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Erika Christakis

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

Posted: 02/22/2012 9:00 am

When we last saw Bella, in the Twilight series, her single-minded ambition was eternal life with Edward Cullen. Even for young readers, her fixation feels a bit... limiting. I could handle the teen marriage, but why couldn't she just go to Dartmouth, already, and have her hybrid vamp-baby later? Before leaping on the author's religion and her own early marriage as explanations for this low-ball career path, consider how fun it would be to fast-track all the usual stepping-stones to adulthood.

Forget about taking the SATs and going to college. Forget about car payments and health insurance. Forget about finding time for date night or an assisted living facility for your aging parents. You don't even have to plan your own Vogue photo-shoot wedding because your gorgeous vampire sister-in-law happens to be the world's most awesome party planner. Let others do the heavy lifting; in fantasy land, ambition sucks.

Bella's helplessness can be incredibly annoying -- Edward always cooks for her, even though she makes dinner every night for her dad and Edward doesn't even eat human food -- but it's only maddening when viewed in the context of real life. Who doesn't dream of shirking responsibilities and being indulged? In this age of anxiety and the "End of Men," I suspect many teenage girls are drawn to a character like Bella who marries up in such shrewd and spectacular fashion.

The most humorless and tone-deaf criticism of Twilight is the claim that Bella and Edward's relationship echoes patterns of real-life human domestic abuse. Edward is too controlling, Bella too submissive, so it goes. He carries her around a lot -- it just works faster that way. And sometimes he also scales the walls of her house to watch her sleep. I can attest with utter certainty that I'm not 'down' for a man rappelling into a bedroom window to gaze wondrously at my daughter while she sleeps. But the thing is, vampires don't sleep. So Edward is fascinated not only with Bella but with the notion of human sleep. Get it?

Personally, I think even a 12-year-old can grasp that it's okay to enjoy an elaborate kidnapping-cum-sleepover as fantasy even if you would be appalled to find the UPS driver or neighborhood perv sitting in your room in the middle of the night. Edward is just trying to protect Bella from bad vampires who want to kill her! And, anyway, he later apologizes for being a control freak -- unnecessarily, in my view. He was only being gallant, and there are a lot of dragons to slay out there.

Some of us get this. It pains me a bit to say this, but a certain segment of the heterosexual female population occasionally enjoys fantasizing about men who protect them. Sometimes women are even known occasionally to fantasize about men who are both protective and dangerous. A few of the same women who would be absolutely devastated and irreparably harmed by rape have even been known to have an occasional rape fantasy. Breaking news: Those women know the difference. Surely this is more comprehensible than the kind of men who don't know the difference and actually commit rape.

Critics also complain that Bella gives up too much to be with Edward. Her story arc -- protracted virginity, rough sex followed by demon pregnancy, and so on -- suggests the tired cliché that women, not men, suffer for their sexuality. But on the level of pure fantasy, this doesn't quite ring true for a number of reasons. For starters, Edward has to give up a lot to be with Bella, too.

He subsists on an unappetizing "vegetarian" diet of animal blood in order to maintain his tenuous perch on the human ladder. Over time, he manages to tamp down the voracious thirst for Bella's blood that he likens to heroin addiction -- but only after he has lost his love and believed her dead for a time. It's the unbearable pain of being without her that makes him able to manage his animal instincts.

Well, who wouldn't want to believe that love could be so ennobling? That a person would make a sacrifice -- giving up the possibility of, oh, multiple sexual partners, let's say -- in service of a greater love? It's an appealing fantasy, and I'd like to say it's a fantasy shared equally by men and women. But nothing in our culture suggests that is true. All things being equal, women still appear to value sexual fidelity more than men.

Critics are offended by the implied presumption that men are sexual predators, but a lot of teenage girls might argue differently. Sexual assault is committed overwhelmingly by men against young, fertile women (five percent of whom become pregnant from the rape, according to reliable estimates). Yes, it can happen to anyone; but it usually doesn't. Does that make men rapists at heart? Surely not. But you have only to wander the halls of a college dorm on a weekend night to see the ambivalence on young women's faces as they try to navigate the sexual politics of 21st-century hookup culture.

