New Moon -- old stereotypes?

Of all the battles Native American communities have been compelled to fight to preserve their heritage and dignity, their most unlikely and unexpected foes have now become the most well-known in popular culture: Vampires, and the Hollywood studios who love them.

The Summit Entertainment cinematic release “New Moon” is easily the blockbuster film event of the year (and perhaps the Century). Set in the traditional lands of the Quileute Nation near Forks, Washington, it continues the “Twilight” saga of vampires who interact uneasily with local mortals and the members of the Native community. In the series, the Quileute people have been imbued by the film’s writers with an interesting genetic trait. Having evidently descended from wolves, they are able to shape-shift back to their animal form when required for fighting vampires.

The first instance of shape-shifting actually occurred during the film’s casting process, when a teen heartthrob of German/Dutch ancestry named Taylor Lautner was given the leading role of Quileute hero Jacob Black. This continues a long Hollywood tradition of using “He Looks Native” actors in place of genuine Tribal members. Going back to the days of the oligarchic studio system, it was common for filmmakers to use dark make-up on white actors (or even to employ Asian-Americans) to play the roles of Native Americans. New Moon’s producers did however cast some Native actors in supporting roles in both this film and its predecessor Twilight, for which they deserve a measure of credit relative to their peers.

New Moon also dusts off another traditional Hollywood stereotype: the interracial romance. True to form, the Indigenous male plays the role of forbidden suitor to the nervous-yet-intrigued Caucasian female. In the film, the “Native” Jacob is smitten with and pursues the fair-skinned Bella (Kristen Stewart) – who resists because she is already committed to the “So-White-He-Sparkles” vampire Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson). Nevertheless, Bella finds herself drawn to Jacob’s longing affections – particularly after he saves her from a vampire who happens to have even darker skin than he does. Jacob spends a good portion of the film without a shirt, in accordance with the longstanding cinematic stereotype that Indigenous people like to forego clothes – even in chilly Forks, which has nearly the highest annual rainfall on the continent. Alas, Jacob and Bella’s powerful but tortuous attraction to each other cannot truly be requited – because unlike those of Native communities, the cultural traditions of Hollywood must be respected.

Perhaps the most troubling issue with New Moon and the entire Twilight series is the use of the wolf as the basis for Quileute identity. The Quileute people do not even have a wolf myth in their cultural lexicon – although other Tribes such as the Seneca and Cherokee do. In New Moon, when members of the Tribe come under stress or confront a significant challenge, their common reaction is to morph from a sentient human being into a feral beast whose favored mode of behavior is bloody violence. The audience can understandably view this as a message sent from the film’s writers, consciously or unconsciously, that when it comes to Native Americans: “Deep down, they’re really just wild animals.” Despite its cultural boorishness, New Moon will most certainly reap untold millions of dollars in profits at the box office. It will be interesting to see what portion of this wealth the film’s writers and producers contribute back to the Native Americans who provided the “human” element for their success.

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Comments (13) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
Derrick - November 20, 2009 1:17 PM

"(perhaps the Century)"? Ever heard of Harry Potter?

First off. I'm Native. Born and raised on a reservation in Minnesota. I'm 26 and i enjoy this series. I would also be the first to put them on blast if they hit a nerve in stereotypes or any other negative depiction.

But most of this blog was uncalled for. You rip into it trying to raise matters that aren't entirely there.

"Having evidently descended from wolves, they are able to shape-shift back to their animal form when required for fighting vampires." That's only a part of it. They transform into wolves to protect their homeland to and protect people from being bit. The Vampires are incredibly strong and quick. No person could defeat them. The wolfpack can.

Lautner is Potawatomi. He claims it. What more do you need? A tribal ID? please. And yes, all the other actors are Natives too. Heck, even Graham Green jumped on the ship.

Please read the book. The author explains why Jacob does not have a shirt or much clothes. His body temp is 108 and he is constantly hot. (It's a wolf thing). The Vampires, by contrast, are freezing cold.

