Content Note: Marginalization, "Reverse Racism"
Twilight Summary: In Chapter 12, Bella and Edward's relationship is observed by Billy Black and Bella worries that Billy may inform her father Charlie. Later, Edward and Bella spend the weekend alone together in the woods.
Twilight, Chapter 12: Balancing
Disclosure: I'm skipping over the remainder of Chapter 11 and diving into Chapter 12. Partly because the remainder of Chapter 11 has already pretty much been covered; after Edward picks up Bella and observes that Mike Newton is getting on his nerves, there are more questions-and-answers as Bella attempts to describe her love for the desert. And there is actually some good writing here, no snark intended, but nothing that I feel deeply called to deconstruct. Also, there's the money quote from Edward regarding Twilight being the safest time of day, which you should all incorporate into any Twilight tattoos you may be planning for yourself. And then this happens:
He reached across to open my door for me, and his sudden proximity sent my heart into frenzied palpitations.
But his hand froze on the handle.
“Not good,” he muttered.
“What is it?” I was surprised to see that his jaw was clenched, his eyes disturbed.
He glanced at me for a brief second. “Another complication,” he said glumly. [...]
[...] Jacob’s father, Billy Black. I knew him immediately, though in the more than five years since I’d seen him last I’d managed to forget his name when Charlie had spoken of him my first day here. He was staring at me, scrutinizing my face, so I smiled tentatively at him. His eyes were wide, as if in shock or fear, his nostrils flared. My smile faded.
Another complication, Edward had said.
Billy still stared at me with intense, anxious eyes. I groaned internally. Had Billy recognized Edward so easily? Could he really believe the impossible legends his son had scoffed at?
The answer was clear in Billy’s eyes. Yes. Yes, he could.
Edward and Bella are caught in the driveway by Billy Black, who has just been driven up to the house by Jacob. Charlie isn't far behind in his cruiser, but is far enough back that he manages to not notice the silver Volvo through the rain. However Billy most certainly does notice, and Bella instantly worries that Billy may tell Charlie who -- or what -- Bella is involved with. So ends Chapter 11 and begins Chapter 12.
Come this December, I will have been deconstructing Twilight for a little over two years. We've been through a lot of ups and downs in that time, and we've explored a lot of different avenues for deconstruction. We've created elaborate fan-explanations and plot-spackle to cover the many plot holes, and we've whiled away many happy hours attempting to match justifications in-text with possible personality quirks and idiosyncrasies in order to make everything fit just so. We've consulted interviews with S. Meyer, and delved through guide books to the book series and the movie adaptations. Most of us aren't self-identified Twi-hards, but I venture that more than a few of us could do well at the Twilight Trivial Pursuit game that I would have sworn existed, but apparently does not. (The reviews are quite searing.)
Today I'm going to tale a step back from all that knowledge as much as I can. Not because I think all that is unimportant (because I so very much do not think that), but because I think there's value today in reading this chapter like a regular reader picking up Twilight for the first time. So let's pretend for a moment that the only thing you know about Twilight is the past eleven chapters and nothing more -- no movies, no sequels, no retcons, no interviews, no fanfics. Just you, me, and Twilight chapters one through twelve.
“BILLY!” CHARLIE CALLED AS SOON AS HE GOT OUT OF the car.
I turned toward the house, beckoning to Jacob as I ducked under the porch. I heard Charlie greeting them loudly behind me.
“I’m going to pretend I didn’t see you behind the wheel, Jake,” he said disapprovingly.
“We get permits early on the rez,” Jacob said while I unlocked the door and flicked on the porch light.
“Sure you do,” Charlie laughed.
“I have to get around somehow.” I recognized Billy’s resonant voice easily, despite the years. The sound of it made me feel suddenly younger, a child.
Here is what we know, without any of that all-purpose plot-spackling "what we think we know".
Billy and Charlie have been friends for years, since Bella was a little girl and young enough to know Billy before she stopped visiting Forks entirely. As far as we can tell from the text, Billy and Charlie spend a tremendous amount of time together, with Charlie driving up to the reservation most weekends in order to fish and relax with his buddy. Probably Billy filled a void when Renee and Bella left and became someone for Charlie to spend time with and confide in. He seems, for all intents and purposes, like an upstanding guy and a really good, dependable friend. Charlie is lucky to have him, in my opinion.
