MCN Columnists
Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

Twilight: Sometimes a Sexual Fantasy is Just a Sexual Fantasy

Twilight may or may not be more than just a teen vampire movie targeting the latent sexual fantasies of teenage girls, but it opened this weekend to just over $72.7 million, and suddenly male film journalists are sitting up and taking notice. The Los Angeles Times has a piece up by Richard Verrier about how shocking it is that the film, which cost $37 million, cleaned up nearly twice its cost in opening weekend. “Hollywood was confounded by the popularity of the film, which tells the story of a Romeo and Juliet-type romance between a mortal and a vampire. Estimates of the movie’s opening had ranged from $35 million to $60 million,” Verrier writes.

I’m sure Verrier’s correct that a lot of Hollywood suits are confounded by the success of the film; I’m certainly not — I’ve been writing for months about how this film’s box office take was going to knock the pants off male Hollywood’s expectations, and so has Anne Thompson over at Variety. Women. What do we know?

Perhaps even more surprising are the number of relatively positive reviews of the film — it’s sitting at 44% on Rotten Tomatoes right now, which, while not a stellar critical response, is, frankly, about 20% higher than I thought it would be. But interestingly, a number of male critics seem to have a take on the film similar to my own: No, it’s not a finely nuanced arthouse film, but it’s pretty good for what it is, it’s aimed well at its target demographic, and, in some ways, it’s better than it had to be. Yes, it’s very front-loaded, and yes, there will probably be a fairly sizable drop off over the next couple weeks (although the numerous tween and teen Twilight fans of my own acquaintance at our local youth theater could be overheard endlessly discussing the film all weekend, and making plans to go see it a second, third, even fourth time already).

Also at the LA Times, male critic Kenneth Turan (oh, right … there aren’t any more female critics to review femme-centric films over at LA Times these days, are there?) reviews Twilight and actually does seem to get the point that this movie is not aimed at him, and that the demographic at whom it is targeted will be largely happy with what they see, writing, “I am not now nor have I ever been a 13-year-old girl, but Twilight made me wish I could be, at least for a couple of hours, the better to appreciate a movie that has been targeted to that demographic with the delicious specificity of a laser weapon.” Later in his review he writes, “This film succeeds, likely unreservedly for teens and in a classic guilty pleasure kind of way for adults, because it treats high school emotions with unwavering, uncompromising seriousness. Much as you may not want to, you have to acknowledge what’s been accomplished here.”

Roger Ebert, though he wasn’t overly enamored of the film himself, examined the film’s teenage-love plot line: “It’s about a teenage boy trying to practice abstinence, and how, in the heat of the moment, it’s really, really hard. And about a girl who wants to go all the way with him, and doesn’t care what might happen. He’s so beautiful she would do anything for him. She is the embodiment of the sentiment, “I’d die for you.” She is, like many adolescents, a thanatophile. If there were no vampires in Twilight, it would be a thin-blooded teenage romance, about two good-looking kids who want each other so much because they want each other so much. Sometimes that’s all it’s about, isn’t it? They’re in love with being in love. In Twilight, however, they have a seductive disagreement about whether he should kill her.”

Even Jeff Wells over at Hollywood Elsewhere has written quite a bit about the teen vampire flick over the past couple days, including a post Sunday morning asking whether Twilight, with its “I can’t have sex with you because if I ever lose control with you I might accidentally kill you” undercurrent is a “sexual right-wing movie in sheep’s clothing” (a bit of a reach, in my opinion) and Scott Mendelson, writing on his blog, offers a lengthy dissection of whether the film is sexist or just a female escapist fantasy, offering, “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?”

Er, well, perhaps, but how is this any different than Romeo and Juliet thwarting their families’ long-standing feud for the sake of love? And in this case, the Cullens aren’t so much concerned that Bella will put them in danger by “outing” them as vampires, but that if things end badly and Edward (or perhaps one of his family) should lose control and kill her, they would be more likely to be implicated because Edward and Bella have gone public with their relationship. Edward doesn’t place Bella’s family in jeopardy, they’re placed in danger by the presence of the three rogue vampires. Even if Bella and Edward were not involved with each other, though, Bella and her family could still have been in danger from the rogues passing through town and snacking on the locals, and while the Cullens were aware of the rogues and “keeping an eye on things,” they were not actively hunting down the other vampire tribe, even knowing they were killing people, until Bella and Family were put in danger. So really, one could argue that Bella’s relationship with Edward, in the long run, keeps her and her family safer, because they’re now a part of the Forks Good Vampire Friends and Family Network.

I’ve written a fair amount on this aspect of the film myself, so I’m as guilty as the next, er, guy, but really, underneath all this analyzing of Twilight, Mendelson, whether he realizes it or not, is more on the money when he talks about Twilight as female sexual escapism than about Twilight as deliberately turning around sexual stereotypes. Twilight author Stephenie Meyer has both written and spoken about the inception of the idea for the series arising from a dream she had about a vampire sparkling in sunlight (the book’s “meadow” scene,” where not-really-teen-emo-vampire Edward finally reveals to Bella all his fabulous, diamond-sparkling gorgeousness). In the books (which I’d wager the vast majority of the men writing about the film adaptation have not read), Meyer waxes on for seemingly endless paragraphs of prose about Edward’s physical perfection: his gorgeous hair, his sculpted chest, his awesome breath, his amazing tawny eyes. Although I rather enjoyed the books in spite of Meyer’s massive paragraphs of worship at the alter of Edward via her heroine, to me it was pretty obvious from the beginning that the Twilight series is, as Mendolson somewhat apologetically posits, much more a pure escape into female sexual fantasies than any highbrow literary or cinematic intellectual attempt to turn a genre on its head.

