Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Twilight: a how-to guide to abusive relationships

So last Christmas break I had too much time on my hands and a copy of the first in the Twilight series and so I read it and I'll admit it I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it kind of like I enjoyed Wuthering Heights when I re-read it recently (not that I in any way want to impugn Emily Bronte by comparing her to Stephanie Meyer). They were both kind of hot BDSM relationships with no safeword, was my spin. Unfortunately I somehow forgot that BDSM relationships with no safeword are, um, abusive relationships. Yeah, kind of a big oversight. An oversight that became appallingly clear to me when I recently went to see the Twilight movie just last week. I was looking for some good trashy distraction and instead worked myself up into a feminist lather which was its own kind of fun distraction I suppose. The Twilight movie might as well be a how-to guide for teenage girls on how to seek out abusive relationships and then stick with 'em. It creates a longing for that distant, hot and cold, potentially violent man who is kind and loving to you and only you. And the thing that upsets me the most is that I get it, I get why it's sexy. It's appealing to feel like somebody dangerous and powerful is dangerous to everyone but you, that somehow you're exempt from their violence, that you're special. And I've got years and years of good feminist training so if that desire taps into the inner twelve year old in me I can just imagine how it affects actual twelve year olds. So my proposal is that when you buy your movie ticket you also receive a free guide to consensual BDSM sex and an explanation of how to have healthy sexual power plays, you know the kind with safe words. The kind where in the bedroom your lover pretends to be a vampire but around the breakfast table he asks what you think about the interesting editorial in the New York Times and listens to your opinion.

There’s been a lot written about the way in which Edward is a classic abusive partner: isolates her by separating her from her friends and family; is jealous and deeply stalker-y (watches her while she sleeps); hurts her and then goes into fits of self-recrimination about it (their first sex scene in the third book). Oh and there’s one more characteristic of abusive relationships that stuck with me - “Makes "jokes" that shame, humiliate, demean or embarrass you, whether privately or around family and friends.” What’s with all the jokes at Bella’s expense about her clutsiness and her clumsiness? Wasn’t that a weird and unnecessary plot point? I could keep going but I mean we all get it. It’s abusive, especially the jealousy and the watching her while she sleeps stuff. But honestly the part that I find most interesting is the way female sexuality is represented. There’s an interesting article in Bitch at the moment about Twilight as a newly emerging form of abstinence porn. Here’s the link:

The article is called “Bite me or Don’t” by Christine Seifert. It’s a good article, read it, but I think she leaves out an important point.

Seifert astutely analyzes the sexual politics of the first few books. Sex she points out, is literally disastrous for women. It can kill them. And even when it doesn’t they emerge bruised and battered (see Midnight Sun). Of course if they’re married they like it even when the emerge bruised and battered.

That seems like a fairly traditional message – sex is dangerous for girls, stay away from men who just can’t control themselves. The good men are the ones who want to hurt you but manage not to. It’s too much to expect to find a man who doesn’t want to hurt you and in fact if they don’t their not sexy. Real love is when men want to devour you, when they desire you so much they’ll lose control.
But all of that is far less disturbing to me than the other message of the book which is that if women do get hurt by men it’s their fault.

There’s an appalling scene in the first book which is even more appalling in the movie. Bella and Edward decide to see what happens if they kiss. They begin to kiss but instead of pulling away Bella, overtaken by desire for Edward and his deliciously cold skin (yuck), deepens the kiss. Edward violently pushes her away shouting “stop.” Bella looks horrified at the sexual rejection (as anyone would) but Edward explains he just couldn’t control himself, if the kiss continued he would hurt her. Therefore he’s going to leave. “Don’t go” she pleads and so they spend a chaste night together talking about who the hell knows what because they’re actually both deeply boring characters. But the message is clear – Bella’s desire is dangerous. If she acts on it or expresses it she’ll get hurt and it will be her fault. So young girls, take this to heart. If you act on your desire and have sex you’re going to get hurt and, as usual, it’s going to be your fault. Because men, vampires, whatever, just can’t control themselves when faced with female desire even if they have hearts (or the vampire equivalent) of gold.

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