Content Note: Rape, Sexual Violence, Stalking, Rape Culture
Twilight Recap: Bella is on the verge of fainting in her Biology class, due to a strong sensitivity to the presence of blood.
Twilight, Chapter 5: Blood Type
"Can someone take Bella to the nurse, please?" he called.
I didn’t have to look up to know that it would be Mike who volunteered.
"Can you walk?" Mr. Banner asked.
"Yes," I whispered. Just let me get out of here, I thought. I'll crawl.
Mike seemed eager as he put his arm around my waist and pulled my arm over his shoulder. I leaned against him heavily on the way out of the classroom.
In light of some of the things going on in the blog-o-sphere lately, I've been writing a post about victim-blaming and Rape Prevention Tips. Now, it's my personal opinion that the only RPTs with any value whatsoever are RPTs that clearly elucidate what rape is and how not to commit it. In other words, RPTs should be aimed at rapists and would-be rapists. There's a large portion of society (and a large number of rapists!) that maintains that rape is something obvious and easy to identify and that if a situation doesn't look like The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo rape scene, then It's Not Rape. And that's wrong. (And I have a post on that in my head, too! Why can't I write as fast as I think?)
However, in The-Post-Which-I-Am-Writing-About-Victim-Blaming, I make the argument that if we absolutely must hand out Rape Prevention Tips to non-rapists, then we should hand them out not to potential victims (thereby placing the onus on them to Not Be Raped) but instead to society at large (thereby placing the onus on everyone to Not Allow Rapists To Rape). It's still not as good as, say, telling rapists not to rape, but it would at least lessen the burden on rape victims and potential rape victims and instead frame the conversation to society and our rape culture.
So with that in mind, I am now going to give some pro-tip advice to teachers: when a girl in your class is on the verge of fainting (face down on the desk, voice at a whisper, pale and looking like death warmed over, etc.), do not let her be taken off alone by a boy in your class.
What could Mr. Banner have done differently in this situation? I encourage everyone to answer this question in the comments. Off the top of my head, I would have sent Mike to go procure the school nurse and bring hir back to collect Bella. Of course, this would not have removed Bella from the immediate fainting stimulus, so I would have helped her out into the hallway, to sit with her back against the wall and her face turned away from the class. That way, as the teacher, I could stand in the door frame and supervise the class and my fainting student at the same time. I probably also would have sent another student to go get another teacher or the principal, if I knew one was available. None of this really prevents the possibility that a student might at some point in the day be raped, but it does help to ensure that The Incapacitated Student won't be raped by The First Person Who Volunteers To Cart Them Off and that, I think, is something to strive for.
Incidentally, this is one of those "OH HAI RAPE CULTURE" moments for me, because while half of my brain was screaming that Mr. Banner is playing dice with Bella's safety, the other half of my brain recognized that this is probably totally common in my country. (Nor do I really get the sense that the text means to call out Mr. Banner for his terrible, awful, horrible, privileged handling of this situation.) *HULK SMASH*
Mike towed me slowly across campus. When we were around the edge of the cafeteria, out of sight of building four in case Mr. Banner was watching, I stopped.
"Just let me sit for a minute, please?" I begged.
He helped me sit on the edge of the walk.
"And whatever you do, keep your hand in your pocket," I warned.
The best thing about this passage is that while I really do think the word choice is fine, like, this is not a criticism, still the word "towed" makes me purse my lips and make little *beep beep beep beep* noises when I read it. This doesn't even really make sense because the noise in my head is from those carts that ride around the home department stores, not actual tow trucks, but my brain does it anyway. Welcome to the inside of my brain.
Also, I will bet good money that Mr. Banner is not watching. *sigh*
I should be clear: I absolutely do not think every novel must be a feminist commentary on society. And I absolutely do see the value in novels that get away from some of the ugly things of our world, just in case the reader would like to not think about them for awhile. But... Twilight isn't fluffy "no rape, only rainbows" escapist material; there will be an attempted gang rape several chapters from now. So now we have the problem that Twilight acknowledges the possibility for rape and sexual violence but only really addresses it in the rare case of stranger-gang-rape and not in the relatively common case of acquaintance rape. And I'm not sure how I feel about that.
