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In Twilight, when Taylor Lautner takes off his shirt is he ‘asking for it’ . . . ? Is the Twilight series a mirror of teenage girls’ fantasies, including wanting boys to ‘do anything you say’? Our readers respond (robustly) to last week’s (July 8, 2010) debate about Bella as an anti-feminist heroine, as argued by Carmen Siering in Ms. Magazine – and further provoked by a male view from editor Andrew L. Urban.

From Louise Alston, filmmaker, NSW
Carmen Siering's argument is totally valid. Bella is not active. But Twilight is a teen sexual fantasy that puts Bella and her needs absolutely in the middle of the story.

In Twilight, burgeoning female sexuality is celebrated and satisfied. Bella is "stuck" between a non sexually threatening vampire who just want to gaze at her in a field for an eternity and hot, loyal dog-boy with his shirt off wanting to bounce on her.

It's not a mature sexual fantasy... but in Twilight, teenage girls around the globe are able to fantasize a situation that mirrors their own. I.E. you can't have sex... but you want to have sex... and you want love that is so strong it lasts an eternity... and you want boys (with their shirts off) who just want to do ANYTHING YOU SAY.

In an America were teenage girls have their virginity fetishized like a trophy, how can a teenage girl manage to get her conscience around all these feelings about boys? In Twilight a girl gets to have her trophy and eat it too, so to speak..... She is a participant in desire. Even the posters are about the female gaze.

Twilight is great. Especially compared to other depictions of teenage girls sexuality on film...usually as desired but not desiring eunuchs. Usually the (female) cinematic objects of desire are just as far fetched and non threatening as the male objects of desire in Twilight!!!

From Dr Karen Pearlman, Head of Screen Studies, AFTRS, Sydney
Of the three lead performers in the Twilight series, Robert Pattinson, Taylor Lautner, and Kristen Stewart, Kristen Stewart is the only one who can act.

This is an observation about the production rather than the story or the script, but it actually has some relevance to the accusation that Siering is making: she wants Bella to act, well, Kristen Stewart is acting – she is active, she is executing actions. Acting theory and acting training require actor ‘to act’ as a verb. Good, persuasive, moving or truthful performances arise from actors doing something, not being something. And when skilled actors act, their performances are three dimensional - it is possible to see conflict, emotion and subtext in their faces and bodies, to hear it in their voices. When actors don’t have ‘actions’ or don’t commit to doing those actions, they fall back on just ‘being’ – being happy or sad, or in the case of Pattinson and Lautner, being pretty.

So, through casting, some of the traditional gender positions for men and women are reversed in this series. The object of the spectators gaze or ‘scopophilia’ is not the attractive, emotionally complex, but visually modestly adorned Stewart, but the overtly sexy, diamond skinned or rippling muscled Pattinson and Lautner. When I watched New Moon in a cinema audience dominated by girls and women there was a collective gasp of appreciation followed by an embarrassed giggle when Lautner took off his shirt. To my ear this was the female equivalent of a gaggle of boys shouting ‘show us your tits’ and then hooting when gratified. (Ethical questions about the objectification of any person are relevant here, not just feminist ones about objectification of women ... is Taylor Lautner ‘asking for it’ or is he a victim of an over sexualized capitalist cultural gaze?)

If Bella is an active, emotionally complex human and the other two are boy-toys, how does this impact on our perception of the story? Well, think back, what do girl toys do? They make homes, dress up, and offer comfort or pleasure. Bella is no girl toy, she offers none of the above.

What do boy toys do? They endanger themselves and us and then whisk us to safety – exactly what the boy toys (not even really humans) in this series do. These boys offer the psychosomatic equivalent of a roller coaster ride, hurtling us down into danger and up into safety only to hurtle down again, while we scream, in inextricably linked pleasure and terror (the pleasure only comes from knowing it is a toy, not a real danger). And Bella the character rides these two toys – maybe she does not, or not yet, make her own decisions about the ride itself, but through the skilled performance by Kristen Stewart, at least, we see Bella choose the ride, pay her money and strap on, go through the exhilaration and the terror, while they are simply shiny toys following the roller coaster tracks.

From Vicki Englund, writer, Brisbane
I think that Seiring is not taking into account the complete character journey of Bella. Admittedly she can seem quite passive when Edward and Jacob are making decisions for her in the name of her safety, but in the fourth book Bella becomes very powerful (Seiring admits that she becomes much more active here) - more so than either of the males who are in love with her. Sure, it's a long time before we get there but you have to take the whole journey into account. It's actually the point that Bella is rather passive because her journey involves learning how special she is so she can evolve into what she can ultimately be.

I think Seiring is wrong with her blanket statements about Bella not making decisions. At the end of the first book/movie, she'd already decided that she wanted to be changed into a vampire so she could be with Edward forever, but he won't do it to her. She wavers from that conviction occasionally when Jacob offers her an alternative (so that she doesn't have to give up her life, her family and the possibility of having children), but ultimately she always chooses Edward. The Eclipse film also shows how courageous Bella is, cutting herself so that the smell of blood distracts the vengeful vampire, Victoria, when it looks like she might be about to destroy Edward. That's hardly a passive act, and it shows how clever Bella is using the only thing she has - her human blood - to help her soulmate defeat the creature who wants to kill her. It also shows that Bella is a quick study, having heard the Quileute legend earlier on about the brave third wife of the tribe's leader who likewise sacrificed herself long ago in order to save the tribe.

As a woman who thinks of herself as a feminist, I'm not offended by the Twilight stories; rather, I think they're an amazingly creative fairytale featuring what I think is one of modern literature's most irresistible and enduring leading men in Edward Cullen.

From Tiffanie Brown, Canberra

This is a classic damsel in distress tale and the theme has been around since dot. I'm a woman in my 40s and can see Ms Siering's point, but at least this character knows her mind and follows her heart and is probably a more realistic depiction of a young girl in love with out of control emotions not to mention hormones. Not every girl in cinema can be a shining beacon of strength and a perfect example of feminism. How many women can say they haven't lost their head and done dumb things when young and in love?

...but as I've said, I'm a married woman in my 40s and who am I to judge? So, I asked my niece who has read all the books and seen the movies if she thought Bella was a bad role model. She quite rightly looked at me as if I was deranged and as if to humour me, explained that Twilight was only a fantasy, a story book fairy tale (like Cinderella, for example) and that she supposed a 'perfect love' or a 'person who was (a person's) only destined love' was sort of unrealistic, one had to be more pragmatic.... not to mention what were the chances of falling in love with a vampire, and then having to choose between him or your werewolf buddy? Duh? Besides did you see Jacob's abs?! They were mad! Etc.

Good point.

Published July 15, 2010

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