Twilight: Existing to Serve White People

Trigger Warning: Racism, Cultural Appropriation

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:

  1. 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.)
  2. 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.)
  3. 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)
  4. 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…

SM: Not.

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.


Kit Whitfield said...

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.

I suppose it depends how you do it ... but certainly I don't think it works very well here.

I can sympathise with writing a character and finding they come alive in your mind. In a way, though, I think it works to run with them more than Meyer does. I can only speak from personal experience, but in my second book, one of the two protagonists was intended to be a secondary character. I planned him to create a plot point, and then decided to write a bit about his childhood largely to help myself get a picture of him, not necessarily intending to use the childhood material in the finished book. Except ... somehow the first sentence I wrote just woke up the whole page, and I kept writing more and more about him, and thinking of more and more to say, until he actually eclipsed the original protagonist in my mind and I had to rewrite her too to make her measure up to him.

The result was that the book began and ended with him, and he's probably my favourite character I've ever written - certainly he's my favourite character in that book.

But for that to work, I had to let him occupy a large enough place in the plot. He might have started as a plot point, but he couldn't stay a plot point: he was too important, and he needed the space to be written properly. Not because I believe my characters 'speak to me' (I'm very cynical about that concept), but because he was improving the book and I was very sure it would be a better book the more he was in it.

So I do understand the process of writing a character and finding that they suddenly click. But in a way, I think that might explain Team Jacob: on some level, perhaps, such people are sensing that Jacob contains a creative energy that should have occupied a more central space in the plot. Narratively speaking, having Bella end up with Jacob makes much more sense in terms of a beginning, middle and end. The structure of leaving an adequate partner for a perfect one works if we meet the adequate one first; the structure of meeting the man-you-don't-choose is usually applied in romances if the second lead is a Wickham figure, initially attractive but turns out to be bad, forcing the heroine to recognise the greater moral qualities of the first man.

The basic point is this: plots are interesting when they involve change, and when that change is driven by narrative consequence. E.M. Forster famously argued that 'The king died, then the queen died' is a 'story', but a plot is 'The king died, then the queen died of grief,' - and a better plot still is 'The king died, then the queen died; nobody knew why until it was discovered she had died of grief.'

In other words, causality is important. But the meeting of Edward then Jacob doesn't involve that kind of causality. 'I thought I loved John, then I met Tom and found what real love was': that's a plot. 'I loved met John, then I met Tom and thought I loved him, then I realised I really loved John': that's a plot too. 'I thought I loved John, then I met Tom and I still loved John' ... that's not so strong because Tom hasn't caused anything to change. He's basically extraneous to the plot.

And having the character that most came alive in the writing be extraneous to the plot leads to a very odd effect.

All this is aside from the race issues, of course, which I basically just agree with you about. I'd add that 'silky' is even more infantilising/feminising than 'pretty': if he's in his mid-teens he probably won't have a full beard, but surely he'd have at least a rough upper lip?

Ana Mardoll said...

All this is aside from the race issues, of course, which I basically just agree with you about. I'd add that 'silky' is even more infantilising/feminising than 'pretty'

Good catch, I hadn't even noticed silky.

I also find it interesting that when Jacob graduates to Decoy Love Interest, he loses the long hair, I think?

Nathaniel said...

Jacob always struck me as one of the few actual human beings in the book, struggling against the straitjacket of the narrative. In the first book, I really cannot think of a negative aspect to his characterization. And not negative in the "sparkly Mary Sue" sense, but in that he seemed like a genuinely nice and decent individual.

Of course, the other books take a massive dump on all that. I find it quite telling that the instant a man starts to have romantic interest in the protagonist they start as or become massive jerks.

Will Wildman said...

I'm similarly sympathetic to the characters who appear as a plot point and grow into much more, and I don't think the two interrelated facts (Jacob was introduced purely as a device, and Jacob was introduced to be The Quileute Character) are necessarily a guarantee of doom - I think, as Kit indicates, the root of the problem is that Jacob's status as the not-Edward character kept him down and Meyer did not let him grow into the character he should be.

(I was plotting some aspects of my NaNovel for as long as five years. The cast has long been set and I know them all well and what roles they play for each other. And then, around 25K words, a random acrobat handflipped onto the page and the first showy trick I had him perform suddenly necessitated that he have a larger role, and by the end of the day I discovered I had a new favourite character who was, quite incidentally, also disabled and gay.)

I'm kind of surprised to learn that Jacob is only supposed to be 14-15; for some reason I imagined him substantially older, closer to 20. Now I just feel really bad for him, because he's barely a teenager and he's getting the entire direction of his life rewritten because a new girl moved to town and wants to bone a vampire. It seriously changes my understanding of basically everything that comes afterward. Gah.

chris the cynic said...

I haven't read beyond Jacob's earliest introduction, but based on the way people are describing how he changes as time goes on, it seems like the only reason he was able to feel so real and likable to people was because he was a plot device rather than a character, and as such was free to be a Jacob. Eric, Tyler, Mike, and Edward were all characters from the very start, and so they are all written the way that Meyer writes characters. Jacob was a plot device, and so was unshackled by those restrictions.

I don't have first hand experience of them, but when people talk about the changes in Jacob's character as he becomes more central, they sound to me like Meyer is treating him more and more as a character, and we've seen from the almost indistinguishable mass of Edward-Mike-Tyler-and-sometimes-Eric that Meyer has all male characters in Bella's general age group* act in a single way. So when Jacob is elevated to character, it makes sense he would be crammed into the same mold.

And maybe I'm understating things when I limit it to male characters in Bella's age group. We see Charlie acting Edward-like at times as well.

* Edward being counted as the age he presents at.

Kit Whitfield said...

@Amarie - I've only seen the movie, which if I remember right seems to handle the kiss largely as an attempt to be romantic which doesn't work, and then turns it into slapstick. And yes, attempts to be romantic can also be sexual assault, but it seemed reasonably close to life: in my experience a lot of kisses do start with one or other (usually the boy) just deciding to take a chance and hope for the best, and if the girl dodges or pushes him away and he accepts that it's not particularly threatening. (I just went and watched it on YouTube and it didn't seem that threatening; he's refusing to accept her refusal, but physically he doesn't do more than put his hand on her face and then let himself be pushed away, which doesn't look threatening to my eyes. Others may disagree, of course.) Could you explain how it works in the book?

