film, politics


Dear Zmierzch: Przed świtem; Część 1,

I would definitely not recommend seeing you to any women who have had, might someday have, or know anyone who has ever had a baby, a difficult pregnancy, complications, a miscarriage, or an abortion. In summary, memorable: yes; enjoyable: no. By turns dreary and sickening. If you want to hear a lot more about what I thought about the film, and why it’s so awful, read on; if you don’t, don’t.

The emotional (and political) manipulation of this movie is repulsive. I am a big fan of cheesy fantasy movies, and managed to struggle through the last installments of Zmierzch despite the pro-abstinence haranguing, but this one goes too far, for me, in terms of becoming a pro-life tirade. “It’s not a fetus! It’s a BABY!” I can only imagine how horrible any woman who had had to consider terminating a pregnancy, for any reason, would feel watching this.

As much as I love the work of the young actress Kristen Stewart, and will continue to adore watching her act, I don’t need to watch her throwing away her life for her rib-cracking vampire infant. It was a really depressing message to send to all the young women of the world out there who follow Twilight; the health of your unborn child is more important than your own life.

Manohla Dargis says this is the best of the movies so far. It’s certainly the most moving, and maybe has the most human interest. Bella is restored as the emotional center of the story.

But the underlying politics are so blatant that, for me, the impact of all that human interest is diminished. It’s as if the film is saying that women’s bodies are dispensable, disposable baby-making machines, to be cast aside–sacrificed–whenever necessary.

Oh, and the way that Bella’s choice to turn to being a vampire is justified by it being the only way to save her life, and she’s at the point of death because THAT was the only way to save her infant’s life, which was the only acceptable choice for a pro-life married woman…even more groan-inducing than everything else in this film. Way to make being a vampire no fun. At all. It’s the “for lack of a nail, the shoe was lost” school of plot justification. What ever happened to characters making selfish, self-interested choices for the sake of things they want? What about fantasy and monster stories being about…fantasy? monsters? I give up.

A propos, speaking of fantasy and monsters, Dargis makes an interesting point about why vampires are so popular as heroes:

..they [vampires] have, in recent years, also become the favorite go-to romantic male lead, the last, possibly sole defense against the nice-guy tide embodied by the Apatowesque freaks and geeks and their bromantic brethren. The vampire, in other words, is the only man (other than George Clooney) who can still sweep a woman off her feet — so what if he’s actually dead?

Being dead, in truth, gives the male vampire a great romantic advantage, because it allows him to engage in the kind of old-fashioned dash and derring-do — with one arm around the girl and the other smacking away foes — that might be laughed or scolded off the screen.

I agree with that analysis, and with the point that this is a large part of the movies’ appeal: their relevance to a more conservative era of male-female relationships. Ah, for the good old days before Judd Apatow, when men were vampires and women were…what exactly were they? Baby machines?

Poor, beautiful, tormented, baby-distorted, pro-life-mouthpiece, cracked-rib Kristen Stewart…who I last saw rocking it as the strong, independent Joan Jett in a different movie…is one of the most powerful young actresses on film, and she deserves better than to be made the poster child for dying to save your baby’s life.

By the end, I was in the grip of a kind of nausea-by-association that I only experience when I see a performative work (film, theater) that I feel misuses the privileges and qualities of the form, and toys with the audience’s emotions in an unjustifiably tasteless manner in order to make a morally ambiguous, religiously motivated, political statement that diminishes the choice women should have to make about their own bodies.

I’m sad to say that this isn’t the first time this has happened–that I’ve seen a film or a piece of theater that turns into an violent attack on the female body, and that the female character pretends to enjoy / signs off on / justifies being so attacked. “Yes! Please sacrifice my body! This is what women’s bodies are made for, after all! SACRIFICE!”

I was so repulsed that by the end, I was prepared to hang up my hat, renounce directing forever, and devote the rest of my life to lobbying on behalf of impacted abortion providers in the tornado belt.

On behalf of directors everywhere, I’m sorry.

Kristen, I hope your next movie (after Twi. dies a deserved death) is one that explores, more honestly, some of the complexities of the decisions relating to pregnancy for a young woman.

And I hope that everyone who sees this movie reads The Cider House Rules, for a narrative portrayal by a much better writer of the other side of this question; of what happens / still happens in some places to young women who die from botched abortions performed by unlicensed practitioners, due to the laws and cultural morays of the time preventing them from seeking proper, safe, sterile care for the surgery.

In fact, I hope KS makes another adaptation of CHR.

Let’s be clear about one more thing, since, having gotten on this soapbox, I’m going to finish my harangue. Laws restricting abortion restrict access for women living in poverty; wealthy women are always going to have access to it, through their private doctors. This was the case both before and after Roe v. Wade. If you want to reduce the number of abortions that take place in the world (and I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t agree with that as a goal) you need to focus your attention on women’s education, on birth control and sex education, and on health and career planning resources for teenage girls.

But returning to an era (or glorifying an era) in which the birth of the child, at whatever cost, was seen as more important than the mother’s life…that’s a position so far right that it’s not even endorsed by most major mainstream churches or conservative parties…and it’s a position that places religious scruples above the health, lives, and safety of poor women without access to other options.

The more I write about this, the worse I feel.

And I know that someone is going to say that Twilight doesn’t actually come right out and make the anti-abortion argument, that it’s the mother’s choice,
that a world in which choice is possible means women can also choose, if they want, to die to save their babies…
and that Edward and Jacob both tried to convince Bella to consider abortion…
and it’s not as if the save-the-mother’s-life POV isn’t portrayed on screen…
lip service, at least, is given to it…
Sure. Of course. I know.

But what this latest Twilight does is far more insidious than explicitly making an anti-abortion argument (if it did, it would be a lot easier to tear down); the film personifies that argument in the body and voice of a compelling popular young actress, and shows her arguing for her own destruction as if this is a righteous choice.

Look! Bella wants to die for the baby’s sake! We tried to convince her otherwise–but this is what she wants! Look! It’s her choice! And young women everywhere are going to model themselves on Bella’s “choice”.

Dear Judd Apatow, wherever you are, thank you for your heroes, and for creating the films that help usher in a different era (less vampiric) of heterosexual relationships on screen. And I certainly hope that the young hetero women of the future look to your characters, not to vampires, as the role models for the men they want to be with. Better a burnout, better someone who is confused and doesn’t know what to do with his life, better a real complex contemporary man, than yearning to be sacrificed for the vampire baby of your old-school wealthy vampire husband, who takes care of you…all the way to the grave.