How can I tell you how I felt when I was watching Breaking Dawn: Part I for the first time. You think it’s anti-feminist (because a girl is desperately in love with a magical boy who ultimately makes her magic too; because they wait until marriage; because she keeps a baby who’s killing her; because that choice redeems her and makes her magic.) You think it’s boring, that there’s no conflict (because she loves a vampire with no fangs.) You think it’s lame (because it’s just about one dumb teenage girl, not about the Federation or the Empire or the Alliance. Because not only are there no fangs, there are no lightsabers. Because Bella Swan does not wear tight-fitting badass body armor.)
You’re right. You’re right! Bella has no personality or interests. She’s a classic Mary Sue, a flat screen on which you project yourself and your desires. The vampires are curiously unthreatening. There are literally no stakes. When you wake up in Edward Cullen’s embrace and find yourself lapping like a helpless kitten at his corrupted blood, you don’t fall to your knees and cry “Unclean! Unclean!” You keep lapping. You swallow. It’s delicious. It feels so right. And that’s what I like. Not that it feels so right, because it doesn’t, actually. It feels a little weird and off, to be loved by Edward Cullen with his marble-cold skin, his glittering, his fake old-timey English. You need to insulate yourself from his body with a blanket. OK, I like that too—how off it feels. But another thing I like is precisely how boring it is.
From the first Twilight book:
"When I got home, I unloaded all the groceries, stuffing them in wherever I could find an open space. I hoped Charlie wouldn’t mind. I wrapped potatoes in foil and stuck them in the oven to bake, covered a steak in marinade and balanced it on top of a carton of eggs in the fridge.
When I was finished with that, I took my book bag upstairs. Before starting my homework, I changed into a pair of dry sweats, pulled my damp hair up into a ponytail, and checked my e-mail for the first time."
In those Sookie Stackhouse books—but not really in True Blood—what I really care about is the excruciating detail of Charlaine Harris describing Sookie putting her hair into a ponytail: “I reached up and began to pull my hair into a ponytail. Bill handed me an elastic band from his pocket, and with considerable discomfort, I held the hair in a tight hank so I could twist the band around it three times.”
Another chick flick: Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. The heroine’s life in real time, “the only way to shoot the film—to avoid cutting the action in a hundred pieces . . . to look carefully and to be respectful.” We watch Jeanne Dielman dredge a veal cutlet in flour. The next day, we watch Jeanne Dielman crack an egg into ground beef. On both days we watch her make coffee. On both days we watch her turn off the light when she leaves a room. We watch her take a walk with her son. We also watch her have sex in her bedroom for money, and on the last day we watch her have an orgasm and stab the john dead with a pair of scissors. This sensational ending makes it possible to read Jeanne Dielman as slowed-down melodrama: the titillating psychological horror of a B-movie, drawn out, dilated by the everyday. Like Twilight, maybe, whose admirers appreciate it for its “slow burn” (see Anne Helen Petersen’s brilliant “That Teenage Feeling” in Feminist Media Studies, about how can feminists like us like Twilight.) But Jeanne Dielman’s drawn-out form is inseparable from its feminist politics: Akerman’s working against the “hierarchy of images” that puts a car accident or a kiss “higher in the hierarchy than washing up. And it’s not by accident, but relates to the place of women in the social hierarchy” (Akerman, totally quoted in Wikipedia; paraphrase lifted from Wikipedia as well.) In the movie, the boring stuff of women’s lives—shopping cooking cleaning sitting—has exactly the same weight as, if not more weight than, the exciting stuff we go to the movies to see women do/have done to them—fucking suffering killing coming. Mothering’s somewhere in between: Jeanne’s attention to her son is present in every egg she cracks, every plate she wipes. But he’s only there at night, when he comes home from school or work or whatever to eat dinner with her, do some homework, say some weird Oedipal stuff. Most of the movie is Jeanne’s routine, her silence, the eloquence of her silent routine, as you, a worse housekeeper, begin to wonder if you could pick up some tips on making soup from her.
