Please check out my guest appearance on In the Den with Dr. Jenn where I discuss Twilight from a gender and sexuality studies perspective!
As today is the 40th anniversary of Women’s Equality Day, it is an appropriate moment to consider the continuing inequalities women face. As a scholar of popular culture that tracks the way culture grapples with changing conceptions of gender and sexuality, I am struck by the profound difference between Bella Abzug, staunch supporter of women’s rights, and today’s most popular Bella, Bella Swan.
The November release of Breaking Dawn: Part 1, the first half of the two-part film adaptation of the final book in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight saga, will include the much anticipated wedding and honeymoon of Bella Swan and Edward Cullen.
Fans, given previous reactions to leaked photos of the vampire-human honeymoon scenes, will likely clamor for these racier scenarios. Parents, depending on their views of appropriate sexuality and relationship ideals, will be variously delighted by the “happy ending” in marriage or dismayed by the film’s sexualized content. Traditional vampire aficionados will scoff at the idea that the lead vampire, Edward, Mr. Sparkly Pants himself, is able to impregnate a human, something that goes against typical vampire lore. But I, as a women’s studies professor, will be viewing the film with an eye to how it romanticizes sexual violence.
From where I sit, Twilight wrestles with gender norms, abstinence imperatives, and that age-old message foisted upon females: true love conquers all. No Buffy the Vampire Slayer nor her contemporary descendent, Sookie Stackhouse, the saga’s female protagonist is instead a rather weak damsel in distress, traipsing after the two leading men, one a domineering vampire, the other a prone-to-violence werewolf.
Though the bruised body of post-coitus Bella in the opening sections of the Breaking Dawn should concern anyone who cares about violence against women, in all likelihood, what instead will interest viewers is Bella’s “morning after” body, which, after a night of Edward’s headboard busting and pillow biting, will be covered in bruises and feathers – a sort of modern day, sexed-up take on being tarred and feathered. But Bella’s battered body, like the bodies of so many women, will likely be largely forgotten in between frames.
Yet the saga, and this segment in particular, begs the question: “Is sexualized violence acceptable?”
Why don’t images of battered women give us more pause, especially on a day like today – Women’s Equality Day.
Bella shares her first name with the initiator of today’s 40-year old holiday, Bella Abzug. But any similarity stops there. The one Bella was famous for her hats and her saying “This woman’s place is in the House—the House of Representatives,” the other for her clumsiness, and for promoting the idea that a woman’s place is in the domestic home (whether she be cooking for her father – as in the first three books – or bedding her beloved vampire husband – as in the last).
Sure, Meyer’s Bella gets a super-power at the end, but it is the power to cocoon others in a protective mind shield – a sort of virtual womb space. Yes, you got it: she is allowed the power to mother.
While the Twilight saga has hints of female power– a Wall-Street savvy female vampire and a smattering of female vampire leaders, the overwhelming undercurrent of romance, sexual violence, and female subordination – as well as the “happy” ending of Bella as wed, bed, and bruised – suggests the best path for us women is not the road to equality but true love, a myth as enduring as vampires.
To be sure, the film is hardly the only one to render females as the second sex and proffer such depictions of violence sex as proof that true love is in the air. But, given the rabid popularity of the saga, and the highly anticipated depiction of the sex scenes, we should take a human moment and consider what the other Bella – Bella Abzug– would make of Bella Swan’s treatment in the film. Is the type of equality we seek that in which we can choose to romanticize hot, abusive vampire sex?
I, for one, think we’d be better off wearing a crazy hat and insisting, as did Abzug’s resolution, that women not be treated as second-class-citizens, in life or in film. From the onslaught against reproductive freedoms to the rape-blaming that frames women as at fault for the violence done to them, evidence that Women’s Equality Day is here in name only abounds, and not only in headlines, but also in representations of domestic violence in the pages of the rabidly popular Twilight saga and its film adaptations.
Though it’s been ninety-one years to the day since Congress ratified women’s right to vote, women’s place in the House of Representatives is still far from equal. And, more pervasively, a woman’s body is still not her own.
A friend asked if I knew the two people that have reviewed my book on Amazon so far, and I pinky- double-cross-my-heart-promise I don’t! I was very excited when I found these two five star reviews, and even more excited when I found out they are from two total strangers – especially as some people have (rather cruelly) asked “who is gonna like a feminist take on the Twilight saga and vampire culture???” Apparenlty, people do! And people I don’t even know!
