Learning From Vampires

High Stakes Vampire Literature

by Elaine Schnabel

26 February 2012


Here’s my dirty little secret: I like Twilight.

That said, I was never really into the vampire craze, and 500-page rhapsodies to true and blood-based love (I am speaking of Breaking Dawn and the ilk) make me sick. So my even dirtier secret is that for the past week I’ve been ensconced in a show called The Vampire Diaries.

Stake me now.

Outside of campy entertainment I will never advocate the show, but the vampire craze is worth a second look. For one thing, every civilization of every age has been drawn to the myth. As Bella’s unprofitable Google search back in 2003 proved, there are thousands of variations on the vampire theme: stakes, sunlight, coffins, fangs, mirrors, blood consumption, holy water, exorcisms, crucifix allergies, and so on. From Hebrew demonology to Madagascar’s ramenga (who eat the toenail clippings of nobles!), it’s clear that humans have always been fascinated by blood-suckers.

If that’s not disturbing enough, look at the vampire myths from a gender perspective. The central theme of VampLit is the strong (and beautiful and centuries-old smart) male vs. the weak, virginal female. Many variations—I would place Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire among them—nearly ignore the romantic relationship between a vampire man and a human woman. They often focus instead on religious themes. Is the vampire damned or not? What is the point of this nearly immortal life?

Then there was a brief reclamation of the vampire myth for female empowerment in Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake. But ever since Twilight, vampire retellings have harkened (sometimes disturbingly for the feminists among us) back to the sexism of Bram Stoker’s original.

Myriad angry articles are out there about Bella Swan’s domestic side—love of doing laundry and cooking—and endearing clumsiness juxtaposed to Edward Cullen’s emotionally abusive tendencies. But there’s no reason to discuss those as you could look up the definition of “imbroglio” on your own.

The recent surge in vampire stories displays a hunger in our society for the stability often found in traditional gender roles. Stephenie Meyer’s Mormonism has drawn a lot of heat from critics of the book, but her portrayal of Edward and Bella’s relationship has undeniable appeal to women. Recent social changes have created a void where once we had carefully defined functions. Men were men by assuming such roles as dedicated employee, faithful husband, loving father. Women were women by becoming competent and loving housewives and tender mothers who always have an after-school snack prepared for their children.

But today it’s more complicated than that: a person’s assumption of certain roles no longer defines his or her masculinity or femininity. With divorce rates skyrocketing and sex outside of marriage no longer considered fornication by the average citizen, a wedding and subsequent family life is no longer a given. The current fluidity this has caused in society leaves men and women noticeably lost, bouncing from partner to partner, comfortable but unhappy with the idea that love is relevant and sex is meaningless.

This is where the vampires come in.

The romance part of current VampLit it is old news. For nearly every period in history, romance novels have outsold (by the millions) and thus supported the literature of publishing houses. Women always have and, if book sales are anything to judge by, always will enjoy reading about their ideal man, picturing themselves as the idealized woman.

But using VampLit as the pattern by which masculinity and femininity are now being measured by women this is what we find: the ideal man is beautiful and brooding, impossibly strong, but just as impossibly sweet. He is the perfect boyfriend: willing—torturing himself—to listen. And he’s a vampire—so fast and strong that no human—man or woman—could conceivably compete.

This is the important detail.

There’s nothing wrong with the female heroines of these novels. (Get off Bella’s back, women. Not everyone is coordinated, nor is there anything extraordinarily anti-feminist about a girl who likes to cook and hang around the home reading literature.) In fact, these girls are often extraordinary in some way. But they are human and are therefore dependent on their vampire boyfriend: dependent on them to protect them from other vampires and inform them about vampire-y things. Fantastically-contrived dependence: female leads are still modern, independent women, as strong as a human (man or woman) can be expected to be, and yet there is someone on whom she can and must always rely on to protect her and must listen to because she can’t be expected to know the details of the vampire world. He is her manly provider.

