Twilight: My Brand of Appropriation

[Content Note: Addiction, Disability, Rape, Injury]

Twilight Summary: In Chapter 13, Edward and Bella spend the weekend alone together in the woods.

Twilight, Chapter 13: Confessions

When we last left our star-crossed couple, Edward was explaining how he constantly wants to rape kill eat Bella using food metaphors. (Chris has a fantastic post on why this is utterly unimaginative of Edward.)

   “You see, every person smells different, has a different essence. If you locked an alcoholic in a room full of stale beer, he’d gladly drink it. But he could resist, if he wished to, if he were a recovering alcoholic. Now let’s say you placed in that room a glass of hundred-year-old brandy, the rarest, finest cognac — and filled the room with its warm aroma — how do you think he would fare then?”
   We sat silently, looking into each other’s eyes — trying to read each other’s thoughts.
   He broke the silence first.
   “Maybe that’s not the right comparison. Maybe it would be too easy to turn down the brandy. Perhaps I should have made our alcoholic a heroin addict instead.”
   “So what you’re saying is, I’m your brand of heroin?” I teased, trying to lighten the mood.
   He smiled swiftly, seeming to appreciate my effort. “Yes, you are exactly my brand of heroin.”

I'm pretty sure I've talked everyone's ear off when it comes to my thoughts on the Twilight series and how it approaches addiction, so I don't want to belabor the point here.

But I do want to briefly say that I have Strong Issues with the approach taken here, and with co-opting real addiction in order to sloppily set the stage for OH NO ANGST only to then quickly back-pedal and frankly forget about much of this. There are precious few moments in this series where it seems likely or even plausible that Edward will drink Bella's super-addictive-heroin blood, and I can think of numerous examples in the movies -- notably the New Moon Birthday Party and the Eclipse Victoria Fight -- where her blood is used as a plot-point to distract all the vampires in a room except Edward. Therefore, if this is an overwhelming addiction, it seems to be a very unusual kind of overwhelming addiction, and I feel that the angst could have been set up just as easily without appropriating a real and terrible disease that many people genuinely struggle with.

Of course, I'm talking about Twilight, so lol ur expectations, I guess. Co-opting illness and disabilities in order to spackle instant characterization onto its characters seems to be kind of its thing.

But I do think that the ableism on display with Bella's chronic-yet-cute clumsiness is not far removed from the ableism on display with Edward's overwhelming-yet-sedate addiction. In both cases, we're taking something that has the potential to greatly affect every aspect of a person's life, and we're pretending with a wink and a nudge that this is totally the case here, but then the narrative happily marches on without ever really acknowledging these disabilities/illnesses except and unless it feels that it's necessary in order to shore up some later plot point. Way back in Chapter 3, I said:

The thing is, Bella doesn't actually have a chronic condition of falling down, because no one takes it seriously. It's the tree falling in a forest issue -- if Bella fell down all the time, someone would take it seriously. Maybe not everyone. Maybe not her neglectful parents or her narcissist boyfriend or her self-absorbed friends or her overworked teachers. But Bella would notice. Bella would have to notice, because Bella would be in pain constantly. Bella would take the falling seriously, and therefore the narration would take the falling seriously.

Now, since then it has been pointed out to me that people with disabilities are not a monolith and that this statement can be read as suggesting that they are, and that I absolutely not what I want people to take away from that. Because people with disabilities are not a monolith, and I don't mean or intend to suggest that they are, and I apologize if my statements have ever read that way. But I do want to convey that there is such as thing as able-bodied privilege and that while Bella seems to genuinely evince it, I don't think that she very likely would have that able-privilege if her chronic condition were as serious as the narrative claims it to be. And I'm reminded of this list from Everyday Feminist regarding examples of ability privilege, which is not going to fit every person with a disability, but which I think is a good starting place for understanding what we mean by "ability privilege", and which I think have some especially pertinent examples when discussing Bella Swan:

1. You can go about your day without planning every task, like getting dressed or going to the bathroom.

5. You don’t have to worry about others’ reactions to your able-ness.

12. Typically you don’t have to rely on others to accomplish tasks. Others don’t assume you need to rely on them to accomplish tasks.

