The other day I found myself standing in front of a rack of princess costumes at the Disney Store. We set out to find a last minute costume for Baby E, and the lady at the Sunglass Hut directed us there after we failed to find the pop-up Halloween store in the mall. “They have a ton of princess costumes on clearance!” she gushed. As we left the store I turned to Anthony and grimaced. “We’re not going to dress her as a princess, right?” “No fucking way,” he agreed. We bought a Winnie the Pooh costume for $12.
Moments like these have gotten me thinking a lot about the rigidity of predetermined gender roles, and the expectations and ideals we place on girls and women before they even learn how to talk. Every time I shuffle through the baby section at Target I’m horrified by the clothing options. Ruffles, lace, bows, flowers, pink pink pink pink pink. You’d be shocked at the struggle I’ve had to find jeans for my daughter that don’t have shimmery hearts on the ass. She is 11 months old.
It’s when I’m standing in front of a rack of tiny t-shirts that declare “Princess!” across the chest, or a pile of Cinderella costumes in 3-12 month sizes, that I say a silent prayer of thanks for Kristen Stewart. Yes, the twitchy girl from Twilight who never smiles. And yes, I like both those things about her…even though she’s not that twitchy and she actually smiles quite a lot. Trust me, it’s my job to know these things.
Breaking Dawn, the fourth film in the Twilight franchise, comes out in the middle of November and so I’m about to embark on two weeks of screenings, press interviews and premieres for work. I’ve been covering Twilight for VH1 since the movie became the Haley’s Comet of pop culture - the kind of amazing and bizarre phenomenon that only happens once in our lifetime. At some point along the way I forced myself to read the book only to become obsessed with the series after a page or two. But what fascinates me more that the story’s popularity is the negative reaction Kristen Stewart, the 21-year-old actress at the heart of the series, elicits from so many people.
The general criticism seems to be as follows: She doesn’t smile enough. She looks unhappy. She is awkward. She shies away from the public eye. She doesn’t wear high heels. She’s always in hoodies. She’s introverted. She refuses to talk about her private life and romantic relationships. She fidgets. She says things that are slightly controversial and doesn’t gush positively about fame and celebrity. She’s kind of weird.
The press perpetuates this perception, with headlines like: Why Is Kristen Stewart Angry All The Time?, Kristen Stewart Explains Why She Always Has A Frown On Her Face, Kristen Stewart’s Angry New Interview, Kristen Stewart Branded A ‘Bitch’ By MTV Presenter After Moody Interview, Let’s Mess With Kristen Stewart’s Miserable Face For Our Own Amusement. To name a few.
It’s confused me for years as to why the general reaction to Kristen is so negative. Why more people - more women - don’t applaud her and say, “thank fucking god.” Because that’s what I say every time I see her walking down a red carpet in a pair of Vans, every time I hear her swear, every time I read an interview where she shuts down repeated inquiries about who she’s dating and attempts to answer ridiculously inane questions with a thoughtfulness that is so rarely found in Hollywood these days.
Thank fucking god.
As a “journalist” (quotes because duh, I’m a nerdy blogger who never learned AP style) I find this criticism to be unfounded. I’ve interviewed Kristen a few times and she’s pleasant, sweet and spends a lot of time listening to each question and offering up an interesting and at times complex response. Yes, she smiles and laughs. She also furrows her brow and bites her nails in thought. She comes across as incredibly unrehearsed and real, and in a world when many actors offer up robotic responses taught by a media trainer, it’s overwhelmingly refreshing.
As a woman, it breaks my heart. Because as a society who can’t get enough of the “girl power, yay!” message, we still like our public figures to behave a certain way. Kristen Stewart refuses to conform to our societal expectations of what a woman (and a female public figure) should be and boy, does that make everyone really uncomfortable. You’d think she’d evoke the opposite response, especially among her female peers. That we would celebrate a famous woman who is unabashedly an individual, especially when her doing so defies the constructs of femininity. Alas, it’s the opposite. She refuses to be the pretty, perfect puppet and so she is relentlessly criticized. And that scares me. Not just because of what it means for her, but what it means for my daughter. Because when the time comes, I want Eleanor to be awkward. I want her to feel she has a right not to share parts of her life, that it’s okay to stumble over an answer or say something that might be controversial or unpopular. I want her to know she doesn’t have to wear 5-inch heels to feel beautiful, that she doesn’t have to cake make up on her face to leave the house. I want her to not to pretend to be happy all the time.
Growing up, I was all those things too. (Er, I am still all of those things.) And I wasted too much time from the ages of 10-21 agonizing over my weirdness. I felt ashamed that I wasn’t girly enough; mortified over my inability to walk in anything but sneakers and embarrassed that everything that came out of my mouth was wrong. Had I seen a woman in the public eye who embraced this side of herself, who was unafraid to not be a mechanical, vapid, “perfect woman,” I might have learned to love these things about myself a little earlier.
What the critics often tend to ignore, oddly enough, is Kristen’s massive and unconditionally supportive fan base. They are active and vocal and speak of her like a close friend. I’d argue that the reasons they adore her are the same as the ones I’ve listed above, and I trust that they’ll tell me if I’m wrong (@katespencer). Clearly, she’s getting through to an ever-growing group women and girls who see a part of themselves in her; who admire her ability to stand apart from the accepted and encouraged norm. Why this is never part of the media’s Kristen Stewart coverage has baffled me since the beginning.
Bill Condon, the director of Breaking Dawn, said the following about Kristen Stewart in an interview. “She was pitched a female role in a comic-book superhero movie that’s about to get started - I won’t say which one - and she was like, ‘Well, screw that. I shouldn’t be the superhero’s girlfriend, I should be the superhero.’”
Too late, Kristen. You kind of already are.