Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Owen Gleiberman thinks Twilight love represents a backlash against feminism

EW's movie critic, Owen Gleiberman, has decided that the popularity of Twilight represents "an unambiguous embrace, by women, of the male gaze," and thus some kind of backlash against feminism. I usually like Owen's reviews a lot (and met him back in college, and he was very kind to my then-aspiring-journalist self), and I've admired the feminism of his counterpart Lisa Schwarzbaum, but I can't help comparing this nonsensical rant to the urge of many-a-previous threatened male to declare feminism "over," "wrong," "passe," etc:
To recap: Either you’re a hater or you’re a Twihard. Either you identify with Bella Swan as a fresh and noble ordinary girl who has a small touch of the extraordinary about her — a lovely wallflower who blooms under the gaze of her courtly vampire beau — or you think that she’s a drippy, passive doormat in thrall to the kind of male-centric romanticism that should have died out around the time of Gone With the Wind.
...What fascinates me, listening to the noisy battle of Team Rapture and Team I Can’t Stand This Garbage, is that the war of opinion over the Twilight saga isn’t just a disagreement about books and movies. It touches something deeper, something that pop culture has always touched and even defined: key questions of what love and sex and romance should look like and feel like, of what they should be. A movie like Eclipse may be a far cry from art, but it’s increasingly clear, at least to me, that the movie hits a nerve, even in people who say they hate it, because it embodies a paradigm shift: a swooning re-embrace of traditional, damsel-meets-caveman values by a new generation of young women who are hearkening back, quite consciously, to the romantic-erotic myths of the past. The Bella Swan view of the world may, on the surface, be the opposite of “rebellious,” but the reason her story sets so many hearts aflame is that it is, in a way, a rebellion — against the authority represented by a generation of women’s-studies classes. Bella’s story is, by nature, a meditative, even meandering one because it’s the story of how she wants to be acted upon, to be loved, desired, coveted, fought over, protected. A movie like Eclipse represents nothing less than a new and unambiguous embrace, by women, of the male gaze.
OK. Remind me again how fantasizing about being desired is a rejection of women's studies classes? Don't men also fantasize about being "acted upon" and being desired and being an all-consuming object of affection? But Gleiberman isn't done:
In many ways, the debate over these movies reminds me of the kinds of arguments that first coalesced 20 years ago around the Susan Faludi book Backlash, in which the author argued that a widespread retreat from many of the mores of traditional feminism was, in effect, a kind of cultural conspiracy, one that reached from corporate boardrooms to the cosmetics industry. I think it’s become clearer in hindsight that what Faludi regarded as a coercive step backward to the dark ages was a lot more complicated than that — that what she viewed as a back-lash was, in reality, a back-swing of the pendulum. With the Twilight saga, that pendulum swing may finally be complete — and some women, let’s be honest, are horrified at that.
First of all, the pendulum never swung. We never had a generation of women who believed in their own sexual power, independence, and right to equality, and were fed a diet of media that affirmed their right to those things. The "feminist generation" is a myth, a myth used to create a handy narrative for imaginary backlashes that also don't exist. Yes, culture changes and things come in and out of fashion. But all women never believed in the "feminist ideal" (whatever that is), and certainly not all of them swoon for Edward or Jacob now. In fact, I'd be willing to bet that teenage girls are mostly the same over the past few decades, and that most of them had a lust object they sometimes dreamed of being dominated by. But I'm willing to bet more of a few have equally as many fantasies about dominating. And none of that makes this generation any less feminist than the rest. Twilight is just that--a fantasy. In reality, most of us women still want equality. Now.


  1. I have been reading the critiques of Eclipse and the one thing people never seem to want to discuss is the attraction of the vampire character itself. Vampires are stunningly beautiful, unimaginably strong and the live forever. This is a big part of the reason why people are attracted to them and these critics think that this does not play a role in the twilight obsession they are really missing a big part of the point.

  2. I agree that this is a fantasy, but I think it is more about growing up and less about romance than Gleiberman says. After all, Bella get the reassurance that everything will be all right and she doesn't have to worry - perpetual dependence can be attractive, under the right conditions (not to me, but I get it).

    This is a childish fantasy though, and most women are going to have to pay the bills, take care of themselves (Bella neglects this in a big way in one of the stories), and make decisions, regardless of the men in their lives. This is the anti-coming-of-age story, reflective of the fear of growing up without offering any real solutions.

    "Growing up and becoming independent is scary." "It totally is! What will we do?" "Sexy vampires! We'll be in love and never age!" "?!?"

    It's like Peter Pan syndrome, but with fangs.

  3. I agree on both counts. Yes, Vampires are sexy! When I was a kid, I loved this Christopher Pike series of books called The Last Vampire, about a totally hot female vampire, where the men are all hopeless humans. They're preternaturally beautiful, super powerful, and live forever. What's not to like?
    But yes, Mongoose, it is a fantasy, not some model of what we want our reality to look like!


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