This article uses a queer, critical disability studies framework to examine a diverse set of films in which one lover literally changes bodies to be like the other lover, such as in The Little Mermaid (1989), Avatar (2009), and the Twilight saga. The author argues that these films, what she calls "fantastic unlikely couple films," represent the values of companionate love, a relationship form that emphasizes similarity as the key to successful long-term relationships. Significantly, the values of companionate love are aligned with the (neo)liberal state. In the films analyzed, the physically transformed partner is also the weaker, more dependent partner. The shift to a more capable body—one similar to the body of the other partner—not only means that the couple will be more equal companions; it also means that the pair can now fulfill their destiny as productive workers and reproductive parents, independent of state subsidies and assistance.

You wouldn't have to change for me, Bella. Or say goodbye to anybody. I can give you more than him. I mean, he probably can't even kiss you without hurting you.

–Jacob to Bella in Eclipse (2010)

Part of the undeniable attraction to the Twilight 1 saga is the aspect of forbidden love. As a mere mortal, Bella Swan puts her life at risk whenever she is with Edward and his vampire family. Likewise, Edward puts his family and their secret in jeopardy by loving a human. The pair should not be together, but that is exactly why their love is so appealing. In this respect, Edward and Bella are situated in a long line of what Thomas Wartenberg calls "unlikely couples," romantic partnerships that violate established social norms by crossing feudal, class, or racial boundaries, 2 such as Romeo and Juliet, Edward and Vivian in Pretty Woman (1990), 3 and John Wade Prentice and Johanna Drayton in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967) 4. Each pair falls madly in love, despite social and political pressure to keep them apart. What I find particularly noteworthy in Twilight, however, is Bella's physical transformation into a vampire. For Bella and Edward, as well as the film audience, it is this bodily change that cements their love. According to the film's logic, Bella's transformation will make her a true companion to Edward, erasing any differences in desire and experience that their different bodies may have engendered. The tension created by their love affair is resolved when she becomes physically like Edward, and the "unlikely couple" becomes "likely." Bella's transformation also makes her immortal, gives her unbelievable physical and mental strength, and permits her to raise her daughter. Now a vampire, Bella is no longer a liability, dependent on Edward and his family for protection.

In this article, I examine "unlikely couple" films like Twilight that involve the fantastic physical transformation of one lover to be like the other. Interestingly, these films are not confined to a specific traditional film genre. I have found a version of this narrative in romantic comedies, dramas, and even children's films. The transformation that occurs in each, however, signals a relationship to what film scholar Michael Blouin calls the "fantastic," the magical, the super-ordinary; therefore, for the sake of describing a narrative theme across genres I will refer to these films as "fantastic unlikely couple" films. Borrowing Blouin's use of "fantastic" is particularly suitable because he also links fantasy film to (neo)liberal values, 5 arguing that "a neoliberal techne allows fantastic plots to mesmerize via false promises of social transformation." 6 Using a critical disability studies framework, I argue that "fantastic unlikely couple" films espouse neoliberal values by focusing on private, personal change rather than addressing structural economic and social conditions that prevent differently bodied couples from loving in the first place. Although these films can be read as celebration of love across difference—across disability, race, and nation—the exploration of radical differences is collapsed into individual stories of personal transformation. The diverse films that I examine in this paper include Avatar (2009), Beauty and the Beast (1991), The Little Mermaid (1989), Mannequin (1987), The Shape of Water (2017), Shrek (2001), Splash (1984), the Twilight saga, and Warm Bodies (2013) 7. In all of these films, the potential to explore structural inequality is pacified with the magical transformation of the weaker, more dependent partner. The nondisabled, companionate couple is held up as the love, flexible enough to withstand crisis and become productive workers and reproductive citizens.

Fantastic Unlikely Couples

In outlining the genre of the "unlikely couple film," Wartenberg argues that these films are structured by a conflict between two ways of approaching the central couple which he calls the "social perspective" and the "romantic perspective." The social perspective establishes the couple as "inappropriate because its composition violates a social norm regulating romance". 8 The "romantic perspective," "which is usually, but not always, that of the filmmaker, deems the transgressive couple appropriate…setting the love the two partners share above the conventions it violates." 9 So, for example, in Pretty Woman, we see numerous examples of how Edward and Vivian's relationship violates social norms regarding class. As a working-class sex worker with low educational achievement, Vivian does not know how to function in Edward's high-class, high-prestige world, and this lack of knowledge informs scenes where she hesitates in confusion when presented with escargot, yells with a hockey fan's lack of restraint at an equestrian competition, and loudly chomps her bubblegum. However, we also see how good Vivian and Edward are for each other. She loosens-up the high-strung Edward and helps him see that there is more to life than business deals, and audiences are supposed to see how he can offer her a "better" life than sex work. 10 The romantic perspective dominates because viewers are encouraged to cheer for the transgressive couple, subtly critiquing class barriers that would keep the pair apart.

