It’s hard not to make the comparison: two supernatural teen romances, both adapted from Young Adult novels, both involving a Romeo and Juliet-like attraction between a human and a superhuman. For feminist spectators, the popularity of such genre films warrants an investigation of their depiction of gender roles. So how do the two films stack up?
For the purposes of this analysis, let “feminist” be a film in which 1) The women characters are subjects and not objects–they are not just acted upon, they also act. 2) The ideology of the film, as reflected in its structure and content, at least questions, if not replaces, the constructs of sex and gender that are oppressive to women in our world.
What you need to know: Beautiful Creatures, which opened on Valentine’s Day, is a coming-of-age story of a caster, or witch, named Lena (Alice Englert), who on her 16th birthday will be claimed either for good or evil. In the months before her claiming, she falls in love with a mortal boy, Ethan (Alden Ehrenreich). Her family tries to keep her away from him but to no avail, and he soon becomes enmeshed in the spiritual struggle for her soul, along with Lena’s Uncle Macon (Jeremy Irons), her aunt, grandmother, cousins and the spirit of her evil mother, Serafine (embodied for the second half of the film in the town’s religious zealot, played by Emma Thompson).
In Twilight, the sexist Victorian notion that for women sex equals death is perfectly embodied in the dangerous love that Bella Swan has for Edward Cullen, a love that does eventually lead to her death (and then vampire immortality). Beautiful Creatures, though it is also about a girl’s coming of age and a forbidden love, is only peripherally about sex. Unlike Twilight, in Beautiful Creatures a woman’s sexual desire will not determine her fate. The main problem with her boyfriend is not that choosing to be with him will kill her, it’s simply that he makes things a little more complicated. Point for Beautiful Creatures.
What about the other women characters in both films? In Twilight, the mother is fairytale-ishly absent (not so feminist). In Beautiful Creatures, the mother is first absent then present, but evil (even less feminist). In Twilight, women vampires are capable of being either good or evil (feminist), whereas in Beautiful Creatures men casters can choose to be good or evil but women cannot (not so feminist). In fact, the battle for Lena’s soul is largely fought not by Lena herself but between her Uncle and her mother, indicating that her biology and heritage play the largest role in determining her fate (not so feminist). And, though Lena’s sexuality will not determine her destiny, her evil cousin caster is clearly driven largely by a deadly sexual desire (not so feminist).
Finally, in Twilight, the story is told from Bella’s perspective, but the narrative voice is that of a perennial victim–a woman whose own desire repeatedly puts her in the way of danger and violence. In Beautiful Creatures, the narrative voice and initiating action is given to the young man, while Lena is held largely captive in her Uncle’s decaying Southern Gothic mansion. But as the movie progresses, Lena learns to master her powers, which are greater than her Uncle’s, and starts to make her own choices. Nevertheless, according to the supernatural mythology of the story, nothing she does will determine her fate. (You can work out the feminist points here, plus and minus.)
However, at the very end of Beautiful Creatures (STRUCTURAL SPOILER ALERT!), the narrative voice–handles in most of the film by Ethan’s voiceovers, is given to Lena, implying not only that she has become the central character but also that in possible sequels (the book from which the film is drawn is the first in a series of four) her character could become even more of a subject. For diehard feminist spectators, this shift may not be quite enough, but the resolution of the film manages to call into question the inviolability of gender roles in the world created by Beautiful Creatures. Whereas Bella’s death (at least as a human) in childbirth is a foregone conclusion in the world of Twilight, Lena’s future looks bright.
Because the central character’s morality is not determined by her sexuality and because she doesn’t have to become a mother/die to become powerful, feminist fans of supernatural films will definitely enjoy Beautiful Creatures more than they did Twilight. So I say go see it: If it makes enough money, we might get a few sequels, and the more mythologies available to supplant the repressive one represented in Twilight, the better. If that doesn’t convince you, consider this: The acting is better than in the Twlight series, the writing is better (Viola Davis agreed to be in it only after insisting that her part be changed from a servant to a librarian) and the design is better.
Photos, clockwise from top left: Alice Englert as Lena (Beautiful Creatures), Emily Rossum as Lena’s evil cousin Ridley (Beautiful Creatures), Ashley Green as Alice (Twilight) and Kristen Stewart as Bella (Twilight).