Twilight: Gentleman by Birth or Deed?

[Content Note: Addiction, Rape, Racism, Murder, Hate Crimes, Riots]

Twilight Summary: In Chapter 14, Edward and Bella spend the night together.

Twilight, Chapter 14: Mind Over Matter

Edward has managed to backstory much of his family over the ride home to Bella's house, including the fact that Edward is actually over 100 years old. Bella has taken this about as well as you might expect, with a mixture of calm acceptance and a hunger for more information while Edward is still in the rare mood to share.

   There was so much to think through, so much I still wanted to ask. But, to my great embarrassment, my stomach growled. I’d been so intrigued, I hadn’t even noticed I was hungry. I realized now that I was ravenous.
   “I’m sorry, I’m keeping you from dinner.”
   “I’m fine, really.”
   “I’ve never spent much time around anyone who eats food. I forget.”
   “I want to stay with you.” It was easier to say in the darkness, knowing as I spoke how my voice would betray me, my hopeless addiction to him.

I genuinely can't tell if this line about Edward not understanding human hunger merely because it's predicated on a solid diet rather than a liquid one is meant to be a joke: I think it's supposed to be played straight and taken at face-value. If so, I'm kind of flummoxed by it. I get that this is supposed to underline Edward's alien nature, and how isolated he is as a vampire, but if anyone should understand the concept of "hunger", it should be him. Sure, Bella's eyes don't change colors when she's hungry, but her body still expresses outward changes (such as the aforementioned stomach-grumbling). And sure her cycles are shorter -- eating multiple times a day instead of once a week or whatever -- but they're no less predictable.

One of the things that frustrates me about Twilight is that for all its concentration on hunger -- for food, blood, sex, love, companionship, etc. -- the treatment of that hunger is incredibly shallow. Edward's lust for Bella's blood is played up for melodrama rather than real drama, since there's never any real danger that he will hurt her. But more fundamentally, the entire premise of the Cullens and their lifestyle is laboriously built up and then utterly wasted over the course of the series.

It has been established that the Cullens have made the difficult choice to be "vegetarian" vampires because they crave human company and they can't live among humans if they are simultaneously hunting them. Their choice to abstain allows them to blend in and gives them some measure of hard-earned self-control -- but at the price that they are constantly hungry for something they can't have. Their hunger is never satisfied and thus they are never comfortable. Not only are they uncomfortable in the sense that they are hungry, they're also unable to relax in the sense that they can never let down their guard.

Breaking Dawn establishes as canon that they have to always watch themselves and their actions. They have to concentrate on moving slowly in order to appear human. They have to remember to breathe air that they don't need. Their entire life, when they're not cloistered away in their house, is a finely choreographed dance that they cannot mess up. They additionally have to monitor their hunger levels at all times so that they don't get caught in a weak moment and feed on a sweet-smelling human. With the arrival of Bella into their lives, Edward in particular has to be even more careful to monitor his hunger levels and make sure he doesn't dip too far into the red. Oh, and of course, the psychics -- Edward, Alice, and Jasper -- constantly have to be monitoring others around them so that they can split at the first sign of suspicion in the community.

In short: The lives of the Cullens theoretically revolve around monitoring themselves and monitoring the people around them. They have to be aware of their own hunger and impulses, and they have to be aware of what their human neighbors think of them. They additionally need to be aware of the minutia of being human so that they can effectively play human. So whenever S. Meyer trots out some characterization like this -- Edward doesn't understand human hunger; Edward doesn't pay attention to human body language; Edward doesn't understand human needs and therefore can't effectively fake being human himself; etc. -- it just hurls me from the narrative on a great big what-the-fuck trebuchet because these are the kinds of details which tell me that the world of Twilight is utterly impossible. Twilight literally depends on a world of humans who are unlike any humans I have ever met, if no one notices that the Cullens are immortal vampires on the first day of class.  

And all that time the Cullens are supposedly spending being observant and vigilant in order to live among humans turns out to instead be spent lounging around in their isolated house in the woods playing vampire baseball and learning Mozart. So why go to all the trouble to set this up, except as a cheesy way to plunk Edward into high school for Bella to stumble onto him? Once again, we see that it would have been better for Edward to be homeschooled and for Bella to meet him at her day job as a shelf-stocker at the local Piggly-Wiggly or whatever. Except that Twilight is also a social drama about having the popular boy and Sharing a Secret, and dating a homeschooled boy that no one knows or cares about wouldn't satisfy that need. So we're instead stuck with an interesting premise that is then discarded in favor of a banal isolationist fantasy.

   “Can’t I come in?” he asked.
   “Would you like to?” I couldn’t picture it, this godlike creature sitting in my father’s shabby kitchen chair.

