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Deciphering the Kristen Stewart Phenomenon


 At once the ultimate tough girl and the vulnerable everygirl, Kristen Stewart has been bringing emotional, undeniably real characters to the big screen for more than a decade. She has millions of fans and a slew of new projects big and small, but the actress's most impressive feat to date? Tuning out all that noise.

Kristen Stewart is famous for—no, scratch that. Famous is too dinky a word to describe what Kristen Stewart is at this moment in America's cultural history. Kristen Stewart is a phenomenon for playing the girl in the Twilight movies, only, of course, she was really playing the boy. That's the secret of the franchise's appeal: It's a rehash of that tired old mothball-reeking, done-to-death, oh-Jesus-not-again Romeo and Juliet star-crossed-lovers redux, except—and here's what makes the material so fresh, gives it its kinky kick—he's Juliet and she's Romeo. Robert Pattinson's Edward Cullen—gorgeous, moody, high-strung, faintly anemic because he's a bloodsucker who refuses to suck human blood, his principles as lofty as his cheekbones—is the object of desire, and he is photographed as adoringly and fetishistically as Dietrich in any of the von Sternberg pictures. He is, as well, the beast that's also the beauty, one in serious distress, cursed to be 17 forever and mateless, a Prince of Darkness without a Princess, not to mention a prom king without a queen. It's Stewart's Bella Swan, quiet and strong and full of purpose, who brings an end to his loneliness by surmounting the obstacles, both physical and metaphysical, in their path, converting to vampirism so it's possible for them to unite for all eternity. (Those feminist-watchdog types, sensitive noses aquiver for the slightest whiff of peepees-are-better-than-weewees, decrying Bella and, by extension, Stewart as some sort of self-sacrificing, female-chump retro case, have, as usual, got it wrong. If Bella falls into a gender stereotype, it's not Clinging Vine; it's White Knight. She just has enough grace—gallantry, too—never to throw in her true love's face the fact that she's the one rescuing him.)

While we're on the subject of secret appeal, here's Stewart's: She's a lovely looking girl, possessed of both soulful intelligence and depth of feeling, yet in the blink of an eye she can turn into a hot young roughneck ready for action, for kicks, for anything. The former persona, delicate without being weak, is why she's so affecting in movies such as Into the Wild (2007) and Adventureland (2009) and On the Road (2012), the perfect match for Emile Hirsch's doomed wanderer and Jesse Eisenberg's lovelorn egghead and Garrett Hedlund and Sam Riley's word-drunk beatniks who only want to go go go even if it's to no place in particular or just into one another's beds. Which isn't to say that these numbskull boys always get it, can see what's smack-dab in front of them. (All Stewart has to do is look at Hirsch's Chris McCandless in a hurt and wondering way, and it's obvious he should bag that trip to the Alaskan wilderness he can't shut up about and stay with her in her parents' rig in Imperial Valley.) The latter persona, so assured it borders on arrogant, borders on macho, is why she's able to pull off the low-lidded stares of pure lust she directs at Dakota Fanning's saucer-eyed cutie-pie in The Runaways (2010). It's why she's able to pull off, too, the trick of becoming Joan Jett, the woman who proved you don't need a cock to rock, you just need to strap on that guitar, strut that stuff, and create a sound that leaps right out of the jukebox—fast, urgent, full of vitality and aggression and rollicking good times.

Not that Stewart is the first young actress to discover what a turn-on gender ambiguity can be for an audience. Angelina Jolie, for God's sake! When Jolie went from nowhere to everywhere seemingly overnight in the late '90s, she wasn't only the hottest girl the world had ever seen, she was the hottest guy, too, with a swagger to her step, a curl to her lip, a bad to her bone: the most babelicious babe and the studliest stud, all in one. But in the past few years, it's as if she's so sexy her sexiness has come full circle. She appears complete unto herself, doesn't need another person. Her early vulnerability (the look in her eye was as often wounded as it was wounding) is something she's outgrown. Stewart, though, has still got it, and it's what makes her one of the most romantic—and exciting—female presences on the screen today.

Okay, so that's Kristen Stewart, the movie star and sex symbol.




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