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Got Vampire Privilege Part 2: Edward’s white perfection and Bella’s knapsack of privileges

April 9, 2010

(To read Part 1: White and delightsome vampires verses wolves of color, click here.)

In the Twilight series, Edward is particularly associated with white perfection. Yet, whiteness is never explicitly linked to privilege in the texts.  This accords with white privilege in the real world, which functions as an unmarked, naturalized category conferring superiority on those with white skin.

As Peggy McIntosh argues, whiteness works as a hidden system of advantage in our world. Scholar Richard Dyer similarly notes that whites do not acknowledge their whiteness. Asserting that in western culture whites play predominant roles, Dyer maintains that “at the level of representation…whites are not of a certain race, they’re just the human race.”

In Twilight, Bella never names Edward as racially white nor does she consider the mixed race connotations of her friendship and possible romance with Jacob. She does not, in effect, see race, including her own. This failure is in itself a trapping of white privilege and results in a text that renders white privilege invisible.

In kind, young readers of the series are not encouraged to examine the racial power dynamics that shape their own lives –, rather, they are given the facile message that race doesnt really matter, that we should all just focus on getting along (or, on nabbing ourselves a super cute vampire boyfriend).

In Breaking Dawn, Bella literally packs a knapsack of special provisions that would not be possible without her white vampire privilege. As Tim Wise writes, “the virtual invisibility that whiteness affords those of us who have it is like psychological money in the bank, the proceeds of which we cash in every day while others are in a state of perpetual overdraft.” Here, linking whiteness to money in the bank is particularly apt. As mentioned above, Bella cashes in on her privileges in Breaking Dawn in various ways, using her “proceeds” to draw on important networks, secure documents, and withdraw cash.

This strand of the texts reveals the links between white privilege and class privilege. Yet, readers are not encouraged to question such unearned privileges, but to desire them.

The Cullens are presented as living the good life and their activities and tastes tend toward those things associated with high culture: they like classical music, appreciate art, value education, like to travel, and have sophisticated fashion and home décor know-how. Their home is depicted as opulent, decked out in white and gold. In contrast, Jacob’s house resembles “a tiny barn.” While Edward has multiple college degrees and composes symphonic lullabies, Jacob fixes cars and has to be reminded by Bella to do his homework.

Here, the differing class levels, as well as the way whiteness is associated with wealth and intelligence and non-whiteness with physicality and manual labor, contributes to the texts racial divide.

Bella, though she has white skin privilege, is economically more in line with Jacob.  Yet, when Bella chooses Edward at the series close, she also chooses wealth and all the privileges it brings.

As Dyer notes, whiteness is historically associated with godliness. Referring to the “whitening of the image of Christ,” Dyer argues that constructing god as white has perpetuated notions of white superiority, framing whites as more spiritual and godly than raced people). This framing relates particularly to Edward, whom Bella repeatedly refers to as god-like and angelic.

Contrastingly, when Bella first sees Jacob and his friends at La Push, she notices the “straight black hair and copper skin of the newcomers.” While Edward’s eyes and hair are gold, Jacob’s are dark. His last name is Black, and he, like other Quileute characters, is associated with a lack of light – his house has “narrow windows” and he has “long, glossy black hair” that hangs “like black satin curtains on either side of his broad face.”

While Edward’s whiteness is portrayed as next to godliness in the texts, Jacob and other Quileute characters’ russet-colored skin and black hair are associated with animality. Words such as crow-black, exotic and feathery associate the Quileute with animals. Repeatedly referencing skin color has strong racist undertones regardless if one shies away from overt terms such as “red-skin” How different really is “russet colored” from that historically racist designation?

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

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. caf21 permalink
    April 30, 2010 2:07 am

    The literal knapsack of privilege is soooooo good. Once you pointed it out, it became painfully obvious. I’m going to bring that up in every conversation I can from now on (I will of course credit you)!

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