Examining What Do Women Want: The Cinematic Wasteland of Female Fantasy

Today I would like to draw your attention today to another writer, Erika Christakis, who is talking about American film culture (yay, culture!)

Christakis has intelligently written a three-part series, “What Do Women Want: The Cinematic Wasteland of Female Fantasy” about modern American cinema, women in popular culture and society and what the production companies seem to be missing when they peddle stereotypical women’s films at the standard American female today. Erika Christakis is  a educator, public health advocate, and Harvard College administrator, writing for the Huffington Post.

In Christakis’ first installment, she introduces her piece by reminding us of Gregory Peck and classic American cinema. To the once standard storyline of a man, a woman and a love for (what seemed like) life, not to mention romance, and early on Busby Berkeley dancing…as Christakis calls it, “the stalwart romantic movie hero”. Christakis is not alone in her understanding of modern romantic movie heroes…today they are more like anti-heroes. They are all man-children, which are entertaining, but are not what women really want. The American film industry because of this is ignoring the economic potential of half the population. Instead it relies on old tropes of the damsels-in-distress, vulgar humor, sex appeal, explosions, fighting and so on…however, their modern twist is that these tropes have now been put on their head and apply to the opposite characters they did in the past. It is now the ‘strong’ female who doesn’t want a relationship, that has casual sex, tells fart jokes and treats the men in her life like the clumsy-but-cute dolls they appear to be, because isn’t that what we want?

As Christakis notes in the article:

“Men get a bye when it comes to their fantasy life – no matter how disturbing or buffoonish – but women are expected to be the grown-ups, even though it’s not much fun being the designated driver. In a strange way, we take female fantasies too seriously and not seriously enough. Our movie fantasies are supposed to be tame and measured, lest they cause alarm. You rarely hear people worrying about protecting society from James Bond’s or Batman’s exploits, but when something lowbrow for women comes along, like the blockbuster Twilight series, the hailstorm of scorn and anxiety rains down. It’s hard to be both insipid and harmful, yet that’s often the standard rap about chick flicks. But if you can ignore the din of derision, a seemingly lightweight adventure like Twilight offers some interesting clues about the female inner world.”

Using The Twilight Saga, yes, those films, as an example to reiterate her point: “If you know nothing else about Bella and Edward’s baroque romance, or the pack of sullen adolescent wolves who try to subvert it, you may have at least heard about the sickening birth scene in the most recent film installment, Breaking Dawn, that allegedly gave some real movie-goers seizures.” This movie has been sold to the general public as a wedding film, the fourth film in fact among a series of teen-romance films involving an improbable and impossible heroin who falls into a sort of equally improbable and impossible love triangle with a 119-year old vampire who looks 17-years-old and a 16-year-old werewolf. The simple idea behind this franchise makes many a person roll their eyes, gag,  and then dismiss anything and everything about the series as well as anyone who insists on talking about it. Let’s face it, anyone who reads the books and/or watches the films (and heaven forbid, possibly enjoyed them) has generally been deemed a teenage girl, a twi-mom, or just simply disgusting for wasting their time with such tripe.

If you are not familiar with the franchise, it is easy to see it that way, since this is how it was sold to the general public:

So, if you are unfamiliar with the story, what the trailer eludes to near the end is that after Bella and Edward are  married and (finally) have sex, Bella becomes pregnant with some sort of ‘thing/baby’.

“After just a few moments of soft-core bliss, Bella’s devastated husband and the audience watch with helpless horror while her body wastes away from the stress of carrying an inhuman pregnancy. The sacrifices continue apace as the growing fetus/baby (there’s some disagreement) threatens to break every bone in her body. Eventually Edward has to perform an emergency C-section — with his teeth — at which point Bella dies, presumably from shock and a broken spine, and is resurrected with the vial of her husband’s immortalizing venom they have stockpiled for this purpose”

While I am not yet a mother, I can relate to the isolation that Bella feels after the formerly blissful couple realizes they are with child. I’ve had enough talks with boyfriends about the “what-if” discussion, with the possibility of being pregnant and dealt with enough friends (both male and female) also having gone through the experience. Edward frantically runs about the room packing and making phone calls while the realization and implications of motherhood sinks in to Bella’s consciousness. “..Like voyeurs, we watch the unfolding of an age-old truth: in an unplanned pregnancy story, there can be only one protagonist…Nobody deserves to have abortion politics infiltrate her fantasy life, but the movie does engage seriously with the idea that a woman might choose to endanger her life for her unborn child.”