13. As a healthy person, you don’t have to think about your daily pain level when planning events and activities.

15. People don’t make fun of you because of your ability.

19. Your ability isn’t the butt of jokes in TV shows and movies.

In the same way, I feel that Edward Cullen should be laboring under a number of these disability markers as a blood-thirsty vampire with an addiction-level hankering for Bella's blood, and yet he pretty much never is. Just as Bella never seems to be in any way seriously hampered by her clumsiness when the plot-camera isn't looking -- she certainly never worries that she'll take a tumble at the house despite Charlie consistently never being there to help her, nor is there any suggestion that Bella might benefit from a medical alert service -- neither does Edward or his kin ever seem in any way to be seriously burdened by their struggles with addiction.

Now, I'm pretty sure I know why Twilight doesn't treat disabilities and addition illnesses with respect, and I think it ties in with the fact that no one on the development side of this franchise wanted icky stuff like actual disabilities and actual addition illnesses to get in the way of all the Romance. And I also acknowledge that this appropriation of disabilities and addiction illness neatly fits into existing problematic-but-longstanding romance tropes of Weak Women and Overwhelmed By Love Magic Hoo-Hoo Eau de Bella. Those are real things and they are problematic in their own way, as we've discussed before.

But I nevertheless find it very frustrating that a "disabled" heroine like Bella can be disabled largely in name only and never in any realistic way that affects the quality of her life, and an "addicted" hero like Edward can be addicted largely in name only and just to erect a big barrier between him and his Twue Luff in order to draw out the relationship angst and abstinence erotica for as long as possible, because all this just reinforces (in addition to the problematic tropes about weak women being more attractive and rape-y men being more romantic) that disabilities and illnesses aren't genuine, serious things that genuinely, seriously affect people's lives indelibly but are instead just passing plot devices and nothing more.

It's layers of fail, is what I am saying.

   “I spoke to my brothers about it.” He still stared into the distance. “To Jasper, every one of you is much the same. He’s the most recent to join our family. It’s a struggle for him to abstain at all. He hasn’t had time to grow sensitive to the differences in smell, in flavor.” He glanced swiftly at me, his expression apologetic. [...]
   “So Jasper wasn’t sure if he’d ever come across someone who was as” — he hesitated, looking for the right word — “appealing as you are to me. Which makes me think not. Emmett has been on the wagon longer, so to speak, and he understood what I meant. He says twice, for him, once stronger than the other.”

And yet here it is. Jasper is so deeply addicted to human blood that he can't tell the difference between "his brand" (whatever or whoever that might be) versus the no-name off-brand super-saver brand of alcohol heroin human blood. And Emmett, who has been coping with his addiction for longer and has been more effective at controlling his impulses, has twice felt the pull of addiction so strongly that he murdered someone in response. This is obviously a very strong and very serious form of addiction...

...except that I'm pretty sure it's never relevant again for the rest of the book. Jasper and Emmett go to school every day and eventually end up traveling across America with Bella in order to protect her through the anonymizing power of American Airlines and grubby motels. At no point is the concern raised that a single person in the crowd of students at Forks high school or passengers at the Seattle airport might suffer a nosebleed or paper cut or a serious laceration.

Nor are these possibilities far-fetched: when I was in primary school, I somehow managed to lacerate my leg on the way in to school one morning, probably by cutting myself on my bicycle. Because the cut was shallow, I didn't feel pain until a fellow student pointed out to me that my thin leg-tights were literally soaked from my feet to my thigh in blood. And yet that kind of scenario is flatly impossible in Twilight, because if it were to occur then our "addicted" Cullens would be hardly able to restrain themselves from feeding.

It's just shy of possible that we're meant to imagine all-seeing Alice dutifully scanning the day ahead in order to make sure that the Cullens are never placed in the way of temptation, except that the narrative clearly establishes that she either can't or won't. Alice doesn't see Bella being nearly smushed by the runaway van, nor that Edward will risk jeopardizing their secret in order to save her. Nor does Alice see that Bella will cut her finger at her birthday party and that Jasper will attack her in response.

So we're faced again with the understanding that the Cullens are deeply, terribly addicted to human blood, except for pretty much all the time when they're not. Had Bella sliced her finger at school in front of Jasper, their cover would be blown. And Edward -- the one Cullen who is supremely addicted to Bella -- can shrug off the scent of her fresh blood in the air even as he holds Jasper back.

This muddled-and-contradictory characterization does nothing but speak poorly for the Cullens, who are apparently more interested in leading "normal" lives than in making sure that they're never in an overwhelming addiction situation where they might accidentally murder someone. And it speaks none too highly of the author, who felt that this blood-thirst that comes and goes with the demands of the plot could best be compared to a real illness that ruins lives.


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