[Editor's note: For more on portrayals of Native Americans in the Twilight series, see Debbie Reese's American Indians in Children's Literature blog.]
written by Racialicious editor Latoya Peterson; originally published at Racialicious
I would have missed the Twilight phenomenon completely had it not been for my boyfriend’s younger sisters. As the tale of Bella and Edward swept bookstores, ravaged Hot Topic, and launched a thousand live journal wars, I was blissfully unaware. It wasn’t until the book Eclipse popped up on two adolescent wish lists that I decided to take a closer look into the much debated saga.
Back in 2008, we published a piece from Alyssa Valdes-Rodriguez on the Politics of Wizards and Vampires, though this mentioned race only lightly. Most of what people view problematic with the books is based in gender. While I am certainly in no position to judge anyone else’s particular brand of paranormal escapism, I have to admit that the Twilight books don’t hold much appeal for me. The reason? Bella, herself. I can’t really deal with bland protagonists, especially women who seem to have nothing else to do but wait around to be saved.* I also have an issue reading long, drawn out virginity narratives – I’ve already had sex, so I’ve lost my patience for that kind of thing. Still, something in the second book piqued my interest: Jacob Black.
Maerhys writes about all the reasons to love Jacob Black:
I came into the books interested in the Edward/Bella romance but was happily surprised to see that Jacob Black was a prominent character, in purpose and/or dialogue, through out the entire series. I liked that these were modern Indians, the pre-werewolf Jacob seemed real enough, or common enough, a good kid interested in auto-mechanics, strong relationship with his father and friends. He had a sense of humor that made me laugh out loud often. I applauded when Meyer was clever enough to make Charlie and Billy best friends so that Jacob taking Bella on as a friend so quickly made sense to me. Of all the scenes at La Push, the time in the garage building the bikes, the Spaghetti Party with the Blacks and Clearwaters, and Breakfast Muffins with Emily felt the most authentic to me. I didn’t mind the muffins over frybread because it was morning and it would have seemed heavy-handed to me to use frybread.
Which is true. Jacob and his family live on a reservation, but they are not perpetually in a time warp. Jacob is a prominent character – he is an established presence in New Moon, is a major part of the plot in Eclipse, and even assumes some of the narrative in Breaking Dawn. However, while there was much to love about the inclusion of Jacob, Meyer’s portrayal of Jacob and the other Quileutes raised quite a few eyebrows.
Conversely, I wondered how every single Quileute was russet-colored (and if I never ever read “russet-colored” again it won’t be a moment too soon). I live in the Southeast and in my family alone we range from every shade of brown to quite pale (like me) to Black like many of my cousins and other extended family. I would be lying if I did not think we’re a good lookin’ bunch of folks but we’re not all insanely gorgeous like all of Meyer’s Indians, aside from Kim. The exotification of was heavy-handed, most likely in Meyer’s attempt to show that she thinks Indians are beautiful, strong, and we all but walk on water, *lol*, but, instead, it shoved me out of the story and reminded me that this was a non-Native writing Indian characters. [...]
My largest issues with the characterization of the Quileute Peoples in the novels are two-fold. The first is the complete acceptance of Bella in every aspect of Indian life and that no one had a problem with a red/white relationship between them. Fed/state recognized Nations have to deal with enrollment and most enrollment processes say something about blood quantum, that sort of thing is thought about where I am from, and Alexie has mentioned it more than once in his writings so I think Washington Indians think about it too, even if their dads are best buddies. I found it maddening that no one ever said anything about it, and even with first-person narration through Bella, I doubt that she would not have thought of it, overheard something or had conversation about it. It would not be beyond the pale sine Charlie and Billy were best friends, but to have never mentioned it? And there are no other interracial relationships mentioned? Maddening, I tell you. *lol* And, while, I could buy that Bella would be well-known in La Push and possibly accepted due to the Charlie/Billy connection, I cannot believe that she would be invited to the storytelling event or be taken to so quickly by Emily, and eventually, the rest of the pack. The second, possibly more annoying than the aforementioned, is rez-born and bred Jacob not understanding the role of Billy as an elder and not having a clue as to his clan or that he is the true Alpha. Again, if he had known but chosen to tell Bella something different in order not to reveal to much, to play stupid, I would find that conceivable, but true ignorance? I was dumbfounded and completely thrown from the story.
Indians as werewolves or otherworldly is old meme, but through out the first two novels and most of the third, I found the characters compelling enough to forgive the recapitulation of myth. I enjoyed the development of Jacob’s psyche and the friendship between Bella and Jacob. However, when Meyer went there — the continuous over-bearing game-playing by Jacob for Bella’s affections and, finally, culminating in the forced kiss and then the “suicide mission” manipulation in Eclipse, I felt like Meyer wanted me to hate Jacob and I admit that I did. [Bella as well, for all the Christian morality infused in these tales, the engaged woman seeking another man's kiss didn't do a whole lot for me.] I understand Jacob’s motivations but the execution was beyond flawed. Possibly even older meme than Indians as werewolves is the Indian man so hot for the white girl that he manipulates her and finally forces her sexually. My estimation for the saga as a whole plummeted with these machinations to character and plot, possibly even more so when Bella decides that she is in love with Jacob as well as Edward. Perhaps it is my utter disbelief that so many men find Bella irresistible? If Jacob had imprinted on Bella, perhaps, I could suspend my disbelief, but he did not and he still fights for her, while simultaneously aware that he could imprint on another woman and that Bella is essentially addicted to Edward. Why does he go to all of the trouble? Further, I found it irritating that Jacob and Bella’s relationship was used as a prop to illustrate that Bella had other choices but still chooses Edward, and conceivably, immortality.
