Twilight: Sustaining Stereotypes

[Content Note: Manipulation, Stereotyping of Women and Native Americans]

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

When last we saw Jacob Black, he and Bella were strolling on the beach, and Bella was flirting with him in order to pump him for information about the Cullens. Jacob seemed receptive to her flirtations, and acted eager to share his 'scary stories' that the other Quileute tribe members -- notably his father -- take seriously. Now Jacob is on Bella's driveway, in the flesh, when she hadn't really expected to ever see him again.

   Billy made a face at his son. “And, of course, Jacob was anxious to see Bella again,” he added. Jacob scowled and ducked his head while I fought back a surge of remorse. Maybe I’d been too convincing on the beach.

Bella receives a lot of flack, and I think rightfully so, over her dealings with Jacob. Her actions as described in the text are manipulative and dismissively cruel. She deliberately chooses to pretend an attraction for Jacob that she doesn't feel, and when he responds (genuinely) in kind, she uses his interest in order to further her own agenda regarding the Cullens. And she makes it very clear to us the readers -- but not to Jacob -- that she has no intention of following up on her flirtations. She doesn't intend to foster a meaningful relationship, not even a friendship, with Jacob, and she doesn't feel guilty enough about what she's done to come clean with him and be honest.

What's worse, Bella breaks her promise not to tell anyone what Jacob has told her, and she immediately rats him out to Edward Cullen as someone who is out there dangerously spreading his secrets about being a vampire. Edward is a murderer several times over -- a fact that perhaps Bella could not be expected to guess, but which is nonetheless true -- and if Jacob is blabbing the secret of the Cullens around town, and not just to Bella, he represents a security risk that could endanger the entire Cullen clan and possibly any humans in the area who might be caught in the cross-fire. It wouldn't be entirely out of character, I think, for Edward to decide that the greater good demands that he kill Jacob. And, again, Bella might not be expected to know these things, but whatever her intent may be, in her dealings with Jacob, she can come off as almost monstrously selfish.

All this is particularly frustrating to me, because despite Bella's occasional reference to the fact that this behavior is hurtful and inappropriate, it still ultimately serves to reinforce the stereotype that all women -- for Bella seems to be an Every Woman by design, if not by actual implementation -- are manipulative and use sex and attraction as weapons against men. This is the alternate universe that Nice Guys like Mike inhabit: a world where Bella's preferences are capricious and counterfeit and therefore do not really "count", and where all it really takes to win her heart is to beat Cullen for Alpha Male status, possibly through a peeing contest or some kind of rock throwing exhibition. For if Bella's expressed preference for Jacob cannot be taken as genuine (and it is not genuine), then why should men like Mike take anything she says as real or honest?

And if that whole paragraph above gave you the heebie-jeebies, you're not the only one. In his read-through of Twilight, Mark Oshiro writes:

   In the sixth chapter of Twilight, Bella develops a disturbing trend of manipulation which seems to suggest that Stephenie Meyer truly despises all women.

The thing is, I don't think S. Meyer wants to convey that she hates all women. I think she wanted to portray Bella as a teenager whose behavior fell within a normalized range of good and bad. Yes, it's wrong for Bella to scheme and manipulate and break hearts in her all-consuming quest to get into Edward's sparklepants, but Bella admits internally that her behavior is wrong and she has regrets and isn't that good enough? After all, if a "normal" teenager character likes smoking or drinking or cheating on tests or skipping classes, that's not automatically condoning that behavior, is it? Can't it just fall into accepting that such behavior exists and using it to craft a character that isn't perfect?

I don't know the answer to that. I like imperfect characters, and prefer them to perfect ones, but at the same time I'm not over the moon for imperfect characters who are imperfect in ways that perpetuate harmful stereotypes. By having Bella work the conversation as the stereotypical sexy vamp, I feel like the story is playing into the same tired old story about women using men, and not really caring if their actions hurt them (emotionally or physically). Nor does it help at all that Jacob fits the "nice guy" in this scenario: he's genuinely likeable, but Bella finds him uninteresting romantically because he's younger, kinder, more eager, and all around sweeter than Edward I'm-a-jerkass-and-I-don't-care Cullen. Can anyone say "girls only want bad guys" stereotype?