Twilight fanatics (with the exception of the Team Jacob set) are, like Bella, obsessed with Edward, period. Kristen Stewart, at the Twilight junket in LA a couple weeks ago, related how when the cast does mall autograph signings, she can feel the disdain directed at her from the fangirls flocking to see their teenage sexual fantasies brought to life in the form of Robert Pattinson, who plays their beloved Edward in the film. I believe her when she says she can feel their dislike of her when they look at her, but that has nothing to do with her talents as an actress, nor do most of them get (or care) that Stewart’s performance largely carries the film. The character of Bella is simply the means through which Meyer (and, by extension, the book’s legion of readers) get to vicariously live out the fantasy of a relationship with this moody, fascinating, handsome, darkly compelling vampire boy, and it’s not surprising at all that female fans would look askance at Stewart as though she’s been hanging out with their boyfriend.

Ultimately, w hat makes Twilight so appealing to so many girls is not that Bella is the sexual aggressor in the relationship, or that it subversively posits female sexuality as “dangerous;” it’s really all about Edward, and, perhaps, the way in which the male lead character of a teenage romance isn’t positioned as being just some horny teenager trying to get into Bella’s pants. Edward’s physically attracted to Bella, yes — so much so that it’s actually painful for him not to attack her and drink her blood — but at the end of the day, he values more being in a long-term relationship with her than he does killing her. With all the sexual pressures facing teenagers today, what 16 or 17-year-old girl wouldn’t find refreshing a male hero who values her more for who she is as a person rather than just a collection of female body parts on display for his sexual entertainment?

Sure, Edward’s also appealing to a lot of girls because of his personality traits (Spout’s Kevin Kelly wrote up a fairly amusing, somewhat tongue-in-cheek roundup of what teenage boys can learn about teenage girls from watching the film). I get the attraction — I’ve dated more than my share of moody, artsy boys who glower alluringly from under their brows, walk away mid-conversation, and vacillate back and forth between talking to you nicely and looking at you as if they’d like to rip your throat out. Roger Ebert asks in his review why girls tend to go for guys like Edward rather than nice, cheery chaps like him; I don’t know why, Roger, but I do know that, especially in my younger days, I myself always gravitated to the moody, artsy sorts myself, relegating the nice guys to the role of “you’re a good friend, but …,” and that’s true not only of teenage girls, but of a lot of women too. There’s something attractive about the idea of controlled danger sexually, and Edward oozes sexuality, in spite of his restraint — as he says, he’s the ultimate predator, everything about him designed to lure in his prey. And Bella wants him all the more for his staunchness in holding back; she wants him far more, in fact, than she would if he was all over her, pressuring her to have sex she wasn’t ready for (or if he was the one pushing her to become immortal like him).

In one of the later books, Bella has a dream in which she thinks she’s seeing her grandmother standing next to Edward, and then realizes she’s looking at herself, aged and withered and dying, while Edward is forever young and beautiful. And Ebert, in his review, hits the proverbial nail on the head in observing that beneath the “I want to be with my sexy vampire boyfriend forever” surface, Bella’s really facing the very normal fear a lot of girls that age face as they start to become aware of the incontrovertible passage of time, the aging of ourselves and those we love, and, inevitably, our deaths. Bella doesn’t see Edward changing her as “death” at all, she sees it as eternal life, as defeating aging and death, albeit with the caveat that she’ll have to watch as those she loves age and die (unless she plans to convert her parents and all her friends to vampires as well, and have everyone live happily and eternally forever in one big vampire town) — and of course, that once she’s a vampire she’ll have to fight the urge to rip the throats out of her loved ones and drink their blood. On the balance, though, it all seems like a pretty good deal to Bella and, by extension, to the female fans of the series, young and old, who waited impatiently through the first three books for Bella to get to be a vampire already.

What really makes Twilight resonate for its female fans is just this: when they read the book, they are putting themselves in Bella’s place in the story, and what they’re responding to is less the subtle female empowerment message underlying Bella and Edward’s relationship than it is the simple allure of forbidden fruit and the specialness of being chosen as mate rather than entree by this remarkable vampire boy-man. For young girls wrestling with issues around sex, sexuality and societal double standards, perhaps there’s something to be said for a storyline in which the female character is the aggressive pursuer, even to the extent of Bella being the one who pushes Edward to “change” her to a vampire. What a lot of folks seem to be missing here is that it’s never about Edward asking Bella to sacrifice her mortality to be with him; quite the contrary — he fights Bella relentlessly on this, he values her humanity, he doesn’t want her to become the monster he sees himself as. And for Bella, it’s not “I love you so much I’m willing to die for you,” it’s “I love you so much I want to be with you forever, and for that to happen I need to be a vampire, and that needs to happen before I’m physically very much older than you.”

Look, I get the inclination to make something more daring and brainy of Twilight than it actually is. I understand the need to find some veneer of intellectual analysis that fits over the surface of what’s, at its heart, just a rather melodramatic, romantic fantasy that appeals to girls and women. As a feminist who writes about film, I’ve sought deeper meaning in Twilight myself, and Meyer’s Mormon faith and the lack of actual sex taking place in the first three books makes it even more appealing to try to find some hidden meaning lurking there. At the end of the day, though, thousands of women and girls haven’t been obsessively participating in the Twilight fan forums on Twilight LexiconTwilight Moms and Twilight Teens because they’re seeking to find some deeper meaning. Perhaps, in spite of all the intellectualizing about Twilight, this sexual fantasy story really is just a sexual fantasy story, and nothing more. And for the fans who saw Twilight its opening weekend to the tune of $72 million, maybe that’s enough.

– by Kim Voynar

Be Sociable, Share!

Comments are closed.

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon