Twilight: Innocent Until Victim-Blaming

[Twilight Content Note: Murder, Abusive Relationships, Winning At Patriarchy.
Extra Content Note: Misogyny, Rape, Victim-Blaming]

Twilight Summary: In Chapter 17, we play baseball. 

Twilight, Chapter 17: The Game


Did I mention Vampire Baseball chapter?? Very infamous chapter, and I know a lot of you have been looking forward to it. I've already covered this elsewhere, so I won't belabor the point, but: I'm disappointed that we're playing baseball instead of a uniquely vampire sport. Or, rather, I don't so much mind that the vampires are playing baseball (because I don't expect vampires to be completely divorced from human pastimes), so much as I mind that they don't seem to have any unique vampire games born out of their vampire abilities and (non-existent) vampire culture.

Anyway. Before we can get to the baseball, we're going to cram several chapters' worth of drama into a single chapter who edited this book I mean really. Ack. So we may not get to the baseball this week after all. We'll see. First we have to be territorial about Bella and I think someone may pee on her leg at some point.

   IT WAS JUST BEGINNING TO DRIZZLE WHEN EDWARD turned onto my street. Up until that moment, I’d had no doubt that he’d be staying with me while I spent a few interim hours in the real world. And then I saw the black car, a weathered Ford, parked in Charlie’s driveway — and heard Edward mutter something unintelligible in a low, harsh voice.
   Leaning away from the rain under the shallow front porch, Jacob Black stood behind his father’s wheelchair. Billy’s face was impassive as stone as Edward parked my truck against the curb. Jacob stared down, his expression mortified.
   Edward’s low voice was furious. “This is crossing the line.”
   “He came to warn Charlie?” I guessed, more horrified than angry. [...] I felt weak with relief that Charlie wasn’t home yet.

Okay, okay. Okay.

So... this is more complicated that I was making it sound above with my heady sarcasm. Billy does know (I think) that Edward is a serial killer and that he constantly feels an almost-overpowering urge to kill-and-eat Bella. He also knows (I think) that Edward and his family are perfectly capable of--and possibly perfectly willing to, if motivated sufficiently by the Volturi--killing Charlie if his death is seen as necessary to cover up any awareness of their real nature.

So, to a certain extent, I don't really know how to gauge this level of "interference" in Bella's love life. This isn't like showing up to tell an abusive Controlling Conservative Christian father that his daughter is dating behind his back (though Charlie may be this thing as far as Billy knows, which does make this situation thorny); this is showing up to warn Bella--and possibly Charlie--that she's dating a murderer. Who might murder her. And her father. And maybe the entire town. That layer of context makes this situation a little harder for me to judge.

   “Let me deal with this,” I suggested. Edward’s black glare made me anxious.
   To my surprise, he agreed. “That’s probably best. Be careful, though. The child has no idea.”
   I bridled a little at the word child. “Jacob is not that much younger than I am,” I reminded him.
   He looked at me then, his anger abruptly fading. “Oh, I know,” he assured me with a grin.


Anyway, they agree that Edward will walk home while Bella shuffles Billy'n'Jacob inside and then he'll come back later to pick her up for the game and also he wants to be introduced to Charlie as Boyfriend which we've already covered is a huge red flag for boundaries because Bella needs to be the one who decides (a) if she wants to use that word and (b) if it's safe for her to use that word.

   He smiled the crooked smile that I loved. “I’ll be back soon,” he promised. His eyes flickered back to the porch, and then he leaned in to swiftly kiss me just under the edge of my jaw. My heart lurched frantically, and I, too, glanced toward the porch. Billy’s face was no longer impassive, and his hands clutched at the armrests of his chair.

This does feel a little territorial, though maybe I'm just a big prude. But it feels like if you're trying to demonstrate to your girlfriend's father's best-friend-who-knows-you're-a-vampire that your interest in her is non-nommage based, you might choose to not spend your time macking on her neck in his presence. I mean, this motion had to look like a vampire bite to Billy until, suddenly (thankfully!) it wasn't.

A hand squeeze and a promise of a kiss later--or even just a peck on the lips--would surely have been less threatening to Billy. So this is either Edward not caring what Billy thinks, or it's Edward demonstrating his control over the situation and Billy's inability to stop him from either dating or killing Bella.

