by Special Correspondent Wendi Muse
Most people talk about the fans. They are typically teenage girls screaming, crying, fainting at the sight of the pallid Robert Pattinson (who plays the Byronic hero Edward Cullen, a vampire who strives to avoid his bloodthirsty desires for the sake of preserving humanity). Now with the post-pubescent buffing up of another of the film’s protagonists, Jacob Black, a werewolf of indigenous heritage whose newfound strengths provide him with the ability to preserve a treaty to quell violence between the werewolves and vampires (played by Taylor Lautner), there’s a new boy on the block for inducing total fan chaos. But with the onslaught of abs and a new love interest for Bella Swan (the pathetic protagonist and central female love interest played by Kristen Stewart), there is a recycling of roles for actors of color that are far from new.
If anything, the title itself adds an ironic twist to a tale that spirals into a stereotypical narrative to which we are all well-conditioned by now, both in films and other more readily-available media in our every day lives. Have you ever heard something along the lines of “dating someone who is [insert ethnic/racial group] ok, but you’d better not marry one!” or “Native Americans are so in touch with nature!”? Have you ever seen a film or tv show that relegated the person of color as the trusty sidekick, loyal friend, or temporary romantic plaything, only then to have the white hero enter in medias res and get all the praise and attention? Have you ever seen a piece from an ad campaign or historical policy discussions in which non-white people are portrayed as animalistic, in both their behavior, thought processes, and athletic ability? Have you, as a person of color, or if you are not, any of your POC friends, ever complained of feeling that their societal value was reduced to their physical appearance or a specific body part?
If you answered “yes” to any of the above, you have already seen New Moon.
I saw Twilight right before my return to the United States in July. My students had been chiming in on the constant refrain of “Teacher, you HAVE TO SEE IT!” that surrounded Twilight both in my classrooms and on blogs based in the States. I did not understand all the hype, but as a means of connecting with my students and not completely loosing my footing on the mountain that is American pop culture, I saw it (on my computer, for free, mind you) and actually enjoyed it. I was surprised by the fact that I, too, had been charmed by the allure of the glitter vamps and the romantic tale that unfolded from their presence in Forks (the northwestern town where all the magic happens). The movie was typical boy-meets-girl teenage fare, with the addition of mystery, rejection, and the little problem of the main love interests not being “right” for each other (in this case, because one of the parties is no longer human or alive in the technical sense).
In having seen Twilight, I felt the madness needed to continue. So on Monday night, with a little help from the internet and a pirate film site, I saw New Moon from the comfort of my home. Let’s just say I’m glad I didn’t drop the $12.50 and leave the house. The film was slow, the only action being choreographed quasi-violence and a lot of pining away for lost love. To summarize (spoiler alert!!!!!), Edward, as a means of aiding his family in their attempt at secrecy (people in Forks begin to put two and two together about Mr. Cullen’s seeming inability to age), moves away. With the email addresses, screen names, and cell phone numbers of her boyfriend and his family now defunct, Bella goes into a state of emotional catatonia, only to be awakened by occasional risky behavior (before which she always sees Edward’s hologram presence as a warning) and a motorcycle repair project with her trusty friend Jacob. In their growing closeness, and with the help of an amazing muscular growth spurt, Jacob becomes Bella’s back pocket boyfriend, except that there’s a tiny catch. Jacob and his family aren’t quite human in the technical sense either. They are shapeshifters with short tempers who turn into enormous wolves when provoked. Their main source of provocation? VAMPIRES! How fitting.
Edward later returns after a long period of hiatus (thanks to Bella who, despite having a caring, trustworthy, friendly, and ripped quasi-boyfriend Jacob, still goes after her old flame and his sister Alice, who had a clairvoyant vision of Bella cliff diving, and assuming it was suicide, told Edward she was dead) and Bella, now intent upon being turned into a vampire so she can be forever united with Edward without looking like a “cougar” as she grows old and he remains physically 17, basically dumps Jacob like a hot potato. Jacob, however, reminds Edward and Co. that if he or anyone bites a human, the treaty between vampires and werewolves in the region will be broken, and the vampire hunting werewolves with strike again to protect everyone.
How’s that for excitement?
But beyond all the drama, there is a story that we have seen played out countless times in every other movie, tv show, etc. that decides to employ a character of color, only to put them on time out when the fun really begins. Despite being abandoned by her (technically) dead boyfriend, Bella, in true masochistic form, continues to go after him, even though living and breathing Jacob is a better choice for a beau. Not only is he charismatic, attractive, and fun, he can protect Bella too, which seems to be at the crux of her very existence. Playing the damsel in distress is Bella’s forte, so Jacob could fit the bill as a boyfriend who would suit her most important need. Yet his big character flaw, beyond actually being interested in Bella, is the fact that he’s not white.
Yes, poor Jacob, as “beautiful” (Bella’s words) and awesome as he may be, is one of the Quileute, an indigenous group of the northern Pacific coast. While it’s not explicitly stated in the film that this is the reason Bella doesn’t continue the relationship with Jacob, any audience member who knows a little bit about American film already knows quite well that it’s a rare case when a main character of color, especially if surrounded by other main characters who are white, actually succeeds in the end and remains a romantic interest.
In terms of the other characters of color in the film…well…that’s a bit harder. The only other ones present are a) the other members of the Quileute, the main focus being the young boys going through the man-to-wolf initiation process, b) a black vampire named Laurent who is actually a villain and whom the werewolves later kill, and c) a few of Bella’s classmates who, in this film, are practically absent through the entire 2 hours.
I haven’t read the books of the Twilight series, and don’t intend to, but I am curious as to what happens next. I’m hoping that somewhere in the subsequent films, there will be a more positive and less-stereotypical outcome for the characters of color.