Ana Mardoll said...

Since I have the searchable ebooks, here's the passage:

“You love me, too,” he reminded me. He held up his hand when I started to protest. “Not the same way, I know. But he’s not your whole life, either. Not anymore. Maybe he was once, but he left. And now he’s just going to have to deal with the consequence of that choice — me.”
I shook my head. “You’re impossible.”
Suddenly, he was serious. He took my chin in his hand, holding it firmly so that I couldn’t look away from his intent gaze.
“Until your heart stops beating, Bella,” he said. “I’ll be here — fighting. Don’t forget that you have options.”
“I don’t want options,” I disagreed, trying to yank my chin free unsuccessfully. “And my heartbeats are numbered, Jacob. The time is almost gone.”
His eyes narrowed. “All the more reason to fight — fight harder now, while I can,” he whispered.
He still had my chin — his fingers holding too tight, till it hurt — and I saw the resolve form abruptly in his eyes.
“N —” I started to object, but it was too late.
His lips crushed mine, stopping my protest. He kissed me angrily, roughly, his other hand gripping tight around the back of my neck, making escape impossible. I shoved against his chest with all my strength, but he didn’t even seem to notice. His mouth was soft, despite the anger, his lips molding to mine in a warm, unfamiliar way.
I grabbed at his face, trying to push it away, failing again. He seemed to notice this time, though, and it aggravated him. His lips forced mine open, and I could feel his hot breath in my mouth.
Acting on instinct, I let my hands drop to my side, and shut down. I opened my eyes and didn’t fight, didn’t feel . . . just waited for him to stop.
It worked. The anger seemed to evaporate, and he pulled back to look at me. He pressed his lips softly to mine again, once, twice . . . a third time. I pretended I was a statue and waited.
Finally, he let go of my face and leaned away.
“Are you done now?” I asked in an expressionless voice.
“Yes,” he sighed. He started to smile, closing his eyes.
I pulled my arm back and then let it snap forward, punching him in the mouth with as much power as I could force out of my body.
There was a crunching sound.
“Ow! OW!” I screamed, frantically hopping up and down in agony while I clutched my hand to my chest. It was broken, I could feel it.
Jacob stared at me in shock. “Are you all right?”
“No, dammit! You broke my hand!”
“Bella, you broke your hand. Now stop dancing around and let me look at it.”
“Don’t touch me! I’m going home right now!”
“I’ll get my car,” he said calmly. He wasn’t even rubbing his jaw like they did in the movies. How pathetic.
“No, thanks,” I hissed. “I’d rather walk.” I turned toward the road. It was only a few miles to the border. As soon as I got away from him, Alice would see me. She’d send somebody to pick me up.
“Just let me drive you home,” Jacob insisted. Unbelievably, he had the nerve to wrap his arm around my waist.
I jerked away from him.

Ana Mardoll said...

it’s not so much the *action* but the *context in which that action is taken*.

I want to paint this on my wall or something. This. :)

J_Enigma said...

I think the old maxim "show, don't tell" can be useful here.

Don't tell me someone belongs to a culture. Show me that they belong to that culture. If you show me that they belong to that culture, you have to research it. You have to know it, and you have to immerse yourself in it. As you achieve a greater understanding of it, you form a respect and bond with it, even though it's not yours. Respect is key; appropriation is what happens when white people with no respect for other cultures start taking things from those cultures. When you respect that culture, you understand why those things are the way that they are, and you have a handle on all the minor elements that make cultures so important - then you use it. You'll never know it like someone who lives in it, but you'll have a lasting respect for it because you did have to research it so much. Not only that, but it's respectful to others to portray their cultures accurately.

In my current book, one of the major characters is Jewish. She's a Sephardi Jewish girl; she's not the protagonist (that role goes to her half-Korean, half-White best friend, Renee), but Ofelia is still pretty important to the story, and her culture features hugely because Renee lives with Ofelia and her family. I could've just said that Ofelia was Jewish and left it at that, but I didn't. Instead, I research Judaism. I researched Sephardi traditions (that last one was really hard; as much as I hate relying on Wikipedia, that was the only major source I could find that went into exact detail. I don't speak Spanish or Hebrew). Ofelia is also Mexican, although it in no way shows until you get her next to her mom; being albino, Ofelia has ghostly pale skin, platinum blond hair, and plenty of vision problems. Her dad is white, but he converted to Judaism when he married Maria, her mom. I researched a lot about the culture, learned about Kashrut (and kept very strict Kosher for a few weeks to see what it was like - it's a lot harder than it sounds for someone raised to see 'cheeseburgers' as a normal food), and then put myself in the heads of these characters. I developed a deep respect for the culture, hope that I was able to portray it at least semi-accurately, and in the process, made my novel's world a lot deeper and more inclusive.

Not only does showing and not telling help with treating cultures sensitively and with respect, I think, but it also helps make your world feel more alive. Twilight fails at this because S. Meyers took a real world population, didn't research their culture at all, and then overrode it with her own mythology to fit her own book. I'm pretty sure that "beyond the pale offensive" is the phrase I'm looking for there.

Also - I wasn't the only one who was seeing Jacob as a Southwestern Indian, was I? That is, someone who wouldn't be totally out of place among the Navajo, Zuni or Hopi (or to a lesser extent, the Apache and Great Plains Indians)?

Amarie said...

*sighs heavily* Oh dear…Kit wants me to explain the kiss as it happens in the book. Well, then…umm…

First and foremost, the assault happens R.I.G.H.T. A.F.T.E.R Jacob tells Bella that she always has a choice/option in terms of romantic partners and life in general. No matter what.

Already, you can see a blatant contradiction just beginning.

