By Natalie Wilson | Women and Hollywood April 15, 2013 at 12:30PM
I readily admit I did not read The Host. I couldn't face it after immersing myself in all things Twilight while researching my book Seduced by Twilight. I started it, but less than 20 pages in I couldn't stomach any more of Stephenie Meyer's purple, flaccid prose. No, I agree with Nicki Gerlach--that "Meyer is not a particularly concise or elegant writer, never saying in one sentence what she could hammer at for three."
As such, I went into the film of The Host with low expectations, presuming I would hate it and be bored to tears. I was prepared for a sappy ode to sparkly true love and immortal families. And while the narrative does indeed ultimately celebrate these things, it does so in a way far more engaging than its Twilight predecessor. This is largely due to a stronger lead--a fierce young Melanie Stryder (Saoirse Ronan), who resists the occupation by the alien known as Wanderer (later called Wanda). Early in the movie, after Wanderer is implanted into her neck, she informs her alien occupier through interior dialogue, "I'm still here. Don't think this is yours. This body is mine."
While I would have been thrilled had this refusal of bodily occupation turned into a sci-fi version of "my body, my choice," I am familiar enough with Meyer to know this would not be the case, despite her recent claims to being an uber-feminist. Yet while Melanie may not be more bell hooks than Bella Swan, she at least is not the passive sap that led us through thousands of pages and four films of not doing much more than ogling Edward the vampire in Twilight. No, Melanie jumps out of windows, steals cars, survives a trek through the dessert and fends off various humans and alien foes. Alas, she is, like Bella, anchored to the world of patriarchal heteronormativity and gender conformity via her positioning as nurturing sister to her younger brother Jamie, and love interest to first Jarad (Max Irons), then Ian (Jake Abel).
But I was pleasantly surprised when the film didn't make me grimace through painful odes to abstinence or groan at a genuflection to the mighty power of patriarchs. Instead, I quite liked Melanie, a female character who could not only walk without tripping, seemed to have a mind of her own, chutzpah and, gasp, didn't deny her sexual urges.
Meyer claimed she intended to "portray a positive relationship between the two women at the center of the story," and, indeed, she does. Melanie fights Wanderer's occupation of her body, but they ultimately become close allies, referring to each other as "sister" by film's end. Is this the sisterhood manifesto Meyer's recent "I am a feminist" claims suggest she supports? If so, it seems her brand of feminism involves women uniting in their love for men. Que feministe!
Admittedly, Melanie and Wanda also love one another by the end of the film, but they are still ultimately defined by their male love interests. (Ah, if only THEY could have become lovers, a la the fanfiction that has Bella and Alice as the Twilight couple rather than Bella and Edward.)
Granted, Melanie is far more of a Hermione type than a Bella one. She is cognizant that the opening claim of the film that "The Earth is at peace. There is no hunger. There is no violence. The environment is healed. Our world has never been more perfect" is false. When we first see her, she is fighting off the alien invaders of her planet and then willfully jumping from a window, choosing potential death over an alien-occupation of her body. (If only Bella had resisted wolf/vampire takeover with anything like such resistance!) But, alas, Melanie's identity is also mired in a love triangle--well, more of a quadrangle, actually, wherein her reason to live is fueled not only by her filial love for her little brother but also romantic love for Jared/Ian. This "unusually crowded romantic triangle--with four aching hearts but only three bodies to play for" (as CNN put it) results in a narrative that is less feminist utopia, more sci-fi romance.
While Melanie gets a feminist gold star for refusing to play the controlled virgin (in fact, she takes the sexual lead, insisting she and Jared should have sex given the apocalyptic alien invasion of the world), things become less copacetic when Wanda and Ian fall for each other--a narrative thread that makes the fight for body/self less between she and Wanderer and more of a question whether she "belongs" to Jared or Ian. While there are certainly queer possibilities in this love triangle of three bodies and four lovers, this is Meyer-world, so of course no such queery-ing happens. Instead, an alien who could have been genderless is decidedly feminized, and an inter-species romance that could have been queer/polyamorous is decidedly hetero-ized.
In the scenes where the Wanda-occupied Melanie desires to kiss Ian, the internal dialogue delivered by Melanie has creepy undertones that smack of valuing only certain kinds of love. When Melanie tells Wanda "this is so wrong ... you're not even from the same planet..." she could just as readily be arguing against same-sex love and/or any romantic formations that do not accord with heterosexual monogamy. Nevertheless, when Wanda informs Ian that even though "this body loves him" (meaning Melanie's body) but "I also have feeling of my own," there is the slightest suggestion that maybe, just maybe, hetero-monogomy is not the only option. Wanda, noting "this is very complicated," can be read here as arguing for the possibility of polyamory/queer romance, while Melanie's later insistence she and Wanda can both live in the one body similarly questions the notion of singular, fixed identity.
Regrettably, the ending of the film (spoiler alert!) fails to champion any such queer/feminist notions. No, instead of occupying the same body and loving both Jared and Ian, Wanda is implanted into another human body--a female one, of course--and one that is also white and traditionally attractive. You didn't think this alien-human love could transcend gender or white privilege, did you? Of course not. This is Meyer-world, after all.
Though The Host is more feminist-friendly than Twilight in ways, it is no feminist ode. Along the way to its happy-ever-after for the two central couples (Melanie and Jared and Wanda and Ian), it also takes some worrying forays into the violence-is-sexy meme and has undercurrents of pro-life messaging. In one scene, Wanda says "kiss me like you wanna get slapped," and in others her discovery that the human holdouts are killing aliens can be read as a pro-life message wrapped in an alien invasion package-- especially if we consider that some of the first words said of Melanie in the film are "this one wants to live." Later, Wanda's character continues this anti-abortion meme, telling the humans, after discovering embryo-sized aliens surrounded by blood on an operating table, "I can't stay here, not with you slaughtering my family in the next room."
Alas, while some laud "the significance of one of the most popular authors in the world standing up to say she's a feminist," I concur with Jezebel's Madeleine Davis, who queries Meyer as follows: "If the world's a better place when women are in charge, why not give them a little bit of agency between the covers of your books?" Admittedly, The Host gives female characters more agency than Twilight, but it is still mired (Meyer-ed?) in traditional romance, normative gender roles, hetero-monogamy as the happy ending and pro-life sentiment. It is more feminist-friendly than Twilight, but is that really a win for feminism when we have to argue the merit of stories that are not as rabidly anti-feminist as that four-book ode to patriarchal romance?
Natalie Wilson, PhD is a literature and women’s studies scholar, blogger, and author. She teaches at Cal State San Marcos and specializes in the areas of gender studies, feminism, feminist theory, girl studies, militarism, body studies, boy culture and masculinity, contemporary literature, and popular culture. Read more.