Saturday, November 19, 2011

Twilight: Breaking Dawn, Pt. 1 and the Politics of Choice

A Personal Reflection on Mainstream Messaging, the Practicalities of Child-Rearing, and the True Definition of Reproductive Rights

((Trigger warning: The following post does not talk about perfume. It will, however, talk about abortion, miscarriage, difficult pregnancy, and domestic violence. This may be upsetting for some of my readers, and I wanted to warn you up front so you could pass this post without reading further if you choose. No hard feelings on my part, I promise. Feel free to skip this post if you’re here for the perfume; I promise we will return to that tomorrow. Also, Twilight Breaking Dawn: Pt 1 Spoiler Alert.))

YA and Fandom, generally

If you read this blog with any regularity or follow me on twitter, it’s obvious I deeply enjoy the genre of literature popularly known as Young Adult. Among the fandoms I admit I belong to is one replete with problems. Dear reader, I admit it. I am also a Twilight fan. FN2. As someone recently exclaimed at a feminist event I went to, “You can say it: Yes I read the Twilight books, they were awful and I loved them.” I have read the books, all of them. I own and have seen the movies several times. FN3.

I am also an ardent feminist. In the context of Twilight, as you may already be aware, this is kind of a problem.

Twilight and Feminism: Fiction and Philosophy Collide

The internet is covered in angry screeds against the terrible messages being fed to young readers through these books. There’s the fact that Edward seems to confuse the idea of pursuing someone with stalking them. FN4. There’s the fact that Edward is extremely controlling, and his need to be in charge of every aspect of Bella’s life, to the point of disabling her car to keep her from leaving at one point, is classic domestic violence behavior. Lest you think I’m picking on Edward, Jacob (and the wolves)? Not much better. In one scene, he forcibly kisses Bella when she is adamant that she does not want him to, clearly violating her consent. He uses emotional blackmail (threats to his own life) to cajole Bella into physical intimacy. He warns Bella repeatedly that, due to his nature, he has an explosive temper and if she does not behave in a way that is pleasing to him, he may lose control and hurt her. Again, we’ve wandered into classic DV behavior, the kind that if a friend told me about, I’d be driving them to the courthouse to get a restraining order if I had to fill out the forms for them myself. Bella is problematic herself, as she is a classic victim, hiding the behavior of these men from her family and friends, lying to diminish the pain they have caused her, blaming herself for provoking behaviors in them that clearly violate her autonomy and individualism. FN5. FN6. FN7.

All that said, like all texts, the books can be read a number of ways. FN8. I think that’s good. I think there are lots of ways to read a text and good texts allow for a multiplicity of readings. I think Twilight fans get a bad rap for being unaware of what we’re reading, which may be true for the younger readers, but isn’t necessarily true for the many adult fans. And I think you can admit a piece of work has problematic messages and still enjoy it. FN9.

Breaking Dawn and Bella’s Demon Spawn: Reproductive Rights Issues

But even as a Twilight fan, I struggle with Breaking Dawn. It is my least favorite book in the series, and the first half my least favorite half of the book. Given that, I wasn’t super looking forward to this recent film release, but I decided to go do the marathon thing anyway because I like to get my fangirl on among other fans as a pastime. Watching the film’s take on the material raised some issues for me I’ve always wanted to address, but also made me reevaluate my own position a little, and I wanted to talk about that.

My biggest hang up with the books has always and forever been with Bella and her “demon spawn.” I have struggled immensely with a book that appears to rabidly affirm the idea that a fetus’ life is more valuable than the woman carrying it. I’m adamantly pro-choice. I’ve had a pregnancy that resulted in a miscarriage that almost killed me, much to the sadness of my husband and myself. I’ve also had abortion, a choice I made as a teenager that I don’t regret and that, given the violent isolated situation I was in, I think was the right one. FN10.

It has always galled me that Bella insisted on risking her life to have Renesmee, even when her own partner was begging her not to do it. In the film adaptation, Edward says rather succinctly: “I thought we were supposed to be partners. You made this choice without me.” Reading the books, which are written from the perspective of Bella (and in this section only, briefly from Jacob’s), I always wanted to yell at her, “Yeah! Listen to Edward and Jacob! Your life matters, too!”

