May 18, 2009

Race in Twilight movie

In Romance in Twilight Movie, I talked about Twilight's weak or nonexistent characterizations. Now I'll talk about the movie's racial subtext.

Several reviewers noted this subtext, although they weren't sure what to make of it. Some quotes from reviews:
  • The snob appeal of the wealthy, decadent Cullen clan is obvious, but race is also a big, weird deal here. "Aren't people from Arizona meant to be really tan?" someone asks the pale-faced Bella on her first day at school. "Yeah," she shoots back, "maybe that's why they kicked me out."

    The Cullens are even whiter. The pancake make-up on the actors has been applied with a trowel, while the less glamorous human characters include Bella's Native American childhood friend Jacob (Taylor Lautner), and a dorky boy of Asian heritage (Justin Chon) who writes for the school paper. It's hard to know what purpose this "colour-blind" casting served for the director Catherine Hardwicke, a specialist in teen films of one kind or another.  (The Age)

  • Even a slightly dopey new classmate feels compelled to ask the extraordinarily pale Bella why she doesn't have even a hint of a tan.

    No explanation is given--yet perhaps this is all the more reason that Bella notices the assorted alabaster faces of the Cullen clan, and vice versa. It's possible that this movie isn't about vampires or teenage abstinence or oddball ostracism--maybe matching skin tones is the running theme.  (Indie Movies Online)
  • Diversity at Forks High School

    Many people noted that the movie changed some of the students from whites to minorities. I haven't read the books, but even I noticed the in-your-face diversity. I can't put my finger on it, but somehow it seemed artificial.

    Normally I appreciate diversity, but let's think about this a moment. The vampires and vampire wannabe Bella are pure white. Normal people are multi-colored. And the beast-men werewolves are brown-skinned (Indians). Is that racial diversity or racial stratification, with the whitest people on top?

    Also consider the class issues. The normal students are unnaturally friendly. Unlike every school in reality, they welcome a stranger with open arms. They plan to feature her in a front-page article in the school newspaper.

    This seems good on the surface, but it serves to emphasize the class system. The Cullens are the upper class, standing apart from and looking down on the others. Bella also stands apart--as if she's trying out for the Cullen clan. Meanwhile, the Quileute Indians are the lower class, going to their own school and remaining apart. Everyone else is part of the happy-go-lucky middle class, where the most serious problem is whom to invite to the prom.

    In the real world, this isn't quite true. The Quileute Nation has its own school, but, as its website notes:Children attending high school may enroll in the tribal school or the Quillayute Valley Public school in Forks.Yet I didn't see any Indians in the movie's version of the high school. In Twilight, the lower class doesn't mingle with "regular people."

    By the way, if you're going to say this racial subtext wasn't in the book, don't bother. I believe Stephenie Meyer had final approval over the movie, or at least a huge amount of input. As with the book's messages, the movie's messages are basically hers.

    Vampires as the upper class

    But wait, there's more. Much more, actually. Below are some of the ways the Twilight movie differentiates its vampires and werewolves by race and class. First, the vampires:

  • Vampires sparkle like diamonds in sunlight--a symbol for their purity and whiteness. Meyer could've had them glow red to indicate their alleged evilness, but that isn't her position. To her, vampires are like flawed angels.

  • The Cullens live in a house on a hillside. It literally looks down on everyone else.

  • The house is modernist in style: clean, white, spacious. It reeks of wealth and power.

  • Note that the Cullens are trying to avoid arousing suspicion. They have to move frequently to avoid this suspicion. So why do they live in an ostentatious house with all the marks of permanence?

    What they should've done is buy an inexpensive ranch house in a quiet suburb where they could blend in and leave quickly. Instead, they've chosen to stand out. This isn't a logical move, it's a message to viewers. Vampires are the elite.

  • The house also has big picture windows. Why, when the Cullens are trying to avoid people seeing them in the sunlight? Any snooper with binoculars could catch them sparkling. The reason is that the big picture windows suggest wealth and power.

  • The house is decorated with tribal masks hung on the wall. Again, there's a subtle message of elitism: "We're the superior race. We collect inferior people's artifacts as trophies."

  • The Cullens display a collection of all the tassels they've earned graduating from high school or college. But vampires aren't supposed to be unnaturally smart. Why aren't some of them high-school dropouts, handymen, or ditch diggers? Because that would contradict the message of vampires as elitists.

  • Edward reveals that he loves classical music. Why not grunge, disco, or polka? Because that would contradict the message of vampires as elitists.

  • Edward drives a shiny new silver sports car. Again, this suggests wealth, power, and purity. Again, it's the opposite of what someone who was trying to avoid attention would drive. Message to viewers: Vampires are the elite.

  • When the students go on a field trip, Edward is trying to keep Bella away. He tells her the bus is full. It has enough room for the Cullens but not her. So he doesn't even send her to the back of the bus; he sends her to another bus. Message to viewers: Vampires are the elite.

  • Werewolves as the lower class

    On the other hand, here's what we learn about the Quileute werewolves:

  • In Jacob Black's first appearance, he tells Bella he's rebuilt her truck's engine. In other words, he's gotten his hands dirty. He enjoys manual labor. It's a sign he belongs to the lower class.