Bella, if I remember correctly, can already guess what’s coming even as she protests against Jacob’s love for her. That is, she tries to assert to him that she doesn’t *want* another choice; she’s perfectly happy with Edward as her boyfriend and Jacob as her best friend. Jacob, of course, doesn’t really listen to her and, naturally, Bella becomes frustrated.

Then, Jacob forces the kiss on her. *Immediately* Bella struggles to push him away. I can’t remember all of it, but Bella mostly tries to get Jacob away from her by pushing his face away from hers and screams, though the sounds are lost against his mouth. In response, Jacob grabs a tight hold of Bella’s face and holds her still; Bella cannot get away. Jacob continues to kiss Bella and, as some kind of self-defense technique, she stands there passively waiting for him to ‘get done’. I’m assuming that he kissed her for… let’s say…at least 30 seconds. Maybe longer.

All while knowing that she didn’t want it.

Finally ‘satisfied’, Jacob finally pulls away from Bella and even smacks his lips with a dreamy look on his face (probably not exactly that, but close enough). Bella openly asks “Are you done?” and Jacob confirms that he is. Bella then draws back her fist and punches Jacob square in the face.

She breaks her hand upon contact. It’s specifically a knuckle, if I remember correctly.

Jacob doesn’t even know what’s happened until Bella starts jumping up and down, screeching and clutching her hand in pain, etc. He looks down at her and says something along the lines of, “Woah, did you try to punch me? I might not be a vampire, but I’m not *that* breakable. Sheesh.”

Bella, of course, screams at him. She mostly says that she hopes that Edward breaks his face, kills him, etc. Jacob drives Bella home (with Bella being in characteristic full pout mode).

Did you want me to get into Charlie’s [non]reaction, too…?

[EDIT]: Ana posted the entire part! There you are! :D

Makabit said...

Interesting that she manages to break her hand hitting HIM. The classic knuckle-jam injury is called 'boyfriend's knuckle' in the ER, and usually results from hitting the wall instead of your partner.

Which can be a form of threat and aggression, but is definitely better than hitting someone else.

I find it infuriating that she fights back and promptly hurts herself too badly for it to have any impact. And that can't have much to do with her normal clutziness. She did manage to sock him. (Echoes of Scarlett beating uselessly on Rhett with her fists.)

The 'plan it out by including an asexual Protestant Thai computer geek bodybuilder' approach simply does not work for me as a writer. I don't know how I get diversity in there, or if I am getting enough diversity in there, but I tend to end up with characters who gradually develop characteristics in my mind. Sometimes they change. (I have one long-term character who hung around vaguely being 'the love interest', and being boring as hell before it occurred to be that he was black. Why it took him being black for him to develop a personality, I have no clue. It is not actually a requirement in real life.

In my current science fiction project, I've got one character who has gone from straight (assumed standard, I guess) to gay (when his partner showed up), to bi (when I suddenly cracked a bit of family secret that shed a bit more light on that.) Lorenzo is keeping me on my toes. I have no idea what he's going to come out with next.

As for 'describing the character of color', I'm wrestling with that a bit myself in the science fiction project as well. Most of my characters are Italian or pass for, or California Latino, or pass for, and are fairly easily identified by 'tribe' I'm not spilling a lot of ink on general racial description. I've got a character being introduced, a young Ethiopian woman who's a security professional, and I am nervous about explicitly describing her in terms of skin tone and ethnic feature, but also want to build up an image in the reader's mind, because the fact that she's Ethiopian is part of why her boss thinks she'll be best for a job he wants to recommend her for. I envision her with traditional face tattoos, and am writing and deleting endless little bits trying to comment on that without it becoming exoticizing as hell.

I love Miriam Chekolech, I think she's going to be an awesome character, but I am having to second guess myself a lot as I introduce her. I think in a couple of pages she'll be established, and then she can get on with the surveillance and the ass-kicking.

The Pope was born Hà Kieu Trinh, and I hardly have to do any description at all, I just let the name speak for itself, and mention that she has grandmotherly eyes and silver hair that looks very pretty with the papal robes. And is is quite scary when you get on her bad side.

Now I think of it though, I guess I do want a trans character or two, if only to explore how you do that in the twenty-sixth century, and also to do it better than "When Gravity Fails".

Makabit said...

And, also, as for Jacob, I've always been on Team Jacob (without reading the books), simply because he's A. alive, and B. a werewolf, and I love wolves, and C. Taylor Lautner with his shirt off looks better than Robert Pattinson with his face painted chalk-white.

Majromax said...

I have the searchable ebooks, here's the passage from Eclipse:

Uhm... I'm not triggered myself, but this reads like sexual assault from the victim's perspective. I think this should have a trigger warning?

Ana Mardoll said...

Good idea. I was all distracted trying to get the line breaks to work. Updated!

Nathaniel said...

Yeah, I'm a male who's never had to personally deal with that kind of stuff, and it still roiled my stomach. With anger, sure, but still.

Amarie said...

I just wanted to say sorry! I forgot a Trigger Warning myself! I'm not too sure how to edit my post correctly, though...

Ana, help me out? D:

Ana Mardoll said...

Added. :)

Ana Mardoll said...

*sigh* I shouldn't have, but I kept reading after that scene in Eclipse. I am extremely angry.

Charlie, Edward, and Jacob: I am putting you on notice. You are not going to keep getting the soft touch in these decons. Enjoy it while it lasts.

Amarie said...

Thank you, Ana!

...And I'm glad that my S.I.N.C.E.R.E. hatred of Charlie is seconded. Or at least, understood.

I mean, can a POLICE CHIEF even keep his license after such neglect...? If he’d be so passé about a sexual assault on his daughter, then what would he say/do if a random girl came up to him with the same problem…?

More Rape Culture, anyone? Or am I just overreacting…?

Ana Mardoll said...

You are absolutely not overreacting. Unless my reaction of wanting to "nuke the site from orbit"* is an overreaction. Gah. I just want to go write a really cranky Twilight post now. *hulk smash*

* "Aliens" reference.

Ana Mardoll said...

The frustrating thing about deconstructing this series is that if it were JUST Twilight, then that would be something else. But it's not. It's New Moon and Eclipse and Breaking Dawn and Faily McFailpants of the Sparkly Order of Fail.

