Bella Swan, an empty and recently un-loved vessel, wanders into the woods and straight into the loving arms of a future werewolf, Jacob Black. He’s a native American teenage boy. In her naivety, Bella assumes that the wolf is no threat to her, even when he transforms into a monster right before her eyes. Hundreds of years earlier, Little Red Riding Hood, a tender morsel, wanders alone into the woods, and in her naivety, accidentally slips down into the slobbering jaws of the big bad wolf: “She met the wolf; but as she did not know what a bad sort of animal he was, she did not feel frightened.” Little Red Riding Hood is a story that teaches girls to see wolves (men) as a perpetual source of danger. The question that girls are left with is, which men should we fear? Male predators are not as easy to determine as canine ones, so how can we distinguish between the wolves and the huntsmen? This classic fairytale perpetuates the damaging rhetoric that it is a girl’s responsibility to stay ‘on the path’ to avoid being hunted, but it is made even worse by its retelling in New Moon. Author Stephanie Meyers introduces deeply embedded racism to this already problematic tale, by answering the question of which men should be feared with a racialized wolf.
The Twilight series, as hated as it may be in popular discourse today, was important and popular not even ten years ago. As an excited twelve-year-old, I tore into New Moon, and I’m embarrassed to admit, I rooted for Jacob in all of his creepy possessiveness. I watched the movie with girlfriends; I imagined undying romance and participating in the delicious love-triangle that it would help to popularize. It was the first depiction of female desire I ever read. It was the first wildly popular book series to come out in my lifetime that had a female protagonist, and was written by a female author. The New Moon movie grossed $7 million in the United States when it came out. Clearly, something about a girl and some monsters in the woods captured the imaginations of many pre-teens, particularly girls. It was only on re-reading New Moon as an adult that I realized how deeply troubling it is. This book came out only twelve years ago, and at the time nobody took issue with its depictions of gender and race. The novel depicts women as empty vessels, meaningless and void without men. It does something even more disturbing with men of colour, who are simultaneously sexualized and demonized, which suggests that while they may be attractive to white women, they’re ultimately dangerous, inferior and wild; the novel insists that these men are the true big bad wolves.
The introduction of werewolves to the Twilight series in New Moon establishes that not all monsters are created equal. The vampires are ancient, perfect, graceful and strong. They are also white. “Their skin was precisely the same pale shade, their eyes had the same strange golden tint, with the same deep, bruise-like shadows beneath them.” Vampires have money and power. They are doctors, they go to universities, they play classical instruments and learn European languages. All of these practices are conflated with whiteness, and so is their perfection and startling beauty. They are monsters, but they are also kind and forgivable, white monsters.
The ‘others’ are the werewolves, who are also explicitly racialized. “The bright teeth standing in vivid contrast to the deep russet color of his skin. I’d never seen his hair out of its usual ponytail before. It fell like black satin curtains on either side of his broad face.” The word “russet” is used twelve times in the novel, not only to describe Native American skin colour, but also the colour of the wolf’s fur. Jacob’s skin colour is the visual marker that defines him in Bella’s human descriptions, and it is also essential in recognizing him when he is in his monstrous form. Thus the Native Americans in the novel are rendered inextricably wolf; it’s part of their heritage—their race. They are destined to be wild from birth because it is in their DNA to transform, whereas the vampires are only made monstrous when one chooses to ‘turn’ a human into one of them. The distinction is important because the vampires are not predetermined by nature, but are instead created by circumstance. Their monstrosity is a choice, something they can fight off and overcome if they wish. While the vampires were once human, the werewolves never were; they have monstrosity lurking in their blood from birth. The vampires are rational if occasionally bloodthirsty, but the werewolves are hot-tempered, violent and adolescent by nature.
Nature as it is imagined in New Moon is threatening, a place where monsters lurk and Bella is repeatedly injured. Even before the Native Americans are made monstrous, they are closely associated with this type of imagined nature. They live on the outskirts of town, they go cliff-diving and hiking. Nature is more closely linked to them than it is to the white characters. It offers Bella a place to be reckless, and so does her relationship with Jacob. Feeling empty (and how could a woman not, when abandoned by her man?) Bella attempts to feel alive again through encounters with the wild, accessible to her through Jacob. Bella’s feelings of intrigue and danger while she is with him are perhaps the same ones Little Red felt, when she first encountered a wolf in the woods. Jacob is threatening before he ever becomes a werewolf because he allows Bella to be reckless in nature, and the threat to Bella’s safety continues to grow the closer they become.
Before Jacob transforms, he and Bella observe the werewolf pack from the outside, thinking that it is a fanatical facet of Jacob’s tribe. The novel reimagines the idea of tribe through Bella and Jacob’s encounter with the pack, and thus tribal culture is made monstrous. Before his DNA forces his transformation, Jacob describes the pack as a cult, with the young men brainwashed and mindless. “They’re all about our land and tribe pride… it’s getting ridiculous. The worst part is the Council takes them seriously.” Jacob’s disdain for Native Americans wanting to protect their own land is never questioned by Bella or by the narrative. It is a given that demanding rights is ‘ridiculous’ and that these claims should not be taken seriously. Jacob doesn’t want to be part of the cultish pack, which suggests that wanting to be part of a tribe and to take action against injustice is monstrous rather than rational. However, for Jacob this desire is also inevitable; it is in his nature to eventually make ‘ridiculous’ demands about land. He cannot escape his tribe, his race, or his monstrosity.
