Since Melinda Beasi wrote about Twilight here earlier this week, I thought I’d follow up with this essay, which ran in an edited form at the Chicago Reader.
Twilight fans always make a fuss about Team Edward versus Team Jacob, but they might as well be plumping for Team Effete Aristocrat versus Team Colorful Earthy Ethnic Stereotype.
As with all things Twilight, the tropes work not because of their subtlety, but because of the absolute ham-fisted earnestness with which they are deployed. Eclipse is the book where the Edward/Bella/Jacob triangle attains an apotheosis of melodramatic angst-ridden preposterousness. As such, it’s also arguably the book where the bone-headed stereotyping is most thoroughly exploited. What sets the tween heart racing is not that Bella has two boyfriends, but that she has two romance narratives to choose from — narratives of differing but equally venerable pedigree.
In this corner, there’s Edward Cullen. Edward is extravagantly cultured, and ridiculously wealthy. He composes classical ballads, writes in an immaculate hand, and buys his sister a Porche as an offhand gift. Like a real product of the upper crust, he lives with his brothers and sisters, who are all also paired up as husbands and wives. His family is, moreover, obsessed with blood, and has amorphous connections to Italy. He’s foreign, exciting, steeped in ancient traditions, and deeply, ludicrously white. He’s the noble prince come to whisk Bella out of her life and into a deliciously decadent life of luxury and romance. Meyer name-drops Darcy and Heathcliff and Romeo, but Edward has at least as much in common with Prince Charming.
And in this corner, there’s Jacob Black. Jacob is the opposite of upper-class. An Indian living on reservation land, he transforms simultaneously into a werewolf and a laundry list of invidious racial stereotypes. He’s literally hot-blooded — werewolves have higher than normal temperatures, just as vampires have lower than normal ones. Jacob also has massive self-control issues; whenever he gets angry or upset, he starts to shake violently and then turns into a giant deadly wolf. He’s also hairy, frequently bare-chested, and…good with tools! He also eats a prodigious amount — as opposed to the uber-cultured Edward, who doesn’t eat at all.
If Edward is the aristocrat who treats Bella like a delicate queen, Jake is the swarthy, sweaty working-class hero who won’t take no for an answer. Edward will barely allow himself to kiss Bella; Jake, on the other hand, literally overpowers her when he wants a smooch and she’s reluctant. With Edward, Bella always has to be careful; with Jake she gets to be a little bit wild — riding motorcycles, cliff diving, and generally getting in touch with her inner wolf/teen delinquent. If Edward’s the prince whisking away the scullery maid a la Cinderella, Jake is the virile commoner dragging the frigid aristocrat down into the sensual muck a la Titanic.
Romance as a genre has always been just about as obsessed with class as it has been with gender. Differences in social standing are both great drivers of plot (“I’ll never allow you to marry that piece of trash!”) and sexy in their own right. The boy next door (played in Twilight by Bella’s poor, ordinary, never-had-a-chance classmate Mike Newton) is dull — there’s nothing romantic about winding up with the person everybody expects you to wind up with. But a prince to pull you up to the castle or a gardener to drag you down in the muck — that’s an exotic tale to set the heart racing and the bodices ripping.
Meyer’s genius (if you want to call it that) is to have figured out a way to repurpose the same old clichés for an era in which not even tweens want to admit to fetishizing either those on the top of the social scale or those on the bottom. Edward is enchantingly attractive not because he has gobs of money and cultural capital, but rather because he’s an immortal mysterious vampire whose body goes all sparkly in the sun. Jacob is excitingly exotic not because Indians make better lovers, but because he’s an impulsive superstrong werewolf. And the two don’ t want to kill each other because of class or racial animosities (which would obviously be really distasteful), but because vampires don’t like werewolves. When Jacob calls Edward “bloodsucker,” it’s a literal description, not a Marxist critique. When Edward calls Jacob “dog,” it’s because he grows fur and runs around on all fours not — despite all appearances — because it’s a racial slur.
Ultimately, of course, the dog lies down with the bloodsucker; the alabaster prince and the dusky gardener both love Bella so much that they set aside their differences to defend her. Social harmony descends on a world which never had any class antagonisms to begin with. A triumph of tolerance and goodwill? Well, maybe not. Certainly, to see the same old idiocies revived and venerated under a thin PC patina is irritating. How many generations are girls going to be waiting for their prince, anyway? And when exactly are we going to stop shamelessly exploiting the minorities just so that we can tell ourselves how sexy they look down there on the dung heap where we have so summarily deposited them?
But, on the other paw…there is something to be said for that thin patina. If there are stupid fantasies to be disseminated, maybe it’s better to have them be clearly labeled as fantasies. Edward’s not a prince; he’s a vampire. Jacob’s not out of control because he’s an Indian, but because he’s a werewolf. That’s no doubt splitting hairs (as it were) — but those are hairs that I’d as soon see split as not. If there’s one thing that romance consistently tells us, after all, it’s that differences matter.