And yet there are still occasional glimpses of the story I'd rather read: here, I like to imagine that Bella is hesitant to envision Edward in her kitchen because of his "godlike" beauty, while Edward is quietly pining for the human normalcy of sitting in a cute girl's kitchen and feeling love-butterflies in his stomach while she slaps some peanut butter on sandwiches and refuses to let him help because she's embarrassed about having a boy in the house (and what will he think if he sees the Captain Crunch With Crunchberries cereal in the cupboard? will he think she's still an immature little kid? but why should she be embarrassed for liking crunchberries? and, oh god, what if Charlie comes home and hauls out the baby pictures? maybe this wasn't such a good idea after all ... and so on). As much as I Just Want To Be Normal plotlines can seem tedious and angsty sometimes, they have a measure of truth in them: no matter how awesome it may be at times to be an immortal unstoppable vampire, I think it would still be reasonable to miss things like solid lunches and first dates.

It would be especially interesting to tie into this notion all the teen movies that Edward must have seen over the course of his immortal life, and to see him trying to "act out" the scripts -- partly because it's something he's always wanted and couldn't have; partly because he doesn't know how else to act. And if Twilight weren't so obsessed with having all its characters be under the STULTIFYINGLY OLD AGE of thirty (*gasp* *shock* *awe*), then we could explore a world where Edward feels especially isolated as one of the youngest of his "kind". Child vampires are, after all, forbidden creatures in this world -- it would be interesting if Edward was hovering around the cutoff age and was unable to find a mate he felt comfortable with partly because of his age.

But that's not the Twilight story you get, so move along.

   “Yes, if it’s all right.” I heard the door close quietly, and almost simultaneously he was outside my door, opening it for me.
   “Very human,” I complimented him.

Here seems as good a time as any to mention that S. Meyer is particularly fond of calling Edward "a gentleman":
"Edward was born in 1901," Meyer said. "He was raised by a gentleman to be a gentleman. And he will always be a gentleman."

And ... yeah, I'm not really comfortable with this. First of all, Edward is demonstrably not a gentleman, no matter how many car doors he opens for Bella. It is not gentlemanly to grab a woman by the back of her jacket and haul her backwards across a parking lot. This passage is not gentlemanly:
   We were near the parking lot now. I veered left, toward my truck. Something caught my jacket, yanking me back.
   “Where do you think you’re going?” he asked, outraged. He was gripping a fistful of my jacket in one hand.
   I was confused. “I’m going home.”
   “Didn’t you hear me promise to take you safely home? Do you think I’m going to let you drive in your condition?” His voice was still indignant.
   “What condition? And what about my truck?” I complained.
   “I’ll have Alice drop it off after school.” He was towing me toward his car now, pulling me by my jacket. It was all I could do to keep from falling backward. He’d probably just drag me along anyway if I did.
   “Let go!” I insisted. He ignored me. I staggered along sideways across the wet sidewalk until we reached the Volvo. Then he finally freed me — I stumbled against the passenger door.
   “You are so pushy!” I grumbled.

It may be sexy, for various personal-and-subjective definitions of the word "sexy", but it's not gentlemanly. I would even go so far as to say that of all the ways Edward could have chosen to handle this situation, the way he chose was the least gentlemanly way to handle it as possible (excepting, I suppose, a hypothetical worst-case where he just clubs her unconscious and drags her caveman-style by her hair).

But beyond the fact that Edward is demonstrably not a gentleman or even a gentle person, I have issues with this fetishizing of the past that we see crop up in S. Meyer's interviews about Edward's age and history making him objectively better than modern men. Every age has good people, and every age has bad people -- it's deeply problematic to fetishize the (white, American, male) people of the early 1900s as gentler, better, and more likely to know how to 'treat a lady'. And it's especially problematic to assume such things without a larger understanding of the racial and social history at hand.

In 1901, the year Edward was born, Illinois women could be legally raped by their husbands, could not file for no-fault divorce, and had no vote in national elections. In 1910, Illinois Congressman James Mann pushed through the Mann Act in response to a perceived need to protect white women from forced prostitution and white girls from underage sex with older men. In 1919, the year after Edward was turned, Chicago was the scene of the 1919 Chicago Race Riot, when a young black man was stoned to death at a "whites only" swimming pool and the police refused to arrest the perpetrator. In the ensuing riot, dozens died, hundreds were injured, and more than one thousand black families were left homeless due to destruction of property; the riot was eventually considered the worst of approximately 25 national riots that summer.

But you wouldn't know anything about Chicago in the 1900s from Edward's biography, let alone the racial turmoil that the city was experiencing. His entire biography, courtesy of The Official Illustrated Guide, shows that Edward lived not in Chicago in the 1900s but in Generi-merica:
Edward was born to Edward and Elizabeth Masen on June 20, 1901. He was their only child. His father, a successful lawyer, provided Edward with many advantages, including music lessons and the opportunity to attend private school; however, although his father provided for Edward in material ways, he was emotionally distant and often away from home on business. This absence was made up for by Edward’s close relationship with his mother; he was the center of her life.

