Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Edward Cullen and the Female Gaze

The trailer for the eagerly-awaited film of Stephenie Meyer’s New Moon can be summed up quite simply as lots of hot young men running around without their vests. Some of them transform into fluffy wolves. One slowly unbuttons his shirt, exposing his skinny white torso, just above the dangly bits. Another one leaps through a window.

The link with feminist art theory may not be immediately apparent.
However, bear with me. As a sometime student of art history (I absolutely love art history, particularly all the mad theories and I fully intend to finish my long-running Open University degree course. Perhaps next year) I would argue that this trailer is an absolutely classic example of something rarely acknowledged, the Female Gaze.

Feminist art theory – please excuse the massive over-simplification - has generally tended to concentrate on asking good and important questions about why men have traditionally dominated the art world. Believe me, it’s not because they have all the talent.

It also examines the way we look at art. Feminist theorist Laura Mulvey suggested that throughout history most art was produced with a male viewer in mind - the Male Gaze - which objectifies women. Mulvey said that the Gaze could not be reversed because "the male figure cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification.”. When the male body is clearly the object of desire in art, the work is often conceived as and described as homo-erotic.

Very few commentators allow for the Female Gaze per se, and tend to suggest instead that in the rare event that men are presented for women to admire and enjoy, then women are copying a male point of view. They have in mind male strippers and teen pin ups. The Female Gaze rarely seems to make it into mainstream art.

Well, feminist art theorists, take a look at the New Moon trailer (you may need to watch it several times as I have done in the writing of this post.) Fully dressed women, half naked men. Men who are clean and shiny looking. Men in need of help - physically and emotionally, but who also display strength and who want to protect women. Strong emotion underpinning every scene. Tenderness mixed with the toughness. It’s all clearly designed to appeal to the Female Gaze. There’s almost nothing there for straight men -  our heroine Bella is wearing the world's ugliest anorak -  and the emphasis on the top half of the male body means it’s not even classically homo-erotic.

The books on which New Moon and the previous film Twilight were based have been a phenomenal publishing success. Stephenie Meyer has sold millions of copies and made a fortune. She has passionate fans, all of whom have fallen in love with the book’s hero - sparkly vegetarian vampire Edward Cullen – and identify with Bella, the klutzy girl he falls for.
The books have come in for much criticism however. There is the strange stalker-ish behaviour of Edward, who breaks into Bella’s house at night to watch her sleep. There’s Bella’s passivity and self-destructive worship of Edward - she’d rather die than have anything bad happen to him. There’s the clunky prose, the double adjectives, the lack of plot. And then there’s the fourth book Breaking Dawn which is in a whole critical category of its own.

Watch Twilight the film and most of these questions are taken care of. Yes, Bella is a bit daft - but no more so than your average teenage girl in love. And Edward is not just completely gorgeous, but also tortured – prone to embarrassment at his own perfection and anguish at his potential to harm. Even the creepy night-stalking comes across as just about understandable, given his messed-up life. It’s a real tribute to the script-writer and the actors, Kristin Stewart and the very lovely Robert Pattinson that they iron out the book’s problems and create a powerful love story.

What I’ve never understood though is the appeal of Edward in the book. I tried, really I did. I wanted to fall in love with him, experience the attraction felt by the obsessive millions. But Stephenie Meyer kept ruining him for me. I liked the bronze hair, golden eyes and alabaster skin - but then he smirked. Urgh. And even worse, Edward  ‘snickered’. Maybe in America attractive men snicker -  perhaps it's not as camp and high-pitched over there -  but in England it’s strictly for Graham Norton. If you're not familiar with Graham Norton then the picture here sums up what he's all about. I mean you don't want even a glimmer of that in your romantic hero, do you?

Then there are Edward’s clothes. Most of the time Bella is too busy swooning over his gorgeous face and body to notice his clothes. But when she does he is wearing “a light beige leather jacket…underneath he wore an ivory turtleneck sweater.” Yuk! He sounds like David Cassidy circa 1974. I mean what man wears a turtleneck? If you do a google image search for  'ivory turtleneck' you find pages of not very nice versions for women and only one for men -  which in fact is gray. Here it is. I mean, he's a nice looking guy, but he's clearly put on his granny's jumper. And that's without the beige leather jacket.
And he drives a Volvo. Perhaps for Americans this means exotic and European (a Ferrari though might have been a safer choice)  For Europeans, Volvo spells safe, reliable and deeply boring.
The biggest turn off though is the way he talks to Bella. ‘Bella, you are utterly absurd,’ he says. He calls her a silly girl. By this point Meyer had lost me. What reader likes a snickering hero who speaks to a girl - as she puts it - ‘as if he were talking to someone mentally handicapped.’ Attractive? I don’t think so.
So, I try and put the books out of my mind and concentrate on the films. Only ten days to go before New Moon is unleashed before an admiring Female Gaze. I can’t wait to go and run my feminist art theorist's eye over it.

