Flip Through

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Embodied Gaze: Abject Femininity and Pregnancy as Punishment

The "abject" is defined by Barbara Creed as pertaining to such monstrous notions as "sexual immorality and perversion; corporeal alteration, decay, and death; human sacrifice; murder; the corpse; bodily wastes; and the feminine body and incest." Age-old taboos codified and refined by patriarchal religion, most of these monstrosities are found in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Hex, Twilight, and other entries in the supernatural/horror canon. Sexual immorality is concentrated in Angelus, the master torturer and BDSM aficionado, and in Angel's sexual relationship with Buffy, which toes the line of statutory rape and uneven power dynamics (though Buffy is Angel's equal in terms of physical power, his worldly experience far outweighs hers); it also is found in Edward's concern for not sleeping with Bella prior to their marriage, and is Azazeal's main form of recreational and purposeful activity and the main channel for his long-term plans. Corporeal alteration is all too obvious in the realm of vampirism and demonic possession--when Azazeal possesses a human, their eyes become bloody; the vampires of Twilight are inhumanly beautiful with sparkling skin; the vampires of Buffy have the so-called "game face" which is distorted and hideous. Azazeal literally performs human sacrifices (he murders Cassie's best friend, Thelma, to gain power), while Edward shuns the killing of humans for food and Angelus kills with pleasure and abandon. Of course, the feminine body is the focus of all three media, in varying degrees of lust and disgust.

The female form popularly codes in cinema and literature as something borderline, something which by its existence threatens the dominant form, and something which cannot define itself but which must be defined. According to Wittig, "it is civilization as a whole which produces this creature, intermediate between male and eunuch which is described as feminine." Kyriarchal mores dictate that the Other be controlled, manipulated, subjugated, and used as necessary. These mores are explicated in Buffy, Hex, and Twilight in the form of sexual intercourse, pregnancy, and abortion. Indeed, in Twilight even the setting plays on the theme, as Bella moves from dry, hot Phoenix where no boys ever liked her to damp, green, fecund Forks, where every male in sight falls over themselves trying to win her. Wittig further notes that in the current system, the biological capacity to become pregnant and give birth is what defines the feminine body, a position which Azazeal explicitly states in the Hex episode "Death Takes the Mother", when he says, "What else are you for?" to Cassie after she expresses disbelief that he could have thought she felt privileged to bear his son. All three of these media utilize the fall-out of sex to hammer home a point of some kind. Let us delve:

1. Angel literally turns into the evil boyfriend and attempts to kill Buffy and her friends. Bad.

2. Azazeal impregnates Cassie with his demon-spawn, which weakens the veil between the worlds; its birth will open a gateway for the rest of the nephilim to return. Worse.

3. Edward impregnates Bella with his demon-spawn, which first results in it killing her from the inside and then in him performing a Caesarean with his teeth. Worst.

Ranking out of whack, you say? Surely the return of evil angels to the world of humans is worse than a single human getting a bizarro operation from her lover. True enough. However, in terms of power, Bella is far worse off than either Cassie or Buffy. Bella is almost completely without power. Buffy and Cassie benefit not only from their personal power (Slayer abilities and inherited witchcraft, respectively), but also from a support network: Buffy has the Scooby Gang and her mother, Cassie has Thelma, her sometime-boyfriend Troy, and her teachers Jo and David, who are attentive to and concerned for her. Bella is isolated--her mother is thousands of miles away, she and her father are estranged at worst and not-very-close at best, and she shunts away school friends in preference of a group of "tame" vampires. Furthermore, instead of developing her own personal power in terms of independence and intelligence (she's not a ditz by any means), she lapses into learned helplessness and reliance on Edward. This is the pattern of abusive relationships, which divide one participant, often a woman but sometimes a man, from friends and family and force reliance on the other participant alone. In Twilight, Edward enacts many familiar examples of abusive behavior--he mocks and taunts Bella in one moment and is concerned for her in the next, forces himself into situations in her life where he is not needed, orders and commands her to do things, and infantilizes her by not allowing her to make decisions or do things herself. It is not adequately explained why Bella is attracted to Edward in the first place, with the audience being left to assume that Bella's attraction is what allows her to let Edward act in the ways that he does.

