Twilight Recap: Bella has arrived at the weekend beach get-away.
Twilight, Chapter 6: Scary Stories
So let's talk a little about cultural appropriation today. It's a difficult subject, and one on which there are a number of different opinions.
Wikipedia defines "cultural appropriation" as "the adoption of some specific elements of one culture by a different cultural group" but I'm not sure that definition is in any way complete or clear. To me, the term connotates something of a Privileged person picking and choosing elements of a more Marginalized culture and saying "MINE!" while denying (openly or by conspicuous silence) where these elements came from or the importance of the history behind them. But I'm far from convinced that last sentence is any more complete or clear than the Wikipedia link.
Cultural appropriation is something that matters to me, as a writer, because it is something I would like very much to avoid. I do not want to appropriate anyone's culture for my writing efforts. But my concern is that I'm afraid that Cultural Appropriation can possibly conflict with Allied Representation, and I want to navigate that path carefully and respectfully. I have four things that I strive for when I write fiction:
- I want to include characters of minority groups, including characters of minority groups that I do not identify as. (Example: I have a character in my next novel who is a Chinese-American girl.)
- I want to include characters of minority groups in ways that may not fit the cultural stereotype of their minority group. (Example: My Chinese-American girl answers to 'Raven' and identifies as fat.)
- I want to include characters of minority groups in ways that do not erase or 'overwrite' the narrative of life as a member of that minority group. (Cultural Appropriation)
- I want to include characters of minority groups in ways such that they are characters with their own goals and not simply supporting cast for the more privileged characters. (Magic Minorities)
These goals are not always even remotely easy for someone like me, who is Privileged Like Whoa, to accomplish. Since I'm an outliner who tends to lay out plot first then characterization second,* I try to achieve these goals by mapping out my plots beforehand and then filling in races, religions, and sexual orientation after. Protagonist A shall be a Jewish atheist with a gay brother. Protagonist B shall be a white Protestant attending a Catholic school. Protagonist C shall be a Chinese-American Wiccan. Protagonist D shall be an African-American who is agnostic, adopted, and possibly a lesbian. And so on.
* Exceedingly over-simplifying for purposes of this post. It's a multi-layer process for me right now.
But once I've worked out that my novel will contain Jewish, atheist, gay, lesbian, Chinese-American, African-American, and agnostic voices, I have to face a very serious problem: I'm not any of those things. How can I write them without tripping carelessly over the Respectful line into Blithely Appropriating Someone Else's Culture? Where is the line between writing them in ways such that they are products of their culture, without being limited to being nothing more than an identity label?
It's a problem, but not one that is without solutions, I think. I can make an effort to read things written by people in those minority groups, and I can seriously try to immerse myself in the point of view of someone who has lived life in the environments that would have enveloped my fictional characters. I can talk to people who are willing to selflessly donate their time to educate me out of my privilege and into another person's worldview. I can reach out to beta readers who have experience with marginalized cultures and I can take seriously their feedback about my characters.
And I think that these things can work well, depending on the unique situation. Certainly I've read female characters, Wiccan characters, and disabled characters written by authors who weren't these things, but who still managed to capture a narrative that I identified with.
But it's not easy. And there's a fine line, I think, between treating a culture and its members with respect and treating them with... fetishization, for lack of a better term.
When we got back to First Beach, the group we'd left behind had multiplied. As we got closer we could see the shining, straight black hair and copper skin of the newcomers, teenagers from the reservation come to socialize.
And here we come to... a potential problem with the introduction of the Quileute people in Twilight.
I'm sure that S. Meyer meant this introduction to be nice and respectful. The characters are introduced as Other and different, but in an intentionally complimentary way. In a novel that has largely skimmed over what anyone other than Bella and Edward look like -- Jessica is... kind of short and has curly hair? Angela is... tall, maybe? Lauren is... blonde and therefore evil? Mike is... cute? Eric is... chess club-y? -- the text practically trips over itself to assure us just how lovely these "newcomers" are. They have shining straight black hair! They have copper skin! It's probably also burnished and bronzed and beautiful! Isn't that nice?
