Thursday, April 22, 2010

Monstrous Musings: Got Vampire Privilege?: The Whiteness of Twilight

This is a guest post from Natalie Wilson

I am a literature and women’s studies scholar and author of the blogs Professor, what if…? and Seduced by Twilight. I am currently writing a book examining the Twilight cultural phenomenon from a feminist perspective. My interest in vampires and werewolves dates back to my childhood fascination with all types of monsters.

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PART 1: White and delightsome vampires verses wolves of color

The following analysis interrogates the unexamined white privilege permeating the Twilight texts, arguing the saga upholds dominant ideas about race that associate whiteness with civility, beauty, and intellect on the one hand, and indigenous people with animality and primitivism on the other.

I contend that while vampire privilege may seem desirable, it is in fact predicated on what Sherman Alexie calls a “colonial gaze” – or a white view of the world that renders people of color and their history of genocide, colonization, and cultural decimation invisible. In the texts, this gaze results in the indigenous Quileute of the series being depicted as the savage werewolves in need of vampire colonization.

The structural divide between humans, vampires, and werewolves the books enact is echoed via the love triangle of Bella, Edward, and Jacob. Read as racial allegory, a white, working class human chooses between an ultra-white, ultra-privileged vampire and a far less privileged wolf of color.  This love triangle is imbued with racial connotations, with a white vampire in competition with a Native American shape-shifter.

The two male leads are contrasted using various binaries that equate Edward with whiteness (and its associations with civility, wealth, and intellect) and Jacob with the indigenous (and its associations with animals, primitivism, and savagery). Like Bella, readers are encouraged to choose between these two different racialized suitors.

In keeping with dominant conceptions of the white/non-white, Edward is constructed as a white, godlike vampire, and the color white is associated with purity, beauty, and heroism. The non-white is rendered inferior, with the Quileute wolves portrayed as not as good or heroic as the white vampires. Their russet-coloured skin, black hair, and dark eyes are associated with violence, danger, and savagery.

This black/white symbolism of the book echoes longstanding media associations of whiteness with superiority, not too mention the longstanding Mormon belief that God’s chosen people are “white and delightsome” 1

Mormon doctrine suggests that Native Americans who accept and convert to LDS faith will have the so-called curse of dark skin taken from them. Indeed, the Book of Mormon explains the dark skin of Native Americans as CAUSED by their refusal to embrace God, who, as the texts of the book of Nephi reads “did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them…(so that) “they might not be enticing unto my people.”

Such beliefs resulted in varying levels of institutional racism within the Mormon church, which barred men of color from the priesthood, from serving missions, or from receiving Temple endowments for over a century (this ended by resolution 1978). To this day, few Mormons of color have reached high ranking positions in the LDS hierarchy. Indeed, religious critic John Granger reads Meyer’s representation of the Quileute as a sort of apologist atonement for the racism associated with the LDS faith in his recent book Spotlight.

However, given that white skin is still glorified in the series, we must question Granger’s claim that Meyer “carries the postmodern banner for tolerance” (Spotlight, 206).The fact that the texts glorify whiteness, and that being a vampire accords one all sorts of privileges that echo real-world white privilege, or the social capital afforded to those with white skin, puts Granger’s claim into question.

PART 2: Edward’s white perfection and Bella’s knapsack of privileges

In the Twilight series, Edward is particularly associated with white perfection. Yet, whiteness is never explicitly linked to privilege in the texts.  This accords with white privilege in the real world, which functions as an unmarked, naturalized category conferring superiority on those with white skin.

As Peggy McIntosh argues, whiteness works as a hidden system of advantage in our world. Scholar Richard Dyer similarly notes that whites do not acknowledge their whiteness. Asserting that in western culture whites play predominant roles, Dyer maintains that “at the level of representation…whites are not of a certain race, they’re just the human race.”

In Twilight, Bella never names Edward as racially white nor does she consider the mixed race connotations of her friendship and possible romance with Jacob. She does not, in effect, see race, including her own. This failure is in itself a trapping of white privilege and results in a text that renders white privilege invisible.

In kind, young readers of the series are not encouraged to examine the racial power dynamics that shape their own lives --, rather, they are given the facile message that race doesn’t really matter, that we should all just focus on getting along (or, on nabbing ourselves a super cute vampire boyfriend).

In Breaking Dawn, Bella literally packs a knapsack of special provisions that would not be possible without her white vampire privilege. As Tim Wise writes, “the virtual invisibility that whiteness affords those of us who have it is like psychological money in the bank, the proceeds of which we cash in every day while others are in a state of perpetual overdraft.” Here, linking whiteness to money in the bank is particularly apt. As mentioned above, Bella cashes in on her privileges in Breaking Dawn in various ways, using her “proceeds” to draw on important networks, secure documents, and withdraw cash. 

This strand of the texts reveals the links between white privilege and class privilege. Yet, readers are not encouraged to question such unearned privileges, but to desire them.

The Cullens are presented as living the good life and their activities and tastes tend toward those things associated with high culture: they like classical music, appreciate art, value education, like to travel, and have sophisticated fashion and home d├ęcor know-how. Their home is depicted as opulent, decked out in white and gold. In contrast, Jacob’s house resembles “a tiny barn.” While Edward has multiple college degrees and composes symphonic lullabies, Jacob fixes cars and has to be reminded by Bella to do his homework.

Here, the differing class levels, as well as the way whiteness is associated with wealth and intelligence and non-whiteness with physicality and manual labour, contributes to the texts racial divide. 

Bella, though she has white skin privilege, is economically more in line with Jacob.  Yet, when Bella chooses Edward at the series close, she also chooses wealth and all the privileges it brings.

As Dyer notes, whiteness is historically associated with godliness. Referring to the “whitening of the image of Christ,” Dyer argues that constructing god as white has perpetuated notions of white superiority, framing whites as more spiritual and godly than raced people). This framing relates particularly to Edward, whom Bella repeatedly refers to as god-like and angelic.

Contrastingly, when Bella first sees Jacob and his friends at La Push, she notices the “straight black hair and copper skin of the newcomers.” While Edward’s eyes and hair are gold, Jacob’s are dark. His last name is Black, and he, like other Quileute characters, is associated with a lack of light – his house has “narrow windows” and he has “long, glossy black hair” that hangs “like black satin curtains on either side of his broad face.”

While Edward’s whiteness is portrayed as next to godliness in the texts, Jacob and other Quileute characters’ russet-coloured skin and black hair are associated with animality. Words such as crow-black, exotic and feathery associate the Quileute with animals. Repeatedly referencing skin color has strong racist undertones regardless if one shies away from overt terms such as “red-skin” How different really is “russet coloured” from that historically racist designation?