Twilight: racism, misogyny and desire.

I am uncertain of the wisdom of writing about the Twilight saga in any way but, like many of my other decisions, have decided to do it nonetheless.  Mostly because this article was linked to recently on Feministe and I kinda disagreed with bits of it and it got me thinking about why, which bits and how.  I have read all the Twilight books (including the unpublished manuscript for the Edward-point-of-view-version-of-the-first-book) and seen all the movies so far.  I also intend to go and see the next movie.  Why?  Allow me to explain…

My book reading and movie watching taste is varied.  I will read pretty much any kind of writing that comes my way.  This means that while I have read some excellent books I have also read several truly awful ones.  This does not bother me.  I don’t tend to decide the worth of a book prior to reading it.  I also don’t tend to assume that I will like a book based on its politics.  I think Oscar Wilde had a point when he said – “Books are well written or badly written.  That is all.”  This does not mean that the politics of the books I read are irrelevant to me… they add to my personal sense of emotional resonance and enjoyment.  And the politics give me plenty to rant about when describing them to other people.  But literary criticism goes beyond what I like.  I could talk about a number of excellent books that I truly abhor, but I shall desist.

The Twilight Saga books are appallingly badly written.  I was fortunate in that I didn’t have to pay for them.  Some kind soul had uploaded the whole lot onto their livejournal page and I got to read them in amongst writing my thesis.  It’s not often that I find the writing and pace of fiction worse than a PhD thesis on the aetiology of sex offending – but this was one of those times.  So I’m not going to engage in any conversations about the literary value of the books – whether the argument is intrinsic (the book is excellently written and comparable to Wuthering Heights, I’m not kidding, it has been said) or utilitarian (so few books make young people read – we should embrace poorly written drivel for the sake of the youth).  I am however going to engage with the feminist discourse that has surrounded the books ever since their release.

There are two key issues that have come up/come under fire in feminist discussion as regards the Twilight series.  The one focuses on the obviously misogynistic themes of the book as exemplified by the role of Bella and her relationships with other characters in the Twilight world and second is the deeply problematic portrayal of Bella’s decision to continue or abort her pregnancy.  Another point made by feminists of colour (and allies, yay for allies!) focuses on the role of race, colour and indigeneity in the books as seen in the relationships between the werewolves and the vampires.

On the subject of race: When I read the first book I actually burst out laughing when the first-nations-peoples-as-werewolves story arc was introduced – it was just such a tired formula.  Where do I begin: the werewolves were the original custodians of the land, the vampires (the good ones who don’t eat humans) turned up and called it theirs and (like all good liberal vegetarian vampires) formed a treaty with the werewolves that involved the vampires having the right to parts of the land that used to the domain of the werewolves on the understanding that they would keep to the boundary and not kill humans.  This was done in spite of the mutual antipathy these species held each other in.  Only some of the members of the tribe (sigh) turn into werewolves and turns out the werewolf (/aggression) gene gets activated when there are too many vampires around.  The vampires are white and they sparkle (I suppose I should just be grateful they aren’t blue) and are cold to the touch, democratic and stoic and individualistic.  The werewolves are warm-blooded and instinctual with a pack structure wherein there is an Alpha who is in command and the entire pack can hear each others thoughts (thereby lending weight to the Great-Wavelength-of-Colour theory).  Race relations are not engaged with in the books and the portrayal of the Quileute tribe I would describe as racist, imperialist and unforgivably unimaginative.

Now about gender roles: The roles outlined for Bella and her two suitors are typical and banal.  It has been said that Bella is a strong character and what makes her so attractive to readers is that she goes after what she wants and gets it.  It has also been said that the things that she goes after are part of her false consciousness under a patriarchal framework.  I don’t think that there are many feminists who would suggest that the world that Bella inhabits is not a misogynist one.  However, so is this one, so Bella’s decisions are made in a bounded world that has shaped her desires as well her decisions.  The only saving grace I can find is that, on one level at least, what Bella wants is equality.  She may want to be a vampire so she can live all her unlife with her boring controlling stalker of a boyfriend, but she doesn’t want to be the weaker part of the equation that is pitied or protected.  Plenty has been said on the stalker score – anyone who needs to know what should happen in that situation please watch this video of Buffy Vs Edward – so I’ll just skip past that.  Bella’s desires are not revolutionary – they are the desires of a person trying to get the most power they can within an unjust system.  The key point is that they are her desires and if I have to choose between a Bella whose desires fill me with horror and an Edward who acts as gatekeeper to her desire with a driving need to ‘protect’ (cough control cough) her  – I pick Bella every single time.

