[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.