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A Colonial Narrative: The Portrayal of American Indians in “The Twilight Saga”

This past summer (2010) I took a journalism class called Women, Minorities, and the Media. In it, we discussed how the media, historically and in the present day, uses stereotypes to represent the non-white male, among other things. Our last assignment in that class was to write a research paper on any text and topic we wanted, so long as it pertained to the class. I chose to write about the portrayal of American Indians in “The Twilight Saga” movies by Summit Entertainment, based on the novels by Stephenie Meyer.

I chose “Twilight” for a number of reasons.

  1. The movie Elipse had just been released in theaters.
  2. I had, admittedly, enjoyed the books (especially the first one) when I read them in high school.
  3. In May 2010, I had attended a conference at the University of Oregon called Console-ing Passions, which focused on feminism and the media. One panel was on Twilight. Anne Helen Petersen, a celebrity blogger  focusing her dissertation on star studies, had talked about a blog post she’d written and come under fire for, called Why Kristen Stewart Matters. She talked about how the media presents Kristen Stewart, the actress, as synonymous with the major character she plays on screen: Bella Swan. The idea of legitimately looking at pop culture from a scholarly, critical point of view and analyzing it and any stereotypes it perpetuated completely interested me.

So, without further ado, here’s my paper:

A Colonial Narrative: The Portrayal of American Indians in “The Twilight Saga”

Introduction

The movies of “The Twilight Saga” are a prime example of popular culture phenomenon: the advertisements are ubiquitous in the media, the stars are known around the world, and the franchise has made the paranormal genre—and vampires, in particular—an ongoing fad in books, television and movies. Though “Twilight” may simply be viewed as pop culture kitsch by some, it would be a mistake to not recognize its widespread influence. The very popularity of “Twilight” among its target audience of adolescent girls, as well as other fans, speaks to the weight of its images.

Much has already been made of the traditional portrayals of gender roles in “Twilight” by feminists (Clark, Seifert). Conclusions find that adolescent girls who are fans of the series often develop misguided or unrealistic ideas about relationships, love, boys and femininity.

Similar criticism can be focused on the race relations in “Twilight.” One of the main characters in the saga, Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner), is an American Indian, a member of the Quileute Nation in Washington State; the Quileutes are a main group featured in the books and films. The dominant ideology of race in U.S. culture creates a racial divide between “white” in one group and “color” in another. Studying the portrayal of American Indians in “Twilight” is important because the depictions, even though they take place in fantasy, contribute to dominant notions about race. Furthermore, these blockbusters give a very modern portrayal of American Indians. If any stereotypes appear in “Twilight,” they are worth noting because they perpetuate and enable traditional views of native peoples and support dominant race ideology. The widespread media coverage of the films also sends these messages and influences many members of society, including younger generations.

This paper will examine the three released films of “The Twilight Saga”: Twilight, New Moon, and Eclipse. The movies will be examined as separate from the novels because the films have a larger consumer audience and the images on film often come to mind when the topic of “Twilight” is raised. This paper will contribute to the discourse on race relations in “Twilight.” I am ultimately seeking to discover how American Indians are portrayed in “Twilight,” what traditional stereotypes are perpetuated or violated, and how these stereotypes are presented in the series.

Method

All three “Twilight Saga” films were viewed for this paper, with special attention given to the overall portrayal of Quileutes, as well as dialogue between Jacob Black and other characters. The movie posters and advertisements were also analyzed. Critical essays focusing on race in “Twilight” were read, as well as the history of American Indians in films and common stereotypes.

Findings

“The Twilight Saga” is essentially a colonial narrative that perpetuates the stereotypical racial divide of whites as civilized and indigenous people as savages. The narrative involves the “civilized” whites forming a treaty and ultimately changing the way of life of the “savage” indigenous people. The colonial narrative is driven by the Eurocentric mind/body binary, where “culture is signified by the higher intellectual functions of the mind/brain while nature is signified by the lower biological functions of the body” (Guzmán 211). This mind/body binary is constructed in the contrasts between the mortal enemies of the vampires and werewolves: the Cullen family and the Quileute Nation’s werewolves.

The Cullen Family: Emmett, Rosalie, Esme, Edward, Carlisle, Alice, Jasper. Note the cool blue colors used in this publicity shot for the "cold" vampires.

