Is Twilight Prejudiced?
Is racism a major theme in Twilight?
Posted November 17, 2011
I was recently honored with the opportunity to write a chapter for the edited book The Psychology of Twilight, along with several other esteemed Psychology Today bloggers. I highly recommend the book for anyone with an interest in the Twilight series. Many fascinating topics are explored in the book, but because my research is concerned with stereotypes and prejudice, I decided to focus my chapter on one particular question: Is Twilight prejudiced?
In my chapter, I explored four major themes in prejudice research that are also a central feature of the Twilight series. Below is an excerpt from my essay discussing one of these themes:
When we think of prejudice, blatant examples of discrimination typically come to mind (e.g., slavery, school segregation, women prohibited from voting). Thankfully, such explicit demonstrations are largely behind America. But that does not mean prejudice is extinct. Instead, prejudice has simply gone underground.
Modern prejudice tends to be more camouflaged and subtle. For example, a newspaper covering the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina printed a photo of two white survivors wading in the water, dragging food from a grocery store. The photo caption described the couple as "finding" the food. Conversely, that same newspaper also printed a photo of a young black man dragging groceries through the water, and that caption described him as "looting" the store. This subtle difference in language implies an underlying stereotype that black men are criminals.
Because modern prejudice is less obvious, it tends to work its magic on us from behind the scenes. This unconscious prejudice influences us in ways that are outside our conscious awareness, a concept psychologists refer to as "implicit prejudice." While we may intend to be fair and treat everyone equally, underneath our awareness, our minds automatically make connections and apply stereotypes to those around us. For example, researcher Keith Payne demonstrated that people automatically associate Black men with weapons. This association is so strong that in studies where people are subliminally primed with Black male faces (meaning when they are shown the face so quickly they do not consciously realize what they saw), they are more likely to mistake a benign tool, like a wrench, for a handgun.
Another commonly studied automatic association is that white is good and black is bad. For example, in old Western movies and TV shows, we could easily distinguish the good guys from the bad guys by the color of their cowboy hats: good guys wore white hats (e.g., Roy Rogers, the Lone Ranger) and bad guys wore black. Similarly, many of our fairy tales contain the stereotypic image of the "white knight" or prince charming riding up on a white horse (or Richard Gere riding up in a white limousine at the end of Pretty Woman).
Researchers who recently examined this association confirmed that most Americans do automatically associate white with goodness and virtue and black with badness and sin. In an experiment testing this idea, Gerald Clore and colleagues presented people with a series of words and asked them to quickly identify if the word was positive (e.g., gentle) or negative (e.g., sloppy). Some words were presented in white lettering, while others were presented in black lettering. The researchers found that people were much quicker at labeling positive words when they were presented in white lettering and labeling negative words when they were presented in black lettering. However, when the lettering color was switched (e.g., negative words with white lettering), they took much longer to respond. Because we tend to assume that "white equals good," it is harder for us to label a negative word as bad when it is written in a "good" color. This also explains why we refer to a harmless lie as "white lie" or dangerous magic as "black magic."
Why do we imbue certain colors with moral meaning? Some believe this association stems from a fundamental fear of the unknown. White is associated with the day, whereas black is associated with the night. During the day, we can easily see what the world looks like around us, but when it is night and the world is covered in blackness, we never know what lurks in the shadows. So white is comforting and predictable, but black is mysterious, frightening, and dangerous.
Others instead believe this association stems from a fundamental and ancient fear of dirt and contagion that has been deeply wired into our human brains. Think of the commonly used phrase "pure as new fallen snow." Not only is freshly fallen snow pure and untouched, it is also white. White is often used to convey cleanliness (e.g., a doctor's white coat) and virtue (e.g., in Western cultures, wedding dresses are traditionally white). So not only is white a color, it is a metaphor for purity.
How does this link between colors and morality relate to the topic of prejudice? It is easy to see how this strongly held assumption that white is good and black is bad might translate into an assumption about skin color. Someone who holds such stereotypes about white and black colors may also be likely to believe that white skinned people are beautiful and pure, and that dark skinned people are ugly and dangerous. Such beliefs hark back to a day when America had a "one-drop rule" regarding racial definitions-even one drop of African blood was enough to label an individual as Black. The reasoning was that one drop of Black blood was enough to "taint" an otherwise "pure" White lineage.
And it is not just white individuals who hold this belief that light skin is preferable to dark skin. A number of scholars have discussed the skin color bias that exists within African-American culture. In a well-known study conducted by Clark and Clark in the 1940s, young black girls given a choice between playing with a white doll or a black doll typically chose the white doll. These girls also described the color white as "good" and "pretty" and described the color black as "bad" and "ugly." And it doesn't look like things have improved much since this study was conducted. Despite the "Black is Beautiful" cultural movement that started in the 1960s, a recent replication of the Clark study in 2006 produced nearly identical results to the original.
