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Got Vampire Privilege Part 3: The White Guy is Still the Hero

August 22, 2009

Reading the vampire/wolf dyad through a critical race theory lens reveals the unexamined ideology of white privilege shaping the Twilight series . In keeping with negative stereotypes that structure the cultural imagination, the Native American wolves are represented as less able to control their tempers; they are depicted as decidedly less civilized than the ultra-white vampires. They run in packs, they smell, howl, and eschew clothing. Compared to the “high-culture” of the Cullens and the Volturi, the wolves are smelly, wild, and all too natural. Shrouded in ‘mysticism’ and residing outside of culture, they are the savage ‘Others’ who Bella is drawn to as she negotiates her future – will she pick the nice, white boy (Edward) or the dangerous dark-skinned outsider (Jacob)?

Structurally, the texts place Forks at the center. This small-town, predominantly white, good-old fashioned America drips with nostalgia for days gone by – from the nice small town sheriff (Charlie) to the quaint old cars (Bella’s truck), Forks is depicted as an apple pie slice of good ole USA. The girls in Forks are good (thinking of proms and cute boys rather than of sex, drugs, or rebellion) and the boys are sweet (especially the white ones). Ironically, the town’s name indicates choice and the option of taking the road less travelled. However, Bella ultimately picks the well-trodden path – the one where the white guy is the hero, and the non-white guy, is, well, an animal.

In terms of the characterization of the two lead males, Edward functions as the gentleman hero, while Jacob is more the James Dean rebel type. Edward is able to control his violence and desires; he is, despite his roiling passions and lust for blood, the picture of restraint. Jacob, in contrast, is the animal barely disguised as a boy. (Interesting how this is playing out in relation to the growing celebrity culture surrounding the film – Taylor Lautner, who plays Jacob, is focused on as  ‘hot body’ – perennially without a shirt, and, as he noted at Comic-Con, is often asked to growl by fans. He is ‘wolf boy’ to Rob P’s Greek god…)

While Edward’s stalker vibe registers as somewhat creepy for many readers, Jacob forcing Bella to kiss him is often referred to as the point at which readers no longer like him. “I liked him until then,” many lament. Yet, why is it that Edward, who controls Bella, watches her obsessively, sabotages her car, and regularly physically restrains her, is seen as the dream boyfriend? Jacob  sexually assaults Bella – there is no doubt about this – but his behavior is overt and sudden. Edward’s control is disguised as “I just care so much” while Jacob’s act is more of the “I just couldn’t control myself” variety.  These differing representations of male action accord with the racialized representations that color the rest of the series — the white vampires are the good, if overly protective, man-gods, while the brown-skinned Quileute are literally depicted as animals.

Just as Jacob’s assault of Bella and Sam’s attack on Emily serve to sediment the age-old claim that “brown men” are dangerous beasts who besmirch “pale women,” so does the surrounding depiction of vampires and wolves serve to uphold white hegemony. Of course, it is traditional to represent vampires as pale (they are, after all, dead) – but, Meyer takes the representation further – her vampires are not only pale, they are uber-white, dripping with all the cultural accoutrements associated with white privilege – cars, houses, nice clothes, fancy degrees… They are apparently oblivious to the notion of white privilege though, never questioning whether all their cultural advantages are fair or considering if they should share the wealth. This erasure of racial dynamics in a book that is profoundly shaped by racialized representations is dangerous – it allows for the perpetuation of faulty stereotypes while (re)introducing a colonial view of the world to new generations of readers. It is the same old story in a new package – the white guy is still the hero.

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