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Unconscious Sexism and Racism in New Moon

Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com. In the article below, he looks at The Twilight Saga: New Moon. See Lim’s previous OUPblogs here.

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 re-inscribed 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, played by characters who we are supposed to believe are all native Americans. 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 defense of domestic abuse. The author, Stephenie Meyer, would have us believe that wolves / native Americans are less rational and more possessed 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 our 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.

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  1. [...] more here:  Unconscious Sexism and Racism in New Moon Tags : OUPblog By admin | category: girls desire | tags: are-comforted, are-tantalizingly, consummation, [...]

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  3. suzie q

    You are obviously a middle aged or older man and don’t get this at all. You wear very serious, sceptical “glasses”, where there are hidden agendas and meaning to everything. And usually, I would applaud you, and encourage you to apply your mind to rooting out social evils. But I would like to assure you that this is a very shallow and simple story.
    Girl spots the broody guy in the corner (nod to any Byronic hero in untold tales), there is something keeping them apart (hello Romeo and Juliet) and they struggle to get together and keep their celibacy intact (Stephanie Meyer’s mormon upbringing). The magic ingredient added to this mix was the unlikely casting of Robert Pattinson, a guy the girls went ga ga over.
    You need to imagine yourself as a sixteen year old girl or a bored housewife watching the spin cycle on the washing machine. Then imagine a guy who sparkles in a meadow, madly in love with you and it explains the box office records. The wolf pack and vampires are “fluff” background noice to move the story along.
    Relax, Elvin. You don’t need to protect us girls from anti-feminism. We are just drooling at Edwards chiseled face. Apply your mind to something higher than teenage hormones.
    Kiss kiss

  4. bee

    whatever. you wouldnt understand enything unless you are a fan… which you apperintly are not.

  5. val

    Ridiculous, Clearly you are confused, Laurent made it through the first movie! So they didnt try to cut him out. You must be old.

  6. Stu

    It’s views like that which are quite frankly wrecking this world. It’s a simple widely enjoyed story and nothing more. No “unconcious” feelings of racism or sexism are left with the reader – normal minds don’t work that way. Children will learn that such derogatory discriminations are wrong anyway, and through direct moralising should feel that way. The reason google gives next to no results for “Twilight+racism” is that it doesn’t exist – you’ve made the whole concept up tbh. The only species who may be ruffled and taught to promote these oh so terrible inter-racial wars are wolves and vampire bats, and the last time I checked they couldn’t read so it’s all good there. To sum it up, a fantastic display of unnecessary and incorrect analysis there. *claps*

  7. Rachael

    twilight rocks so keep bad comments of the movie to yourself!!

  8. Elizabeth

    You should have either read the books or gotten a fact checker. I can’t be swayed to your side because so much of your information is off.
    If you think these books are so bad try watching a male-focused blockbuster like Transformers and we can talk sexism.

  9. Alex

    Suzie Q, you clearly don’t know what an analysis is.

    Bee, what does being a fan have to do with looking critically at a work?

    Val, re-read the article.

    Stu, can you prove that a polka-dotted two-horned flying horse does not exist?

    I can’t beleive I just responded to the commenters.

  10. Cordelia

    Twilight is simply a metaphor for the rape culture young women live in today.

    Agressive male sexuality = yay!

    “Weak” human (female) sexuality = boo!

    Hence, Bella wanting to become a vampire–she wants sexual power too!

  11. elizabeth

    The Twilight Saga is fiction! As for a few of points in the article:

    Laurent is not kille doff because he is black. He is a key character in the firs tand second books. He is killed off becasue he wants to kill Bella.

    The Vampires believe the werewolves smell like wet dogs and the werewolves believe vampires smell sickly sweet. Both groups disgust each other.

    The werewolves are dangerous because they are immature. The vampires are all at least 60 years old, most more. The vampires have had time to learn to control their urges. The Cullens are some of the few that actually do control their urges. Most vampires do as they please ie, Victoria, James, and Laurent.
    Bella is the opne pushing for a sexual relationship, not Edward.