Edward excelled at his studies and became an accomplished pianist. As he grew older, Edward became enamored of the life of a soldier. World War I raged during most of his adolescence, and Edward dreamed of the day he could join the battle. His mother’s greatest fear was that she would lose Edward in the war. Every night she prayed that it would end before her only son turned eighteen and was old enough to enlist.

Nine months before his eighteenth birthday, the Spanish influenza hit Chicago, infecting all of Edward’s family. Gravely ill, they were treated in the hospital where Dr. Carlisle Cullen worked. Edward’s father quickly succumbed to the disease. On her deathbed and fearing for her son’s life, Elizabeth Masen begged Dr. Cullen to do what was necessary to save her son. Somehow she seemed to know Dr. Cullen had a supernatural means to save Edward.

Moved by Elizabeth Masen’s plea and having already thoroughly considered the idea of creating a companion, Carlisle took Edward from the hospital late that night, carrying the unconscious boy to his home. There Edward became the first human Carlisle changed into a vampire.

Lawyer. Private schools. Music. World War I. Spanish Influenza. That's it. Meyer could have just as easily set him in the 1750s and had him longing to fight in the Revolutionary War. I almost get the impression that she wanted to except that the age difference would have been just too much at that point. A 100-year-old boyfriend is one thing, but a 250-year-old boyfriend is quite another, I guess. And, of course, that entire passage is interrupted between the last two paragraphs by a little sidebar quote from Meyer:
“Unfortunately Edward isn’t based on anybody—he is all imagination and wishing. I think his allure is partially due to his old-fashioned manners. He’s a gentleman, and those are hard to come by these days.” —Stephenie

Old-fashioned manners. A gentleman. Because white men born in the 1900s were so much more sensitive and kind and gentle and good to others than they are in today's brutal modern times.

And the thing is, there were gentle people with good manners in the 1900s. Of course there were. No age is unrepentantly evil or incomprehensibly good. Probably Meyer would point out, were she here, that she provided balance with the backstory of Rosalie, who was gang-raped to death on the street in 1930s New York by her respectable gentleman fiance and his respectable gentlemen friends. You see? Problem solved: people of the past could be both pure and barbaric, and the backstories of Edward and Rosalie explore both sides.

Yet we don't really spend much time on Rosalie and the marginalization inflicted on her as a result of her status as a woman, despite being privileged in the sense that she is/was beautiful and rich and white. Instead, our time is spent with Edward and the narrative attention is spent lavishing praises on how gentlemanly he is, not because of his actions but because of his birth. His actions are rarely gentlemanly, but they are not used to strip that title from him -- instead, the actions are excused. He was worried. He is in love. He wasn't thinking straight. Etc. It becomes very clear very quickly that "gentlemanly" is a state of being, and not based on any actual actions, because no action Edward performs can remove that title. He is gentlemanly, rather than acts gentlemanly.

And this state of being is imposed entirely by his birth: he is white, and male, and American, and from 1901. These are things that comprise "gentleman" in the narrative mind. All the while ignoring that white American men in 1919 -- including ones who were born at the same time as Edward and with the same pedigree and with similar upbringings -- were murdering people of color and raping women because their privilege allowed them to marginalize these groups and they chose to exercise that privilege.

If those murderers and rapists were "gentlemen" because of their birth and position -- i.e., "A man of good social position, esp. one of wealth and leisure." -- then the word cannot then be used to describe Edward positively because they prove that the descriptor "gentleman" says nothing about the character of the person being described. But if the word is meant to mean something positive about acts and attitudes -- i.e., "A chivalrous, courteous, or honorable man." -- then Edward is not a gentleman because he was born in 1901, nor is he a gentleman because his father was one, nor can we say he is a gentleman right now (because his actions do not meet the definition), nor can we take as a given that he will "always be" a gentleman (because we do not know that his future actions will meet the definition).

Being a "gentleman" requires actual work and effort and is not something that can be reached once and then becomes a forever-earned badge, like a Boy Scouts patch for learning to tie knots. If Edward is rare among his modern peers, then he needs to demonstrate that rarity in his actions -- it's not something that can be bestowed on him through his privileged birth and then briefly enacted in the occasional here-let-me-get-your-door scene. And it's especially frustrating to see Edward's birth place and time romanticized in a way that carefully invisibles the real violence against women and people of color that happened around him while he lived in his cozy privilege bubble.

Related Reading: On the Fixed State Ally Model vs. Process Model Ally Work by Melissa McEwan


Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

Post a Comment