Kristen Stewart emerged as a widely recognizable public figure at the end of 2008, at the age of 18, with the release of the first film in the Twilight series. The popularity of the books all but assured Stewart’s stardom along with the frenetic public obsession with her romance with co-star Rob Pattinson. At 26, the actress has built a career and a persona that defy what Shannon Keating of BuzzFeed described as the “love letter to old-timey heteronormativity” represented by the Twilight film franchise and the collective perception of the relationship between its leading stars.
Stewart appears in three films shown at this year’s New York Film Festival, including Ang Lee’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper, and Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women. The last of these is based on a collection of short stories by Maile Meloy, and stars Stewart as a world-weary lawyer and teacher named Beth, who becomes the object of a young woman’s unrequited affection. Sapphic undertones are also woven into the plot of Clouds of Sils Maria, which earned Stewart France’s prestigious César award for her portrayal of the personal assistant of an aging actress.
A banal parallel can be drawn between the development of Stewart’s acting career and personal life. Just as her romance with Pattinson mirrored the traditional heterosexual love between the main characters in the Twilight films, Stewart’s foray into films that explore desire between women has coincided with her increasing openness about her romantic relationships with women. But such a comparison trivializes Stewart’s intimate relationships and misses the fact that there was even less of a precedent for major movie stars to have sexually ambiguous identities at the end of the last decade than there is now.
Stewart’s evolution is in many ways a reflection of the cultural changes that have paralleled it. It is telling, and not entirely coincidental, that her career began with a fairly orthodox love story at the beginning of a consequential presidency and is blooming at the end of the Obama years with films that offer more nuanced portraits of women and sexuality.
Even from a distance, Stewart’s path from her early success to the dynamic career she has now does not seem to have been easy. Indeed, at times it seemed as if Stewart was serving as an allegory for just how restrictive heteronormative cultural expectations can be for women in particular.
In 2012, the last installment of the Twilight film series topped the box office, along with Snow White and the Huntsman, a reimagining of the classic Brothers Grimm fairy tale. The same year saw Stewart publicly maligned when images were released of her kissing Rupert Sanders, the married director of Snow White. The brouhaha over the affair prompted Stewart to issue an unfeigned public apology to Pattinson, who she was still dating at the time. The moral outrage aimed at Stewart had a puritanical quality of the Hawthorne variety. Her transgression seemed to threaten the social fabric of our collective consciousness. She had not just betrayed Rob, she had betrayed us.
While research tells us that women are just as likely as men to cheat on their partners, women who cheat often face harsher consequences, in life and in art. In 2015, worldwide headlines were dominated by the story of a Sri Lankan maid working in Saudi Arabia who was sentenced to death for adultery while the unmarried man whom she had an affair with received a sentence of 100 lashes.
The classic Russian novel Anna Karenina, which was most recently adapted to film in 2012, traces an adulterous woman’s descent into ignominy and madness, culminating in her suicide, even as her lover maintains prospects for advantageous marital matches and the privileges of his social class. Stewart was by no means the first ‘fallen’ woman that our society has punished (with public shame rather than death), but she is, in some ways, on the vanguard of a social revolution that has made space, however small, for women that fail to satisfy conventional expectations of womanhood in their romantic behavior.
The example Stewart provides is perhaps unintentional but remarkable. She could easily have had a conventional Hollywood career replete with the type of big budget films that rely on the Cover Girl glamour she possesses. Yet she has tended towards independent films and a raw, experimental, and androgynous look. There is something anomalous, even today, about a woman who chooses not to cash in on privilege that natural advantage affords her.
Especially when it is the privilege afforded by the advantage of beauty. We are suspicious of beautiful women who treat their beauty as unimportant. As a young feminist, Gloria Steinem’s credentials were questioned because she was beautiful. When Steinem was dumbfounded as to how to respond to these charges, an older woman came to her rescue, saying:
“It’s important for someone who could play the game and win to say the game ain’t worth shit.”
Similarly, Stewart seems to have refused to play the fame game the way she could have. The comparison is imperfect, of course. Stewart is estimated to be worth some $70 million, so she at least enjoys the trappings even as she rejects the essence of Hollywood. Yet her career choices and public persona seem rooted in an earnest desire for authenticity. And there is something important in that. In T Magazine’s September profile of her, appropriately titled ‘Kristen Stewart, the Good Bad Girl’, Stewart addresses the paradox of fame, describing herself as “not the typical showman”. Nonetheless, she says:
“I want so badly to expose myself. I want to be understood and I want to be seen, and I want do that in the rawest, purest, most naked way I can.”
It is difficult to imagine Stewart expressing this type of sentiment in her Twilight days, when the actress was famous for her awkwardness in interviews and her unwillingness to reveal details about her personal life. She has spoken openly about her struggles with anxiety and its physical manifestations.
In the same interview, she relates a red carpet anecdote from the premiere of Panic Room, in which the 11 year-old Stewart played Jodie Foster’s daughter. When a photographer asked the obviously nervous young actress to calm down, Stewart explained to him that she was actually unable to unclench her fists. Her openness seems hard bought, and rooted in an awareness of her body that comes across in her work as a model and muse for the French fashion house Chanel.
This summer, Stewart appeared in a photoshoot and videos for Lagerfeld’s 2016 ‘Paris in Rome’ campaign. Her expression in the photographs and film shorts defies the viewer to judge her. She comes across as a woman that is not afraid to be exposed, because she does not care what anyone thinks of her. She is choosing to be looked at, not the other way other around.
It is easy to dismiss the significance of Stewart’s desire to be seen. It is a quality in women that is often chalked up to a desperate and unbecoming need for attention. Exposure is anathema to good girls. The endeavor to become one is an exercise in concealment and camouflage. Women learn early that exposure invites criticism, even danger. And once lost, the mantle of the good girl is not easily regained.
Stewart’s allure lies in the suggestion that perhaps that’s not such a bad thing. That perhaps, when we stop worrying about being good girls, we become free women.
This column is informed by the belief that an honest and brave conversation about what it means to be a woman is vital to understanding what it means to be a human. Its scope is temporal but its ambition is to discern the essential. Above all, it seeks to connect Milk readers to each other and the world around them. Email Jennimaria with corrections, questions, comments, and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.