In Chapter 1, Billy was introduced to us as a vehicle for bringing a cheap car into Bella's possession: Charlie relayed the information that Billy was "in a wheelchair now" and "can't drive anymore" and therefore had sold his truck cheaply to his friend Charlie. I don't know why Billy is in a wheelchair. (The Twilight wiki tells me that it's due to his diabetes, but there's no search result for "diabetes" in Twilight so I feel confident in saying that this hasn't been disclosed to the reader just yet.) I don't know why Billy chose to sell his truck cheaply to Charlie rather than sell or gift it to one of his children (Jacob, or the two girls -- Rachel and Rebecca -- that Bella remembers playing with during her childhood). I don't know why Billy decided to sell his truck to Charlie when Charlie doesn't seem to need a car and, presumably, there are numerous young people on the reservation who could use a decent truck.
As a reader, I assume that Billy sold the truck to Charlie because the two men are friends, and because Billy knew -- or Charlie mentioned -- that Bella was moving to Forks. I imagine that Billy probably knew, or gathered from hints dropped by Charlie, that his friend wanted to do something magnanimous and "fatherly" to endear himself to his distant daughter, and Billy chose to help his friend procure an affordable car so that Charlie would have something meaningful to gift to his daughter. And I additionally assume all this rather quickly, because I'm trying to stay in the "fresh reader" mindset rather than the "deeply deconstructive" one.
I do know, however, that Charlie knows that Billy can't drive anymore -- I know he knows that because he was the one who told Bella in Chapter 1. So I'm not 100% certain why Charlie is getting all irksome about fifteen-year-old Jacob driving; Jacob is old enough for a learner's permit (at least in my state) and to drive with the accompaniment of an older licensed driver, and they live in a deeply rural area, where residents stereotypically are less likely to be overly bothered by young people driving as long as they're careful about it. (Just this week I was informed by a rural friend that there is apparently no age minimum in our state for driving a tractor, and that his school used to sponsor "drive your tractor to school" days for fun.)
I'm not one to automatically criticize Charlie for his decision to chastise Jacob. As a police officer, Charlie has sworn to uphold the law, presumably regardless of his feelings about it. As such, he's in something of an awkward position here: he's observed an illegal action (assuming that Jacob doesn't have a valid permit), but doesn't want to report his friend or his friend's son for doing their best to live and work around a deeply inconvenient disability.
On the other hand, however, Charlie does know about Billy's disability -- that knowledge was established eleven chapters ago, and was even the excuse used for Billy to do a significant favor for Charlie. Charlie's response to it here seems... inconsiderate to me. Unfriendly, even. He must know why Jacob is driving instead of Billy, but his words and actions force Billy to speak up and remind everyone that, yes, he is disabled. Thanks for noticing. I'm reminded of Charlie forcing Bella to repeatedly inform her about her disability -- a trait that Charlie will evince again in this very chapter when he interrogates Bella as to why, precisely, again, is she not going to that whole dance thing? Bella would be well within her rights to say Dad, I continue to be as disabled as I was the LAST time you asked that question, though she doesn't.
I can't help but wonder if Charlie is doing the same thing to Billy that he keeps doing to Bella -- blithely ignoring obvious disabilities and forcing everyone to remind him of them over and over again -- and that does not strike me as friendly behavior in the least. It strikes me as deeply privileged and inconsiderate behavior.
Jumping ahead a bit, we find Bella in the kitchen with Jacob, as Jacob quizzes her about the silver Volvo that he saw outside and Bella frets over whether or not to spill the beans as to who was the driver:
“Nice ride.” Jacob’s voice was admiring. “I didn’t recognize the driver, though. I thought I knew most of the kids around here.” [...] “My dad seemed to know him from somewhere.” [...] “So who was it?” he asked, setting two plates on the counter next to me.
I sighed in defeat. “Edward Cullen.”
To my surprise, he laughed. I glanced up at him. He looked a little embarrassed.
“Guess that explains it, then,” he said. “I wondered why my dad was acting so strange.”
“That’s right.” I faked an innocent expression. “He doesn’t like the Cullens.”
“Superstitious old man,” Jacob muttered under his breath.
Setting aside for a moment the "superstitious old man" remark, the conversation that Bella is pretending to only sort-of remember (presumably because she doesn't want to seem to have attached too much significance to it) is the conversation from Chapter 6, when Jacob disclosed to Bella the ancient mystical Quileute secret that the Cullens are really vampires. Jacob asked Bella not to tell anyone the story, but particularly to not say anything to Charlie because, "He was pretty mad at my dad when he heard that some of us weren’t going to the hospital since Dr. Cullen started working there."
Just that one sentence doesn't actually tell us a whole lot. Neither "some" nor "us" are defined in any specifics, so it's unclear whether Jacob means that some of the tribe members stopped going to the hospital or some of his immediate family, or both. And because we don't know who, precisely, has stopped visiting the hospital, we don't know if Charlie is blaming Billy for this state of affairs based on Billy's position as head of his family or his position as chief of the tribal council. And since the Twilight wiki tells me that we don't learn that Billy is chief of the tribal council until Eclipse, I feel pretty safe saying that the uninformed reader isn't in a place yet to diagnose why Charlie is angry.
