With tonight's midnight premiere of the third installment of The Twilight Saga: Eclipse, the debate between Team Edward vs. Team Jacob rages on. I'd like to cast my vote for Team Bella.
Sounds strange, doesn't it? The identification with the female lead, Bella Swan, as a character worth rooting for in her own right is virtually non-existent in the "Twi-hard" mania. But, the mania is absolutely present in every forum: talk shows, the MTV Movie Awards, Facebook, fan websites, magazines, and much to my amazement, Barbie Dolls. Yes, I saw the toy figurines at Target this past weekend.
There apparently is a Team Bella movement afoot -- noted by other writers such as Kate Harding in Salon and Rachel Simmons, who provides discussion questions for engaging girls in a critical analysis of the texts. However, besides an Entertainment Weekly cover of actress Kristen Stewart with the phrase, "Team Bella," I have yet to see or hear of this concept seeping into popular culture. In a Ms. Magazine piece, Carmen D. Siering writes that "few young readers ask, 'Why not Team Bella?' perhaps because the answer is quite clear: There can be no Team Bella. Even though Bella is ostensibly a hero, in truth she is merely an object in the Twilight world."
After initially resisting the movies, the sheer intensity and permeation of Twilight compelled me to finally rent the DVDs and see what the hype is about. Beyond disappointed, I'm completely stupefied to realize the popularity of a narrative that reinforces such retrograde notions that a woman should set aside her own goals and interests to be with a man and that she is a victim in need of rescuing. No matter that the man is also a monster (of the vampire or werewolf variety) who is capable of inflicting some serious physical harm. Worse, the second movie, New Moon, goes even further to promote Bella's self-destructive and reckless behavior when she will go to any length - going on a joyride with a strange man she meets in a dark alley, gunning a motorcycle, jumping off a cliff - to make Edward reappear in her life to save her. The moral of the story seems clear: Bella wants Edward to kill her so that she will turn into an immortal vampire and therefore live with Edward forever.
Bella literally wants her boyfriend to end her life. She even pleads with Edward to do it.
With the rise of teen dating violence - and real women being abused by their partners - I'm concerned about the messages the Twilight movies send to our young women and men. In the fans' adoration of the actors and storylines, what are they absorbing and interpreting about healthy relationships and decision making? According to the Family Violence Prevention Fund, approximately one in three teen girls in the U.S. is a victim of physical, emotional, or verbal abuse from a dating partner. With this startling statistic, the last thing teens need to emulate is a relationship where they put themselves in dangerous situations in the name of teen romance.
The underlying message about sexuality in the films is no more progressive: it's all about control, resisting temptation, and longing glances. Bella and Edward have to keep each other at arms' length, careful not to give in to their sexual urges. While there's nothing wrong with waiting to have sex, the themes of abstinence and chastity are overt.
Sure, the appeal of the movies isn't completely lost on me: the actors are good-looking, the gloomy Pacific Northwest landscapes are stunning, and there is a decent indie rock soundtrack. And, many of us have had those moments of teen angst where we feel pitted against the world.
But, I don't think it's too much to ask for a heroine with more spunk and strength, who is willing to exercise her own agency and protect herself. Someone who won't whither away for months on end when her loved one leaves her, as Bella does in New Moon. Someone more like the characters Ellen Page plays in Juno or Whip It--girls who explore and negotiate their relationships but are focused on their own goals as their number one priority. We certainly know actress Kristen Stewart is capable of doing it--she just played rock legend, Joan Jett, in The Runaways.
I'm afraid that in this new film, the only thing being eclipsed will be Bella's identity. And, while kids can now own a Bella Barbie doll, I have no clue if there's any substance to what they will make her say or do. Hopefully, she's not just another Twilight object, but a character worth saving - on her terms and without sacrificing her whole self in the process.