If Bella had pursued the mystery of Edward's past via any other means, even terribly flawed means, I think it would irk me less. Let her hack into the Quileute computer system and download the files on the Cold Ones. Let her call up the main office on the reservation and pretend to be a reporter gathering information on the new hospital. Hell, let her be honest with Jacob about how much she likes Edward and how sad she is that he can't come to the beach and isn't it just awful that Charlie and Billy can't seem to get along and if only Bella knew why Billy didn't like the Cullens, then she's just certain she could make it all right with Charlie. Any of those things would, in my mind, somehow be better than the bog-standard straighten-the-arms, jut-the-breasts, push-back-the-hair, smile-winningly, pretend-to-be-dazzled, pump-the-poor-unwitting-man-for-information-using-blatant-sexuality.

Because that? Has been done to death. It's been done to death so much that even subversions of that have been, in my opinion, done to death. The whole "using sexuality to get information" thing -- whether it's done meekly or with badassitude -- has been done and overdone and done some more, and when it piles up like a tidal wave of doneness, we create the impression that this is something that all women do, that this sort of interrogation is common and typical in women's experience, and that sharing information is something that men should absolutely not do with women because that's just playing into their feminine hands at that point. But hang on, before I get into an unscheduled rant on The Avengers, let's back up and talk about Jacob.

   “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.

This is now the second time that Jacob has plainly tried to distance himself from his tribe and their legends and practices. The first time, on the beach with Bella, he asked her "do you think we're a bunch of superstitious natives"? Here, the second time that he invokes the specter of superstition, he doesn't bother to ask -- he makes his feelings evident in statement.

There's nothing terribly wrong with one boy rebelling against the environment he was raised in. Many young people do, after all, break away from the traditions and religions and practices of their parents. (I'm one such, though it was after my teenage years when the break away happened.) But I'm not certain that there's anything terribly right about how it's done here. Jacob comes off as so strongly against his roots that he seems either deeply angry at his father or deeply embarrassed in front of Bella.

Possibly he does resent his father; the Twilight wiki alludes to Billy keeping Jacob close to home and refusing to travel far from the reservation in the hopes of keeping him sheltered from vampires and unlikely to fursplode. Or possibly he is genuinely trying to distance himself for Bella's sake, or perhaps for what she represents: Jacob may crave a relationship with a girl who hasn't known him closely for most of his life, and he may imagine that the only way to have a relationship with a non-Quileute girl is to become a non-Quileute boy. Or maybe Jacob is just a natural-born atheist in a world of vampires and werewolves; it could happen.

But I'm uncomfortable with the words Jacob uses to distance himself from his family, and how freely he uses them in the company of Bella, who is, after all, almost but not quite a stranger. Are we meant to make the impression that this is how Jacob talks around anyone he meets off the reservation? And how does this contrast with Bella's reticence to publicly criticize Charlie, even to Edward, despite the fact that she clearly has strong negative feelings in response to some of his interactions with her? Are we to take from this that Bella is more discrete -- or more loyal -- to her family than Jacob is?

Possibly this is just one more limitation of first-person storytelling; Jacob trashes his family vocally because otherwise Bella could not witness his internal turmoil. And indeed this is probably the source of the lazy narrative of the sexy information getter: Bella draws information out of Jacob in the manner most easily available to her and her author. But these limitations, whether they are meant to or not, fill out characters and they fill them out in ways that are not entirely comfortable to me. Bella slips into the sandals of the girl who uses her sexuality as a weapon against men in a battle for information. Jacob walks in the shoes of the native boy who (wrongly, according to the narrative) rejects his heritage. 