    Edward does not want to change Bella. He fears for her soul. Bella is the one that insists on being changed.

  12. Buddha

    LOL at Alex’s comment. See, i come from a predominantly sexist, traditional family, i admit that. But this analysis isn’t even Over analyzing the book, he is skimming the topic. I would assume being a fan of this would result in blindness, not the other way around. If a woman loves a man, and goes through everything, how many of you girls haven’t said “Leave him he doesn’t deserve you.”?

  13. Lydia

    The whole point of the book is that they ARE supernatural! the point is that she IS weak! because she is NOT supernatural! your are EFFING OUT OF YOU MIND!

  14. Elvin Lim

    To those in doubt,

    What if I wrote a story, and it involved colonials with living in pristine bungalows, dressed in fine livery; and set alongside these colonials are ill-tempered native Americans running around half -naked in packs, one of which disfigured his wife in a moment of rage?

    Now replace colonials with vampires and native-Americans with wolves. Note: ALL wolves are native Americans. According to the movie, the werewolf gene exists only in Jacob’s tribe; the instinct to turn violent is a BIOLOGICAL gene that resides among members of the Quillete tribe.

    All in the name of good clean fun, still? If “yes,” then the status, gender, and race differentials embodied in the movie are natural, obvious, legitimate and entirely plausible.

    And that, would be _unconscious_ sexism and racism.

  15. Brian - Kafkacotton

    Hilarious comments!

    I haven’t read any of the Twilight books but this review makes me think of H. Rider Haggard’s “She” where all the locals are portrayed as half naked barbarians who either carry stuff for the white main characters or get shot, hacked, and ripped apart by them.

  16. Laura

    Elvin,
    I have to agree with everyone else who posted against your comment. You shouldn’t write such negative things about a movie that you clearly know nothing about. The movie is derived from the novel and is missing quite a bit of information that was mentioned in the novel. You keep complaining about how the Quillete boys walk around half naked all the time, but little do you know that they do that because 1) they have temperatures of over 108 degrees due to the werewolf gene and 2) when they make the change from human to wolf, their clothes rip off due to the massive increase in size. It’s easier to not wear a shirt rather than replace their clothes over and over again. And since when is it such a negative image for a boy to walk around with his shirt off? As far as the “disfigured wife”.. Sam didn’t hurt her because he is an angry Native American. He hurt her as a wolf- an animal. Anyone with common sense knows that wolves are violent animals. Besides, the only reason the Quilette boys change into wolves is because something makes them angry. Naturally they’ll act out as an animal.
    The cullens are a rich family with a nice house, cars and clothes because they have been around for centuries saving money. Not to mention Alice can see the future and see trends in the stock market. (It’s mentioned in the book.) Jacob’s family is just like any other family in Forks, Washington. If you noticed, Bella is white and she was driving a rusty old truck. If she were wealthy, she would’ve been able to buy her own new vehicle.

    I think before you go out making more ignorant comments about something you don’t know much about, I suggest you do a little research first. It’s people like you who cause problems where there need not be any.

  17. Michele

    Cordelia:
    “Hence, Bella wanting to become a vampire–she wants sexual power too!”

    Good for her, “wanting” sexual power. Bad for SMeyer portraying sexual power as something that is in the complete control of the male to give, and the female must beg and grovel for it. and as something that can only be gained by sacrificing her entire life, identity and sense of self.

  18. [...] many faults in the Twilight Saga including sexism . In Twilight, Bella falls in love with Edward. She then becomes consumed with him in thought, [...]

  19. Heather

    Fabulous assesment, Elvin. I would surmise that you might not be a “hater” at all. But in fact, an informed reader. I am a fan of the Twilight series and books and was a die hard Edward fan until I saw New Moon the movie. I felt myself subtley shift into Jacobs corner and when I went to see the movie again (away from opening night screamers), I felt the chips all fall in Jacobs corner and even leave Bella behind.

