Content Note: Rape
Twilight Recap: Bella is on her way to Port Angeles to help Jessica and Angela pick out dresses for the school dance.
Twilight, Chapter 8: Port Angeles
Oh my gosh, ya'll, do you know what day it is? It's CHAPTER EIGHT DAY!
You may not immediately see why that is so very exciting, but let me assure you in advance that Chapter Eight is one of the very worst things I've read in my entire life. It is a carefully packed present of misogyny wrapped with a ribbon of loathing and addressed with a card filled with victim-blaming and a coupon for a free conservative nightmare lecture. Christmas has come early!
False cheeriness aside, this is the chapter where Bella and Edward will finally get together, have a nice lovely dinner date, Edward's secret about being a mind-reading vampire will come out, and then there will be no more secrets between the two of them and love will flourish and blossom forever. And all it takes in order for that to happen is for Bella to very nearly be brutally gang-raped.
Yes, saving the heroine from rape is a common trope in romance novels. Yes, even the For Better Or Worse comic author did it with Anthony and Liz. And, yes, Edward and Bella will manage to amp the creep factor up to eleven. How could they not?
JESS DROVE FASTER THAN THE CHIEF, SO WE MADE IT TO Port Angeles by four. It had been a while since I'd had a girls' night out, and the estrogen rush was invigorating. We listened to whiny rock songs while Jessica jabbered on about the boys we hung out with. Jessica's dinner with Mike had gone very well, and she was hoping that by Saturday night they would have progressed to the first-kiss stage. I smiled to myself, pleased. Angela was passively happy to be going to the dance, but not really interested in Eric. Jess tried to get her to confess who her type was, but I interrupted with a question about dresses after a bit, to spare her. Angela threw a grateful glance my way.
So much just in that sentence alone! Where do I begin?
You know how I'm always banging on about how Bella's internal narrative constantly sounds off because she's always putting herself down with her word choice? Well here it is again in spades. Jessica "jabbers", which is a word that could be used to convey "talked excitedly and at great length" but conveys all kinds of connotations of a girl who just won't shut up no mater how much her companions want her to. Angela is "passively happy", which could be a way of revealing that she's looking forward to the dance in her own quiet, restrained way, but leaves the impression that she's been tossed by Bella onto the Eric-grenade and isn't proactive enough to roll off because, hey, at least she gets a date to the dance out of it, and that's all a girl really wants, no?
Beyond the weasel words, this passage just sounds so bizarre to me. Maybe I'm a unique special butterfly, but I just cannot imagine talking like this as a teenager about myself and my activities. Look, I'll prove it. Here is Teen Ana:
[Teen Ana] "Estrogen rush"? Okay, um, estrogen is for, like, old ladies like my mom, and also is associated with her lady-bits and menopause so, um, ew. I mean, really, I have to, like, eat tonight, so try to keep that in mind. Also? My rock songs are not "whiny" no matter how many times you insist that they are. Oh, yeah, like your music is so deep because Creedence Clearwater Revival churned out meaningful treatises on the human soul and N'Sync is bland garbage, whatever, denial is not just a river in Egypt. And can you please stop referring to, like, important stuff as "stages"? Kisses are, um, a big deal, and good grief you sound like the jerks at school when you talk about it like it's some kind of hurdle to get past in a race. Geez, don't you know anything? [/Teen Ana]
Ah, Teen Ana. She was a firecracker, she was. /nostalgia
Beyond that, I'm amused that Jessica -- She Who Has Already Dated Mike -- is so anxious about this whole first-kiss business. Haha, continuity! We lacks it. I'm just going to put The Guide in the garbage for the moment and press on. Beyond that, it seems a little... sad, I guess, for Jessica to be so highly amped about her relationship with Mike, considering that we know that Mike only went out with her because he finally accepted that a relationship with Bella wasn't in the cards. And for Bella to be over there smirking with joy because she's finally gotten rid of Mike is just a really sour cherry on top; even if she's supposedly just happy that Jessica is happy, wouldn't she feel a little concern that Mike may not treat her well if he's only interested in her as a consolation prize?