Oh and about the politics of pregnancy:  I don’t care what Stephanie Meyer’s personal politics on abortion are.  The book presents the abortion as necessary and Bella as being entirely opposed to having one.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with Bella making the decision to continue with her pregnancy even when ‘science’ and other people are telling her that hers is the wrong decision.  Bella has heard what they have to say (she’ll die, she’s being irrational, she’s being selfish and leaving Edward alone etc.).  Pregnant people always make their decisions in a context, and if the context is untenable the solution is to make the context less skewed, not to tell the only person who has the right to make the decision about their body that their decision is wrong.  It has been suggested the world of Twilight is a subversion of the real world because it is the men in her life who’re urging Bella to abort her pregnancy rather than the ones pressuring her into continuing.  Do I need to point out that the issue is not to what purpose the pressure is being applied but the fact that pressure is being applied?  And that in our non-Twilight-world, I have met many men who’ve pressured women into aborting pregnancies when they would rather continue?  Edward wants Bella to abort the pregnancy because the baby is killing her.  I have heard this argument.  I have also heard that the guy is in medical school and doesn’t really want to deal with having a genetic link out in the world even if he does not need to take on any parental responsibility.  Bella (and anyone else who’s pregnant) is well able to make their own decisions based on whatever yardstick they  happen to employ.  And if I don’t like the decisions being made then I have work to do on changing the context (so it is no longer life or death/the odds are improved/whatever the hell else) and live with the fact that other people having agency means that their decisions will be their own.

So that is my rant.  Thoughts?


10 comments on “Twilight: racism, misogyny and desire.

  1. Chally says:

    Regarding pregnancy: the subversion of whose real world? Certain categories of people are pressured to not procreate. And, with Twilight, that ties back into race for me. Bella’s a white woman, but she’s being pressured by a highly idealised white man because she has not yet attained the ultimate state of marble/granite/super white whiteness of great vampiric whiteitude necessary to properly handle her own reproductive choices. Part of what Meyer’s… lack of interrogation, shall we say, of how race functions in her work is not working out how the fairly transparent substituting of supernatural identities for (slightly fluid) racial categories – something we see throughout fantasy! – plays out alongside the still existing human racial categories in her books. Bella’s human whiteness, substandard whiteness in this world, opens her up to some parallels with the kinds of misogyny women of colour, and other groups facing similar threats to reproductive freedoms, face.

  2. brownflotsam says:

    Excellent point! And you’re right of course about the uncritical whiteness Meyer is working towards/with. I find it especially problematic given the racialised ways in which abortion is talked about in mainstream as well as more feminist contexts.

  3. Great post! I never get tired of hating on Twilight, and have found it be great source material as well for bloggery. I don’t find anything redeeming about Bella or Edward– though your point about her wish for equality is a good one. For me, that’s undermined by the fact that to achieve that equality she needs to change her species. And she doesn’t want equality on a larger scale– she only wants it in the context of a relationship with her vampire boyfriend, who his constantly berating her inferior human senses, intelligence, and invalidating her emotions.

    I wrote a column about Breaking Dawn, Part I, and the reactions I got from Twi-hards was awesome! Funny, it got more response than the political columns I wrote. And gosh, it was fun!

    Curious to know what you think:

    • brownflotsam says:

      I think the best way to cope with the mass hysteria engendered by Twilight is to go for the movies with a bunch of staunch feminists and heckle! Well, at least that’s fun for me.

      I agree that it’s deeply problematic that Bella is expected to drastically change herself in order to be able to meet her partner on an equal platform. But again, that is something that often happens in real life and is a feminist issue. To my mind Edwards behaviour is a classic example of the ‘women are unknowable’ complex: he belittles the human race as inferior and puts Bella on a pedestal because ‘she’s the only one he can’t see’. So what is communicated and genuine is to be degraded and what is unknown and opaque is to be valued. Gah.

