Maria Pawlowska thinks we should have healthier movie characters for our children to learn from.
Breaking Dawn (alas, only part 1) is finally on screens. For those of you have missed the latest pop-culture fad, Breaking Dawn is the penultimate installation of the Twilight saga, which tells the story of the love between a mortal human and a vampire. Bella meets Edward, falls in love, and spends a few hundred pages trying to persuade him to be with her even though that will likely to change her into an immortal blood drinker. If you’re a Twilight fan I’m sure you think I haven’t done justice to Stephenie Meyer’s books and you’re probably right.
However, I don’t care so much about the intricacies of a romance between a vampire and a human and how it proceeds to turn into a love triangle involving a werewolf. (I wonder why.) What I do care about, however, are gender roles—specifically in the context of sex (OK, I admit that makes for a worse tagline than cross-species romance)—and Breaking Dawn is ripe for the picking.
The movie is chock-a-block full of violence in a sexual and not so sexual context. But who am I kidding, we all got used to people being shot on screen and guts flowing all over the place. What’s more, we don’t really consider it a problem. In the US, for a film to be R-rated, a movie can contain “strong violence often with blood and gore, strong horror scenes and explicit/illegal/prolonged drug use“ but only “mild or implied sex scenes”. So yeah, if you’re a teenager going to the movies, violence is generally OK but baby-making is not.
Anyhow, what rubs me the wrong way about Breaking Dawn is not so much the werewolves having a go at the vampires or the vampires having a go at other vampires. Rather, it’s Edward Cullen’s aggression towards his bride. It the movie (and more so in the book) Bella is literally all in bruises after their wedding night, and she never once stops telling him that she knows it’s all because he loves her and [insert domestic violence excuse of your choice].
Oh, and another funny thing—Edward, being the non-aging, immortal vampire that he is, spent about a century going to high school and somehow never learned where babies come from. (To be fair, Bella seems pretty oblivious as well.) Guess what? They get pregnant on their honeymoon—or maybe it’s just that vampire sperm eats through condoms so there’s no point in trying to prevent a pregnancy.
The pregnancy, though, can (and almost does) kill Bella; she becomes awfully sick as the baby almost literally eats her from the inside. Charming, I’m sure. Then, it appears to me that the director of Breaking Dawn went out of his way to fit the Motion Picture Association’s definition of ”strong violence often with blood and gore” while shooting the scene of baby Cullen’s birth. Go see the movie if you really want to know more. (Or just go read this.)
But Bella isn’t the first Bella in kids’/young people’s films to be involved with an abusive (not quite regular) man and explain it all away as love. Beauty and the Beast anyone? Yup, Disney’s Belle, folks.
(OK, OK I’m stretching it a little. She had a different vowel at the end of her name—details, details, etc.)
Beast may be a prince who’s had a curse thrown on him (don’t they all?), but in the mean time he’s a verbally and physically abusive man for whom starving Belle was a chosen method for dealing with her disobedience. Belle sticks with the Beast, hoping that “her love will change him.” (Of course, it eventually does. It’s a Disney movie and there’s a dancing candlestick with a French accent in it, for Pete’s sake).
Some say (there’s a whole genre called “Feminist deconstruction of Disney princesses”) that Belle doesn’t let him get his way, refuses to acquiesce to his demands, and goes all “civil disobedience” on him by sneaking out for food when he doesn’t allow her to eat. I don’t know about you, but I sure as hell wouldn’t want young girls to get the message that “a partner who doesn’t allow you to eat is OK if you don’t secretly get food anyway.”
Belle and Bella are just two of the many female storybook/film characters who are abused and violated and never leave their abuser. The really worrying thing, though, is that they star in films (and books) for young people who are just forming their attitudes toward relationships.
True, most of that should come from the real world—parents, hopefully. But children learn just—or perhaps, at least—as much about role models and appropriate behaviours from their peers and their entertainment. And maybe I’m just being a spoilsport about this, but I really think that we have a huge issue with how women and girls are portrayed in movies for young children. (Full disclosure: I LOVE Disney movies.)
Hopefully things are changing. There has been somewhat of an uproar about the treatment Bella gets in the movie (and not just on feminist sites), and the Disney Princess Feminist Fails have done the rounds on the Internet. Also, there’s some exciting stuff coming our way soon; Pixar is making its first movie with a female lead. At the end of the day I just really hope young girls and boys will have ever more fun, adventuress (non-victimized) characters of all genders to love and learn from.
—Photo AP/Andrew Cooper