'Twilight: Breaking Dawn:' Does it send the wrong message?
It was of course never much of a question whether millions of Americans were going to rush out to see "The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn -- Part 1" this weekend, which they did -- about 18 million people, to be specific. For comparison's sake, that's just slightly behind the number who watched last year's "American Idol" finale -- as studio Summit Entertainment rang up $139.5 million in box office for the latest Kristen Stewart-Robert Pattinson film.
The bigger question, though, might be what these millions were left thinking after they left the theater, particularly in the areas of sex, love and childbirth, areas in which the Bill Condon-directed, Melissa Rosenberg-penned script has plenty to say.
A quick recap, in the unlikely event there isn't a Twihard in or around you. In this fourth installment of the vampire film franchise, adapted from about half of Stephenie Meyer's final book in the “Twilight” series, Bella Swan (Stewart) and the vampire Edward Cullen (Pattinson) finally consummate their love. Though still a teenager, she marries Edward in a glittery affair while the shape-shifting werewolf Jacob (Taylor Lautner) hovers nearby. The wedding leads to a surprise honeymoon in Brazil as well as to Bella's deflowering (not to mention de-feathering; vampire men and pillows are apparently a dangerous combination).
Most conspicuously, the wedding-night sex results in Bella becoming pregnant with a kind of human-vampire hybrid, which soon threatens the life of its mother. Told of the danger, Bella doesn't even consider terminating the pregnancy.
"The way Bella's pregnancy is depicted and discussed -- along with the strong pro-abstinence messages of the saga, the religious underpinnings and the motherhood-is-the-natural-and-happy-ending-for-all-females tone -– result in a narrative that leans far more towards the anti-abortion stance."
A fair enough conclusion, though it should be said that “Breaking Dawn” is hardly the first Hollywood film to wave aside the possibility of abortion in the case of an unwanted pregnancy. "Knocked Up," a movie far from Mormon-authored teen fantasy took a similar approach. Keeping the baby is always a lot more dramatically expedient than the alternative, especially when there's a sequel to be had.
But a more slippery issue arises well before Bella ever gets to the delivery stage. As a fairy tale, "Twilight" has always indulged in fantasy -- two dreamy guys, their disdain for each other trumped by their love for the girl, who doesn't seem to have to do too much to win their affection. But it has been in the realm of fairy tale. As it follows Bella and Edward into the next phase of their life, though, the fourth movie enters a more adult space. And its message, inevitably, gets more fraught.
In the world of “Breaking Dawn,” apparently, sex is so hallowed that it can only be practiced on a wedding night, and after a glorious trip to a beach in Brazil -- a virginity-losing experience about as close to most of our realities as the sight of grown men turning into wolves.
And then of course there's the fact that the sex results in an immediate pregnancy. You don't have to be looking too hard to see the prudishness of this Meyer-Rosenberg turn, which implicitly warns that all sex has major consequences, even sex of the sanctioned, post-marital kind.
There's always been a bit of a paradox in a certain conservative position on sex, one that says it's so sacred it requires waiting for a monumental moment (like on a honeymoon trip to Brazil), but it also carries with it such a taint that it can only lead to, say, a monster growing inside you. In about 10 minutes of screen time, “Breaking Dawn” suggests both.
This is all still pulpy fantasy, of course, not to be taken ultra-seriously. But as University of Missouri professors Melissa Click, Jennifer Stevens Aubrey and Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz wonder in their book "Bitten by Twilight," some of this must get through to the young viewers who flock to it.
"Though we do have evidence that fans are thinking critically about 'Twilight,'" Behm-Morawitz said in a statement last week, "it is the subtleties of the [socially conservative] messages about gender and sexuality that remain concerning."
In other words, there is room, even in a teen allegory, to show the consequences of teen marriage and sex. The emotional complexities, for example, or the effects of peer pressure In “Breaking Dawn,” most of that gets brushed under the rug in favor of a different lesson: You should wait until marriage to have sex for the first time. Then when you do, it can result in a life-threatening monster, a monster that under all circumstances must be carried to term.
-- Steven Zeitchik
Photo: Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart in "The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn." Credit: Summit Entertainment