It can be interpreted that sex is bad for Buffy and Cassie because of what happens afterward--but it may also be interpreted that sex is not the villain, but the surrounding provenance is, including the male partners, worldview of the society, and pure chance. For Bella, however, sex IS the Big Bad, even once she and Edward are safely within the bonds of holy matrimony, with pregnancy acting as retribution. For Buffy, pregnancy is never an issue since Angel shoots blanks, though for the sake of argument I am going to consider Angelus the offspring of the Buffy/Angel coupling. For Cassie, out of her mind at the time of intercourse, condoms never entered the question and so Malachi was conceived (presumably Azazeal's demon semen--look a RHYME!--is capable of penetrating plain old earthly rubber in any case. This is actually part of the problem I have with the Superman movies). Bella and Edward conceive a daughter on their wedding night. All of these offspring bring havoc, a horror-trope version of the "actions bring consequences" which anti-choice pundits like to spew. Angelus is an ancient evil, given new life and strength; Malachi is a supernaturally fast-growing half-witch half-nephilim who goes from fetus to teenager in a matter of weeks; and Renesmee, Bella and Edward's daughter...she is not evil, but she is a vampire, and her conception and gestation nearly kill her mother.

Twilight, Hex, and Buffy each play around with the popular view that unwanted pregnancies are what happen to "bad girls," with varying degrees of subversion and reinforcement. In some ways, Hex is the most overtly feminist of the three (Whedon's f-card notwithstanding): Cassie is raped, impregnated, and seeks an abortion, while her lesbian best friend is murdered...with the perpetrator of these violences being the poster boy of the patriarchal system who repeatedly strips women of their power to choose. Historically society's answer to the threat of "bad" men (coded in entertainment as vampires or other monsters) was to keep women cloistered or subjugated to "good" men in the form of patriarchal families. Twilight embraces and develops this, with the Cullen "family" of vampires being the ideal and Bella being in favor of her pregnancy, while Buffy and Hex twist it on its head. The "bad men" of these two worlds are embodiments of patriarchal values, with Azazeal being the most damning artifact, evidenced by the following speech made in the episode "The Release":

Azazeal: For me [the Christmas story is about] the courage of Mary. Imagine the scandal for a young unmarried girl...it was an illicit pregnancy and everyone in Nazareth knew it...Mary knew there was no human father. She had no idea how she'd conceived...imagine her plight, her confusion. A mother nowadays might consider abortion. and there would be no baby Jesus, no Christianity. [Abortion] is an act of Herod. The taking of a human life is a sin. When does human life begin? Does it begin at birth, or it does it begin at the end of the second trimester of pregnancy when the law deems a baby is viable? Life begins at the moment of conception, for that is when the soul is born. People speak to me of women's rights. Who speaks for the child who has no voice? The Lord speaks and his voice is clear. He says to those who would murder a child: I am come, that they may have life.

This speech, made to, funnily enough, a church group gathering for scripture study, sums up the anti-choice movement in the US neatly, hitting all the major talking points--when does life begin, who speaks for the "child", careless throwing-away of women's rights and health issues, the red herring of "you might be killing the next Jesus/star football player/doctor who cures cancer." Images and instances of abortion flourish in all three settings--Cassie attempts to get an abortion (thwarted only because Azazeal has influenced her doctor to save the already-viable fetus) and then tries to kill her son, Malachi, once he is born. Buffy kills Angelus, effectively an abortion (and it must be said: she kills him with a phallic instrument, a sword). Edward actually urges Bella to get an abortion which she does not want, and the realities of her pregnancy urge use of the term in its other sense: as something monstrous.

Angel, in contrast to Azazeal and Edward, represents the virgin/whore dichotomy foisted on women by kyriarchy. Wittig states that "women have been ideologically built into a "natural group"...our bodies as well as our minds are the product of this manipulation," with said manipulation being that all women are the same, all go through the same experiences and all have the same proclivities, habits, and reactions. Neither virginity nor promiscuity is inherently better of a state than the other; furthermore there are hundreds more possible states of existence for women to inhabit. Angel-as-virgin and Angelus-as-whore shows this dichotomy for the silliness that it is--as virgin, Angel is the epitome of courtliness and chivalry, handsome, sensitive, and true to his lady; as whore, Angelus tortures, fornicates, and murders, and does so with a grin and giggle. There is no room for the grey, line-blurring version of Angel (which was developed in his eponymous series later on, to much acclaim). Similarly the virgin/whore roles for women allow no in-between and restrict women's choice.

