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On the allure of peeing in the snow…

August 31, 2009

In an interview with Radar Online, Justin Chon described being the only Asian in the Twilight film as follows:

“I was in a sea of white. I just felt like a drop of piss in and Everest of snow.”

This comment speaks volumes. Firstly, it equates being white to being large and powerful: to the vastness of the ocean and the hulk of one of the world’s tallest mountains. In comparison to this sea of white privilege, Chon is “like a drop of piss.”

Whether referring to himself in the derogatory way Asians have oft been characterized – as “yellow” – was intentional, is hard to say. Yet, premeditated or not, this comment exposes the white privilege that permeates the Twilight series specifically and our society generally – a norm that renders the not-white unique  - you know, in that piss in snow kind of way.

Chon  further noted that he “applauds” the film producers for “stepping outside the box” in casting him. Hmmm, I am not sure filmmakers should be applauded for such tiny steps – how about instead questioning why whiteness still dominates Hollywood, why non-white characters are still usually depicted as villains, gangsters, crack-moms, and prostitutes, why in the hulking Everest of a money machine that is the entertainment industry people of color get figuratively pissed on…

While Chon claimed “my role in Twilight is not written as Asian, ” the descriptions Meyer provides of Eric in the books are stereotypically associated with Asians – he has “hair black as an oil slick” and  is an “overly helpful, chess club type” (Twilight, 16). So, was it that much of an imaginative leap to make the nerdiest of Bella’s suitors Asian? I think not.

What would have constituted a REAL step outside the box would have been to cast one of the heroic characters as Asian or Mexican or African or anything other than white. Heck, maybe those producers could have even included an actor with a disability or whose body differed from the thin/muscular ideal. Is everyone in the fictional Forks also skinny, gorgeous, and able-bodied? (At a conference I spoke at this summer, one person seemed exasperated by such a suggestion – as if I was asking every book/movie to include every diversity imaginable. This is not the point. What I am suggesting is that when most mainstream entertainment continues to simultaneously idealize social ‘norms’ and render them invisible, the status quo is perpetuated and maintained. Plus, given that Meyer includes diversity – in the form of Native Americans – but does so in a stereotypical, dehumanizing fashion is indeed problematic. This inclusion opens up her work for this line of questioning.)

To get back to Chon, his interview should give us pause.  His noting that Eric “lives in a town where there is only white people,” should make us reflect on the extensive whiteness of the Twilight series. While real-life Forks is decidedly not all-white and includes in particular no small number Mexican Americans and Native Americans, Meyer’s version of Forks is presented as a wet-dream of a town for those who only want to be surrounded by pale-faces.  Like that nostalgic view of America that lives on in Western movies, white culture is good and pure  thanks to Cullen cowboys prowling the border, keeping out those pesky Others.

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