Without ever getting into the moral and ethical issues of when life begins or when a lump of tissue because a person, I do not accept that anyone has the right to tell me I should die for someone else. Every society in history has made exceptions to laws against murder to allow for killing in self-defense and defense of others. The right to protect your own life from a credible threat is something that every society has deemed acceptable. We are not lambs waiting for the slaughter. We have the right to fight for our lives. That includes a woman facing a life-threatening pregnancy.

Reading T:BD I have never understood Bella’s refusal to even consider this perspective. It was the point in the story where her penchant for consistently discounting the value of her own life and acting like a Victorian tableau of the self-sacrificing Angel in the House goes a bridge too far for me. She’s been begging for forever with Edward for over a thousand pages. She’s been willing to sacrifice (1) the lives of those she believes she will eat as a newborn vampire with little to no regard for the human sacrifice her new form will require; (2) the love of and relationships with her non-vampire friends and family because they cannot see her as a vampire/will be her mortal enemy/she might try to eat them; (3) the love of another paramour who may be a better, healthier fit for her; all in the name of an eternity of love with Edward. Suddenly all that goes out the window. Bella will die right now, and no suggestions that she might have a child or be a mother in some other way will be considered. It seemed unreal to me. Bella stopped being a person I could understand or empathize with.

Watching the film, though, I had to check myself. Here is a woman who is pregnant. She has made a decision about what she wants to do regarding that pregnancy. She is fully informed of her options and the possible risks to her own life and health. She is sober, rationale, and steadfast in her choice.  Seeing the pressure mount against her was a real and difficult thing to watch. One of the things the film clearly demonstrates in a way I’d always missed on paper was the systematic way Bella is badgered by everyone around her to change her mind. The disregard for her right to make a choice about her life and her body was something I hadn’t really considered before. It made me want to fight with her, not against her.

And this gets into the tricky bit for me. Like the characters of the book, I just wanted Bella to live. I wanted her to consider her life one worth saving. Like the pro-choice woman I am, I resisted a story that tells women their lives were worth less than the fetus growing inside them. In doing so, I ignored Bella’s right to make the choice that was right for her even if I didn't agree with it.

One of the areas of law I occasionally guest lecture on is Feminist Jurisprudence and Reproductive Rights. One of the main points of my lectures is this: we have a tendency to define reproductive rights very narrowly when we talk about them, boiling the entire area of rights down to the narrow issue of legal abortion. Reproductive rights, though, are about a lot more than that. They encompasses issues such as: whether a woman can sign away the rights to a child before it’s born and then change her mind afterward (FN11); whether the state has a right to limit the ability to conceive of women charged with criminal offenses as a condition of probation, or to extend a criminal sentence for a drug addict through the end of her pregnancy in order to protect the health/life of the fetus (FN12); whether a woman has the right to have a large number of fertilized embryos implanted simultaneously, even if she already  has many children she cannot financially support (FN13); whether or not a person has the right to adopt based on sexual orientation (FN14); who takes ownership of fertilized frozen embryos when a couple gets divorced (FN15).

All of these questions raise issues relating to our right to make decisions about reproduction. Can a woman have a mid-wife in a hospital instead of a doctor? Can the hospital refuse and insist she use an MD instead for her delivery? Who has primary rights of custody of a child born through surrogacy: the mother of the egg, donor of the sperm, the person who carries the child to term in her body? These aren’t easy questions, and people land all over the map. When you drill down to specifics about the multiplicity of issues wrapped up in reproductive health, people tend to have internally conflicting positions they haven’t explored. No one has asked them to. We simply ask: pro-life or pro-choice? As though everyone, to some extent, isn’t at least a little of both.

When it comes to the health and life of a pregnant woman, I have strong feelings. I look at my husband and our life, and I know the world I’d leave a child behind in without two healthy parents. I know that my husband’s position is much like Edward’s eloquent short statement in the film: “Do you believe I could love, or even tolerate, anything that would take you from me?” It may be selfish, but David has been pretty clear about his feelings on the matter: anything that takes me from him isn’t worth it. He wants me to live, period. I recognize the responsibility I’d be leaving him with if I died, and care too much for his mental, emotional and physical well-being and my own to create a situation like that.