Also, it's interesting that Bella sees herself as useful to Angela as a deflector of invasive questions. I'm tempted to wonder if this is a bit of projection on Bella's part -- one suspects that Angela may be closer friends with Jessica than is being portrayed if they've grown up together, and possibly Angela doesn't find these questions as invasive as Bella does -- but if it isn't projection, Bella and Angela seem like perfect candidates for best friends. Angela draws Bella out of her shell with questions about homework and they can each protect the other from invasive, unwanted questioning. It's almost a shame that Bella isn't narratively allowed to have friends.
Random: Charlie is now "The Chief"? That's a thing now? Because that seems like a very strange framing. Does Bella call him that anywhere else, ever?
Port Angeles was a beautiful little tourist trap, [...] But Jessica and Angela knew it well, so they didn't plan to waste time on the picturesque boardwalk by the bay.
Well, if they decided to accomplish their errands right away and didn't choose to waste time on the heart-rending scenery, they must be absolute Philistines! I'll bet Edward would have stopped to enjoy the picturesque boardwalk by the bay whilst gently holding Bella's hand, gazing into her eyes, and somehow managing both to drink in the untamed beauty of the ocean and worship every pore on her face all at once! (It's just a shame he can't do all this in the daylight.)
Both Jessica and Angela seemed surprised and almost disbelieving when I told them I'd never been to a dance in Phoenix. [...]
"Really," I tried to convince her, not wanting to confess my dancing problems. "I've never had a boyfriend or anything close. I didn't go out much."
This is as good an excuse as any to recommend Melissa McEwan's absolutely incredible two-part post on disabilities and why failing to remember the existence of a disability is a really dreadful thing to do to a disabled person (assuming, of course, that a disability of memory is not part of the equation). And I know I recommend everything Melissa writes, usually twice over, but these really are incredibly powerful posts because forcing a friend or family member to continually explain the existence of their disability is incredibly demoralizing. There's a difference between "not fully understanding all the ramifications of a specific disability" and flat-out choosing not to remember that there's a disability in the equation.
(And while we're on the subject, I'm incredibly grateful to all the people on the board who have so patiently educated me on food allergies -- I took a casserole to a neighborhood block party after we moved in and was ready and able to rattle off everything in the dish, and as "cream of chicken" was one of the ingredients a vegetarian in the neighborhood was happy to be informed beforehand.)
So here's my obligatory "oh, look, Feminism in Twilight" moment for the week: Jessica's failure to remember Bella's balancing disability or to consider that such a disability might not be something Bella wishes to continually talk about and justify to others is demonstrated here as a damaging means of relating to Bella.
(Maybe I need to make a Feminist Twilight tumblr.)
But I'm pretty sure that's all the feminism you're going to get in this chapter. And even this isn't that feminist, because I have a sneaking suspicion that this conversation is just laying more groundwork to the characterization that Bella is a Pure Unsullied Virgin, which (again) is a common romance trope, but it's also in my opinion a damaging trope in the constant repetition, since it contributes to a harmful cultural fetishization of virginity.
She looked skeptical. "People ask you out here," she reminded me, "and you tell them no." We were in the juniors' section now, scanning the racks for dress-up clothes. "Well, except for Tyler," Angela amended quietly. [...]
"Tyler told everyone he's taking you to prom," Jessica informed me with suspicious eyes.
"He said what?" I sounded like I was choking.
This is one of those aspects of Twilight which strikes me as super-creepy and yet I can't tell if the narrative expects me to feel that way.
Tyler nearly killed Bella with his van. Arguably, the incident may not have been his fault, but whether it was or wasn't, it's a fact that without the supernatural intervention of Edward, Bella would be dead right now. To the best of my knowledge, this incident never directly affects Bella within the narrative except as a means of revealing Edward's true nature. But for some people in real life, an incident like this would have the potential to be highly traumatizing. It wouldn't be unusual at all for Bella to transfer some of the trauma from the accident to her feelings about Tyler. His presence could remind her of her mortality, of how nearly she came to being dead.