Back when the Opinionated Voyager Episode Guide had text and not just video, I saved off a really wonderful article on the episode "Tattoo". In the episode, the Voyager crew find an ancient and advanced race who just so happen to bear the same tattoo as Native American crew member Chakotay. Chakotay, who spent his youth scoffing at the teachings of his father, is surprised to learn the Very Special Lesson that everything he'd dismissed as legend and superstition was essentially true, and therefore he was wrong to have turned his back on his peoples' legends and embrace science and/or atheism and/or whatever the cool kids at Starfleet had going back in the day. OVEG took issue with the episode, pointing out that isolationism and religious extremism is really only shown as correct when it's an Other religion, in this case a religion ascribed to Native Americans:

   [...] Chakotay replies by announcing that he’s leaving the tribe. He says that Captain Sulu would sponsor him at Starfleet Academy. Papa Chakotay says that his son never fully embraced the ways of the tribe and was always curious about other cultures, and that was why he permitted Chakotay to read about them. But actually leaving the tribe is going too far, by the Sacred Sky Spirits! Chakotay says that their tribe lives in the past, to which his father retorts that that past is a part of him. Chakotay asks why their tribe can’t accept living in the present like other tribes, prompting Papa Chakotay to storm off. “It’s not the place of a fifteen year old boy to question the choices of his tribe,” he says with scorn. 
    Again, this is the only time we ever see that the isolationist zealot is in the right, that all good Indian boys shouldn’t ask questions and just blindly follow their elders. As if this scene couldn’t get any more offensive, he tells Chakotay that because of that past that he can never become a part of life outside the tribe, and that if he rejects the ways of his people he’ll be trapped between worlds. Scenes like this make me wonder how all the other reviews can be so positive. How can anyone watch this scene where a father tells his son that his genes prevent him from ever being a part of anyone else’s culture and not see this as racist?
    [...] Chakotay comes too; his commbadge is gone and he wanders back to the village, trying to make contact with them. However, all it does is just prompt another flashback. The Rubber People decide to strip the visitors of their clothes and make them dress like them. Because they’re ethnic, this is obviously a wise ritual and not a bunch of people acting like assholes. Young Chakotay resists, so they finally leave him alone. When that shit’s done the wise leader declares of Papa Chakotay that he is one of them, because he’s now dressed like them. That’s right, conform! CONFORM! So Young Chakotay is feeling left out because as someone who wouldn’t let himself be stripped and redressed by total strangers he must be a disrespectful young man.

Jacob Black may be a sympathetic character within the pages of Twilight. But he's also a character who is essentially and repeatedly wrong. When he rejects the legends of his tribe and tries to join what he sees as the more modern world, he is wrong: vampires and werewolves exist, and he cannot escape that fact. He can struggle against becoming a werewolf, but his struggles are meaningless -- once he has been exposed to the vampires, he will change whether he wants to or not.

When Jacob fixates on Bella as the love of his life, he is also wrong. He tries to force himself to imprint on her -- or on anyone other than her, just to be free from the pain -- but he doesn't have control over his romantic destiny. He is drawn to Bella simply because she contains the egg that will become his loved one; once Reneesmee is born, Jacob's fate will be sealed.

Jacob is wrong about the tribal legends, he is wrong about his future with Bella, he is wrong to want Bella to abort her pregnancy. The only time Jacob is really allowed to be right is in the rare moments when the tribe decides to work against the Cullens; Jacob is right when he stands by the pale white vampires against the rest of the tribe. But in all other respects, Jacob is persistently and continually wrong.

As a character choice, as one character in one novel, it's not such a bad thing. It's realistic for a teenager to reject their heritage and it's realistic that in a novel about vampires and werewolves, that teenager may end up being tragically wrong. But as a trend, Jacob fits a little too easily into the notion of a young native boy refusing to conform to the traditions of his tribe and being smacked down by the universe in response. Bella has no tradition, no religion, no culture which she attempts to escape and is shown to be deeply misguided -- indeed, what culture she has, she is able to very effectively escape and all to her overall enrichment.

So it's concerning that in the portrayal of Jacob, we're already slipping into well worn stereotypes that try to keep native boys in their place and which seek to "honor" native cultures by ensuring that no one is ever allowed to leave them, regardless of their personal preference.


Randomosity said...

The whole "using sexuality to get information" thing -- whether it's done meekly or with badassitude -- has been done and overdone and done some more,

Yes! I hate this trope with the fire of the universe exploding. I also hate with the same fury the trope in which the one woman on the good guys team has to distract the guards - all male of course - so the male characters can go be heroes. Three guesses how she does it, and the first two don't count.

