How Replacing Women Reinforces the Male Gaze

By Gage Jones and Aamani Pillutla

It is no secret that there are far more male directors than female directors in Hollywood, but what is often given less attention is the consistency in which female directors are replaced when a franchise becomes successful. What is even more seldom discussed is how those male directors irrevocably change those franchises to reinforce and support the male gaze. Twilight’s Catherine Hardwicke and the franchise she guided to world renown is a case study of exactly how much can be lost when a franchise is given over to exclusively male directors. First, we will see exactly how Twilight changed from promotional material to screengrabs in how both Bella and Edward were depicted. We’ll then explore more recent examples of replacement and the progress made in the case of Wonder Woman’s director Patty Jenkins.

The popular movie series The Twilight Saga has been a pop culture mainstay ever since the first film, Twilight, was released in 2008. The movies took Stephenie Meyer’s edgy teen vampire story and portrayed them through film, popularizing a new type of vampire: sparkly and alluring. Twilight (2008), despite the books not having a largely impactful fanbase, ended up gaining over $400 million in the global box office post-release(Box Office Mojo, n.d.). This success largely due to the stylistic vision and choices made by its director Catherine Hardwicke. Before Twilight, Hardwicke was known for movies about and told through the lens of women and girls such as Thirteen. Without breaking tradition, Hardwicke transformed Twilight into a genre-challenging supernatural romance story with the main character, a high school girl named Bella Swan, as the desirer and the blood-sucking love interest Edward Cullen as the desired. This mode disrupted the common tropes and views of teen romance marketed towards young women, telling the story from the point of view of a girl instead of a male behind the camera speaking through the main character.

Because of the first film’s box office success, The Twilight Saga showed massive potential to the studio Summit Entertainment, who wanted the second film, New Moon, to be released only a year after Twilight’s premiere. Hardwicke declined to repeat as a director because of the hasty turnaround (Desta, 2018). For New Moon and the Breaking Dawn movies following, the studio hired male directors to head the films. This shift changed the makeup of the film and the ways in which Bella and her love story were portrayed. The replacement of Hardwicke with a series of men in the Twilight series served to reinstate the male gaze in a franchise that started out with a refreshingly female take on the story.

The Gaze as Depicted in the Films

But how did Catherine Hardwicke put a twist on the male gaze to begin with? Did she abolish the tropes and editing that we are so used to? No, what Hardwicke did was use a mastery over what we expect to happen in a teen romance movie and flip it. All of the tropes we expect to see of playing hard to get, being ogled, talked about, being the object of desire are applied not to Bella but to Edward. One of the starkest moments is when Bella first sees Edward in this scene.

Photos taken from Twilight

Notice that Bella has naturalistic makeup and isn’t wearing anything remotely provocative; she’s wearing what looks to be a baseball jersey. On the other side, Edward is wearing designer clothes and has his hair done. When contemplating the male gaze Naomi McDougall Jones (2020),” As he looks at her, we see that her lips are moving because she is talking. But in the sound design, we don’t hear the words or any sounds coming out of her. We do hear De Niro talking to his friend about her, which reiterates that the viewer is to see the scene through his perspective.” In this scene, we don’t hear Edward or those around him; we don’t hear comments about Bella. What we hear is Bella and the girls with her talking about Edward. Edward is the object of desire in this scene, the one being looked at. We experience all of the original Twilight through this lens, through Bella’s eyes and ears.

Unfortunately, this refreshing flip of tropes didn’t survive Hardwicke’s departure from the series. In just the first few moments of the final film in the series, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2, we see Bella and Edward again. Only this time, Bella is the object in this scene; she is in a dress despite them going hunting. We follow Bella through Edward’s eyes.

Photos taken from The Twilight Saga Breaking Dawn part II

When she is off-screen, we hear his commentary. Bella becomes less and less of the lens through which we experience the Twilight universe. Throughout this scene, we follow Bella as Edward, while Bella is manic and in the woods. Despite the woods and emotional turmoil Bella is going through, we can see that her hair stays perfect, as does her makeup. Even as she bites into the jugular of a mountain lion, Bella doesn’t get dirty, nor does her hair get tangled. One could argue that these are changes necessitated by the story, a thematic shift to go along with Bella turning into a vampire, or a harmless stylistic shift that naturally happens when switching directors; but, the fact remains it only happened once men were in control of the series. The image of a beautiful woman wrestling with a mountain lion in the dirt with no dirt on her, no smudged makeup, and perfect hair speaks to exactly what mattered to the directors that followed Hardwicke.

The Gaze as Marketed to Viewers

Photos of Bella and the ensemble from Twilight Saga Wiki

This shift doesn’t stop at what happens in the universe, it carries over to the marketing of these films as well. The promotional images for Twilight are yet another indicator of the female perspective as it pertains to the series. Kristen Stewart as Bella for all intents and purposes looks like an actual teenage girl, which is refreshing on its own. This is a factor of Hardwicke and casting directors casting a real, high school-aged girl, Kristen Stewart, as the teen lead. As reflected by her hand placement near her chest and the short-sleeved top, Bella is meant to be seen as innocent. As mentioned previously, she is made up more naturalistically, appropriately reflecting her age and her role as the desirer in the film. In the ensemble photos, Edward is portrayed unsmilingly, conveying his brooding temperament. Bella is seemingly barefaced and youthful. It is, in fact, Edward  who looks the most made up between the two, reflecting Bella’s desire for him and the beauty she finds in him. These promotional photos show how Twilight was marketed with Bella in the center, making Edward the object of her desire in the way she sees him and views him, instead of the other way around as it traditionally would have been.