(Indeed, in a more nuanced vampire novel, the Van Incident would be directly linked to Bella's fervent desire to be vampire'd as soon as possible: the issue isn't merely her constantly-advancing age, it's that she should already be dead. What's to stop a thousand other fatal accidents from happening at any moment? Edward's selfish reassurances that his life would still be complete, having known her, doesn't change the fact that Bella would be dead and gone. Bella should be allowed within the narrative to have an opinion on that -- ideally one that has nothing to do with Edward and everything to do with her own wants and needs.)
Tyler seems to have taken this incident as proof that he's in some kind of heart-warming romantic comedy, and so naturally he's decided to act like a creepy and terrifying stalker because that sort of thing is sweet in romantic comedies, amiright?
Bella has decided to react with her trademark emotion spice-blend: absolutely justifiable anger mixed with a childish and ineffectual expression of same. Great. Everyone else seems to react with a Rape Culture sanctioned attitude of amused indulgence. Wonderful. Apparently including Bella's otherwise excessively protective and abusively jealous vampire lover, which implies that he does not consider this sort of stalking behavior to be dangerous, inappropriate, or upsetting to Bella. Probably because he engages in stalker tactics himself. Stellar.
"That's why Lauren doesn't like you," Jessica giggled while we pawed through the clothes. I ground my teeth. "Do you think that if I ran him over with my truck he would stop feeling guilty about the accident? That he might give up on making amends and call it even?"
And once again, we see that the young women of Forks engage in petty rivalries over the bad behavior -- notably infidelity in the face of the irresistible Bella -- of their menfolk. In case you're keeping score at home, this is Not Feminist.
"Angela?" I began, hesitant, [...] I tried again. "Is it normal for the . . . Cullens" -- I kept my eyes on the shoes -- "to be out of school a lot?" I failed miserably in my attempt to sound nonchalant.
"Yes, when the weather is good they go backpacking all the time -- even the doctor. They're all real outdoorsy," she told me quietly, examining her shoes, too. She didn't ask one question, let alone the hundreds that Jessica would have unleashed. I was beginning to really like Angela. [...]
This is a digression, but I include the above for reasons of world-building. One, apparently this is the first time Bella has put together that the Cullens are absent frequently and that their absences correspond to sunny days. This is way too late in the narrative for Bella to learn this, considering that she has apparently been at school for weeks (what, there were no sunny days in all that time except the handful of plot-specific Edward-Cullen-Didn't-Come-To-School-Today days?) and has been obsessed with Edward Cullen pretty much this entire time. Presumably this is why the information was moved up considerably in the movie.
Two, this is yet more evidence that Angela and Bella could be very good friends, were they not in a novel (or, to be more meta, in a culture) that treats female friendships as a frivolous diversion from the "real" matters of finding a husband, bearing him children, and being turned into the walking undead. Indeed, the two seem almost a match made in heaven: they're both quiet, studious, caretakers (Angela of her younger brothers, Bella of her immature mother), who seem to hold similar Good Girl values of modesty and polite behavior. Bella feels awkward because of her problems with balance; Angela apparently (according to The Guide) feels awkward because of her unusual height. Of course, Bella and Angela aren't obligated to be friends simply because they share some similarities, but it seems like such a shame that they're not closer throughout the series.
Three, here is the world-building that we already knew and yet still does not make very much sense to me: sunny days (or, more accurately, days with sunny moments) are so rare in Forks and the Cullens are so privileged in town that they can take off from school and work any time they want. And not just when it's sunny -- they also have to take off when it's going to be sunny, and you'd really think that someone would tweak to the fact that the Cullens literally have to be psychic in order for this to work. Cult leaders Jim Jones and Warren Jeffs, if I recall correctly, both used isolation of their followers and access to weather predictive services to convince people they were divinely able to predict the weather; surely someone would notice after awhile that the Cullens take off every time there is nice weather, even when the day started cloudy and the weather channel was predicting storms.
I had no trouble finding the bookstore, but it wasn't what I was looking for. The windows were full of crystals, dream-catchers, and books about spiritual healing. I didn't even go inside. Through the glass I could see a fifty-year-old woman with long, gray hair worn straight down her back, clad in a dress right out of the sixties, smiling welcomingly from behind the counter. I decided that was one conversation I could skip. There had to be a normal bookstore in town.
