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Erika Christakis

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What Do Women Want: The Cinematic Wasteland of Female Fantasy (Part One)

Posted: 02/20/2012 8:56 am

O, wherefore art thou, Gregory Peck? On the 50th anniversary of To Kill a Mockingbird's release, it's worth pausing for a moment of gratitude for the stalwart romantic movie hero. I can't be the only woman who is tired of the parched landscape of bumbling man-children in American films. The Seths and Zaks and Francos and Ashtons. It's not that they don't entertain me; they just don't make my pulse race enough to buy a movie ticket.

The American film industry has become the Saudi Arabia of popular culture, willfully ignoring the economic potential of half the population. And even when the movie industry does grudgingly 'respond' to the odd success of a woman's film, it invariably takes home the wrong message, mistaking the essence of a movie for the silly props around it, as if vast numbers of women are actually jonesing for icebergs and fanged teeth.

Yet the industry tends to the wildest reaches of men's inner lives. Men get to see their fantasies sprawled across the movie screen, virtually unquestioned. Exploding cars, bloody battles, dismembered limbs, grandiose super-heroes, psychopathic murderers, naked girls on their knees? It's all there.

Men get a bye when it comes to their fantasy life - no matter how disturbing or buffoonish - but women are expected to be the grown-ups, even though it's not much fun being the designated driver. In a strange way, we take female fantasies too seriously and not seriously enough. Our movie fantasies are supposed to be tame and measured, lest they cause alarm. You rarely hear people worrying about protecting society from James Bond's or Batman's exploits, but when something lowbrow for women comes along, like the blockbuster Twilight series, the hailstorm of scorn and anxiety rains down. It's hard to be both insipid and harmful, yet that's often the standard rap about chick flicks. But if you can ignore the din of derision, a seemingly lightweight adventure like Twilight offers some interesting clues about the female inner world.

By now, everyone has heard of the impossible love story of the teenage girl from Forks and her immortal vampire love. If you know nothing else about Bella and Edward's baroque romance, or the pack of sullen adolescent wolves who try to subvert it, you may have at least heard about the sickening birth scene in the most recent film installment, Breaking Dawn, that allegedly gave some real movie-goers seizures. So let's jump straight into Crazy Land, shall we, with a plot that hinges on an unexpected honeymoon pregnancy of epic proportions. After just a few moments of soft-core bliss, Bella's devastated husband and the audience watch with helpless horror while her body wastes away from the stress of carrying an inhuman pregnancy.

The sacrifices continue apace as the growing fetus/baby (there's some disagreement) threatens to break every bone in her body. Eventually Edward has to perform an emergency C-section -- with his teeth -- at which point Bella dies, presumably from shock and a broken spine, and is resurrected with the vial of her husband's immortalizing venom they have stockpiled for this purpose. Trippy stuff, there's no denying.

Feminists and people with sensitive stomachs (and I count myself in both camps) are aghast at this shark-jumping turn of events. But Breaking Dawn - a movie helmed by an Oscar-winning team -- captures the fear, longing, and emotional isolation of motherhood more than almost any movie I can recall. We see this first in the immediate discovery of the pregnancy as Edward, who refers to the embryo as a "thing," retreats into a whirlwind of manic energy, deflecting his anxiety by packing and arranging flights home, while his young bride stands quietly absorbing the gravity of her situation. In the taxi to the airport, the formerly enraptured couple sits apart in frozen silence. Like voyeurs, we watch the unfolding of an age-old truth: in an unplanned pregnancy story, there can be only one protagonist.

Edward is terrified that his new wife will die in childbirth, and he begs her - with unusual directness for a mainstream movie -- to have an abortion. Bella is convinced she can be "changed" into a vampire before the pregnancy kills her and elects to throw the dice. Nobody deserves to have abortion politics infiltrate her fantasy life, but the movie does engage seriously with the idea that a woman might choose to endanger her life for her unborn child.