I'm also bothered by the whole Leah thing later on. It plays into yet another thing I hate: Men are special, women are their groupies. Whenever you have a special woman/normal guy pairing, the guy gains specialness or the woman has to demonstrate sincere willingness to give up specialness (Polgara the Sorceress, I'm looking at you) in order to keep the guy. It's the fantasy equivalent of the wife giving up her career as soon as the wedding bells die down. TV Tropes calls it "Female Success is Family". A lot of fantasy stories with female protags end this way and it really annoys me.

Bella is so much an Everywoman that she fits the Special Man/Groupie stereotype to a tee.

chris the cynic said...

Apparently I've already Snarky Twilighted this section. The full thing can be found here. Excerpt follows:*Bella walks to kitchen, Jacob follows. Charlie walks to TV room, Billy follows.*

Jacob: So, how are things?
Bella: Pretty good. *smiles* You know, for once the book and I agree. Your enthusiasm is pretty hard to resist.
Jacob: Does the book say any other nice things about me?
Bella: Loads, but a lot of them play into racial stereotypes.
Jacob: *somewhat glumly* Why am I not surprised?
Bella: *in an obvious 'let's change the subject tone'* How about you, did you finish your car?
Jacob: No, I still need more parts, but thanks for the Master cylinder. We had to borrow the car we came in in.
Bella: If you can make a list, I might be able to scrounge up what you need for yours. It's one of those catch 22s in life that it's far easier to do the traveling necessary to find the parts to fix your car if your car works to bring you the places to look for such parts, but if your car works then it doesn't need to be fixed.
Jacob: Yeah, I've noticed. Speaking of, is there something wrong with the truck?
Bella: Huh?
Jacob: I noticed you weren't using it.
Bella: Yeah, I wish I were. I got a ride from a jerk.
Jacob: Jerk had a nice car, does the jerk have a name? My dad seemed to recognize him.
Bella: The jerk is named Edward. Edward of the sparkly Cullens.
*Jacob Laughs*
Jacob: Well that explains it.
Bella: Explains what?
Jacob: Why he's acting so strange.
Bella: Not a big vampire fan?
Jacob: I think I mentioned at some point that I dismiss all those suspiciously specific legends as superstition and in no way believe that I'm descended from a werewolf or two and thus, do not put stalk in... who the hell am I kidding?
Bella: Well I thought you were doing a good job until you said "put stalk in" instead of "put stock in".
Jacob: Thanks. No. He's not a big vampire fan.

Nathaniel said...

Oh dear lord Chakotay. A representation in miniature of what's wrong with Hollywood and how they do Native Americans.

You wanna know what's the final cheery on his racist bullshit sundae? The actor they got for him isn't even Native American. He's Mexican. And its not just Voyager. The only other show I've seen him in had the actor be yet another Native American role.

Is Hollywood seriously so stupid they can't tell the difference, or are they just too lazy to care?

hf said...

Or maybe Jacob is just a natural-born atheist in a world of vampires and werewolves

"Natural-born"? If he has any concept of epistemology then he shouldn't believe in sparkly vampires without strong evidence.

But if Jacob takes a skeptical view, he should suspect his Dad of making up stories about this one family in order to justify a personal dislike. It seems less like "superstition" and more like transparent lies from a would-be cult leader. At best, Jacob should think his Dad sees Dr. Cullen as a white European authority -- thus not to be trusted -- and is dishonestly forcing everyone to endorse this xenophobia (and go without proper health care!) or reject their alleged "heritage".

Though the supposed friendship with the white cop fits better with the first theory: 'I just hate the Cullens, and I was too lazy to think of a good lie.'

Will Wildman said...

It's never actually stated where Chakotay's tribe is supposed to be from - he grew up on a colony world, not Earth, and the super-racist episode mentioned above, 'Tattoo', implies that his ancestors were Central or South American - but Mexicans are 'Native Americans' too, in that they lived in the continents now called the Americas prior to the arrival of Europeans.