Considering that Bella has been trawling Google for any and every Ancient Mystical Legend about vampires, no matter how vague or ambiguous or ludicrous (I mean, really? Vampires whose heads fly about at night, entrails dangling after them? That doesn't precisely strike me as... helpful here, Bella.), you might be surprised that she would so quickly turn up her nose at the golden opportunity presented here.
But here, for the record, is one of many reasons why Twilight is racist in general and why the appropriation of the Quileute peoples' legends was racist in particular. Bella isn't interested in the Ancient Mystical Legends of white people, because white people (or so goes the stereotype) don't have valid Ancient Mystical Legends. White people who claim to be in touch with nature or to have insight into the supernatural are aberrations, fakes, poseurs, or mentally ill. Real Ancient Mystical Legends come from dark people, who are defined by their heritage and statically roped to their past in ways that white people -- who represent the norm, the baseline of human experience -- are not.
The last time Bella spoke to someone with Ancient Mystical Legends, she was given valuable information about the man she loves and the race of beings that he belongs to. She accepted and encouraged this information because the person dispensing the information was dark-skinned and therefore a valid provider of Ancient Mystical Legends. Now Bella is facing another person who may have insight into the world that she is struggling to understand. She is looking directly at someone who might not mock her for her theories, someone who could perhaps offer valuable advice and worthwhile reading outside of The Google. But Bella turns away with a sneer because she knows that Ancient Mystical Legends dispensed by white people cannot possibly have value.
The reason she knows that is because of the stereotype -- here born out by the power of the narrative -- that dark-skinned people are tied to their cultural beliefs, whereas white-skinned people have transcended their past cultural beliefs to fully embrace modern culture. And, indeed, Bella as a white-skinned person in the pages of Twilight doesn't have a culture, in the same way she doesn't have an American accent, and in the same way that she is objectively beautiful, because her culture and accent and standards of beauty are considered so much the norm that they are rendered invisible and omnipresent, laying claim to everything that isn't expressly different. And of course such an attitude is both factually incorrect and packed with racism implications.
I meandered through the streets, which were filling up with end-of-the-workday traffic, and hoped I was headed toward downtown. I wasn't paying as much attention as I should to where I was going; [...] I started to realize, as I crossed another road, that I was going the wrong direction. [...]
A group of four men turned around the corner I was heading for, dressed too casually to be heading home from the office, but they were too grimy to be tourists. As they approached me, I realized they weren't too many years older than I was. They were joking loudly among themselves, laughing raucously and punching each other's arms. I scooted as far to the inside of the sidewalk as I could to give them room, walking swiftly, looking past them to the corner.
Despite the horrible, horrible squickiness that is involved any time an author bases a romantic relationship on a near-rape (see above, re: Tyler and why his presence could be residually distressing), I want to like this chapter. Not because I like chapters with gang-rape in it, mind you, and not because I appreciate that the portrayal of rape in Twilight to be limited to the rare-and-unusual case of gang-rape on a bright city street in America as opposed to common-and-invisible acquaintance rape of the kind that I strongly suspect Mike is capable of. Because I don't.
No, I want to like this chapter because -- frustratingly, considering the subject matter -- it contains more action on the part of Bella and more revelation of her underlying character than probably any other chapter in this book. Bella is realistically fearful, Bella reacts with realistic doubt and caution, Bella prepares to fight with both courage and intelligence, Bella keeps her head and doesn't panic. Considering how much rape and sexual violence is a part of our culture, I want to like that Bella meets the inevitable head-on, with grim determination to survive. Strong! Female! Character!
But... I can't like this. It's served with so much awfulness that I can't stomach the parts that, in another novel, would be more palatable. Already we see a hint of the victim-blaming to come: Bella gets in to trouble because she "wasn't paying as much attention as [she] should".
