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Some reflections on the Twilight Film Series

July 5, 2010

Having just seen the third movie in the Twilight series, I think it is time to offer some observations about one of the most popular films series in decades. Much has been written about the books turned into films and as a person with an interest in media literacy it seems useful to not only think about these films with a critical eye, but how we relate to people who are participating in the Twilight phenomenon.

The most obvious aspect of the first three films is the focus on relationships, particularly between Bella, Edward and Jake. This love triangle is so overwhelming at times that it doesn’t allow for much character development. Instead, the film keeps presenting an almost obsessive depiction of “young love,” similar to Romeo and Juliet.

However, despite all the attention to the struggle that Bella has between her infatuation for Edward and her attempts to keep Jake’s friendship, we never see her develop her own identity outside of these boys. In the first film Bella does begin to cultivate friendships, but as soon as she encounters Edward, those friendships diminish.

In the second film Bella becomes almost a recluse after Edward leaves her, until she decides to spend time with Jake. In the period right after Edward’s departure we see Bella waking up screaming or sitting in her room as the seasons change. What we don’t know is what she is feeling or how this loss has impacted how she sees herself in the world. She does write to Alice (Edward’s sister), but even in those moments there is no insight into who she is, only an echoing of her pain over losing Edward.

While one could argue that Bella can come across as a woman with strong convictions, we never know what she is like independent of a relationship. This relationship dependence and the “struggle” for Bella’s attention certainly could send strong messages to young people, particularly girls who are constantly being measured by how guys value them. This is not surprising considering the author of the Twilight books is a Mormon and believes strongly in the dominance of men.

Class & Race

If you can look beyond the obvious emphasis on relationships and young love the films also send strong messages about class and race. It is interesting that the majority of vampires are White and the Cullen family is exclusively so. They are generally presented as level headed and gracious. Edwards father is a doctor who is well respected in the community and he has raised hi family of vampires to only feed on animals, thus making them benign bloodsuckers.

The other major racial representation is that of the Native community. The Native Americans are the wolves, which often are prone to anger and short tempers. Jake’s character constantly reminds the audience of this fact. In the second film we are introduced to Paul (the leader of the wolf pack), who in a fit of anger, permanently wounds his girlfriend.

In addition, the young men who make up the wolf clan are almost always seen without a shirt on. This is what activist Jackson Katz calls the male pose, where young men of color who don’t have any economic power use their bodies as a way to compensate. We rarely see the male vampires without a shirt and their bodies are generally not presented as a weapon.

The lack of economic power is clearly depicted with the Native community. Jake lives in a very modest house and if often working on cars or motorcycles. Jakes dad is in a wheelchair and often drinks beer with Bella’s father, underscoring their working class status.

The Cullen’s however drive nice vehicles, wear more fashionable clothing and live in a very expensive house. They listen to classical music and their house is decorated with expensive art.

These dynamics are not what are central to the plot, but they are important subplots that speak volumes about how we see poor, working class minorities and people of privilege. I would argue that these messages are just as relevant and can have as much influence with audiences as the messages about relationships and sexuality, even if they are not part of the discourse on popular culture.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Kate Wheeler permalink
    July 5, 2010 8:31 pm

    Great comments, Jeff. I’ve been disturbed by aspects of this series as well, but you’ve really nailed some of the most disturbing elements. I hadn’t realized that the author is a Mormon, but it makes perfect sense in the portrayal of males and females.

    I think it’s also interesting to look at the popularity of vampire stories in a socio-political context. The first introduction of these stories in a widespread way was during the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the bourgeoisie. Some literary critics believe that the emergence of a middle class participating in capitalism for the first time in history created a society in which working people felt at the mercy of forces that they were unable to understand–e.g., how the wealthy were manipulating this new system for their own gains. So a literature that stressed the unexplainable, the anxiety-producing, and a sense of being locked into a nightmare from which you could not awaken captured the zeitgeist of the era.

    When Bram Stoker published “Dracula” in 1897, a new kind of economic problem–the result of an increasing capitalist-based economy–was in play. This is a familiar scenario to us today but at the time, the world had only experienced a few events of this type prior to the 1890s: There had been a widespread “panic” in the early to mid-1890s in both the U.S. and Europe. Huge investments in railroad futures burst, much like the housing bubble today, and people were left penniless. Those who were not attempting to participate in the capitalist economy to the degree of playing the market, such as farmers, were unable to avoid the consequences. They became unable to move and sell crops and experienced an inability to pay their post-harvest debts. Runs on banks created waves of financial collapse, and there was no insurance on deposits. Over 500 banks in the U.S. failed. And the American unemployment rate rose to a staggering 19 percent.

    When Anne Rice introduced her vampire series in America in 1976, the year of the bicentennial, the U.S. was again in a serious recession…food prices were skyrocketing with about a 9 percent inflation rate…and unemployment rates were also about 9 percent. Her books caused a big revival in interest in the original Dracula stories as well as in the characters that she created. The stories reflected an anxiety that the country was feeling, just as in the earlier periods where these stories were incredibly popular.

    And now, with a decade-long “recession” that’s really a Depression, and with unemployment rates even higher; with people losing housing and access to medical care and secure food while corporations keep raising prices on everything from utilities to medical care, it’s no wonder that the same intense interest in these stories exist.

    Vampire literature and other Gothic-related stories are almost like a thermometer of the times; rather than pouring their anger and anxiety into action, people retreat into nightmarish fantasies that mirror their own terrified feelings about their powerlessness in real life.

  2. July 6, 2010 12:09 am

    Kate, thanks for the feedback and further discussion on this topic. You raise important points that we need to discuss openly, since the vampire craze is all around us. A great book that tackles this subject is called “Pretend We’re Dead: Capitalist Monsters in American Pop Culture.” http://www.dukeupress.edu/Catalog/ViewProduct.php?productid=3602 We have the book at the Bloom Collective and it is worth reading.

  3. Kate Wheeler permalink
    July 6, 2010 2:28 am

    This book looks fascinating. I’d never heard of it. Thanks!

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