What I like—what is chick—about Jeanne Dielman + Sookie Stackhouse + Twilight is this everydayness. Yes, there’s a “hierarchy of images” in Twilight that places a kiss higher than washing up. The kiss in Twilight is extreme-close-up, heartstopping, scored by a mournful Muse song. But there is so much washing up, so much cooking steak for your dad, so much driving around in an old truck, so much using a dial-up modem, shopping for a dress, writing emails to your mom, eating an apple at lunch, identifying phases of mitosis through a microscope. Reality effect, sure. But those cinematic kisses, those ivory profiles approaching each other, those Muse songs, come as regularly, almost as boringly, as shopping and cooking. Longing looks, stuttering hearts, guitar solos are part of the everyday of adolescence, just as fucking a stranger for money is part of the everyday of Jeanne Dielman.
Here’s George Takei on why Star Trek and Star Wars fans should band together (like the vampires and the werewolves) against Twilight:
"What is needed today now more than ever is star peace, for there is an ominous mutual threat to all science fiction. It’s called Twilight. And it is really, really bad. Gone is any sense of heroism, camaraderie, or epic battle. In its place, we have vampires that sparkle, and moan, and go to high school … Sci-fi fans be warned. There are no great stories, characters or profound life lessons to be had in Twilight. No, in Twilight, the only message that rings through loud and clear is 'Does my boyfriend like me?'"
Takei is being funny here; he’s trying to get two groups of (mostly) boys who feel like outsiders because they like two of the most popular franchises in American cultural history to band together so they don’t have to feel like outsiders anymore; infighting is ugly; nerds should get along. Whatever, sure, whatever. This video should still make you so, so mad. For Takei, a “great story” is “heroism, camaraderie, or epic battle.” It’s boys slicing each other with lightsabers or shooting each other with phasers; boys learning to trust each other, that they can’t make it on their own; boys blowing up spaceships the size of planets, boys blowing up planets, boys saving planets; boys grabbing a girl for a long, hungry, passionate kiss and then dropping her for more heroism, more camaraderie, more epic battle. Oh shut up you know I love Princess Leia and you know I love Han Solo and you know I love Captain Picard. You know I would blow up a fucking planet if you gave me a big enough gun. All I’m saying is fuck you if those are the only great stories or profound life lessons you can think of. All I’m saying is if it’s so easy for you to dismiss aesthetics (sparkle) or emotion (moan) or the everyday (high school) or adolescent female subjectivity (does my boyfriend like me) you might be a misogynist. If you can totally dismiss Twilight I think you might have to dismiss Jeanne Dielman, and if you dismiss Jeanne Dielman you can’t hide behind the Mormonism anymore, you can’t hide behind art, you can’t pretend to be a feminist. You think women and women’s stuff are boring. That’s fine, so do a lot of people.
So far I’ve been kind of talking about the books and the movies interchangeably. That’s because Twilight is a franchise, there isn’t really adaptation so much as there’s cross-promotion, this is one text, this is one feeling. I come from the cold spring of Kristen Stewart’s wet white face to the colder prose of my trade paperback with Stewart’s face embossed on the cover. And from scoffing at the Kindle edition of Breaking Dawn on the sofabed in my in-laws’ TV room to guffawing with a theater full of guffawers as Jacob falls on his knees, in love with a baby. George Takei is treating them as one text. But I’m lying, it’s not one text at all, it’s different. Movies are different from books and these movies are different from these books and this movie is different from these movies and books and that’s why I’m writing about it.
So the first three Twilight books & movies are all about what Petersen and/or my friend Rebecca Onion call “that teenage feeling,” and I felt it, you guys. I felt it going into the theater not knowing what to expect, and getting like twenty minutes of dripping evergreens + a childhood bedroom with a dial-up modem + your dad buys you a shitty car that’s ALL YOUR OWN + starting a new school (the kind with separate buildings and a parking lot, like you knew they had out west) + having all the girls be kinda nice to you + all the guys think you’re kinda hot. Like, this really low-level wish fulfillment. And then the guitars grinding as the vampires come in in their leather outfits with their nice hair. THAT TEENAGE FEELING.
But a lot of readers & viewers were turned off by the last book (which was published on the day I turned 28, which was about two months before I got married) because it got too grownup, too Mormon, too creepy. That teenage feeling was gone, and instead we had Bella as a weird child bride, and honeymoon sex on an island, and then a monster baby with a ridiculous name who eats our heroine from the inside. None of these girls who wanted difficult boyfriends actually wanted to marry those dudes. None of them wanted to have a vampire baby at eighteen and not go to college.
I heard about all that stuff and I, like many teenage and adult girls, and also like many teenage and adult non-girls, was like “gross.”
I read the book on my Kindle and I was like “gross! and somehow also boring!”
