Savage natives or stereotypical mindset?
Popular culture is not just a trending entertainment, it is much more than that, consumed by the majority of the world’s population. Popular culture has the power to influence or manipulate its consumers towards personal propaganda and alter their way of thinking, ideologies, and preferences. In her article, “Impact of Pop Culture on Society”, Sre Ratha talks about how there have been studies that show how popular culture shows like Breaking Bad and Dr.Who made it’s consumers more interested in chemistry and history respectively. With such a large capacity to influence people, is pop culture beneficial for us?
Like it’s said every coin has two sides, so do the effects of popular culture. In a social environment where racism, sexism, and various other forms of discrimination are still strongly prevalent, any conscious, unconscious, or deliberate and unintentional shadowing and representation of such themes might directly influence its consumers to actively consume similar themes. The consumers, in turn, normalizes the stereotypes and discriminatory themes to an extent where they don’t even realize that the movie, series, album, etc, they are watching or listening to are projecting such issues.
The Twilight Series
Written by Stephenie Meyer, the twilight series is a vampire – fantasy romantic novels released in 2005, which revolves around the lives of Bella Swan, a 17-year-old white girl, Edward Cullen; almost a century-old white vampire, and Jacob Black, a native American Indian werewolf. After the first novel released in the year 2005, the series had 3 more additions to the franchise and were later adapted into 5 films. The Twilight franchise had gained immense popularity, specifically among the age group of young adults and teenage girls. Released as a love story between the sophisticated Edward and a passionate Bella, the novels may showcase a theme of undying and eternal love, but is that all?
Reading into the twilight series more critically can shed light on the fact that even though the author meant for it to be a love story, she played around with themes of racial and cultural stereotypes regarding the Native Americans and Black men.
In the second book, The Twilight Saga: New Moon, we are better introduced to the character of Jacob Black, a 16-year-old boy from the Quileute Indian Reservation. The theme of racial and cultural stereotypes started evidently, showing up in the story line and bringing into clarity the racial prejudice about the good white vampires and the savage dark-skinned werewolves. In the novels, the Cullen family is uplifted to insanely impossible beauty standards with pale white skin, perfect features, and inhumanly beautiful face. There is also a mention of how Bella thinks that their kind of faces are usually seen in magazine covers rather than in real life. To make the character of vampires more attractive, in the first book, it is revealed that the vampire’s skin sparkles like glass and marbles under the sunlight, making them look more ‘angelic’ and ‘heavenly’, as per Bella.
Twilight saga is a story about?
As Ashley fetters in her article, “At its core, Twilight saga is a story about”, mentions that “Just as how Cullens exude purity and kindness they are also strongly associated with whiteness” and that the author tried to make the readers make the connection that if white is considered good and the Cullens are white, it means the vampire family is good. The factor of white privilege comes into play at this part, where it is clear, exactly how much the author is obsessed about the whiteness of the characters as the majority of the vampires introduced in the whole series were mainly pale white, sparkly and beautiful. The series also mentions that when the venom spreads and the process of transformation (from human to vampire) begins, the venom works magic and makes you paler and beautify your human features - contributing to the idea of white supremacy in the novels. The vampires, like the rest of the United State’s people, were portrayed as rich white citizens with a good quality of life. Most importantly, the Vampires were “accepted” in the society, which is not the case with the werewolves’ tribes.
Even the physical appearances differ drastically between the two sworn enemies with werewolves being copper-skinned, black-haired, and dark-eyed, almost opposite of the vampires. In the novels, the author repeatedly tried to establish that all the natives looked the same by describing almost every werewolf the same way. Focusing more on the physical description, in his werewolf form, Sam is pitch black, which in itself is not a problem, but in Eclipse (3rd Part in the series) there comes a point where it is said that the werewolf’s outside is a reflection of their inside, which automatically relates Sam to the darker side and taking into consideration he is the Alpha, the same goes for the whole pack.
In contrast to the vampires, Meyer chooses to associate the werewolves' clan with darkness. Jacob’s full name, who was one of the most important werewolves, was Jacob “Black”. The surname in itself associates Jacob with darkness rather than light. Also, the word werewolves means ‘man-wolf”, which essentially means- the people of the lower or primitive state.
The author also twisted and used the original legend related to the much real Quileute tribe, wherein a man named Qwati transforms a pair of wolves in La Push to his men. From this, Stephanie drew the inspiration for the werewolves characters but changed the legend to fit her story-line where the first leader phased into a werewolf to protect his tribe.
Not only were the natives stereotyped as ferocious animals but throughout the series, the members of the wolf pack were referred to as ‘dogs’ or ‘mongrels’ which may not be intentional but does dehumanize the characters.
Coming back to the Cullen family, throughout the series, there have been many references of Edward being an angel for Bella. The contrast between the two main male characters and their background is set in such a way that it can be chalked out which one of them will be the right choice for Bella. While Edward has multiple colleges and high school degrees and talents in various fields, Jacob has to work as a mechanic to earn money and is not concentrated towards his studies; this difference alone draws a clear racial divide between the two characters.
