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Gender Norms, White Privilege, Ableism, and Commodification in Manga Monster Form: Twilight:The Graphic Novel Volume 1

March 29, 2010

I got my copy of Twilight The Graphic Novel Volume 1 last week. Much as I worry about feeding the Yes-on-8-heteronormative-Mormon-money-machine, I felt I needed to analyze this, the newest of the Twilight franchise adaptations. (Though I readily admit the only other graphic novel I own is V for Vendetta and that I have never read a comic book in full. So, I am no expert on the comic book, graphic novel, or manga genres.)

I agree with Deb Aoki’s estimation that, “By letting Young Kim’s artwork do much of the storytelling, the graphic novel is an improvement on the novels, because Meyer’s florid prose is one of the most distracting aspects of her books.” As so hilariously noted in the recent Monkey See post, the writing of Twilight often leaves much to be desired. That being said, the story is compelling, and as Chris Sims of Comics Alliance points out “a lot of what’s lousy about the novel plays to the strengths of a comic.”

The pictures tell the story well, and much of the artwork is very beautiful and packs strong narrative/emotional punch. And, as the text painstakingly points out, both in Meyer’s preface page and Kim’s closing statements, Meyer “supervised each and ever page.” This is surely a nod to fans, many of whom seem to be “Team Meyer” just as much as they are “Team Edward” or “Team Jacob.”

Alas, neither Kim nor Meyer apparently noticed (or maybe just had no problem with) the fact the resulting images promote delimiting gender norms, erase all but white identity, and frame the body as only beautiful when it is ultra-thin and able-bodied. With a price tag of 19.99 (and with images throughout of obviously fashion conscious characters) the novel also furthers the pro-consumer, pro-wealth messages of the series itself.

As for representations of gender, the first image is of PART of Bella’s face – her eyes are cut off, tears dripping down her thin white chicks, and her lips are parted. Ah, the erasure of the female gaze, the promotion of beauty norms, and the sexualization of the always ready female mouth all in image one! Wow!

Being an academic, I can’t help but read more into the line that accompanies this image: “I’d never given much thought to how I would die” — dying/death often symbolizes sexual activity (and especially so in vampire stories). Focus on a duly open mouth below the word “die” – well, I know I am going all Freudian here, but what I think is “blow job!!!” (The links between dying and oral sex are not lost on Gary Numan either, who sings “Her favorite trick/Was to suck me inside” in his song named – wait for it – “Everyday I Die.”) I am NOT claiming this suggestion is intentional, but I am with Roland Barthes here: intent is largely a moot point.

Flip the page, and we get a crotch shot of Bella (oh the many ways we can display women in parts!) followed by an image of HIS golden eyes. As these first few images make painstakingly clear, HIS male gaze will permeate the text – shaping  not only Bella’s view of herself, but also reader’s interpretations of the story.

As noted, I am no comic book or graphic novel expert, but it seems Bella’s head is cut off in an inordinate number of images, with framing that often leads the eye to focus on her chest or butt. One time I mistakenly thought there was a crotch shot of Edward and got excited, thinking this might at least be a case of equal opportunity objectification. But, I was mistaken, it was Bella’s crotch. On a second flip through, I find not one image that cuts off Edward’s eyes or head nor any that sexually objectify parts of his body…

As per the text’s representation of race, will, apparently race doesn’t exist – instead, everyone is white! Though the publisher claims the text combines “a rare fusion of Asian and western comic techniques,” I see little fusion in terms of race. (Maybe what they are referring to is the failure to include a picture of Kim on the back flap to accompany Meyer’s photo – or, in other words, fusion as erasure…?)

In regards to the illustrations themselves, as Deb Aoki notes, “Jacob and other characters’ faces lack the rich characterization seen in Bella and Edward’s faces.”  Guess it’s hard to capture that “russet-color” that Bella and Meyer are supposedly so fond of…

The side characters – Eric, Jessica, Mike, Angela, Tyler– as well as the general Forks High School scenes – also portray EVERYONE as unabashedly Caucasian. No dark skin or “raced” features in sight! (Not too mention everyone looks like they could really use a sandwich! Is there some rule that manga drawings need be anorexic looking?)

