Monday, August 25, 2008

Difficult Questions on the Twilight series

Caution: spoilers ahead!

Having just read and loved Stephenie Meyer’s entire Twilight series, I dove right into all the blogosphere posts I’ve been avoiding for some time now, about the alleged racism in the books, particularly one by “Latina lit” star Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez. It’s a painful examination on several levels.

First, I was so hooked on these books, I couldn’t put them down—the depth of the characterization, the wildly original twists Meyer put on the vampire and werewolf mythologies, the complex intricacies of that mythology and how it applied to her characters, all so real I almost believed it was all true. I didn’t want to believe that such a gifted author could possibly be racist. And second, I like to think I’m a careful reader of how race, class, culture, and gender interplay in a given story, and I didn’t like that I possibly missed something. Third, Stephenie Meyer has an enormous fan base, and no one likes a flame war that pits you all by your lonesome against an enormous fan base.

My conclusion, FWIW, just because I feel like jabbering today: Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez brings up some important, carefully thought-out points that are well worth discussing. I can’t support all of them, and I won’t cry racism in Meyer’s case until I’m able to crawl into her head and see for myself what she was thinking. But it’s vital that no matter how much we love the books, we have these discussions, rather than silencing the critics.

Valdes-Rodriguez’s first point is that in the love triangle that takes place throughout the story, Bella chooses the pale white vampire (Edward) over the brown, Native American werewolf (Jacob). Meyer has acknowledged that her strong Mormon faith is a large part of who she is and influences how she writes. So Bella’s choice, Valdes-Rodriguez says, may well have been influenced by a passage apparently in the Book of Mormon 2, 5:23, that says God placed “the curse of black skin” upon the Lamanites—also described as “wild, ferocious, plundering, robbing, and murdering people,” according to Valdes-Rodriguez—in order to make them unattractive to the (white) Nephites.

Among the leading black-skinned Lamanites mentioned by name in the Book of Mormon, she says, is Jacob.

Says Valdes-Rodriguez: “No author with the skill that Stephenie Meyer possesses does anything in her books by accident. Therefore, it is safe to assume that the deeply Mormon Meyer did not accidentally name her sinful, dark-skinned boy Jacob Black. Nor did she accidentally have him turn out to be the less desirable of the two monstrous boys vying for Bella’s attentions.”

It’s an interesting and unpleasant point. One of the Janes over at Dear Author responded to this critique by saying she finds Meyer to be a rather “unconscious” writer who hadn’t explored deeper themes in her novels like dark and good sides of wish fulfillment or the removal of free will in the whole werewolf “imprinting” process, so why would she explore the shadier Book of Mormon passages when she hadn’t risen to that level of plotting sophistication before?

I think the Dear Author response is a cop-out. Just because an author doesn’t explore or reveal something in one area of her book doesn’t mean she won’t explore or reveal something different in another. If Meyer really were a deep-seated racist who embraced a couple of troubling passages in the holy book of her faith, you can bet the back of the bus that that facet of herself would rear its ugly head somewhere in her work.

But based on my own reading of the text, I would argue that Jacob is one of the more redeeming, heroic characters in the series. (Yeah, I was firmly on Team Jacob. You’ll see why in a moment.) The villains in the series are never the Quileute werewolves. Throughout the book, I would argue that the “wild, ferocious, plundering, robbing, and murdering” people are the vampires:

• James the tracker, the main villain of book one, is a pale-skinned vampire. He tracks his human victims mercilessly, enjoying the thrill of the hunt, of scaring them to death while he prolongs a chase that must be agony for them. He’s quite simply a sadist and a murderer, with no redeeming qualities.

• His lover Victoria, the villainess of books 2 and 3, also a pale-skinned vampire. Her one redeeming quality—her love of James—is quite spoiled by the fact that she loves a sadistic, cold-blooded killer. She’s hell-bent on vengeance—and has a sadistic streak of her own. Instead of killing Edward for murdering her lover, she sets her sights on Edward’s love, innocent Bella, so he can feel what it’s like to live without her. Word from Victoria's accomplice Laurent is that Victoria intends to kill Bella slowly and painfully.