Wartenberg argues that "unlikely couple" films have a deep subversive potential because they can critique social boundaries that dictate who can date whom. 11 Although excited by the subversive potential of such films, Wartenberg does acknowledge that, all too frequently, the "films' narrative and representational structures contain or evade that potential." 12 In critiquing class boundaries, for example, Pretty Woman affirms gender norms and devalues working-class life and knowledge. Edward is literally Vivian's "prince charming," bringing her out of a life that the film frames as unsavory. Similarly, the subversive potential of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner is somewhat undercut by the film's construction of Prentice as the "perfect" gentleman. 13 The black lover is made palatable by approximating white, upper-class values better than most white people, limiting the film's potential for cultural criticism. Despite these limitations, Wartenberg remains hopeful about the potential for social criticism offered by "unlikely couple" films.

The fantastic couples that I analyze in this paper are certainly part of the "unlikely couple" film genre that Wartenberg outlines; however, these films contain an important difference. If the relationship between the differently bodied lovers is to be sustained, one of the lovers must change bodies to be like the other. Thus, Jake becomes a Na'vi in Avatar, the Beast becomes human in Beauty and the Beast, Emmy becomes a human in Mannequin, Fiona becomes an ogre in Shrek, Bella becomes a vampire in Twilight, and so on. Although the lover positioned as "other" in the films Wartenberg analyzes do change to approximate the more valued lover (e.g., Vivian drops her "low-class" ways to be more like Edward), they do not literally change bodies. The change required in fantastic unlikely couple films is more significant, more radical than the change required of the "othered" lovers in most "unlikely couple" films; thus, their subversive potential is almost entirely eliminated. Like other "unlikely couple" films the viewer is presented with the social and romantic perspectives, and the audience is aligned with the romantic perspective (we want the pair to "get together"), but in this sub-genre of films, the change in body ultimately removes the social perspective all together. Thus, instead of offering any subversive potential, I argue that fantastic unlikely couple films reinforce beliefs about love that are linked to neoliberal values. In the following sections I take up in detail two specific ways fantastic unlikely couple films espouse neoliberal values. First, by suggesting that proper lovers share similarly mobile, healthy, and stable bodies, fantastic unlikely couple films subtly perpetuate the fear of miscegenation. Second, when the "weaker" partner becomes like the more desirable, stronger partner, fantastic unlikely couple films celebrate overcoming social problems with individual transformation.

Sameness and Stability

"Today I marry my best friend, the one I laugh with, live for, dream with, love"


Although companionate love is a relatively recent ideal, it is a powerful one. The image of the companionate couple, who supports each other, in sickness and in health, independent of state aid, has become a point of pride in both straight and GLBT communities. Indeed, countless dating sites and advice columns preach the virtues of marrying your equal. For example, in an ivillage.com article called "How to Find a Boyfriend," dating someone like yourself is one of the top 15 tips because "similarity breeds success." 14 Eharmony, one of the most popular and successful online dating forums, claims that 4.77% of all new marriages in the U.S. are the result of their patented Compatibility Matching System in which subscribers are matched based on family background, family status, education, goals, social style and so on. 15 The academic literature on homogamy strongly supports the notion that the most successful relationships are based on similarity. 16 The message is clear: love will last if you and your partner have similar backgrounds, similar interests, and similar goals.

Dissimilarity—especially physical differences—evokes cultural anxiety and crisis. In my previous research on love between disabled and nondisabled people, I found that couples consistently remarked that family members, friends, and even strangers expressed concern over their compatibility. 17 For example, Kay, the nondisabled partner to Dan, who is a paraplegic from a spinal cord injury, says that her family, especially her mother, was concerned about their relationship. She says, "I think my mom's main concern was would we be able to have children, um, would we be able to do the kinds of activities that, you know, maybe I had talked about doing before Dan and I met." Richard, the nondisabled partner to Emma, who has cerebral palsy, reports that he lost most of his nondisabled friends when he started to date Emma because they thought he was "crazy" for pursing a relationship with a woman who used a wheelchair and had a speech impediment. Emma is frequently assumed to be less intelligent because of her speech impediment; therefore, Richard and Emma speculate that his friends, most of whom were academics at a mid-sized university, could not understand what Richard and Emma had in common. His academic friends perceived the couple as incompatible with their way of life, and now the couple primarily associates with other disabled people.

Placing such significance on physical sameness is a symptom of neoliberal marketplace values that attempt to establish the interchangeability of all things and all people. Thus, a migrant strawberry field worker in California is positioned like a temporary janitor in a seasonal amusement park in that both are unskilled, low paying, and transient. So, although their working conditions may be different, the actual products are not the same, and as individual laborers they are unique, their labor power is equal and they are grouped together in recognizable market categories of available labor. Such interchangeability is vital to the neoliberal global capitalist economy focus on immediacy and mobility. As Ewa Majewska argues, the "belief in mobility is an element of a wider process of thinking in terms of availability and accessibility of practically anything and anybody in the globalized world." 18 Things that are not translatable, that cannot be placed in a system of commensurate exchange value, foil neoliberal thinking. For Majewska, love across radical differences—that does not attempt total translation—is one way to throw sand in neoliberalism's gears. Majewska is interested in revolutionary potential of love that is not translatable or transferrable, that cannot be collapsed into a perfect understanding of the other as "just like" me.