Amarie said...

Oh, I agree completely!! And, if I may, deconstructing the series can be difficult because you inevitably hear more and more of the coming dysfunction, abuse, etc. From there, you become so angry and disturbed and you just *wish* for things that *aren't* so...wrong. In short, it's hard to be charitable, I suppose. Just hang in there, Ana! We Anti-SparklePants are with you and we love you!!! :D

M_Saito said...

*No one* and *nothing* in the Twilight verse punishes Jacob for his actions and/or sides with Bella for the assault she suffered.

No one and nothing in the real universe punishes sexual predators for their actions or sides with the women they abuse.

I'll believe in werewolves before I'll believe in a cop who gives two shits about sexual assault.

Ana Mardoll said...

No one and nothing in the real universe punishes sexual predators for their actions or sides with the women they abuse.

Well, first off, no. Hello feminism.

Second, there is a difference between a text showing an ugly reality as an Ugly Reality and showing it as Isn't This So Freaking Awesome. The Eclipse passage falls in the latter category, in my opinion. And that's terrible.

gyroninja said...

Yeah I was actually thinking about the kiss scene recently. I just finished Pebble in the Sky by Isaac Asimov and there's sort of a gender swapped version of this scene.

Onfvpnyyl, n srznyr qbpgbe unf gb rkcynva gur Uhtr Guerng Gb Gur Tnynkl gb n znyr nepunrbybtvfg, fb fur trgf gurz nybar, naq zragvbaf gung vs gurl urne nalbar pbzvat, gurl'yy unir gb cergraq gb or ybiref. Nsgre ure rkcbfvgvba, fur fnlf fur'f urneq fbzrguvat naq yrnaf va sbe gur xvff, ohg jura vgf bire fur nqzvgf gung fur whfg jnagrq gb xvff uvz.

Now, it helps that he was actually crushing on her pretty hard at this point too, as opposed to the Eclipse scene where the attraction in one sided, but even though this scene has some superficial similarities I found it to be totes adorable.

Also, did she have to break her hand here? I mean, I actually like it when people subvert the Armor Piercing Slap trope, but in the context of this scene, and the series as a whole, it's really really creepy!

Amarie said...

...Are you a mole account for David Cheatham?

Yes, I'm being serious.

Fluffy_goddess said...

he's barely a teenager and he's getting the entire direction of his life rewritten because a new girl moved to town and wants to bone a vampire.

omg, Jacob is a Xander Harris in search of his Buffy. Without the kick-ass crayon speech.

Nathaniel said...

Except Xander is awesome and human and not at all creepy. Did I mention he's awesome?

Silver Adept said...

Jacob-as-plot-point is far preferable to Jacob-as-rival, certainly. From the interview, though, it sounds a bit like he had a champion in the editors that was not necessarily reflected in the author's point of view. I wonder if we can attribute a part of Jacob turning into such a jerk is that he really wasn't supposed to be in the role in the first place, and the author took her revenge out in prose?

There's more to it than that, of course, including how much Fail is involved in appropriation, as laid out in the post and the excellent comments.

Also, for as much as Isabella is a visual describer of people, she spends very little time on her own description. So that she can be a better self-insert, I know, but isn't that kind of odd - wouldn't you expect someone with an eye for describing people and things visually to at least spare a moment for their own optics?

Kit Whitfield said...

...okay, yeah, that's sexual assault. I can see why the movie changed it. It's quite interesting the way Meyer sets it up: Bella tries to get free, but body language is traditionally more ignorable than spoken refusals. She doesn't say 'Let go', and doesn't manage to finish saying the word 'No'. I think if Bella had actually told Jacob to get his hands off her the assaultiveness would have been more obvious.

Interesting too that she says 'I don't want options': that kind of sums Bella up. I think a healthy adult response would be along the lines of, yes, I know you're an option, but you're an option that I'm not going to choose - but Bella seems to be more comfortable when she has no choice but to do what she wants.

Marie Brennan said...

Also, for as much as Isabella is a visual describer of people, she spends very little time on her own description. So that she can be a better self-insert, I know, but isn't that kind of odd - wouldn't you expect someone with an eye for describing people and things visually to at least spare a moment for their own optics?

Actually, it tends to be really obtrusive when a first-person narrator describes herself in detail. There's an oft-mocked trope where the character finds a reason, early on in the story, to stare in a mirror, so that there's an excuse for her to muse upon her hair color, eye color, etc. It's really clunky, but then, so are most of your options for that kind of description.

(The protagonist of my new series is an artist and a natural historian; she's got more reason than most to pay attention to her own appearance, as well as that of those around her. I'm finding that both liberating and a pain in the ass, since I myself am a really bad observer of people's looks.)

Kit Whitfield said...

Did you want me to get into Charlie’s [non]reaction, too…?

I take it it's not, 'Bella, run in the house for an ice pack and then I'll drive you to hospital. Jacob, get away from my house, and if you ever touch my daughter against her will again I'll run you in so fast you'll skin your feet'?

Ana Mardoll said...

Charlie actually offers to arrest BELLA. For hitting Jacob.

Still seething over that. And Edward does not do much better. All four of them behave awfully in that scene. It's supposed to be slap-stick and comedy, but Not Funny Like Whoa, in my opinion.

I continue to be amazed how much the movies changed in order to be more palatable.

Silver Adept said...

@Marie Brennan -

Yeah, that makes sense - although I would think there are ways of getting other characters to do some describing as the kickstart - an unwanted wolf-whistle, for example, or someone making rude comments about fashion choice - there have got to be ways of doing character description that don't require a mirror.

@Kit, Ana, Amarie, et al...

There's going to be a lot of Hulk Smash going on in Eclipse, isn't there? Just from this preview, it looks like there will be several postings worth of well-deserved CAPSLOCK RAGE. At least, when we get there.

Nathaniel said...

Even before that, anyone ever who has A.) Experienced a break up B.) Been depressed is going to looovvvveeee New Moon.

c2t2 said...