Bella's longing to become a vampire is two-pronged: first, sex with Edward is conditionally tied to her vampirism, since he fears hurting her, and second, she wants entry into the Cullen "family" with its wealth, culture, and close bond. Given Meyer's religious background, it is not difficult to read the Cullen vampires as the lauded "eternal family" of LDS doctrine and Bella's desire to be part of them as a righteous desire for conversion and salvation. We see Bella's sexual feelings inspired not just by Edward's Adonis looks, but also by what he represents: money, comfort, security, family--the prosperity gospel dressed up as an immortal hunk. And magically, when she is turned, there is no negative fall-out. Her parents do not object; the rest of the Cullens remark on her amazing ability to not go crazy at the scent of human blood; she is beautiful, strong, fast, graceful, immortal, and she can have as much sex with Edward as she likes. Vampirism, one of the ultimate evils of horror entertainment, becomes a gift. In the world of Twilight, the patriarchal figures reward Bella with these wonderful things, prizes to take the place of what she leaves behind her: her biological family? Her independence? A college degree and career? In similar ways our patriarchal powers reward women with, ostensibly and in the best cases, faithful and loving husbands, secure homes and incomes, and a place in heaven, in return for not attempting to overthrow the dominant order. As de Beauvoir has it, women are required in every case to forget self and to love.

Returning to Creed's definition of the abject, it is worth discussing how "corporeal alteration" takes various forms in supernaturally-themed entertainment. Azazeal's possession of Cassie, Bella's vamping, and the mode of siring in the Buffyverse all utilize fluid exchange: the "whole big sucking thing" ("Welcome to the Hellmouth"). Vampires in popular Western literature have always been erotic, and more often than not their erotic qualities code as some form of sexual violation. Azazeal is not a vampire, but he is effectively the same as Angel or Edward--hundreds of years old, perfectly preserved, with supernatural powers which include the power to subvert humans into something else. The power is in the sex. Fluid exchange is key in all of these scenarios--for Cassie to become possessed, Azazeal's blood was involved ("Deeper Into the Darkness"). If Angel had wanted to sire Buffy, he would have sucked her blood and then she his. For Edward to turn Bella, he had to inject her with his venom (Breaking Dawn). All of these are clear cases of penetration and most particularly destruction of the hymen. It could be argued that Cassie's first time is with Azazeal, though she is physically with Troy, since Troy is possessed by Azazeal and has Azazeal's blood in him, facilitating Cassie's possession in turn. And--of course--Buffy and Bella are virgins when they have sex with Angel and Edward. Of particular note is that Bella's devirginization is two-fold, since she is vamped in close proximity to her wedding night with Edward. Post-coitus, the three women continue to have their roles defined for them; in Bella's case, she becomes completely Edward's wife and Renesmee's mother, as well as becoming a vampire, settling into the role of wife-mother comfortably. Cassie and Buffy exist in a state of "defilement" due to their perceived sins--this elicits anger and fear on Buffy's part, shame, anger, and fear on Cassie's (with the shame stemming not from the sex act itself, but from her lack of control). However, Buffy and Cassie resist this role thrust upon them and the strictures of femininity defined by outside male forces, the act of which takes more courage than is readily evident on the surface. Zizek notes that "by opposing patriarchal domination, women sinultaneously undermine the fantasy-support of their own feminine identity," meaning that if the dominant social structure is to be taken down, everything it previously covered will come down as well. When women fight forces which have controlled their lives, the burden of both the fighting and the constructing of a new society falls on them. The surroundings of Buffy and Hex WANT the heroines to recreate society, to dismantle the master's house, to use Lorde's perfect phrase. Bella is also urged to aid in creating a brave new world, but her role remains traditional and prescribed rather than revolutionary.

Creed, B.(1993). The monstrous feminine: Film, feminism, psychoanalysis. New York: Routledge.

De Beauvoir, S. (1989). The second sex. London: Vintage.

Jones, J. and Watkins, B. (2004-2005). Deeper into the darkness and The Release and Death takes the mother {television broadcast}. UK: Sky One.

Meyer, S. (2008). Breaking dawn. New York: Little, Brown, and Co.

Meyer, S. (2004). Twilight. New York: Little, Brown, and Co.

Whedon, J. (1997). Welcome to the hellmouth {television broadcast}. USA: WB Television Network.

Zizek, S. (1994). The metastases of enjoyment. New York: Verso.

No comments:

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...