The Subversive (And Probably Inadvertent) Pro-Choice Politics of “Twilight”

Well, folks, it’s the end of an era.


For the past few years I have celebrated the mid-November birthday of my writing partner and hetero life partner, Kelly – co-creator of both Hobo Pancakes and Femikaze – with a drunken, opening-weekend viewing of the newest “Twilight” film.  It’s been good times; the movies are absurd and during opening weekend the audiences are packed, about evenly split between Twi-hards and folks who just can’t take this spectacle seriously, but are along for the ride anyway.  And although I’m still firmly in the latter camp – and still stand behind my earlier critiques of the franchise – the final installment, “Twilight: Breaking Dawn: Part Two: How Many Colons Can This Title Have?”, presented an oddly compelling justification for the entire narrative, and one with unexpected gender politics.


While the first four movies focus on the (painfully adolescent) romance between hapless human Bella Swan and the suave, wealthy vampire Edward, the final film moves past that: it opens in the immediate aftermath of the birth of their daughter, Renesme (even typing that awful name makes me cringe), whose violent entry into the world nearly killed her mother, until Edward turned her into a vampire.  (Technically, Bella was dead for a couple minutes, after Renesmee broke her spine – it’s all very confused and very Gothic.)  Significantly for our purposes, Bella has been begging Edward to turn her into a vampire since the very first movie, but he – in the privileged position to grant or refuse such requests – denies her choice; repeatedly, over the course of the first four movies, he rejects Bella’s desire to become a vampire, claiming to know better than she what fate should befall her mortal body.  It is only as a last-ditch effort to save her life during traumatic childbirth that he gives in and turns her.


As a vampire, Bella is super-strong – even amongst the super-strong vamps, she is exceptional, more physically able than her hundred-fifty-year-old husband and easily outdoing her beefcakey brother-in-law at arm-wrestling.  Her most notable talent dovetails nicely with traditional maternalism – she is a “shield”, capable of enveloping those she loves in the force-field of her own compassion so that they might avoid injury or manipulation by other vampires – but it is an immensely useful ability, withstanding even the most violent assault.


More than physical capability, though, the greatest acquisition Bella discovers through marriage and child-bearing is family.  That’s not a surprising statement – the power of romance harnessed into an allegory about the power of the nuclear family is nothing new – but what’s unusual is that the nuclear family is not the real power presented in “Twilight” under the umbrella of the word “family."  It is not in Edward and their daughter that Bella’s greatest security lies; rather, it is in the extended Cullen clan, in their circle of devoted friends and cousins and the commitment of the local Quileute tribe, that the once-lonely Bella now finds herself standing.  The entire series opens with a teenaged Bella essentially abandoned by her mother, sent off to live with her long-unseen father in a distant place where she has no friends; it ends with her well-situated amongst a rich and caring community of people, including veritable strangers for whom the name "Cullen” is currency enough to invite, if not genuine friendship, then at least a sincere loyalty.  Even the series’ central love triangle – between Bella, Edward, and teen wolf Jacob – resolves itself neatly enough, as Jacob “imprints” on newborn Renesme and becomes forever linked to their family as her protector; Jacob’s friendship is important to Bella throughout the series, and although her marriage to Edward strains their bond, his imprinting ensures that Bella’s choice of The Other Guy ultimately breeds more trust and interdependence between Bella and Jacob, rather than less.  Indeed, although Bella and Edward – and, to a lesser extent, Jacob – are upheld as the central heroes of the series, it’s really Bella’s sister-in-law, Alice (who is also her dearest female friend), who saves the day at the end; although dozens of Good Vampires are ready to stand and fight in the name of the Cullens it is, exclusively and entirely, Alice’s very particular brand of diplomacy which resolves and defuses the entire situation* – Alice very literally single-handedly saves the day.  Perhaps I am vulnerable to sister-in-law-based sentimentality, as I am shortly to acquire my very own sister-in-law who has become, in two and a half years, a tremendous friend who has saved the day less dramatically many times for me already (and who, incidentally, was also there to watch “Breaking Dawn: Part Two” and party with Kelly and me, and who even got my brother out for the occasion, because Stephanie Meyer is right about this much at least: when your family is also your friends, life is awesome)  – but there’s something rich and resonant, and shockingly rare, about the portrayal of the nuclear family not as an excuse to enclose oneself in the circumscribed domestic space of spouse and children, but rather as invitation to networks and relationships and true community otherwise outside of one’s reach; family thusly defined is expansive and inclusive, broadening, reaching even a millennia-old, vindictive gay Russian vampire couple (who are probably described as “brothers” or something in the books, but whose relationship in the film is never specified, and who sure as shit act like lovers).