I'm late, but I'd like to point out that there IS an interesting note in Jacob's description: " pulled back with a rubber band at the nape of his neck."

In a "this is a Native American" description, the text would have only said his hair was "pulled back" or "in a low ponytail". The rubber band is a small thing, but it's something. And in a story with so little description, every detail is relevant.

There are many different terms for elastic hair ties - this seems to vary by region - but I've never heard "rubber band" before, therefore I'm assuming it's an actual rubber band.

This could tell us a few things. The generous reading is that Jacob is very casual, laid-back, and unconcerned with image or social convention. I haven't read the books, but this seems pretty pretty spot-on.

The most UNgenerous reading is that, if La Push is anything like Pine Ridge (which I live not far from), the people are so poor that even buying an elastic hair tie is a splurge. The author might have seen a few folks wearing rubber bands in their hair and thought "must be a Quileute thing."

I much prefer the reading that makes Steph Meyer both a better writer and less stunningly privelege-blind, but the rest of the story gives me little hope.


Ana Mardoll said...

Is that an odd thing? We used rubber bands when I was in grade school. They pulled something awful, and I was glad when they invented the padded kind. I assumed Meyer was referencing similar experiences... Good question.

c2t2 said...

I hadn't thought of that. It might be a generational difference since I'm still a twentysomething, but I've never lived in a world without hair ties. (I've forgotten them on many occasions, mind you, but that just led to me wearing it down or - in martial arts class - using a shoelace at the end of my braid)

Brin Bellway said...

We used rubber bands when I was in grade school. They pulled something awful, and I was glad when they invented the padded kind.

Scrunchies were invented so recently you remember a time before they existed? Huh. Exactly how recent are they?

Wikipedia: Rommy Revson patented the design in the US in 1994.

...they're younger than me?! Why does nobody tell me these things? (Well, I suppose you and Wikipedia have told me now.)

Ana Mardoll said...

Ha. If it makes you feel any better, Husband is a decade older than me, and was also shocked to learn this just now.

Fluffy_goddess said...

Well, of course he's awesome and uncreepy. He's Xander.

(I don't do off-the-cuff jokes well, sorry. Though I suspect Jacob could be awesome and infinitely less creepy than he is in the hands of a more self-aware and interesting author.)

Mime_Paradox said...

Huh. Perhaps it's because all my Buffyness is getting filtered by Gabrielle Abelle's blog, but I've kinda started seeing Xander as not so different from the Twilight men. In her deconstructions, Gabrielle makes the argument that the character's role in the early years of the series is to represent rape culture in the early seasons, in that he attempts to police Buffy and Willow's sexuality, objectifies women, continuously slut-shames his girlfriend, and occasionally attempts to subvert their will and that his series arc is how he learns to abandon these ideas and learns to be comfortable in the world Buffy leaves behind. The fact that, to me, the series insists that he is a fun and quirky and someone you must root for regardless leaves a bad taste in my mouth, particularly since I did, in fact like him. He's still a good character, I feel--just not a very likeable one.

Makabit said...

Well, if it were my book he would be the awesome werewolf guy trying to save the damsel with low self-esteem from the vampire.

Marie Brennan said...

I also meant to comment on the whole character thing -- you know, the point of the post. :-)

My story-building process generally starts with a character in a setting: this kind of person in this kind of world. So Ana, your approach of figuring out your plot, and then plugging in character identity afterward, is ENTIRELY alien to me. I would lay down who's who, step back, look at my plot, and go, "but none of these people would do these things!" Or else -- more likely -- I would end up with lifeless collections of character traits (race, sexuality, etc), that would never come alive as characters for me.

And yet -- to somewhat contradict myself -- I've experienced the kind of thing Meyer talks about, where you invent a character to fill a particular role in the plot, and they grow from there. It doesn't have to mean you end up with the kinds of shriekingly awful flaws we see with Jacob. The problem, as I see it, isn't that he was invented as a plot device ("I need somebody who can tell Bella about the vampires, since Edward won't do it") -- it's that Meyer kept on defining Jacob in relation to Bella and Edward. And, furthermore, that neither Bella nor Edward really got defined in relation to Jacob. I think it's okay, when you're writing a romance, to think about what each participant depicts, in terms of possibilities and shortcomings and ideals; but to make that work, you need to do that for all the participants. And it's clear from what Meyer said that she only ever thought of how Jacob was what Bella and Edward and her plot needed -- never how Bella or Edward (or the plot) was what Jacob needed.

Nor, for that matter, did she give Jacob any additional dimensions, unrelated to those two. Which, based on what you've said here, is a pretty universal flaw in the series, not limited to its Native American characters: pretty much everybody is limited to one defining character trait, and really only exists to further Bella's own story. (Even Edward. He falls in love with her because AUTHORIAL FIAT, that's why -- not because she complements him in some fashion he's been lacking.) So it isn't that Meyer couldn't be bothered to try for the non-white character; she couldn't be bothered to try for anybody. But it's worse when it's a character of color, and it's a LOT worse when you gank the name of a real-world minority group and one of their legends, then run off and make up a bunch of other crap instead of doing your research.

. . . dammit, now I want to know if there's fanfic out there written by somebody who does know Quileute culture, in which Jacob is depicted as a fully-rounded character. That kind of person, in that kind of world. I'm curious to know how thoroughly he would trash Meyer's plot . . . .

Amarie said...

Hey there, everyone!! The discussion is great and, err…my hair has always been just a *tad* too short to be pulled back into a ponytail. Black hair for the W.I.N!!!

But, do you see my dilemma? I just don’t *understand* how that made sense to Stephenie Meyer. It disturbs me *so* much because *she’s* a woman. And she’s a woman with *three boys* of her own. I just can’t…fathom that someone is that sheltered and/or privileged that they would write and *defend* a sexual assault in their books like that.

And I just…I don’t get it. I know it’s not my business to get it, but I just…*horror facepalms*

★☆ keri ☆★ said...

FWIW re: ponytail:

I wouldn't take it too literally, but it may be regional. I grew up calling the fabric-wrapped ones "rubber bands" and then when I was old enough to be literal switched to "ponytail holders". Now that I'm a good deal older, I refer to them alternately as hair bands or rubber bands. (Scrunchies are an entirely different species.)