At the same time, my sister Erica was very clear to me and to everyone else regarding her recent pregnancy: if it came down to Erica or the baby, she would accept no choice that limited the chances of a successful delivery of a healthy child. If that meant she had to die or have seriously compromised health, even if it resulted in permanent disability, she’d do it. Save the baby. It wasn’t the choice I’d make for myself or that I would have made for Erica left to my own devices, but I respected Erica enough that if the situation had come down to it, I’d have followed her directive because, in the end, it’s her body. It’s her life.

Returning to the legal aspect of these issues for a moment, there is a line of cases with a similar fact pattern that I’ve always found distressing and that sprang to mind as I watched Twilight: Breaking Dawn: Pt. 1. A woman, late in her pregnancy, goes into a hospital. The pregnancy is in distress. It is endangering her life, and may also endanger the child’s. The hospital strongly recommends early delivery by Cesarean Section. FN16.

For a host of reasons – financial, ethical, moral, religious, health-based – the woman refuses. She will not have the c-section. She will wait to deliver naturally. The hospital is adamant the surgery go forward; the woman is equally adamant that it not. The hospital board calls its lawyers, who file a motion with the court seeking a court order to force the c-section, whether the woman wants it or not.

In one case, the court denies the motion, pointing out that the idea of physically restraining a woman and forcing surgery upon her she doesn’t want for her own good, a surgery that may not be necessary, violates her bodily autonomy in a way that can’t reconcile with our fundamental freedoms. There will be no surgery, even if it costs both mother and child their lives. FN17.

In other cases, the court grants the motion, and issues a court order allowing the hospital to go forward with the c-section without the woman’s consent. The court indicates in its decision that the balance of lives at risk outweigh the woman’s right to choose her method and condition of delivery, whatever her reasons. If she has to be restrained and cut-open against her will to save her and the child, so be it. If it means weeks of recovery, a more expensive procedure, higher risk pregnancies later in life, the inability to have a vaginal pregnancy in the future, well, so be it. Those things pale in comparison to the value of life, even if it means cutting open a woman and taking the child from her body while she fights,sometimes physically, against the choice.

The latter choice may be the sensible one in terms of lives saved, but at what cost to our individual and collective liberty? Does anyone have a right, in the end, to take the fetus from a woman’s womb by force? Does anyone have a right to tell her she can’t have it if she wants, if she is fully informed of the risks, and says no, I want to do this even if I will die? I don’t think so. I don’t think I have any more right to tell Bella Swan she can’t keep her demon spawn, even if it kills her, than I think the Religious Right should be able to tell me I have to continue an unwanted pregnancy, any pregnancy.

The film makes me reevaluate my personal disregard for Bella’s voice in the decision. I cannot discount her, and it is the height of hypocrisy for me to personally dislike her for making a choice different from the one I would make. It makes me no better than the people who call women who have abortions names, who discount their voice in making the reproductive choice that’s right for them. I admit that my dissatisfaction with T:BD was a lot about that, and about the way Bella’s self-righteousness mirrors so many of the people who have condemned me for my own decisions.

Reproductive Rights: The Fiction vs. The Reality

And yet, I still dislike T:BD for the following reason: Bella’s choice is one made in a perfect fictional vacuum, completely divorced from the reality of the situation. A sixteen or seventeen year old girl who faces a difficult pregnancy and asks herself, “What Would Bella Do?,” is going to be making a decision based in a world created by its author largely without negative consequences. If you choose to carry a life-threatening pregnancy to term IRL, here are some advantages Bella had that you will not.
1. Free, private home healthcare from an expert surgeon.
2. A giant family who do not have to work, have no children or other responsibilities of their own, to take care of you day and night throughout your pregnancy because they never have to sleep.
3. A relative who can control your mood swings, assisting you to feel calm and at ease so that stress does not further contribute to your deteriorating health and the health of the pregnancy.
4. A miracle drug (i.e. venom) that may not only save your life, but heal every injury that you suffer related to the pregnancy within days, including returning the use of your legs after your back breaks and your spine is injured.
5. Considerable wealth sufficient not only support you through  the pregnancy, but to sustain you and your child and any of its special needs into and beyond childhood.
6. A giant family of people who do not have to work, have no children or other responsibilities of their own, who can provide full-time child care for you at any time and are happy to do so.
7. A child that will grow into complete autonomous adulthood within a matter of a few years, such that you will no longer be responsible for his/her care and upkeep.
If Bella’s choice had meant her life, I might honestly like the books better. If Bella and Edward had been burdened with a child whose “specialness” meant any kind of negatives beyond a misconception about her being a killing machine that is resolved relatively easily within the context of the books and within a year or two won’t even matter, I might have liked the books better. Hell, if Bella herself had turned out to be the newborn killing machine we were promised, and had to be kept away from her mostly human child for years, that would have made it a better, more interesting story.

