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Got Vampire Privilege?: The Whiteness of Twilight

April 6, 2010

I am back from the national Popular Cultural Association conference which was awash in vampire panels. There were twelve panels devoted exclusively to Twilight (yes, twelve!!!). I intend to offer a conference summary of sorts in the week’s that follow. However, as I came home to a crashed hard drive (I wonder, do Edward’s savior skills involve hard drive rescue?), I am now inundated with trying to rescue documents and rebuild my computer. So, before I am able to wade through all my PCA notes and formulate a useful summary and response, I am going to post the paper I delivered at the conference, “Got Vampire Privilege?: The Whiteness of Twilight,” in parts. I will split it into five post-size parts as follows:

PART 1: White and delightsome vampires verses wolves of color

PART 2: Edward’s white perfection and Bella’s knapsack of privileges

PART 3: (Ig)Noble savages in need of vampire civilization…

PART 4: Edward’s mind versus Jacob’s body, or, Twilight as a Colonial Text

PART 5: It’s not “just fantasy”: why Twilight’s representation of race matters

As this was written as a talk rather than for a blog, it does not include hyperlinks. However, after I post Part 5 I will post a list of useful blogs/posts that discuss Twilight from a racial analysis perspective.

For now, here is Part 1, with the remaining parts to follow over the next week or so. Hope you enjoy!

PART 1: White and delightsome vampires verses wolves of color

The following analysis interrogates the unexamined white privilege permeating the Twilight texts, arguing the saga upholds dominant ideas about race that associate whiteness with civility, beauty, and intellect on the one hand, and indigenous people with animality and primitivism on the other.

I contend that while vampire privilege may seem desirable, it is in fact predicated on what Sherman Alexie calls a “colonial gaze” – or a white view of the world that renders people of color and their history of genocide, colonization, and cultural decimation invisible. In the texts, this gaze results in the indigenous Quileute of the series being depicted as the savage werewolves in need of vampire colonization.

The structural divide between humans, vampires, and werewolves the books enact is echoed via the love triangle of Bella, Edward, and Jacob. Read as racial allegory, a white, working class human chooses between an ultra-white, ultra-privileged vampire and a far less privileged wolf of color.  This love triangle is imbued with racial connotations, with a white vampire in competition with a Native American shape-shifter.

The two male leads are contrasted using various binaries that equate Edward with whiteness (and its associations with civility, wealth, and intellect) and Jacob with the indigenous (and its associations with animals, primitivism, and savagery). Like Bella, readers are encouraged to choose between these two different racialized suitors.

In keeping with dominant conceptions of the white/non-white, Edward is constructed as a white, godlike vampire, and the color white is associated with purity, beauty, and heroism. The non-white is rendered inferior, with the Quielute wolves portrayed as not as good or heroic as the white vampires. Their russet-colored skin, black hair, and dark eyes are associated with violence, danger, and savagery.

This black/white symbolism of the book echoes longstanding media associations of whiteness with superiority, not too mention the longstanding Mormon belief that God’s chosen people are “white and delightsome” 1

Mormon doctrine suggests that Native Americans who accept and convert to LDS faith will have the so-called curse of dark skin taken from them. Indeed, the Book of Mormon explains the dark skin of Native Americans as CAUSED by their refusal to embrace God, who, as the texts of the book of Nephi reads “did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them…(so that) “they might not be enticing unto my people.”

Such beliefs resulted in varying levels of institutional racism within the Mormon church, which barred men of color from the priesthood, from serving missions, or from receiving Temple endowments for over a century (this ended by resolution 1978). To this day, few Mormons of color have reached high ranking positions in the LDS hierarchy. Indeed, religious critic John Granger reads Meyer’s representation of the Quileute as a sort of apologist atonement for the racism associated with the LDS faith in his recent book Spotlight.

However, given that white skin is still glorified in the series, we must question Granger’s claim that Meyer “carries the postmodern banner for tolerance” (Spotlight, 206).The fact that the texts glorify whiteness, and that being a vampire accords one all sorts of privileges that echo real-world white privilege, or the social capital afforded to those with white skin, puts Granger’s claim into question.

(next up: PART 2: Edward’s white perfection and Bella’s knapsack of privileges)

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. July 11, 2010 10:48 pm

    Love your blog! But are you going to post a list of useful blogs/posts that discuss Twilight from a racial analysis perspective?