@beckabot: Good point about light vs. dark characters and truths. I read Matched recently and was pretty frustrated by the same Dangerous/Dark vs. Safe/Light characterisations of the two love interests. It basically ruined the book for me - plus the heroine was useless and never did anything for herself if a man in her life would do it for her (she was so passive that the ONE way she rebels against the dystopic society is by doing nothing, straight up truth right there). (This might be another interesting book to do a briefer deconstruction of, because it takes a lot of interesting things about YA dystopias and does it All Wrong.)

bekabot said...

"I wouldn't take it too literally, but it may be regional. I grew up calling the fabric-wrapped ones 'rubber bands' and then when I was old enough to be literal switched to 'ponytail holders'. Now that I'm a good deal older, I refer to them alternately as hair bands or rubber bands."

These are books which are kind of scanty on detail, so the natural response on the part of a reader is to appeal to his or her own memories to fill in the gaps. Probably I go overboard in that respect (something I'm going to try to avoid in the future). But that's what comes of analyzing details which either aren't there or are barely-there: you stop analyzing what's in a book and start blathering about what's in your head. Mea culpa; to each his, or her, own.

Ana Mardoll said...

I love this comment so much, and I would love to have, like, an open thread sometime where we all talk about how we come up with fictional characters, given that sometimes I think everyone on this blog has done at least a little fictional writing. :)

Rikalous said...

There's a Neil Gaiman short story* about a cancer cure with the side effect of near-instantly switching the user's sex. Naturally, people start taking it for the side effects. One nifty thing that happened when the drug caught on was the discovery that some people have the natural ability to tell someone's original sex, but before the drug became widespread, it wasn't useful.

*"Changes", can be found in Smoke & Mirrors

Lunch Meat said...

It would be interesting to see a study of what people in different areas call scrunchies or hair bands. We always called them "hair things", which I think is funny because it's not that descriptive, but it was always understood.

Makabit said...

"Biting the Sun" has characters who change genders (along with bodies) with the ease that modern folks get new shoes. Very interesting culture, but since you actually are switching bodies out, the whole issue of gender in the brain isn't really examined.

And "When Gravity Fails" has a whole class of MTF characters, switched over in adolescence for cultural reasons that don't actually convince me, and apparently, none of them are psychologically inconvenienced in any way, although one suspects that most of them started life as cis males. Perhaps I misunderstood the concept in some way. Didn't make sense to me.

My science fiction project--well, it's highly mixed tech. As I admitted ruefully elsewhere, just getting my plot started requires that they have FTL travel, but no way to reliably predict or instantly treat post-partum psychosis.

Marc Mielke said...

I would not have used an existing Native American tribe as 'vampire kinfolk'. White Wolf tried doing that with Gypsies and ended up writing the most racist game supplement in the history of RPGs. I don't know whether inventing your own NA tribe would be more or less insulting. It would certainly give you more wiggle room to invent myths, etc. for the tribe.

I'm reminded of one of the Hornblower movies involving an Irish character who turns out to be a turncoat for the French. The character was a real Royal Navy officer, apparently NOT a traitor, and I wondered how his family must feel about that movie/novel.

Alpherae said...

Cultural appropriation is a term I hadn't come across before, but the concept is definitely familiar. I don't know a huge amount about Native American tribes, being on the other side of an ocean, but probably trying something similar with a Maori iwi (tribe) would be a lot noisier. IANAMaori, but family, land and history/stories/names are very tightly bound, to the point where a formal introduction at the start of a speech means giving not only your ancestry but also the name of your mountain and/or river, and there will be a reason why it is that specific river and not the next one over.
The only way to avoid annoying someone in particular would be to make up a fake location as well as a fake iwi, and then I'd be worried about annoying everyone. Wouldn't blame them, really, given past history. I certainly wouldn't mess around with someone else's family without (a) asking nicely, (b) doing a lot of research, and (c) using local monsters instead. Our fair folk could take yours any day.
Also, if it's thin and looks like a small rubber band wrapped with thread, it's a hair tie. If it's elastic wrapped in scrunched up material, it's a scrunchy. A few years back, I was called up for jury duty and an expert witness used one to demonstrate her conclusions - I haven't worn one since.
Did I mention I love lurking here? It's like hanging around the cool kids, listening to them talk about all sorts of interesting things.

Kit Whitfield said...

@Rikalous - it's not something you could be expected to anticipate, but could you put a trigger warning on your post referencing Gaiman? Because

... TW cancer, surgery on reproductive organs ...

...some kinds of cancer, such as testicular or endometrial, do lead to surgery in which somebody's reproductive organs end up getting removed, and they can wind up feeling profoundly desexed and damaged as a result even if it does save their life. It can be very distressing and a head-up would be valuable.

Amaryllis said...

using local monsters instead. Our fair folk could take yours any day.
Which immediately made me think of the Ogden Nash poem, The Wendigo.

But... is the Wendigo, in fact, one of my "fair folk"? I'm American, but not Native American. Would you call the poem a kind of cultural appropriation, using someone else's story for comic-horror effect? Or is it "fair use" of a local legend?

And who are "my people" anyway? If I were to write fiction-- which will happen when pigs fly-- am I limited to using materials directly related to 20th-century suburban New Jersey? Which, for a certain kind of writer, has been a fertile field-- but what if I'm not that kind of writer? As a USian of mixed European descent, presumably the whole inheritance of European story is open to me-- but my grandmothers didn't tell me stories of leprechauns or rusalka any more than of wendigos or Mikumwesuk. Disney told me stories; I learned about the Tuatha de Danaan from books in exactly the same way that I learned about the stories of groups to which I have no genetic or cultural connection.

(And I do have a cultural connection to a particular version of Irish-in-America, but it doesn't include any kind of direct experience with traditional storytelling.)