The clothes are ripped apart each time they turn into a wolf unless they actually take them off first. But they don't cause it's usually heat of the moment transformation. The author explains in the book that they tie a small piece of rope to their calf to drag their pants. Because once they transform back they're naked.

The last graph is the only part that has merit. Maybe you should have focused on that angle.

Finally, this is a teenage romance series. I give the author kudos for adding Natives to her story. She didn't have to. And she does it quite well unlike many others before her in either books, movies or TV.

Jacob is a Native boy becoming a man. He falls in love with a girl, who happens to be white.

Try not to look at as another miss by a white author. Instead, look at is an author bringing Native people into pop culture. Many, many young people across the country will see Native people, especially young Native males, in a different light.

PrettyAndWitty - November 21, 2009 8:22 AM

Agreed ^^^^^^^^^

ericka - November 21, 2009 1:43 PM

Pretty and Witty, you said it PERFECTLY!!!! I think the book explains everything and is very sensitive to Native people, I think the film's director just didn't completely capture that in the film, but it is great to see Native people in such a blockbuster film, and not in a normal stereotypical way, you get to see more of their human emotions and that is a great thing. I don't know when i've seen that many Native people in one film together!!!! Let's celebrate the good in this film, Hollywood will always be dominated by the ever so delicate white women and their stories, but with more exposure and star power these actors can gain control and make their own love stories one day :)

Concerned - November 21, 2009 3:17 PM

The commenters who say "Read the book, it's better" are missing the point. The film is a stand-alone work and needs to be judged on its own merits - or lack thereof. More people will see the film than read the book, so its impact on cultural consciousness will be greater. Also, since Hollywood decides what kind of films to make based on which films make money, we're likely to get more of the same stereotypes after New Moon pulls in millions of dollars.

"This is a teenage romance series". That's exactly the problem - these films are aimed at young people who are still forming their worldviews. The images and portrayals they see on screen have a definite impact on how they view other people in real life, much more so than adults. That's why these subtle stereotypes are so dangerous.

"It is great to see Native people in such a blockbuster film". Really? Is that really the best we can hope for in 2009? We can't ask for dignified representations, we should just be satisfied that Native people are merely in the film? Here's a fact - the longer you're willing to tolerate undignified treatment, the longer you're going to get it. There's no reason Native people need to lay down and accept negative stereotypes, and everyone has a right to call it what it is when they see it and demand better.

Lorraine - November 23, 2009 5:39 AM

This is ridiculous. It's just a book/movie series. This article seems like a waste of space. If someone actually responded to this by making more presumptions towards the movie being "racist" then we minus well look at every movie that has a native american in it, and start accusing. I'm native, and don't think anything of the sort. I'm also twilight's biggest fan, also a taylor lautner fan. go team jacob.

Yes We Can - November 23, 2009 8:23 AM

I wonder how many of the people who are defending Twilight/New Moon have ever experienced discrimination in their own lives, or thought about where discrimination orignates. Racism and stereotyping are not genetic, they are learned behaviors that develop during a person's socialization process. People aren't born with discriminatory attitudes, they pick them up by watching their parents, teachers, role models, and yes - movies and TV. It's fine to enjoy films like New Moon for entertanment, but we should watch movies like this with our "eyes open" and understand the role they play in shaping people's attitudes.

ESM - November 26, 2009 12:54 PM

First, saying read the book when discussing the merits of a movie is laughingly irrelevant. If the movie fails to provide information and depth regarding its Native characters that is a major problem.

Second, it doesn't matter if the movie is a blockbuster, if no one went to see these movies would the criticism still resonate? The writer passed that test with flying colors. Furthermore, Guedel does give credit to the film makers for their inclusion of Natives at all. Some of you obviously missed that in your rush to defend the Twilight series.

Derrick addressed the weakest part of Guedel's argument which appears to be his challenge to the Indian heritage of the actors.

I found this on Indianz.com:

Film director Chris Weitz said he wanted to make sure he cast Native actors in New Moon, the sequel to the popular Twilight vampire movie.