When Jacob transforms, we learn that the pack members are not allowed to rebel against the alpha’s commands. They hear thoughts and know each other’s emotions telepathically, as one mind. The novel does not present this connection as male bonding, brotherhood or empathy, but rather suggests that members of the pack are individually thoughtless. The novel asserts that living in a tribe means that everyone thinks the same way, has no privacy, and is essentially brainwashed. In a tribe, violence and recklessness also become a part of life. “They were snapping and tearing at each other, their sharp teeth flashing toward each other’s throats.” It is in the werewolves’ nature to have random outbursts of fury, which go unchecked by the alpha. This inevitable and even sanctioned violence makes them more threatening than the vampires.
Not only are the wolves violent, they are also sexualized. Jacob is often subject to the female gaze as a sexual object. “He’d passed the point where the soft muscles of childhood hardened into the solid, lanky build or a teenager; the tendons and veins had become prominent under the red-brown of his arms, his hands.” While Bella does not want a romantic relationship with Jacob, she is aware of his body and how attractive he is. Her inability to view him romantically, though she sexualizes him, suggests that there is another barrier to their relationship. It would seem that as a ‘pale’ girl, the novel asserts that Bella is ‘destined’ to be with other ‘pale’ people—the vampires. Even Bella and Jacob’s last names suggest that they are at opposite ends of a spectrum, destined to be kept apart. Jacob’s last name is Black and Bella’s last name is Swan, a very white feminine creature. They are othered from each other, unable to cross this barrier. Yet the novel continues to sexualize Jacob and the other werewolves; their clothes come flying off every time they transform, and they have to walk around half-naked and shoeless. Their nakedness upholds the old rhetoric that men of colour are uncivilized and closer to a nature that is dark and threatening. While this type of entanglement may be an exciting diversion for white women, the novel insists that it is a dangerous one.
Jacob is not the first POC to threaten a white woman, and the idea that interracial relationships are dangerous can be traced back to Shakespeare. In the play Othello, a man of colour and a white woman elope, much to the dismay of the community. What the woman doesn’t know is that there is monstrosity lurking in her husband’s blood: violent rage and jealousy that is easily teased out by the play’s antagonist. Violence and jealousy are in Othello’s nature, they are inevitable– his tragic flaws. In the end, Othello strangles his wife in their bed because he believes she has been unfaithful. The play could be read as a warning against the perils of jealousy, entirely separate from race, however the image of a male POC standing over the lifeless form of his pure, saintly white wife still remains stark in popular imagination. The fear that men of colour will steal and harm white women can be traced through all kinds of literature and lands in Jacob the wolf. Bella is in even worse danger with him than with the vampires because like other male POC in literature, he has monstrosity in his blood, and with the right triggers he will inevitably harm her.
It could be argued that Bella and Jacob’s friendship ultimately traverses racial boundaries, suggesting that there is only ever equality between them through their platonic friendship. Jacob is not entirely dehumanized because he is important to Bella and they have mutual love. However, their relationship is incredibly dysfunctional and damaging. Bella uses Jacob as an inferior substitute for her ‘true love.’ He is closer to nature and so closer to danger, which she craves, and he graciously overlooks her lack of personality and moroseness, remaining bizarrely in awe of her. Jacob doesn’t take no for an answer. He is threatening, because he desires Bella and doesn’t care that she doesn’t want to be in a romantic relationship with him. He becomes jealous over her other male friends, and is possessive of her body. This possessiveness is particularly apparent in the end, when the pack declares that if Bella is bitten it will mean war. Bella and Jacob’s friendship is overshadowed by the fact that Bella belongs more with the vampires as a white person, and that Jacob’s nature is threatening and irrational.
The wolf pack is threatening to women, more so than the vampires are, even if those vampires intend on biting Bella, and have the constant urge to kill her. The werewolves are worse. Bella meets Emily, a woman whose face has been ravaged by her husband’s wolfish outburst. “The right side of her face was scarred from hairline to chin by three thick, red lines, livid in color though they were long healed.” Like the big bad wolf, the werewolves are specifically threatening to women as the recipients of their uncontrollable rage. It is not dangerous for the werewolves to attack and bite each other, or other men; it is only Bella and the other women who could become seriously injured by them. The idea that victimhood belongs solely to women is rooted in fairytales, we learn that in childhood. Women who are curious, ignorant or unafraid will be hurt.
In the end, Little Red Riding Hood is saved by the Huntsman, and Bella is saved by her reunion with Edward. Had they never reconciled she might have ended up with Jacob, the violent ‘other’ who could never measure up to the ‘pale’ perfection of Edward. Jacob and the pack are rough, adolescent and inferior, and these qualities are intertwined with their race. Thus, this novel upholds white superiority, and discourages romantic entanglements with the dangerous bodies of ‘others’.
Some books are irredeemable. Some books should only be read as historical documents, revealing how strange American culture used to be, and still is. This book came out a little over ten years ago, but perhaps it should be put into the vault for good.