But we do know that Charlie is angry at Billy. And we know that anger is based in the fact that some Quileute people -- probably including Billy himself -- have refused to go to the hospital once the Cullens moved into the area. And we know that it is Charlie who is carrying all of the anger in this disagreement that has nearly resulted in complete estrangement; Billy by contrast is doing whatever he can (shy of tolerating the Cullens) to mend the rift in their relationship.
“You don’t think he’d say anything to Charlie?” I couldn’t help asking, the words coming out in a low rush.
Jacob stared at me for a moment, and I couldn’t read the expression in his dark eyes. “I doubt it,” he finally answered. “I think Charlie chewed him out pretty good last time. They haven’t spoken much since — tonight is sort of a reunion, I think. I don’t think he’d bring it up again.”
There are a lot of possible explanations for Charlie's anger. Maybe Charlie isn't angry that the Quileute people aren't going to the hospital so much as he's angry that Billy -- his close and dear friend -- is refusing to tell him why the Quileute people aren't going to the hospital. Or possibly Charlie does know why (in which case Billy or someone else would have had to confide in Charlie), but disagrees with making a decision to avoid important healthcare in service to an old mythology. An alternative explanation (and one backed by the Twilight wiki) is that Charlie is less interested in the health of the Quileute people and more upset about the apparent prejudice they are holding against the Cullens -- we know from Chapter 2 that Charlie is prone to go off on "the longest speech" Bella has ever heard him making in vigorous defense of the Cullens, on no more provocation than Bella mildly pointing out that the Cullen children don't seem to "fit in very well" at school.
But ultimately we don't know why Charlie is angry, and so we're left having to guess.
In fiction, a reader doesn't always have to know precisely what is going on. Ambiguity and foreshadowing and misdirection are all valuable tools in a writer's arsenal. I'm not about to stand here and state that if every character's motivation isn't crystal clear to the reader at all times then there is fail there -- I don't believe that in the slightest.
But in the case of Twilight, we have here a very curious situation. We have the following facts at our disposal: Charlie Swan is a white man of relatively high privilege (as police chief) in a small town where over 80% of the residents are white. Billy Black is a Native American with a serious disability living in a town where only 5% of the residents are Native American, and most of those residents experience disproportionate poverty in comparison with their white neighbors. These two men, despite their differences, have enjoyed a deep and long friendship with one another -- possibly a life-long friendship, given that both Billy and Charlie seem to have been born in Forks. And yet the appearance of the Cullens -- a family of privileged white people -- has been the source of a deep and potentially unrepairable rift between the two men for reasons that we the reader do not yet get to know.
Within the text of Twilight, Billy Black is clearly presented as factually correct: the Cullens are vampires, and Edward seems to believe that they are potentially dangerous. (He certainly warns Bella away from him often enough; I can only imagine that he would expect the Quileute people to take the same precautions.) But also within the text of Twilight, Billy Black seems to be presented as morally wrong. Bella continually insists that the Cullens are essentially good people, and the long-standing disagreement she has with Edward -- whether vampires are inherently good or evil -- would seem to be settled at the end with the birth of the oh-so-good Reneesmee, a vampire-hybrid that is good to the bone.
It's debatable to me whether Charlie is depicted as wrong for shutting out his life-long friend when Billy refuses to accept the harmlessness of Charlie's brand-new friend. (A "friend" with whom Charlie is so close that Charlie does not even know the names and ages of Carlisle's children, so I think it's safe to say that Charlie and Carlisle are not bosom buddies.) I, personally, think Charlie's actions are pretty deplorable; it seems to me that Billy's obvious willingness to be friends with Charlie (and presumably other white people in the small town of Forks) coupled with their long-standing friendship has earned Billy if not a pass on this issue with a semi-automatic "agree to disagree" then at least the benefit of the doubt that he's not totes Reverse Racist. But I'm not so sure that the text agrees with me, or that the interpretation I'm coming away with is something that the casual reader is likely to latch onto when reading through Twilight.
Twilight as a series has a lot of racism parallels, which may or may not be deliberate. The Cullens are frequently portrayed as magnificently good people who have to live undercover lives because the people around them would not otherwise accept their company if they knew the Cullens' true nature. (Though the majority of their "good" behavior seems to be that most of the time they don't murder people in order to feed. This seems like a "have a cookie" situation if I ever saw one.) Bella and Edward have the aforementioned long-standing ideological war over whether vampires have souls and/or are essentially evil.