The members of the Cullen family are associated with mind/culture through their tastes and activities. As Wilson writes, the “vampires are not only pale, they are uber-white, dripping with all the cultural accoutrements associated with white privilege – cars, houses, nice clothes, fancy degrees” (“Got Vampire Privilege Part 3: The White Guy is Still the Hero”). Alice’s fashion sense, Edward’s appreciation of classical music, and the family’s garage of expensive cars are all images viewed by mainstream American society as typical cultural refinements that are appreciated through intelligence.

Carlisle (Peter Facinelli), the “father” of the coven, contributes a direct European — and thus “high culture” — connection to the Cullen family: he was born in England, and Facinelli uses a faint British accent in the films, most noticeably in Eclipse. Jasper Hale, the mate of Alice Cullen, became a vampire during the Civil War, and his back-story connotes ideas of the romanticized southern gentleman. Edward (Robert Pattinson) represents the hyper-white male figure and embodies the ultimate symbol of culture simply by the fact that he can read minds: the mind/culture fusion is nowhere more apparent than in his portrayal. Additionally, Edward is continually compared to romantic characters like Heathcliff and Romeo by Bella (Kristen Stewart), thus associating white European heroic aspects with his character, as well as a high-minded literary culture.

Throughout the films, the Cullens come to represent wealth, intelligence, beauty, and heroism. These signifiers of “culture” are subtly tied into the Cullens’ class privilege and whiteness. Guzmán writes that “whiteness is associated with a disembodied intellectual tradition free from the everyday desires of the body” (211). That is, the Cullens’ mind/culture symbolism denies any bodily urges. Though vampires are traditionally bodily creatures in that they must feed and kill, the Cullens feed off of wild animals instead of humans, and Bella (and the audience) never observes this action in these first three films. Additionally, Edward continuously denies sexual contact with Bella and restrains himself from his instinctual urge to kill her when he first scents her blood. Thus the Cullens are represented as culturally above bodily desires.

The Quileute "wolfpack" in New Moon. Note the warm colors in this publicity shot (their bare upper bodies, the background: all sepia to connote the "natural heat" of the werewolf)

In contrast, the members of the Quileute werewolf pack are constantly associated with the body/nature. Wilson holds that “they are depicted as decidedly less civilized than the ultra-white vampires. They run in packs, they smell, howl, and eschew clothing” (“Got Vampire Privilege Part 3: The White Guy is Still the Hero”). The Cullens live in a coven as a family, and the Quileutes live as a tribe on a reservation; yet the young Quileutes who can transform into werewolves constantly move together as a “pack of muts,” both as wolves and as humans (New Moon). The transformation of the Quileutes into wolves is always present in the mind of the audience; they are always vaguely animalistic, even whooping in a howling manner while in human form. At the end of Twilight after Edward finds Bella talking to Jacob, he comments, “I leave you alone for two minutes and the wolves descend.” While this line is foreshadowing the appearance of Quileute werewolves in New Moon, it also labels Jacob’s presence as animalistic, wild, and predatory.

It is noticeable that while in the books both the vampires and werewolves contemptuously complain about their enemy’s foul odor to Bella, in the New Moon and Eclipse films only the Cullens voice to the audience the “stink” of the Quileute werewolves. Though Jacob can determine the distinct scent of vampires, he never actually describes the smell in derogatory or unpleasant terms, compared to Alice’s description of the Quileutes’ “God-awful wet-dog smell,” and Edward’s description of Jacob’s “stench” as “revolting” (New Moon, Eclipse). The odor description is one-sided, focused negatively on the Quileutes and their bodies.

Not only are the Quileute werewolves often portrayed as uncivilized animals, they are also completely defined by their bodies and objectified as only bodies. In every scene of New Moon featuring other members of the wolf pack in human form, as well as the prevalent movie poster images of the group, the actors are naked from the waist up. After Jacob transforms into a werewolf in New Moon, he, too, basically “ceases wearing a shirt; a moment of objectification the film never truly explains but does acknowledge and exalt in” (Wente).

In fact, Jacob’s bare chest in New Moon is more prominent than Edward’s, even though Edward had a plot-important reason for losing his (i.e. exposing his sun-sparkling skin to humans in order to provoke the law-keeping Volturi vampires to kill him because he thinks that Bella has committed suicide and has no other reason for living, thus prompting Bella to race to Italy and save him). This points to the sexualization of the non-white male: Edward’s chest-baring is plot-important and not sexualized, while Jacob’s constant bare chest is supposed to invite pleasure and admiration from the audience.

