Bella Swan Cullen, Action Hero?

by | November 17, 2012
filed under Feminism, Pop Culture

Twilight Posterby Tracy Bealer

So, it’s happened. Breaking Dawn: Part 2 has premiered, and Twihards around the country (of whose number I count myself among) have either already, or have plans to, see the cinematic adaptation of the Twilight Saga’s conclusion. The following is not a review of the film, or the books, but rather an investigation of how (spoiler alert) Bella’s transformation into a vampire tweaks the series’ gender politics and power dynamics. This post assumes a basic familiarity with the story, which Wikipedia can provide if needed.

I come not to bury Bella, nor the Twilight novels and their author, Stephenie Meyer, though not quite to praise them either. Though I have, both verbally and in print, articulated my appreciation for the progressive masculinity demonstrated by Edward’s negotiation of his vampire bloodlust and human desire to connect with Bella, the heroine herself hasn’t been as easy to defend. She makes bad decisions (running off alone to confront a vampiric foe without enlisting the aid of her supernatural companions), is willfully ignorant of the emotional consequences of her flirtation with “just friend” and werewolf Jacob Black (pretty much from New Moon onwards to Breaking Dawn: Part 1), and is distressingly eager to sacrifice her own life to protect a fetus that may or may not be a) a child, either human or vampire or; b) a viable living being at all. The connection between Bella’s willing self-sacrifice and Meyer’s Mormon commitment to childbearing has been made elsewhere, and is not the cause of my concern here. What is disturbing is the attendant beatification of Bella, both in the book and the first film, as her body wastes away.

As fans and followers of the series know, though, is that this physical weakness is temporary. After her daughter’s unexpected and violent birth, Edward changes Bella into a vampire, injecting her body with venom in a scene the novel renders as both brutal and sexualized: “It was like he was kissing her, brushing his lips at her throat, at her wrists, into the crease at the inside of her arm. But I could hear the lush tearing of her skin as his teeth bit through, again and again, forcing venom into her system at as many points as possible” (Breaking Dawn, 354-55).

After Bella awakens, she has repaired not only the damage done to her body by the pregnancy, but also acquired the near-immortal and preternaturally strong body of a vampire. Also, she is one of the undead gifted with additional powers to cast an impenetrable shield over herself and, with practice, those around her. These skills are indispensible in the concluding epic battle scene, which begs the question, is Bella now a feminist (super)hero?

I am hesitant to endorse her as such, due to the constraints and qualifiers put on her power through the very mythology of the narrative itself. Bella becomes a major “player” in the series for the first time for a reason other than her appeal to Edward because of physical strength (and supernatural powers) that she passively acquired through Edward’s decision to turn her. Additionally, her unique gift—shielding—mimics this passivity. Unlike Edward’s capacity for mindreading, or vampire “sister” Alice Cullen’s ability to read the future, or brother Jasper’s aptitude for mood-altering, Bella deflects, she does not initiate.

Many twenty-first century films (Serenity, Kick-Ass, Hanna, Sucker Punch and The Hunger Games to name a few) have investigated the potential of girls and young women to serve as believable (by which I mean capable of inflicting physical violence) action heroes. These heroines usually achieve their physical strength at a great emotional cost, being subject to harrowing experiments, or profound personal loss, for example. Bella doesn’t share this wound at the heart of her power, but its expression is, nonetheless, circumscribed by its origin and expression.

In looking for a different model not only of “heroes” but also of “action,” I think that the small screen is the most promising field of inquiry, where characters like Dr. Temperance Brennan of Bones, Olivia Dunham of Fringe, and Veronica Mars of the late, great series of the same name might also share a foundational trauma, but show a greater propensity for using their minds as well as their bodies to fight for what they want.

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