And... it's probably meant that way. But I can't help but immediately think of this line from the satirical Black People Love Us website:
Sally is always complimenting me on my skin tone. When she comes back from her tropical vacations she says to me, "Look! Look! I'm as dark as you are!" Then she holds out her arm against mine to compare. I just love how she wants to be like me!
And this is what I mean about there being a fine line between appropriation, exploitation, and representation. Is it automatically bad to describe minority bodies as beautiful? I think not. But it's also important, I think, to remember that there is a long and complicated history of describing minority bodies in ways that may seem complimentary but may instead (accidentally or intentionally) reinforce harmful stereotypes of how people of minority groups 'should' look, act, and behave.
Jumping ahead in the narrative slightly (we'll come back to the plot next week), we come to this description of Jacob:
A few minutes after Angela left with the hikers, Jacob sauntered over to take her place by my side. He looked fourteen, maybe fifteen, and had long, glossy black hair pulled back with a rubber band at the nape of his neck. His skin was beautiful, silky and russet-colored; his eyes were dark, set deep above the high planes of his cheekbones. He still had just a hint of childish roundness left around his chin. Altogether, a very pretty face.
Now let's contrast Jacob's description with Edward's:
The last was lanky, less bulky, with untidy, bronze-colored hair. He was more boyish than the others, who looked like they could be in college, or even teachers here rather than students. [...]
And yet, they were all exactly alike. Every one of them was chalky pale, the palest of all the students living in this sunless town. Paler than me, the albino. They all had very dark eyes despite the range in hair tones. They also had dark shadows under those eyes -- purplish, bruiselike shadows. As if they were all suffering from a sleepless night, or almost done recovering from a broken nose. Though their noses, all their features, were straight, perfect, angular. [...]
I stared because their faces, so different, so similar, were all devastatingly, inhumanly beautiful. They were faces you never expected to see except perhaps on the airbrushed pages of a fashion magazine. Or painted by an old master as the face of an angel. It was hard to decide who was the most beautiful - maybe the perfect blond girl, or the bronze-haired boy.
On the surface, Jacob's description is very similar to Edward's. We get the general color and shape of the hair ("long, glossy black hair pulled back with a rubber band" versus "untidy, bronze-colored hair"). Their skin colors are described in artistic ways ("silky and russet-colored" versus "chalky pale"). Their eyes are dark. With Jacob, we receive a glimpse of cheekbones; with Edward, we learn that his nose is straight. Where Jacob is childlike and "pretty" (a word often reserved for the feminine), Edward is boyish and lanky and angular.
The two descriptions are similar in content. And yet... the Jacob passage makes me uncomfortable in a way that the Edward passage does not. The description of Jacob, as flowery and pretty as it is, seems to boil down to saying "Here is a Native American." The description of Edward, for all its similarities, seems to boil down to saying "Here is a Vampire."
To me, this seems like a meaningful difference because one of these things is not like the other. Edward's descriptive passage contains a clue to his essential nature, a piece of foreshadowing. Edward is pale, he is sleepless, he is white, he is cold, he is pasty and chalky and marble-like. He is impossibly, indescribably beautiful. These things are clues to his nature. When the reader reads this passage knowing what to look for, there is a narrative arrow over Edward saying "This person is a Vampire". The qualities that make Edward noteworthy in the text are the qualities that would make him exceedingly unusual and abnormal in Real Life. There aren't, after all, actually vampires in America.
But Jacob is not a Vampire. He's a Native American. More specifically, he is a fictional member of the real world Quileute people. There are, in fact, actual Native Americans and actual Quileute people in America. As such, his physical description is not -- or should not -- be a clue to his essential nature in the same way that Edward's is. Certain common assumptions can be made about vampires in the Meyer-verse: they drink blood to survive, they eschew the sunlight, they cannot sleep. Knowing that someone is a vampire tells you something about them. But Native Americans are not a monolithic group like vampires. Know a vampire, and you know his diet: blood. Know a Native American, and you know nothing more than you would about him than any other person in Forks. Does Jacob have acid reflux? Celiac disease? Is he a vegetarian? Is he lactose intolerant? Jacob is an individual, and a fictional representation of real individuals in the real world, in a way that Edward simply cannot be.