In Eclipse, Edward jokingly asks “doesn’t he own a shirt?” when Jacob is once again stripped from the waist up. Though “Twilight” seems to be acknowledging and poking fun at the highly publicized image of Jacob’s bare chest in New Moon, it still stands that Jacob and the other Quileute werewolves continue to lack their shirts throughout Eclipse for no apparent reason. This perpetual state of undress in both films serves to objectify the male American Indian body as a sexual object: biceps, pectoral muscles, and abs displayed for the intended adolescent girl audience’s pleasure.

The lack of clothes echoes the stereotypical representation of American Indians in the media as always naked, sexualizes and objectifies bodies of color, and also reinforces the idea that a lack of clothing is evidence of a people’s “uncivilized” or “savage” nature. Ultimately, the physical portrayal of the Quileute werewolves contributes to the overarching colonial narrative of “The Twilight Saga.”

The werewolves also uphold stereotypical notions about the inherent violence of American Indian men. The unruly body again is prominent: temperamental and impulsive, the werewolves have trouble controlling their anger and consequential transformations. In New Moon, Paul loses it after Bella slaps his face, transforming uncontrollably into a werewolf and fighting with Jacob, who comes to her defense. Although the other members of the pack later tell Bella that Paul and Jacob are just wrestling—the equivalent of playing—the scene of the actual wolf fight is anything but playful. It is filmed the way that Bella (and the audience) first sees and recognizes the werewolves: as dramatic, terrifying, and monstrous. The consequences of this uncontrollable anger are concretely realized in the scars Emily bears on her face, which Jacob explains: “Sam got angry, lost it for a split second, and was standing too close. He’ll never be able to take that back” (New Moon). Furthermore, this predilection towards violence is a genetic trait; as Jacob says, “it’s not a lifestyle choice”; he “was born this way” and “can’t help it” (New Moon).

Jacob’s pursuit of Bella’s affections—though romantic—is troubling in that they can be read as a stereotypical portrayal of the sexual threat of American Indian men. The perceived threat of men of color violating white women is a long-held preoccupation of white culture. For instance, the enormous popularity of captivity narratives in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries “was undoubtedly due in part to the fact that some accounts dwelt on the Indian sexual threat to captured white women” (Buscombe 42). In Eclipse, Jacob physically embodies this threat: he refuses Bella’s denial of love (Bella: “I don’t feel that way for you.” Jacob: “I don’t buy it.”), forces her to kiss him, shrugs off her attempt to punch him, explains it all as “a misunderstanding,” and insists to Edward, “She’s not sure what she wants!” (Eclipse). Not only do Jacob’s actions fulfill the stereotype of sexual threat, they also, once more, point to the overwhelming Quileute werewolf body. Yet again, “non-Whiteness is associated with … the everyday needs of the body to … reproduce sexually” (Guzmán 211).

The treaty between the Cullen family and the Quileutes also contributes to the colonial narrative. As Jacob reveals to Bella in Twilight, his ancestors made a treaty with the immortal Cullens, allowing the animal-hunting vampires to live in the area so long as they did not trespass on Quileute tribal land or bite a human. As Leggatt points out, “the failure of federal and state governments to observe the principles of the treaties they negotiated in good faith [with American Indian tribes] is a constant refrain in American history” (Chapter 2, Section 1, Paragraph 3). However, in “The Twilight Saga,” the treaty is respected by both the Cullens and the Quileute people, and “the narrative never makes an allegorical connection with the history of treaty rights in North America” (Wente). By not acknowledging the history of treaty violations, “Twilight” effectively ignores the historical treatment of American Indians. Furthermore, in creating a treaty between vampires and the Quileutes (a real life American Indian tribe), the series “has the effect of fictionalizing Native people and their history” (Wente). That is, not only is historical treaty violation not mentioned, but the treaty between the Cullens and the Quileutes essentially equates American Indians with fictional vampires and thus absolves America of its historical treatment of indigenous peoples.

The colonial narrative is also evident in the forced turn of the Quileute young men into werewolves. Since vampires and werewolves are mortal enemies, the werewolf transformation only occurs when vampires are near. Until the Cullens revisited Forks, the Quileute people lived normal human lives, but with the Cullens’ reappearance in greater numbers, as well as the continual lurking presence of Bella’s enemy Victoria and her new-born vampire army in Eclipse, the adolescent Quileute boys transform into werewolves in order to protect their tribe and the humans of Forks. In Eclipse, Jacob tells Bella, “I didn’t want to be in a pack, let alone be its leader.” The forced transformation of the Quileute boys into werewolves can be read as a result of “white conquest”: not only are the Quileute werewolves no longer fully human, they must deal relatively peaceably with their mortal enemies as the treaty requires, both of which “lead to a shift in power away from the Quileute people to the newcomers” (Wilson “Part 4: Edward’s mind versus Jacob’s body, or, Twilight as a Colonial Text,” Leggatt Ch 2, Sec 1, P 4).

