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  I have read all the Twilight books (including the unpublished manuscript for the Edward-point-of-view-version-of-the-first-book) and seen all the movies so far.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?

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