On the one hand, I guess it fits with the escapism angle. By highlighting the rare and obscuring the common, it's possible to handle the subject matter without being too close to home. And even the gang rape is handled so non-seriously that it could be removed from the novel entirely without any kind of impact on the participants past that scene. The entirety of the subject is defined in terms of how Edward feels: Edward gets scared, Edward saves Bella, Edward feels upset. Bella apparently won't be shaken by the experience; as far as I can tell, she'll never even think of it again after that chapter. It feels like this whole book uses the reality of sexual violence as nothing more than a plot device that can then be turned off as soon as its purpose is served. And maybe that's the appeal of the fantasy: being so in control of the threatening thing that not only are you not hurt by it, you're not affected by it in any way whatsoever.
And then, from a realism angle, it probably makes sense that if Bella is a "regular" American teenage girl, she probably wouldn't think Mike is likely to or even morally capable of raping her. That's one of the many reasons why acquaintance rape is so horrible (and why our society is so in denial over it): no one wants to consider the odds that one of your acquaintances might try to rape them on the way to the nurses' office. So it's probably fair characterization that Bella doesn't even consider this a possibility at the moment.
And yet... there's Edward. Edward knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men. Edward is particularly sensitive to sexual violence and rarely misses an opportunity to blame Bella for not being 'more careful'. So why does Edward treat this scene as whimsical amusement, and his only interaction with Mike is one of condescendingly taking Mike's toy? Why is Bella fair game to be upbraided for walking around town alone and nearly 'getting herself raped', but Mike is not similarly upbraided for being alone with Bella and eager to turn the situation to his advantage?
It feels like the writing has bought into the rape culture narrative that victims are responsible for their own safety but Schrodinger's Rapists are not responsible for eagerly responding to illness as an opportunity to touch and handle a fainting woman, an attitude which is, I think, not commendable at all. I'm just saying! If I start fainting, I would prefer to be assisted by someone not "eager" to feel me up! And I would prefer my Love Interest to call someone like that out. Or at least not then turn around and blame me for things that are not my fault! Maybe that's unfair of me.
"Bella?" a different voice called from the distance.
No! Please let me be imagining that horribly familiar voice.
"What's wrong -- is she hurt?" His voice was closer now, and he sounded upset. I wasn't imagining it. I squeezed my eyes shut, hoping to die. Or, at the very least, not to throw up.
Argh. Bella is acting like a petulant child again, hoping to die rather than look weak in front of antagonistic Love Interest Edward. Every time I try to like Twilight in general and Bella in particular, this happens and IT HARSHES MY GROOVE.
"Bella." Edward's voice was right beside me, relieved now. "Can you hear me?"
"No," I groaned. "Go away."
"I was taking her to the nurse," Mike explained in a defensive tone, "but she wouldn't go any farther."
Can we psychoanalyze Mike now? It wouldn't be nice if Mike was a Real Person, but he's a book character, so I'm going to do so now: Why is Mike defensive?
I think the in-text reason for Mike being defensive is that he's trying to assert his claim to Bella. This is a power struggle: Mike is the local boy, rich-attractive-popular enough to turn the heads of the local girls, but not nearly so rich-attractive-(potentially)popular as city boy Edward. Edward has class privilege -- he's allowed to come and go from class as he pleases -- but Mike is expected to adhere to school rules. This puts Mike in a tenuous position: Edward is already excused from class and has no pressing demands on his time, but Mike is expected back in class soon.