Indeed. I read Marhys’ summary before I read all the books, so at the time it didn’t make much sense to me. However, I completed the full series over the weekend, and noticed a lot more than Marhys had time to cover.
People of Color are Exoticized and Sexualized – and often Dangerous
Marhys’ writes about how “the subtext ran to the Hot!Indian” which I agree. I also think that Meyer’s depictions of Jacob intentionally tried to make him as large, fierce and terrifying as possible. In Eclipse, Meyer puts in a scene that definitely shows how Jacob is the reckless bad boy to Edward’s Victorian restraint:
Jacob’s face hardened as we walked toward him, hand in hand.
I noticed other faces, too – the faces of my classmates. I noticed how their eyes widened as they took in all six foot seven inches of Jacob’s long body, muscled up the way no normal sixteen-and-a-half year old ever had been. I saw those eyes rake over his tight black t-shirt – short-sleeved, though the day was unseasonably cool – his ragged, grease-smeared jeans, and the glossy black bike he leaned against. Their eyes didn’t linger on his face – something about his expression had them glancing quickly away. And I noticed the wide berth everyone gave him, the bubble of space that no one dared to encroach on.
With a sense of astonishment, I realized Jacob looked dangerous to them. How odd. (Eclipse, p. 77)
So it should come as no surprise that some of the kids who viewed the altercation eventually said things like, “My money’s on the big Indian.” (Eclipse, p.90)
However, this sexuality also comes with a strong undercurrent of danger and force. Once again, in contrast to Edward who is often fighting off Bella’s advances, Jacob forces himself on Bella:
His lips crushed mine, stopping my protest. He kissed me angrily, roughly, his other hand gripping tight around the back of my neck, making escape impossible. I shoved against his chest with all my strength, but he didn’t even seem to notice. His mouth was soft, despite the anger, his lips molding to mine in a warm, unfamiliar way.
I grabbed at his face, trying to push it away, failing again. He seemed to notice this time, though, and it aggravated him. His lips forced mine open, and I could feel his hot breath in my mouth.
Acting on instinct, I let my hands drop to my side, and shut down. I opened my eyes and didn’t fight, didn’t feel…just waited for him to stop. (Eclipse, p. 331)
I never thought I’d ever type the phrase “rape-y,” but that’s exactly how that scene felt to me. Sadly, the dynamic continues onward in a strange way – Bella resists Jacob’s advances, but still, some part of her wants to be with him.
My arms were already around his neck, so I grabbed two fistfuls of hair – ignoring the stabbing pain in my right hand – and fought back, struggling to pull my face away from his.
And Jacob misunderstood.
He was too strong to recognize that my hands, trying to yank his hair out by the roots, meant to cause him pain. Instead of anger, he imagined passion. He thought I was finally responding to him.
With a wild gasp, he brought his mouth back to min, his fingers clutching frantically against the skin at my waist.
The jolt of anger unbalanced my tenuous hold on self-control; his unexpected, ecstatic response overthrew it entirely. If there had been only triumph, I might have been able to resist him. But the utter defenselessness of his sudden joy cracked my determination, disabled it. My brain disconnected from my body and I was kissing him back. Against all reason, my lips were moving with his is strange, confusing ways they’d never moved before – because I didn’t have to be careful with Jacob, and he certainly wasn’t being careful with me. (Eclipse, p. 527)
Beauty Comes in White
Much is made of Bella’s pale skin and Edward’s cold, sparkly whiteness. It feels like every other other page, Bella refers to Edward’s pale perfection. The Quilete men are praised for physical traits, but when Meyer describes women of color, she tends to bring me up short:
My first impression of Kim was that she was a nice girl, a little shy, and a little plain. She had a wide face, mostly cheekbones, with eyes too small to balance them out. Her nose and mouth were too broad for traditional beauty. Her flat black hair was thin and wispy in the wind that never seemed to let up atop the cliff. (Eclipse, p. 242)
She tries to make it sound better, having Bella view Kim through Jared (her imprinter), which reveals…well, more of the same, but this time groping for compliments:
His wondering eyes made me see new things about her – how her skin looked like russet-colored silk in the firelight, how the shape of her lips was a perfect double curve, how white her teeth were against them, how long her eyelashes were, brushing her cheek when she looked down. (Eclipse, p. 242)
When Meyer describes the vampires who arrive to show their support for the Cullens from the Amazon in the final book, Meyer’s contemptuous gaze is present here as well:
“Carlisle,” the taller of the two very tall ferine women greeted him when they arrived. Both of them seemed as if they’d been stretched – long arms and legs, long fingers, long black braids, and long faces with long noses. 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. (Midnight Sun, pp. 612-613)
Bella (newly vamped, mind you!) still must default back to white womanhood pearl clutching. While Zafrina (one of the vamps from the Amazon) is trying to help train her in the event of a fight to the death, Bella still feels the need to mention:
I even fought once with Zafrina while Renesemee watched from Jacob’s arms. I learned several tricks, but I never asked for her help again. In truth, though I like Zafrina very much and I knew she wouldn’t really hurt me, the wild woman scared me to death. (Midnight Sun, p. 617)
Racial Slurs Abound
The two camps often trade insults – the werewolves call the vampires leeches, bloodsuckers, or Dracula (as well as their official names, the Cold Ones) while the vamps lob insults like dog and mongrel. Bella stays neutral mostly – until Jacob pisses her off and she starts calling him a dog and a mongrel – insults she would never hurl at Edward. Still, there is more or less a balance until the finale of the series. In Eclipse, Bella is exposed to a particular werewolf trait called imprinting:
“Quil…imprinted….with a two-year-old?” I was finally able to ask.