I think what bothers me about Meyer's use of Native Americans is that she didn't "use local monsters" or do the research. as far as I can tell. She took a real group of people and appropriated their name and a very minimal bit of their mythos, and shoehorned it into an alien set of legends. With the result that when you Google "Quileute legend" you get either Twilight sites, or Quileute/Native sites but surrounded by vampire-themed ads. Were I Quileute, I think I'd be annoyed about that. That's where I get the "existing to serve white people" vibe.

And I feel as if should ramble on some more, until I figure out where this is going, but I need to go to work. Where Disqus is disapproved of.

Ana Mardoll said...

LOL! Must we forever be left wondering?

Not gonna lie, if I'd seen that line about expert witnesses and scrunchies on a book jacket, I would totally buy that book. :)

Will Wildman said...

This thread is an amazing read.


I would love to have, like, an open thread sometime where we all talk about how we come up with fictional characters

I would also find this fascinating. As I begin to think about it, it occurs to me that I have a more consistent process than I realised.

Rakka said...

I didn't like "Changes" because it was so binary and essentialist. What would you become if you were AIS male? Or intersexed? And let's not go there with the whole "real sex" thing. Gaiman has rarely disappointed me, but Changes was just... eugh. (That being said, I totally would magically change my body. I just wish it had been examined in a more clued way.)

bekabot said...

@ Makabit:

Don't most of the Biting the Sun people have a psychological if not a physical gender, a predominant one anyway? (As in, given their druthers — which they are given — that's the gender of body they prefer bop around in most of the time b/c it just feels "right"?) Early in Biting the Sun when the protagonist is trying to find out what's wrong with her* she undergoes a battery of tests administered by the Robot Bureaucracy, and when the test results come back a Robot Administrator faces her across a nonexistent desk in an interview room, and says something like: "You're predominantly female, so I see."** Later, when (s)he gets exiled from the domed cities all these people live in and has to pick a single, final, permanent body to live in for the rest of her days, (s)he "designs" a female body, because that's the kind she feels most comfortable in. I don't think the Biting the Sun people are completely non-gendered; it's more like their gender, while present, is analog instead of digital and voluntary rather than assigned. One of the cool results of that in this book is that you end up with descriptions of characters who fall into gender-patterns not observable on present-day Earth. (One of the supporting characters amuses the protagonist, IIRC, by preferring to incarnate as a delicate waif during her Female Times and as a big gnarly gladiator-type when male.)

*she's female at that moment, and what's wrong with her is that she's bored

**not intended to be an exact quote

Ana Mardoll said...

This meshes perfectly with my recollection as well. I love that book so much.

bekabot said...

bekabot {glows}:

Good taste is universal in the sense that those who have it tend to share it.

Or, less glowily:

Oh well. At least we fell for Biting the Sun and not Flowers in the Attic. A small distinction is a distinction still.

(Although, now I think about it, Flowers in the Attic must have been before your time.) (Mopes.)

You know, I was out of high school before I realized that the gender-arrangements in Biting the Sun really aren't all that radical. The people in Biting the Sun all manifest, when embodied, as either male or female, and, in terms of their "predominant gender", fall somewhere along the spectrum of a male-female polarity. There are no extra sexes and there are no non-sexed people, and gender, though predominant rather than absolute, is still held to be enmeshed with character in some important way. Still, the Biting the Sun world looks pretty inviting from the perspective of junior high school, which is probably the best time to encounter it.

In one sense, gender and character are more intertwined in the Biting the Sun world than in ours, rather than less. Since the occupants of that world both get to pick their own gender and to sample existence in the other gender whenever they feel like it, gender-presentation moves out of the realm of "duty" and into the realm of "craft". It becomes more like a tea ceremony and less like a military drill. That might sound liberating, but one of the outcomes of this aestheticization of gender is that the "Biting the Sun" people spend a lot of time "designing bodies" and thinking about and tweaking their gender-presentation, especially when they're young. The Biting the Sun protagonist, while she experiences no trouble with her male-female balance, broods about it consistently. (But then, that's unfair of me, because she broods about everything consistently.)

Then there are the robots, who lack the "life spark" which makes humans human and who are therefore stuck forever in a subsidiary position. Seriously, I don't blame the robots for being pissed off about being permanently relegated to support-staff ranks (it was evident to me, even as a kid, that the reason the robots were needed as support staff was that female humans could no longer be consigned to that job, since in the Biting the Sun world the female humans could easily become male). But why should the robots be bothered by the fact that they don't possess a "life spark"? They've got everything else: bodies, minds, personalities, intelligence. What do they want with a life spark? How would having a life spark improve things for them? That whole thing seemed unrealistic to me (again) even as a kid. As an adult I'm going to turn post-Freudian and suggest that what the robots want is not the Life Spark but that which the Life Spark represents, which is the disposition of their own time and resources. Provide them with that and I bet they'd find that they could pass the Life Spark up. I expect that the parallel between robots and women is apparent and I'm not going to explore it further b/c I think it speaks for itself. Nevertheless I still think of these books as being unfair to robots.* These are the books in which Tanith Lee dissed the robots and gave them short shrift, though I have to admit that she more than made up for that with The Silver Metal Lover and Metallic Love.

*but then it's likely that I'm influenced by the Asimovian view of robots, which is very benign.

Makabit said...

This is a better explanation, yes, this.

Makabit said...

I was also intrigued that "Biting the Sun" assumes that the young folks will pair off in heterosexual pairs, based on their current gender.

chris the cynic said...

The cause of gender dismorphia is a mismatch between hormones (and/or brain structures) and the body, right?

Not exactly up on medical terminology, but I'm pretty sure the term you're looking for is dysphoria, not dysmorphia.

Second, I have never heard it being a mismatch between hormones and the body. (Prenatal hormones effecting development, yes.) Brain structure is something that people have looked at and seen some results that might suggest causation. Nothing is sure at this point though.

Even assuming brain structure is the cause, talking about changing brain structure is extremely problematic, because brain structure is who you are. If you're altering brain structure to change someone's gender identity you're rewriting their very being. Reprogramming them to share your political views would probably be a smaller violation.

You're talking about brainwashing on a very severe level. I don't think saying, "Well, it seems to me that a civilization that could do an honest-to-god functional sex change would find it trivial to throw in brainwashing too..." really solves much of anything.