In reviews for Breaking Dawn, the birth scene apparently causes some audience members to have seizures, at least according to Moviefone. “The flashing of red, black and white during the climactic scene is apparently triggering seizures in those with photosensitive epilepsy.” While Caitlin Tadlock of Allvoices.com described the birthing scene, “Shown through Bella’s eyes, saw a blood and placenta covered Edward Cullen, complete with the bloody mouth where he ripped apart Bella’s stomach. The most gruesome part of the movie was Bella Swan’s corpse with her blood soaked hospital gown and table. It was cringe-worthy looking at Stewart’s lifeless, drained, skeletal body and viewers got minutes worth of close-ups of a lifeless Bella.” Personally, I thought it was describes much more dramatically in the book and was much more drawn out. What I feel they missed the mark on with this scene was really showing the contrast of the pain of transformation against Stewart’s characters ability to the juxtaposition, at least outwardly, that no pain was being inflicted at all. However, this is only my critique of the film and is somewhat off topic.

Christakis continues with her critique of the birthing scene, reminding us just how scary giving birth can be:

Breaking Dawn also engages seriously with the idea that childbearing can be a scary and very bloody business. It’s easy to forget that more than 500,000 women worldwide still die every year in childbirth, and even that staggering number doesn’t begin to capture the many millions more who come close to death or who are left with disabling physical injuries. Not to mention the agony of pregnancy loss, neonatal death, birth anomalies, and other undesired outcomes. Women know this, of course, the way generations of men have known battle stories. War movies, of varying degrees of realism and quality, have always provided a window into men’s hopes and fears.”

This is where Christakis’ point is really driven home. Men’s dreams, fantasies, and nightmares are all repeatedly played out on the big screen and female audiences get the leftovers. Why has the Twilight Saga, both in print and on the big screen been such a success, in spite of the fact that Bella was written as a shell, for the reader to be able to insert herself in her place? Because as Christakis puts it, “Edward’s vampiric love is unalterable” and couple that with the fact that Bella is a shell of a character so that wedo put ourselves in her place. Women are many things, often all at once and Bella is that too. Critics deride the storyline, in both print and celluloid, because she is seen as weak and in need of saving, Edward is akin to a stalker (more so in the films than the books), but what these same critics miss is that to be a feminist doesn’t just mean strong and powerful women, whether they are in film or real life. The reality of both the modern woman and the modern feminist is that they are both much more complex than much of the world has ever given us credit for. A woman can be powerful and strong, even if she falls in love with someone whose love is unalterable and seemly creepy or obsessive; or if she doesn’t and lives a life outside of the boundaries of modern stereotypes.

Additionally, that feminists too are separate from the idea or image of a woman and so are either ‘man-haters’, lesbians, or any other outdated, yet still held stereotype is wrong. The way I see it, is that Bella is a common modern female because she is both weak and vulnerable while also being strong and capable willing to stand up for what she believes in, while showing growth and changing for the better along the way. She to struggles with her identity and roll in not just her family or her relationship, but also her community of friends. She is different, yet at the same time so similar to them. Choosing not to buy into the standard gossip or playing dress up, but more prefers to be rugged, riding motorcycles and wearing jeans and sneakers. What woman hasn’t felt any of these things and to deny that we have because of the films dialogue or storyline is denying  a bit of ourselves. Yes, much of the writing for the story is unintentionally hilarious because it is just so very silly, but don’t miss the forest for the trees.

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