Ideals of Hegemonic Femininity In 'Twilight'

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The Twilight movie franchise has arguably had a huge impact on pop culture since the release of its first film in 2008. The five films, based on the four fantasy novels by American author Stephenie Meyer, have been a box office hit and have grossed up to $3.5bn worldwide, according to The New York Times (2014). However, despite the success of the film series, or perhaps because of it, Twilight has long been a subject of critique by numerous scholars, feminist scholars in particular, due to the construction of gender within the films. In line with these critiques, this essay will argue that the Twilight film series conforms to ideals of hegemonic femininity, in particular through the expression of stereotypes of women and the representation of female characters in traditional gender roles.

The term ‘hegemony’ was coined by Italian Marxist Gramsci. Hegemony is “linked to notions of power and ideology and to the complex ways in which power can operate in modern societies” (Casey et al. 2008. p. 142). The term ‘ideology’ refers to a set of ideas and values, so in Gramsci’s notion of hegemony, “ideology encourages common consent towards powerful groups or ideas” (Lewis 2019). Ideology fixes certain ideas of powerful groups and makes them appear natural, for example patriarchy is an ideology that justifies male dominance in society. As men are the powerful group, they use their ideological means to make male domination and female subordination appear the norm. Walsh et al (2008), cited in Franiuk and Scherr (2012, p. 23) have argued that “patriarchal ideology is so embedded in everyday discourse that it becomes normal to general audiences, and its presence easily goes unnoticed.” In terms of hegemony and gender, Connell (2005, pp.77) defined hegemonic masculinity as manly characteristics that “guarantee…the dominant position of men and the subordination of women.” Connell’s definition does not provide an equivalent for women, however scholars have used this framing to define ‘hegemonic femininity’.

For instance, Schippers (2007), cited in Paechter (2018, p.122) has defined hegemonic femininity as womanly traits that are complimentary to the manly characteristics, i.e. hegemonic masculinity, and therefore legitimise patriarchy. These ideas of ‘manly’ and ‘womanly’ characteristics can become hegemonic by stereotyping. As Richard Dyer (1985), cited in Casey et al (2008, p.269) has argued, stereotypes give the impression that characteristics being shown of a particular person/social group are natural, and that these characteristics extend to the whole group being represented. Furthermore, this process of naturalising certain characteristics can be seen as having an ideological function (Casey et al. 2008. P.269). For example, stereotyping a female character in a horror film as foolish and vulnerable suggests all women share these characteristics. This can be seen as serving patriarchal ideology as it suggests the vulnerable woman needs a strong and smart man to protect her, justifying the dominant position of men in society as protectors of women, thus upholding the hegemonic ideology of patriarchy as a whole.

Despite some modern progressive representations of women in the media. many media texts still illustrate hegemonic femininity by presenting stereotypes of women. Much contemporary vampire fiction contains stereotypical portrayals of men and women, with male vampires presented as dark and strong while the female humans are vulnerable and virginal (Franiuk and Scherr 2012, pp.24), and such stereotypes are prevalent in Twilight. The film series, known as ‘The Twilight Saga’ tells the story of teenager Bella Swan who moves to live with her father in a small town called Forks. There, she meets, falls in love with, eventually marries and has an immortal child with over-100-year-old vampire Edward Cullen. From the first time Bella is presented to the audience in Twilight (2008) she is already constructed as a relatively passive, and therefore stereotypical, female character. The opening scene of the film contains a monologue in which Bella explains that she’s leaving Phoenix to live with her father, as her mother and her new husband are going on the road. Within these first few shots it becomes clear she isn’t too happy about this, however due to her passive character, she doesn’t dispute the situation. Instead, she accepts it and even tries to convince herself she’s ok with it, hesitantly stating that spending time with her dad “will be a good thing. I think” (Twilight, 2008, 00:01:35-00:01:40). The immediate introduction of Bella’s passive personality in the first film demonstrates her overall stereotypical submissive character and foregrounds her conformity to hegemonic femininity throughout the rest of the series.

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Another example of Bella as a stereotypical female character is the construction of her as weak and constantly needing the protection of men. In the first film alone, there are several instances where Bella finds herself in dangerous situations from which she is saved from by vampire Edward. He first saves her from being crushed by a van in a parking lot when she’s oblivious to her surroundings, then he rescues her from a group of drunk men while walking alone at night, and he also has to protect her from other vampires. This damsel in distress trope conveys that women are physically weak, vulnerable, and dependent on men, which therefore conforms to hegemonic femininity. Furthermore, this conformity is found in other female characters in Twilight, and one notable example of this is Jessica, one of Bella’s classmates. From the moment her character is introduced, she illustrates an embodiment of stereotypical feminine characteristics: she mostly wears pink clothing, she frequently discusses the boys she likes, and she makes flippant, almost catty, remarks. In Twilight (2008, 00:07:30-00:07:32), Jessica comments on the male attention Bella is receiving at school by calling her “the shiny new toy”, and later in the series, in her speech at Edward and Bella’s wedding, she jealously remarks that Edward still likes Bella “even though she's not the captain of the volleyball team”, or “the President of the Student Council.” (Breaking Dawn - Part 1, 2011, 00:18:59-00:19:07). In addition to this cattiness reinforcing stereotypical notions that women can’t be genuine friends for the sake of competing for men, the construction of Jessica as a stereotypical bitchy, ‘girly-girl’ is once again evidence of the female characters in Twilight conforming to hegemonic femininity.