So all things considered, having an ethnically-Mexican actor play someone who is ethnically Central American seems like one of the least-racist things they did with the character. (At worst it's on par with Hikaru Sulu, the pan-Asian character with a nonsense last name featuring a distinct L that clashes with his clearly-Japanese given name. That could perhaps be handwaved with cultural mixing, though, like saying his paternal grandfather's name was Solow and 'Sulu' is a transliteration.)

chris the cynic said...

According to the official Star Trek Cook book one of Sulu's Grandfather's (doesn't say which) was an engineer turned trader who had bases in Hong Kong and Japan before he moved to a colony on Alpha Mensa Five. (It was from him that Sulu's Chinese Walnut Chicken recipe comes.) Who knows what kinds of last names they have on Alpha Mensa Five, thus, easy handwave, the name came from there.

The cookbook is also quick to point out that Sulu isn't limited by foods liked by his ancestors, lacking an Indonesian ancestry hasn't stopped him from acquiring a fondness for Indonesian cooking, and he also likes a central European dessert he first encountered in Singapore.

I bring this up why? Mostly because I have the cookbook.

Kirk was from Iowa, Sulu was from everywhere that was vaguely Asian or Pacific. Or, if he wasn't from there, had some reason or other to be somehow able to represent there.

Silver Adept said...

The way Bella treats Jacob and this situation is a bit hard to work out in the Watsonian way. Doylist is easy - Jain was supposed to be an exposition character that Executive Meddling transformed into a rival, and so he's being grafted into a story written that wasn't supposed to include him.

Trying to work it out in the context provided, it does make Bella out to be insensitive - she could remember that Billy and Charlie are good friends who like to do things together all the way back in chapter one, and see from the party scene that he's at least relatively popular and decide against using sex as the way to get information out of him, because, well, awkward if you see him again. (Also surprising: despite having Ben seen flirting heavily with Jacob and fawning over Edward, there aren't any rumors for Bella to accidentally hear about her being an easy promiscuous hotel. If Fictional Forks is as small-town as it passes itself off as, someone would be either tipping Bella off, or a behavioral change in the school would telegraph that Something Is Different.)

Also, this while flirtation and fallout cycle suggests that Bella knows she's objectively beautiful and will use it to her advantage - it clashes with her self-description and her usual instinct to go hide and blend in. Someone who doesn't see themselves as sexy or desirable isn't going to try and use seduction as their first resort to get information.

I guess there's really only one thing to say about this: Rule One: The Doctor, err, Isabella Swan lies. Which brings on an added burden of trying to figure out just how much she lies, and to whom, when looking at her narrative.

(Very not related: this post and community is helping me articulate why I did not like the epilogue and ending of the Hunger Games trilogy. Thanks for that.)

Brin Bellway said...

"That sucks, how's the car?" I am clearly a master at changing subjects.

I can never decide what word to use to indicate the sound I just made. "Snicker" seems too mean-spirited, "chuckle" too patronising, "giggle" too high-pitched*, "laugh" too loud. Point is, it was a good sort of noise.

(The whole thing was good, but that was the part that caused an actual sound.)

*That's the one I usually settle for, figuring that if one listened to it without the deepening of bone conduction there's a decent chance it really would qualify as a giggle.

Steve Morrison said...

Hikaru Sulu, the pan-Asian character with a nonsense last name
Be thankful for small mercies. At least they didn't name him after a mountain range.

Pat said...

Not only does Bella use "feminine wiles" on Jacob, but the way she describes her flirting as inept, while of course ensnaring Jacob, somehow makes all of this even worse.

The chapter also frustrates me because clearly, this is the scene where Bella must prevent Billy from warning Charlie about Edward. Clearly, she will have to pretend to watch the game and deflect any attempts by Billy to broach the subject. Clearly, at least Billy knows whats what.

But no. It's a boring evening.

Silver Adept said...

@Brin - would "snort" or "guffaw" qualify? (At a certain point, it seems easier to go onomatopoeic than to try and describe it in an already established word.)

Tigerpetals said...

