Sunday, November 29, 2009

Unconscious Sexism and Racism in New Moon

Children are, if they are lucky, taught at home and in schools. But they are also taught with books and movies, where retrograde social conventions and meanings are reinscribed under the guise of good clean fun.

The Twilight Saga: New Moon is a romantic fantasy fusing teen lust and fantasy, but in the story of vulnerable girls swooning over powerful vampires, and rabid werewolves fighting the undead (who nevertheless retain their human form), we have a movie genre best reserved for Halloween.

Critics have been much better at picking up the retrograde gender subtext of the screenplay, at how it exploits the fine line between rape and lust, and how Bella Swan plays a terrible role model for teenage girls. Bella, the female protagonist, is portrayed as weak, vulnerable, virginal, and young while Edward Cullen, her male vampire love interest is portrayed as supernatural, more powerful than he dares admit, 17 and yet over a hundred, young but wise. Throughout the first half of the movie, Bella is depressed because Edward has left her, and she ultimately attempts a pseudo-suicide by going cliff-diving and nearly drowns, but lucky for her, another supernatural male, Jacob Black, who plays a werewolf, swoops in for the rescue. Throughout the movie, young girls are comforted and encouraged in mixing sexual desire with sexual vulnerability, that to be loved is to be rescued. As a preview of the next sequel, we are tantalizingly promised the consummation of Bella's and Edward's love, that he will finally agree to change her into a vampire. He would then take everything that is hers, no less than her life and her soul, and shockingly, it is everything that Bella ever wanted.

If this is what causes teenage girls (and not a few self-confessed middle-aged feminists) to swoon at the movie, the unconscious racism in the movie takes us to a new league of egregiousness.

A google with the search terms "Twilight," "full moon" and "racism" only turned out less than 10 germane hits, with one of them addressing the fact that some fans were agitated that the character, Laurent, was played by a black man. They charge that vampires, whose skin sparkle in the sun (according to author Stephenie Meyer) surely have to be white. These fans probably felt that fidelity to the book (or art) was sacrificed at the altar of political correctness. I'll tell these fans to lighten up (no pun intended) though, since the author as well as the movie's casting director is clearly on their side, because Laurent, the sole black vampire in the screenplay, was conveniently dispatched by the werewolves early on in the movie.

Laurent, in any case is just the side-show to the movie's considerable moral insensitivity. The main battle in the movie is between the vampires and the werewolves, who are ALL native Americans of the Quilette tribe. The vampires are all wealthy, dress well, and live well. They are rational (read human) creatures rather than animals, and vampires do not not, as one puts it in the movie "smell ... like dogs." They abide by a code of rules, and even have a deliberative body seated at the palatial Volturi Tower in Italy. The werewolves, on the other hand, are hot-headed natives running around (half-naked) in packs ready to give in to their rage at any moment. Jacob Black drives a beat-up truck and not a cool black Volvo as Edward does.

Here is the easily missed factoid central to Jacob's angst and hence the plot. We learn that the leader of the pack disfigured his wife in a fit of rage but clearly loves her still. In political theory we would call this the cultural defence of domestic abuse. The author, Stephenie Meyer, would have us believe that wolves / native Americans are less rational and more posessed by rage / spirits. Jacob withdraws from Bella for he fears that he would harm her, conceding that it is in his nature to get violent; while Edward Cullen pursues her because the author believes that he can control his lust for her blood. With every little detail in the movie, we are told that it is better to be a dead human than a live animal; and this is certainly Bella's preference and her chosen future.

One would hope that this type of romantic sub-genre should be kept from our kids. After all, some of us think that Harry Potter should be kept from out kids because there is magic involved. Well, The Twilight Saga: New Moon, was released November 20, and boasted the largest single day domestic gross at $72.7 million. The book rose to the top spot in the New York Time's bestseller list for Children's Chapter books and stayed there for eleven weeks. Unconscious sexism and racism are much more dangerous to pre-pubescent minds than Voldemort, because the former exist outside of books and movies.

1 comment:

Pam Turner said...

I think Edward's appeal for teenage girls lies in wish-fulfillment. Teenage girls have mixed feelings about sex--wanting it and being afraid of it at the same time. In addition, they are usually put in the position of saying "no" to teenage boys who lack such conflicts. Enter Edward Cullen. He's incredibly hot, rich, drives great cars, and, most importantly, SAYS NO TO SEX. Edward takes all the pressure off Bella. He kisses and cuddles but that's his limit. Bella gets to be the sexual aggressor (in the books she's constantly kissing more intently than Edward is comfortable with). The books actually start off as more of an anti-rape fantasy than a rape fantasy. But as you point out, it all quickly devolves into a damsel-in-constant-distress scenario, and the good guys become no more than super-powered stalkers.

I hadn't considered the racial subtext of the Indians being werewolves, probably because I love animals and being able to turn back and forth between wolf and human frankly seems more of a step up than a step down. Your point about racial subtext and domestic abuse is a very good one. My only small quibble with your argument is over the wolves smelling bad. I haven't seen the movie, but in Meyer's defense (I can't quite believe I'm coming to Meyer's defense) in the books the werewolves are also always complaining about how terrible the vampires smell.