When the Quileute tribe decide to attack the Cullens in Breaking Dawn, there is a discussion about how the Cullens will still honor the treaty even though it's been broken by the werewolves. The crisis is only averted when Jacob imprints on vampire-hybrid Renee, thus marking the family as off limits to the tribe in a sort of werewolf Romeo-and-Juliet clause. One suspects that the two 'tribes' -- the Cullens and the Quileutes -- will never really cherish one another, but will at least learn to live and work in harmony for the sake of their children. As a storyline, it's a bit tired and cliche, but ultimately harmless, right?
But I'm hesitant to agree. If we look more closely at Twilight, I'm distressed by the implication that the white people are always the marginalized party, and the darker people are the ones who perpetuate the marginalization. That the Quileute have an eminently reasonable position -- several of the Cullens are murderers several times over, and their presence in the area attracts other vampires who are not "vegetarian" -- seems largely glossed over in favor of the overarching romance narrative that pushes for acceptance and forgiveness of the Cullens. Bella's position that Edward is essentially good and that vampires are not inherently evil never seems effectively challenged by the narrative. Even Charlie, who doesn't know the Cullens' true nature, latches on to their obvious goodness to the point of estranging his best and longest friend for refusing to accept them.
Within the admittedly limited cast of Twilight, I cannot think of a Quileute tribe member who accepts at face value the proposition that the Cullens are genuinely capable of good, nor one who disagrees with the tribal position that the Cullens are dangerous and not to be trusted. (Jacob briefly satisfies the latter, but seems to immediately change sides once he learns that the Cullens really are vampires after all.) I cannot think of a white cast member who dislikes or distrusts the Cullens while remaining a "good", narrative-favored character, nor can I think of one who believes that the Quileutes' position is reasonable. (This is possibly also because there are no major white characters who know about vampires besides Bella and the Cullens, which muddles the issue somewhat.)
If Twilight is a story about racism, there are certainly racist people on both sides of the divide -- Alice and Rosalie in particular are shown in the movies making disparaging statements about the werewolves as 'dogs'. But even so, it's a fundamentally lop-sided narrative, with a white woman falling in love with a white man, with them being opposed and literally attacked by animalistic dark people, and with those dark people needing to be brought to see -- ultimately by the sheer force of their werewolf gods, who are presumably in charge of the imprinting pairings -- that the white people they've been hating all their lives are actually mostly peachy folks.
It's a story where the racism on the side of the white people is largely confined to words, but where the racism as displayed by the darker people is manifested in violent and dangerous deeds. And it's a story where incidental white characters who stand firm against the prejudice of the darker people are portrayed as taking that stance not because of white privilege or white solidarity, but rather as a result of their good character and unbiased attitudes.
If we ignore our history, and the fact that darker people have almost always been on the receiving end of marginalization and that white people have almost always been on the dealing end, then perhaps the narrative becomes less problematic. If we discard our social science, and forget that darker people are still consistently marginalized today and that their lack of white privilege contributes in large part to their disproportionate poverty and disability rates, then perhaps this story becomes less packed with unfortunate implications. If we forget the actual real world repercussions of Twilight, and that white people have hugely profited from the exploitation of the Quileute people, property, and legends, then possibly all this becomes easier to swallow.
But I don't think those things should be forgotten. And I find Charlie's anger at Billy to be frustrating in light of all this. I don't see Charlie as an open-minded person fighting the good fight, even against his best and closest friend, to save the world from racism in all its forms. I see Charlie as a privileged person who has enjoyed and will continue to enjoy privileges that Billy will never have, privileges of social standing, educational advancement, career opportunities, financial success, and health care -- privileges that may well have made the difference between Charlie being able-bodied and Billy needing to be driven around town by his fifteen-year-old son. I see Charlie who has never taken a step back to see these things and who does not bother to engage in serious introspection, and yet who has no problem blithely instructing his friend how he should respond to the world and the people around him. I see Charlie as a privileged person who feels comfortable in unilaterally deciding that the darker people are the real racists in his world, because they aren't accepting 'enough' of the white people, and for reasons that he deems insufficient.
In short, I see a privileged person who understands the concepts of racism, but not the practice of it. And I see a privileged person who ultimately perpetuates racism in his supposed fight for 'equality', because he doesn't believe that he needs to listen to marginalized people or understand their history or learn their reasons for their actions. He's too privileged and proud and important for that. Why should he invest time in understanding marginalization or examining his privilege? He has innocent white people to save; white people whose actual "innocence" need not be established or justified or looked at too closely, but rather are "innocent" by virtue of the fact that they seem nice and relatable to Charlie.