From Harlequin to Horror? Pandering to the Post-Modern Female

For fans of the fiscally fascinating literary works of one Stephenie Meyer, the week of 16 November, 2012 will go down in double your ridiculous RomComDram pleasure history. You see, this is the week that Bill Condon unleashes his wholly unnecessary second half to the already under-baked and underwhelming Breaking Dawn, otherwise known as Bella and Edward kick Volturi butt, otherwise known as the final installment in the insipid, uninspired, Anne Rice should still sue series known as Twilight. As the usual unwed and sick of soccer suspects line up to give the Cullens and those shirtless Native American werewolf counterparts a slobbering sultry goodbye, the studio shills have been waiting in the wings, busy prepping the next wannabe phenom, another mangled Meyer’s work about alien invasion and post pre-pubescent love.

That’s right, no sooner are we done with the sparkly ridiculousness of the entire vampire lover routine than The Host arrives, in less than tempting trailer form. The movie, like Invasion of the Body Snatchers as imagined by Abercrombie and Fitch, offers a young girl (the deserves much better Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan) who fights against her soul-inhabiting extraterrestrial ‘thing’ to stay connected with the rest of humanity, and some hunky bland boy toy (Max Irons, son of Jeremy). From the Wikipedia outline of the novel, it appears that our heroine, Melanie Stryder, has an ongoing internal monologue with her problematic space parasite (known as “Wanderer”) battling against her emotions and memories while walking a fine line between enemy of the remaining real people and spy for her cosmic counterparts.

Of course, the trailer offers nothing even remotely close to this. Instead, we see Melanie and her pseudo-stud Jared hugging it out, making mancow eyes at each other while a voice over offers up the apocalyptic levels of their love. Heck, all Edward and Bella have to deal with is a thirst for blood and eternity as mopey Emo kids. For this new genre pairing, the fate of our very planet is in their pulsating hormones. Yes, there is a bit of action, as when Ms. Ronan revisits her ass kicking alter ego ala Hanna, and we get a bit of specious sci-fi exposition, but for the most part, the preview purposefully puts our lovers front and center, making sure we don’t miss the link between Ms. Meyer, her previous paramours, and the mountains of money both have made in the name of genre-hopping love.

All of which raises an interesting point – mainly, is the target audience for this non-clever claptrap (read: women and their gender counterparts) really that desperate for ridiculous, nonrealistic romance? As my wife points out, Twilight and The Host are really no worse than the junk manufactured for pennies on the word by Harlequin et. al., but the last time I checked, those well worn paperback labels were pandering to the stereotypical fantasy (pirates, rich men, the prince, the bad boy), not various members of the Monster Squad. What is it about the creatures of the night (and now, slick supermodels from outer space) that get the girls all hot and bothered? Or better still, why aren’t they responding in kind to authentic depictions of love and caring as part of the celluloid set-up?

Well, the latter part of that question indicates the disconnect. Currently, a Hollywood idea of romance is either placed in one of two pathetic cinematic categories: (1) the ridiculous – and easy to ridicule – slapstick romp and/or (2) the syrupy, saccharine slice of maudlin manipulation. Either the female leads are tripping over each other and the set design like Mary, Flo, and Cindy or they are dying from some mysterious brain cloud that causes them to find men with muscled chests more appealing than finding a cure. There is almost always a villainous equal, someone Hellbent on making sure Mr. and Mrs. Right don’t become Mr. and Mrs. Right Now, and a last act plot twists that takes us out of one genre and cements us firmly into another (action, thriller, mystery, etc.).

Instead of Romantic Comedies were both elements are treated equitably and fairly (see: Annie Hall), one or the other is overemphasized to the detriment of both. So, in Ms. Meyer’s case, it seems plausible to remove categorical tags like “Comedy” and “Drama” and insert “Horror” or “Science Fiction.” Granted, this leads to a lot of specious possibilities (like the tale of a woman who falls for the reanimated zombie corpse of her long dead lover, etc.) and yet, within the context of our current culture, it seems perfectly plausible. Sure, vampires have long been the bastion of pent up Puritan sexuality, their neck nibbling and hypnotic gaze a mere symbol for something simmering under Victorian sheets, but the concept hasn’t stopped there. In Twilight, Jacob is a forlorn lycanthrope. Now, in The Host, we have love sick space slugs.

For the more sophisticated in the readership, this must all sound like noise in service of nonsense. There have always been tales of beauty beset by beast and morals revolving around judging books by their inner workings, not their callous covers. It’s the fairy story transmogrified into something more clued in and contemporary. But with both Twilight and now The Host, the fantastical element seems almost ancillary. Turn Edward Cullen from a vampire to a misunderstood man hiding the secret of his royal lineage and you’ve got the same old stuff…and now, with boundary pushing bunkum like 50 Shades of Gray, we’re even reverting back to the days of gussied up ersatz porn. Apparently, the commercial appeal of such material makes its current cache all the more valuable. What it says about the audience, however, is far more distracting than any bottom line.