Furthermore, if Bella is allowed to take charge of the situation, she may express the opinion that she would prefer to be escorted by Beckoned-At-Me-In-The-Cafeteria boy. Mike's only chance to remain in his post is to stake out his claim to Bella here-and-now by declaring himself sole arbiter of the situation: if he can define the situation now as he sees it, he can undercut Bella from putting her own spin on the situation.
The other possibility for Mike's defensiveness is that he (and the author) do see that his situation seems compromising to someone in Edward's position. Mike and Bella are alone, away from class, with her hunched over on the ground in a position of distress. By defining the situation aggressively -- "she wouldn't go any farther" (as opposed to "couldn't") -- Mike is proactively transferring any blame for the situation off of him and onto Bella.
The problem with both these interpretations, at least for Mike, is that it doesn't look good for him to immediately go on the defensive. Edward hasn't accused him of anything; all his energy has been consumed with being concerned for Bella. There's no reason for Mike to not be more compassionate towards Bella, except that... he hasn't apparently been feeling compassion for her at any point in the day, so why should he start now?
"I'll take her," Edward said. I could hear the smile still in his voice. "You can go back to class."
"No," Mike protested. "I'm supposed to do it."
Suddenly the sidewalk disappeared from beneath me. My eyes flew open in shock. Edward had scooped me up in his arms, as easily as if I weighed ten pounds instead of a hundred and ten.
"Put me down!" Please, please let me not vomit on him. He was walking before I was finished talking.
"Hey!" Mike called, already ten paces behind us.
The problem with Mike is that while he may desire Bella, he doesn't care about her. When he sees her fainting, he leaps at the chance to escort her, but he doesn't feel empathy for her. When he puts his arms around her, it's not with the intention to take care to not hurt her, but rather with an eagerness to touch her and ingratiate himself with her. When she asks for a moment to rest and recover from her dizziness, he blames her vocally and defensively, rather than respond with concern and alarm.
Mike isn't a person who says "I was taking her to the nurse, but she couldn't go any farther. Your father is a doctor, do you know what to do?" Instead, he is a person who says "I was taking her to a nurse, but she wouldn't go any farther." She's stubborn, his voice implies, she won't cooperate. He doesn't see her as a victim, and he blames her for her illness.
Nor is Mike the sort of person to let Bella's illness get in the way of his competition with Edward for ownership of her body. Bella might be bleeding out on the ground in front of him for all he knows, but by god he is going to challenge Edward for the right to escort her to the nurse. He's going to challenge him ineffectually, sure, because Mike is not The Love Interest, but he will challenge him nonetheless.
I've seen at least one Twilight review remark that Mike is unfairly treated in the series, that he's a Good Guy badly put upon by Bella and Edward. The second half of this is true, in the sense that almost everyone in the book is treated badly by Bella and Edward -- either in Bella's mental narration or in Edward's rude interactions. But the first half, the contention that Mike is an essentially good guy, I don't see. He may be a harmless guy in the sense that he wouldn't actually rape Bella. He may be a clueless guy in the sense that he doesn't know how to present his romantic suit to her in a palatable way. But he's not a good guy.
He's demanding, as seen when he requests that Bella alter her travel plans in order to take him to the dance. He's self-centered, as seen when he responds to Bella's pain not with sympathy but with calculations for how best to turn the situation to his advantage. He's aggressive, as seen when he blames Bella for her illness in an attempt to deflect blame from himself and establish his dominance over the situation. He's selfish, as seen when he challenges Edward's decision to carry Bella to the nurse, and his capitulation when he doesn't attempt to follow Edward and ensure that Bella is safely delivered to the nurse. Mike sees every scene with Bella as a way to control and own her, and not as a way to nurture and help her. He doesn't love her; he doesn't even seem to like her very much.
The Problem of Mike isn't that he's not a nice guy. The problem of Mike is that, because he's not a bad guy, because he's so much better than Stalker Edward, people tend to see him as a Good Guy. He's not, and a fictional character shouldn't be given cookies simply because they're slightly less toxic than the neighborhood stalker.