And so it distresses me a little that in this first passage with Jacob, there is no unique identifying detail that I can pick out that would prevent his description from being picked up and reused in any generic "Here is a Native American" description. He has glossy black hair. He wears it straight and long in a pony tail. His skin has color. His eyes are dark. He is Native American, in the same way that Edward is Vampire, but these things are not and should not be conflated.
Twilight is not an extremely visual novel. Characters frequently have one and only one physical trait. Jessica has curly hair. Angela is tall. Lauren is silver-blonde. Bella is pale. Edward is paler. Maybe it is therefore fair that Jacob's defining description is, essentially, "looks like a Native American". Maybe it's too much to expect that we might have a glimpse of what he's wearing, of the way he carries himself, of the expression on his face, of the things in his hands or in his pockets, or anything that would set him apart as a person and not simply a member of a specific race. Maybe it's enough that when he opens his mouth, a relatively rich personality emerges. Maybe I'm being too picky, too easy to cast judgment. And yet, in a novel that disappears a state's entire Latin@ population in order to brag on the heroine's cooking skills, I think this is a discussion worth having.
In the Twilight Official Illustrated Guide, there is the following interview, which I have trimmed for space:
SH: So how much did you know about Jacob and his future when you were writing Twilight?
SM: Jacob was an afterthought. He wasn't supposed to exist in the original story. When I wrote the second half of Twilight first, there was no Jacob character. He started to exist about the point where I kind of hit a bit of a wall: I could not make Edward say the words I'm a vampire. There was no way that was ever coming out of his mouth -- he couldn't do it. And that goes back to what we were talking about with characters. You know, he had been keeping the truth about himself secret for so long, and it was something he was so… unhappy about, and devastated about. He would never have been able to tell her.
And so I thought: How is Bella ever going to figure this out? But I had picked Forks already as the story's location, and so then I thought: You know, these people have been around for a while, and they've been in this area before. Have they left tracks -- footprints -- somewhere, that she can discover an older story to give her insight?
Earlier I spoke about introducing minority voices by taking an established character and saying, "You know what? Bob is going to be an African-American, and I'm going to change Jenny to a lesbian because whoa but I have a lot of white, hetero-normative characters in this story." I don't know if this is a good way to introduce minority characters into a work, I really don't. But whether that is a solution to monochromatic casts and stereotyped minority characters or not, I'm fairly well convinced that introducing a minority character for the sake of solving a plot problem is almost certainly going to be problematic.
S. Meyer couldn't work out a way for Edward to say he was a vampire. She needed a way for Bella to do the research, a way for her to discover an older story to give her insight. This is a fair problem. It's the kind of problem that I think most authors face at one point or another. How do I shuffle Character X from Point A to Point B?
There are a lot of solutions to this problem. Bella is of a decidedly literary bent; she could stumble upon old news articles while dredging through the meager Forks library for something, anything worth reading. Heck, Bella -- She Who Loves Classic Literature -- could pick up on the We Are Vampires vibes after reading some choice gothic literature, the kinds of stuff that her Forksian peers can't be bothered to read on the weekends. We've been told that the Cullens have a dated way of speaking; Bella could take to the internet for some language research and catch Edward on his linguistic quirks. (A nice touch in a series that seems to imply that vampires are static and incapable of change. WHERE IS YOUR EVOLUTIONARY ADVANTAGE NOW, SPARKLEBOI?)
The best way to solve this problem, however, is almost certainly not to invent an Ancient Storytelling Society of Dark People that exist entirely to Tell Legends About White People and inform the pretty white protagonist all the legends (which she, being White And Smart, takes seriously in ways that the actual members of the society -- or at least Jacob -- do not). Especially not when the name you give to your Ancient Storytelling Society of Dark People matches the name of an actual tribe in actual real life who live in the actual area wherein your story is set. That seems kind of... rude.
That's when I discovered that there was a little reservation of Quileute Indians on the coastline. I was interested in them before I even knew I was going to work them into the story. I thought: Oh, that's interesting. There's a real dense and different kind of history there. I've always kind of been fascinated with Native American history, and this was a story I'd never heard before.
This is a very small tribe, and it's really not very well known, and their language is different from anyone else's. And they have these great legends -- even one that's similar to the Noah's Ark story; the Quileutes tied their canoes to the tops of the tallest trees so they weren't swept away by the big flood -- that I thought were really interesting.