Because, even more than even the first three books, Breaking Dawn manages to make all that romance stuff—a kiss, a wedding—boring, everyday, durée. This happens in the movie too. The wedding sequence—the big set piece of Act I of the movie—is less like the climax to the love story of the decade and more like the sample footage you saw on videographers’ websites when you were planning your own wedding, more like the “wedding porn” you posted on theknot.com or Pinterest—the beautiful tight focus on the calla lilies in Bella’s bouquet, of the Edwardian buttons going down her back, of the canopies of freesia over the aisle. The beauty shot of the (totally boring) invitation getting delivered to the Volturi or Bella’s mom or whoever. The movie’s acting like all of this is a big deal, but it’s not a big deal.
Wait, but it is a big deal! I mean, in the movie it’s a big deal. In the movie I was like “gross! and also whoa!”
In part, that’s because in the movie you just get Kristen Stewart’s face. Her terrified, sweating face. And you get images: Edward and Bella all in white on their wedding day, their wedding guests all dressed in white, red rose petals, red rose petals in a pool of blood, Edward with blood on his mouth, blood on his shirtfront and lapel, Bella with blood on her hand, blood on her lace Monique Lhuillier dress, the wedding guests all in white and covered in blood and piled up loose and dead, Edward smiling. That was a dream, but. Edward in like the 30s, watching Bride of Frankenstein in the theater and the Bride screams in horror and a girl in a red cloche hat is leaving the theater and Edward follows her. And he follows her just to virtuously murder her potential rapist or murderer or something, but. Bella barely making it down the aisle, clutching her dad’s arm, hyperventilating, her eyes wild. And if you’ve read the book you know it’s just that she doesn’t like to be the center of attention, and that when she sees Edward at the end of the aisle nothing matters, but.
The drama is there. There’s a pile of corpses. But the corpses don’t really mean anything in the Twilight mythos. There’s no actual possibility, if you know Twilight, that Edward and Bella will actually kill and eat all the humans in Forks, WA. The pile of corpses is just there, you just see it; it’s decorative like the wedding porn; it’s ritualistic like the wedding porn; it’s everyday like the wedding porn. It’s forever. Forever is inherently boring, and inherently horrific. Forever is the pile of corpses of everyone you love, and that’s the most mundane thing in the world. Yes, this wedding is a big deal. But, like all marriages, it’s a big deal because of how unexceptional it is, because everybody does it, and because loving people and living with them and desiring them and needing them and losing them is a risk. Is a cage of horror.
I got married about two months after Breaking Dawn was published and about a month before the first Twilight movie came out. I didn’t know anything about Twilight. The day after our wedding we were so exhausted we could barely drag ourselves to the mall next to our hotel to deposit all the checks everybody had given us. We thought about seeing a movie but we ended up buying some paperback books at Borders: my husband got a book about time-traveling vampires called The Historian and I got Alice Munro’s The Beggar Maid and the first Gossip Girl book. Then we went on a monthlong honeymoon to England, where I finished The Beggar Maid, got halfway through Wings of the Dove and read the next five Gossip Girl books. We rented a car and drove from the Cotswalds to the Lake District to Yorkshire. We joked about the kind of honeymooning couple you read about in Edwardian ghost stories, the kind that is embarrassed to be on their honeymoon because everyone will know it’s the first time they’ve ever had sex. We did a really short walking tour in the Lake District, which is what everybody used to do on their honeymoons. We went to the Brontë Museum in Haworth and I looked at Charlotte Brontë’s little white wedding bonnet encased in glass. We read about how she married her father’s curate when she was in her late thirties, and how her father thought it was dangerous for a woman that old to get married. Because you’re obviously going to have sex (like all bashful honeymooners) and then you’ll get pregnant and then the baby will kill you. The Reverend Brontë relented and Charlotte got married and went on her honeymoon (to Ireland, not the Lakes) and got pregnant and died of morning sickness.
As we drove up to our bed-and-breakfast on the Yorkshire moors there was something in the road. I stopped the car. It looked like a rabbit, all balled up. I honked. It didn’t move. We got out of the car and looked at it and it turned out to have no eyes, because something had gouged them out. It sat there, maybe trembling a little. I didn’t know what to do so I took a picture. I immediately regretted taking the picture. I kept the picture and put it in our honeymoon album on the internet. Here is the picture.
After a while it moved. It limped slowly to the side of the road. We drove on, parked, checked in.