At first glance, fantastic unlikely couple films appear to take up Majewska's vision of revolutionary love as the differences between the partners is represented as a struggle between two non-commensurate worlds and experiences. However, rather than exploring the possibility of hybrid, borderland, or even multiple, forking perspectives that could be gained from loving across such radical difference, the crises of translatability in fantastic unlikely couple films must be solved by collapsing difference into similarity, erasing the excesses engendered in the couple's very different perspectives for a unified similitude. For example, in The Little Mermaid (1989), the mermaid Ariel sings a pleading song titled "Part of Your World" about her desire to join the human world: "Up where they walk, up where they run/Up where they stay all day in the sun/Wanderin' free - wish I could be/Part of that world." 19 When she makes a deal with the evil Ursula, Ariel is granted three days to experience the human world. She promptly falls in love with a human prince, and the song "Part of Your World" becomes a reprise, narrating her desire to inhabit a body similar to her beloved. At the end of the film, Ariel's father grants her wish and transforms her into a human so that she can marry Prince Eric. Although viewers are happy for Ariel and Eric, the transformation is bittersweet because it means she can longer be with her friends and family in the sea. Like Richard and Emma in my study, Ariel's union with Eric is viewed as a permanent physical transformation, from one world to another. She becomes part of his world, leaving her father and mermaid family behind.

Before one of the partners is physically transformed, the fantastic unlikely couple represents the threat of miscegenation, and the potential degeneracy and dependency that may come with reproduction across race, class, and disability. As Anna Stubblefield makes clear, fears of miscegenation are linked to the liberal (now neoliberal) capitalist state through the concept of citizenship-building skills, including the ability to be productive members of society and reproducers of future productive generations. "Tainted whiteness," which, according to Stubblefield, included people with disabilities, the poor, immigrants, people of color, and so on, "was linked with a lack of civilization-building skills in two ways: it was equated with a lack of citizenship skills and with a lack of those moral characteristics that make one an upstanding, contributing member of a 'civilized' society." 20 Anyone who lacked independence and thus needed state aid, as well as anyone that may have questioned the values of (neo)liberal capitalism, is deemed "tainted" and unsuitable for reproduction. Although we may be decades removed from the eugenics era, the idea that "mixing" breeds a host of social, cultural, intellectual, and physical problems still haunts intimate relationships. In fantastic unlikely couple films this specter is most visible in the representation of the border as a dangerous, uninhabitable zone.

The improbability of living in two different worlds and two different bodies is a theme throughout the 2009 hit Avatar. In this fantasy film, disabled ex-marine Jake Scully (Sam Worthington) can cross over into the mystical world of the Na'vi when he is "linked into" his avatar—a living, breathing being created by splicing human and Na'vi DNA. The military wants Jake to infiltrate the Na'vi and gain their trust so that he can help secure the planet Pandora for industrial mining. While Jake is "driving" the avatar with his mind all over Pandora, his human body remains back at the lab; therefore, he has to take periodic breaks from linking to eat and care for his human body. So, when the Na'vi go to sleep, Jake leaves his avatar.

Over the course of the film, we see how this continued crossing between human and Na'vi worlds begins to take a physical and psychological toll on Jake. He enjoys the abilities of his avatar body, and he does not want to return to his paralyzed human body. In addition, he falls in love with a Na'vi woman, Neytiri, and becomes increasingly sympathetic to the Na'vi resistance. As he attempts to spend less and less time in his human body, however, he becomes physically exhausted because he is not sleeping. When forced to return, he shovels down prepared food and begs to be returned. Eventually, his human body is fatally wounded in a battle and his only chance of survival is to permanently cross over into his Na'vi avatar. The film's narrative makes it impossible to live in two worlds, only resolving the crisis when Jake is completely "transferred" into his Na'vi avatar body and the humans responsible for the mining are shipped back to Earth. Thus, the romantic perspective in Avatar is predicated on cultural and physical homogeneity. Viewers rally for Jake to become fully Na'vi and for the humans to leave the planet because, as the film demonstrates, crisscrossing and intermingling results only in battles for dominance and heartbreak.

In the Twilight series, Bella Swan's continued crossing between the human, werewolf, and vampire worlds is also presented as a barrier between Bella and Edward Cullen. Although they are enemies, the Cullens (vampire family) and Quileutes (werewolf clan) have agreed to leave each other alone as long as the Cullens remain "vegetarian" and off of Quileute land. Thus, there are strict spatial boundaries between the city of Forks, the Quileute reservation, and the Cullen's vast family grounds outside the city. Bella is the only character that can move freely between these three worlds. Keri Wolf reads Bella's ability to cross social and physical boundaries positively, arguing that "her awareness of boundaries and her ability to negotiate between them disrupt power relationships and give this heroine a powerful autonomy in a world constructed around physical and social perimeters." 21 Although I agree that Bella's ability to cross demonstrates her autonomy and permits a more feminist reading of the series, the consequences of Bella's crossings are usually negative, undercutting the subversive potential Wolf reads in Bella's traversing. Not only does the crossing put Bella at risk, but throughout the series her crossing is also blamed for various near death experiences of her father, daughter, and various members of the wolf and vampire clans. Because Bella refuses to stay put in the human world, she places herself and her loved ones in danger.

