My grandma tells me that she still has nightmares about the birth scene in Rosemary’s Baby (1968). I’d better tell her to skip Twilight: Breaking Dawn, which opened worldwide last weekend.
Deep breath. Also: Spoiler alerts for Breaking Dawn and Game of Thrones.
In this fourth Twilight film, 18-year-old Bella Swan marries Edward, her vampire love, who plans to turn Bella into a vampire (at her request). Vampires can’t get pregnant, so Bella is willing to give up childbearing (and, umm, life) for love. But before Edward gets the chance to vampire Bella, they have sex. Edward’s supernatural strength leaves Bella bruised post-coitus, but she loved the experience anyway. Good sex don’t come cheap, and Bella finds herself pregnant with a half-vampire that sucks her blood from the inside and renders her a malnourished skeleton. She refuses to have an abortion despite the pleadings of Edward, insisting that she’ll die for her baby—and then she does, because her spine breaks when she goes into labor, her baby starts eating its way out of her stomach, then Edward bites open her stomach, takes the baby out, and plunges a vampire-venom-filled needle into her heart (I think that’s what makes her a vampire?)—but it’s too late, because now she’s a white, bleeding skeleton corpse graphically splayed on a table—in desperation, Edward bites all over her lifeless body. Later, Bella opens her eyes. She’s a vampire now. Cut to credits.
I don’t do snark well even under ordinary circumstances, so click here for a funny and astute summary of the film.
As might be expected, many are grappling with Breaking Dawn’s ambiguous abortion messages. On the one hand, characters use the word “choice”—multiple times—to describe Bella’s decision to keep her baby. Her choice is not met with concurrence by her loved ones, who think the baby will probably kill her. (And thus they don’t want her to have it. It’s sad that I had to clarify there.) This is another example of Bella’s allegiance to traditional gender roles, which necessitate a woman’s undying, fatalistic allegiance to man and child. It’s conservatism gone goth, which kinda makes it appealing, no?
Bottom line: Stephanie Meyer, the author of the Twilight books, is anti-choice. The film’s screenwriter, Melissa Rosenberg, is pro-choice, and she wasn’t convinced she should write the adaptation until her sister-in-law pointed out that the decision to have a baby is a choice, too. “It is a choice to have a child,” Rosenberg said in an interview. “And having not made that choice in my own life, having actually done the opposite, that had not really occurred to me.”
So I guess that’s why the characters in the film keep talking about Bella’s choice, huh? Weird stuff happens when you superimpose choice language into an anti-choice plotline. (Because of how it’s only a “choice” when abortion is an option, too.) It’s true that while the books create an anti-choice moral universe, nothing in the film itself suggests that Bella’s options would have been limited even if her life wasn’t in danger. But regardless of all that, everyone can agree that Bella’s choices weren’t appealing. Or, as Alex Cranz at fempop.com puts it—“ ‘So women should choose eh? ‘WELL HOW DO YOU LIKE THIS CHOICE?’ was the feeling I was getting from the movie.”
Which brings me to Game of Thrones, in which Daenerys “Dany” Targaryen experiences a birth situation that is (no joke!) eerily similar to—and just as bad as—Bella’s.
Dany is married to Drogo, the leader of the Dothraki people, and together they have conceived a child. Drogo is injured in battle, and one of his prisoners, a witch/midwife/healer, pretends to cure him. With Drogo on his deathbed and his people in open rebellion, the witch/midwife says she will save Drogo, but that the cost of life is death. Dany volunteers her own life (and, presumably, her unborn child’s), but instead the witch kills a horse and kicks Dany out of Drogo’s convalescent tent, explaining that she’s about to work some dark magic. Outside the tent, Dany goes into labor just as the men around her start slaughtering one another. Dany is dragged into the tent, passes out, and awakes to discover that the midwife has murdered her child and transformed Drogo into a permanently brain-dead lump. So Dany decides to burn Drogo plus midwife at the stake, but then she grabs her dragon eggs (long story), walks into the fire, and discovers that she is the last of the remaining dragon leaders (again, long story). She emerges from the fire with three newly hatched dragon babies. The Dothraki people bow down to Dany as their first female leader. Also, the midwives’ curse rendered Dany barren, so she won’t be having any more (human) babies.
Dany offered her life in exchange for her husband’s life, and when that failed, her husband and unborn child were taken from her. In the end, she becomes barren and ascends to lead her people. Which is great, maybe? But why must she trade her fertility for political power? In many ways, Bella’s plight in Twilight and Dany’s in Game of Thrones espouse rather opposite messages. Yet in both cases, the dramatic climax of the story is predicated on questions of fertility, and a tragic childbirth was the test they needed to pass before their ultimate transformation, which left each incredibly powerful yet infertile: Vampire Bella and Dragon Dany.
Some have argued that reality television represents a backlash against feminism. I’d argue that reproductive ultimatum scenarios represent a backlash against reproductive choice. Contemporary television and film is intent on portraying women who A) lack reproductive choice, B) trade fertility for power, or C) undergo a traumatic childbirth. Bella and Dany are extreme examples, but even humdrum childbirth scenes emphasize fear, urgency, and the explicit or implied necessity to submit to medical intervention.
In Rosemary’s Baby, Rosemary is a victim. Her doctor and her husband have conspired to impregnate her with the spawn of the devil. When she goes into labor, she is forced into a bed and drugged. She doesn’t remember the birth itself, nor is it portrayed onscreen (lies, grandma!), which is parallel to the experiences of real women on maternity wards in 1968, who were commonly drugged with a memory-robbing concoction called Twilight (really!) Sleep.
Rosemary’s enemies are clear. External forces, at least, can be identified, fought against, and reviled. In Game of Thrones, Dany lives in a world with limited options, and escapes only by sacrificing her fertility and transforming into a super-human creature. In Twilight, Bella proves her worthiness and nobility by sacrificing her life for her unborn child. Many say that Bella and Dany are “strong” and even “feminist” characters, but I’m not convinced. The very parameters of the narratives they work within limit their choices, their battles, and the routes that lead to their supposed triumphs.