• The Volturi, the three ancient leaders of the vampire world and their entourage, are pale and chalky vampires. They provide one of the main conflicts in book 2 and are the villains in book 4. They allege that they are good and fair, ruling and meting out justice only to protect the secrecy that must cloak the vampire world for it to survive. However, by the series’ end, we find that the Volturi are entirely Machiavellian—lying, manipulating, and killing just to keep their seat of power. The Cullens are a threat to them, so they look for any excuse they can to

• Even the vampire “witnesses” in Breaking Dawn aren’t wholly good—except for Tanya’s family and the Cullens, they all have red eyes, signifying that they are killing humans and drinking their blood to survive. Even when they have a choice, like the Cullens, to eat a “vegetarian” vampire diet and kill animals instead of people, they all choose not to. Meyer shows them time and again disappearing to hunt, and we all know who they are hunting.

The werewolves, on the other hand, do not kill humans throughout the entire series. They do not “plunder, rob, or murder.” They came into existence solely to protect the Quileute tribe from the murderous vampires, but they voluntarily extend their borders out of La Push to protect the non-Quileute people of Forks, as well. They hold to a treaty that says if the Cullen vampires kill or turn any resident on their lands (including neutral Forks), the peace between them is invalid and they will neutralize (kill) the vampires to protect innocents.

But the werewolves go against their instincts to ally with the vampires—their natural enemies, the ones they were created to destroy—to protect the innocent humans in their territory and beyond in books 2 and 3, when Victoria and the newborns are posing a major threat to them. They don’t like it, but they do it for the greater good.

Jacob Black, in particular, sacrifices much to protect Bella and the Cullens, even when they have hurt him deeply—his mental well-being, his protected identity, even his pack and his right to remain on his homeland with his family and best friends. He rejects his birthright as Alpha for his own sake, but ultimately takes it up, again in an act of self-sacrifice to save Bella’s life and save the Cullens.

We humans tend to value self-sacrifice for others as one of our highest good—it’s what Jesus did on the cross. What our fallen soldiers did and do in wars past and our current wars. We give those soldiers our highest medals of honor when they knowingly throw themselves on a grenade or otherwise put themselves in harm’s way to protect others. It’s what Mother Teresa did when she gave up a life of comfort and riches to live in the slums of Kolkata and serve the poorest of the poor.

And, to give a literary example, it’s what Harry Potter did when he chose to face Voldemort unarmed at the end of book seven, knowing he was going to his death to save his friends and others whom he didn’t know.

The self-sacrificing actions of Meyer’s werewolves, particularly Jacob Black, are not the actions of “wild, ferocious, plundering, robbing, and murdering” Lamanites. And don’t get me started on the adorable, selfless Seth Clearwater, who is constantly throwing himself into danger to save others, vampire, human, and werewolf.

As a species, the werewolves admittedly have an anger management problem when they first change, but on the whole, they tend to be protectors, nearly always putting community and innocent lives first, over their individual needs and personal safety. The vampires? On the whole, they tend to be murderers incapable of meaningful human connections. Those that have the strong self-control to resist the thirst for human blood are the exception to the species, not the rule. (Which is why Bella and Edward’s romantic conflict is strong enough to sustain four books, and why so many have loved their star-crossed romance.) And when the werewolves “imprint,” they love deeply and constantly—what person could ask for more than that in a partner?

Finally, perhaps the biggest argument that the Meyer didn’t intend the Quileute werewolves to represent inferior “Lamanites” is this: Valdes-Rodriguez posits her argument that Meyer is racist on Bella’s choice—pale, white Edward over brown-skinned Jacob. But once Bella is turned into a vampire herself, she has another important, telling choice.

You can tell by reading the last half of Breaking Dawn that Meyer is herself a mother. Only a mother could convincingly capture the sheer, bewildering, all-consuming intensity in how a mother loves her child. Bella proves on several occasions that she’ll die for Renesmee—as so many mothers would for their own children. So when Jacob imprints on Renesmee, Bella knows beyond a doubt that she has to share Renesmee with Jacob—even during the precious early years where a toddler’s greatest love is generally mama. And someday, when Renesmee is of age, it’s Jacob who is going to marry her and perhaps have children with her. Such is the nature of imprinting.