The dangers of love across physical boundaries shows up again in Guillermo del Toro's critically acclaimed The Shape of Water (2017). Elisa, who is mute and works as a janitor in a secret military lab, is instantly and inexplicably drawn to the amphibian humanoid creature captured and subjected to cruel studies and treatment. With the help of her two friends, Giles and Zelda, she rescues the creature and keeps him in her bathtub at her apartment. Elisa and the creature fall in love, but she cannot keep him confined to her bathtub so she makes plans to release him back to the sea. However, the scientists catch up, and just as the creature is about to return to the water, Giles is knocked down and Elisa and the creature are shot. Miraculously, the creature is able to heal himself and he jumps into the water with Elisa's body. From there, the ending is ambiguous. As narrated by Giles, the creature heals Elisa and turns her scars on her neck into gills and the two live happily ever after under water. However, Giles remains on land. We do not have evidence that he actually saw what happened in the dark waters. So, Elisa may have died. Regardless, the message about the danger of border crossing is clear.

In all fantastic unlikely couple films, the penalty for crossing physical and social boundaries is high: death, destruction, and deals with the "devil" (e.g., Ursula in The Little Mermaid) are all represented as the logical consequences of attempts to live and love in another world without physical transformation to sameness. The social perspective in each film presents the couple with different, but equally destructive, consequences for crossing worlds. But when one of the lovers succeeds at becoming permanently like the other, the penalties and consequences stop. Difference is erased and the social perspective is removed, not overcome as it is in the unlikely couple films Wartenberg outlines.

Fully removing the social perspective resolves the threat of miscegenation and border crossing. This narrative tactic also means that the potential to explore the issues of racism, orientalism, colonialism, speciesism, and ableism that keep the lovers apart is displaced. For example, Avatar offers viewers numerous critiques of imperialism, as the military and miners are stealing land and resources from the Na'vi; however, the film relies on overly simplistic binaries. 22 The humans are aggressive and morally deficit; the Na'vi are noble savages. To survive the Na'vi must either accept help from Jake (and his sympathetic friends) or risk extinction from the colonial settlers. In the end, the Na'vi work with Jake and they are able to force the military to leave. Even Jake's human body leaves as he is permanently transformed into Na'vi form. Thus, rather than unpacking colonial tensions, and exploring interspecies relationships and mutual assistance, the film asserts an anti-globalization message. Critical commentary collapses literally into the body of the transformed character. Crossing borders is dangerous.

Changing For The Better

At first glance, there does not appear to be any rhyme or reason behind which lover changes in fantastic unlikely couple films. Human is not always the privileged or desired body. Likewise, sometimes it is the man, sometimes the woman, who crosses over. The transformed, however, is always the lover who is least successful and most in need of care and protection, according to neo-liberal, patriarchal ideals. In other words, the romantic perspective in these films—the perspective that rallies for one person to change so that the couple can be united forever—is aligned with the values of the neoliberal state. Mentally and/or physically "weak" characters metamorphose into socially and economically valuable bodies that, in turn, make them suitable reproductive partners.

This is an important point because it would be easy to claim that some of the fantastic unlikely couple films, especially those that seem to privilege non-human bodies, celebrate difference and diversity. For example, in the film Shrek (2001), 23 Fiona, the beautiful (and thin, white) princess, falls in love with Shrek, a big, green ogre. The pair can only realize their love, however, once Fiona becomes an ogre too. Shrek is thrilled that Fiona's traditionally beautiful body was just a curse; he loves her big, green ogre body. This seems to downplay the value of whiteness, thinness, and beauty, and to celebrate difference. However, the shifting bodies in fantastic unlikely couple films exemplify what Robert McRuer calls the "flexible logic" of late capitalism. 24 Flexibility is valued because it signals the ability to shift and adapt to new and emerging markets, but also to new and emerging social conditions. So, the heterosexual homogamous couple is flexible and thus "able-bodied," "precisely because of their successful negotiation of the contemporary crises surrounding heterosexuality." 25 The difference seemingly celebrated at the beginning of the film when the couple was "unlikely" only really serves to enable "a sense of subjective wholeness" to the now homogamous couple. 26 In other words, the homogamous heterosexual couple is actually "contingent on compliant queer, disabled bodies" who can physically change. 27

The nod toward diversity in fantastic unlikely couple films does not disrupt neoliberal, capitalist systems. These queer/disabled bodies do not place the burden of accommodations on the system; instead, their ultimately flexible bodies shift and adjust, and the brief, but meaningful celebration of difference only serves to bolster normative heterosexual homogamy. Human Fiona and Shrek do not formalize their love, they do not rock the boat and advocate for human/ogre marriage rights, for example. Their queer/disabled love waits, complies with the normative order of things. What is truly celebrated, however, is the flexibility to transform, for the non-normative (e.g., weaker, more dependent) body to physically shift to be like the normative body.

Fantastic unlikely couple films demonstrate the incorporation of bodies "'optimized' by and for the neoliberal state and for Empire." 28 In other words, the bodily changes that occur optimize the couple to fulfill their role as workers, consumer-citizens, and, perhaps most importantly, as reproducers. Now in biologically compatible bodies, the couple can have children and fulfill the promise of the heterosexual, homogenous couple. In this sense, these films are highly invested in what Lee Edelman calls "reproductive futurism," an orientation towards the future for posterity's sake in which "the child" serves as a disciplinary symbol, curtailing and containing political and personal decisions. 29 The narrative crisis of each film is squarely about the lovers' social and physical incompatibility, and the narrative resolution features physical transformation to become compatible companions. Thus, at the end of each film, the similarly bodied pair signifies the future (their future, and our future with their love in it) and their potential for pregnancy and heterosexual reproduction. Indeed, Fiona and Shrek go on to have triplets, fulfilling their reproductive promise in excess. In the remainder of the article, I will demonstrate how bodily change rehabilitates the partner who is less successful and more needy, changing him or her into an equal partner—a companion—so that the couple is optimized for integration into the state and to fulfill their promise of reproduction.

