Twilight, Chapter 1: First Sight
When we last left our heroine, Bella was fretting about her upcoming first day of school: how could she possibly hope to fit in at a school populated with only 300-something Forks natives, especially when she just doesn't look like a stereotypical Phoenix cheerleader?
Maybe, if I looked like a girl from Phoenix should, I could work this to my advantage. But physically, I’d never fit in anywhere. I should be tan, sporty, blond - a volleyball player, or a cheerleader, perhaps - all the things that go with living in the valley of the sun.
Instead, I was ivory-skinned, without even the excuse of blue eyes or red hair... My skin could be pretty - it was very clear, almost translucent-looking - but it all depended on color. I had no color here.
One of my first paid jobs as a teenager was at a Christian bookstore chain. We specialized in books and music, but we also carried a good deal of educational paraphernalia - everything from mainstream supplies like stickers and butcher paper to homeschooling texts for the local homeschooling community. My own family had homeschooled me for a fair chunk of my high school years, and so I was placed with the Education Department to help answer questions for customers and because I was one of the few people who found sorting the 1,000+ varieties of sticker packs (always a huge mess in the wake of enthusiastic children) to be relaxing.
On the counter of the Education Department, where we kept our phone and order catalog, was Bob. Bob was a Grow-A-Frog frog, and he was a hit with all our customers. About as long as a quarter and as thick as my thumb, Bob was a source of fascination to everyone; a cute little frog-pet that swam endless happy circles in his bowl. Somewhat overwhelmed to be earning "serious" money for the first time in my life, I went home with a Grow-A-Frog kit determined to have my own Bob.
This turned out to be a mistake - my first two frogs were delightfully cute and green and lovely, but almost immediately fell prey to the rather feral cat we kept on the premises as well as my own ignorance as to how full to keep the tank. (Answer: Not so full that the frog can jump out and die on the carpet while you're at work.) I was nothing if not persistent, though, so when it came time for Grow-A-Frog #3, I cracked open the catalog and my eye fell on this line:
White Grow-a-frogs are the same as any other Grow-a-frog. They are just white. They will play and interact with other white frogs and all other Grow-a-frogs with no problem at all.
My god. A white froglet. Very rare. Given that at this point in my life, I was also an avid player of Pokemon, you can well believe me when I say had to collect them all. From a fashion standpoint, white went with everything; from a practical standpoint, a creamy white frog would have a harder time hiding from me among the green slimy rocks when it was time to clean his bowl. Excited, I sent off my shipping and handling money, and counted down the days until my very rare white froglet would arrive in the mail.
Of course, cynical parents and savvy readers will have noticed by now that the Grow-A-Frog website doesn't exactly sport color pictures of these rare white froglets - customers are expected to use their imaginations to fill in the blanks. It's because of this little detail that when when my new Bob arrived in the mail, I was shocked and horrified to see that he looked less like a creamy white-chocolate confection and more like this.
Bob wasn't white; Bob was transparent. You could see his internal organs. You could see his internal organs moving. I'm sure for another child it would have been very cool and educational; for me it was incredibly traumatic and terrifying.
I did my best to love Bob. It wasn't fair, I knew, for me to treat him any differently from his predecessors. But I was never comfortable with my new pet and I was always terrified to handle him - somehow I never quite believed that the thin, translucent skin that kept his organs in would continue to function for much longer. When Bob met the same tragic fate as his predecessors at the paws of kitty, I packed up the frog tank; I was quietly relieved to be done with frogs.
All of that is a very long way of saying that whenever I see Bella talk about her "translucent" skin, I can't help but think of Bob.
What is odd to me is that at first glance this passage would seem to indicate that Bella considers darker skin attractive - until we look at the whole passage in context. Bella isn't wishing for a tan because she thinks it would be pretty; she already thinks her "translucent" skin is lovely as is, at least under the 'right' light. No, she's wishing for a tan because she believes that if she somehow fit the 'sunny Phoenix girl' stereotype, then her new classmates might find her more exotic and therefore be more welcoming.
This seems like an odd thing to think. By being "translucent" and pale, Bella no doubt looks very much like her sun-starved classmates - if Forks receives more rain than any other part of the country, we can probably assume that most of the residents don't get a lot of fun-in-the-sun. Bella seems to be thinking that if only she stood out more as an obvious outsider and was more exotically unusual, then she might have an easier time blending into her new high school environment, and frankly I'm not sure how that works.
Presumably, Bella is basing these "how to be accepted" assumptions on some kind of previous experience, and presumably she's also basing her "what Phoenix people look like" statements on her last 16+ years of living there, so I can only take this to deduce that (a) Bella was the only non-tan person at her previous school, (b) she was universally lauded for being different from everyone else, and (c) she's now wishing that she could recreate the same situation at her new school but with a palette swap. Only this theory falls down almost immediately because we're told in the text that Bella didn't stand out in her old school and the boys didn't take much notice of her. So I'm still not able to follow the logic here.
Now, what is and isn't beautiful is ultimately a matter of personal preference; I'm not going to say that Bella's "translucent" skin isn't pretty to someone somewhere any more than I would say the same about any other color of skin. But what distresses me about Twilight as I read is how often attractiveness and skin color are mentioned in the same breath - almost as if the two are fundamentally linked. Of course, attractiveness and skin color have something in common: they're both aspects of someone's physical description. But when the two are linked over and over again, a more direct relationship starts to be implied - as if the one has some kind of bearing on the other.
I'm not the first and I won't be the last to bring up the concept of Unfortunate Implications in Twilight with regards to skin color and racism. Edward and his beautiful family of beautiful vampires are all beautiful and stunning and gorgeous - and this point is almost always made alongside descriptions of their lily-white, breathtakingly-pale, marble-statuesque skin. So far as I've read, they're never chalky or corpse-white - valid descriptions that obviously carry extremely different connotations.
On the other hand, Jacob, the sexy Native American boy that ended up being such a dark horse (no pun intended) in the novels until he suffered what many fans saw as a Character Derailment, coincidentally has dark skin - something that Stephenie Meyer's Mormon church has traditionally had a significant problem with. Jacob serves as a foil to Edward - hot-blooded, impetuous, passionate, and forceful - but these traits all worryingly line up with stereotypes of dark-skinned people being more animal than human.
I've never lived in a society where my skin color could put me at a disadvantage; as such, I feel less comfortable discussing racism in a deconstruction than, for example, sexism. And yet, I don't want to skip over the subject entirely and pretend that passages that make me uncomfortable don't exist in the text. Maybe I'm reading too much into the text, but there's only so many times I can read about Bella's "pretty translucent skin" and Edward's "perfect pale face" before I start to get the uncomfortable impressing that we're supposed to consider Bella and Edward attractive because they lack any trace of color.