      Anyhow, glad you enjoyed it. And I liked your article!

      • Flotsam, if only I could FIND a group of staunch Feminists to see it with me! lol That was my original intent, but I was afraid I’d get stampeded by the hordes of Twi-hards.All my friends had the same reply: “I am NOT dealing with all those crazed teen girls!!” You should have heard them when the first showing was announced on opening night! A deafening banshee shriek collectively was emitted, and I just got out of their path.

        I agree, Edward’s fascination with Bella because he can’t read her mind does exemplify the whole “women are unknowable” complex. Does he list that as one of the key reasons he’s drawn to her? Would this ordinary high school girl still hold such power over him emotionally if he could read her just like anyone else? And the other thing he likes about her is… oh yeah, the intoxicating scent of her blood: his own personal brand of Heroin. Romantic!

        I admit that part of the reason I’ve gone to all the movies is a very superficial one, and part nostalgia: Bella and Edward remind me of Brenda and Dylan. A pale, gorgeous brunette couple with a relationship fraught with conflict from day one. Except Brenda and Dylan had a sense of humor, were equal partners, and their relationship was based on a strong friendship that endured even after they broke up and moved on with other partners. Their relationship was intense and not always appropriate either, but Brenda kept Dylan in check. She was the strong one in that relationship.

        I so far have read the first and last books of the series, but not New Moon or Eclipse. I read Breaking Dawn after seeing the movie, to inform my column. I only got more upset as I read– especially at end when Bella is “burning,” and endures excruciating pain without a peep because she’s worried it will hurt EDWARD to hear her suffer! I hate it when people dismiss Twilight as just a fantasy– it does have alarming cultural influence.

        • brownflotsam says:

          Heh we did get some rather disapproving looks when we called out ‘stalker’! And I’m not sure how I managed to get through without having watched 90210, but I did so sadly I know nothing of Brenda and Dylan. By all accounts he’s a less awful bad boy than Edward. And yes, the books can be quite upsetting. The commentary is pretty damning.

  4. Jenera says:

    I find all your arguments very interesting and when I go back to what I thought when reading the books, I can see where most of it fits. I did read all the books but only just this past summer because I refuse to give into the hype when I can when it comes to books. I did get sucked in, pardon the pun, and felt I had to read them all. But I agree the writing was a bit underwhelming (word replaced by brownflotsam) but I am not used to reading what is classified as teen fiction.

    My problems were always with Bella and this seemingly normal teenage need to be with the bad boy against what every one else thought, and that she felt she MUST be with him or she’d never be happy. I found it disturbing that teenagers were reading this and maybe taking it to heart.

    I didn’t quite have issues with what you call race relations but looking back I can see how that would actually play out. I did on some level find the treatment of the werewolves to be disturbing though I related it to real life Indians vs. White People-being Native American I can understand that side.

    Not sure if I agree on the abortion aspect of the story. At that point, the plot line had kind of gone into insane territory for me and I just took it that she knew the risks and yet decided to not have the abortion regardless of what he wanted, or anyone else for that matter. But as with the whole book, I wonder of its place in a teenage audience.

    Overall, I haven’t quite understood the whole phenomenon and I’m not sure I’ll see any of the movies.

    • brownflotsam says:

      Hi Jenera,

      First off, I’ve edited your comment for ableist language, and highlighted the space where I’ve made a word change. I agree the whole series is based around the overused idea of finding true love in your teens. And of course that love needs must be a case of tragically star-crossed lovers who battle against all the odds to be together! Ugh, not my kind of story at all.

      Different people notice different things. For me the race relations in book are often at the forefront! Heh, and I think the plot was always insane – she just pushes her metaphors further with each book. Personally, I think teenagers (and any other agers) should be able to read whatever they want, I’m just glad when there is enough critical analysis of the books out there to mean that people who read them will have the option of thinking about them within a wider context.

  5. aver1 says:

    Reblogged this on contentconservative and commented:
    Wow! I read the Twilight series and looked upon them as mere entertainment. This is why I blog. I learn so much from other people. I reblogged this post. Not sure if I agree with you on all points but your arguments are clear, educated and extremely well written. Thanks for the insight.

  6. toristunes says:

    I totally agree with everything you have said.

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