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Got Vampire Privilege Part 4: Wealthy Vampires and the Readers Who Go Broke Adoring Them

August 25, 2009

Along with stereotypical representations of Native American’s as savage beasts and white guys as uber-hot heroes, the Twilight series also delivers an unexamined championing of class privilege.

Like white privilege, class or wealth privilege serves as  sort of cultural capital, it not only relates to how much money one has, which certainly is an indicator of how much privilege one has in our capitalist society, but it also encompasses various linguistic and cultural competencies. Class privilege functions as social capital, affording a network of powerful connections one can rely on.

To illustrate, when you have class privilege in U.S. society, you are likely to fluently speak the default language, or English, you are likely aware of social manners, of how to dress appropriatley for certain occasions (as well as able to afford such clothes), you likely will be able to access needed information and funding to get the education you desire, and you will likely have a network that introduces you to friends of your same class as well as affords you job opportunities in keeping with your class status. (For more items on the class privilege list, see here.)

As Brenda Allen writes in her article “Social Class Matters”,

“social class embodies a powerful, persistent predictor of accessibility to resources, potential for longevity and success, and self esteem” (64). As Allen further argues, “from womb to tomb, social class can make a major difference in one’s life” (64).

In Twilight, this womb to tomb difference makes major disparities in the characters’ lives (although those with the most class privilege, the vampires, will never make it to the tomb). We see the major difference class makes in one’s life when the working class Bella falls for the ultra-rich Edward and is introduced to his world of designer houses, cars, and clothing.

At the outset of the book, Bella refers to the “scarcity of my funds,” telling us “At home I’d lived in one of the few lower-income neighborhoods that were included in the Paradise Valley district” (T).* While she and her mom pool their resources to get her a scanty winter wardrobe and Charlie gets her an old truck on the cheap, the Cullen’s have unlimited resources.

Poor Bella and her “ a second-hand computer, with the phone line for the modem stapled along the floor” is understandably drawn to the sheeshy designer duds of the Cullen family crew (T).

While for Bella, “Every penny I made went into my microscopic college fund,” (T) for Edward, money is no object. As Bella details, “Money meant next to nothing to Edward or the rest of the Cullens. It was just something that accumulated when you had unlimited time on your hands and a sister who had an uncanny ability to predict trends in the stock market” (BD). Just something that accumulated? How nice… Sounds like they qualify for Rockefeller status with their “bloated accounts that existed all over the world” and due to the fact they have “enough cash stashed all over the house to keep a small country afloat for a decade” (BD). When Bella raids the Cullen’s petty cash stash, she notes she takes “about twice the yearly income for the average American household” (BD). Tellingly, this reminds  Bella “ of the way there were always a hundred fishhooks in the back of any drawer at Charlie’s house” (BD).

So, in Edward’s world, there is endless money stashed in global bank accounts and drawers, in Bella’s world, there are fish hooks and cheap trucks. Yet, the story of the poor, downtrodden beauty falling in love for the rich and powerful hot guy is nothing new in the world of fiction, and this series is, of course, meant to be fantasy. However, the problem arises when we consider  who makes up the majority of the fan-base for this fantasy – young people who are for the most part not as upwardly mobile as the Cullen dynasty. These readers are encouraged to see the wealth and power of the Cullens as desirable, and, like Bella, to wish for similar escapes from their own monetary woes. Yet in the texts, the unfair advantages the Cullens have in terms of their ability to accumulate wealth are never analyzed, let alone put in any sort of negative light – rather, the Cullens are seen as demi-Gods  who rescue Bella from her life of working class poverty and run down cars.

Given that the U.S. has the most unequally distribute wealth and income in the world and that the gap between rich and poor is bigger here than in any other industrialized nation, the unquestioned idealization of wealth in the series seems problematic.As Diana Kendall argues in her book Framing Class,

“In a mass-mediated society such a sours, the media do not simply mirror society; rather, they help to shape it and to create cultural perceptions. The blurring between what is real and what is not real encourages people to emulate the upper classes and shut out the working class and the poor.” (139)

The Twilight saga, a mass cultural phenomenon, definitely encourages readers to emulate vampire wealth, not to mention to covet high end fashion and pricey designer vampire make-up.

As Kendall further notes,

“How the media frame stories about class does make a difference in what we think about other people and how we spend our money. Media frames constitute a mental shortcut (schema) that helps us formulate our thoughts.”

The frame the Twilight series offers is currently creating mental schemas in the minds of many young fans, offering unexamined support of wealth privilege. If you can’t afford your very own isle Esme or brand-spanking-new limited edition Mercedes, you can at least dream of vampire riches. Or, you can go broke accumulating Twi-products (as one fan shared with me at Twi-Con, she has spent 10,000 on Twi merchandise!).

The glamorous view of wealth the series depicts encourages readers to equate wealth with love, romance, and eternal married bliss (of the hetero-monogamous-baby making kind). As critic bell hooks argues, we over-identify with the wealthy because media socializes us to believe they are better. Meyer’s series certainly accords with this claim, prompting readers to see the Cullens as better and leading to over-identification with Bella’s rise from working class nobody to a wealthy vampire-ess.

Via the accompanying consumption of all things Twilight, readers not only figuratively consume these messages about class, but literally support such messages through the buying of Twi-products. While I don’t think Meyer set out to exploit her young, teen, and tween fans, let alone to have Twilight become the mega-money making franchise that it is, the fact that people are ravenously buying up Twilight paraphernalia speaks volumes during this time of economic downturn. It seems buyers, (and female buyers especially), will go to great lengths to buy into the romantic messages at Twilight’s core, even if, as the fan noted above shared, they can’t afford to pay their bills.

I don’t see the fun fandom culture surrounding Twilight as inherently problematic and I admittedly own a “Team Bella” t-shirt, but I would like to suggest that many of the messages offered in the texts themselves, as well as in the surrounding products, reify wealth as desirable. Further, I would suggest that “buying into the vampire” involves buying into many of the messages our culture holds dear – namely, wealth is desirable, women should be wives and mothers, you should get married before you have sex, and only heterosexual people count.

Interestingly, the texts Meyer pays homage too in her series are far more critical of class privilege. Austen depicted the class structure in England as too regimented, directing criticism at the rigid social hierarchy, while Bronte portrayed her more wealthy characters as despicably weak and silly. In contrast, Meyer makes the wealthy characters the heroes and does nothing to critique the social hierarchy that keep people like Bella unable to afford college without vampire intervention. Nor does she say anything of the poverty that, though not mentioned, is the reality for most Native Americans. This failure to assess class, wealth, capitalism, or consumerism is ironic given that Dracula, the grand-daddy of vampire texts, is read as a coded critique of capitalist imperialism (see, for example, Ken Gelder’s Reading the Vampire).

Oh yeah, Meyer hasn’t read that one… (Does anyone else out there think she should???)

*As my Twi books are kindle e-books without pagination, I am citing only which book in the series quotes come from, with T representing Twilight and BD representing Breakign Dawn.

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