   “Hey, Billy. Hi, Jacob.” I greeted them as cheerfully as I could manage. “Charlie’s gone for the day — I hope you haven’t been waiting long.”
   “Not long,” Billy said in a subdued tone. His black eyes were piercing. “I just wanted to bring this up.” He indicated a brown paper sack resting in his lap.
   [...] “Thanks,” I repeated, but with feeling this time. “I was running out of new ways to fix fish, and he’s bound to bring home more tonight.”
   “Fishing again?” Billy asked with a subtle gleam in his eye. “Down at the usual spot? Maybe I’ll run by and see him.”
   “No,” I quickly lied, my face going hard. “He was headed someplace new . . . but I have no idea where.”
   He took in my changed expression, and it made him thoughtful.

This is Bella's laughably bad attempt to keep her father and his best friend from being alone together, lest they talk about her new boyfriend. (Remember when Bella said, way back in Chapter 1, that she doesn't like to lie. Yeah.)

And it's so laughably bad because (a) best friends, so I don't think she's gonna be able to pull off a total separation for the next year and a half; (b) bad at lying, so now Billy has registered that she's a lying liar who lies and this will in no way help her convince him of anything she has to say now; and (c) alienated everyone, so now Billy (and possibly Charlie and Jacob) aren't going to be very happy with her, which is just going to make everything so much more complicated. And all for a lie that isn't going to bloody well work because if Billy is that set on telling Charlie, it's not like he doesn't have his phone number: it's 911.

Billy contrives a very strange excuse for Jacob to leave (he wants him to go out in the rain, pop the trunk, and dig around for a "new picture" of his sister... why? To show Bella? Charlie? To just look at while he waits? Who knows.) and then he and Bella silently face off: 

   Billy and I faced each other in silence. After a few seconds, the quiet started to feel awkward, so I turned and headed to the kitchen. I could hear his wet wheels squeak against the linoleum as he followed.
   I shoved the bag onto the crowded top shelf of the fridge, and spun around to confront him. His deeply lined face was unreadable.
   “Charlie won’t be back for a long time.” My voice was almost rude.
   He nodded in agreement, but said nothing.
   “Thanks again for the fish fry,” I hinted.
   He continued nodding. I sighed and folded my arms across my chest.

Ack, it's so awkward in here.

   He seemed to sense that I had given up on small talk. “Bella,” he said, and then he hesitated.
   I waited.
   “Bella,” he said again, “Charlie is one of my best friends.”
   He spoke each word carefully in his rumbling voice. “I noticed you’ve been spending time with one of the Cullens.”
   “Yes,” I repeated curtly.
   His eyes narrowed. “Maybe it’s none of my business, but I don’t think that is such a good idea.”
   “You’re right,” I agreed. “It is none of your business.”

Sigh. And here is where 16 chapters of inconsistent and spotty character development have left us: Bella is snarking super-hard at a disabled man in her kitchen and I have no clue whether this is in-character for her or not.

My guy feeling is that it's not in-character for her. Bella has shown moments of snark with Edward, but those have been portrayed as exceptional for her: inspired by her attraction and his unique ability to needle her with his orneriness. To almost everyone else--parents, school teachers, administration officials, doctors, schoolmates, etc.--Bella has outwardly portrayed quiet acceptance, and a seeming humility that is only contradicted by her eyerolling inner monologue. When she does feel like pushing back, she tends to do so in jokey, deflective ways, not in curt fuck-you tones.

This is the Bella who made up a totally unnecessary road-trip in order to avoid telling Mike that she wouldn't go to the dance with him. Who repeated the same excuse when every other boy asked her out to the point where her patience was at a breaking limit. Who quietly arranged dates for all those boys in the hopes that they would leave her alone. Who shouldered 100% of the housework rather than ask her father to launder her delicates or tell him what food she wanted at night. Who would rather redo boring done-it-before work in school than ask to be assigned to non-boring classes in things she hasn't taken. Who would rather sit on the curb and be sick than to bother the school nurse with her illness.

Almost every aspect of her character has been non-confrontational. Almost every time she has been confrontational to Edward, it's been suggested that this is unusual for her, that she's being driven to extreme heights of emotion by him. But now that we have a man in her kitchen who is both disabled and Native American and her father's best friend, she is, against all characterization, being deeply and unusually aggressive at him.

I'm pretty sure the text wants us to read it that way because Bella is defensive of Edward and going all mother-wolf to protect him. And this is probably intended to read like literally the most extreme provocation possible in the 'verse: Someone Trying To Take Edward Away. This is every horrible thing that has ever happened all bundled up together and multiplied by a million.

