That’s What Vampires Are For

Sarah Seltzer

Even in the movie adaptation, Twilight's basic storyline -- "I won't bite you, it's for your own good" -- can't be changed.

Teen vampire flick and pop-culture
juggernaut Twilight, like Mama Mia! and Sex and the
City
before it, shattered
records
this weekend
and made female moviegoers hard to ignore. 

Twilight is far from
a feminist triumph, though: it’s been interpreted by more writers than this one as a purity allegory perfectly tailored
for a (hopefully fading) era of abstinence-hype and hand-wringing about
"hook-up culture." With a heroine who yearns to both be ravished
and
bitten, and a hero loath to rob her of either soul or virginity,
the Twilight plot arc sells a pseudo-empowering fantasy (men
as the sexual and moral gatekeepers, leaving women free to express their
desires) while wholeheartedly embracing patriarchal norms. 

The film somewhat mitigates
the book’s rabid antifeminist message, providing more room to chuckle at the smoldering pouts of its young
protagonists (whether that campiness was intended is unclear) and downplaying
the extent to which human Bella’s singular fixation with vampire hunk
Edward precludes everything else. But the basic storyline of "I won’t
bite you, it’s for your own good" can’t be changed. It’s the
core of the tale. 

Putting a Stake in Victorian
Mores

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This not the first time vampires
in pop culture have been a perfect expression of the currents and anxieties
of their time. In fact, one might argue that that is their purpose.  

With immortality, a killer
instinct, and a life on the fringes, Vampires are a perfect conduit
for musings on the human condition.  "Vampires have long served
to remind us of the parts of our own psyches that seduce us," writes Salon’s Laura Miller (in a superb
analysis of the Twilight books). But the metaphor is often less
existential than that, as the vampire bite is easy shorthand for sex.
Vampirism allows consumers to take vicarious pleasure in rule-breaking
couplings, while also justifying phobias about sex-because the seducers
do
have lethal fangs, and their condition is quite contagious. 

Bram Stoker’s Dracula,
the most prominent sire of today’s fictive undead, was a repository
of post-Victorian fears: syphilis and shifting gender roles. Thus the
book is full of bizarre sexualized imagery that equates gender-bending
with evil. Hero Jonathan gets attacked and nearly bitten by a gang of
wanton vampiresses. Lucy, an ill-fated flirt, juggles three suitors;
by story’s end all three of them must stake the undead Lucy in a scene
that critics compare to a gang rape. Mina, the less transgressive woman
in the story, is forced to drink blood from a wound in Dracula’s chest,
a reverse-breastfeeding image that emphasizes the feminine qualities
of the Count.  

The entire book feels like
a last gasp of Victorian purity–as well as an anticipation of the
sexual revolution that was around the corner. It’s probably no coincidence
that the first film
version
of Dracula
was a huge hit just as the Depression ushered out the Jazz Age and its
socio-sexual upheaval.

Vampires in the Modern Era 

Indeed, pop culture vampires
have always adapted to rapidly shifting sexual politics. A film remake of Dracula in the late 1970s
(starring Frank Langella) gave the Count a real romance with Lucy, no
longer a doomed Edwardian flirt but instead an independent woman. In
her history
of vampires
, Nina
Auerbach describes this new Lucy as "everything a feminist vampire
should be. Her romance with Frank Langella could be one of the swoonier
inserts in Ms. Magazine. He loves her strength and self-assertion…" 

Anne Rice’s beloved vampire
hero Lestat (in books from the 70s onward) is
a rule-breaking iconoclast (even a rock star) whose lack of gender preference
when it comes to victims and vampire companions give bisexuality that
familiar terror-and-titillation combination. In the 1994 film adaptation of Interview With the
Vampire
, more than a few reviewers noted the AIDS metaphors now found
in a story conceived before the disease was known. 

In the 1990s we had Buffy, a kick-ass vampire-slayer struggling
both to save the world and grow up–all while wearing hip, form-fitting
outfits. She’s the embodiment of the third wave feminist ideal, and
the field of feminist
criticism
of Buffy
is an intensely crowded one.  Her very human struggles to "do
it all," rid the world of demons, take care of her friends and family,
and maybe meet a nice soulful vampire, interrogated the limitations
of the "girl power" mantra and gave the world a truly multi-dimensional
heroine. Buffy’s protracted love affairs with two male vampires-Angel
and Spike-range from sublime to abusive to egalitarian, reflecting
the complex dynamics of sex and power in the modern world. 

Today we have the HBO series True Blood, whose lusty vampires have started
drinking fake blood, and are struggling for social and political equality.
Comparisons to both racial and sexual civil rights battles are unavoidable,
but the fact that some members of this oppressed minority don’t want
their rights–they just want to eat humans–complicates the metaphor. 

And then there’s Twilight.
If Buffy was the teen vamp tale of the Clinton years, Twilight
is definitively its equivalent for the Bush era. Rather than kicking
ass, Twilight’s Bella stumbles into danger, excusing her vampire-love-interest
Edward’s creepy protectiveness. Sigh. 

It’s unfortunate that the
story, like the past decade has been, is so old-school. But before we
feminists concern-troll Twilight‘s besotted teenage
fans, let’s remember this: the part of the formula that appeals so
widely is not the story’s morality, but rather its adolescent hunger.
It’s the sexual budding, the fraught glances across the cafeteria,
the craving to be singled out, and in Dana Stevens’ words "the grandiosity that can make self-destructive
decisions feel somehow divinely fated." It’s teenagedom. Edward
gives younger girls a chance to express their nascent desires en
masse
, loudly.  

Just as Dracula‘s
reactionary plotlines failed to bring back Victorian mores, Twilight‘s
unfortunate gender roles will join abstinence-only on the trash heap
of history. Some of its screaming young fans will grow up to be sexually
empowered, some won’t, and some won’t end up fancying men (dead
or undead) at all. But they’ll all share the fact that Twilight’s
dangerous liaison turned them on. And that’s what Vampires, even sparkly ones, are for.

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