So if Bella (and Meyer by extension, because those are the rules Valdes-Rodriguez laid out) really believed that Jacob was inferior, would she entrust the most precious thing in her life to him? Wouldn’t she rather take Renesmee’s place? (It would have required some interesting machinations on Meyer’s part to reverse werewolf imprinting, but it’s her universe, so she could have done it!) Or, given that Bella has the unbeatable (though temporary) strength of a newborn vampire and the excuse of her volatile newborn instincts, she could kill him to break the imprinting bond. Wouldn’t that have been preferable if she really believed that letting him live would allow her little girl to be taken by a “wild, ferocious, plundering, robbing, and murdering” Lamanite-equivalent?

But Bella doesn’t kill Jacob. And in the end, when Renesmee’s life is on the line, she faces her own death and chooses, with gratitude and love, to put her beloved daughter in Jacob’s hands, knowing he will love her deeply and constantly (and appropriately for her age, fortunately), knowing he will willingly sacrifice himself to keep her safe. And when you make a choice as you’re facing death, it’s your deepest, truest self making that choice.

Valdes-Rodriguez also points out how the “hapless, human boy” who adores Bella but doesn’t stand a chance is named Mike Newton. “As in science,” she says.

I’m assuming that she’s referring to the warring Creation vs. Evolution arguments that have taken place since Darwin first went public with his theories.

I’m no expert on Mormon faith—and Valdes-Rodriguez admits she’s not either, though she’s currently reading the Book of Mormon to better understand the religion. But there’s a great debate here where a professor at Brigham Young University and 19 supporters write that Mormonism and creationism are incompatible and that “Mormon literature has long taught that God works through natural laws, and that the study of those laws is the study of divine handiwork.”

So, um, no problem with science there. From what I can tell, the Church has no official position, and conflicting statements have been released by Mormon faith leaders throughout its history. The more modern statements tend to abstain from joining the argument at all, or lean toward the idea that it’s just dandy to believe in evolution, and we won’t ever know completely the ways of God until we die and God answers our questions.

I’m Catholic. Doesn’t mean I still believe the sun revolves around the Earth. I think placing an anti-evolution/anti-science judgment on the books is too much to rest on poor Mike Newton’s shoulders.

And Valdes-Rodriguez’s final argument,

Also of significance: In the movie, as with the book, the most evil of the vampires (the ones who are enemies to the white Edward) is dark Laurent. Unlike Edward and the white vampires, he is unable to resist hunting and draining humans.

In a follow-up, Valdes-Rodriguez admits that she got this one slightly wrong—the most evil vampire in Twilight is James, who is pale white in the book and pale white in the film. Laurent starts out all right--he abstains from conflict in book 1 and runs to Tanya’s clan in the north, a peaceable, vegetarian-vampire family like the Cullens.

Meyer describes Laurent as “olive-toned” with black hair. In the film, he’s played by Black actor Edi Gathegi. In book 2, he takes a turn for the worse, returning to help evil Victoria take her vengeance on Edward by killing innocent Bella. He tries to kill Bella himself when he finds her alone in the forest, because he’s thirsty. He comforts her by telling her he won't make it painful, like Victoria would, because he's just satifying his thirst for blood.

It doesn’t make him much different from the other red-eyed vampires in the series, pale white or not. So I have no issues with Laurent.

Valdes-Rodriguez does point out that there aren’t many vampires of color in the books, and I admit, it would have been nice to see more, given that these are the characters who come from around the world. Laurent does seem to be the first, and he’s not so great. But unlike pale white James or Victoria, he tries, for a time, to be a “good” vampire, before giving in to his baser vampire nature.

Then we mostly have white vampires, good and bad, until Carmen, presumably a Spanish-speaking Latina, shows up in Breaking Dawn. Carmen is part of Tanya’s clan of “good” vampires and comes to Forks to witness on behalf of Renesmee and the Cullens. She forms a strong bond with Renesmee, but we don’t see all that much of her.

