Crisp, icy air fills our lungs, whispering, pulling us inward into the fauna-choked landscape of Forks, Washington. Residing inside this quaint town, someone of equal brilliance: perfectly tousled hair, cold skin, brooding saunter, piercing eyes, and a slightly outdated fashion sense. Sound familiar? We’ve stepped into the glorious world of Twilight filled with fantastical vampires, bloody violence, and of course, romance.
The infamous love between Bella Swan and Edward Cullen has absorbed fans ever since the first book release in 2005, but has since garnered more fans with the film adaptations. While the first Twilight film became the basis for many tragic memes—like textposts of Edward’s god-awful first reaction to Bella and the iconic “You’d better hold on tight, spider monkey” line—Twihards have recently come crawling out of hiding to reflect on the film through a feminist lens. On Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, and TikTok, The Twilight Saga has nostalgically returned in the form of a revival: the Twilight Renaissance. In the Medium article, “The Twilight Renaissance and How It Impacts The Way We Think About Movies,” Estee Peterson writes that Twilight fans are reevaluating “the idea that something is automatically silly or dumb just because it is popular among girls.”
Let’s redefine why the first Twilight film has become a household name. Directed and edited by Catherine Hardwicke and Nancy Richardson, respectively, the film has done justice to the novel in kindling that passionate love between the protagonists while also evoking a cold and utterly captivating atmosphere. Unfortunately, this feeling doesn’t last in the succeeding films, as they fall short in balancing both emotional connection and physical appearance, or the unnecessary sexualization of appearance; often, they lean too much into the extremes of the physical, scattering excessive scenes of half-naked vampires and werewolves that do not necessarily add Bella’s story. Tracing the five Twilight films, we see how Hardwicke and Richardson utilize their female gaze to emotionally appeal to the audience through Bella, whereas the male directors and editors of the subsequent installments prioritize the physical, sexual aspects of characters.
In an article from The Guardian, “Like a natural woman: how the female gaze is finally bringing real life to the screen,” Gwendolyn Smith defines the female gaze as “a term used in recent years to describe art that subverts the ubiquitous male perspective.” Unlike the objectification of women through the “male gaze,” a term coined by British feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey, the female gaze seeks to empathize with the female protagonist through the perspective of a female director and editor. This exclusive female perspective offers a raw, intimate peek into the forceful emotions and complexity of the characters, especially female protagonists like Bella.
Don’t fret! The goal here isn’t to subject Edward to the forms of objectification female characters have always suffered. Instead, Hardwicke and Richardson utilize their female gaze to capture Bella’s experience with Edward and Forks, developing the gaze into a more female-forward method of story-telling. Wielding the gaze, they are able to construct scenes that closely render Bella’s sentiment with the intention that they too have understood her struggles with romantic tension—or at least understand how a young girl may feel when love seems impossible and goes beyond the imaginable. But this isn’t to say that men cannot create emotional spaces in film. While men—cisgender or cissexual—are able to understand the vision of the female gaze, it’s just not something they can accurately replicate.
Twilight is a coming-of-age story solely from a young girl’s perspective. It’s written by a woman. The film adaptation needs to be helmed by women to be executed properly. There must be a seamless circulation of the female gaze from writer, to screenwriter, to director, and to editor in order to successfully evoke the candor of Bella’s raw emotion—and the first film does just this.
Hardwicke clearly had a vision for this film and she likely expected no less from Richardson in delivering her vision through editing. In a throwback 2008 Cinemontage interview, Hardwicke and Richardson discuss their 15 year friendship and the arduous process of filming and editing Twilight. Richardson mentions how “Catherine is extremely visual” and that “everything is storyboarded, or she gets photographs to visualize every single scene.” Hardwicke responds by praising Richardson’s “strong sense of story, character, and performance.” Alongside their respect for each other’s work, Hardwicke’s elaborate storyboards provided explicit detail for Richardson to then apply her editing magic accordingly. While great chemistry between Hardwicke and Richardson is certainly a huge part of building the foundations for Twilight, let’s get into the itty-bitty-gritty details on how they were able to create this beautiful world filled with angst and desire.
The first Twilight film introduces the enrapturing environment of Forks that we have all come to love thanks to Richardson. She tactically overlays a variety of cold tones, following a consistent blue color scheme throughout the film. Intertwined with the deep, mysterious green hues of the forest alongside the damp weather of Washington, the chilling ambience transports us into another realm, something we craved back then and even now. We’ve physically entered the cold-blooded world of vampires, but we get a more angsty, early 2000’s version of it largely separate from traditional vampire folklore.
In contrast to the frigid environment laid out through editing, Hardwicke strategically places us in Bella’s “warm” first-person point of view. After Edward saves Bella from a rowdy group of men, both protagonists share an intense moment of physical connection palpable through the screen. They simultaneously reach for the radio button and meet an unfamiliar touch: ice meets fire, but in a romantic way. When she feels those cold, tingly fingertips, we also feel it; when she’s being a completely awkward dweeb at times, we also feel like awkward dweebs. Although this may merely be the first touch, Hardwicke purposely directs us to not indulge in Bella’s sexuality just yet. She wants us to be on edge, to be prepared for the tantalizing back-and-forth teasing between Bella and Edward that will continue throughout the entirety of the film.
Finally, now we get to the concept of Edward. What is it about him that objectively appeals to the audience? It’s got to be the lean, brunette, white boy appeal right? Well, not quite. For one, Richardson does not use her powers of editing to make him look supernatural, and I think that’s the point. Edward looks like and embodies an average, hot high school student. Although he is a vampire, it’s Richardson’s exact preservation of Edward’s youthful, mysterious and brooding appearance that the viewers end up being enchanted by.
