After my roommate moved out and (more importantly) took the WiFi with her, I had nothing to sit back and watch but the few DVDs I could scavenge. In my abrupt and panicked withdrawal from streaming entertainment, I discovered a CD booklet under the kitchen sink (hey, in New York City, everything is storage) that contained a bootleg copy of The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 1. Desperate for a flatscreen fix, I popped it in.
Now, I am not a TwiHard. Kristen Stewart’s palpable on-screen boredom and the plot’s insipid melodrama all add up to a movie franchise as lifeless as the Cullens’ victims. Prepared to be let down, I soon discovered, to my utter surprise, something redemptive amid the bombast and banality.
We humans often contend with our collective anxiety about real-life issues through stories in the forms of books, songs, or films. These media act as sites where our shared preoccupations can sort themselves out. Exhibit A: The litany of sci-fi films about “body snatchers” that were produced during the McCarthyist era of anti-communist U.S. government witch-hunts. The films allowed audiences to engage with uncomfortable, all-too-real subject matter through the relative safety of fantastical allegory. Through identifications with various characters in the films, viewers could temporarily inhabit points of view that they could never consider adopting publicly.
Vampire stories are no different. Perhaps like me, you’ve noticed the recent explosion of entertainment media about these blood-sucking wraiths. True Blood, Vampire Diaries, and, of course, The Twilight Saga. But, why?
I believe there’s a correspondence between the vampire craze and the emergence of “bareback” sexual subculture among gay men without any veneral disease tests beforehand. Here, “bareback” refers to anal sex between men without condoms, or condomless anal sex. Perhaps no element of bareback subculture has more greatly offended the public’s sense of right and wrong than the existence of “bug-chasers” and “gift-givers.” Bug-chasers are HIV-negative men who seek condomless anal sex with HIV-positive men, with the intention of becoming HIV-infected. Gift-givers, on the other hand, are HIV-positive men who seek condomless anal sex with HIV-negative men, with the intention of transmitting HIV. Both desire to create sexual scenarios that are conducive to the transmission of HIV, or seroconversion. Why would anyone desire to become infected with HIV, or to infect others with the virus? Isn’t it reckless and dangerous? Nihilistic? Criminal, even?
In Unlimited Intimacy: Reflections on the Subculture of Barebacking (University of Chicago Press, 2009), Tim Dean lists several rationales that motivate bug-chasers’ and gift-givers’ desires for viral exchange:
“…embracing risk as a test of masculinity, counterphobically reinterpreting [HIV] as desirable, diminishing fear of HIV/AIDS, increasing doubts about HIV as the cause of AIDS, eliminating anxiety by purposefully arranging seroconversion, and resisting mainstream health norms.”
Whether you happen to find these proposed rationales sympathetic or abhorrent, Dean urges us to consider bareback subculture’s emphasis on viral transmission as a direct response to the fear and opprobrium with which mainstream America has historically greeted people living with HIV/AIDS. In the same way some gay men have reclaimed the word “faggot,” bug-chasers and gift-givers have reclaimed HIV itself.
While Dean explores the aforementioned rationales at length, he is particularly interested in the way viewing HIV as a “gift” actually “creates consanguineous relations among subcultural members.” To say it another way, viral transmission may establish new kinds of family relationships. For example, a bug-chaser who seroconverts may now be considered a brother with respect to all other HIV-positive men. That same bug-chaser may also view the man who infected him (or whom he believes infected him) as his “parent,” “father,” or “daddy.” Dean argues that bug-chasers and gift-givers “are participating, almost invisibly, in the broader cultural enterprise of redefining kinship.” While certain civil rights-minded gay and lesbian communities are engaged in the project of redefining kinship through marriage, participants in bareback subculture are engaged in the very same project through manipulation of a virus.
Before we can “read” HIV/AIDS and bareback subculture in The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 1, we must first uncover evidence that there is relevant subtext embedded in the film. (If you ask me, the gratuitous shots of Taylor Lautner’s sculpted torso ought to be enough to convince anyone, but I’ll take a less obvious example, just for giggles.) Early on in the film, we get clues that there is an undercurrent of queer content. “I wanted to know how it felt to hunt,” Edward says, as he reflects on his first meal as a vampire. Edward’s expression of carnivorous intent resonates with the popular imagination’s notion of gift-givers as dangerous predators. Edward shows us what he means as he takes us to a time long before Bella entered the picture. In an old-timey cinema, Edward is staring intently at an attractive young woman seated several rows ahead of him. It is she, we are led to believe, who will be the young vampire’s first victim. The woman’s physical beauty and Edward’s obsessive gaze have the combined effect of lending the scene a certain sexual charge. Edward’s bloodthirstiness—and thus his vampire-ness—is in this way linked thematically with sexual desire in the world of the film. As the woman exits the theater, Edward stalks her as a rapist might stalk his victim. The heterosexual pretense of the scene ultimately gives way to a homosexual reality. At the last moment, just when we think Edward is going to pounce on his female object of bloodlust, he thrusts himself on a heretofore-unseen male victim whose blood Edward devours with relish. Having already linked the scene to sexual desire in the first place, and by pulling the rug out from underneath our heterosexual assumption, the film gives us permission to explore its commentary on queer themes.
“All the men I killed were monsters,” Edward says, summing up his early days as a vampire, “and so was I.” Through the voice of Edward, the film rehearses views of bug-chasers and gift-givers as depraved monsters. In the end, though, does the film reinforce these beliefs, or does it say something new?
Where Edward evoked our worst fears about gift-givers in that early scene, the film soon changes focus and takes a look at Bella in the role of bug-chaser. During their honeymoon, Edward and Bella have some, uh, robust sex that results in physical injury to Bella, not to mention considerable property damage. Afraid of further hurting Bella, Edward refuses to have more sex with her. Bella, however, pleads with him. Her embodiment of a bug-chaser is underscored by her explicit understanding of the risks of sex with Edward, by her acceptance of them, and, most importantly, by her invitation of them. Despite his better judgment, Edward and Bella make love once more. In the process, Bella receives a gift.
Bella has become pregnant, we learn, with a demonic half-vampire-half-human monster-fetus, which is sucking the life from her in its unquenched thirst for human blood. After the fetus is forcibly removed from her abdomen, Bella’s condition deteriorates, and she flatlines. Edward, faced with the loss of his beloved, gives Bella a second gift: his bite. As we are taken literally inside Bella’s body to witness her transformation, we can’t help but notice that it occurs on the same microscopic, otherwise-invisible level as HIV transmission. I believe this is how the film demonstrates a direct correspondence between the vampire’s bite and HIV transmission. Now, people generally do not regard becoming a vampire—or becoming HIV-infected, for that matter—as a positive life event. Yet, in the world of the film, Bella’s transformation proves just that, and emphatically so. She is resurrected! Her health miraculously returns. She lives.
It doesn’t stop there. Bella’s transformation and return to life forever unites father, mother, and child. The film’s narrative echoes what Tim Dean argues is especially significant about viewing HIV as a “gift”: its potential to create new family formations. The film uses the trope of the traditional heterosexual nuclear family unit to represent the virus’s power to transform potential.
The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 1 challenges us to withhold judgment on those whose lives and desires we may not readily understand.