(It also doesn’t hurt the film that the actors are also much more adept at the kind of lived-in intimacy demanded by this final movie, versus the energized romance necessary for the earlier films – in fact, a large part of what makes those earlier movies such a damn slog is the seeming inability of either Kristen Stewart or Robert Pattinson to even comprehend what the word “energized” might mean.)


But while the film’s notions about family might be much more expansive and dynamic (and truer to life) than the series’ earlier, relentless focus on heterosexual marriage suggested, that’s not where it’s at its most subversive.  What I’m about to posit flies in the face of a lot of conventional wisdom about “Twilight”, itself colored by the inescapable fact of author Stephanie Meyer’s Mormonism, but it’s textually supported and ultimately even more feminist than the idea that one’s spacey, lovable sister-in-law might possess greater and more useful powers than anyone else in her rich vampire clan.


Y’all, I think “Twilight” is – among other things, but at its core – a powerful pro-choice allegory.


This is not a common opinion.  It’s much easier to read the gruesome body horror suffered by Bella throughout her pregnancy and birth – a labor which literally kills her – as evidence that she is a pro-life totem, bringing a child into the world with absolutely no regard for the cost to her own self; she is, in such a conception, a figure of Marian-like sacrifice, a vision of perfectly selfless womanhood and motherhood.


But there’s another way we can look at this whole thing.


See, what’s frustrating in all the earlier installments of the series is – among other things – that Bella’s love for Edward seems more of a slavish devotion; he is, without question, the dominant figure in the relationship, setting boundaries which Bella is forced to accept, acting with complete disregard for her actual, stated wants and needs even as he claims to hold her well-being before all else.  Edward is not unlike the legions of old conservative men who claim to know what’s best for women and women’s bodies while dismissing the lived experience of any such women, and just as some of those men actively and regularly diminish women by legislating in their names, Edward damages Bella by imposing his own will upon her throughout the series.  She wants to have sex; he refuses, again and again.  She wants to become a vampire; he refuses, again and again.  He knows better than she does.  He is the decider.  It’s all very deeply fucked-up, and Bella’s persistence in pursuing such a megalomaniacal jackwad is more than a little puzzling (Gothic romance is a genre whose appeal I will never, ever understand) – but the important thing is that, when she becomes pregnant, Edward – and all the Cullens – encourage her not to have the child, which is clearly damaging her health from the outset.  They don’t know what this creature might be, but they know it’s not doing her any favors, and Edward – he who has always set and maintained the terms of their relationship – is vociferously in favor of an abortion.  But Bella refuses.


Context is important here.  If there were more narratives in which women freely chose abortion – a storyline that hasn’t appeared on network television since the 70s – then we’d be able to better place “Twilight”, and Bella’s choice, into a complex matrix of possible outcomes; as it is, the paucity of positive pro-choice messaging obscures the radical rebellion at the core of Bella’s choice.


Because that’s what it is, more than anything else: Bella’s choice.  The physicality and sexuality of this young woman has existed, since they met, in the narrow spaces dictated by Edward, but in choosing to go forward with her pregnancy – whatever the risks – she is, more than living up to some religious ideal, boldly asserting her own bodily autonomy.  Is it, rationally speaking, a dumb decision?  Yes.  Absolutely.  Having a child that is literally eating its way out of your uterus is terrifically stupid, but then, that’s what real choice and real agency often look like: people do dumb shit all the time, and women, as it happens, are people, and just as capable of stupidity as any man.


