This will be an essay regarding the alleged political and social undercurrents of the first Twilight movie (for a normal review, go here), and how whether it matters in judging the film. For the record, I have not read the books and I know very little about what happens in the later stories. I will be only taking stock of the content of the first film. I will be dealing with (alleged) symbolic as well as literal interpretations of onscreen events.
Taken as a movie and taken at face value, Twilight is simply a romantic drama involving a young girl and a brooding but handsome vampire (who looks and acts her age, but is actually nearly 100 years old). Like any worldwide phenomenon, the original books (and thus this first movie) have been dissected by the page. Most of the criticisms are in the vein of 'it's sexist' or 'it's anti-feminist', or 'it celebrates the oppressive patriarchy'. Do these charges apply purely to the first movie? And if they do, is it intentional, or merely an inevitable byproduct of the story that the author and filmmakers wanted to tell?
Much has been made of the author Stephanie Meyer's Mormon religious leanings, but the movie's symbolism is generic enough to apply to many religious or cultural dogmas, since all too many of them treat sexuality, especially female sexuality, as something dangerous and to be kept locked up. Bella's inherent desire to 'be' with Edward at all costs, as well as Edward's constant attempts to brush her away, have disturbing implications, since it is the girl's (metaphorical) sexual awakening that leads Edward to place her family and his family in jeopardy. One could argue that this is simply a double standard, that far more films treat the male as the aggressor and the female as the one who must ward off his advances. Why should we decry a movie that simply reverses the formula? The issue is the fact that, although Bella is the aggressor, it is still Edward who presents the danger. Thus we have a situation of Edward being dangerous to Bella, yet the primary responsibility to prevent that danger falls in Bella's hands, not Edward's.
Further muddying the waters is the fact that the 'danger' that does present itself is not from Edward, but from a third party threat from a different vampire. James is presented in the film as a standard variety psychopath, who just happens to be a vampire. If the story did not involve the supernatural, would Bella really be seen as responsible for drawing the prurient interest of (for example) Edward's old college buddy who happens to be a rape-minded murderer? While most of the movie treats vampirism as a metaphor for consensual sex, the climax does revert back to the vampirism equals rape metaphor that usually exists in such fiction. Thus we are dangerously close to having a film where Bella's romantic advances toward Edward are seen as responsible for a third party taking an interest in (metaphorically) raping and (literally) killing her.
The problem, and the key to understanding why the story is offensive to some people, is that the core of the romantic drama revolves around two contradictory and troubling connotations. On one hand, Edward keeps telling Bella that he cannot control himself around her, that she is putting herself in danger. Thus the sexual wiles of Bella is endangering all around her, because Edward may or may not be able to control his own lethal desires. But, wait, he is also protective of her, and the movie seems to imply (by her constant run-ins with lethal danger from outside forces) that she cannot take care of herself and must be guarded and watched at all times. Edward states both of these notions outright during the course of the movie.
There are two main classic cultural myths of females, two false assumptions that have been used as the definitive excuses to subjugate and disenfranchise women for centuries in all manner of societies. The first is that women are devious and reckless creatures who tempt men who can't control themselves. As a result of these fiendish seducers, the weak but noble men do all manner of vice and corruption, deeds that without the temptation of the women they would not have even considered. But, wait, they are also weak-willed and emotionally fragile creatures that cannot care for themselves and must be protected from peril and shielded from emotional complication ('the fairer sex'). Whether accidentally or intentionally, Twilight revolves around both stereotypes.
Ok, so assuming that the narrative of Twilight is sexist and does play into classic myths that have excused female domination, does that make the film sexist, or merely the very sort of fantasy that it wants to be? As I discussed a few months back (when discussing Sex & The City: The Movie), the core elements of female fantasy is the idea of shirking responsibility, throwing caution to the wind, and living out all of your selfish desires without major consequences. Comparatively, the male escapist fantasy involves immature boys who man up just a little bit, take responsibility, and use their talents to save lives, make a difference, and win the girl without having to make any true concessions to their character and personality (think Iron Man).
In this archetypal female fantasy, the shy girl moves to a new school, completely unaware of how intelligent and attractive she is (for all the hubbub about how 'dreamy' Pattinson's Edward is, Kristen Stewart's Bella isn't exactly Dawn Weiner* either). Without even trying, she gets hit on by every boy in the school (and, in one creepy scene, her father's much older friend) and manages to draw the attention of the school hunk with absolutely no effort. He ignores everyone else in the school, but he takes a shining to her immediately. When the danger of this forbidden romance is exposed, Bella chooses puppy love over the safety of Edward's family and her own family and pays no price for it (in fact, she gets to keep Edward and her friends and family).
And, let's not forget, part of the point of fantasy is to indulge in that which is not (or, sometimes, what shouldn't be so). In Twilight, the target demographic of young women gets to spend two hours in a prototypical female escape fantasy, and they can also make a choice to ignore the sociological undercurrents. They can choose to revel in the fairy tale stereotypes, and even play around with the female culture myths if they so choose**. Maybe the irony is that the female escapism genre involves allowing women to give into their most selfish possible instincts, while male escapism involves men ignoring their base instincts and striving to be better people in situations of great consequence. Actually, if you take the gender politics of Twilight and view them as a pure fantasy, then it actually makes the very real women who view the film look pretty good.
* For the record, I am referencing the character of Dawn Weiner from Welcome To The Dollhouse, not the actress Heather Matarazzo, a talented and lovely actress who deserves much better work than 'naked tortured chick' in Hostel 2.
** Frankly, I was far more disturbed by Enchanted, which aimed its anti-feminist fairy-tale foolishness at a demographic far too young to separate the fantasy from the gender politics underneath the surface.