"This is the alternate universe that Nice Guys like Mike inhabit: a world where Bella's preferences are capricious and counterfeit and therefore do not really "count", and where all it really takes to win her heart is to beat Cullen for Alpha Male status, possibly through a peeing contest or some kind of rock throwing exhibition."

This reminds me of the first two episodes of Buffy, when Jesse as a vampire targets Cordelia and she objects, but then goes along after he tells her to shut up. I always hated that scene, and this is the reason why.

I suppose this trait of Jacob's might be a way to seem well-intentioned "look, I'm validating Native American traditions, Native Americans are losing their culture!" or something, but it's ignorant and presumptious in its racism.

Ana Mardoll said...

I hate that scene, too, for the reasons you mention because it definitely looks like a "Girls Like Jerks!" stereotype.

It doesn't fit with Cordelia's characterization in Season 1, as far as I'm concerned. She's not interested in a chase or a challenge; she's interested in social status and Jesse hasn't gained that. If they retconned it to fit later, I'm not counting it because that's how I roll.

Tigerpetals said...

[Trigger warning for implication of sexual harassment.]

I don't think it does fit in with her characterization, even if someone does try to argue it. But it fits into that scenario really well, with the idea that it's the Jerks who have the social status, and the Nice Guys who are rejected are just too nice to have it. So the Jerk is accorded alpha male status and therefore social status, even if he would actually be regarded as a loser even if he acts domineering, especially if he tries to act that way to a woman considered to be of a higher class (with the mentality about how girls of a certain class are meant to be possessions of certain guys, and not losers, but always possessions of course.)

Loquat said...

Hollywood's smart enough to know Mexico wasn't exactly an untouched wilderness devoid of human civilization before Europeans showed up.

And Robert Beltran's IMDb page says he's " of Mexican-Native American ancestry, though Robert describes his heritage as Latindio."

esmerelda_ogg said...

"I can never decide what word to use to indicate the sound I just was a good sort of noise."

Maybe it was the sound Lewis Carroll invented "chortle" to describe???

Myriad said...

Chortle? Probably not a titter. Could be a cackle. But it sounds like a chortle to me.

Isator Levi said...

Hmm, I'm going to have to take some of this on board, for the sake of my hopes and plans for future roleplaying games.

I already have a scenario in mind wherin a guy from the setting's equivalent of vaguely Eurasia is part of a caravan going through the euivalent of sub-Saharan Africa which got attacked by a T-Rex, and is found by some of the natives, who reason that if they can communicate with him and learn some of the conceits of his culture from him and teach him about their own, he might be able to serve as a diplomatic link with some of the travelling merchants, because the tribe's chief is really worried about those chariots that have been moving around near there borders. And they're really straight with the guy about all this once he learns enough of their language to have a conversation (learned off of a tribal elder who learned the basic conversational form of a local trade language a long time ago, when the tribe had a better relationship with the caravans, and who found he had a knack for teaching his own language to them, and is the only one who personally remembers those encounters, since a small god blessed him with extended life).

And the guy asks to contribute to some of the tribal work mostly out of a good diplomatic instinct (although he does find their culture interesting, just not for him, which is about what they're looking for anyway), and finding he has few practical skills for their purposes, they eventually just give him busy work extracting oakum from the ropes gathered from caravans destroyed by dinosaurs.

I also imagine a humourous exchange where the merchant and his new friend teaching him the language have a laugh over the idea of him going out to help in the hunting, something he has absolutely no experience in and in contrast to men who have been doing it since they were children, and also have finely honed group instincts that the sudden interjection of a newcomer would throw off.

I will figure out -some- way for this to come up in an actual game!

Silver Adept said...

Poor Ben. I've done the falling with nothing around me bit, to, and it sticks. Plus, I don't usually get the luxury of things not breaking, which only sours the mood more.

At some point, I'm sure we'll find out why Jackie knows Ben overcooked the sandwiches.

Ana Mardoll said...

As always, I'm delighted by your turn of phrasing. Your conversations always feel so natural and flowing, like the way I would very much LIKE to speak if my tongue wasn't always running off in a different direction from my brain. And the way your characters can recollect specific details (LEFT knee) in conversation reminds me pleasantly of Douglas Adams. Very nice.

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