But. But. But.

The thing is, if this were any other context, like, if Edward was the cute boy from the wrong side of the tracks or that boy who joined the chess club when the other boys took woodworking or whatever classism or racism or patriarchy- or kyriarchy-related narrative you wanna name here... basically if Billy's objections to Edward were anything other than Edward being a serial killer living in a family of mass murderers who are themselves BFFs with the vampire mob, then I would be nominally okay with Bella being curt here. Like, I still maybe would have been nicer to Billy just because of who he is and what he means to the Swan family, but it would definitely be within Bella's right to tell him to stick his advice where the sun doesn't shine.

And this is going to be tricky, because it is definitely still Bella's right to not take Billy's advice. "You're dating a murder" is not something that she has to let influence her decision, because hey, it's still her life. But all this is happening in the larger social context where women and girls are sometimes told that their new boyfriend is, say, a rapist. And we're told from the day we're born that this is how we're supposed to react: defensively. Defending him.

We (women especially) are regularly told that men are "innocent until proven guilty". We're urged to apply legal precepts to our personal opinions, and to allow those legal concepts to even override our good judgement. We're told that believing other survivors is akin to monstrous vigilante (in-)justice: witch hunt, lynch mob, kangaroo court. We're not allowed to disassociate from friends who are rapists, or who abused their girlfriends, if we ourselves didn't see it happen. I was once pushed roughly to the floor by my (ex-)husband while four of our closest friends watched; not a single one of them dropped his acquaintance after our divorce. The abuse that happened to me was seen as a private matter, not something they felt allowed to have an opinion on.

We (women especially) have our safe spaces policed. I have been straight-up told that I should not be allowed to set boundaries in my online space. I've seen women bloggers criticized for their decision to ban commenters who regularly crossed lines, with each observer filtering the ban through their own validity prism and expecting their assessment to be imposed on her space; I've seen women on twitter criticized for preemptively banning men engaged in rape apologism.

We're taught from a very early age that we can't "condemn" the privileged based on their past behavior to others; that everyone "deserves" another chance from us, and that we can't cut them off from ourselves for self-protection unless and until they actually abuse us personally. Edward may be an admitted serial killer, but he hasn't tried to kill you, has he? No? Then it's not your business what he's done in the past.

This may sound silly. It should sound silly. But it's what many of us are taught, even if it's not in so many words. And when we finally see a realistic example of someone internalizing that message, like here with Bella, our impulse is to call her catty and stupid for defending someone as dangerous as Edward. Bella is being aggressive here, and she is minimizing the danger that Edward represents, but she's doing so in a culture that constantly tells her that this is precisely what she should be doing.

She lives in a culture where people--many people, people who are serious gatekeepers of culture and understanding--can claim with a straight face that "choosing not to buy a man's movies because he has been accused of rape" is the exact same thing as a "lynch mob". By that metric, "choosing not to date a man because he is a serial killer" is probably akin to lighting his house on fire.

I want to underscore this: Bella (and the rest of us) lives in a world where believing victims is considered the absolute worst thing to do... until we want the freedom to victim-blame the new victims for not believing the old victims. We're not supposed to believe that the guy accused of rape is a rapist ("Innocent until proven guilty!") but if he rapes his new girlfriend, then she was stupid to be with him because hadn't she heard he was a rapist? Also insert all the stereotypes about girls wanting Bad Boys instead of Nice Guys.

And for all that Twilight readers get criticized for liking a series with an abusive murderer as the love interest, it's very rarely pointed out that Give Him A Second Chance and You Don't KNOW He Hasn't Changed are the go-to arguments for every rape apologist in our rape culture. And that if (note: IF) Bella and her author and her readers have bought into that problematic narrative, well (a) they aren't the only ones, (b) they may not have been empowered with the tools to choose otherwise, and (c) at least they crafted an abusive murderer who is absolutely guaranteed to never hurt them.

Edward Cullen is safer than any real life accused rapist because he cannot hurt the reader. So why is it "stupid" when we give him the benefit of the doubt that he's changed (when he's a fantastical character who possesses the ability for growth), and yet it's "uncharitable" if we believe the real life accuser when she says she was raped (when it's very, very, very likely that the accused rapist is in fact a rapist)? I'll be over here, waiting for an answer on that.