Bella’s choice seems ridiculous because it’s too easy. When Edward says, “But you’ll die!” Bella’s response is, “No! The Venom!” A real pregnant woman in distress like Bella was does not have the option of vampiric healing post-delivery. She’s going to be very sick, probably permanently disabled, and that’s if she’s lucky enough to live. The child isn't going to Renesmee perfect, either. Her child is going to cry, get sick, need constant care at great expense for many years, and there aren’t going to be a houseful of wealthy caregivers who do not require sleep hanging around to help with every problem. Money is going to be an issue because not everyone has a relative who can see the future and game the stock market appropriately. People don’t raise their children in homes with six additional childless couples who want nothing more than to hang out and help with the baby.

My problem with Breaking Dawn, in the end, isn’t Bella’s choice to continue a life-threatening pregnancy. It isn’t that she “won’t listen to reason,” or bow to the desires of others. It’s that her choice is free of consequence, divorcing it from the real difficulties that face a woman with a life-threatening pregnancy. It preaches a kind of moral absolutism to young readers who have no context for the problems of the real world. If Stephenie Meyer did a disservice to reproductive rights activists on both sides of the coin, it’s that she diminished the value of Bella’s choice by taking those consequences away. If you are pro-life, you take that position with the full knowledge that being a parent is a difficult, time-consuming, life altering choice.  The ease of Bella's motherhood discounts the real sacrifices parents make for the children, over and over.

That is the discussion that needs to happen with young readers of the book series. We need an analysis of the easy resolve of Bella’s decision, not whether she had the right to make the choice in itself. My hope is that when my feminist blogging sisters and brothers begin to pick apart Breaking Dawn on completely rational and reasonable bases, they will remember that the fans who love the books are looking for people who want to respect the characters and talk about their motivations and choices, for good and for ill.

Because that's the thing about choice: no matter which choice you make, it's a difficult one.  Whether you continue a pregnancy or terminate it, there are consequences. In that context, I think it’s important to discuss Bella’s exclusive right to choose for herself what will become of her pregnancy and the agency that choice demonstrates, while simultaneously looking at the ways the one-sided presentation of the choice and the way its aftermath diverges from reality and into a land of fiction where real pregnant eighteen-year-old girls facing real life-altering choices cannot follow.

FN1. As a little girl in front of me at the movies Thursday night had eloquently pointed out on her t-shirt: I have “SO MANY TEAMS.” I watch Vampire Diaries obsessively. I’ve been to Harry Potter book releases and Wizardrock concerts and watched documentaries about Harry Potter-inspired fan work. I’m super psyched for the release of The Hunger Games.

 I’m into a lot of fandoms, most of them teen/YA related. To be fair to myself, I’ve always been this way. I was also into: 90210 (original and reboot), Melrose Place, Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, Felicity, Gossip Girl, Veronica Mars, Angel, Greek, The O.C., Gilmore Girls, Dawson’s Creek, Supernatural and probably every other teen show you’ve ever seen that was created after 1988. It’s just a genre of storytelling I enjoy. One of my all-time favorite movies is Brick which would be a YA book if it were a novel. I love John Hughes and Cameron Crowe, who are masters of stories about teens and young adults. So this isn’t a new thing for me any more than YA is a new genre, and I’m not going to dig out my original Christopher Pike books or my hardback Nancy Drew collection to prove it to you. YA is changing, IMO for the better, and getting more of the recognition it deserves, but that’s an entirely separate post/discussion.

FN2. Again, we can talk about why I like the books at some other time, because that too is a lengthy discussion.

FN3. I’ve only seen the film  Twilight: Breaking Dawn Pt. 1 once.

FN4. Watch this video if you haven’t already.