And this is the seduction of victim-blaming, the idea that sensible people can agree that Bad Things just happen, like the tides or tsunamis, and there's nothing we can do about them except insist that the potential victims of Bad Things police their every little movement and action in an attempt to avoid the unstoppable Bad Thing. Surely that's totally reasonable and logical and based on factual inference! And it kind of is, in the sense that yes, there will always be rapists. There will. No matter how much we push back against Rape Culture, no matter how much we educate people to stop raping, no matter how much headway we make statistically, there will always be at least one person out there willing to rape. So doesn't is make sense to try to avoid that guy?
But that's not how it works. Once that "should" framing creeps into the narrative, it's a steady and inevitable road to victim-blaming. A few pages from now, Edward will blame Bella for her own near-rape, and that blame is based on the framework being laid in the narrative now: Bella "should" have been paying more attention to where she was going.
It's a game she can't win. It doesn't matter if she's a stranger in a strange town. It doesn't matter if she has a disability that keeps her eyes focused on the ground (so she doesn't trip and hurt herself) instead of on the scenery. It doesn't matter if the city planners for Port Angeles took the concept of "tourist trap" a little too literally and designed the city to be an inescapable maze of no return. The situation is tautologically built against her: if someone is nearly raped in the streets of Port Angeles, she "should" have paid better attention. If she wasn't nearly raped, then she did something right. Logic!
I'd wandered far past the part of Port Angeles that I, as a guest, was intended to see. [...]
The sky suddenly darkened further, and, as I looked over my shoulder to glare at the offending cloud, I realized with a shock that two men were walking quietly twenty feet behind me.
They were from the same group I'd passed at the corner, [...] My purse was on a shoulder strap and I had it slung across my body, the way you were supposed to wear it so it wouldn't get snatched. I knew exactly where my pepper spray was -- still in my duffle bag under the bed, never unpacked. I didn't have much money with me, just a twenty and some ones, and I thought about "accidentally" dropping my bag and walking away. But a small, frightened voice in the back of my mind warned me that they might be something worse than thieves.
[...] Breathe, I had to remind myself. You don't know they're following you. I continued to walk as quickly as I could without actually running, [...] A blue car turned onto the street from the south and drove quickly past me. I thought of jumping out in front of it, but I hesitated, inhibited, unsure that I was really being pursued, and then it was too late.
[...] They sounded farther back, though, and I knew they could outrun me in any case. I was sure to trip and go sprawling if I tried to go any faster.
One of the very few things I like about this passage is that it captures -- intentionally or not -- the Can't Win framing that the Patriarchy imposes on women. If Bella throws her purse to the ground, tears off in a run, and flings herself into oncoming traffic, she's going to be viewed as over-reacting to a perceived threat, even if she is right. Because if she is right that the men behind her are rapists, and if she acts on that belief and stops traffic, no one will ever know that she was right. And what is she going to tell the driver of the car she stops? "I'm so sorry, I must have tripped, but can I trouble you to take me into town with you?" And if that driver then rapes her, well then that was her fault too, for getting into a car with a stranger.
And this is a microcosm of the doubt applied to women and oppressed peoples all the time. A woman who is getting troll-vibes from a hostile commenter and who reacts strongly is at risk of being shouted down and chastised by the other commenters. After all, she couldn't psychically know the commenter was a troll, could she? And, yes, he did eventually start spewing utterly inappropriate sexist slurs, but we don't give out points for being right in hind-sight, now do we? And the very idea that maybe there are sexist and racist and ableist and homophobic dog-whistles that some people are more sensitive to than others is just completely disregarded because that would mean that the unattuned people aren't as insightful as they previously thought. And no one wants to hear that.
Bella lives in a society where the burden of Not Getting Raped is unfairly placed on the victim. Pepper spray isn't going to be effective against a group of four determined men, especially not when she's lost and can't run without falling down, but that doesn't mean she won't be blamed for not carrying it. Throwing down her purse or flinging herself into traffic are serious decisions made with real risks involved, but that doesn't mean she won't be blamed for making the wrong choice regardless of whichever choice she ends up making. I want to give points to the narrative for accurately portraying how harmful victim-blaming is, but I can't when both hero and heroine are nodding along to the victim-blaming.
