Revolution #178, October 4, 2009

Wrestling with Twilight in Harlem

Revolution received the following correspondence:

We went out all week to some schools in Harlem, getting out the special middle school/high school issue of Revolution newspaper (#176, September 13, 2009) and the statement "The Revolution We Need... The Leadership We Have" (#170, July 19, 2009). One thing that was very controversial in the special issue was the "Dear Bella" letters. These letters from "Jay" were addressed to the main character in the Twilight books that have become a craze and obsession for millions of young women (70 million books have already been sold). Bella is in love with Edward, a vampire—and her attraction to him is based almost entirely on his intense, almost overwhelming desire to drink her blood and take her life. The Twilight film based on the book has the tagline: "If you could live forever what would you live for?" These books and the movie, which are so popular, reinforce the view that the answer to this question should be that the most important thing for women to live for is to be a good wife and mother; that this is what "true love" and "romance" is all about. In one letter to Bella, Jay writes: "I have no problems with human/vampire relationships. It’s just that I have a problem with relationships in which one partner dominates and controls the other."

By Thursday, quite a few students had gotten the special issue of Revolution and read the Bella letters and some had discussed it with us. So we decided to invite students to come discuss/debate Twilight and the "Dear Bella" letters in Revolution. That day, one student who had read the "Dear Bella" letters from Jay gave us her own "Dear Bella" letter. It said:

Dear Bella,

I used to think that Twilight was the best series I came across. I adored Edward. How protective and handsome he was, and how smooth and easygoing he seemed to be. I used to be so into the book that I even dreamed some parts of the story. You could say that I was in love with Edward. I was so into him that I wanted my very own Edward, one that would protect me and love me. I was blinded by his beauty and perfection and I didn’t notice or give thought to the things that matter.

Then, I came across Jay’s notes to you and I couldn’t help but react. (Sorry.) Those notes really got me thinking. I started to read them and each one opened my eyes even more. Until I was finally free from the blindness I had. I started to finally notice how controlling Edward really was and how he kept you monitored by Alice because he wanted to know every place you were every single second. I also started to notice how he kept you restrained from your friends. One was a family friend, Jacob Black. Edward used as an excuse; he loved you too much, that he could not loose you. When inside him, he was at battle from two sides, to kill you or not to.

Bella listen to Jay!

On Friday, as school is getting out, I set up a table in the park with a big sign: "Twilight Story—Liberation or Domination?" Four young Latinas from a nearby middle school stop. "Twilight!" one shouts. "Twilight Zone?" another asks. "No, the book, stupid." They all laugh.

I ask them if they have seen the "Dear Bella" letters. They step up to the table and start talking about why they like the Twilight books and movie. "It’s a good story." "It’s a good love story."

I ask them what they think about the relationship between Bella and Edward. One of them says, "They love each other... and he is protective of her."

I challenge this, pointing out some of the things in Jay’s letters to Bella—like how Edward tries to dominate and control Bella. Some of them argue back, "It’s just a story" or "It’s not real"—which doesn’t deal with the effect Twilight actually has on people’s thinking.... female and male. People start jumping into the discussion and there’s lots of back and forth. It becomes apparent that almost all of them have read the "Dear Bella" letters in Revolution.

I recognize D, a 15-year-old Black kid who had read the statement, "The Revolution We Need... The Leadership We Have," and talked with us earlier in the week. He steps up to the table, acknowledges me and starts listening in on the conversation. Soon three or four other guys join in and before long there are nine or ten people standing around the table discussing Twilight, oppression, emancipation, the liberation of women and what all this has to do with revolution and communism.

I ask people to step back for a moment. To not just think about the characters in Twilight, but think about the kind of society and social relations represented in the story. At this point, even those who want to defend Twilight have to admit that Edward does have the power to protect Bella from other men—that he tries to dominate and control her and uses his power to kill her. So... what kind of relationship is this? And is this good or bad that millions of young women are seeing this as an example of "true love"? One of the young women asks, "Are you saying this is like domestic violence?" A couple of others say they know of these kinds of relationships—where the girl loves the guy but is also afraid of him. I talk about the dominant social relations between men and women—and how this is a reflection of capitalist society, of class society.

The semi-circle closes in around the table as I hold up the special issue of Revolution #158,"A Declaration: For Women’s Liberation and the Emancipation of All Humanity" (March 8, 2009). I turn to the centerfold photographs of the terrible oppression women face all around the world. Sexual slavery in China. Sweatshops in Haiti. Women in U.S. prisons. Little girls in beauty pageants. Prostitutes in Mexico. A woman in Pakistan, another in the U.S., burned by their husbands.

The dozen young faces look and listen with deep concentration. None of them say a word as I describe the photographs. The young women are the first to speak about the beauty contests for little kids. They are disgusted. I flip the page to the Declaration and read the section that begins with, "Women need emancipation. Women need liberation from thousands of years of tradition’s chains." I ask if the portrayal of male/female relations in Twilight are based more on the vision from the centerfold... or on the vision in the Declaration. At least one young woman agrees with me, "No. It’s the opposite." What’s in Twilight is the opposite of what’s in the Declaration. Another says she basically agrees with what I’m saying and adds that this applies to how women are depicted in rap videos. But, she argues, what’s in Twilight is different. Before I’m able to respond, D interjects his question: "How will communism make things different between men and women?"

I start off by saying it is more than a dream that things can be different—that in fact, communist revolutions had been made before and achieved great things, including in the extremely important struggle to get rid of women’s oppression. I talk about the great strides made in socialist China (before the death of Mao Tsetung) in liberating women to be equal participants in the struggle to revolutionize society. I describe how before the revolution, many women in China had their feet bound (their foot bones crushed and tied up) because men considered this a sign of "beauty." The communist revolution put an end to this.

At this point, some who have been silent get drawn into the conversation. I ask them why they think such a hideous practice existed. We talk about what is considered "beautiful." I describe how peasants in China had to eke out a living working in the fields. The kids come to the conclusion that poor women would have to work in the field and probably wouldn’t have bound feet. One youth with discovery in his voice exclaims, "She can’t work [if her feet are bound]!" We work our way through this to the conclusion that foot binding was a status symbol for the men. It meant, "I have so much money my women don’t have to work." I bring up the old feudal, traditional saying in China that, "A woman married is like a pony bought, I can ride or whip her as I please." To this, one of the guys says, "That is fucked up."

D says, "I think there is a way to change this without communism." Okay, I say, we agree that the way things are is totally unacceptable, but we don’t agree what the root of the problem is and how to dig up those roots. I asked him to say what he thinks is the problem and the solution. He doesn’t offer an answer, even though he’s still not convinced that we have to get rid of capitalism. But he agrees to go to listen to Bob Avakian’s talk Revolution: Why It’s Necessary, Why It’s Possible, What It’s All About and come back next week with an answer.

The discussion has been going on for about a half hour. Before it ends, there is one last burst of opinion from one of the young women. She grabs her head with both her hands as if she is in agony and says, "Love it’s unexplainable. It makes you crazy. It makes you do things." Everybody laughs.

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