FN5. If I don’t stop talking about the DV parts of the books, I’m never going to get to the choice issues I want to talk about. I need to say this though: it would be nice to see anyone, anyone, write a BDSM YA book that actually involves a lot of discussion of consent and boundary setting, etc. Because I get the appeal of dominance/submission dynamics in sexual relationships, believe me. I just think there’s a framework to create that kind of dynamic in that protects individual autonomy, consent, and choice, and then there’s this.

FN6. I could also write a significant piece of sexual autonomy vs. slut shaming wrt Bella and Edward, but that is also another essay.

FN7. I am also not touching the class or race issues buried in the book, but I do recommend that all twi-fans and twi-haters read Natalie Wilson’s Seduced By Twilight, which does a great job of respecting fans and simultaneously problematizing the book series. It’s a wonderful thought-provoking book by a great author/speaker. If she comes near you, go see her.

FN8. True for almost every fandom, and this article by Sady Doyle about alternate universe HP series focused on Hermione is a great example of that. Also, see my ongoing argument with my husband entitled: “Severus Snape: True Hero or Selfish Bastard.”

FN9. Dear self-congratulatory Buffy fans: I am one of you and have been since the beginning and never missed an episode -- NOT ONE IN SEVEN YEARS -- but I could just as easily put together a video that showed Buffy going right along with being stalked and being in love and having a relationship with a sometimes violent and abusive guy who made the people who loved her scared for her and generally uncomfortable, someone Buffy hides from her friends and family routinely, blaming herself for the unsavory aspects of their relationship.

And then we can talk about Angel/Angelus, because let’s not forget: Buffy did that crap TWICE.

FN10. Dear anti-choicers: Please direct all hate mail to feminine.things @ gmail . com. I screen comments, so no one is going to see you call me names anyway. You might as well just send them directly to me.

FN11. Baby M, In re Baby M, 537 A.2d 1227, 109 N.J. 396 (N.J. 02/03/1988) [].

FN12. State v. Looney, No. 99-F0065 (Parish of Ouachita, Fourth Judicial District Court, Feb. 25, 2000) (District Court Judge Carl V. Sharp gave Kathy Looney a choice between sterilization and ten years in prison, following her conviction for beating three of her eight children with an extension-cord. A month later, the sterilization condition was deleted and Looney was mandated to stay on Norplant. In December of 2000, the Court then deleted the Norplant condition.); State v. McGee, (Shelby County Juvenile Court June 25, 2004)  (Tennessee Juvenile Court Referee Claudia Haltom signed a court order for long-term birth control for Loretta McGee, 33-years-old, who is mentally disabled. Ms. McGee was called to Juvenile Court for a proceeding involving one of her ten children.); U.S. v. Vaughn, Sup. Ct. D.C., Crim. No. F-2172-88B (August 23, 1988) (Superior Court of the District of Columbia lengthened the sentence of a pregnant, drug-addicted woman in order to keep her incarcerated until her baby was born. Vaughn was convicted of check forgery.)

These are only three cases involving state-mandated birth control. There are many more.

FN13. In case you don't know 'Octomom's' story, go here.

FN14. In Re Gill, the case overturning the 33 year ban on same sex adoption in Florida. [].

You can read more generally here.

FN15. - Davis v. Davis, 842 S.W.2d 588, 597 (Tenn. 1992)[]; Kass v. Kass, 1995 WL 110368 (N.Y.Sup.) [].

You can read about more cases here.

FN16. Pemberton v. Tallahassee Memorial Regional Center, U.S. District Court, N.D. Florida, Tallahassee Division., October 13, 1999 (court enforced a hospital delivery with c-section over mother's desire for vaginal delivery at home with a midwife) []; Jefferson v. Griffin Spalding Count Hospital Authority, et al., 247 Ga. 86, 274 S.E.2.d 457 (1981) (Supreme Court of Georgia upholds superior Court order to force a c-section) []; Samantha Burton v. State of Florida (hospital sought a court order to confine a pregnant woman, Samantha Burton, for fifteen weeks to protect her fetus) [;]; In re Baby Boy Doe, 632 N.E.2d 326 (Ill. App. Ct. 1994) (Illinois courts declined to issue court order to force c-section).

You can read more about various legal battles of pregnancy between health care providers and the pregnant woman here and here.

FN17. She ended up delivering successfully.


Doc Elly said...