At the beginning of Mannequin, Jonathan Switcher (Andrew McCarthy) is the epitome of masculine failure. In the opening scene he is fired from his job as a mannequin designer. This is immediately followed by a montage of subsequent work failures as he is fired from his jobs as a children's balloon artist, landscaper, and pizza maker. When Jonathan's bike breaks down during a date, his girlfriend leaves him and Jonathan is forced to walk his motorcycle home, just as it starts to pour rain. Over the course of the film, Jonathan falls in love with Emmy (Kim Cattrall), a department store mannequin that he created who periodically comes alive (at first only before his eyes) with the spirit of an Egyptian princess who has been time traveling across time and space to find a life full of adventure and true love. When he is with Emmy, he is a productive, brilliant merchandising designer. Without her, he is an unemployed, dejected loser. The problem, of course, is that Emmy is a mannequin and they cannot be together unless Emmy is made human. The gods (that granted Emmy's original wish to time travel) are apparently pleased with Jonathan and Emmy, and they make Emmy fully human at the end of the film. Although the film frames Emmy's transformation at the end of the film as a fulfillment of her wish, it also secures Jonathan's status as a productive, heterosexual citizen. Now that Emmy is human, the couple can marry, have children, and become good workers and consumers. Indeed, their marriage ceremony, in a department store window, is the ultimate vision of neo-liberal, reproductive futurism.

Splash, the 1984 film about a love affair between a man and a mermaid, follows a similar trajectory. When the audience meets the adult Alan Bauer (Tom Hanks) his live-in girlfriend has just dumped him and he is struggling with the produce business that he co-owns with his brother. Alan is an overly cautious businessman and it is clear that he is barely keeping things together. When he meets Madison (Daryl Hannah), however, Alan becomes more carefree and he is able to take risks at work (including letting his brother take more responsibility for the business) that will allow the company to grow. He is excited about the future and the prospect of building a life with Madison. Of course, this dream is put into jeopardy when Alan finds out Madison is a mermaid. As it becomes clear that the pair will never be able to live freely in the human world (which wants to study and dissect Madison), Alan decides to join Madison under the sea. The film ends with the joyous, nubile pair swimming over coral reefs to what appears to be an underwater mermaid world. As the Carpenter's "One Fine Day" swells, it becomes apparent that Alan and Madison will fulfill their reproductive futurism as mer-people.

For both Alan and Jonathan, masculine heterosexuality is recuperated when they find partners that allow them to be more happy and productive, and both films end with the implication that the pairs will go on to have children. Alan and Jonathan are rendered more "manly" because they take charge in the end, and are able to then provide—physically and/or financially—for their families. In all the trans-morphological love films, dependence and the need for care is always one of the main problems for the lovers before the body change. Referring back to Wartenberg's terminology, the social perspective presents the need as the primary social norm violated by the couple. In other words, because one of the partners needs help and assistance, the relationship is considered "impossible" or "impractical" from the dominant social perspective portrayed in the films. The "needy" partner must first transform and become more of an individual before the relationship can be considered "practical." The equal ideal of companionate love rests on the notion that autonomous individuals form a union based on respect for each other's independence and unique identity. From a critical disability studies perspective, this is a very problematic ideal because it helps gloss over the reality of interdependence and stigmatizes the need for care from others. Fantastic unlikely couple films eschew this reality by aligning audiences with a romantic perspective that fixes the dependence of one of the characters to make him or her like the more suitable—in a neoliberal sense—partner. Alan becomes a mermaid and can finally take independent risks; Emmy becomes a human and is no longer dependent on Jonathan to "come alive."

Significantly, masculinity is not the only way to be rendered independent in fantastic unlikely couple films. Femininity can also be reconfigured, especially maternal strength, to signal independence and "readiness" for incorporation into neoliberal state. For example, at the beginning of the Twilight saga, Bella is represented as fragile and in need of protection. In the trailer for New Moon, the voice-over narrator announces: "Some will seek to destroy her, some will rise to defend her, but only one will risk everything for her." At first, the characters try to protect her from her own desires for Edward, the "bad boy." Her father, Jacob, and even Edward himself try in vain to dissuade her from falling in love with Edward. Then, she becomes a target for other vampires who want to upset the Cullens by killing Bella, and throughout Twilight, New Moon, and Eclipse, she is protected by the Cullens and Jacob's werewolf family. Once she becomes a vampire, however, she no longer needs anybody's protection and she is able to be truly a partner to Edward. Bella shifts from being protected to protector as she now vows to her daughter "I will never let anyone hurt you." In voice-over for the trailer of Breaking Dawn Part 2, Bella says, "After 18 years of being utterly ordinary, I finally found I can shine. I was born to be a vampire."