It seemed to take forever for me to get to the corner. I kept my pace steady, the men behind me falling ever so slightly farther behind with every step. Maybe they realized they had scared me and were sorry. I saw two cars going north pass the intersection I was heading for, and I exhaled in relief. There would be more people around once I got off this deserted street. I skipped around the corner with a grateful sigh.
And skidded to a stop.
[...] Because lounging against the western building, midway down the street, were the other two men from the group, both watching with excited smiles as I froze dead on the sidewalk. I realized then that I wasn't being followed.
I was being herded.
And now is as good a time as any to tell you how utterly frustrated I am that the only real treatment of sexual violence in this novel is here, as a carefully orchestrated gang-rape on the open streets in the early evening of a quiet northern American tourist town.
Gang rape isn't (or doesn't seem to be; I'm struggling to find firm statistics) a rare thing. One source online states that 43% of rapes involve more than one assailant (a very large number of these seem to be perpetuated on college campuses by fraternities, but again I'm struggling to find firm statistics). But stranger rape comprises only 27% of rapes, and blitz rapes like the one here in Twilight would seem to be even more the exception rather than the rule. None of which means, of course, that this kind of rape doesn't happen because it does. And because it does happen, I'm not about to say that it shouldn't be portrayed in a novel, because survivors of gang-rape deserve to have their stories told in narratives too.
But the only rape we see in Twilight seems to be gang-rape: Bella is nearly raped by strangers in the middle of the street; Rosalie is raped by strangers in the middle of the street, an attack orchestrated by her fiance who is, himself, something of a stranger to Rosalie (they've only really been with each other at public events). In each case, there's a strong implication that the problem is that the women were alone. Bella is saved because Edward was following her; Rosalie regrets that she wasn't saved by the presence of her father. Both the narratives conveniently forget that, statistically speaking, Bella is far more likely to be raped by her boyfriend Edward and Rosalie is far more likely to be raped by her father than either young woman is of being raped in the middle of the street. Both narratives conveniently gloss past the fact that no matter who perpetuates the rape, the victim is the one blamed for being without the "right" person, with no earthly way to know for sure who the "right" person is.
My steps had to slow now. I was closing the distance between myself and the lounging pair too quickly. I had a good loud scream, and I sucked in air, preparing to use it, but my throat was so dry I wasn't sure how much volume I could manage. With a quick movement I slipped my purse over my head, gripping the strap with one hand, ready to surrender it or use it as weapon as need demanded. [...]
I braced myself, feet apart, trying to remember through my panic what little self-defense I knew. Heel of the hand thrust upward, hopefully breaking the nose or shoving it into the brain. Finger through the eye socket -- try to hook around and pop the eye out. And the standard knee to the groin, of course. That same pessimistic voice in my mind spoke up then, reminding me that I probably wouldn't have a chance against one of them, and there were four. Shut up! I commanded the voice before terror could incapacitate me. I wasn't going out without taking someone with me. I tried to swallow so I could build up a decent scream.
Headlights suddenly flew around the corner, the car almost hitting the stocky one, forcing him to jump back toward the sidewalk. I dove into the road -- this car was going to stop, or have to hit me. But the silver car unexpectedly fishtailed around, skidding to a stop with the passenger door open just a few feet from me.
"Get in," a furious voice commanded.
The car is Edward's, the voice is his own. Edward is furious at the men trying to rape Bella, but he's also upset with her for being a "magnet for trouble". This framing once again mirror's Rosalie's story, for Rosalie blames her own beauty for her rape, as if the one had anything to do with the other. In both cases, the narrative takes the responsibility from the guilty perpetrators and places it on the innocent victim who had little choice in their victimization: Rosalie did not choose to be beautiful and Bella did not choose to be clumsy.
Over the new few pages, it will be Edward's emotion, Edward's fury, that receives the bulk of the narrative attention. Bella's emotion is an afterthought, and when the afterthought comes it will turn out that she has nothing really to add. Her emotion is repressed in favor of Edward's. After all, Bella was only very nearly gang-raped for the first time in her life; Edward, on the other hand, was forced to struggle with his murderous impulses and barely restrained temper that has been with him for more than a century.
I think we all know what's more important here. Edward certainly does.