So, enter the La Push gang. Yup, you guessed it, they look white too! The only representation that seems to say “I am Native” is Jacob’s – and this is indicated by a lame looking pony-tail and exaggerated “almond eyes.”

In many images, Jacob looks very feminine. Hmmm, is there some secret commentary or internalized racism going on here regarding men-of-color as not “real men” or “true macho”? Again, I doubt this was intentional – more likely, the artist is trying to portray Jacob’s “difference” and it ends up coming off (as difference often does) negatively (not to say that being feminine is “negative” but that it is perceived as such by the dominant ideology).

I don’t know about coloring processes, but I assume the Quileute could have been portrayed with darker skin – instead, they are literally white-washed, their faces as pale as Bella’s (though sometimes there is a strange cross-hatching on their faces, which has the effects of making their faces look dirty rather than dark. Interesting.)

In addition to suggesting that everyBODY is thin in the extreme, the artwork frames disability as weak and annoying. In one image of Billy Black, he has a demented Michael-Jackson-in-wheelchair aura, with Jacob oddly clutching onto his chest. Jacob is much larger in the image and takes up more space as he pushes Billy’s chair, and the result is that Billy looks very helpless and weak as his chair, the copy tells us, goes “CLATTER.” Oh, darn those disabled people, with their wheelchair noise and their inability to push their own chairs!

On the next page, Charlie pushes a scowling Billy –  you know, cuz what disabled person can actually push themselves…? (Do they only have chairs from the Victorian Age in the Olympic Peninsula or something?)

Now, reading the above you might assume I hated this little graphic foray into the Forks universe. Quite the contrary, actually. I think it’s a pleasurable adaptation that allows for a new experience of the story. But, being one who can never turn off her analytical side, I did find faults, as noted above. Does this mean it is BAD? No, as with ALL texts, it merely means it is caught within the confines of its own historical moment – a moment undoubtedly defined by the policing (in monstrous proportions) of race, gender, class, and body norms.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. roxie permalink
    March 30, 2010 3:29 am

    Yeah….Some of the things you’re talking about have much more to do with Manga & artistic style than anything else. As you said, you’ve never been much of a comic book/manga/graphic novel fan, so there is some context you are missing. I haven’t had a chance to look at the graphic novel myself, so I’ll just stick to what I know.

    Many manga/graphic novel artists use this very whispy thin (as in character size) on purpose and exaggerate details of beauty until they seem sort of extreme. I mean, how many people can have eyelashes that look more like butterfly wings really? While not free from critique, it’s the artist style that they’ve chosen to go with this story. Whispy, over the top, dramatic, VERY pretty people who look nearly alien in their “prettiness”. Sort of like the way composer will manipulate music to match the mood of a visual scene.

    Jacob looks feminine b/c that’s the style used for this graphic novel. It’s not a message specifically about him. It’s very typical that in romantic Shojo manga (“girl comics) that all men (unless they are the most heinous of villains) are very pretty and stylish. To westerners we’ll see these images of pretty men and read them as “feminine”, when this isn’t the case. It’s just another idea of what is attractive and doesn’t have too much to do with who the character is.

    Considering this is clearly done in a romantic Shojo manga style and based on a female pov novel, it is puzzling to hear that there are so many shots of Bella’s body as you say. I’ll definitely try to suss that out when I get to read it.

    Also, most mangas do not include a picture of the artist/author and if they do, it’s usually a drawn representation. Considering that this is an interpretation of Meyer’s work, I am not surprised that Kim’s picture isn’t there.

    I’m surprised to hear they didn’t color Jacob at all!
    Hope this was helpful. Again, I’m not trying to excuse as much as give context. Please let me know where/if I’ve failed!