"They had to have papers that proved their heritage," Welz told USA Today. "And they had to be in good physical shape."

I'm not Native so I can't speak on what amount of Native ancestry is appropriate to represent Natives in popular culture.

However, Guedel correctly alludes to the long continuous history of Hollywood discrimination in casting actors based on skin color in interracial stories, e.g, darker skin ethnic actors have little to no shot of being the love interest of a white actress, or even the protaganist..they are buddies, bad guys and mysterious strangers.

It takes education on the subject to even have the awareness to make these observations. As an African-American, I'm turned off by the New Moon trailer that features a dreadlocked black guy threatening the abandoned white princess (with rape and death?) only to have her saved by the studly lighter hero. I'm guessing most of you missed that.

Many of you need to open your eyes and do some research on discrimination in popular culture. Or not be so quick to be thankful for Hollywood's crumbs.

Justice - November 29, 2009 2:20 PM

Don't forget the stereotype of Native men being chauvinist and domestic abusers. Sam, The leader of the "wolfpack", horribly scars his fiancee because "he just lost it for a second". Of course, she stays with him anyway, because to Hollywood all Native women are docile and submissive, and if you abuse them they'll just take it. She seems to wear her scars as a badge of honor. Jacob even tells Bella he might hurt her because the "Quileute Wolves" can't control their tempers. The producers of the movie should donate their millions to domestic abuse charities, since they clearly need to gain awareness of the negative messages they sent with this film.

Jerry Fortune - December 10, 2009 6:22 AM

Hummm! very good comments on here. I would have to agree with concerned and Yes we can. We as American Indians as EMS put it, have gotten the crumbs of everything that we have taken part in whether it be movies, tv or what ever. Yes, there are some who have made it big but how long did it last? where are they now? I have a problem with the film industry who uses none Indians to protray Indians bottom line. I can't comment much on this sequel cause I haven't seen it, I do know it's amimed at the younger generation and Yes We Can said it all in he/she's comment.

Erica - December 23, 2009 8:36 AM

I embrace the idea of seeing more diversity on the big screen. However, from a legal standpoint, I'm confused as to why Native Americans were given the roles for the wolf packs. Race is never a bona fide qualification. Was the wolf pack casted based on whether they were Native Americans? (Of course they would also have to be able to act.)Can anyone shed light on this?

Will Blackhawk - December 28, 2009 12:53 PM

I went to see New Moon a few weeks ago and thought it was entertaining, but did feel like the Natives were put at the back of the bus so to speak. I felt that Jacob portraying a Native guy was getting the "lets just be friends" attitude. It was like he was not good enough for Bella because she was white. I guess it hit a soft spot in me, lol! I really would have like to see more full bloods (Natives) with speaking roles. I know Graham Greene had lines but he is an established actor and had a heart attack or something in the movie don't know if he will pull thru to the next movie. That Native girlfriend of the leader of the pack was hot looking. I do think Hollywood will continue to do what they want to do. I did like the comments posted on both sides of the issue. Being 4/4 Native these are just what I felt watching the movie. But it was a good movie with an open mind.

chiara2 - January 13, 2010 9:09 AM

"So white he sparkles"?? He's a vampire - he's supposed to be pale (although, true, that doesn't explain the black Laurent).

Yeah, I'd have rather seen a native in the role of Jacob as well, and can think of a lot of young, handsome and definitely hunky native actors who would have fit the bill. The wolf pack was native in the book; they should have been all native in the film. As for the "native women are submissive" - oh please, you're just nitpicking now, the white girl goes around the world to pitifully chase after the vampire who dumped her, so that's not a valid complaint.

Lee - March 19, 2015 11:26 AM

Taylor Lautner has Ottawa and Potawatomi on his mother's side. All of the characters who shape shift into wolves are either portrayed by actors and actresses who are either Native Americans or who, like Lautner, have Native American ancestry. Among them are Graham Greene and Gil Birmingham.

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