In the meantime:

   He raised his graying eyebrows at my tone. “You probably don’t know this, but the Cullen family has an unpleasant reputation on the reservation.”
   “Actually, I did know that,” I informed him in a hard voice. This surprised him. “But that reputation couldn’t be deserved, could it? Because the Cullens never set foot on the reservation, do they?” I could see that my less than subtle reminder of the agreement that both bound and protected his tribe pulled him up short.
   [...] “It’s not my business,” he said. “But it may be Charlie’s.”
   “Though it would be my business, again, whether or not I think that it’s Charlie’s business, right?”
   [...] “Yes,” he finally surrendered. “I guess that’s your business, too.”
   I sighed with relief. “Thanks, Billy.”

Well, again... no.

This is one of the places where Vampirism As A Rape Metaphor breaks all the fuck down. Because this isn't about Bella's right to date a reformed rapist who wants to rape her but totally won't because that would ruin the relationship. This is about Bella dating a serial killer, whose family is also composed of several murderers, and who are best friends with the vampire mob, and who also occasionally invite over friends who are also active serial killers. The danger here isn't just to Bella; it also extends to Charlie.

Now, there may be compelling reasons to not tell Charlie. (Vampire mob; werewolf-vampire pact of silence; etc.) But those reasons do not include that Bella has stronger property rights over Charlie than Billy and therefore Bella gets to decide what he knows. And those reasons also do not include that since it's Bella's boyfriend then she gets to decide what her father knows--that would probably be the case if we were talking about dangerous boyfriendy stuff that only affects Bella, but (as established) we're not. We're talking about a family of mass murderers.

And here is where the Twilight criticism gets kinda rough. Because I want very much to always "punch up, not down". The misogyny in Twilight is a problem because misogyny is a problem, not because the readers bought it (readers can have a lot of reasons for enjoying a text) nor because the author wrote it (ditto). But I'll try to flesh this out as best I can: problems without blaming any specific party, because I have issues with blaming social problems on women who may only have "bought in" to the harmful narratives because they weren't given any other options.

One. A story about giving Edward another chance at happiness and 'redemption' can be affirming and fantastical and pleasing to the reader without shame. Full stop. But it's important that these unlikely stories of redemption not be used to shape some platonic One True Way that girls "should" use as their response when they learn that a guy is dangerous. Part of giving girls the agency to respond in a variety of ways is modeling those variety of ways in popular culture. If we never show the option of saying "oh, wow, didn't know that, thanks", then we're likely to internalize that this option is unacceptable. 

Two. As long as every facet of society insists that women aren't "allowed" to take self-protective action on the harm a man does to someone else like her (i.e., "if he didn't do it to you, you're not allowed to care"), then we are preventing women from protecting themselves and we are enabling a culture of widespread abuse. This is conveyed in everything from articles criticizing the #IBelieveDylan hashtag to stalkers of feminist blogs complaining about moderating decisions.

Three. And as long as we live in a culture that enables widespread abuse by loudly criticizing women who takes steps for self-protection, then we cannot turn around and blame women who choose not to utilize a specific self-protection tool. (We shouldn't do this anyway, but.) A culture that dances around chanting you're not allowed to protect yourself you're not allowed to protect yourself why the fuck didn't you protect yourself stupid is worse than abusive: it's also actively gaslighting.

And now getting specifically back to Twilight and wrapping all this up:

I have mixed feelings about this scene. I've said before that I think I have a decent idea where S. Meyer is coming from on a lot of this stuff, because it sounds like she and I came from somewhat similar white conservative Christian American backgrounds. This scene reads to me a little like Bella forgot that Billy was warning her about a vampire and instead thought he was warning her because Edward is a "bad" boy for a very loose interpretation of "bad": the kind of boy who isn't the right flavor of Christian, or who smoked a cigarette behind the school once, or who might even be *gasp* sexually active.

And, you know, if that scene was this scene, I'd be semi-cheering for Bella to tell Billy that her love life isn't his business and he's got no right running to tattle to her dad. But, you know. That scene isn't this scene. And so we end up with Bella being confrontational and rude to the family friend who dropped by to warn her that she's dating a murderer who is also the fantastical embodiment of a rape metaphor. And you have both of them agreeing that his ties to the vampire mafia aren't any of Charlie's business if Bella doesn't want it to be.

It's a scene that both doesn't work (because we replaced vampire boy with naughty boy and forgot that these things are not the same things) and yet still does ring problematically true because this is technically how we're supposed to treat men who are violent against women: Innocent until he hurts you.


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