Bella's new status as an equal is visually represented in the battle scenes of the series. In Breaking Dawn Part 2, the Cullens and their allies, including the werewolves, are set to battle the Volturi. Bella is lined up with the Cullens, dressed in black like the others. As the fight begins we see her rush forward, like the others, to fight the Volturi. In previous films, Bella was always visually singled out in the battle sequences through the use of space and costume. For example, after the battle in Eclipse, the Cullens stand in a line across the screen. All are dressed primarily in black and each stands independently from the other. Bella, dressed in gray and burgundy, stands in the foreground, overlapping with Edward in the background of the image. She is literally out of line with the rest of the Cullens, marking her otherness. Edward extends a hand around Bella's back, comforting her after winning the battle to defend her life. This image is in stark contrast to the new, powerful Bella, heading straight into battle with Edward by her side.

Bella's transformation into a vampire is also significant because it allows her to live and parent, heterosexually, her daughter, Renesme. According to the Twilight mythology, vampires are unable to sexually reproduce with each other. Vampires and humans, however, can conceive children who are hybrid vampire-humans. This possibility is so rare, however, that Edward and Bella do not even know they can have children and they have unprotected sex. Hybrid fetuses, though, feed on their human mothers, killing them just before birth. If the mother is turned into a vampire while the fetus is growing, the fetus dies. In a "reproductive futurism" par excellence, Bella makes Edward promise not to turn her, allowing her unborn child to live at her expense. But, just as her heart stops, Edward injects Bella with his blood and tries to transform her into a vampire, allowing both mother and child to live. Bella's transformation into a vampire secures her status as an independent, strong woman who is an ideal equal for Edward. It also means that Renesme will have both a mother and father who will raise her properly heterosexual. In fact, by the series end, viewers even know that Renesme will be paired with Jacob, resolving any residual uncertainty.

In terms of independence and futurism, however, the bodily transformation in Avatar is perhaps the most interesting of the fantastic unlikely films. Jake's transformation into a Na'vi secures the reproductive potential of Jake and Neytiri, but it also upholds what Anna Mallow calls "rehabilitative futurism," a corollary to reproductive futurism, that emphasizes our social investment in wellness, health, fitness, and bodies and minds free of impairment. Without question, viewers assume that becoming Na'vi is best for Jake because he will be physically rehabilitated. This orientation toward the ability to walk is secured in the opening sequences of Avatar. The audience learns that Jake is asked to join the avatar project when his identical twin brother is killed in a robbery. As his genetic match, Jake can link to the avatar created for his scientist brother. The audience is not shown why Jake is no longer a Marine until his wheelchair is revealed five minutes into the film. Until that point, all shots of Jake are taken from angles that do not reveal his "broken" body. The delayed unveiling of Jake's disabled body, combined with his status as a grieving brother, helps to strongly align audience sympathies with the main character at the beginning of the film. Thus, when Jake first "links" with his avatar and discovers his new working legs, we are encouraged to feel overjoyed for him. Thrilled by his ability to wiggle his toes, Jake quickly breaks free from the lab and runs outside in awe of his legs and the feel of dirt between his toes. This subtle manipulation sutures the audience into the "rehabilitative futurism" orientation. We want Jake to be able to experience the amazing world of Pandora, free of any physical impairment, and as Jake and Neytiri fall in love, we want their love to last. Jake's metamorphosis from disabled human to nondisabled Na'vi satisfies viewer desire for a happy ending, satiating ableist dreams of overcoming the limits of broken bodies.

Similarly, in Warm Bodies (2013), viewers get their happy ending when zombies are "cured" by love. In this romantic comedy, the zombies are portrayed as having a communicable virus, and as the virus progresses they become increasingly less human-like, eventually becoming "bonies"—fast, aggressive, skeletons that are the nemesis of recent-zombies and humans alike. The reference to disability or chronic illness is set up beautifully in the opening lines of the film, as we are introduced to "R" (Nicholas Hoult), the lovable and tragic zombie lead. He says:

What am I doing with my life? I'm so pale. I should get out more. I should eat better. My posture is terrible. I should stand up straighter. People would respect me more if I stood up straighter. What's wrong with me? I just want to connect. Why can't I connect with people? Oh, right, it's because I'm dead.

The disease has made the zombies physically and mentally slow, and as R notes, has made their bodies, quite literally, fall apart. However, when R meets Julie (Teresa Palmer), a human warrior trying to defeat the zombies, he feels connected to her and saves her from his zombie friends. This choice, to value love and human connection over his physical desire to eat flesh, signals an anti-body response in his system. As R and Julie fall in love, he begins to overcome the zombie illness and is eventually cured. Once R's rehabilitative future is secured, R and Julie's reproductive future can commence. Thus, in this creative retelling of the tragically paired Romeo and Juliet, R and Julie are able to cure disability through love.

Most of the fantastic unlikely couple films end like Warm Bodies. The now homogamous pair is on Earth, even if they are no longer both human. Presumably they will go on to be productive members of society as workers or business owners, and reproduce future citizen subjects. However, a minority of fantastic unlikely couple films end with the couple leaving humanity and neoliberal capitalist systems. Of the films I've mentioned, only three end this way: Avatar, Splash, and The Shape of Water. All three of these films are critical of military and/or sciences which are attempting to research, imprison, or even exterminate the non-humans. The critique places the pair at odds with dominant values, thus they leave human civilization altogether.