If you’ve read the book, please consider posting a review at Amazon and/or at Goodreads. Thanks so much!
Here are the two existing Amazon reviews:
5.0 out of 5 stars Review: Wilson, Seduced By Twilight, May 5, 2011
This review is from: Seduced by Twilight: The Allure and Contradictory Messages of the Popular Saga (Paperback)
Natalie Wilson’s book Seduced by Twilight provides an excellent examination of the pop culture phenomenon know as Twilight. Countering the simplistic reactions to this incredibly popular series in the media and some feminist scholarship, Wilson presents a nuanced exploration of both the conservative and subversive aspects of the texts. She avoids the trap of constructing Twilight readers as cultural dupes passively consuming a straight-forward conservative message, rather she respectfully considers the contradictory messages at work both in Twilight and in the wider American cultural imagination. In this way she roots her analysis in specific sociohistorical contexts. This lends her work greater impact, as Twilight is used as a lens through which cultural understandings of difference are refracted.
This book is required reading for anyone working in the area of 21st century feminist popular cultural criticism and would also be of interest to those fascinated by Twilight but feeling somewhat uneasy about that very fascination. Well-researched, well written, and highly engaging, it was a pleasure being Seduced By Twilight.
5.0 out of 5 stars Seduced by Natalie Wilson, May 20, 2011
Amazon Verified Purchase(What’s this?)
This review is from: Seduced by Twilight: The Allure and Contradictory Messages of the Popular Saga (Paperback)
I have to start by raving about this author. She was able to create an educational and insightful book that was interesting to read. Her writing is phenomenal. I am anxious to see what else we see from this author.
This book takes a critical and thoughtful look at the messages presented in the Twilight saga that are accepted as the norm. Inspiring us to think more deeply about what this series is truly stating. Not to mention who this is series is targeted to! Thank you for opening our minds about things that are so often over looked!
Well, I will see you there! I am presenting on the following panels and will also be holding a book signing for my just released book, Seduced by Twilight.
Fluid Nightmares in HBO’s True Blood , Wednesday 1:15
Publishing and Blogging on Popular Culture: A Q & A with Natalie Wilson, Thursday 1:15
Queering the Vampire Roundtable , Thursday 3:00
“Twilight Pedagogy: Taking a Bite out of Popular Culture”, Saturday 8:00
I am well aware that the education budget in California is decimating the CSU system I work for. I feel student’s pain each semester when there are not enough classes or when courses they need are full.
However, the lack of courses is not under my personal control.
Turning students away is tough, and each semester more and more people line up (virtually and in person) to try to crash courses. This results in MANY urgent emails. As such, as an update to the post “What if you plan to email your professor?” I would like to add a few more (cranky) suggestions, especially as my inbox is currently over-flowing with students who MUST, simply MUST add my class, or they might die!
So, a few hints for those hoping to add my course or get on the wait list:
1. It would help if you tell me what course you are trying to add! Wish I only taught one a semester, but as I teach five, I need to know which course and at what time.
2. If you spell my name wrong, fill your email with mistakes, or address me with “Hey” as the salutation, your likelihood of getting in to my course will be significantly lowered.
3. If you really want to add my class, display you know what it is and what it’s about – something that appears to be a mass-produced query is likely not going to get you on any waiting list any time soon.
4. Emails like the one below are not conducive to securing a spot on the wait list:
“Hi. I email you and email you and no reply. You remember? Yesterday I email you again. Did you remember? I think I am first on waiting list as I been emailing you lots. Can I get permission number to add now? I really want to took your class. Reply to me asap. Give me permission number to add.”
Such emails indicate what type of student the person sending the email is likely to be.
Who would want to add someone likely to be a constant thorn in one’s side (and one’s inbox!), who can’t bother to take the time to either come to office hours or the class itself LET ALONE name what class they are hoping to take, who’s papers will be difficult to grade, and who is a bossy boots? Not me!
For those trying to add, kindness and good grammar go along way. So does knowing my name, the title of the course, and what the course entails. All this should go without saying, but in the age of ATM Education and entitlement on over-drive, it sadly does not…
Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight saga romanticizes white privilege and the continuing rule of whites over “the Other” – which, in Twilight’s case, is the Quileute. Further, while the series has been complimented for depicting Native Americans in the modern day rather than in some mythic past, the saga nevertheless ignores present realities and injustices
Read as a racial allegory, a white, working class woman chooses between an ultra-white, ultra-privileged vampire and a far less privileged wolf of color.
