smaller 2It’s hard not to make the comparison: two supernatural teen romances, both adapted from Young Adult novels, both involving a Romeo and Juliet-like attraction between a human and a superhuman. For feminist spectators, the popularity of such genre films warrants an investigation of their depiction of gender roles. So how do the two films stack up?

For the purposes of this analysis, let “feminist” be a film in which 1) The women characters are subjects and not objects–they are not just acted upon, they also act. 2) The ideology of the film, as reflected in its structure and content, at least questions, if not replaces, the constructs of sex and gender that are oppressive to women in our world.

What you need to know: Beautiful Creatures, which opened on Valentine’s Day, is a coming-of-age story of a caster, or witch, named Lena (Alice Englert), who on her 16th birthday will be claimed either for good or evil. In the months before her claiming, she falls in love with a mortal boy, Ethan (Alden Ehrenreich). Her family tries to keep her away from him but to no avail, and he soon becomes enmeshed in the spiritual struggle for her soul, along with Lena’s Uncle Macon (Jeremy Irons), her aunt, grandmother, cousins and the spirit of her evil mother, Sarafine (embodied for the second half of the film in the town’s religious zealot, played by Emma Thompson).

In Twilight, the sexist Victorian notion that for women sex equals death is perfectly embodied in the dangerous love that Bella Swan has for Edward Cullen, a love that does eventually lead to her death. Beautiful Creatures, though it is also about a girl’s coming of age and a forbidden love, is only peripherally about sex. Unlike Twilight, in Beautiful Creatures a woman’s sexual desire will not determine her fate. The main problem with her boyfriend is not that choosing to be with him will kill her, it’s simply that he makes things a little more complicated. Point for Beautiful Creatures.

What about the other women characters in both films? In Twilight, the mother is fairytale-ishly absent (not so feminist). In Beautiful Creatures, the mother is first absent then present, but evil (even less feminist). In Twilight, women vampires are capable of choosing to be either good or evil (feminist), whereas in Beautiful Creatures men casters can choose to be good or evil but women cannot (not so feminist). In fact, the battle for Lena’s soul is largely fought not by Lena herself but between her Uncle and her mother, indicating that her biology and heritage play the largest role in determining her fate (not so feminist). And, though Lena’s sexuality will not determine her destiny, her evil cousin caster is clearly driven largely by a deadly sexual desire (not so feminist).

Finally, in Twilight, the story is told from Bella’s perspective, but the narrative voice is that of a perennial victim–a woman whose own desire repeatedly puts her in the way of danger and violence. In Beautiful Creatures, the narrative voice and initiating action is given to the young man, while Lena is held largely captive in her Uncle’s decaying Southern Gothic mansion. But as the movie progresses, Lena learns to master her powers, which are greater than her Uncle’s, and starts to make her own choices. Nevertheless, according to the supernatural mythology of the story, nothing she does will determine her fate. (You can work out the feminist points here, plus and minus.)

However, at the very end of Beautiful Creatures (STRUCTURAL SPOILER ALERT!), the narrative voice–handles in most of the film by Ethan’s voiceovers, is given to Lena, implying not only that she has become the central character but also that in possible sequels (the book from which the film is drawn is the first in a series of four) her character could become even more of a subject. For diehard feminist spectators, this shift may not be quite enough, but the resolution of the film manages to call into question the inviolability of gender roles in the world created by Beautiful Creatures. Whereas Bella’s death in childbirth is a foregone conclusion in the Victorian world of Twilight, Lena’s future looks bright.

Because the central character’s morality is not determined by her sexuality and because she doesn’t have to become a mother/die to become powerful, feminist fans of supernatural films will definitely enjoy Beautiful Creatures more than they did Twilight. So I say go see it: If it makes enough money, we might get a few sequels, and the more mythologies available to supplant the repressive one represented in Twilight, the better. If that doesn’t convince you, consider this: The acting is better than in the Twlight series, the writing is better (Viola Davis agreed to be in it only after insisting that her part be changed from a servant to a librarian) and the design is better in Beautiful Creatures.