Targeting the (more) dependent partner as the one in need of physical transformation is not surprising considering the ways in which notions of companionate love and dependency developed together. As Fraser and Gordon detail, in preindustrial Western culture, dependency was a "normal, as opposed to deviant condition; a social relation, as opposed to an individual trait." 30 Although gender, race, and class largely determined one's position in social relations of interdependence, it was generally accepted that people needed each other. In the industrial era, wage labor was reconfigured to imply independence so that now people who could earn a living and support themselves and their families were no longer considered dependent, despite their actual dependence on the job itself, the economy, and the family (usually the wife) who worked cooked and cleaned at home to help sustain this worker. At this time, the moral register of dependency was also developed to stigmatize those who could not or would not work for a wage, exempting those (white women) who should not work. 31 Various progressive social movements have perpetuated the myth of independence. The disability rights movement coined the phrase "independent living" to argue for disabled people's rights to determine their own care and living arrangements, on their own terms. Likewise, the feminist movement has rallied behind the independent woman who can work for a (equal) wage, raise children, and make her own decisions without permission from husbands, fathers, and other patriarchal forces.

Fraser and Gordon argue that in the postindustrial era, all "legal and political dependency [is] now illegitimate…there is no longer any self-evidently 'good' adult dependency." 32 All registers of dependency that Fraser and Gordon trace—economic, legal, political, moral, and I would add physical—are now highly stigmatized because the physical limits of the human body that require us to rely on others and the socio-economic structures that determine systems of interdependence are both silenced. Rosemarie Garland-Thomson traces the emergence of these same values in literature, pointing to Emerson and others who helped shape the "American Ideal" as "master of both destiny and self." 33 Garland-Thomson writes, "Shaped by a narrative of somatic inadequacy and represented as a spectacle of erratic singularity, the disabled figure delineates the corresponding abstract cultural figure of the self-governing, standardized individual emerging from a society informed by consumerism and mechanization" (emphasis mine). 34 "Erratic singularity" is significant because it signals a different type of uniqueness, one that does not fit the values and norms of (neo)liberal capitalist democracy. Garland-Thomson goes on to explain that "democracy's paradox is that the principle of equality implies sameness of condition, while the promise of freedom suggests the potential for uniqueness." 35 The disabled body is unique, but erratic and thus may need accommodations, assistance, and other special treatment that forces systems and structures to change. The uniqueness embraced by (neo)liberal capitalism is flexible, interchangeable with each other. In the contemporary neoliberal, capitalist landscape, individuals are wholly responsible for their own success or failure to be flexible enough to adapt and thrive.

It is no coincidence that companionate love emerges at the same time as the new stigmatization of all forms of dependency. Equal companions implies the presence of two wage earners, who can raise a family (and reproduce the work force) independent of state support. These companionate lovers are morally/psychologically strong and can determine their own needs, desires, and goals. They are both citizens who participate harmoniously in the unfettered growth of the state. Finally, they are both physically capable of performing their own "activities of daily living," such as bathing, dressing, eating, and toileting. Of course, such independence is a political and ideological myth, and all couples are subsidized by the state in various ways, just as all individuals are supported—physically, emotionally, and economically—by numerous social networks. The myth of independence, however, shifts many state responsibilities for the well-being of citizens to individuals. The social and political endorsement of companionate love helps make the shrinking social welfare system possible, and reconciles the citizenry to this conservative ideology.

In fantastic unlikely couple films, the romantic perspective is about more than a desire for homogamy or even a disavowal of difference or disability. In fact, the logic of homogamy only serves to mask the way some bodies are incorporated into the neoliberal state while others are excluded. That is, the suggestion that partners with similar backgrounds and bodies are just more compatible fails to address homogamy's role in policing class, race, and disability boundaries. Instead, the romantic perspective in fantastic unlikely couple films is about the optimization of bodies; those bodies that can permanently transform succeed. Their metamorphosis is rewarded with all the promises contained in both reproductive and rehabilitative futurism—long-term monogamous love, healthy children, a physically strong mind and body, and a socially just world for those who conform and follow the rules. The optimized bodies celebrate what Snyder and Mitchell call "ablenationalism;" the convergence of ability and nation permits certain bodies into the deserving citizenry, excluding those that are deemed too dependent to take meaningful role in the contemporary social contract. 36 In their new bodies, Jake, Bella, Emmy, and the other metamorphosed lovers become valued participants in their respective societies.


