Bella Swan haunts me. Ever since I watched “Breaking Dawn: Part I” two weeks ago, she flickers at the edge of my consciousness, both beckoning and insidious, like a succubus ghost from a Japanese horror story. For a long time I avoided the Twilight phenomenon; when the books and movies were gaining cultural momentum, I was divesting myself of a harmful relationship and grappling with the realities of sexualized, genderized racism at college and thus had no interest in a what I perceived as a pseudo-feminist modern day white fairytale that was inculcating a whole new generation of girls with patriarchal ideas of love and romance. I simply couldn’t understand why I should.
But desire is a tricky thing. Like that beckoning ghost, it occupies spaces in our psyche that frighten us, even as they sway us with their power. And Twilight, ultimately, is so wildly popular because it holds desire in the palm of its hand like a promising red apple, proffering its delightful sweetness to anyone who dares to bite. The saga would have us believe that desire is visceral, natural, uncontrollable and innate: like Edward and Bella’s passionate attraction, it simply is. But desire is also constructed, historicized and politically significant; it doesn’t spring from a pure psychic source, rather it emerges out of the perplexing, delightful and sometimes frightening interplay between our physical and psychological propensities and the socio-culture of the world we inhabit.
I watched ‘Breaking Dawn’ because I wanted to understand why this vampiric romance was so desirable, to so many. And because I knew, that if i had been fifteen when the books came out, I probably would have been as enthralled as any Twi-hard today. I wanted to open myself to the possibility of being enthralled, once again, by a narrative I had long since rejected. I didn’t want to be an ‘objective’ outsider, coldly dissecting the Twilight phenomenon while evincing barely concealed distaste for Twi-fans. I love cultural analysis because I love culture; the reason I engage critically with cultural phenomena is because of my lifelong immersion in that phenomena. I reject the notion that such immersion precludes the possibility for critical thinking. In fact, I think much of the scorn and dismissal of ‘Twilight’ and its fandom emerges out of a misogynistic tradition that devalues female-embodied experience as disgusting/ridiculous. So two days after Thanksgiving, I headed to the theater and purchased my ticket.
Firstly, I was surprised. I was surprised that there were parts of the film I actually found moving, that touched me and effected me. The honeymoon sequence was somewhat endearing, and it was refreshing to see them as playful and affectionate rather than their standard epic angst. But for most of the movie, my empathy with Bella were intertwined with sadness and a recoiling fear. To be sure, the wedding sequence is beautifully rendered: the flowers, the music, the ethereal wedding dress, juxtaposed with Bella’s timid nervousness, was quite emotionally resonant for me. Bella’s emotiveness in general, admittedly exaggerated at times, struck a chord with me as someone who once evinced such emotiveness myself.
I’ve written several posts about my relationship to literature and fantasy, and how that relationship was shaped by racism and colonialism: specifically, I’ve discussed how the wilting flower Princess/ angel/ damsel role, while marketed to all girls, is circumscribed by whiteness and predicated upon the colonial image of white femininity as the pure and virtuous antithesis of Brown female sexuality. The power of the damsel/ Princess image, for me, has always been wrapped up in the longing to be desired, which is subsequently wrapped up in my performance of hetero-femininity. Bella Swan then, is an updated, refashioned version of the classic White princess: helpless, fragile and fiercely protected by the men who also desire her with a violence-laced passion. This was what my fantasies were built on as a teenager, fantasies I had to painfully repudiate as I learned the realities of racialized sexism.
Watching Bella onscreen, slender and trembling in bridal lace, bending sapling-like under Edward’s touch, fearful and perplexed, and finally emaciated with pregnancy, I had the odd sensation that I was watching a pastiche of my teenage fantasies resurrected in Kristin Stewart’s pale, helpless form. I was transfixed with the same shocked and fascinated horror that I imagine takes hold of characters in zombie movies as they witness a former lover/friend/family member awaken as one of the Undead. Corpse brides analogies aside, I was seduced by the beauty of Bella’s sensually Victorian wedding dress and the power of helpless desire, while simultaneously recoiling from the very effect of that beauty. Bella’s nightmare on the eve of her wedding, wherein she arrives at the altar as a lace-clad bride only to find herself atop a mountain of corpses, her perfect dress soiled with blood and facing the cold gaze of the Volturi, is metaphorically powerful for a number of reasons, not only by offering a rare glimpse into the potentially dire consequences of Bella’s choice of husband, but also (to me) hinting the dark underside of Bella’s eagerly chosen destiny of patriarchal, white womanhood: disillusionment, violence, fear, and blood. While Bella is ultimately protected and revered by Edward, my heart ached for all the young girls, Brown and white, who grow up imagining that such protection might one day be theirs, only to have the world teach them otherwise.
I’m still untangling what the Twilight saga means, both personally and socioculturally, but for now I keep returning to its proffering of desire. Heterosexual femininity is encouraged towards narcissism, towards an obsessive fixation on itself, to self-objectify our bodies and desires, to constantly seek the heterosexual male gaze. But the majority of heterosexual women are not thin, white and able-bodied, and unlike Bella our shyness/social awkwardness is rarely construed as endearing or charming by the Edwards of the world. The power of Meyer’s story lies in this: it offers vast swathes of young women an opportunity to see their socially-conditioned, yet rarely fulfilled, desires enacted: the desire to evoke passion, to be protected, to be handled and treasured by powerful men, to have our bodies beautified through martyrdom, sacrifice and helplessness. Many years since my own teenage fantasies, happily married to a partner who regards and treats me as an equal, I can still acknowledge the power those desires once held over me, and their continued power in our corporate landscape of perfect (white) bodies and frothy white weddings. I would be lying if I denied that those lace-and-lily desires did not, still, touch me with ghostly longing, if only through a bittersweet nostalgia for the innocence of my teenage years. When there are so few cultural outlets that validate young female desire, how do we begin to discuss the limitations and pitfalls of Bella’s narrative? How do we engage with those young women whose desires and bodies fall outside of that narrative, and are therefore ignored or stigmatized?
Desire is powerful. It also humbles us, and leaves us vulnerable to those who would promise its fulfillment while exploiting us for their own gain. And until all young women are afforded the space and opportunity to really engage their desires, without shame or ridicule, and until we stop uncritically fetishisizing their submission to powerful men, pale Bella Swann will continue, I think, to haunt me.