What’s also interesting is the consequence of Bella’s decision.  In forcing Edward to recognize her ownership over her body, her biological limits – her mortality – evaporate.  When Edward finally turns her into a vampire, she becomes stronger than he is; not metaphorically, but literally.  As a vampire, she loses her ability to procreate (gender differences amongst vamps are mostly aesthetic), and so the risk that she might return to the fragile state we saw in the fourth movie disappears.  Her sex life even improves, as apparently Edward was “going easy” on her when they (again, literally) destroyed the bedroom during the one-time honeymoon coitus that led to Bella’s pregnancy.  (Which, sidenote: who the fuck builds vampire furniture?  Because if “going easy” could shatter a monstrous, solid bedframe, then how does anything they own last through the night?  I mean, I like to overbuild the shit out of everything I put together, but, jesus.)  Edward even admits this to his wife, confessing in the final film that he has, throughout the entirety of their relationship, underestimated her, which is really a pretty depressing thing for a husband to tell his new wife when you stop and think about it – he has always regarded her as a lesser kind of person than himself, until she became vamp.  And what prompted becoming a vamp?


The easiest, surface-level answer is that having a baby prompted her transition to vampire; that her super-strength, that the respect of her husband, are rewards for fulfilling biological dictat and giving birth.  But given Edward’s staunch opposition to her pregnancy, I think the real truth lies deeper and extends to a more metaphorical level: once Bella declared, unequivocally, her right to her own body – and the primacy of her decisions about it – then, and only then, does she become equal to her husband, both in his perceptions and in actual, physical fact.  For the previous four movies, Edward is undeniably in control of their relationship; it is only in this film that they are, finally, true partners.  If this is an allegory about bodily autonomy, then the message is simple: women who assert their own selfhood and choice earn more respect from the men in their lives, are better able to achieve their ultimate goals (e.g. vamphood), and have better sex than those who acquiesce to male strictures and demands.


That is some feminism, y’all.


It’s twisted and hard to discern, because it’s wrapped up in so much traditional dressing, but there’s a lot of truth in the delivery of that message as well.  There is no single best way for women to come to terms with their right to their own body; some might do it by running marathons, some of us work construction, and – yes – some women have babies.  Part of being truly pro-choice is recognizing that, for some women, the decision to carry a child to term is just as rebellious and significant and self-actualizing as the decision to end a pregnancy might be for others (and that, for other women still, the decision might be practical and unemotional and insignificant, after all).  Bella’s choice to continue her pregnancy might be politically loaded, but it’s also the most effective mechanism she has to turn Edward from a breaking-into-her-room-to-watch-her-sleep-straight-up-stalker into someone who understands and recognizes the fullness of her humanity and potential.  Yes, it killed her, but Bella is not the first woman to die trying to earn the respect of the man she loves; if anything, the horrors exacted upon her by pregnancy illustrate the full, gruesome magnitude of such an effort.  (Why she has to fall in love with such an insufferable toolbox at all is a different matter, but the series is in the tradition of Gothic romance and one of the hallmarks of Gothic heroes is that they’re all assholes; Heathcliffe, for example, was a straight-up sociopath, and at least Bella eked out a happier ending than Catherine.)


Intriguingly, part of Bella’s “reward” – part of her physical equality with Edward – is her thorough liberation from any reproductive pressures; as a vampire, she can no longer bear children at all.  If “Twilight” is one big pro-life tall tale, this doesn’t quite square, but if Bella’s pregnancy is read through the lens of reclamation of bodily autonomy and agency, then it makes perfect sense as the literal fulfillment of the radical feminist dream of true reproductive equality.  Moreover, it can be extrapolated as an allegory for the necessity of reproductive choice as a precondition of true, equal, respectful, fulfilling partnerships between men and women – in short, as a necessary basis for happy families.


This is probably not what Stephanie Meyer actually intended, but fuck authorial intent; what’s actually on the page is more interesting than what an author was actually trying to write, and as written, “Breaking Dawn: Part Two” – at least the movie version – espouses some seriously hard-core pro-choice feminist ideology.


It surprised me, too, but it’s actually some good stuff.


*Seriously, that whole fight scene fakeout had me so fucking bummed.  HEADS WERE GETTING RIPPED OFF!  IT WAS AMAZING!  WHY COULDN’T THAT HAVE ACTUALLY HAPPENED?!?!

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