One of the most common complaints about these vampire love stories is how quickly the characters declare their love and their intention to be together forever. Within hours—days maybe—fate has arranged their relationship thus that no man or plot contrivance (the impossibly sweet Jacob Black included) could ever separate them. An arranged marriage, in other words: a marriage wherein she—sweet and supportive—depends on him, and he—reliable, attentive, and faithful—actually is dependable.

These contrivances harkens back to traditional female roles in a way that has not gone unnoticed. However, the vampire love story isn’t about putting women back in “their place,” but about bringing relationships back to a different time period, when men knew how to be manly and women knew how to be womanly. When there were rules and a structure and something more than relativism.

Fiction has provided the arena wherein reality can be manipulated so that this more traditionalist dynamic in a relationship can exist while both characters maintain their status in modern society. Edward may be whipped, but he’s still hot and could take any guy in the school who might dare. Bella might be totally dependent on her vampire for love and safety, but she’s still Bella—smart, quirky, and intensely loyal to her family and friends.
Vampire literature is an attempt to give women some cake and let them eat it, too.

And yet, hunger doesn’t begin to describe the way women all across the age spectrum lusted after Meyer’s “bizarrely moral” Edward Cullen. And that is because Edward is (forgive me) exactly their brand of heroin. He wants Bella. He is inexorably drawn to her: not only sexually and vampirically, but—perhaps most importantly—mentally. Bella is the only human whose mind he can’t read. We can all write that off as a stupid plot-contrivance (and, believe me, I know it is), but it’s important in understanding what women want.  Not someone who can read her mind, but someone who wants to. Perhaps that’s why Stephan and Elena (a la The Vampire Diaries) fall flat for me. He doesn’t thirst for her thoughts the way Edward did with Bella, and Elena doesn’t have half of Bella’s mind.

Stephenie Meyer had her finger on the pulse of what women want far more than Mel Gibson ever could have. Women want to be listened to, to be interesting, to be wanted, so there’s Jacob Black and maybe even the hapless Mike Newton. But women also want—desperately—to have someone to rely on without being weak. So there’s Edward Cullen, who is impossibly older and stronger than Bella Swan. Where the fantastical contrivance falls apart is that woman want someone to depend upon—not necessarily be dependent on. There is a difference, and I believe that difference is impossible to show in VampLit and is therefore the crux of the misunderstanding revolving around the new vampire craze.

Interestingly, Bella (and most female leads in VampLit) cannot depend on her human girlfriends. Even more interesting is that the male vampire often does have a brother or a coven on which he can rely. Much is made about the isolation of adolescent boys in our society, but the isolation of the adolescent female is intense as well, and if the age-spectrum of Twilight’s audience is anything on which to judge, it doesn’t end with pimples. It appears that modern women view modern men as Edward is—isolated in his own thoughts, but always supported by other men. But they identify with Bella—alone and searching for someone who can keep up with them, support them.

Just like in VampLit, women aren’t looking for that support in other women, but in a man. Most have learned a long time ago—maybe when their best friend stopped talking to them because she was too popular for her, maybe when she “stole” the guy she liked—not to trust their girlfriends. Twilight critics can rage about how Bella ignores her friends for her new boyfriend, but I think it would be hard to deny that with or without Bella’s example, Girl World has been in trouble for a long time.

This feeling of isolation amidst the jungle of Girl World is another symptom of the uncertainty surrounding gender roles today. Men don’t know how to be men, and women don’t know how to be women. There’s no playbook anymore, no accepted standard. We’re leaving Leave It to Beaver behind to form a much more muddled society, some bad, some good. Equality for women in society and the workforce (while undeniably not yet reached), is a beautiful step in the right direction. But closely following on its heels is this confusion about roles in society.

The recent phenomenon of VampLit indicates dissatisfaction with this muddle. It indicates that women are looking for stability and reliability (not exactly breaking news), and also—more notably—that they might be willing to sacrifice quite a bit of independence for it. But if a woman doesn’t have a vampire—or at least a dependable someone who loves her unconditionally and thirsts for her thoughts—why would she sacrifice her cake for an apple?

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