Photo, clockwise from top left: Alice Englert as Lena (Beautiful Creatures), Emily Rossum as Lena’s evil cousin Ridley (Beautiful Creatures), Ashley Green as Alice (Twilight) and Kristen Stewart as Bella (Twilight).

This piece is Part Two in a three-part series. See here for part one.

Since Edward Cullen first graced the pages of a young adult novel in 2005, vampires have been the sexy bad guys du jour. But it’s not just the lingering fear that sex might lead to death that makes these nightmarish manifestations of sexual desire resonate with audiences.

Gothic horror literature–which attracts audiences by allowing them to vicariously transgress sexual and social norms while also reinforcing the punishments that come with such transgressions–is a goldmine for contemporary filmmakers interested in exploring the sexuality of adolescent women. The 2011 film The Moth Diaries, based on the 2002 young adult novel by Rachel Klein (who wrote the screenplay) and directed by Mary Harron, harkens purposefully back to the first vampire novel, Joseph Sheridan le Fanu’s Carmilla, and does little to counter the lesbian exploitation premise of either book. Intimacy between girlfriends–including one hanging out in a nightgown while the other bathes–is bathed in soft light, but two women having sex is a bloody, messy activity that leads to death. The movie also uses the Gothic trope of an innocent woman trapped by a sinister figure within a decaying castle  to great effect: The architecture of the girls’ boarding school creates most of the danger, and the only male figure around is clearly untrustworthy. (Spoiler alert) The heroine triumphs, but if it’s possible, this movie is even more sex-shamey than Twilight.

I am looking forward to Diablo Cody writing her horror movie about going to Catholic school, because in Juno she tenderly treats the ambivalent attitude towards teenage sex that she must have learned in that school. But in Jennifer’s Body (2009), directed by Karyn Kusama, Cody turns teenage sex into a nightmare. The small town of Devil’s Kettle serves the function of castle-in-a-remote-wasteland-imprisoning-young-women, where one of the women breaks free only by virtue of the death of the other. A lesbian kiss that wasn’t in the original script makes this film more exploitative than Cody may have intended it to be, but, like The Moth Diaries, Jennifer’s Body cautions us against trusting female sexuality.

In these two movies, the heroines conspicuously lack father figures, but typical Gothic heroines find themselves at the mercy of the very men they are called upon to trust. Silent House (2011), co-written and co-directed by Laura Lau, returns to the idea that patriarchal authority figures–even within our own families–might be the men who pose the most danger. The plot centers again around the house-as-prison metaphor: Sarah, played by Elizabeth Olsen (the far more talented younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley), becomes trapped in her family’s decrepit shoreline house with a sinister figure she assumes to be a homeless squatter. Reflecting the ambivalence with which our culture regards women’s place in the home, the film uses an ancient, secret tragedy to raise questions about whether the heroine is in real danger or is tricked by a tortured mind into believing so.

Gothic novels often dwell upon the fear that the sins of the fathers will be visited on their children. The House at the End of the Street, in theaters now, features  a young man ostracized from his community because of his family. The fatherless woman hero (played by The Hunger GamesJennifer Lawrence), shuns the cool kids and instead pursues this mesmerizing-but-off-kilter boy-next-door. Despite her mother’s attempts to protect her, she finds herself drawn into the characteristic Gothic hallways and secret chambers that contain the enigmatic ancient tragedy from which the boy has yet to recover. Sure enough, her instinctual sexual attraction is offered to titillate the audience, then is violently shut down.

With a little Gothic ambivalence, a feminist can at least enjoy watching the female heroes of these films defend themselves, and not without shedding a little blood. And The Moth Diaries, Jennifer’s Body, and Silent House are all written and directed by women. Perhaps that is why the decrepit hallways, doorways and secret rooms of these Gothic environments betray a cultural attitude that the patriarchy, though still in place, may not actually be good for women, and that isolating them from society might not keep them safe.

Photo courtesy of Patricia.Pictures via Creative Commons 2.0