When I heard they were making two Breaking Dawn movies, I thought it was a terrible idea. The new thing was to break the final installments of all these big expensive moneymaking juggernaut franchises into two movies. Harry Potter and Breaking Dawn and the fucking Hobbit. This was before they were making THREE movies out of the fucking Hobbit.
Then I went to see Breaking Dawn Part I and I realized they were two different movies. Breaking Dawn Part 2 is an action movie, a superhero movie: there’s heroism, camaraderie, epic battle. Breaking Dawn Part 1 is a domestic drama about marriage, its failures, its dangers. Breaking Dawn Part 1 is writing beyond the ending of the marriage plot. If the first Twilight movie is scrubbed-clean Jane Eyre—a school story with a brooding older boyfriend (fun fact: Edward Cullen was named after Edward Rochester!), minus the madwoman, minus the arson—Breaking Dawn Part 1 is Charlotte Brontë’s marriage, her honeymoon, her pregnancy, her death.
In Jane Eyre you get Jane’s voice, constantly narrating and editorializing; from Brontë, married and dying, we don’t get as much. On finding out her illness was caused by pregnancy: “I dare say I shall be glad some time, but I am so ill, so weary.” And later: “I am not going to talk of my sufferings, it would be useless and painful. I want to give you an assurance, which I know will comfort you, and that is, that I find in my husband the tenderest nurse, the kindest support, the best earthly comfort that ever woman had. His patience never fails, and it is tried by sad days and broken nights." Starving to death, lapsing into coma, she said 'I am not going to die, am I? He will not separate us, we have been so happy."
In the first three Twilight novels, and the beginning and end of Breaking Dawn, you get more of Bella’s thoughts and opinions than you perhaps require. In the middle of Breaking Dawn, during her pregnancy, we suddenly see bruised, emaciated Bella through her werewolf friend Jacob’s eyes, a change in narration that for some critics performs the pregnant subject’s loss of voice and agency, and reinforces the book’s anti-choice agenda. Bella refuses to terminate her pregnancy even though her life is at risk. Other critics, and Stephenie Meyer herself, see Bella’s refusal to allow her husband and father-in-law to perform an abortion as an insistence on her right to choose, on her control over her own body.
I, weirdly, don’t have much to say right now about Twilight as a pro- or anti-choice text, except that the voicelessness imposed on Bella in the middle section of the novel Breaking Dawn doesn’t translate to film—in all the films, Bella’s interior monologue is, if not silenced, muted. And that near-silence—that cinematic focus on Stewart’s terrified eyes, worried lip—makes the movie’s politics undecided, undecidable. Film strips away Bella’s voice, but it gives her a face that registers resistance, pleasure, ambivalence. Film strips away Bella’s, and Meyer’s, weird justifications for everything that’s happening, the protestations that everything is OK, that there’s no real danger, that Edward and his love and his lethal body and his control issues are only desirable and not a threat. And it somehow strips away my conviction that Meyer’s desire to use vampiric thirst as an allegory for sexual desire marks her a sentimental reactionary nostalgic Victorian fangirl with a Princess Heart. As if sex no longer could hurt a woman’s body, as if childbirth couldn’t break us anymore, as if I couldn’t imagine feeling conflicted about something inside my body that I wanted and didn’t want, that I loved and feared. All that’s left are those weird, weird images, and you (I mean me) sitting there in the theater, slurping them up like blood through a plastic straw, wondering what to do with them, why they’re moving you. I mean me. I mean you.
Like the images from the wedding.
Like Bella, asking for a “few human minutes” on the first night of her honeymoon on a private island off Brazil, panicking in the bathroom, dropping everything, looking terrified as she pulls a black teddy out of her bag, telling herself “don’t be a coward.”
Like Bella waking up in a broken bed, covered in feathers (he bit a pillow so he wouldn’t bite her) and bruises like in Rosemary’s Baby.
Like Bella trying and trying and trying to make Edward touch her, after the sight of the bruises made him decide to never touch her again. Their hundred games of chess. Their leaping down a waterfall. Bella parading around in different negligees. This is a movie about “does my boyfriend like me” because if my boyfriend liked me would he sexually humiliate me. Would we spend our honeymoon in silence. Would he swim away from me in the lagoon. Would I finally have to dissolve into tears and beg him.
Like Bella back in Washington State, with her CGI-thin face that’s so fake you almost laugh, but also her split lips, the bruises from where her baby kicked.