Because African Americans are raised in a society full of biases and stereotypes, they are often just as likely as Caucasians to internalize such beliefs and discriminate against those who have darker skin. In the Clark and Clark study, when the young black girls were asked to fill in a human outline with the color of their own skin, they often chose a lighter shade color than was accurate, suggesting an implicit desire that their skin be lighter. And evidence of this desire to have lighter skin can also be seen in other countries. For instance, women from Asia, Africa, and Latin America often go to great lengths to lighten their skin, using harmful chemicals and bleaching products in their quest for beauty and acceptance.
So how does this "white equals good" theme relate to Twilight? Well, in most tales, vampires are associated with black and darkness, depicted as "creatures of the night" that skulk in the shadows and dress in black from head to toe. What makes Stephenie Meyer's take on the vampire so unique is that she instead associates the vampire with white and light.
When we are introduced to Edward Cullen in the first book, he has pale skin, but unlike classic vampire incarnations, Edward's paleness is beautiful rather than sickly. It is described to the reader as flawless and is likened in quality to alabaster. In Bella's eyes, he is the epitome of purity and perfect beauty, "like a mirage, too beautiful to be real" (Twilight). Later, when Edward reveals himself to Bella in the sunlight, we learn how truly beautiful his skin is: "His skin, white despite the faint flush from yesterday's hunting trip, literally sparkled, like thousands of tiny diamonds were embedded in the surface . . . A perfect statue, carved in some unknown stone, smooth like marble, glittering like crystal." And later, when Bella is hurt, she even mistakes Edward for an angel, the ultimate symbol of virtue. Just as we would expect from Clore's research, the character most associated with the color white (Edward) is also the character most strongly associated with beauty, perfection, and virtue.
But Edward is not alone in his perfection. The other members of the Cullen clan also are described in idyllic terms-possessing impossible beauty, perfectly shaped bodies, and marble-like pale skin. Based on everything our culture has taught us about vampires, our initial reaction when we first meet these characters should be to fear them. Instead, Stephenie Meyer's use of such imagery capitalizes on the reader's already entrenched association that white is good. It is simple math: if white equals good, and vampires equal white, then it must be that vampires equal good.
So if Edward and his fellow vampires represent the "white equals good" association, who in the Twilight Saga represents the "black equals bad" association? The evidence suggests that the best candidate would be the werewolves, but here, too, Stephenie Meyer is creative in her use of this association.
First, consider the juxtaposition between Edward and Jacob. Whereas Edward has pure white skin, Jacob is Native American and therefore is described as having dark features: copper skin, black hair, and dark eyes. Not only does Jacob have dark skin, his last name, Black, clearly associates him with darkness rather than light.
Although Jacob does not necessarily represent badness or evil, he is described in a way that suggests he is more associated with dark than light. For example, immediately after Bella meets Jacob on the beach in the first book, she has a nightmare. In the dream, Bella is in the forest, trying to find sunlight, and Jacob suddenly appears, tugging on her hand and pulling her "back toward the blackest part of the forest" (Twilight). Bella fights against him, saying she doesn't "want to go into the dark," and rips free of his grip. Jacob then falls to the ground, shaking and twitching, and disappears. In his place appears a large wolf with black eyes that growls between its exposed fangs. Although one could argue that Jacob was growling to protect, rather than harm, Bella, what it clear is that Bella's first impression of Jacob seems much darker and more negative than her first impression of Edward.
Secondly, consider the character of Sam Uley. He is an even better example than Jacob of how the werewolves represent the "black equals bad" association. Like Jacob, Sam is Native American and has dark skin and dark hair. However, the description of Sam's wolf form is even more telling. Jacob and the other clansmen have brown or red fur, but Sam has dark, black fur.
In Eclipse, we learn that the wolf's physical appearance is a reflection of what the man inside is like. By making Sam's fur black, Meyer tells the reader that Sam is the blackest of the black creatures. Quil Ateara says it best when he states, "So that's why Sam is all black . . . Black heart, black fur." In addition to his appearance, Sam also has dark sides to his personality. The best example is when Sam lost his temper in front of his wife, Emily, accidentally attacking her and permanently scarring her arm and face. And in Breaking Dawn, Sam is the werewolf who, after learning Bella is pregnant with Edward's child, decides that Bella and her unborn child must be killed.
However, Stephenie Meyer does not use wide brush strokes when painting her characters; they are more complex than simple stereotypes. Just as there are good and bad vampires, there are also good and bad werewolves. And just as she takes the classic idea that vampires are associated with darkness and turns it on its head, so too does she play with the idea that black is associated with badness. As previously discussed, black is typically associated with night, fear, and coldness, and white is associated with day, light, and warmth. Instead, Meyer's story makes white (vampires) cold and detached and black (werewolves) warm and protective. Although Jacob is clearly linked to the color black, and there are some negative qualities about him and werewolves in general that are consistent with that association, he is also depicted as a loving, warm, protective figure in Bella's life.
So, in some places, Meyer reinforces the common associations between white and black. But in other places, she breaks these stereotypes, forcing the reader to think and feel more deeply about the characters.