Divorce rates are way down among college-educated couples who delay marriage, and I doubt that more than a minority of 30-year-old women are planning to risk their significant emotional and financial investment in order to synch more than two calendars on Valentine's Day. Put another way: Women don't care for dog-like male behavior any more now than they ever did. There's still something about the baroque awfulness of men's cheating -- the Arnold Schwarzeneggers and Woody Allens and Dominique Strauss-Kahns -- that really makes a girl blanch. It's no wonder that Edward's efforts at self-control are so appealing.

Yes, I know, I've read the news: monogamy is out, "monogamish" in; even '70s-style open marriage, rebranded as "polyamory," is having its moment. It's true that young women are having an awful lot of sex these days, with a lot fewer strings attached, and rates of infidelity are reaching gender parity. But I'd like to know who invented these rules. Let's see some polling numbers on teenage girls who dream in their canopy beds about sharing their prom date in a girl-girl-boy threesome.

In fact, one of the more refreshing aspects of the Twilight story is the complete absence of inter-girl competition for boys' attention. It's Bella's emotional and sexual desires that drive the narrative. For all her blandness, Bella is always the star attraction in this show, and it's fun to watch the guys having at each other to be with her. A lot of ink has been spilled on Bella's sexual innocence; however, like most teenage girls, she's obsessed with losing her virginity and finds time to toy with more than one guy.

The story revolves in part around her attraction to not one, but two, incredibly strong and handsome supernatural males (not to mention the swarm of wimpy human boys she swats away like flies). We are deep into the saga before Bella definitively ditches Jacob, the werewolf runner-up, for her One True Love. I don't think this conflict is meant to be taken terribly seriously, and we're informed, to drive the point home, that Edward would probably win a hypothetical werewolf-vampire showdown, if it came to a duel. But it's certainly exciting to see a fictional girl at the center of an unstable love triangle for a change.

Furthermore, Edward is just as sexually inexperienced as Bella and, frankly, more of a prude. His ideas of courtship are literally Edwardian and he's holding out physically because he wants a marriage license first. "Where I'm from," the 100-year-old vampire explains earnestly, "It's how one says 'I love you.'" "At my age," Bella retorts, "It's how one says, 'I just got knocked up.'"

But after a lot of nagging and tearful fumbling in the four-poster bed he's masochistically bought for her, Edward eventually backs down and tries, rather ineptly, to initiate sex at the very end of Book Three. This development is omitted in the movie version, but Stephenie Meyer throws us a bone, so to speak, lest all this male fussiness begin to veer toward the repellant. Respecting a girl is one thing, apparently; being an idiot is quite another. But by then Bella has safely drunk the abstinence Kool-aid herself and agreed to do things "in the right order."

This all sounds rather grim, but the love story is entirely believable, and nowhere is this more apparent than during the infamous vampire-human wedding night. Hackles were raised over the broken headboard and bruised flesh, but an even more subversive element may be the expression of joy we see in the young couple as they make love for the first time. Can you recall when you saw genuinely romantic laughter during a movie sex scene?

Bella awakens bruised (but unhurt), not because she's been beaten, but because the kinks in what she calls the "tricky" business of interspecies sex haven't quite been worked out. "I think we did amazing," an obviously sated Bella reassures her sheepish husband after he's laid waste to the bedroom in lieu of injuring his wife. In the more effective and tenderhearted film version, we see the headboard splinter as he braces himself mid-PG-13-thrust. We catch a glimpse not only of his impressive, CGI-enhanced, musculature but also of his embarrassed and hesitant face. It's an expression familiar to millions of over-eager young men who are enjoying sex for the first time.

In lesser hands, this scene would have been played for comedy or horror. But the skilled director, Bill Condon, plays it real instead, showing Bella's calm reaction shot as she reassures her new husband that everything is going to be just fine. The largely female audience smiles knowingly. By playing it straight, with wit but not irony, we can fully embrace the fantasy, rather than viewing it from a snarky distance.

This is part two of a three-part series. Read part one here and check back on Friday for part three.