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

April 13, 2010

(To read Part 1: White and delightsome vampires verses wolves of color, click here. To read Part 2: Edward’s white perfection and Bella’s knapsack of privileges, click here)

In addition to its depictions of the Quileute characters as literally and figuratively darker and more animalistic, the Twilight series also features many characters whose villainy is either associated with non-white skin and/or their black hair and clothing.

Laurent, for example, is described as having olive skin and glossy black hair in the books and is played by a black actor in the films. The evil Volturi, their name redolent of black vultures, are repeatedly associated with their long black capes and “dark ruby eyes”.

Even the raced vampire allies are portrayed as more savage than their white counterparts. The animal-skin wearing Amazonian vampires are depicted as “feline” with “long black braids.” Bella observes “It wasn’t just their eccentric clothes that made them seem wild but everything about them” Noting their “restless” “darting movements,” and “fierce appearance,” she relates, “I’d never met any vampires less civilized” .

The Brazilian workers featured in Breaking Dawn are similarly associated with darkness. The “tiny coffee-skinned woman” with “dark eyes” is “superstitious” and speaks in what Bella describes as an “alien tongue”.

More explicit racialization occurs via the NA wolves depiction as less civilized than vampires. In Breaking Dawn, for example, the Cullens introduce “culture” to Jacob, inviting him into their home. Sleeping and eating outside at first, in various states of undress, he is gradually “civilized” and moves inside the house, or into the white world.

The term werewolf, literally meaning man-wolf, connotes beastliness and irrationality, attributes that were also associated with those “in need” of colonization. This man-wolf idea, as Meyer’s books show, lends itself well to the historical rep of Native Americans as a violent, savage people.

Indeed, violence is represented as genetic trait of the Quileute via the actions of Paul, Sam, and Jacob, a representation that glosses over the political reality that  native women experience domestic violence at higher rates than any other ethnic group and frames native men as predisposed to violence.

On the flip side of this ignoble savage representation is the noble savage (the native American as close to the land, spiritual, heroic, virtuous—and doomed). In Twilight, Jacob’s “good side” is often rendered in animal-like terms which present him not so much as a savage beast, but as a loyal dog. These depictions, despite having positive associations with “man’s best friend,” nevertheless portray Jacob and the wolves as more animal-like than human, a portrayal that has historically been used in relation to Native Americans.

Tellingly, when Edward is associated with animality, he is characterized as a lion, the king of the jungle  – Jacob, on the other hand, is depicted as a loyal dog, a savage wolf, and, at one point, a sure-footed mountain goat. He is the ignoble savage that forces himself on Bella – a younger Sam who, we are encouraged to think, might just leave Bella’s face scarred like Emily’s. Yet, lest this violent representation smack too much of racism, he is domesticated in the texts – rendered into a nice puppy dog for Bella to pet. (Tellingly, Bella admits she likes Jacob MORE in wolf form when she can be his metaphorical human master, patting his soft fur and reveling in his expressive wolf eyes that are so much more palatable to her than when he is human and can talk!)

She, as future vampire, tames his wolfishness, preparing him to enter the Cullen world – first via being allowed into their house, then dressed in “civilized” clothes, then ultimately made a family member through his imprinting on Renesmee. Not only is he colonized by these vampires, he now has godly Edward as a father. What a nice little assimilationist fairy tale…

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. September 13, 2010 9:59 pm

    Re: physical characteristics

    I think Rosalie is the most aloof and hostile of the Cullen’s to Bella’s induction (until she does her a favour and has a baby while nearly dying) and she’s a blonde. Jasper is also a blond and he is the member of the Cullen’s with the least control on his animalistic instincts.

    Victoria is a red-head and phenotypically red-heads are more likely to be paler due to the quality being associated with recessive genes. She’s also the one trying to hunt down Bella, who manipulates Riley and his vampire army, while also torturing and killing Diego.

