Twilight and Narratives of Immigration (Ten Years Later)

48141990.cachedWarning: this week’s post may have been produced under sleep-deprived conditions. It may or may not also have provoked me to revisit the series, and buy Stephanie Meyer’s gender-swapped anniversary edition of Twilight, entitled Life and Death

Part of my thesis deals with the overtly political aspect of monstrousness. When we make monsters, we often rely on aspects of politicised otherness (blackness, as with the Uruk-hai from The Lord of the Rings, or femininity, like in Species) to cue us in to the fact that these creatures are ‘evil’ or ‘unnatural’. More recently, in film, television, and other popular culture, we’ve used monsters for a completely different reason: to try and make immigrants cool again.

In the wake of the not-so-recent announcement that Twilight is getting a new instalment of sorts (in the form of six short films), I’ve been doing some thinking about the ups and downs of the franchise. Where does Twilight fit into the contemporary monster scene, particularly given its depictions of monstrosity and otherness?

You could safely say that I am not a Twilight fan, though I’ve read most of the novels and seen all the films. My bachelor’s thesis, entitled ‘The Horror of Dracula: Twilight and the 21st-Century Vampire’, looked at how Twilight and related tween vampire productions metaphorically de-fang traditional vampire narratives of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As a huge vampire fan growing up (the more evil the vampire the better), I found it difficult to connect with the new sparkly, vegetarian variety I was seeing everywhere. Like others, I worried that the days of the ‘real’ vampires were behind us.

So, so white. I feel like they're about to burst into song at any moment.
So, so white. I feel like they’re about to burst into coordinated song and dance at any moment.

A few years down the line, however, my attitude towards the Twilight franchise has mellowed. It may not represent my favourite kind of literature or film, but if nothing else the antics of its fans (and the slow death of Robert Pattison’s soul) have given me lots to think, talk, and write about. Twilight also spawned the hugely successful 50 Shades of Grey, which in turn led to a film adaptation that saw a massively successful opening weekend at the box office (if not with critics). Without this former fanfic, where would I turn for my go-to example of the commodification of amateur art?

Likewise, my attitude about the representation of race and foreignness in Twilight has shifted slightly in the face of my recent research into the role fan and audience response plays in the reception of a text. Don’t get me wrong, there are definitely many issues with the way gender, race (specifically people of colour), class, and sexuality are portrayed in the Twilight franchise. I see how Twilight, like many other contemporary cultural products, either ignores or openly mocks the many people who do not belong to the cultural majority.

These Amazonian vampires are just begging for some post-colonial deconstruction.
These Amazonian vampires are just begging for some post-colonial deconstruction.

Despite the whiteness of its main characters, however, the Twilight series also has a surprisingly tolerant stance on immigration and integration compared to most of the attitudes out there these days. In horror fiction, the vampire is also generally not very welcome in the country he or she decides to set up residence. At worst, the vampire is a bloodthirsty entrepreneur who wants to suck that country (and its inhabitants) dry. At best, the vampire does little more than leech off the people he meets and the economy that supports him. Neither is really the model citizen.

The Twilight series even has more than one model of the resident alien, and the multicultural government. There are the Native werewolves who quietly if doggedly (pun intended) stand by their traditions, protecting their land against antagonistic outsiders. You’ve got the Volturi, who are essentially a vampire mafia, and who, from their base in Rome, impose their own strict laws upon all vampires for the ‘greater good’. The final instalments of Twilight even feature the equivalent of a vampire United Nations, in which the free exchange of cultures and resources is portrayed in an unabashedly utopian light. Twilight (both book and film) certainly promotes many unhealthy stereotypes about the people of colour it depicts, but unfortunately the racial diversity of its characters and casting still puts much of contemporary entertainment to shame.

Vampires of the world, all gathered around the campfire like one big happy family.
Vampires of the world, all gathered around the campfire like one big happy family.

To me, however, the white, Western vampires in Twilight are also immigrants of a very specific sort. Though sometimes they segregates themselves from the culture of Forks, Edward and his family largely integrate. Edward and his vampire ‘siblings’ attend the local high school, his ‘father’ holds a respectable position as a doctor at the nearby hospital, and the Cullens regularly enjoy a game of baseball, the American pastime. If anything, Edward and his vampire family are frighteningly normal, not Other. Twilight’s vampire characters are all white, yes, but read from a certain perspective their whiteness is taken to an extreme that is arguably no longer identifiable with (or is even a caricature of) mainstream ‘whiteness’. Playing baseball, driving Volvos – are these things eighteenth-century Americans would have appreciated? Is it not terribly, temporally colonialist of the twenty-first century to assume that American hobbies and consumer values would remain inherently unchanged for hundreds of years?

This scene feels almost like it's as much torture for them as it is for us.
This scene feels like it’s as much torture for them as it is for us.

Do I think that this engagement with themes of immigration and integration makes up for the other flaws in the series? No.

Does this mean that the Twilight franchise represents a positive response to the typically racist and classist portrayals of vampires in fiction? I’m unconvinced. I do find it to be an interesting line of thought, however.

Do you agree? Are you also disturbed by the fact that the Twilight series is looking increasingly progressive in the light of current Western politics? Let me know in the comments.