Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Monstrous Musings: Race Lessons from Breaking Dawn: Part 1 – Or, How to be a “Good Indian”

Natalie Wilson, a Women’s Studies and Literature professor at Cal State San Marcos, is author of the recently released Seduced by Twilight: The Allure and Contradictory Messages of the Popular Saga. She pens one of the academic blogs analyzing the saga at She is also author of the blog Professor, What if? and writes regularly for Ms Blog, Girl With Pen, and Womanist Musings. Her home page can be found and her Twitter handles are @seducedbytwi, @drnataliewilson, and @professorwhatif.  

While in other recent reviews I have discussed the problematic anti-abortion messages in Breaking Dawn: Part 1  (as here), the ode to lavish wide weddings and weak females (as here), the icky imprinting scenes (as here), and what I see as the best and worst bits of the film (as here), in this post I will focus on race.

In short, Breaking Dawn: Part 1 does Pocahontas one better – but this time the Native falling for the white colonizer is an indigenous male named Jacob BLACK, and instead of singing to animals, he IS an animal.

Near the opening of the film, Jacob runs furiously from his house, throws Bella and Edward’s wedding invitation to the ground, rips off his shirt, and then transforms into a wolf. We will see him again later, saying to Bella “it’s weird to be back on two legs” and then erupting in characteristic tight-jawed, flared nostrils anger when he learns Bella plans to have a “real honeymoon” with Edward.

Not only does Jacob continue to be framed as more angry (m)animal than rational human, he also comes off as disturbingly controlling in these scenes, saying to the white-frocked Mrs. Cullen, “You can’t be serious, Bella. Tell me you are not that stupid.” Then, he grabs her furiously, causing her to shout, “Jacob, let go,” which draws the attention of Edward, Sam, and Seth. Turning his attention to Edward, Jacob says, “Are you out of your mind? You will kill her.”

Thus begins the depiction of Jacob as traitor – not only to Bella and her desires, but ultimately to his wolf pack and tribe. By the end of the film, he has declared himself Alpha of his own pack, more or less taken up residence with the Cullens, and imprinted on baby Renesmee, sealing his entry into the Cullen family where he and Renesmee can eventually have a pack of “white and delightsome” offspring (for more of this line of argument, see here).

Meanwhile, his wolf-mates are presented as treaty-breakers in contrast to the good doctor, Carlisle Cullen, who insists “we won’t be the ones to break the treaty.” What a nice change from real-world history, where treaties with indigenous tribes were never kept. Well, nice in that it breaks the historical trend of the US government not abiding by treaties with indigenous peoples, but not so nice in that it yet again frames Native Americans as untrustworthy– as murder hungry savages intent on killing nice white humans and their miracle-savior-babies.

Thankfully, Jacob is happy to serve as an informant, warning Edward “Get ready, they’re coming for Bella.” And, as luck would have it, the ONE rule the tribe won’t break is harming an imprintee. So, once Jacob imprints on Renesmee (said miracle-savior-baby) in an ick-inducing scene, the big bad wolves can’t harm her. How convenient.

Though this “imprinting” is depicted as a happy ending that allows Jacob to forget his love for Bella, it was earlier in the film abhorred by Jacob, who said of those who imprint: “None of them belong to themselves anymore and the sickest part is, their genes tell them their happy about it.”At film’s close, Jacob doesn’t belong to himself either – but, to Renesmee, and, by extension to Edward, her father, who takes to calling him “son” (hello, hints of racialized infantalization!).

Other characters of color don’t fare much better in the film– poor Justin Chon, that “drop of piss in an Everest of snow” –he  doesn’t even get a line. Laurent is mentioned by his love-crazy Irina, but he, being dark and all, was of course wiped out early in the saga. His demise, given that he is the only VOC (vampire of color) we see on screen, furthers the WHITE IS RIGHT messages of the saga. (And, why is it he must die for CONSIDERING hurting Bella whereas Jasper, our confederate war hero, receives no punishment for actually attacking her? As for other VOC, in the books the Amazonian vampires are presented as animal-skin wearing and “feline.” Bella observes “It wasn’t just their eccentric clothes that made them seem wild but everything about them.” She notes their “restless” eyes “darting movements,” and “fierce appearance,” relating “I’d never met any vampires less civilized.” These representations are in keeping with the scenes in Brazil, where people dance in the streets in carnivalesque fashion, giving off a ‘voodoo’ vibe that is a far cry from the civilized life at casa Cullen.

The Brazilian “housekeepers” are presented as suspicious natives. Why the heck does Edward need a housekeeper anyway? He doesn’t sleep and he is uber-strong and fast. Seems like just another opportunity to throw in some “coffee-colored” characters who speak in “alien tongues” (Meyer’s descriptions) and can WRONGLY assume Bella’s baby to be a monster.

Then we have Leah, the bitter, barren she-wolf who won’t even take a sandwich from sweet mommy vamp Esme. Leah, who is supposedly a super strong female, pleads to Jacob “I will stay out of your way, I will do whatever you want except go back to Sam’s pack and be the pathetic x girlfriend he can’t get away from … You don’t know how many times I wish I could imprint on someone, anyone.” Ah, begging to lose her own agency, something Jacob has named as a horrible curse. And something, I might add, that is in keeping with the notion that certain people are more “childlike” and need taking care of, need their decisions made for them.

So, how does the film present its non-white characters? In keeping with the rest of the film – as angry animals, as suspicious natives, as good at things like housekeeping and fighting. As sideshow wolves. But, this installment does turn Jacob into a hero of sorts – a hero who plays the role of “good Indian,” willing to betray his own people and anxious to assimilate – and, who falls in love with a white newborn baby girl. How charming.

To add insult to injury, the film opened not long before Thanksgiving, that US holiday where we give thanks for many things (a nice tradition) but where we also tend to forget the true history the holiday is based on (a not so nice tradition).

In terms of the saga, Native American history cannot be ignored if one is to offer a full analysis of the cultural work it is doing. Not even considered citizens until 1924 and not given universal suffrage until 1957, indigenous peoples are one of the most ill-treated and under-represented peoples. Literature historically played a huge role in framing Native Americans as uncivilized and savage. Meyer’s texts and the resulting film adaptations carry on this project, and Breaking Dawn: Part 1 is no exception.

Twilight produces a modern myth that equates whiteness with goodness and represents indigenous people as less-evolved savage beasts with no agency and anger issues. The film, like its predecessors, fails to re-work negative stereotypes of Native Americans, placing it within a long line of white-penned narratives that variously appropriate and/or misrepresent indigenous culture and legend. It effectively flips the colonial script – representing the white vampires as displaced and the Quileute wolves as intent on committing vampire genocide. Though the films are fantasy, we cannot pretend that such fiction does not shape real world views about race– gunshot Westerns were largely fantasy too, and think of the lasting legacy they have left us with in terms of Native Americans being seen as savage warriors who scalp too often and drink too much. 

Jacob may not scalp or drink – no, he just stubbornly hates the heroic Cullens, until, that is, he falls for baby Renesmee. What a nice assimilationist fairy tale ending.