Like Edward bringing Bella O-negative blood to drink because that’s all a vampire fetus wants, but in a white Styrofoam take-out cup, with a lid and a straw, so she won’t have to think too much about how she’s drinking blood, or how she likes it. Like watching something dark traveling up the translucent straw. Like seeing the blood smeared on her lips and teeth as she opens her mouth to speak.
Like Edward giving Bella a Caesarean with his teeth, the camera cutting between her sweat-slick CGI face and his bloody mouth, the bloody CGI baby, the slack wonder on Edward’s bloody mouth, Bella murmuring “Beautiful,” everyone gazing in wonder at the baby, no one noticing Bella’s bleeding out on the gurney.
Like Bella’s body from above, like a bundle of white twigs in a gray tunic, the dark red delta of blood widening on the fabric over her pelvis.
Like Edward giving her CPR. Her lifeless body jerked around. Edward yelling “C’mon. C’mon!” in a thuggish accent Robert Pattinson picked up somewhere. Edward biting her all over: neck, legs, thigh.
Like the jump cuts between what Edward sees—Bella still lying there lifeless—and what Bella feels—screaming in agony, coming to life.
Like Jacob falling to his knees and falling in love with the baby—that part is just hilarious, you’ll like it.
Like Bella, still dead, still motionless, dressed in a classy blue minidress. Like her ribcage suddenly inflating, postmortem, postpartum. Like her hair thickening and taking on color (like it’s supposed to during pregnancy.) Like her face becoming a beautiful mask of makeup—opalescent eyeshadow, mascara—as she lies dead. Like becoming a vampire means you get permanent opalescent eyeshadow and black, black mascara. What Edward loved about her was her lack of artifice—he saw her lift her face into the rain, and noticed that other girls don’t do that because we’re all wearing mascara. But as soon as she became a mom—as soon as she became a wife?—she learned to deceive.
Like suddenly Bella’s eyes are open and her irises are bright red.
Like the next thing we see are the credits, red and white and black, sans serif, like something from a Tarantino movie. And like the aggressive joyous scary beat and girl-singing of The Joy Formidable’s “Endtapes.”
Like the fact that another track on the soundtrack—the audio from Bride of Frankenstein—is called “Female Monster.”
Like the fake-out teaser at the end where the Volturi’s receptionist comes to tell them Bella is a vampire now, and they have the receptionist killed because she spells part of the message wrong. So the movie proper ends with Bella’s red eyes. And if you stick around in your seat it ends with a woman screaming.
I’m not saying Breaking Dawn doesn’t have a politics. I’m not saying I don’t care about its politics. I’m saying this is a politics of images that resist easy reading. I’m saying after like 4,000 words I can’t quite tell you what those politics are, except a politics of the female body, of trust, distrust, destruction, of the everyday.
Like what does it mean to end this movie that way? What if there wasn’t a Breaking Dawn Part 2? What if all of this craziness—the blood on my lips as I keep you alive, the blood on his lips as he keeps us alive, the blood on our lips as we killed everyone else we loved—culminated in a mother’s blood-red monster eyes. With a woman screaming. What is this movie saying about marriage, about motherhood, about violence? Who is Bella going to destroy? Her red eyes—among other things—remind us of Rosemary’s Baby, but Rosemary’s Baby ends with Rosemary accepting the baby, loving it. We know Bella will love Renesmee in the next movie, but right now Renesmee’s nowhere to be found. She’s already been claimed by her own husband. Bella’s alone, and red-eyed, and gorgeous, a female monster, a monster mother—maybe like in Kill Bill? Maybe she’s out for revenge? Or just pleasure. We’ve already seen her drink blood.
I saw the movie Jane Eyre and I read Breaking Dawn and I wrote a poem about my own honeymoon, and Charlotte Brontë, and I said this:
You weren't wrecking me
This isn't Twilight. But neither
is Twilight: love can't wreck virgins
like it used to, from the inside out,
the attic down
When in our way
we see this horror-rabbit with a broken gaze:
maybe accusing us, maybe nothing,
maybe the only way that you can love a thing
but out in the open. Tear that secret out,
see if you can get somebody to object,
forbid the banns, x-ray the carry-on.
And then I saw Breaking Dawn Part I. And here I have been—and am still—trying to tear that secret out.
“Get it out of me!” I say.
And also “Beautiful.”
And also “It tastes . . . good.”