    Since then, I’ve been doing a lot of research to figure out just what repulsed me about the storyline I found so enthralling in print. I’m a firm believer that evrything has subconcious implications and your assertion that Bella is weak and incapable without a man to save her is right on. As an independent, single female I can’t help but assume Bella is really Stephanie Meyer in print. Bella acts as a woman who needs a man to be complete but clearly grew up not needing a man at all. In fact, Charlie is in her life on her terms, not his. I can’t help but feel Stephanie let her own beliefs affect her characters decisions.

    The depiction of the natives as violently driven savages was bothering me in such a major way and once pointed out, reading the books is frustrating. I find myself asking how the actual Quileute tribe feels about Meyers novels aside from the publicity I’m sure it’s brought to their community.

    Sam’s violent outburst is something that really bothered me once I saw it on screen. What was explained away as a wolf event in the book seemed much more horrifying and disgustig in thr movie. I wanted to scream to Jacob that perhaps Sam was just a violent man. This had nothing to do with their wolfness. Thank you for seeing the problem there.

    “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.” And this is it! Finally the reason I walked away from the movie feeling overwhelmed that everything is topsy-turvy in Meyer’s universe. Even as a fan, I can say that it is a much more frightening thought than I ever realized. And I was gladly consuming it. I feel like you just put words to my worry. Thank you so much!

    Apologies for any spelling errors. Typing this on iPhone is way hard.

  20. Jared

    ridiculous is all I have to say. Get your facts right man.

  21. dkn2101

    The most egregious thing about the inherent racism in the movie is that the movie-makers probably didn’t even intend it! It’s so ingrained into our society that lighter-skin is somehow more desirable, that the racist connotations the movie emits may even be invisible to its makers.

    Jacob in the movie is a Native American, but racism in New Moon is not about some assertion that ‘Native Americans are savages.’ No, this is the “literal symbolic view,” per se. What Jacob actually represents here is the dark-skinned human. The fact that Bella rebuffs Jacob multiple times, while pursuing Edward, who represents Aryan, light-skinned humans, represents what has unfortunately become the universal aesthetic. Light-skinned is beautiful, more powerful, and holds more influence in the world. Indeed, Bella says “don’t make me choose Jacob, because it’s going to be him.” Despite all Jacob has done to help Bella through her emotional time, while Edward has festered by himself in his self-imposed exile, there is still no hope for Jacob, the dark-skinned human, to supplant the white man. His actions do not count, rather, the aesthetic holds and Jacob is fated to lose to Edward. Yes, Bella loves Edward, and that is part of the story, but this is the backstory that the moviemakers have unintentionally set forth. And of course it is unintentional, for it pervades the media and is so deep-seeded in human behavior that it is done unconsciously.

    Even in cultures of dark-skinned people, there is a hierarchy with the lighter-skinned ‘darkies’ being more desirable. The more important question becomes why this aesthetic holds true, and what, if anything, can be done about it over the next few hundred years of humanity to put a dent in that opinion…

  22. LuBu

    The only point of failure in the aforementioned analysis by the article author is that there is nothing unconscious about the race and sex characterizations in the film’s narrative. It is overt and institutional.

    Saying that the Twilight film series wreaks of mediocrity would be a terrible overstatement. It is little wonder that the actors involved look perpetually embarrassed by their involvement in it.

  23. Anonymous

    Overanalyzing a stupid movie for racism. You people are pathetic grasping for straws and using your own subjective viewpoint to generalize.

  24. indi

    So what? When Jasper attacked Bella in a violent manner (just like Sam attacked Emily) was that a metsphor fo the rich upper crust continually taking advantage of the financially weaker middle class? Or maybe Stephanie Meyer was trying to make a statement about Southerners (since Jasper is a Southern vampire); perhaps she believes Southerners are less inhibited and in control which makes them more prone to violent outbursts. Lmao. Seriously this is so ridiculous. It is a supernatural love story and no prepubscent girl actually is growing increasingly more racist or sexist. They swoon over the “savage” Jacob Black as much as they do over the cultured white “Edward”; I’m pretty sure that it has less to do with class and more to do with physical attractiveness.

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