Saturday, March 10, 2012

When Forks is ashes, you have my permission to die: The Twilight Post Concludes

Writers kill a lot of women. I'm not an exception.

Well, I've killed fictional women. Actually, I've killed a lot more men. My women have a tendency to survive whatever nightmares I throw at them. Regardless, the traumas I've inflicted on my fictional women strike me as more memorable, because, hey, it turns out I didn't come out of the womb having a perfect understanding of culture and privilege and stuff.

Superhero comics, in which the line between death and not-death is more permeable, also follow the trend, and women are statistically a lot more likely to be burned up for drama than their male counterparts. People will occasionally refer to these doomed women as "disposable," which I think misses the point. Put on your Dworkin decoder glasses. Our stories don't kill women because they don't matter, because they serve no purpose. They kill women because their purpose is to be killed. We scream in cathedrals, and it ain't gonna be beautiful without a sacrifice.

Which is about what I knew about Breaking Dawn when I started the series, and the prospect was kind of exciting. Not because I'm a misogynistic sadist, although that is also almost certainly true. No, I was excited because Twilight had thus presented me with a world that could be easily enough enacted by Willingham's wooden soldiers. When Bella talks of Edward's beauty, she speaks first of light, but second of hardness. Bella and Edward kiss, and there's talk of breath, but there's no saliva. Edward is cold, Jacob is hot, but there are few references of sweat. And, lest we forget, Bella twists every which way to avoid thinking or saying the word "sex" if she can possibly avoid it. (Other words Bella avoids: cowgirl, blowjob, teabag, synecdoche, butch cock.)

There's also a fair deal of violence in the first three books, but those diamond-skinned vampires? They don't bleed. They break apart like goddamned statues. Werewolves theoretically break apart like the good ol' mammals they are, but we only see the post-triage form. Bella, of course, bleeds like a clumsy human, but she also tends to pass out whenever anything violent happens around her. Her main contribution in the big superhero battle royale that concludes Eclipse is to stab herself in the gut, leaving both of the male leads to kick themselves for not seeing it coming, because the chick is seriously a danger to herself. But that's just not a lot of moisture, really.

So, going into Breaking Dawn, I knew that a) Bella and Edward were going to fuck, despite the nominal chance that he might get excited and vibrate so fast Bella might explode like the bad guy in Death and Return of Superman, and b) Bella was going to get pregnant, and enjoy a birth that would sever her spine. It seemed impossible that either of these would be able to happen with the same plastic-action-figure detachment. Life, it turns out, is wet, gooey, and gross, and what fun is reading about vampire-fucking if we avoid that?

The sex, unsurprisingly, is glossed over. I suppose we, as readers, should be grateful our narrator doesn't simply pass out, considering the panic attack she has at the prospect of her husband--not boyfriend, not fiance, husband--seeing her in a bathing suit.

So, I invite you now to imagine a montage of trains going into tunnels and slow zooms into fireplaces. When you get back, briefly acknowledge a broken bedframe, piles of feathers, an ashamed Edward, and an ecstatic Bella who is surprised to find herself covered in bruises.

Read Holly Black's take here.

This is a point worth considering. There is no avoiding the abuse imagery here. Even Edward, I think, is a bit disturbed by it. (This is not the only incident of self-awareness on the part of the Twilight cast. Rosalie, for example, seems to be embarrassed to be in these books at all. I suspect, when Bella's not around, she re-reads John Steakley's Vampire$ and sighs wistfully.)

And it's ok to like this stuff. It's ok to want to perform it from time to time, with one or more consenting and informed partners. You need not compromise your politics if scary or dangerous things turn you on.

We make extraordinary excuses for individual rapists, but evince a disgust for rapists in the abstract that is entirely disproportionate to any other human sins or crimes. I'll not speculate on the whys and hows here, suffice to mumble idly about feedback loops and performative overcompensation. But rape in our culture is less an aberrant incident than it is a psi-field. Words and ideas replicate in minds, material patterns in material entities. And nothing appears ex nihilio, but has to be jury-rigged from what came before.

Our religious and military iconographies have not yet shed their feudal origins, so it shouldn't be so surprising that our sex iconography has also yet to catch up to factories, gunpowder, and individual rights. This idea of sex as consensual unless otherwise stated is not only unprecedented, it would appear as abject nonsense to the world from which many of our most enduring romantic images originate. Most of our romantic imagery is drenched in rape connotation. Low-level rape play is probably present in nearly all human sexual endeavors.

To quote another group of well-meaning crazy people, This is Who We Are.

So that's Twilight, folks. It's a whirlwind tour of the very worst parts of ourselves that we can't quite bring ourselves to get rid of. We rejigger the code with every new generation, every glowing fuck, every neatly formatted sentence. Dworkin, being crazy, saw the horror a bit more clearly than most of us do. Most of us have to strain a bit to see the nightmare she describes. It gets fainter over time. Hell, it's gotten fainter since Dworkin stopped writing about it.

Other highlights: the first mention of menstruation, when Bella experiences a classic teen drama late-period panic. (Spoiler alert: too late. No more periods for Bella, ever. Do her eggs turn shiny and diamond-like?)

The first (and only) mention of homosexuality, when one of Jacob's pals is teasing him. Said pal has imprinted on a child, which means he'll fall in love with her as soon as the creepiness of this concept drops below a certain level--and the girl, object of said imprinting, will obviously be in love with the (adult) man who's been her most persistent company since she was in kindergarten, from the sheer crushing weight of her gratitude and familial affection. Certainly the shared and unquestioned expectations of this among her entire community won't do her any harm.

The second mention of menstruation, when Leah--who, by the way, is the only female werewolf in the history of ever, not that this is a detail anyone is concerned about--notes that her cycle stopped when she started, erm, cycling. Her telepathic link to the boys in the pack grosses everyone out, and I assume she had to go sit in the hut for a week. There's something terribly amusing about werewolves blanching at the thought of a little blood.

A brief novelette in which Jacob gets to take over narrating duties for a while, and wastes our time with a bunch of bullshit. Like, wastes our time even by the standard of people who've read over a thousand pages of Twilight.

And finally, the big vampire battle royale, with a cast so big it requires a chart in the back of the book, culminating in the greatest anti-climax since that time I failed to climax. Think X-Men: The Last Stand meets Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Numerous media scholars have noted the great favor Rob Thomas did for Veronica Mars fans by easing the community into the show's inevitable cancellation by slowly making the show suck over the course of a season. Twilight finishes much the same way, unravelling its limited coherence strand by strand. It leaves us in the really real world to marvel at the mad journey we've finished, like the pursuit of Sunday.

As from a Nightmare, we awake.

And we promise to write something substantive about videogames soon. Seriously.