We also have dark-skinned Amazonian vampires Senna and Zafrina, who show up in buckskins looking “wild” and “ferocious” and at first frighten Bella with their savage look. You could argue that these two fit the much-hated “noble savage” stereotype of old, with their wild, unpredictable jungle manners. But then you could also argue that Zafrina ends up being one of the most powerful on Bella’s side, with her ability to blind her enemies and make them see whatever she wants them to see. And it's Zafrina and Senna's kin who save the day, producing their own half-vampire for the Volturi to prove Renesmee is no danger.

And you have the Egyptian vampires Amun and Kebi, who seem to have a very stereotypical Middle-Eastern relationship, where Amun is very controlling and angry, and Kebi is his timid, cowering yes-woman. But also in their coven are Benjamin and Tia, who relate as equals. Benjamin is as powerful as Zafrina, able to bend the four natural elements to his will. Is that enough to negate the Amun-Kebi stereotype?

I don’t remember any Black vampires or characters (I did imagine Laurent to be Black while reading and was surprised to learn that Meyer was kind of vague on the subject in Eclipse), which can be seen as a slight in itself. I think that fact is largely what set her up for the racist argument, like Valdes-Rodriguez's.

Also, there was one non-vampiric character who did stand out for me—a mestiza named Kaure, who was part Ticuna. Kaure starts out as your typical, sign-of-the-crossing Latina housekeeper (cleaning after Edward and Bella on their honeymoon on Isle Esme), which, I’ll admit, had my eyes rolling. But Edward admits that she knows what he is, when others don’t, turning her stereotypical superstition into clear, accomplished insight. And more importantly, even though she believes Edward kills humans for sustenance, she stands up to him, demanding to know where human Bella is—even though she can’t possibly win that confrontation. Again, we see a character putting her life on the line to protect another.

Valdes-Rodriguez also briefly brings up how Bella’s teen marriage and teen pregnancy doesn’t exactly send a terrific message. It doesn’t, I agree, and I think we’ll be arguing those points for as long as the books are read. I’ve yammered on enough and won’t go into them here.

But on the question of whether Meyer is racist, I would argue that she did her best to create well-rounded, three-dimensional, wholly human characters. I don’t think Jacob Black or any of the dark-skinned characters are a substitute for the savage, cursed “Lamanites” that show up in the more disturbing passages of the Book of Mormon. And admittedly not knowing much about the Mormon faith, I want to give Mormon congregations everywhere the benefit of the doubt and believe that the majority reject those particular teachings—or, at least, are working within themselves to reject them.

So yeah, until I can crawl into Stephenie Meyer’s head and figure out exactly what she was thinking, I don’t think there’s enough evidence to point at her and cry racist. I do think she tackled the issue of Otherness with the vampire vs. werewolf cold war and its resolution, the vampires' murderous mistrust of half-breed Renesmee, the vampire's struggle--or not--over their "right" (or not) to kill humans for sustenance. Tolerance.org said this about the Harry Potter series, which I think applies to the Twilight series, as well: "Psychologically, children's literature equips young people to cope with complex questions and negotiate difficult issues that might otherwise overwhelm them. The obvious, and highly imaginative, cultural differences that pop icon Harry Potter presents offer the opportunity to discuss other-ness with children."

That said, there are plenty of books and media out there that do have racist underpinnings—you see it every time the only Black character in a book is a violent gangbanger, every time the only Latina on a television show is a superstitious maid or an overly sexualized pool boy (or a violent gangbanger), every time Fox Noise calls Michelle Obama a “baby mama” or talks about how “angry” she sounds.

So I also wholeheartedly support Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez’s right to connect the dots—as she did with Jacob Black’s name and a very problematic passage in the Book of Mormon—and ask difficult questions.

2 comments:

Stephanie Julian said...

Tag, You're It!
Check my blog at http://onamoonlitnight.blogspot.com/ for your mission, should you choose to accept it.

Stephanie Julian

Ember said...

>poke

Hope everything is busy-good. You've been quiet!

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Tracy Montoya writes romantic suspense for Harlequin Intrigue.

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