The franchising of the phenomenon has capitalized on the Native American angle in a way that is culturally and morally dubious, much like the way we might question Meyer’s inclusion of Quileute legend for her own purposes – an inclusion that was done without extensive research or scholarly inquiry, let alone (it seems) with permission from the Quileute people.
We can thus read the story of Twilight as grounded in older tales of conquest and imperialism – and in the tradition of white authors appropriating native stories and voices – though instead of the whites and Native Americans that populated the Western films that re-enacted this conquest, we now have vampires and werewolves vying over land as well as women.
Yet, if we examine Twilight in relation to the decimation of indigenous people, and with an awareness of how Christianity generally and Mormonism more specifically are related to larger colonial and missionary projects, it is no stretch to see that to ignore race in the saga is a glaring omission.
This history cannot be ignored if one is to offer a full analysis of Twilight and the cultural work it is doing. Literature historically played a huge role in the framing of Native Americans as uncivilized and savage. Meyer’s texts carry on this project.
The saga’s failure to re-work damaging representations of indigenous peoples places it within a long line of white-penned narratives that variously appropriate and/or misrepresent Native culture and legend.
As noted in the introduction to Ward Churchill’s Fantasies of the Master Race, “Literature crafted by a dominating culture can be an insidious political force, disinforming people who might otherwise develop a clearer understanding of the struggles for survival faced by an indigenous population.”
The texts indeed “disinform” people about the Quileute, leading them to believe on the one hand that their legends include werewolves and, on the other, rendering the indigenous struggle for survival invisible.
Twilight produces a modern myth that equates whiteness with goodness and frames indigenous people as less evolved beasts. It thus allies with Ward Churchill’s claim that “literature in America is and always has been part and parcel of the colonial process”.
While Meyer explains her inclusion of the Quileute as coming about due to her visit to Forks and discovery of their legends, it cannot be denied that representing a real indigenous people as wolves is in accordance with a colonialist viewpoint.
Meyer readily admits that she had concerns about her depiction of the Quileute. When asked by a fan if she had “any negative recourse for the fictional portrayal of their tribal members as werewolves?”, Meyer answered:
I was pretty worried about this myself. However, to this point I’ve had nothing but positive feedback from Native Americans, both Quileute and otherwise. I actually got a letter on MySpace from a girl who is the daughter of one of the council members… and she loved the werewolf thing.
Here, Meyer’s comments reveal that she had some sense she was taking liberty with another culture’s legends and history.
Further, by obliquely referring to positive feedback about her focus on ethnicity, she averts the question of portraying tribal members AS werewolves.
In another question and answer session, when asked why she chose certain settings, Meyer shared “I was nervous about what the real life citizens of Forks would think, and more especially what the real life people of La Push would think—I’d taken some rather big liberties with their fictional history, and I wasn’t sure if they would find it amusing or irritating.”
Again, Meyer reveals an awareness that her “liberties” might be taken as an affront. What she does not seem aware of though, is how said liberties build upon a history of appropriation in the name of white, colonial interests.
Whether or not Meyer is intentionally writing from such a colonial view is not the point, – more pertinent is that her socio-historical positioning cannot help but shape her depiction of Native culture.
Or, as Sherman Alexie argues, “when non-Indians write about us, it’s colonial literature. And unless it’s seen that way, there’s a problem.”
As far as my research reveals, Meyer did not correspond with any Quileute peoples nor seek out the Tribal Council to enquire whether it was okay to depict their legends in the series, let alone to determine whether her Google research was correct.
In contrast, she did reach out to the owners of Bella Italia restaurant in Port Angeles to find out if it was okay for her to feature the restaurant in a scene. So, she got permission to write about mushroom ravioli but not an entire people (as revealed in the Twilight in Forks DVD).
Instead, Meyer read about the Quileute on the internet, just as Bella does in the series. Meyer freely admits this when discussing how she decided on the Forks setting and the inclusion of the Quileute, noting “I turned to Google, as I do for all my research needs.”
A modern James Fenimore Cooper, Meyer carries on a long tradition of white authors who know little to nothing of indigenous peoples but nevertheless feel entitled to write about their cultures.
Further, Meyer carries on the tradition of using indigenous characters for “backdrop” and “color” and raises no real criticisms of the colonial project or current racial inequalities.