Diana, I always enjoy reading your thoughtful and thought-provoking non-perfume posts. Keep 'em coming!

Ines said...

You know, I can't help but wonder how long did it take you to write such a long and well-thought out post. :)
I can never get my thoughts to get into writing in such a methodical way.
I'm glad also to see you can be a fan of Twilight and still be able to see what a badly written series it is (as I am exactly that).
I also agree that this part of the series was the one I had most problems with and almost stopped reading - which is what I do when a book annoys me.

I haven't seen the movie, well, the last one either, but the time has come to remedy that - I feel the need to watch this (I'll leave out what I was going to call it) love story. :)

Sam Berg said...

Excellent breakdown, very conscientious and considerate. I prefer my horror more gruesome but this is indeed what the kiddies (and more) are spending their time on.

Maisha said...

BAM. All the awards.

Undina said...

I do not care for these books but I completely agree with everything you wrote on a subject.
Thank you for fighting this fight.

Joan said...

I've never read Twilight, but you make great points.

I feel that the real classist issue is far more expansive than that. What about the last Sex and the City movie, which tried to appeal to every mother by showing how exasperated Charlotte and Miranda get sometimes, but then Charlotte says in her perpetually shocked voice "What about the women who DON'T have help!?", therefore alienating the very audience they wanted to pull in.

Diana said...

Doc Elly -- Thanks for reading, and for the non-perfumey support (I do so love that this space allows me to do some of both).


Diana said...

Ines -- As always, your support is really appreciated. It took me about two hours, since you asked, plus another 30 minutes for research/footnoting/etc. Bt then again, remember I went to law school. I was taught to argue, verbally and in writing, by an industry that bills people for that arguing in 6 minute increments. You learn to make it count. :) ~ diana

Diana said...

Sam -- Yes, and given that over 100 million copies of the various books have been sold, it's probably worth talking about. Thanks for reading.

Diana said...

Maisha-- Thanks! :)

Diana said...

Undina - I started writing a response to you, and its turning into a whole other post (that's a good thing). Stay tuned -- I'll say more.


Diana said...


I completely agree. I sometimes wonder if, by the time a person has written and made a movie, they are so far removed from the reality of what life is like for the majority of the world that they simply cannot manage a reasonable facsimile thereof.

One of the things I like about Catherine Hardwicke as a director is that she usually manages to catch some real elements in her filmmaking. The movie Thirteen she co-wrote (with a thirteen-year-old) as well as directed, was shot in her house and with her car because no one would give her funding to make a bigger budget film.

If you watch the Twilight films, I encourage you to look at the ways Bella's house, which is supposedly the same structure through out the films, changes. In the first film, directed by Hardwicke, it looks both inside and out like a real house in rural PNW. There's an old boat and truck camper in the year, the grass is scraggly and half dead, Bella's room is tiny and kind of cramped. By the third film, the room is MUCH larger, the exterior of the house has fresh paint, the yard is astroturf green, and even the kitchen table shines with newness. Each small change was subtle and individually insubstantial, but taken in total probably kicked Bella's dad up an income bracket. All without a single word of comment. Wouldn't it be nice if real life worked that way? If our living spaces just magically improved with time, swelling in proportion and value of their own accord?

Anonymous said...

I'm with Doc Elly in always being willing to read your non-perfume posts.
Re FN5: The day a BDSM YA novel gets published we will be living in a very new world.
Appreciated your exposition of the range of reproductive rights issues.

-- Lindaloo

Diana said...

Lindaloo, again I appreciate the support for my mental ranting. :) I love my online community -- smallish, but AWESOME!

Re FN5: The day a BDSM YA novel gets published we will be living in a very new world.

Ah, but thanks to Kindle self-publishing, perhaps we are already living in that world. We just don't know it yet. :)

Daly Beauty said...

What a terrific post. I am a huge fan of Twilight - the movies. I joined in with my younger daughter & now seeing the films together is a ritual we look forward too. Very exciting! We have talked at length about the anger the Twilight series has provoked, and in the end my wise 15 year old said "Mum, they're just books. Fairy tales. Let's not ruin the fun". So I guess I'm glad we talked about the issues AND enjoyed losing ourselves in the least for awhile. I love your blog & am so happy to have stumbled upon it via Twitter...