Last night, buzzing on hot toddies (because I am sick, but seeing a “Twilight” movie while sober is a fate worse than death), I celebrated my Femikaze co-founder’s birthday as we’ve done for a couple years now: getting drunk and ruining the night for some Twi-hards. The problems of “Twilight” are numerous – the story is trite and humorless, the gender roles are reductive to the point of absurdity, not a single character is remotely compelling and the books (which I attempted, in the spirit of being well-informed about my wares, to read when I ran the children’s and young adult section of a Borders store) are awfully written – but then, you probably knew all that. I certainly knew all that, going into “Breaking Dawn: Part One”, and yet I still managed to be appalled anew, by a facet of the series I hadn’t quite recognized yet.
Y’all, “Twilight” is some colonialist bullshit.
“Twilight” operates around a love triangle between Edward, the suave vampire; Jake, the Native American werewolf; and Bella, the dull dud with whom they both – inexplicably – fall in love. Edward is a Cullen, part of a vampire clan run by the noble doctor Carlisle; the Cullens are vegetarians, hunting only animals (but they don’t eat people – vampire pun!), and they’re also enormously (and again, somewhat inexplicably) wealthy. Although there is ostensible tension about who Bella might choose, that her fate lies with Edward is telegraphed from the opening lines of the book – it’s never really in any doubt that she’ll go with the dashing wealthy vamp over the working-class brown kid.
Because here’s the thing: those vampires are some white-ass motherfuckers. They are so white that they literally sparkle in the sunlight, and there is no narrative reason that they should be so; there could be a black Cullen, or a Hispanic or Asian Cullen, without disrupting any part of the “Twilight” universe, but there isn’t. There is one black vampire in the entire series, a baddie named Laurant who gets offed early on (because, you know, he messes with the Cullens). The heroic Cullens are all-white, wealthy, and never cede the moral high ground.
Now, “Twilight” is essentially Gothic pulp, and this replication of the aristocracy into some weird Pacific Northwest vampire fable wouldn’t be so troubling… except that Meyer combines it with a little bit of good, old-fashioned American Western racism. See, Bella’s other suitor is Jacob, who comes from the Queileute tribe and is, like all the men of his tribe, also a werewolf. The werewolves manage to encapsulate two otherizing stereotypes about native peoples: that they have some deep, mythical connection to nature – deep enough to shape-shift – and also that they share an animalistic brutality, a savagery so fundamental that relationships to them must be governed by treaty. In the third movie, “Eclipse,” we learn the origin of the treaty between vampires and werewolves – basically, one day some vampire showed up on Queileute land and starting killing everybody. The werewolves responded by killing the vampires. More vampires showed up, and to prevent more killing, they divided up the land between the two groups – although the vampires pretty much have full run of the known world, while the werewolves wind up confined more or less to their reservation. Of course.
But it’s in “Breaking Dawn” that the really offensive shit starts to fly. Bella and Edward get married – they were engaged at the end of “Eclipse,” a film in which Jacob (the brute!) sexually assaults Bella while Edward (the erstwhile gentleman) continually restrains himself from so much as slipping her the tongue – and Bella quickly becomes pregnant with some half-human, half-vampire demonbaby. (I know: these books are INSANE.) For reasons not really explained in the movie, but which I gather from reading sarcastic Internet summaries of the books (because I couldn’t get past the second chapter of the first one), this pits the werewolves against the vampires because of an Queileute legend about such an event leading to all kinds of badness.
As in all stories about native peoples who rise up against the White Man because of an ancient legend (for native peoples have no other kinds of knowledge!), we know their suspicions to be false: Bella and Edward loooooooove each other, and no spawn of someone so white and privileged as a Cullen could ever be evil! When the werewolves determine that they must destroy “it”, Jacob spurns his tribal heritage and joins up with vampires to protect Bella. And at that point, he becomes a hero again. And it doesn’t even stop there – Bella has the baby (which is a whole ‘nother ball of ridiculous) and Jacob “imprints” on it, pair-bonding with an infant girl in the way of the wolves, or the Queileutes, or both – they’re pretty interchangeable by now, these brown people and these vicious animals. And this, ultimately, is what saves newborn Renesmee (no, seriously, that’s the kid’s name).
See, as Edward Cullen helpfully explains to us, the wolves will not harm anyone on whom another wolf has imprinted. It’s their “highest law.” Because the natives are still reliant upon a rule-based, honor-driven code of ethics, which we all know is inferior to the Cullens’ moral system of inclusiveness and individual choice. Those Cullens, man: they might be gifted with immortality, super-strength, super-speed, and incredible financial resources, but they’re just so goddamned good; without them around to benevolently maintain the treaty with the Queileutes, who knows what chaos might ensue!* It’s only the rare wolf – like Jacob – who can absorb the heroic moral lessons of the Cullens (probably only because he was transformed by his love for a pure white lady like Bella, and I’m using “lady” in the antebellum-South-cult-of-ladyhood sense of the word), but that Edward, man, he’s got the entire wolf moral calculus allllllll figured out.
It is vile.
*Presumably there would be lots of chaos, because the Cullens aren’t only superior to werewolves: they are superior to other vampires, including the brown Laurant and the Italian-based vampire governing body called the Volturi, whose ritual and hierarchy is a pretty clear invocation of the Catholic church. Also, the Volturi are pure evil, and while I’m not particularly interested in pretending that the Vatican is awesome, Meyer’s portrayal is both more cartoonish than anything Dan Brown has ever given us AND a notable choice of villain from a Mormon. My understanding is that in “Breaking Dawn: Part Two” the vampires and werewolves actually team up to fight off the Volturi, which seems about right for a Gothic-meets-Western pulp mashup. Can’t wait to get drunk and see which forms of privilege that narrative chooses to embody!