Like Westerns, which rarely show the real diversity of Native Americans, Twilight presents the Quileute people as “russet-colored” outsiders who are romanticized as noble, exotic, and mysterious on the one hand, and dehumanized as beastly, childlike, and sexually violent on the other.
Historically, this construction resulted in native peoples being viewed quite literally as animals. In an example documented by Andrea Smith, a California newspaper reported in 1853, “We can never rest in security until the redskins are treated like the other wild beasts of the forest.”
This line could fit quite well within Twilight with the white privileged vampires unable to rest until the “russet colored” wolves, and Jacob in particular, are “civilized.”
In the final book of the series, this colonization of the wolf is promoted when the Cullens introduce “culture” to Jacob. Sleeping and eating outside at first, in various states of undress, J is gradually “civilized” and moves inside the Cullen house, or into the white world.
While Meyer’s texts themselves largely ally with the white construction of “the Indian,” the casting choice of Lautner also falls in line with a long history of non-native actors being cast to play indigenous parts.
However, after the ruckus over Lautner’s casting, Native actors were cast to play various roles for the second film, though none of them are Quileute. Alex Meraz, who plays Paul, was mindful of the weightiness of his casting, sharing
In essence, even though we’re taking some of their mythology, their creation story and it’s mixed in a fantasy, still we’re taking from the culture. Being Native, we needed to be conscious of that and ask permission to the people of the past, present and of the future … Native Americans…have a right to be protective of their stories.
Putting a rather positive spin on the saga’s depiction of the Quileute, Meraz further explains:
I think it’s time for us to kind of rewrite what Hollywood’s take on Native Americans was, which was long hair blowing, noble kind of people, leather and feather period pieces. So now you see something in a contemporary setting, and you see us to be humans. It’s great.
While it’s true the saga avoids the usual tendency to depict Natives as only living in (or stuck in) the past, Meraz’s claim that the saga shows them as humans glosses over the fact that the texts (and the film adaptations) focus on the wolf identity of the Quileute – on their animality more than their humanity.
Moreover, not only does Twilight frame America as the new frontier for vampires (with Forks being the Western resting place of these good pioneers), it constructs La Push (and non-white society) as “outside,” Other, and poverty-stricken.
Meyer’s depiction of a “treaty” between the Cullen vampires and the Quileute wolves also problematically echoes earlier historical treaties between Native Americans and the Federal Government. However, Meyer’s fictional treaty differs dramatically from the real life Treaty of Olympia, signed between the Quileute nation and the US in 1856. While the historical treaty resulted in the loss of Quileute land and sovereignty, the treaty in Twilight offers a relatively peaceful means of co-existence.
Meanwhile, for the real Quileute people of La Push, land issues remain a concern and boundary disputes with Washington State continue. For them, the “treaty line” signs that have been put up on the road that leads from Forks to La Push likely have a much different significance than for the fans who regularly pose by the signs, taking home photo shots that celebrate the fictionalization of a real people and once again render indigenous culture tourism fodder.
To conclude, though the stereotypical depiction of Quileute as noble-savages morphed into werewolves can be brushed off via the claim this the series is meant to be a fantasy, we cannot pretend that such depictions do not contribute to dominant notions of race shaping US culture.
The fact that the series depicts a real group of indigenous people, one that, like most indigenous groups, has been decimated by colonization, torn apart by practices such as Indian Boarding Schools, and forced to assimilate into white culture and belief systems, is problematic. The series does not touch on such history let alone address the lasting legacy of colonialism.
So, I have neglected this blog for the past few months while finishing up my manuscript for McFarland Press (a feminist analysis of the Twilight saga and the fandom). However, WITH CLASSES STARTING MONDAY (!!!), I sat down this week to hammer out the syllabus for my brand spanking new, first of its kind (as far as I know) women’s studies course TWILIGHT: THE TEXT AND THE FANDOM.
As promised, I will be using my blog space over at Seduced by Twilight as a sort of virtual classroom for those who want to “participate” in the course. I will post the texts and calendar of readings soon. In the meanwhile, if you want to follow along with us as a “virtual student” please put the blog in your blog feed, sign up for email alerts, favorite the facebook page, and/or follow me on twitter (at seducedbytwi).
While I hope to also get back to my What if…? posts soon, (and to returning to my guest gigs at Girl with Pen and Womanist Musings), that will likely not happen for at least a few more weeks… Until then, I hope those of you who are interested will check out the Twilight discussions at my other blog.
Happy (almost) last weekend of August everyone!