By Katherine Spillar and Carmen D. Siering
Sure, the film New Moon is breaking box office records, and both tween girls and their moms are swooning over pale-faced vampire Edward and hunky werewolf Jacob, who both vie for the attention of our ostensible hero, Bella. Isn't it romantic?
Well.... with just a moment of critical analysis, feminists can't be too happy about how the latest episode in the Twilight series, adapted from Stephanie Meyer's popular books, represents a young woman and her place in the modern world. In fact, the "New" film is really just more of the same, only worse.
Where director Catherine Hardwicke, who helmed the first film, Twilight, subtly tweaked the characters of Bella (Kristen Stewart) and Edward (Robert Pattinson), creating a somewhat more equal relationship between them, New Moon director Chris Weitz seems content to let things stand as Meyer wrote them. Edward reverts to his overbearing ways, dictating the direction of the relationship -- in this case, ending it -- and Bella quite literally lies down and takes it.
In fact, just moments after Edward leaves her, Bella stumbles in the woods and refuses to get up, lying in the muck until a strong, bare-chested man carries her out. Later, we see her sitting in her room, staring out the window, as the months roll by. When she isn't sitting and staring, she is in bed having nightmares. Very empowering.
What finally rouses her is a vision of Edward -- which she sees after she hops on a motorcycle with a creepy guy. Even this ghostly Edward is bossy, scolding Bella to be careful, but it seems Bella likes, or needs, to be bossed around. Bella figures out that she needs to do "dangerous things" to keep seeing her visions of Edward. She somehow rustles up a couple of motorcycles and convinces her friend Jacob (Taylor Lautner) to get them running. What follows is the requisite time-passing montage of the two of them fixing the bikes and, Jacob hopes, Bella's broken heart.
Like the previous film, New Moon wraps its romantic sensuality in a tidy abstinence message, but this time Bella denies her physical attraction and growing fondness for Jacob in order to remain true to Edward, never mind that he dumped her. One can't help but feel sorry for Jacob. The guy is crazy about Bella, and she tells him he is her "best friend." The truth is, Bella is obviously attracted to Jacob, and spends much of the film physically close to him. The two hug, cuddle, and come close to kissing too many times to count--but she always pushes him away at the last minute. To hear her insist this is a platonic friendship rings untrue, yet ultimately Bella is pretty callous regarding Jacob's feelings, telling him not to make her choose between Edward and himself because Edward will always win.
Bella doesn't come across as an empowered young woman in New Moon, especially as she uses one man to get over another. And yet, as Ms. pointed out in our Spring 2009 article "Taking a Bite Out of Twilight":
Meyer has insisted that she sees Bella as a feminist character, writing on her website that in her opinion the foundation of feminism is being able to choose. But what Meyer fails to acknowledge is that all the choices Bella makes are the one's Meyer would make -- choices based perhaps on her background as a member of the highly patriarchal Mormon church.
This is a film full of gender stereotypes -- testosterone-driven male aggression, females who pine away over lost loves, boys who fix motorcycles and the girls who watch them. The one role-reversal in New Moon, where Bella saves Edward for a change, is immediately negated when Bella's low self-esteem takes center stage. Even as Edward declares his love to her, Bella deems herself "unworthy" of it, being simply human while he's a vampire and all. Perpetuating the idea that this is true love -- torturous, painful, and unrequited--is detrimental to all of us, women and men.
There's something scary about "New Moon," but it's in the human encounters, not those with the monsters. One wishes Weitz had taken a page from Hardwicke's script instead of simply following Meyer's so completely. Next up: "Eclipse," due to hit theaters June 30, 2010. If there really isn't anything new under the moon-blocked sun, we'll expect even more of the same, and another missed opportunity to create a Bella who stands more on her own.
Katherine Spillar is executive editor of Ms. magazine. Carmen Siering is an assistant professor of English and women & gender studies at Ball State University.
For more hard-hitting feminist news and commentary, join the Ms. community and have the magazine delivered to your door.