Please do not get me started on my Conservative Christian Upbringing where far too many Young Earthers explained to me in excruciating detail that Every Culture On Earth has a "Noah's Ark" story and that this 'fact' 'proves' that Noah's Ark actually happened, only of course, all the other cultures get every single major detail 'wrong' because they weren't The Chosen People, but that's totally Not Racist because they can be Saved at any time, just as soon as they completely abandon their cultural heritage and personal beliefs and chose to embrace ours and additionally admit that we were Right All Along about that whole worldwide flood thing.
And they have the wolf legend. The story goes that they descended from wolves -- a magician changed the first Quileute from a wolf into a man, that's how they began -- and when I was reading the legend I thought: You know, that's kind of funny. Because I know werewolf people and vampires don't get along at all. And how funny is it that there's that story, right here next to where I set my vampire story.
SH: That's so cool, that kind of serendipity that happens in storytelling.
SM: It felt like, Now it's on! Now I know how it has to be! What kismet to happen. And so Jacob was born -- as a device, really -- to tell Bella what she needed to know. And, yet, as soon as I gave him life, and gave him a chance to open his mouth, I just found him so endearing. He took on this personality that was just so funny and easy. And you love the characters you don't have to work for.
Jacob was born as a device to tell Bella what she needed to know.
I'm glad that Jacob opened his mouth and out flowed an endearing, interesting personality. I actually do consider him to be a bright spot in this novel, bringing more life and color in his one chapter than in all the rest of the chapters combined. He's funny and engaging and sweet and endearing and interesting. And... maybe that's a good thing. We need more people of minority groups registering in cultural consciousness as interesting, funny, varied, complex people. I'm in favor of that.
But. Jacob doesn't exist because S. Meyer thought to herself, "You know, I want an interesting, funny, varied, complex character in my novel, and I might as well make him a Quileute because they live in the area of Forks and it seems reasonable they would interact with Bella." No, Jacob exists because S. Meyer needed someone to tell Bella something. And she needed them to have inherent, automatic access to Ancient Mystical Secrets. And so the first place she looked, or at least the place she ended up at, wasn't the library or the internet or Mrs. Smith down the road who grew up in Forks and knows everyone and Remembers These Things. No, when Ancient Stories About White People were needed, we were given Jacob.
And Jacob was not an ounce of work. He just came to life and was exactly what I needed him to be, and I just enjoyed him as a person. But his appearance in chapter 6 was really it -- that was all he was in the story. And then my agent loved this Jacob, and she's never gotten over that. She was one hundred percent Team Jacob all the time.
SH: I have to go back to the point that Jacob exists because Edward couldn't say, "I am a vampire." So Edward is what created the necessity for Jacob. Just as Edward's existence, and nearness as a vampire, made Jacob into a werewolf. I just think it's interesting that those two characters, who are sometimes friends and sometimes…
SH: … enemies, can't seem to live without each other. They completely are born from each other.
Jacob wouldn't exist if it weren't for Edward, and Edward wouldn't exist if it weren't for Jacob! It's so equilateral!
Except... it's not. Edward would still exist in story if Jacob didn't. Edward might not have gotten together with Bella, or he might have in the end (as if he really can't stay away from her, it's impossible for me to believe she wouldn't eventually notice that he doesn't eat, can't sleep, and sparkles in sunlight), but he would still exist. He'd be who he fundamentally is, even if he'd be alone and without Bella. Jacob doesn't affect Edward's existence at all, except in so much as he drops a crucial hint to Bella that enables Bella to confront Edward about his true nature. Jacob's existence may touch Edward in a ripple affect, but no less so than Tyler's existence, who enabled Edward to show off his super-human powers by virtue of Tyler losing control of his van.
But without Edward, Jacob would not exist. Jacob was literally called into existence in order to support Edward's happy ending. And Jacob is fundamentally affected in the text by the proximity of Edward: it is the presence of the white vampires that causes the dark Native Americans to experience the werewolf change. Edward's passive presence determines that Jacob will live his life as a shape changer and is indirectly responsible for the permanent scarring of Emily and the painful saga that is Leah's life story. Edward's existence is responsible for every imprinting that happens in Jacob's generation, and Edward's own sperm carries the potential for Jacob's life-long soul mate.