Traditionally, vampires are supposed to be the bad guys, the monsters, but in this series, Stephenie Meyer very strategically managed to use story-lines to make the werewolves seem like the dangerous ones. In New Moon, the readers are introduced to a darker side of the werewolves trait; their ‘anger management issues’. When Bella visits Sam Uley, the Alpha of the pack, she witnesses the victim of Sam’s anger issues - his girlfriend Emily with deep scars on her face and hand inflicted by Sam himself in a fit of uncontrollable rage. This feeds into another plot in Eclipse, where Edward is hesitant to let Bella visit Jacob in the reservation due to the fear that the werewolves can harm Bella, which is ironic, as in the first book it is established that Bella’s blood is very tempting for Edward and he has to work towards resisting it. There is also a point in the third book when Jacob comes to visit Bella in her school and his physical build and features make him look dangerous to the fellow students who see him. This specifically fuels the stereotype that the natives are dangerous, and people should be cautious around them.
While playing into the age-old stereotypes related to the native American, Meyer included the characteristic of a sexual predator into Jacob’s character when in the second and the third book of the series he tries to forcefully kiss or manipulate Bella, a white female protagonist, making him a threat to the perfect relationship that Edward and Bella shared, again making him a slightly less threatening antagonist in their love story. Furthermore, the fact that werewolves can imprint on infants sounded disturbing and pedophile which may influence the readers to make assumptions about the natives and buy into the stereotype.
People can argue that the native representation in the series is not racist and is a traditional description of werewolves' legends. So, setting aside the werewolves, let us focus on the two female vampires from the Amazon who were introduced in the last installment of the series, Breaking Dawn. Being vampires, it was expected for them to be like the Cullens and the other vampire families that were introduced throughout the novels but being natives, they were also associated with unruliness, savages, uncivilized descriptions, much like the werewolves tribe. To quote Bella’s first reaction to them, “ They wore nothing but animal skins – hide vests and tight-fitting pants that laced on the sides with leather ties. It wasn’t just their eccentric clothes that made them seem wild, but everything about them, from their restless crimson eyes to their sudden, darting movements. I’d never met any vampires less civilized.” Here the author plays with the imagery of the clothes that the natives wear, again playing into an old stereotype of the native people’s appearances. Also, Bella’s calling them “uncivilized”, extends the narrative that natives are usually wild and uncivilized.
Apart from the whole native Indian issue, the fact that there have been just 2 black characters - Tyler, who was a fellow batchmate of Bella and Edward, and J.Jenks or Jason Jenks, an attorney and an agent who forges documents, is unacceptable. It is important to note that the only two African or black characters are portrayed in one way or another as criminals, with Tyler almost crushing Bella under his car and J.Jenks being a corrupt attorney who makes and forges illegal documents for people. Even with Jenks being a part of the state and having a power position, being an attorney his character still has a knack for illegal practices. Here again, Meyer is playing into a stereotype related to black men that black men are usually prone to criminal activities.
Another case is of Laurent, a vampire who was introduced as a villain after Bella’s life. However, Laurent was an olive-skinned, dark-haired vampire and not white like Cullens. Similarly, two of the Volturi leaders, who were also showcased as one of the main antagonists, were unlike the Cullen clan that feeds on humans and wanted to kill Bella and Edward’s daughter Renesmee.
Contrast Between the Lifestyles
Moving away from the physical appearances, another issue with the novels is the contrast between the lifestyles of the Cullens and the Werewolves. On one hand, where the vampire clan is classy, rich, well-educated, and part of the society; the werewolves are marginalized, live in reservations, unruly, employed in blue-collar jobs, and relatively poor. Meyer has, in a way, established white supremacy by keeping her focus on all the achievements and victories of Edward, making him the “hero” of the plot rather than Jacob who is more of a “shadow”. The author purposefully used the stereotypes about natives to create flaws in Jacob so that Edward can seem more likable and a better choice for Bella.
The racial and stereotypical evidence is present in the fact that the vampires are a part of the society, whereas marginalized and side-tracked werewolves are termed natural enemies, reflecting the old battle between the natives and the Europeans who came to America in search of the land of dreams and make it their own and views the native Indians of that land as outsiders and enemies in their way. However, even though the Cullens and the Quileute tribe are constantly at different ends in the series, the werewolves are not essentially antagonists and at times have stood with the Cullens to protect Bella, but they still cannot stand each other most of the time.
In many representations of the Natives, the narratives vary from the idea of them being savages or noble savages which is the case for the Quileute tribe in Twilight. When Jacob started to avoid Bella and began to stay with Sam Uley and other kids from his reservation, Bella, a privileged white female character started doubting that Jacob had joined a gang, which is reflective of the thought process of many people that ‘native Americans usually form and lives in gangs and can be dangerous.’
All of this might just be characteristics that might not necessarily point out racism, but my question is why are the native American tribe chosen for the character of werewolves?
Maybe it is because Meyer wrote with stereotypical ideologies in her mind; For a long time, Native Americans are described as savages, unruly, inferior, marginalized, and lack the will for development. These stereotypes are not only present in the novels but within the minds of people since the birth of America, and Stephenie just played into those stereotypes to make the savage werewolves character more relatable and maybe more ‘acceptable’. But in her quest to write a relatable character, she might have just normalized and accepted the old superstitious, racial, and cultural stereotypes that no longer stand true.
The twilight saga series by Stephenie Meyer