What Bella Wants

We all remember when Edward bit those pillows the first time he and Bella did it, right? They were newlyweds then, and apparently are still newlyweds now, a whole movie later.

The camera, as it enters the house, is Bella, surveying her new domestic space (the only thing that would make that incredibly literal slow pan more late-capitalist is if Nancy Meyers had art-directed the interior). Edward takes her back to the bedroom, which she warily notes contains a, like, bed– odd for two vampires who don’t actually sleep. Cue a sitcom laugh track– that’s not what they’ll be doing there, yuk yuk.

This clip, however, subtly undermines its own claim that newlywed life is all about sex. Please remember: at the end of the last installment, Bella just had a baby, the physical trauma of which changed her forever (into a VAMPIRE!). As much as the culture at large wants the story to be about Bella transitioning easily into youthful, sex-crazed, wife and mother (form like Voltron, angel-whore!), Kristen Stewart’s wonderfully stiff acting in this scene suggests her mind is on something other than the bedroom.

We don’t know how this movie will unfold, but we do know that, in the novel, the first thing that Bella does after giving birth to her half-human/half-vampire baby is to go feed herself, hunting down and violently mauling a mountain lion. We are long past worrying whether we are “overreading” Twilight, so don’t feel odd by saying that: we find this absolutely revolutionary. A new mother, feeding herself.

The Twilight saga, like all vampire tales, orients itself fundamentally around the question of desire—of desire figured as appetite. Saying so is nothing new.  But in this last moment before Breaking Dawn’s gratuitous “Part 2!” arrives in theaters (tomorrow!), we want to pause and think for a moment about the strange ways that Twilight has approached the question of appetite and desire

Appetite is everywhere in Twilight, and what’s interesting is that the plot is the appetite. It’s not, or rarely, the eating. It’s the wanting to eat.  Perhaps one of the most accomplished aspects of these novels—at their best—is that they spin a riveting plot out of an activity that’s simultaneously the most familiar and most boring, non-narrative aspect of adolescent girlhood: the waiting around. Being a girl is about waiting, waiting for your period, waiting to be asked, waiting to be free, waiting to be strong enough to be safe. Meyers’s genius plays out in her ability to reveal this waiting as saturated with wanting. With wanting, and wanting to be wanted, and then wanting some more.

So if, at the moment of seeing THE MARRIAGE BED, Bella is nonplussed, or stiff, or ambivalent—why wouldn’t she be?  The thing about having the sex is that it shifts our attention, and Bella’s, away from appetite and onto eating—which is potentially satisfying, but also is necessarily limiting. Like, you only eat that thing.

Except that Bella doesn’t eat just that thing: she also eats mountain lions! And she seems to find a way to maintain a space of exploration that offers a remarkable counterbalance to the ways we think we know her. Throughout the novel, Bella has remained a blank—hers is the only mind Edward cannot read. Per Freud, the novelistic world of Twilight has been obsessed with the mystery of what Bella wants.

Nobody ever really finds out, partly because Bella (and KStew!) is completely inpenetrable, in her sullenness, her privacy, her resistance to our prying. In the final battle of the series, Bella finally discovers her superpower (all vampires have one!): she can project a forcefield with her mind, a forcefield strong enough to protect her entire wackadoo intentional vampire family. The blankness does not crack under the pressure of everyone rapping against it.

So what does Bella want? What does she hunger for? These questions are answered, nearly literally, with a blank. And the blank: well, it might not be “freedom” or “power” in the conventional sense.  But the movie does imagine it as the ultimate, most powerful, EVIL DEFEATING force.  And as such, Bella enters a corpus of literary women–including Zora Neale Hurston’s Janie— who use silence and blankness strategically.

Our point here is not that Bella, or Twilight as a whole, offers us a fundamentally radical or “empowering” take on female appetites.  It does not.  But perhaps what it does is help us to realize that empowerment narratives can only help us work through so much about the range of ways that we hunger, and that we nourish.

Sarah Blackwood: Team Bella

Sarah Mesle: Team Perfect Scent