Similarly, through Hardwicke’s vision of a realistic-looking, small-town vampire, the audience feels as though they are or can be Bella because—news flash!—we are all attracted to Edward. Hardwicke’s realistic—at least, more realistic than the books—yet entrancingly suave Edward tethers this film to reality rather than the dreamscape of the books. He, although undead, becomes alive and available for viewers who also want to fall in love with him. Hardwicke clearly makes this a viable choice for the audience, as if a situation like this could actually occur in real life and we could somehow snatch-up our own gorgeous vampire.
It is important to note that while it may seem that Bella is often pushed into the stereotypically feminine position of needing saving by Edward, it is through her strength of emotional healing that saves him from his plight of immortality. Hardwicke communicates this strength to the viewers through inconspicuous manners, such as the times when he watches her sleep out of concern for her safety; but in actuality, it also represents moments when Edward seeks emotional support that only she can understand and give him.
I know, I know. This is probably an outrageously unpopular opinion because, no shit, anyone watching anyone sleeping is just, what’s the word—creepy. (Guess which scene pops up most across all boards when you Google “creepy Edward Cullen moments”?) But, I argue that even though Edward watching Bella sleep is a very creepy aspect of their relationship, we must consider such scenes in the context of Bella and Edward’s supernatural, fantastical relationship. For the past century, Edward hasn’t found a person to look after him, emotionally. After all, the most he can do for Bella is to physically protect her, but who is going to emotionally protect him?
Without a doubt, Hardwicke and Richardson invoke their female gaze when constructing the fantasy of Edward and Forks. In asking themselves what they as women would want to imagine as a heartthrob vampire, and how the cold atmosphere works with this hot and heavy romantic tension, Hardwicke and Richardson offers a movie rich with y/n (your name) fanfic moments—which any quick Google search will abundantly supply you with.
This abundance attests to the success of Twilight’s slow-burning, Wattpad-like tale, where a sort of sexual tension exists without the actual sex. While this drives the first film, the next film steers towards a vision that doesn’t fit this pattern. In The Twilight Saga: New Moon, Eclipse, Breaking Dawn Part I and Breaking Dawn Part II, Summit Entertainment employed almost all male directors and editors—Chris Weitz and Peter Lambert; David Slade and Art Jones (later replaced by Nancy Richardson); and Bill Condon and Virginia Katz, respectively.
Unlike the captivating blue-toned atmosphere of the first film, the male editors of the following films use a warm and yellowish color palette. This completely rids Forks of its charisma and necessary chilliness that would attract vampires in the first place. The cool had kept Forks, the romance, and ambience frozen as a self-contained unit, but now that the tones are warmer, our bond with the film unravels. We wanted that cool zap from the film’s atmosphere, but we are now idly sitting with no sparks; contrary to popular belief, love should not be warm, but cold in the world of Twilight.
Through the male directors’ visions, Edward also unfortunately loses his vampiric touch. On top of the sudden growth of his sideburns, the yellow contact lenses, and an oddly warm glow edited onto his skin, the latter films focus excessively on editing him to look unrealistic and older; he becomes someone unattainable, taking away the initial appeal of a cold, youthful vampire. InStyle compiled a list of “The Twilight Saga: Transformations,” showcasing Edward’s change from one that highlighted his youthful, pale skin and voluminous hair in Twilight to the “warm, coppery tones in Edward’s hair” and “shorter cut” in New Moon till Breaking Dawn: Part 2. His aesthetic change dampened or muted the once fresh yet ominous features that made Edward Cullen, the Edward Cullen.
On the internet, it seems as though the audience’s opinions vary, but we can all agree that the sudden shift in Edward’s appearance from one of cold to warm tones is too abrupt for a continuous, popular series such as this. We all know how much we hate it when actors are suddenly replaced in a TV series or film, so it makes sense that the unexpected change in appearance would also cause a beloved character to become unfamiliar. Edward’s now eerily, otherworldly beauty shifts our point-of-view from the intimate, first-person perspective of Bella—plausibly allured by Edward’s initial, more human appearance—to a disconnected, third-party perspective.
In emphasizing Edward as a supernatural being, there evidently comes an unwanted detachment between Edward and the audience. The director and editors hope to heal this separation through other, less satisfying outlets. Taking the same definition of the male gaze, someone unfamiliar with the term may assume that the female gaze also seeks to sexualize or objectify men on-screen. It seems as though in New Moon, for example, the director and editors execute this version of the female gaze by sprinkling in abrupt scenes of Jacob taking off his shirt just to reveal his toned body at random moments of the film. Quite frankly, it’s excessive and not exactly what we’re looking for.
The audience understands the intention of hunk appeal, but it only engages us for a split second before we return to the desire for something deeper, something beyond the superficial, physical aspect of Twilight. Bella and Jacob, like Bella and Edward, share a bond, a strenuous platonic connection as they become more and more fond of each other. We want this extension of tension, a desire to nurture a love that goes beyond the sexual. Perhaps these fan-service scenes of half-naked vampires and werewolves are a quick way to leave more time for the action sequences; but in doing so, they piece together a “wrong” Twilight, one that indulges in the sexual over the emotional. In other words, they dismiss young women’s emotional investments in the first film.
It is clear that scenes that had once accommodated the female gaze and audience are entirely lost in the male perspective and excess editing towards the end of the series. However, by employing talented women directors and editors who possess these incredible strengths of the female gaze, the audience can view an accurate portrayal of female protagonists’ emotional experiences on screen. Perhaps the first Twilight film can serve as a blueprint for Y.A. romance films in the future.