Is Bella Swan an independent and sort of daring young lovesick renegade…or a doormat? A good role model…or a godawful role model? Or should she be considered a role model at all? And what of the Twilight saga itself: Is it liberating the fantasy life of a new generation of young women by inviting them to wallow in the kind of stormy-skies, trembling-damsel romanticism that has been a staple of popular fiction from Wuthering Heights onward? Or is it setting back the holy cause of women’s enlightenment by 50 years?
These and other questions were debated, with rude and furious passion, in response to my New Moon post last week. I confess, though, that amid the flurry of ardent, and at times angry, stand-taking, one particular view, repeated over and over again, caught my eye: the notion that there’s something deeply wrong with the Twilight saga because that hot-blooded, painfully chivalrous James Dean-of-the-northwest vampire Edward Cullen is nothing less than a “stalker.”
A stalker? Really? I mean, the kid is a vampire. Theoretically, stalking would be one of the nicer activities that he does. Can you imagine saying about Dracula that you had a problem with him as a character because he’s obviously guilty of sexual harassment and trespassing?
Nevertheless, the stalking argument got me to thinking: If the Twilight movies are, in fact, guilty of celebrating one amorous demon’s inexcusable behavior, perhaps they’re not the only popular romantic movies to do so. Looking back, I found any number of films in which some of the most celebrated heroes of movie history behave badly enough to risk inviting serious scrutiny, if not downright condemnation, from the love police. Here are just a dozen. Can you think of others?
1. The Graduate (1967) As Benjamin Braddock, a sexually befuddled, anti-plastic, dazed and confused youth-culture explorer (otherwise known as…a stalker!), Dustin Hoffman tracks Katherine Ross’s Elaine all the way to Berkeley, where he keeps pestering her on campus. Finally, he follows her to her wedding and disrupts it by screaming like a madman. Do not try anything like this abhorrent behavior in pursuit of your own true love.
2. The Public Enemy (1931) In which James Cagney, as a charismatic live-wire gangster, keeps girlfriend Mae Clark in line by shoving a raw grapefruit right into her kisser. A clear-cut glorification of domestic abuse.
3. Manhattan (1979) Woody Allen makes no apologies for the fact that his character, a 42-year-old celebrity comedy writer, is dating a 17-year-old Dalton student (Mariel Hemingway). Allen treats their relationship as the “purest” one in the movie, when it is in fact a pure and actionable case of statutory rape.
4. Vertigo (1958) James Stewart, having watched his true love (Kim Novak) plunge to her death from a chapel rooftop, finds her duplicate and begins to date her — a freakish rerun of his infatuation that’s not complete until he forces her to dress up exactly as before. In the process, he reveals himself to be a torturously obsessive image fetishist, a veritable dictator of the male gaze. Otherwise known as a perv.
5. Pretty Woman (1990) Wealthy business dude Richard Gere pays happy prostitute Julia Roberts around the clock so that she’ll spend the entire movie with him. And the thing is, she likes the work — especially when they go shopping for clothes. Need I say more about this tawdry misogynistic charade?
6. Say Anything (1989) Rejected and dejected, John Cusack won’t take no for an answer. He shows up at Ione Skye’s house and tries to get her to submit by blasting music over a portable loudspeaker as surely as the FBI did at Waco. Stalker or domestic terrorist? You decide.
7. Gone With the Wind (1939) The famous scene in which Rhett Butler hoists Scarlett O’Hara up the stairs for a night of “passion” is generally taken to be a knowing, Production Code-era signifier of domestic rape. And the glow on her face the next morning only reinforces that the movie is condoning this unspeakable act.
8. Every single James Bond film. The only thing this sexually compulsive sociopathic modelizer of a superspy does more quickly, and enthusiastically, than bedding down with beautiful women is throwing them away. More than that, his pathology is made to look super-cool.
9. Dirty Dancing (1987) No one puts Baby in a corner, but Patrick Swayze’s dreamboat Johnny Castle does woo her when she’s only 17. The period innocence of the Catskills in the ’60s can’t hide the crime of this predatory scoundrel.
10. King Kong (1933) He strips off Fay Wray’s top, invades the space of her apartment, and makes a spectacle of her screaming defensiveness. And after all this, we’re supposed to feel sorry for the big ape.
11. Broadcast News (1987) And you thought that David Letterman’s closet was dark. Beneath the airy sophistication of James L. Brooks’ newsroom comedy lies a hotbed of flawed role models engaging in inappropriate workplace dating.
12. The Sound of Music (1965) A clear case of coercive sexual harassment, and with the help, no less. Never mind Maria — how do you solve a problem like Captain Von Trapp?