Photos of Bella and the ensemble from Twilight Saga Wiki

This promotion style does not remain consistent in the second film, which saw Hardwicke’s departure and a new male director be hired. The individual promotion image for Bella in New Moon is notably different from that in Twilight. Bella is shown in more revealing clothing, a camisole instead of the modest, long-sleeve sweater style in Twilight’s promotional photos. Her clavicle and arms are exposed, and the neck of her top is just shy of showing her bust. The photography is more about her body than her character. Furthermore, Stewart as Bella is more obviously made up, with a smokey eye and wind in her hair, projecting an image of seductiveness on Bella that was previously only reserved for Edward. This is the same in the ensemble photo for New Moon. In this photo, Bella is portrayed entirely differently from how she is portrayed in Twilight. Her entire body is facing away from the camera towards Edward, and she is in Edward’s arms. Edward is central to the photo, and his face is more prominent and forward in the depiction than Bella’s. This image subtly invokes the idea that Bella belongs to Edward, or that Edward has captured her. This is a dramatic change from the imagery in the first film and its promotion photos that Edward is the one to be desired, to be lusted after, rather than Bella. Hardwicke’s original Bella-focused perspective of the desirer and desired is tarnished in New Moon’s promotional photos.

Photo of Bella from Twilight Saga Wiki

While the Breaking Dawn films did not have the same director as New Moon, the director was still man thus furthering the shift from the trailblazing female perspective to the traditional male gaze in the franchise. Bella is shown in Breaking Dawn, Part 2 promotional images in dramatic makeup, and, in true vampiric nature, has lighter skin than in previous promotional images. It is true that part of the stylization of Bella in Breaking Dawn, Part 2 is because she is now a vampire and her image fits the stylization of the other vampires. However, Bella’s smoldering makeup and tempting eyes still serve the male gaze and make Bella a desired object rather than the beholder of the desired, as she started out being in Twilight.

Conclusion and Progress in Hiring Women Directors Since Twilight

The filmmaking and marketing changes brought upon by the change in gender of the director reflect the removal of the female take through Bella on Edward and reinforces the male gaze, stripping power away from Hardwicke’s original vision, Bella as the female lead and main character, and female viewers as well. While The Twilight Saga has its fair share of stereotypes, there was an empowerment endowed to women who watched the movie to be allowed to see Edward through Bella’s eyes rather than a male’s eyes, and be able to fantasize about Edward and seek after such romance in their daydreams. This is a form of transgressive fantasy that allows women to explore their interests, as explained by Salam Al-Mahadin in her writing about the mass appeal of Fifty Shades of Grey, which is famously based on Twilight fanfiction(Al-Mahadin, 2013). The type of fan engagement that results from Twilight is one that allows women to feel and understand themselves, enabled by a female directing behind the camera. This quality was stripped from Twilight when Catherine Hardwicke was replaced with a series of male directors.

Unfortunately, this trend of replacing female directors on successful franchises hasn’t gone away; Just as the trend of not hiring female directors in the first place hasn’t gone away. Today less than 16% of directors are female, according to the UCLA Hollywood Diversity Report (Hunt & Ramón, 2020). To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before is a romantic comedy released by Netflix in 2018; it was directed by a woman named Susan Johnson. The sequel was directed by a man(Galuppo, 2019). Regardless of any mitigating factors present, the issue remains: men are consistently chosen to direct over women. Even with the recent film Wonder Woman and its sequel being directed by the same woman, Patty Jenkins, the issues we’ve identified haven’t gone away. Looking at another movie that features the same actress and character, Justice League (2017), women are still treated differently in cinema. One only needs to look at how a male director versus a woman depicts the Amazons. In one, they are badass warriors capable of raising goddesses and fighting gods. In the other, they are little more than cannon fodder in skirts. It doesn’t take much time to figure out which was directed by a man. The Male Gaze is alive and well, continuing to shape and impact how we view cinema and those around us. Despite this, there is positive change afoot; that same diversity report also shows that in 2011 barely 4% of directors were women(Hunt & Ramón, 2020). We are making progress, but perhaps not fast enough.

References

Al-Mahadin, S. (2013). Is Christian a Sadist? Fifty Shades of Grey in popular imagination. Feminist Media Studies, 13(3), 566–570. https://doi.org/10.1080/14680777.2013.786271

Box Office Mojo. (n.d.). Twilight. Retrieved June 28, 2021, from https://www.boxofficemojo.com/release/rl58099201/?ref_=bo_fr_table_5

Desta, Y. (2018). 10 Years after Twilight, Catherine Hardwicke Knows She Deserved More. Retrieved June 29, 2021, from https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2018/10/catherine-hardwicke-twilight-ten-years-later

Galuppo, M. (2019, June 05). ‘To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before’ Sequel Taps New Director as Supporting Cast Returns (Exclusive). Retrieved from https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/general-news/all-boys-ive-loved-before-sequel-supporting-cast-returns-new-director-1196528/

Hunt, D., Dr., & Ramón, A., Dr. (2020). Hollywood Diversity Report 2020: A Tale of Two Hollywoods (Publication). Los Angeles, CA: UCLA.

McDougall Jones , N. (2019, February 20). Inside the Fight to Dismantle the (White) Gods of Hollywood. Retrieved from https://www.bitchmedia.org/article/the-wrong-kind-of-women-male-gaze-excerpt

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