    • natalie wilson permalink*
      March 30, 2010 2:27 pm

      Thanks so much for taking the time to provide all these details.
      I have noticed the extremism in manga art, but I do wonder why certain characteristics are SO exaggerated — ie the thin body. Why the “whispy” look you mention? Curves/muscles are also considered normatively beautiful, so why the skeletal look? Is there some cultural/historical/artistic reason why the definition of pretty involves very thin bodies, large eyes, and mega eyelashes?

      Regarding Jacob, your points about the depiction of male characters in manga are interesting. But why are the other males drawn rather “masculine” looking? He was the only one who stood out to me as very “feminized.”

      And there are not TONS of Bella’s body, but I noticed it (cuz I do look for that sort of thing) and I did feel the viewer is encouraged to objectify her body by having their gaze drawn to her but, crotch, chest, mouth… The whole body in parts thing.

      As per the picture, the reason the lack of it stood out is because a pic of Meyer was included. It seems to me they should have had no pics or both — otherwise Meyer comes off as “THE AUTHOR AND ARTIST” with Kim as a sort of ghostwriter or helpmate.

      Thanks again for all the context!

  2. March 30, 2010 8:15 pm

    I can answer why the extremism in manga art, as it is something I noticed with the release of the “Cloverfield” graphic novel. I did a little snooping and discovered that the originator of the art form was influenced by none other than “Betty Boop” and other similar American caricatures of that time period. He stylized his creations similarly and of course, his work became a template for future manga artists to follow.

    However, saying all that, there has been a bit of nip/tuck at work within the last decade. The good characters are reed thin and waifish and the bad ones are often drawn as normal or larger. I wonder if the artists are not channeling the “ideal” body form that our advertisers and films promote? Not until Twiggy modeled her way from Carnaby Street to US designers in the 1960’s did our culture take to the anorexic figure. Sadly, responses to return our body imaginings to a more normal state are futile.

    What is fascinating to me is the lack of color for First Nation people in the manga version and overall, the lack of African Americans within the original text. I have been reading “The Book of Mormon” in order to crawl into Meyer’s mindset and discover her influences upon “The Twilight Saga.” Sadly, within the Book of Alma, there is a story that denotes that God smote the people of Canaan with dark coloring due to their great sin and disobedience. Instead of the “Curse of Ham” legend of the Protestants, the Mormons contend that descendants of these people are the truly cursed. From what evidence I can gather, the LDS Church has not, to this day, retracted this belief. This information may be why there is a dominance of the white race in “The Twilight Saga.” Subsequently, my question is this: was Meyer consulted re: the coloration of First Nation people? Whether the artist or the originator determined the color of the American Indian will go far in revealing the truth.

  3. Brenda permalink
    April 7, 2010 11:55 am

    I was checking out the iPad yesterday at the Apple store and noticed that there is an app for the Twilight graphic novel. You might want to check that out if you have an iPhone or iPad.

    • April 9, 2010 6:29 pm

      Thanks so much, Brenda! I’m on my way to checking it out now…

  4. June 26, 2010 2:10 am

    Manhwa characters tend to make manga characters look like blimps, at least as far as I’ve seen. Also Japan has one of/the lowest obesity rates in the world; korea’s isn’t as bad as the U.S’s either. making everyone thin is not as delusional as it is by an American artist- 1/4 of the population in Japan/Korea is not obese like they are in the U.S

    Over-emphasized eyes-manga artists use the eyes to show emotions, not the mouth like many American artists do.

    “The everyone in manga/manhwa/anime is white!” idea gets bandied around a lot. I haven’t read the Twi graphic novel yet, but none of the artists think that. Usually it’s automatically assumed they’re Japanese/Korean unless stated/shown otherwise. The light-skin tones might derive from the fact that most manga are originally printed on very poor-quality black & white paper. Characters don’t pop as much if they’re gray toned.

    Just some thoughts from a manga-fan ;D

    • natalie wilson permalink*
      August 27, 2010 2:30 pm

      Thanks manga fan!!!

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