UPDATE: Look at this..New Moon by action figures. Pure genius.


  1. Nice intro, nice outro, and nice middle bit. Enjoyed this, and the pain you endured researching the trailer really comes through in your writing...

  2. Do hope you don't favour the ivory turtleneck/beige leather jacket combo, Fish.

  3. So with you, Keren, on volvos, snickers, ivory turtlenecks, everything!

    And a really fascinating perspective on the trailer and the movie vs. the book.

  4. Even if I COULD ignore the beige turtle volvo side of Edward in the books--he is just so NOBLE he makes my hair hurt. Nevertheless, I suppose I shall just have to turn my Female Gaze on the new film. Just in the interests of keeping up with teenage trends, you understand. Nothing at all to do with bronzed werewolfy torsos. PS that photo of Graham Norton ruined my day!

  5. I haven't read the books or seen the film, I obviously need to research the trailer though. Oh dear I've just checked and have found that Robert Pattinson is only three months older than eldest son, which brings up all sorts of ethical issues for me :-)

  6. Keren, I stand in awe of your self-sacrificing dedication to research. In honour of you, I'm away to watch that trailer again.

  7. Lucy - yes, the picture research was long and arduous and occasionally stomach-turning. But having found a picture of Graham Norton playing with his balls I felt I had to share.

    Anne and Gillian - what a shame you both live to far away to join the posse of feminists I am putting together to view the film.

  8. I enjoyed this! I think a lot was lost in the translation from book to movie.

  9. I think a lot was gained in the transition - didn't the snickering bother you in the book? Or does it really mean something manly and attractive in American?

  10. Oh hang on..maybe you mean that the snickers and beigeness were lost? In which case hurray..

  11. What an educational post!
    I always knew about the Female Gaze but it never really registered... if that makes sense?
    Now I know why my wife and daughter have booked seats at the early showing, (two days before the premier) and are completely besotted with the books.
    ... I'm beginning to fear for my marriage...

  12. Brilliant, insightful post - so agree with you on every point - and am now off to perve at teh trailer! Nicky S.

  13. I had a showdown with two twilight die-hard fan.

    It was not pretty.

    I was ripped to shreds.

  14. Oh no, poor Amna! Did you mention beige clothes and snickering?

  15. Go Amna! You must report back...

  16. It wouldn't be so bad if I didn't have more chest hair than these young boys do. I like my men with more hair than me. It helps somewhat.

  17. But think Madame of the time these boys spend being waxed, the unspeakable agony they go through to prepare themselves for the Female Gaze.

  18. Very nice post here. I totally agree with you on how the appeal falls flat.

    My only image of Edward is Robert Pattison, as even though I read the books long before the movie, I had no idea what he looked like. I just had this image of a pile of sparkly skin floating around a pair of topaz eyes and beneath bronze (??) hair. The other characters fared little better.

    But his personality is what sealed the (do not want) deal. And "as if he were talking to someone mentally handicapped"? No. Just no.

  19. Thanks for the interesting post. I recently blogged about the red carpet parade at Hollywood award shows in light of Mulvey's ideas:

    I am preparing to write something about how men are developing "to-be-looked-at-ness." So your blog here will be useful.

    However, I disagree with one of your statements: "... the emphasis on the top half of the male body means it’s not even classically homo-erotic."

    Pects and abs are VERY MUCH objectified in homo-erotic images.

  20. Scott - love your blog. Look forward to reading it in the future. Very interesting about the ratings on the red carpet (and more generally in celebrity magazines). It's a control thing, isn't it - we (the media, the public) can randomly judge the success and failure of the celebrity's attempts to get our favour.
    You are probably right about the homo erotic images, I had in mind the lack of back views..and also the lack of muscle on Robert Pattinson. The fluffy wolf boys would be at home as classic gay pin ups (and indeed probably are)

  21. Keren -- Thanks! I will look forward to your thoughts once I get the "female gaze" item written. (Watching some episodes of "Spartacus" on DVD this week gave me some more ideas.) Congrats on the books. Keep up the good work.

  22. P.S. -- I don't see the "follow" button on your blog. Where is it?