The love triangle and Bella’s final choice also supports the colonial narrative. The entire series asks whether she will “pick the nice, white boy (Edward) or the dangerous dark-skinned outsider (Jacob)” (Wilson “Got Vampire Privilege Part 3: The White Guy is Still the Hero”). By the end of Eclipse, Bella chooses the boy that the audience expected from the beginning: Edward. The historical lack of American Indian protagonists or successful interracial romances in Hollywood leads to the conclusion that “apparently the Euro-American public cannot watch a movie about Indians unless it is really about Euro-Americans” (Mihesuah 10). The fact that Bella chooses Edward and that Jacob must come to terms with and accept her choice “symbolizes the fact that assimilation and accommodation were always considered necessary for the Quileute people in order to survive their contact with non-Native people” (Leggatt Ch 2, Sec 1, P 4). Jacob is forever changed by his relationships with Bella and Edward: he becomes a werewolf and has his heart broken.

Admittedly, “Twilight” does establish American Indians as people of the present, not the past: the Quileutes do not wear beads or feathers but dress in modern clothes; they do not live in teepees or ride horses like the stereotypical Hollywood Plains Indians, but live on a reservation in modern houses and drive cars and motorcycles. However, although the Quileute people are not depicted in overtly recognizable stereotypes, “The Twilight Saga” is still a deeply rooted colonial story that uses the subtle stereotypes of Critical Race Theory to enable a racial divide between whites and non-whites. Additionally, the contact and treaty between the Cullens and the Quileutes reads as a colonialist interaction with indigenous people: the Quileutes are forced to change while the Cullens earn territory and actually expand in number over time.

Some of the fault lies at Summit Entertainment’s door: a few stereotypes could be remedied if the Quileute wolf pack wasn’t depicted as half naked for a majority of the time.

If this paper was written again, more attention would be given to the casting of the Quileute characters, the actors’ own American Indian heritage, and the treatment of the actual Quileute Nation by Summit Entertainment, the media, and fans.

Works Cited

Buscombe, Edward. ‘Injuns!’ Native Americans in the Movies. Cornwall: Reaktion Books, 2006.

Clark, Krystal. “Twilight’s Bella Swan is a Feminist’s Nightmare.” Nov 11 2009. Screen Crave. uCrave. http://screencrave.com/2009-11-11/twilights-bella-swan-is-a-feminists-nightmare

Eclipse. Dir. David Slade. Summit Entertainment, 2010.

Guzmán, Isabel Molina, et al. “Brain, Brow, and Booty: Latina Iconicity in U.S. Popular Culture.” The Communication Review. 7. (2004): 205-21.

Leggatt, Judith and Kristin Burnett. “Biting Bella: Treaty Negotiation, Quileute History, and Why ‘Team Jacob’ Is Doomed to Lose.” Twilight and History. ed Nancy R. Reagin. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2010. E-book.

Mihesuah, Devon A. American Indians: Stereotypes and Realities. Atlanta: Clarity, 1996.

New Moon. Dir. Chris Weitz. Summit Entertainment, 2009.

Seifert, Christine. “Bite Me! (Or Don’t).” Bitch Magazine. 2008. Bitch Media. http://bitchmagazine.org/article/bite-me-or-dont

Twilight. Dir. Catherine Hardwicke. Summit Entertainment, 2008.

Wente, Jesse. “Avatar and Twilight: Native Representation on screen 2.0.” Jan 29, 2010. http://www.reelinjunthemovie.com/site/blog/guest-blog-jesse-wente.

Wilson, Natalie. “Got Vampire Privilege Part 3: The White Guy is Still the Hero.” Seduced by Twilight. 22 Aug 2009. http://seducedbytwilight.wordpress.com/2009/08/22/got-vampire-privilege-part-3-the-white-guy-is-still-the-hero.

Wilson, Natalie. “Part 4: Edward’s mind versus Jacob’s body, or, Twilight as a Colonial Text.” Seduced by Twilight. 23 Apr 2010. http://seducedbytwilight.wordpress.com/2010/04/23/part-4-edward%E2%80%99s-mind-versus-jacob%E2%80%99s-body-or-twilight-as-a-colonial-text.

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