Jacob and Edward are not equal and opposite. They're not born from each other. Edward's existence controls aspects of Jacob's body, his life, his relatives, and his future soul-mate in ways that Jacob cannot avoid. Jacob does not have the chance or the choice to consent to these changes; Edward's very existence imposes them. In return, the only real effect that Jacob has on Edward's life is to provide information to a girl who Edward will not bring himself to be truthful to.
Jacob exists so that Edward doesn't have to make one difficult decision.
Edward exists so that Jacob cannot make any important decisions.
Edward doesn't intend to, I would guess. I'm not even sure he knows that his residence near the Quileutes causes these involuntary changes in them. (Does he?) But intent is not magic. Edward's existence, his presence, changes people's lives and strips them of their choice. And these people only exist, in the Twilight-verse, because S. Meyer couldn't find another way, a better way, for her star-crossed lovers to fall into each other's arms. And I find that really very upsetting.
SM: Jacob was born from Edward… also because of -- I guess you have to say it was a flaw -- Edward's inability to be honest about this essential fact of himself. Although it was an understandable flaw -- it was something that he was supposed to keep secret. You know, it wasn't something that you just say in everyday passing conversation: "By the way [laughs], I'm a vampire." It's just not a normal thing.
Jacob's character also became an answer to the deficiencies in Edward -- because Edward's not perfect. There were things about him that didn't make him the most perfect boyfriend in the whole world. I mean, some things about him make him an amazing boyfriend, but other things were lacking -- and Jacob sort of was the alternative. Here you have Edward, someone who overthinks everything -- whose every emotion is overwrought -- and just tortures himself. And there's so much angst, because he has never come to terms with what he is.
Then here you have Jacob, someone who never gives anything a passing thought and just is happy-go-lucky: If something's wrong, well, okay -- let's just get over it and move on. Here's someone who's able to take things in stride a little bit more, who doesn't overthink everything. Someone who's a little rash. He does seem foolish sometimes, just because he doesn't pause to think before he leaps, you know?
There's nothing wrong with a Logical Hero and a Carefree Hero. But when you're falling into Logical White Man and Passionate Dark Man territory, then I think it's time to rethink how you're going to approach these characters. How are you going to moderate these individuals so that harmful stereotypes aren't reinforced?
And yet I think it's more than that. Edward doesn't overthink things. Edward doesn't think at all. He runs off to Italy or wherever when there's a vampire with a jones on for killing Bella. He steals her car engine because he thinks that removing her agency is going to make her feel safe and loved and comfortable. He does super-human tricks in front of the entire school rather than let Bella die. I don't blame him for that last one, but let's not pretend that Edward is logical in any way shape or form.
And Jacob isn't particularly carefree. He spends most of the series brooding over Bella and, yes, 'overthinking' their relationship. His pack-mates complain about how much time he spends thinking about her, since they have to share his thoughts. He longs to imprint on Bella, and tries to force his own imprinting so that he'll at least have some kind of physical confirmation of his feelings.
So there comes a point where I hear Logical Edward and Passionate Jacob, and I agree that's probably what was being aimed for in text, but I think we widely missed the mark. So now we have a stereotype being poorly implemented and yet somehow even worse (in my mind) as a result.
That was sort of the opposite of Edward's character in a lot of ways. It gave a balance to the story and a choice for Bella, because I think she needed that. There was an option for her to choose a different life, with someone that she could have loved -- or someone who she does love. I always felt like that was really necessary to the story. Because when I write, I try to make the characters react to things the way I think real people would.
I think that, in reality, it's never one boy -- there's never this moment when you know. There's a choice there, and sometimes it's hard. Romance and relationships are a tangle, and this messy thing -- you never know what to expect, and people are so surprising.
People are surprising. But stereotypes aren't. Jacob will live his life subservient to his imprinted mate, absorbed into her white family as "whatever she needs [me] to be, whether that's a protector, or a lover, or a friend".
Jacob was born to serve Edward, and he will live his life serving Edward's daughter.