  • His father Billy Black is confined to a wheelchair. Physically speaking, he's literally less able than other people. It's an unfortunate metaphor for Indians being inferior to non-Indians and vampires.

  • In Jacob's second appearance, Bella accuses him of being a stalker, even though she's standing on his beach. Since he's appeared only once before, there's no evidence of his stalking her. So why would she jump to this conclusion? Because Indians are members of the lower class, which means they're potential criminals.

  • Billy, Jacob and his two Indian friends, and the Indian in the bookstore all have long hair. Many Indians don't have long hair, so this is an artificial choice. It sends the message that Indians are different--more unconventional and hippie-ish.

  • Again, the Quileutes attend their own school. Do the words "separate but equal" suggest anything to you?

  • You could dismiss any of these choices as random coincidences. But taken together, they paint an overwhelming picture of race- and class-based differences. If you didn't get this message, perhaps you weren't paying attention.

    Vampires as evildoers?

    In White Vampires Yes, Indian Werewolves No, I took some heat for describing the vampires as a noble elite. You don't understand, people told me. In Twilight, the vampires are evil and the werewolves are good.

    I'm glad to see the Twilight movie vindicates me. Do the math, people. The movie shows seven good vampires and three evil ones. Moreover, Laurent switches sides, so the final tally is 8-2.

    To reiterate, 80% of the vampires shown in Twilight are good, not evil. I guess all the evil vampires will show up later, because they aren't evident in the first movie.

    Even if they do show up, note that the first book sets the tone. Some people will stop with the first book, or remember the first book best. Message to readers: Vampires are more good than evil.

    True, Edward calls himself a monster because he lusts for human blood. But none of the Cullen clan does anything one could construe as evil. They have impulses and needs, just like anyone else, but they act as if they're good. Their worst flaw is giving Bella dirty looks when she intrudes on their family.

    The Cullens are much like a noble or royal family. Nobles lust for wealth and vampires lust for blood, but that doesn't mean they aren't good inside. Their nature is defined by resisting temptations, not by having temptations.

    To sum it up, Twilight gives us three racial and social classes: vampires, humans, and werewolves. The vampires are the white-skinned upper class and the werewolves are the brown-skinned lower class. Any questions?

    For more on the subject, see Quileute Werewolves in Twilight.

    Below:  Dark werewolf vs. light vampire.


    dmarks said...

    "I haven't read the books, but even I noticed the in-your-face diversity. I can't put my finger on it, but somehow it seemed artificial."

    I looked at the actual racial makeup of Forks, and the place is really lily-white.

    As for the house, the book emphases its remoteness. Where the vampires can be themselves without someone looking at them. I did not get the "house on a hill" impression from the movie, so I don't buy this particular point. As for this house's ostentatiousness vs the Cullens needing to move, remember that the Cullens are extremely rich and can buy and toss aside a nice house at need.

    "Edward reveals that he loves classical music"

    He should have had an unusual love of the music of the 1910s, as a detail to root him more in the area of his origin.

    "[Jacob] He enjoys manual labor. It's a sign he belongs to the lower class"

    True enough. He's a mechanical whiz, and no indication that I recall is given to his other academic or vocational interests.

    "His father Billy Black is confined to a wheelchair. Physically speaking, he's literally less able than other people. It's an unfortunate metaphor for Indians being inferior to non-Indians and vampires."

    I strongly disagree with this, as would anyone in the disability advocacy community that showing someone in a wheelchair means "inferiority" !

    Stephen said...

    It's a creepy mormon utopia; all Indians are segregated, all of the whites are mindlessly happy (thanks to mormonism of course).

    Anonymous said...

    you need to get a life, this hyper-reality online dig into whether vampyres and werewolves are metaphors of socio-economic diversity is stretching it. your pitcure is as pastey as any zombie, get outside and see the world. take a writing class or five...

    dmarks said...

    The "get a life" admonition applies to those who spell vampire as "vampyre", at least as to anyone else.

    Rob said...

    I have a life, thanks. I've been a successful professional writer for almost two decades. I suppose a writing class couldn't hurt, but I'm getting plenty of practice right here.

    Anonymous said...

    I realize this was written months ago, but I have to say, your analysis is excellent. I've been horrified by the highly conservative, sexist, anti-feminist aspects of the books and movie (and yes, I did read the first book, couldn't stomach anymore). But I never realized the blatant racism. Until now. Thank you for writing this! An analysis such as this one needs to be in print. Keep it up.


    Anonymous said...

    some of your points are good. but some of them are just kind of whiney. edward is supposed to be 109 years old, so it kind of makes sense that he would enjoy classical music. and i think that your assertion that the elite enjoy classical music more than other people is, in itself, kind of racist and classist.

    Rob said...

    A hundred years ago, people enjoyed Vaudeville show tunes, big band music, and jazz. Why should Edward like classical music and not these forms of music?

    I think surveys show that the people who like classical music tend to be white, older, and wealthier. Therefore, my claim isn't anything except a valid generalization.