“It happens.” Jacob shrugged. He bent to grab another rock and sent it flying out into the bay. “Or so the stories say.”
“But she’s a baby,” I protested.
He looked at me with dark amusement. “Quil’s not getting any older,” he reminded me, a bit of acid in his tone. “He’ll just have to be patient for a few decades.”
“I…don’t know what to say.”
I was trying my hardest not to be critical, but in truth, I was horrified. Until now, nothing about the werewolves had bothered me since the day I’d found out they weren’t committing the murders I’d suspected them of.
“You’re making judgments,” he accused, “I can see it on your face.”
“Sorry,” I muttered. “But it sounds really creepy.”
“It’s not like that – you’ve got it all wrong,” Jacob defended his friend, suddenly vehement. “I’ve seen what its like, through his eyes. There’s nothing romantic about it at all, not for Quil, not now.” He took a deep breath, frustrated. “It’s so hard to describe. It’s not like love at first sight, really. It’s more like…gravity moves. When you see her, suddenly, it’s not the earth holding you here any more. She does. And nothing matters more than her. And you would do anything for her…you become whatever she needs you to be. , whether that’s a protector, or a lover, or a friend, or a brother.
“Quil will be the best, kindest big brother any kid ever had. There isn’t a toddler on the planet that will be more carefully looked after than that little girl will be. And then, when’s she’s older and needs a friend, he’ll be more understanding, trustworthy, and reliable than anyone else she knows. And then, when she’s grown up, they’ll be as happy as Emily and Sam.” A strange, bitter edge sharpened his tone at the very end, when he spoke of Sam.
“Doesn’t Claire get a choice here?”
“Of course. But why wouldn’t she choose him, in the end? He’ll be her perfect match. Like he was designed for her alone. (Eclipse, pp. 175 -176)
People, that scene was foreshadowing. After three books of longing and pining over Bella, Meyer finally rewards Jacob – by allowing him to imprint on her infant half-vampire daughter. My eyes rolled back in my head so hard, they almost did a triple-axel onto the floor. Now, this development isn’t as bad as it seems – the half-vampire baby will fully mature in about eight years, and as Jacob explained above, this type of bonding isn’t necessarily sexual.
However, the imprinting did appear to give the household new license to hate Jacob, call him dog and mongrel to his face, and this time, Bella joins in. Some friend she is. Jacob turned on his Pack, risked his life multiple times, revealed critical weaknesses for his tribe, maintained the flimsy treaty between vampires and werewolves, and went through immesurable pain in order to make Bella feel like a nice person – if he had asked to eat the damn baby, it would have been a fair request.
But of course, a brown man’s destiny is to suffer to save the white woman her tears.
Now, Meyer doesn’t completely screw over Jacob. If she’s not trying to prove how brutish Jacob is, he tends to be one of the more self-aware characters, with some of the best lines in the series:
“Take it easy, Bella.”
“Shut up, Jacob. Just shut up! This is so unfair!”
“Did you seriously just stamp your foot? I thought girls only did that on TV.” (Eclipse, p.119)
Often, he voices things the reader wishes we could say to Bella.
“Is [Edward] your warden, now, too? You know, I saw this story on the news last week about controlling, abusive teenage relationships and –” (Eclipse, p.224)
And sometimes, he talks common sense with a healthy dose of swagger:
“He’s like a drug for you, Bella.” His voice was still gentle, not critical. “I see that you can’t live without him now. It’s too late. But I would have been healthier for you. Not a drug; I would have been the air, the sun.” (Eclipse, p. 599)
The problem is that Jacob is too good for his own good. Noble, long suffering, never in need of anything that would inconvenience Bella…hmm, where have we seen that trope before?
(Image Credit: Luis-Montiel on Deviant Art)
*This almost derailed my love of Kelley Armstrong – I couldn’t relate to her first heroine, Page Davis, but liked the world and the side characters so much that I decided to stick it out. Luckily, my patience was rewarded and she switched narrators after a few books.