampire animosity, uniting all the good vampires of the world (a sort of UN for the Undead) and sending the evil Volturi packing back to Italy. She, in effect, is the miracle that brings peace to the Twilight world. Thank goodness Bella and Edward never had that contraception talk!
On the one hand, I like that this savior is female, but on the other I am dismayed that she’s surrounded by pervy, regressive themes–ones that suggest everyone must be coupled up. Sure, there is the odd single vampire here and there–as with Garrett–but never fear, by the end of the film he joins the Denali vampire family, pairing up with Kate. There are, as this post discusses, only pairs in the Twilight world. Indeed, the camera fixates on happy couples throughout the film, almost as if the movie is trying advertise heterosexual monogamy as the key to great sex, great kids and a great wardrobe.
In this vein, it seems no coincidence that the ring leader of the Volturi, Aro, reminds me of a young, pale Liberace with less jewelry. His two co-leaders, Marcus and Caius, also read queerly. Sure these guys have (nameless) wives according to the book, but the film codes them as gay–from Aro’s high-pitched laugh and fey mannerisms, to Marcus’s feminized movements and communication style, to the feminine looks, complete with long hair, of all three. Might we also read Jane (Dakota Fanning) as a frustrated lesbian vampire who, because she does not have a man of her own (poor girl!) becomes bitter and vengeful? The book does not suggest anything of the sort (how could it and not result in the author’s excommunication from her Mormon church?) but the film does, at least to this viewer. To further substantiate the film’s dalliance into the non-hetero world, there is also a scene where Jacob, the abtacular wolf-man, strips in front of Bella’s father Charlie as he prepares to reveal his werewolf identity, but of course Charlie presumes Jacob is getting naked for another reason–much to the nod-nod-wink-wink delight of the audience. Are these gay representations a capitulation to the critique the series has received for being ultra-heternormative? Perhaps. But, if so, there is no sense that being gay or having same-sex desire is ok; instead it is played for comic purposes.
The film also seems to try to dampen the uber-whiteness of the Twilight characters (as did previous films with the incorporation of Asian and Latina actors)–but, call me paranoid: Did the document forger, who himself uses a fake name, have to be portrayed by a black man? Come to think of it, this criminal forger is the only black face I recall in the film.
There are other faces of color though, and yup, you guessed it, they are codified as juvenile and/or savage. As more vampires amass in Forks for the epic vampire showdown, more Quileute are compelled to turn into wolves (these boys of color don’t have a choice in the matter, unlike whitey-white Bella, who chooses to become a vampire). Jacob speaks to the new wolves like children, telling them commandingly “you are going to be ok” as they whimper and cower. While the wolves of color are infantilized, the vampires of color are represented as uncivilized, their appearance often heralded by the shrieking of birds and monkeys, and their attire straight out of a Halloween costume book for “savage”–complete with braids, feathers and minimal clothing. And let’s not forget the black masks over their eyes! (This stereotypical representation of natives seems to be a trend in pop culture right now as evidenced here and here.) In Meyer’s book, these Amazonian vampires are described as “feline” and Bella notes “It wasn’t just their eccentric clothes that made them seem wild but everything about them.” Would it surprise you to know these animal-skin wearing savages are also not paired up with male mates? Could Zafrina and Senna possibly be lesbians? Well, this would certainly account for the fact they don’t get big parts, let alone full costumes! They should hook up with Jane and start a lesbian vampire coven.
In the film, while these uncivilized ladies are left lingering manless in the background, we have a few men of color that play prominent roles –Jacob, of course, who has his shirt on more in this film than in the previous four. I am guessing that the attempt to make his imprinting on (or, in other words, pedophilic love for) the young Renessmee more palatable and “brotherly,” it was necessary to keep him clothed. Never fear though, Nahuel, the other human-vampire hybrid, is from South America and arrives appropriately (un)dressed in your typical indigenous outfit: half naked, long hair, you get the gist.
This depiction of indigenous characters, right out of a Western film, is all the more jarring in this final film given how hard it tries to rescue its female characters from the less-than-spectacular roles they play in the book. As if the production team is very aware of all the criticism regarding the fact that the Twilight books give us no strong female role models, it has upped their strength in the film, making Bella’s protective shield power read as that of a superhero, and giving her and various other females kick-ass fight sequences. These sequences–and the very long, violent battle scene in the film–are not in the book. No, in the text, as Tanya Erzen describes it in her recently published book Fanpire, “We anticipate blood, gore and an epic battle of good versus evil, but nothing happens except some arguing and mind control.” In contrast, the film finally lives up to the action-packed promises of its predecessors and gives us an extended fight scene with multiple gory deaths. Thank goodness–how else could we get males into the theater? In case you have forgotten, women love romance, men love action.
Despite its nods to gay-is-so-funny and its yes-women-can-be-strong attitude, the final film in the saga ultimately validates social formations such as marriage, family, monogamy and heterosexual reproduction. On a mythic level, it endorses patriarchal capitalism (ooh, look what great clothing and houses and sex this formation brings!) while simultaneously suggesting that the key to social stability and personal triumph, is the nuclear family. The impossibility of achieving the Cullen lifestyle–endless wealth, impossible beauty, immortality–is never addressed, let alone do any diapers ever need to be changed by new parents Edward and Bella. As such, Breaking Dawn: Part 2 accords with what Milly Williamson argues is the raison d’être of vampires: “to reassert patriarchy, racial superiority, family values and chaste heterosexuality.” Instead of frightening us, Twilight’s vampires beckon us into their patriarchal, white, wealthy, chaste, heterosexual family. The threats to such a happy formation come not from the Cullen vampires, but from single mothers, “savage” female vampires (who one scholar reads as, gasp!, feminists) and the hordes of Volturi who don’t structure themselves into white-picket-fence family units but instead descend upon the town in black, hooded capes–and everyone knows how dangerous hoods are!
The film most obviously hawks the true love narrative shamelessly, especially during the beginning and ending segments. At the start, Bella’s new vampire identity leads to much heavy petting and close-up kissing and, ultimately, much more explicit sex than in the books. Good thing the camera keeps zooming in on those wedding bands to remind us that these two young people have put a ring on it! At the close, Bella, via her new vampire superpowers, shows Edward just how much she loves him–thankfully for fans, this power consists of mashing together all the romantic moments from the first four films: their meeting, the meadow, the first kiss and so on, and playing them back on the large screen with an appropriate angsty love song by a self-proclaimed Twi-hard (Christina Perri’s “A Thousand Years”).
So, there you have it: the end of the Twilight era is tidily packaged in a glitzy, feel-good package, and at least this time around there is more camp for your buck. If only there were another saga to turn our attention to as Twilight leaves a gaping hole in our sad feminist lives. But wait, there is: Fifty Shades of Grey. I will be back–much as I hate imagining it–to review the film adaptations of this newest female-fueled super-saga, which, if many interpretations of the books are to be believed, will be very empowering. Yeah, and Bella is a feminist because she makes choices. Uh-huh.