Rikalous said...

Oops, I'm sorry. I'm afraid I can't edit my posts, so Ana, if you would?

Ana Mardoll said...

Done. :)

Amaryllis said...

So does no one read The Left Hand of Darkness any more? Am I dating myself worse than Flowers in teh Attic?

Although I haven't read LeGuin's classic in decades either. And now I'm wondering how well it's held up, but as I'm currently driving myself frantic trying to read four books at once (before I even get to my recent purchase :) ) I don't know if I'm up for a re-read.

Makabit said...

"If you're altering brain structure to change someone's gender identity you're rewriting their very being. Reprogramming them to share your political views would probably be a smaller violation."

This is true, but the sex-switched people in "When Gravity Fails" were so poorly explained, and the culture was such, that it's not entirely out of the question.

My own theory was that the author was essentially trying for cyberpunk eunuchs. God knows. crazy twenty-sixth century space Catholics can do better.

Makabit said...

I read The Left Hand Of Darkness in college, and what I recall was that it was a spectacular concept, but I found it a dull book.

depizan said...

And some of us don't really feel attached to either gender. I suppose that would be easier to "fix" with brain rewiring than body rewiring (What body _do_ you pick if you don't really feel either? Or maybe you feel kinda both.), but I have no particular desire to be "fixed" and the people I've known who feel like the gender their chromosomes aren't want the body to match the brain, not the other way around. Frankly fixing the brain strikes me as fixing the fact that some people are in wheelchairs by putting everyone in wheelchairs. I know it's not the same, but that's the visceral response I have. It's frackin' creepy and it's fixing the wrong thing.

Alpherae said...

(Replying to comments posted fifteen hours ago - dratted timezones!)

Not gonna lie, if I'd seen that line about expert witnesses and scrunchies on a book jacket, I would totally buy that book. :)

*blinks* um, wow, thank you. It took me something like 10 minutes to come up with that comment, so I'm very glad you like it :-D Didn't go into detail because I'm still getting the hang of trigger warnings, but it was one of those "she said, he said" situations (I'm sure you can guess the crime) and scrunchies apparently have a resemblance to a certain part of female anatomy relevant in a case like that. Something I really did not want to know!

Amaryllis, do you think it might be linked to how recently or otherwise people arrived where they are? People who've been there forever and a day will have their own stories, recent immigrants will bring theirs with them, but a family that turned up five-plus generations ago might have lost that link and not yet created new ones. For some people, having no concept of "my story" could make it harder for them to understand (and respect) how others feel about their own stories.

Fluffy_goddess said...

I did TLHoD in university for something like three weeks (speculative fiction course ftw!). It's a very carefully paced novel, in my opinion, and if you read it all in the course of an afternoon/evening, there's a progression from reading about gender being switchable as being odd and alien, into it being something desirable and natural. Or at least, I felt that way -- it'd take a digital copy and a very clever search algorithm to prove that. It helped that the characters who seemed slightly odd and very definitely Other at the beginning of the book are basically Other because they were not very well known, whereas at the end of the book, the hero experiences his reunion with cisgendered people as a meeting with Others.

But I loved that book, both for it's sex-and-gender-do-not-have-to-be-binary themes, and its beautifully understated romance, and the way they were blended together. Except for the ending. I was sad at the ending, because I am a hopeless romantic, and enough of a child of the internet generation to have wanted LeGuin to just go there already.

Lonespark said...

There's a romance? Did I read the wrong book?

Rakka said...

Ai is definately more annoyingly clueless on rereads. It's lucky thing Estraven decided to tell ir story too. Still, a great book. When I read it the first time I didn't feel that Gethenians were Other, I felt them closer to myself than Ai, and saw him as an outsider and Other in the world. Then again, if I could pick any literary world to live in I'd probably go for Gethen.

There's another story set in Gethen, in the story collection Birthday of the World, called Coming of Age in Karhide, which is also interesting and tells a good deal more about the culture and the people.

Fluffy_goddess said...

I saw romance, ymmv. Heavily unspoken romance, but that is my favourite kind, and I find subtext in lots of unexpected places.

Silver Adept said...

Add another to the LHoD in University crowd. I, too, think there's the possibility of romance, but Genly Ai is more than a bit thick about how things work on Gethen,.

I think the audience and Genly were hoping for a story about the politics and society of a world where gender is fluid, and instead, they got a story of how life is like on the planet, and an intimate, mostly romantic story between two beings as they fight for survival.

Lonespark said...

Oooh, I am glad to hear of Coming of Age in Karhide.. I have read Winter's King...

Frances said...

This is off-topic for most of the comment-response to this post. I wanted to bring up a point about the world-flood myth discussed in the post. I understand how it could be annoying and white-Christian dominant when viewed as a Noah's Ark variation. However, as I currently live in Portland, OR, and considering the earthquakes and tsunamis in recent years, I think that there's a possibility that the world-flood myth could have a basis in reality here. Tsunami warnings can and do happen for the PNW. However, taken in the context of the interview and SM's religious upbringing, I think your criticism is completely valid.

In fact, I find this portion of your blog to be fantastic. A friend recently came across it and I've spent the past week reading the whole of your deconstruction of Twilight. I was horrified after I saw the first movie and reading the books only affirmed that feeling. I talked about it so much that my friends got annoyed with my criticisms of it. I'm so happy to see a thoughtful, detailed deconstruction of the terrible things in these books. Kudos!

Frances said...

Murp. I should read ahead before I comment on things. I understand the point you were making about the flood better from the "Lying" post. I also agree with Jill Heather and Susan Wilbanks in their comments on that post.

hapax said...

I'll believe in werewolves before I'll believe in a cop who gives two shits about sexual assault.

Well, um, I have cops in my circle of friends and cops in my family who care a great deal about preventing sexual assault.

Including the one who has basically dedicated his career to getting children and teens out of abusive situations.

But what do I know? I once lived in an apartment that was beseiged by werewolves. (True story. Or, well, a good story, that happened to me, and all good stories are in some sense True.)

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