On the other hand, it has been argued that the Twilight series also contains examples of female characters subverting hegemonic femininity. From the beginning of the series, Bella rejects typical notions of femininity, for instance she appears unbothered by the male attention she receives at her new school and she shows disinterest in conversations with female classmates about shopping and attending the prom. Therefore, she resists hegemonic femininity through her disinterest in heterosexual romance and traditional signifiers of femininity such as clothing and makeup (Charlebois, 2014, pp.59). Furthermore, in the first three films, Bella also opposes the idea of marriage which Edward is an advocate for. Bella repeatedly dismisses Edward’s requests to marry him and refers to marriage as “a piece of paper” (Eclipse, 2010, 00:04:03-00:04:05) This demonstrates Bella’s subversion of hegemonic femininity as she is rejecting the institution of marriage and the idea of a wedding, which has stereotypically been viewed as a largely female aspiration.

In addition, it can be argued that Twilight subverts stereotypical gender representations by placing Bella into the role of “sexual aggressor” while Edward is “committed to heterosexual monogamy and premarital chastity.” (Charlebois, 2014, pp.53). This is evident in Eclipse (2010) when Bella attempts to get physically intimate with Edward, but he refuses on the basis of concern for her virtue and the fact they’re not married yet. According to Morey (2012, pp.50), this reversal suggests Bella is a “postfeminist agent pursuing her own agenda”, while Edward still firmly believes traditional patriarchal ideologies. However, despite these examples of counter-hegemony in Twilight, it can also be argued that these representations may not be as progressive as they seem. For instance, the representation of Bella as a non-feminine, awkward and clumsy ‘quirky’ girl has arguably become a stereotypical trope within itself and is indicative of stereotypical feminine characteristics being rejected to appease patriarchy. Additionally, Edward ultimately gets his own way by keeping the relationship chaste until marriage and by Bella agreeing to marry him, which demonstrates her conformity to hegemonic femininity by embracing the institution of marriage (Charlebois, 2014, pp. 59).

Another way that the Twilight series conforms to hegemonic femininity is through the representation of women in traditional gender roles. Gender roles are defined as “society’s shared beliefs that apply to individuals on the basis of their socially identified sex and are thus closely related to gender stereotypes.” (Eagly 2009, cited in Eisenchlas 2013, p.2). Twilight employs traditional female gender roles through Bella only finding self-value and identity once she fulfils her ‘feminine’ roles as wife and mother. Throughout the series, she doesn’t value herself as a human and constantly asks Edward to make her a vampire, which will bring her immortality and eternal youthful beauty. Bella clearly fears ageing and seems to believe her value will decrease as she gets older because Edward will no longer love and desire her (Rocha, 2014, pp. 272), reflecting the idea that a woman’s value lies in her beauty. This is most prevalent in the second film of the series, New Moon (2009), which features a dream of Bella’s in which she’s introducing Edward to her grandmother, only for her to discover with horror that she’s actually looking at a mirror-image of herself in the future, while vampire Edward remains forever young beside her. Furthermore, Bella’s fear of losing beauty and therefore losing her value to Edward is evident later in the film when she tells Edward “You’re not gonna want me when I look like a grandmother.” (New Moon, 2009, 00:17:43-00:17:45).

As Rocha (2014, pp. 272) states, Bella’s desire to become a vampire suggests her desire to be beautiful and finally have value. However, it’s not until the final film of the series, Breaking Dawn - Part 2 (2012) when she becomes a vampire that she finally sees herself as beautiful, and this only occurs once she has conformed to traditional feminine roles of wife and mother (Rocha, 2014, pp.267). Bella can only see herself as beautiful once she has fulfilled these gender roles, and she places her value on these roles as wife and mother, which once again demonstrates her conformity to hegemonic femininity. Furthermore, other female characters in Twilight are also placed in traditional gender roles, particularly in terms of their representation as caring and nurturing girlfriends at the expense of the more complex aspects of their identities. For example, vampire Alice Cullen is represented throughout the series as a “caring, committed member of a longstanding monogamous relationship” (Morey, 2012, p.50) with her vampire boyfriend Jasper, who she repeatedly cares for throughout the series, so he doesn’t lose control around blood. Another example is shown in the character of vampire Victoria, the main antagonist in the first three films. Despite the fact that Victoria subverts traditional feminine gender roles by playing the villain and being strong and violent, she only acts out this subversive role to avenge the death of her vampire partner James, who was killed by the Cullen family (Morey, 2012, p.50). These representations emphasise traditional gender roles of women as carers and girlfriends, ignoring any other aspects of their personalities, and therefore signify conformity to hegemonic femininity.

In conclusion, the Twilight series conforms to ideals of hegemonic femininity in various ways, particularly through the representation of stereotypical femininity and by placing female characters in traditional gender roles. Throughout the film series, Bella embodies a stereotypical feminine character through her expression of stereotypically feminine characteristics such as passivity, vulnerability and dependence on men for protection. This stereotypical representation also extends to other female characters in the series, who are shown to be catty, obsessed with the colour pink and constantly talking about clothes and boys. While it has been argued that Bella subverts hegemonic femininity through her rejection of stereotypical feminine interests and her dismissal of marriage, these subversive representations arguably only serve to satisfy patriarchy and are overturned by the end of the series, such as Bella eventually relenting on her views of marriage, so are therefore not very progressive. Conformity to hegemonic femininity is also evident through the representation of women in traditional gender roles, for instance Bella is only able to discover her beauty and self-value once she fulfils her traditional feminine roles as wife and mother, and despite other components of female character’s identities in the series, they are largely represented in roles of caring and protective girlfriends to their male partners. Therefore, it can be argued that the Twilight film series conforms to ideals of hegemonic femininity, and in doing so reinforces stereotypical and traditional representations of women in film.

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