    The Quilutes are shown to be, in general, more tolerant and patient than the Cullens in terms of accepting and befriending their enemies. They are shown to create (Jacobs building vehicles and making the wooden wolf charm) and where the Cullens do destroy (whether it’s under the pretext of keeping animal populations down or not). Vampires generally have to kill something to feed – that’s their dilemna and likely the reason the Cullens cultivate the trappings of ‘civilisation’ because they have to in order to feel human and simulate humanity.

    The Quileute, can revert to human form and eat. It’s not necessary for them to kill to feed in their wolf forms.

    The wolfpack members are also *labelled* werewolves by the Cullens and Bella, calling themselves that mistakenly – they are actually shapeshifters, a conclusion that Edward comes to later – likely after accepting that they were actually NOT the uncontrollable beasts he had assumed they would be.

    Bella’s observations about the Amazonians are very much her perception and prejudice – again the Amazonians actions speak louder and it is actually one of them who points out Bella’s ‘shield’ and teaches (or tries to, as Bella at the time can’t manage it) her how to use it – making the Amazonians for all of Bella’s projections of lack of civilization – more knowledgeable and aware than she.

    By the above arguement the Volturi are the most civilised of the entire vampire hierarchy and yet despite their trappings of civilisation (palaces and thrones) their priviledge is observed as a means to exploit, destroy and accumulate power under the proviso of godly judgement. Even with Bella’s priviledge blinkering her perceptions they are not presented as lovingly as the Cullens.

    Bella’s love for Edward and what he represents is what the series is symptomatic of because it’s almost entirely from her point of view.

    To me, the lack of ‘civilised’ trappings or presence of them did not represent righteousness of character but merely the means to move through that world and be perceived as righteous. What it actually seems to suggest is that the characters are more isolated in their glass towers.

    I think you can read it as you perceive it.

    Sam does scar Emily but accidentally not from any intent. This is underlined due to his imprinting on her – he can’t do anything she doesn’t wish – he was merely unaware of his ability and was physically close to her at the time. It can be viewed as Native American as uncontrollable animal or to point out the exceptional care and control Sam has once he is aware of the ways he can hurt those he cares for unintentionally. (A moment Edward has when he leaves Bella in New Moon – it could be argued that the scars he leaves are psychological rather than physical.) Again, it is worth reiterating that Sam’s transformation is triggered by the presence of the Cullens and other vampires – this may be referencing a social reality rather than having a deliberate racial subtext. The vampires are just as animalistic but as they don’t take an animal form this is rendered less obvious – but still fact. There isn’t anything more sadistic than Victoria and Riley’s dispatch of Diego. Or, really, the Volturi’s dispatch of Bree for that matter, when it’s entirely unnecessary.

    The characters reference Jacob as a dog as a means to undermine him and the perceived threat he presents to them (he is more often their ally and they don’t actually mention that either). Bella prefers him in his wolf form not because he represents a dog but because she can’t bring herself to acknowledge her feelings for him are not platonic. Both the Cullens and Bella misreference the Quileute’s shapeshifting ability in order to mitigate the community and power they represent – and it’s misreference the Quileute’s numbers primarily that tip the potential battle with the Volturi into a stalemate.

    What’s more interesting is that Bella strikes Paul in New Moon (not in the book) and nobody finds that questionable. If it were the opposite and Paul had come into Bella’s house – whatever the pretext – and struck Bella I doubt that would have failed to cause contention.

    Yes, the Twilight series does present certain racist tropes or can be interpreted that way I think another POV particularly from someone unamoured with the Cullens or Bella would definitively whether the tropes are there to be examined or there due to the writer’s innate prejudices.

    I’m glad that your discussions are up, however, because an awareness of the tropes and their origins is necessary.

  2. October 12, 2012 11:16 pm

    Likening the NA characters as animals who cannot control their emotions (which is how they transform sometimes) is pretty straightforwardly racist. Meyer may not have *meant* it, but her writing was informed by the culture she was raised in. There were points in the book that made me scoff out loud, and when I brought them up with a Twilight fan, she was very upset that I would even try to pick the text apart. Pssht. Thanks for writing these.

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  1. The Colonial Gaze of Breaking Dawn: Part 1 | Fembot Collective

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