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Erika Christakis Headshot

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

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After the still-human Bella and her vampire super-hero consummate their marriage in the Twilight saga, there's a briefly happy pause before a striking change of tone from 1950s-style romance to full-on horror. This shift would be a jolt to any mainstream movie but especially so for a girl's film, and some people literally couldn't handle it. A week or two after the movie's opening, national papers predictably jumped on reports of a handful of viewers having seizures caused by the birth scene. "Is Breaking Dawn bad for your health?" screamed the headlines.

Let's not discount the seriousness of epilepsy, but I do need to ask if anyone has tracked seizures resulting from watching male-oriented action movies. Surely people with epilepsy have seizures in all kinds of contexts, and Twilight is hardly the first movie to feature bright lights and other brain-rattling effects. Is it possible that we pay more attention to the health consequences of extreme movie scenes when they feature a father delivering a baby with blood smeared quasi-pornographically across his face than scenes with machine gun fire and sawn-off limbs? The histrionic media reaction seemed a tad skewed.

But the fans know better. And so do the custodians of this last installment of the franchise. Does it surprise you that it took a gay man (on the record that adolescent boy fantasies are pretty tedious) to find the right cinematic tone for the unhurried, authentic pace of the wedding scene? The critics were largely bored, but that long walk up the aisle was certainly no worse (and, to my eyes, much less worse) than watching a person's head blown off for the umpteenth time. We're just not used to such leisurely portrayals of traditional heterosexual feminine pleasure onscreen.

To hear the movie industry talk, it's a given that movie audiences prefer violence to displays of sex or, heaven forbid, love. But why do we put up with 79 minutes of a guy defusing a bomb and a mere 15 seconds for the key sex scene? Are car explosions really so fascinating? Can't we all agree it's more appealing to look at attractive human bodies than at weapons?

More than a few Twilight fans got in a lather about New Moon and Eclipse (movies two and three) because some of the overwrought conversations from the books were clipped in favor of jacked-up action scenes no one wanted to watch. A pivotal scene in which Edward apologizes ad nauseum for leaving Bella was reduced to the blink of an eye, denying the viewer the delicious spectacle of a backpedaling superhero. And Stephanie Meyer doesn't even bother to stage the epic battle scene that the whole series has been building up to in Book Four; everybody just packs it up and works it out in with... you guessed it... talking.

And why, exactly, is this a problem? Shouldn't we be embracing -- or at least not wholesale eviscerating -- a blockbuster series that espouses non-violence? I have yet to read a review of Twilight that recognizes the foundational truth of the story: that aggression is almost always the worst option, and that human life merits respect and forbearance. It's easy to find this tacky or politically threatening; Stephenie Meyer has something to offend both ends of the ideological spectrum. But we needn't be aligned with conservative religious teachings or lofty liberal pacifism to acknowledge the refreshing rarity of a successful movie franchise that rejects our great national love affair with violence.

Stephanie Meyer sure packs a hell of a punch without it. In a glorious sleight of hand, she makes sweet, gentle Bella the ultimate secret weapon against evil, protecting her whole clan with an uncanny feminine emotional power that's kryptonite to a bunch of medieval vampire thugs. She becomes a true earth goddess, a Hestia of the vampire world, a warrior queen without the warfare. Take that, you hand-wringing scolds. Bella has the last laugh. As fantasies go, it's a good one.

So why do we still insist on vetting female fantasy life through the critical and shaming lens of reality? If it doesn't pass our test of what is good for us in real life, we're not allowed to dream about it. There's nothing new about this: Women have always been viewed as the gatekeepers of morality. Whatever conclusions one draws about The Hangover Part II, no one seriously views it as a threat to American manhood. Yet the messages in "women's movies" are seen as carrying a special potency. Apparently, we just aren't entitled to have outré fantasies lest somebody's delicate sensibilities be injured. What's unclear is whose feelings we are supposedly protecting.

Name a movie -- any movie - that 1) features two or more women who are given names and 2) who talk to each other about something other than a man. If you think this is a ridiculous litmus test that most movies could easily pass, you'd be very wrong. Most fail. The Bechdel test is a simple way to measure the presence of women in American film. The movies that don't meet this low bar are numerous: The Bourne Identity, Ocean's 11, Lord of the Rings, The Shawshank Redemption, Mission Impossible, X-Men, the list goes on and on. Even movies aimed primarily at women or children, such as Up and When Harry Met Sally, often fail the test.

We've grown so accustomed to the invisibility of female-centered stories in popular movies that it's tempting to be fooled by an ersatz example like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. On its face, the movie certainly has some potential with its fierce complex heroine and women-on-top story arc. But make no mistake: The movie didn't speak to most women's fantasies precisely because it was designed to speak to most men's. How else can we explain the plot-jarring spectacle of an abused, bisexual street urchin dropping her panties for a scruffy, cynical, and not especially sympathetic older man? Are we really supposed to buy that this guarded, sexually wounded young woman would be redeemed by his... his what? Kindness? Sexual magnetism? Loyalty? The alluring way he slinks off to hook up with his married lover? And what about that paint-by-numbers lesbian sex scene with the glossy girlfriend in black garter belt? Please. This stuff is strictly for the boys.

If you're a woman who liked The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, well, I haven't met you yet. Despite the runaway success of the book, plenty of women balked at the invitation to watch the anal rape of the naked, pierced, and heavily tattooed actress, Rooney Mara, whose physical transformation included a real-life nipple piercing positioned, the director helpfully explained in the press, to reflect the light off her perky breasts. To more than a few women, this whiff of prurience was exactly the kind of icky downer we didn't want to see at Christmas time.

Largely overlooked in the breathless reviews of Ms. Mara's performance and the complementary his-and-her rape scenes was a repugnant murder plot with promiscuous depictions of tortured and mutilated women. Apparently, no one is much shocked by such visceral cinematic barbarism. The serial butchery of women is such a basic movie trope we barely notice it anymore.

Perversely, the greater the emotional intimacy or more female-centric the onscreen sexual action, the more likely the movie is to be shunned by the ratings board and, thus, to fail at the box office. That's why the critically acclaimed Blue Valentine was initially slapped with a NC-17 rating for a scene of a clothed woman joyfully -- but not terribly explicit -- receiving oral sex from her eager partner, while The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo had no such battle to protect its scenes of savage anal and oral rape and naked, "thrusting" sexual intercourse.

The movie box office is in decline, we're perennially reminded, but the privileging of violence over romance and healthy sexuality virtually guarantees the continued production of movies that bore or offend a lot of women.

In response to Twilight's critics, Director Bill Condon recently remarked, "This series is about things women care about and has a woman at the center. So there are people who just stay outside it and mock it." For all women's astounding progress in other areas of contemporary life, it's hard to escape the conclusion that we're still stuck in the Mad Men era when it comes to movies, alternately objectified and belittled.

Can you really blame a girl, then, for throwing in her lot with a bunch of preening vampires and mangy wolves? "What choice have I?" as Edward once memorably exclaimed. All you movie moguls out there: Are you listening yet? Give us our dreams, please, shaken and stirred.

This is the final part of a three-part series. Read part one here and part two here.