  1. Throughout this paper I am referring to the five films based on the popular novels with the same titles by Stephanie Meyer. The four films discussed in this article are Twilight, directed by Catherine Hardwicke (2008; Universal City, CA: Summit Entertainment, 2009), DVD; The Twilight Saga: New Moon, directed by Chris Weitz (2009; Los Angeles, CA: Summit Entertainment, 2010), DVD; The Twilight Saga: Eclipse, directed by David Slade (2010; E One Entertainment, 2010), DVD; The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn-Part 1, directed by Bill Condon (2011; Universal City, California: Summit Entertainment, 2012), DVD; and The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn-Part 2, directed by Bill Condon (2012; Universal City, California: Summit Entertainment, 2013).
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  2. Thomas E. Wartenberg, Unlikely Couples: Movie Romance as Social Criticism (Boulder: Colorado: Westview Press, 1999).
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  3. Pretty Woman, directed by Garry Marshall (1990; Buena Vista Home Entertainment / Touchstone, 2005), DVD.
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  4. Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?, directed by Stanly Kramer (1967; Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, 2008), DVD.
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  5. I will use (neo)liberal throughout this paper to describe values that have their origins in liberalism, particularly liberal individualism, but that continue into contemporary neoliberal times. I recognize that both liberalism and neoliberalism describe historical periods, economic and social structures, and value systems that are incredibly complicated and difficult to define. There are also important differences between liberalism and neoliberalism. However, this paper is concerned with the values of independence, autonomy, flexibility, and equality invested in both liberalism and neoliberalism.
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  6. Michael Blouin, Magical Thinking, Fantastic Film, and the Illusion of Neoliberalism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016): 2.
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  7. I'm sure that this is not an exhaustive list of fantastic unlikely couple films. I selected these films, however, because they represent a diverse mix of traditional film genres (e.g., romantic comedy, drama, etc.) over four decades.
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  8. Wartenberg, 2.
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  9. Ibid.
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  10. I do not necessarily agree that sex work is a negative profession for women or men; however, the film positions sex work as something Vivian needs to "rise" out of and I am engaging the film's narrative in this discussion.
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  11. Indeed, relationships across race and class boundaries continue to be rare, even though they may be increasing. According to the Pew Research Center, 8.4% of all married couples are interracial, as of 2010. This is an all-time high and it is a significant increase from 3.2% of marriages in 1980. Wendy Wang, "The Rise of Intermarriage," PewResearch Soccial and Demogrpahic Trends, February 16, 2012, http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2012/02/16/the-rise-of-intermarriage/
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  12. Ibid., 14.
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  13. Ibid., 112-113.
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  14. Sherry Amatenstein, "How to Find a Boyfriend: 15 Tips from Professional Matchmakers." Ivillage.com, July 10, 2003, http://www.ivillage.com/how-find-boyfriend-15-tips-professional-matchmakers/4-a-284121
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  15. New marriage rate refers to marriages between January 1, 2008 through June 30, 2009. Key elements of the compatibility matching include family background, family status, and education. Eharmony, "Study: 542 People Married Every Day in U.S., On Average, Through eHarmony," Eharmony, press release, August 16, 2010, http://www.eharmony.com/press-release/31/.
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  16. See Marian M. Morry, Mie Kito and Lindsey Ortiz, "The Attraction-Similarity Model and Dating Couples: Projections, Perceived Similarity, and Psychological Benefits," Personal Relationships 18 (2011), 125-143, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1475-6811.2010.01293.x; Glenn D. Wilson and Jon M. Cousins, "Partner Similarity and Relationship Satisfaction: Development of a Compatibility Quotient," Sexual and Relationship Therapy 18, 2 (2003), 161-171. https://doi.org/10.1080/1468199031000099424
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  17. Sarah Smith Rainey, Love, Sex, and Disability: The Pleasures of Care (Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2011).
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  18. Ewa Majewska, "Love in Translation: Neoliberal Availability or a Solidarity Practice?," in Love: A Question for Feminism in the Twenty-First Century, eds., Anna G. Jónasdóttir and Ann Ferguson (New York: Routledge, 2013), 208.
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  19. The Little Mermaid, directed by John Musker and Ron Clements (1989; Walt Disney Video, 1999), DVD.
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  20. Anna Stubblefield, "'Beyond the Pale': Tainted Whiteness, Cognitive Disability, and Eugenic Sterilization," Hypatia 22, no. 2 (2007): 175.
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  21. Keri Wolf, "Bella and Boundaries, Crossed and Redeployed," in The Twilight Mystique: Critical Essays on the Novels and Films, eds., Amy M. Clarke and Marijane Osborn (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2010), 152-161.
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  22. Dominic Alessio and Kristen Meredith, "Decolonizing James Cameron's Pandora: Imperial History and Science Fiction," Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History 13, no. 2 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1353/cch.2012.0015
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  23. Shrek, directed by Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson (2001; Dreamworks Animated, 2001), DVD.
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  24. Robert McRuer, Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability (New York: New York University Press, 2006), 29.
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  25. Ibid., 12-13.
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  26. Ibid., 12.
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  27. Ibid., 19.
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  28. Robert McRuer, "Disability Nationalism in Crip Times," Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies 4, no. 2 (2010): 163-178, https://doi.org/10.3828/jlcds.2010.13. Jaspir Puar's grounding Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007) is significant to mention here because McRuer is drawing on her language of optimization and the strategic incorporation of some gays and lesbians and not others to construct his argument about disability and nationalism.
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  29. Lee Edelman, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004). https://doi.org/10.1215/9780822385981
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  30. Nancy Fraser and Linda Gordon, "Decoding 'Dependency': Inscriptions of Power in a Keyword of the US Welfare State," in Reconstructing Political Theory: Feminist Perspectives, Eds. Mary Lyndon Shanley and Uma Narayan (University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995), 28.
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  31. Ibid., 30.
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  32. Ibid., 36.
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  33. Rosemarie Garland Thomson, Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), 41.
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  34. Ibid.
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  35. Ibid., 43.
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  36. Sharon L. Snyder and David T. Mitchell, "Introduction: Ablenationalism and the Geo-Politics of Disability," Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies 4, no. 2 (2010): 113-126. https://doi.org/10.3828/jlcds.2010.10
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