The Kristen Stewart scandal: Why it hurts her image, and helps it

Kristen-Stewart

Image Credit: Ian Gavan/Getty Images

Even before she admitted to a “momentary indiscretion” with the married director of a movie she was starring in (the first time, incidentally, that such an indiscretion has ever taken place in the history of show business), Kristen Stewart was a lightning rod for haters. There are a number of reasons for that — I’ll get to those in a moment — but the most immediate reaction to Trampire-gate was, of course, an instant spike in the hatred. With this one sordid, seemingly out-of-character, unlucky-enough-to-be-photographed transgression, the normally wholesome, media-shy Stewart suddenly appeared to have committed three sins at once. On the most basic level of Tiger Beat soap opera, she betrayed her boyfriend and Twilight co-star and fellow teen idol Robert Pattinson, thus soiling their highly burnished romantic image. The affair was also a grenade tossed into the marriage of her Snow White and the Huntsman director, Rupert Sanders (who has to shoulder a lot of the blame — but that’s another story). And so, in the eyes of an increasingly nasty and judgmental horde of tabloid-gossip junkies, Stewart got to wear a scarlet ‘H’ for homewrecker.

Most sinful of all was the perception that she had sullied the Twilight franchise. It’s foolish to think, of course, that we know anything about what really goes on in showbiz relationships. I have no idea whether Stewart’s romantic bond with Pattinson is, in fact, the real thing, or a total fake, or a fling trumped up into a passionate love affair for the sake of studio publicity. What I do know is that their relationship has been disseminated through the media not just to boost ratings or to sell magazines but as a way to burnish the Charlotte-Brontë-meets-James-Dean-meets-the-undead swoony mystique of the Twilight movies. For in a world where teenage girls will always want to believe, in some not-so-secret chamber of their hearts, that their favorite actors really are, in some inexplicable way, the characters they play, the allure of Stewart and Pattinson as an item has always been an extension of the forbidden-yet-cozy love between Bella Swan and Edward Cullen. Their off-screen relationship became part of the brand, and so, in revealing herself to be less than “pure,” Stewart tainted the purity of the couple’s on-screen connection as well. Or so all those Twihard girls who descended into crying jags of disappointment over Stewart’s transgression in videos posted on YouTube would have you believe.

So can we believe the rumors that Stewart and Pattinson are now splitting up? What I sort of sense is that their relationship, genuine or not, won’t be allowed by the publicity-industrial complex to end…just now. (There’s too much at stake.) For, of course, the most urgent question to emerge from Trampire-gate is: Will it cut into the success of the upcoming, shoot-the-works Twilight finale, Breaking Dawn — Part 2?

Like, uh…no way. The hard-core fans of the Twilight films are sort of like the Republican base, who would crawl through shattered glass this election day to vote against Barack Obama even if they don’t happen to like Mitt Romney. Twilight fans, similarly, are way too devoted to the series to let a little thing like a tainted-by-gossip Kristen Stewart deter them from buying a ticket to the series’ climactic final chapter. But let me go further. To the extent that Kristen and Robert, Together Forever are the red-carpet shadow version of Bella and Edward, what happens in their relationship most assuredly impacts the excitement that people feel about seeing a new Twilight movie. And in this case, I would argue, the excitement will only be heightened. This fall, as the publicity campaign for Breaking Dawn — Part 2 goes into hyper-manic world-nuking overdrive, there will be interviews (an orgy of them) with Stewart and Pattinson, and what everyone will want to know is: Are you two together?

Cleopatra

Image Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Will the two even be interviewed together? If so, the eyes of the world won’t just be listening to their answers. They’ll be studying every nuance of their body language, trying to read the semiotics of their affection. Stewart’s statement of apology, issued from virtually the moment the scandal broke, was greeted by many as bizarre, but in fact it was a very canny piece of spin, reassuring Twilight fans that the couple were still a couple — and, more than that, suggesting from the outset that Stewart’s steamy tryst will now be subsumed into the larger Robsten narrative. For if Trampire-gate demonstrates anything, it’s that gossip on this level of intensity becomes a movie unto itself, often a far better one than the stars are making. (Has there ever been a love rivalry in a Jennifer Aniston romantic comedy to match the tabloid-triangle-that-won’t-die of Jen, Brad, and Angelina?) That’s why the tempestuous relationship of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton was the launch pad for the whole epic era of contemporary gossip. It’s not that there hadn’t been famous movie-star romances before. It’s that the saga of Liz and Dick transcended the movies they were in. It elevated gossip to a tawdry art form forged in the eye of the beholder.

But now, let’s get to the haters. Even before she strayed, the venom spewed at Kristen Stewart could be pretty over-the-top, and after watching her for a long time (and loving her in movies like Adventureland, Into the Wild, and, yes, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn — Part I), I think I understand the hate, even though I don’t share it. To me, she’s one of the most gorgeous actresses of the last 20 years, with a flashing-eyed allure and a heightened hesitance that she’s able to employ expressively. True, she looks, and often acts, like a precocious girl rather than a mature woman. But she’s only 22! Give her a break. She has lots of time to grow, and she wears her girlishness with a moody light quickness. The whole rap against her acting — that she’s “always the same” – is no more true for her than it is for many other (good) actors, but in Stewart’s case, it’s really a coded way for those who are jealous of her to cut her down. It’s a way of saying: She’s always the same because she’s really just herself, which is to say that she’s not really an actress at all. And so (according to the haters, who are generally girls), it might just as well be me up there! To anyone who feels that way, Kristen Stewart isn’t so much a movie star as a girl who lucked out and won the Hollywood prom, and so the revelation that she cheated on her boyfriend is the ultimate sign that she isn’t grateful. It’s grist for the mean-girl mill.

Having said all that, there is a way, I concede, that Kristen Stewart can be annoying — and it’s here that the scandal, in the end, can help her. For a while, on talk shows, or as a presenter on the MTV Movie Awards, she clearly felt uncomfortable with the overnight mega-fame and super-adulation that Twilight had thrust upon her, and she armored herself against that cosmic scrutinizing media glare by acting too cool for it. This was not a great strategy; it made her seem detached, and a bit arrogantly above it all. At times, she acted like an indie rock star who was being forced to sing Celine Dion on karaoke night. In the last year, she has learned to tone down the shyness that makes her come off as too hip for the room, but even when she was being annoying, it was in a rather compulsively earnest, goth-chick-as-class-valedictorian way. What her image needed was a little dirt, a little sin, a little irresponsibility to balance out the alt-girl goody-goodyness. Now she’s got it.

Going forward, she may well seem less innocent as a person, but I think that just helps her look more fascinating as an actress. More adult. And that, of course, is just what Kristen Stewart now needs to be, for once Breaking Dawn — Part 2 is released, she will already be looking at life after Twilight. And what she doesn’t want is to be so defined by that series that she can’t leave it behind, can’t grow up on screen. Some may get a bitchy kick out of seeing Trampire-gate as the affair that undermined Twilight, but on some level this tawdry saga is really the first movie to shoot her past Twilight. What initially looked like a big mistake may prove, in the end, to be the purest act of passion there is in Hollywood: a transcendently game-changing career move.

Follow Owen on Twitter: @OwenGleiberman

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