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Got Vampire Privilege?

August 16, 2009

This series of posts, adapted from talks I gave at Summer School in Forks and Twi-Con this summer, will consider the representation of whiteness, maleness, wealth, and heterosexuality in the Twilight series.

Although the race and class dynamics that shape the narrative tend not to be the focus of discussion very often in the fandom, such dynamics are definitely present. While the whiteness of the vampires, especially of the “good vampire family” is not made explicit in the text, at least not in terms of the Cullen family being a family that accords to all the typical trappings of white, wealthy, heterosexual, god-fearing privilege, they definitely function on privilege over-drive . Their hyper-privilege is rendered desirable to readers (and certainly to Bella), yet is dangerously predicated on the very same types of privileges that have disempowered women, people of color, and other marginalized groups back into the far reaches of history.

The concept of privilege, relatively new in the academic world, has brought about a lively, continuing debate about the complexities of oppression and the multifaceted, hierarchical characteristics of privilege. This intersectional approach emphasizes the ways various ‘isms’ and ideologies – racism, sexism, classism, heteronormativity, etc – overlap. Central to this field of thought is the understanding that we are not defined solely by being male or female, but also through being rich or poor, white or a person of color, heterosexual or queer. Our social positioning, our view of the world, the way we are treated, and the (dis)advantages we encounter are intricately related to our age, appearance, health, ability, religious affiliation, politics, and so on.

Significantly, the way privilege functions has been left unexamined until relatively recently. Even now, privilege functions in a rather un-marked way; it is made invisible by our inattention to it. Or, as Wildman and Davis claim,

“The invisibility of privilege strengthens the power it creates and maintains. The invisible cannot be combated, and as a result, privilege is allowed to perpetuate, regenerate, and re-create itself….Privilege is invisible only until looked for, but silence in the face of privilege sustains its invisibility.” (“Making Systems of Privilege Visible,” 615).

In the case of the Twilight saga, silence in the face of all the privileges it champions sustain the invisible matrix of oppressions the book relies upon. Patriarchy (and its second-classing of woman), heterosexism (and its denial of non monogamous, non-heterosexual, or out of wedlock sexuality), classism (and its fetishization of wealth), racism (and its privileging of whites), and euro-centrist imperialism (and its turning of people of color into ‘savages’) are all allowed to stand within the series. This un-critical representation of the power hierarchies that shape our world normalizes this system, giving it a gold seal of Meyer-inflected approval.

While I doubt this depiction was intentional on Meyer’s part, the dynamics of privilege that shape the series and the resulting cultural phenomenon beg examination. As Wildman and Davis note, “the conflation of privilege with the societal norm and the implicit option to ignore oppression mean that privilege is rarely seen by the holder of the privilege”(618). This attribute results in the normalization of all the privileges Twilight circulates around (white privilege, male privilege, etc) AND encourages readers not to recognize or question the power structures on which the series (and reality) depends.

Thus, the following series (to be posted over the next few weeks) will examine white privilege, male privilege, heterosexual privilege, class privilege, and religious privilege in the Twilight series. Hope you enjoy!

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