Breaking Dawn also engages seriously with the idea that childbearing can be a scary and very bloody business. It's easy to forget that more than 500,000 women worldwide still die every year in childbirth, and even that staggering number doesn't begin to capture the many millions more who come close to death or who are left with disabling physical injuries. Not to mention the agony of pregnancy loss, neonatal death, birth anomalies, and other undesired outcomes. Women know this, of course, the way generations of men have known battle stories. War movies, of varying degrees of realism and quality, have always provided a window into men's hopes and fears.

I mention maternal mortality because it's not only women's dreamy fantasies that are absent in mainstream movies. Women's fears are missing, too. It says something deeply unflattering about the state of American culture that it takes a teenage vampire movie to capture women's worries, imagined and real, about reproduction and motherhood. For all its freakish implausibility, critics who panned the nauseating birth scene in Breaking Dawn were missing the point.

It's grotesque, yes, but not ridiculous. Robert Pattinson nails the desperation (on poor Edward's bloodied face) that accompanies a birth when things go badly wrong. But in some ways, the Breaking Dawn scene actually doesn't go far enough in its gothic horror. When I lost half my blood volume giving birth to my first child, an obstetrical resident crudely described the delivery room scene as a "Texas Chainsaw Massacre party." And a physician friend recently noted that, "cesareans are real blood baths." Are we surprised, then, that female viewers might be drawn to Breaking Dawn like a highway pileup? The theatre went totally silent during the birth scene at the screening I attended. This crazy shit speaks to us.

But even girls without childbirth on their minds can find some kind of affinity with the hapless heroine, Bella. Detractors who find her a terrible role model are missing the key appeal of the story. She's not a role model! And even the most juvenile readers know this. She's simply a very ordinary girl who gets to lead an extraordinary life.

People are naturally uneasy with the asymmetry between the hot vampire and the young frail human (whose translucent skin and klutzy limbs occupy a lot of real estate in the books). But, to be fair, Bella was never quite the loser it's been claimed: she's a good friend and does well in school. She has a job and a car and cares for an infantile mother and a dad who can't microwave a pizza. Bella was "born thirty-five" she explains early on. She's also apparently the only human sufficiently on the ball to notice the creepy exceptionalism of a coven of vampires trying to pass for regular folks.

On the other hand, there's no denying that Bella's a dullard compared to the boyfriend whose defining feature is perfection. Interestingly, the one power Edward lacks is the ability to read Bella's mind. He spends much of his abundant free time struggling to understand his beloved, and he suffers the added indignity of watching Bella's half-wolf buddy, Jacob, connect easily with her. Any woman who has ever played the game of forcing her man to guess what he has done wrong will like this thread of the story a lot.

So, yes, Bella has leverage. She is also totally unimpressed by the superficial things (weight, make-up, dates) that scaffold the high school cafeteria pecking order. On the science field trip in the first Twilight film, she's the only girl who doesn't squeal in hysterics at the compost bin full of worms. While her girlfriends are shopping prom dresses, Bella's headed to the bookstore. It's refreshing to meet a protagonist who doesn't act like a Mean Girl or a Disney princess.

But Bella is also riddled with a rat's nest of teenage inadequacies and tics, and the naysayers find Edward's steely adoration implausible. Bella will always be inferior in everyone's eyes ... but his. That, of course, is precisely the point. The multilingual polymath with mind-reading powers and superhuman strength is in love with Bella's sweet normalcy.

And here's the other point: Edward's vampiric love is unalterable. When Bella badgers him that she will age and die while he retains his perfect, 17-year old body, Edward insists that he will go on loving her, and no one else, even as she becomes a shriveled, sagging mess. "That makes no difference to me," he insists earnestly. "You will always be the most beautiful thing in my world."

What a guy! Maybe he could have a chat with Newt Gingrich and all those other politicians and celebrities and dads at the soccer game who have ditched a loyal wife for a younger, sleeker upgrade. Of all the implausible fantasy elements in the Twilight series, surely this is the most ludicrous, and the most appealing.

This is part one of a three-part series. Check back on Wednesday for part two.