  2. September 13, 2010 8:34 pm

    I think it’s worth also noting that the Twilight novels are by and large representative of ONE character’s point of view. With the exception of Jacob’s brief POV in the last book they can also be representative of Bella’s sense of white priviledge, they certainly represent her assumptions and personal prejudices based on that and lack of certain considerations outside of that. (Also the perceived happy end occurs likely only because the story ends where it does.)

    For example see the assumption she jumps to in New Moon that Jacob and his pack are killing people, this is proven wrong; and later the lack of contemplation on the point that the wolves ONLY exist due to the presence of the vampires in particular the vampires drawn into conflict with the Cullens due to her relationship with Edward.

    There’s actually a subtext that the vampires create greater problems for the Quileute than they resolve and that the tribe is ultimately exploited for their physical capabilities, interesting again given that their younger generation is the group being potentially sent to their deaths. Not to mention that the wolfpack creates an economic pressure in terms of extra food and clothing.

    This is not questioned by Bella despite the obvious sacrifices being made by the tribe and individuals of the wolfpack (the people in the wolfpack, I’m sure are skipping class to do what they do).

    The emnity between the Cullens and the wolfpack is clear only from the wolves side: the transformation was triggered when the tribe was nearly slaughtered. It is also inconvenient in the here and now and not always welcome for those who it happens to, as it presents a risk to others and the need for constant control (though, this is not much different from the Cullen clan’s need to control their instinct to kill humans – and both sides exhibit clear control despite what the other side seems to think of the other). It’s not clear what the wolves did other than try to defend themselves that resulted in the Cullens’ near universal loathing. The only one who doesn’t behave that way is Carlisle, which is why he is permitted to treat Jacob when he is injured. Otherwise it’s not mentioned or explained in the books. (However, it is mentioned that the vampires assume they are werewolves when they are in fact shapeshifters – and that werewolves existed and were hunted to extinction or near that by members of the Volturi).

    THAT THIS OBVIOUS OVERSIGHT IS SO RARELY QUESTIONED does point to the series using existing prejudices to bridge plot gaps, or alternatively this could merely be *Bella’s* lack of consideration of these issues being represented and remaining unquestioned by the majority of readers who share her priviledge. (Actually it’s fun to see the assumptions on various characters made by readers, as it often represents their own projections or anxieties.)

    The problem with the Twilight series is that it is easily used to represent white priviledge agendas because the tropes that facilitate this in the books are not explicitly challenged within the books. (Though not addressing these issues in these books may merely be a deliberate move by the author to address them through different characters at a different time.)

    Actually, I argue that this is part of the reason for fan ire regarding the last book because no ‘noble savages’ die and Jacob’s happy end is represented as an interracial and (interspecies, if you want to call it that) relationship (whatever form that may end up taking). There is a vocal proponent of ‘fans’ that would have been happier, ironically, if both characters had died.

    I’d argue that this ending and the lack of resolution of Leah’s story – and the fact that Meyer has stated if she continued the Twilight universes it would be from the POV of Renesme and Leah. And the fact that Bree Tanner’s story is the inverse of Bella’s (focussing on those vampirised because socially no one would miss them). I think judging the series fully requires either a third person narrative or the input of the same universe from different characters.

    Though I do agree that a large degree of popularity of the books in the west is due to feeding into the unchallenged tropes that echo old colonial archetypes. However, do not assume that this is all readers get out of them despite vocal fan segments on the internet there are a lot of ‘unplugged’ people that also read them or who surf the internet without comment and discussion.

    • natalie wilson permalink*
      September 14, 2010 7:40 pm

      Interesting points about the POV and Bella being stuck in her own white privileged view…

      The exploitation of the wolves is a very interesting subtext indeed – one that can be read not only through a race lens, but also through a class one. This is interesting in terms of traditional vampire/werewolf depictions where vampires are often aristocratic/wealthy (as in Dracula, Fright Night) and weres are working class or exploited worker types (Wolfen, Skin Walkers).

      As to your points about werewolves verses shapeshifters, I think Meyer elides these in the text — and thus so does Bella and so do readers…

      I do not assume all readers get the same things out of these texts – I am believer in literary scholarship based on reader response theory and the indeterminancy of texts. That being said, texts are not complete “free for alls” and do promote certain messages, ideologies, and ideas. I would use the clay analogy — you can “mold” the textual clay to suit your own reading, but in the end it is still clay and you have to work withig the textual (clay-like) parameters — you can’t turn it into water (or diamonds)!

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