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What do vampires tell us about who we are?

November 25, 2009

“More than our heroes or pundits, our Draculas tell us who we were.” Nina Auerbach, Our Vampires, Ourselves, p. 112

If our vampires indeed tell us a great deal about who we are, and I think they do, what is the current vampire craze telling us about ourselves and our culture? From Twilight to True Blood to Vampire Diaries, as well as to the forthcoming films Daybreakers and Transylmania, vampires (and the people who love them) are everywhere.

Some of our fascinations are obvious. Many date back to before Count Dracula: the vampire as symbol of immortality, otherness, power, horror, sexuality, and the forbidden.

The vampire is ultimately more like us than other monsters – more human and thus more enmeshed with our own fantasies and fears about the human condition.

Contemporary vampires reveal our enduring fascination with romance, sexuality, and desire. Yet, our feelings about these arenas have changed with certain cracks in the fissures of monogamous heteronormativity. Even Twilight, the most chaste of the works mentioned above, toys with the idea that we can (and should) love more than one person (and love sex). This suggestion seems rather radical for one written by a Mormon and even more so when we acknowledge that it is the female character who is the central desiring subject – it is her wants that shape the narrative. In a flip of real world polygamy practiced by some branches of Mormonism, Bella, the female protagonist, desires multiple partners. The imprinting strand of the narrative (as well as the chaste Edward) reverses this subversive idea though – safely re-assuring the ‘normal’ one woman/one man paradigm.

True Blood more radically toys with the idea of non-monogamous, non-heterosexual desire. Yet, it too places a female as the key desiring subject. Like Twilight, it also chips away at various gendered norms – suggesting that Buffy was not an anomaly but that women too are strong, smart, desiring heroes. Each of these vampire tales also trouble masculine norms – breaking open the macho gender box to reveal that men have feelings, fears, vulnerabilities, and insecurities.

And, while the beauty imperative forced on women’s shoulders is not deconstructed in these contemporary vampire texts, the male gaze is at least partially undercut. The female gaze is acknowledged with male vampires serving as quasi-dream men, their bodies as closely surveyed and as on display as has been the norm for female bodies for centuries. While equal opportunity objectification is not the goal, the recognition and acceptance of female visual/aesthetic pleasure makes a nice change.

Further, visual pleasure is queered to a certain extent in some modern stories of the undead. Though there are no openly gay characters in Twilight, True Blood’s inclusion of non-heteronormative characters as well as its allusions to vampires as a minority that share oppressions with homosexuals revives the queer roots of vampire lore. Carmilla and Count Dracula were not hyper-monogamous heterosexuals like the Cullens – rather, they revealed that desire is not gendered – we only make it so.

Modern vampires also tell us a great deal about our love/hate relationship with wealth, capitalism, imperialism, and religion. They thwart power at the same time as they wield and desire it. Twilight’s vampires live an opulent life complete with mansions, fast cars, and designer clothes. Most of the vampires in True Blood and The Vampire Diaries are not short on wealth either. The fantasy life where money is no object is certainly appealing during these unstable economic times. Yet, these texts ultimate explorations of the haves and have-nots, of us/them, of self/other also suggest that such hierarchical dichotomies mean there will always be an uncomfortable outside. Being working class is no fun in the vampire world, nor is the lack of white privilege. While on the one hand these narratives render privilege very desirable, on the other hand, they reveal that privileged classes (vampires) disempower and oppress other groups – literally sucking the life blood out of those who don’t have such privilege.

Another area of contemporary concern these texts tap into is pandemics and the fear that surrounds the idea of infection. While vampire stories of the 80s and 90s often more obviously referenced AIDS, our current vampire tales tread more lightly through their exploration of illness and dis-ease.  More often they explore addiction, hinting that a culture based on consumption (whether the human consumption of products or the vampire consumption of blood) leads to a life of imprisonment – a life of being beholden to what one is addicted to consuming. Though Twilight romanticizes Edward’s addiction to Bella’s blood, we can also read this addiction as harmful – not only to the characters themselves, but to the fans who become Twilight zombies, lurching towards the next Edward/Jacob fix. In True Blood, the exploration of drug dependency takes on a more complex form, revealing the links between addiction, dehumanization, dependency, and violence. The Vampire Diaries explores addiction as well. Like the other texts though, it shows being addicted to love (while dangerous) is ultimately ok. As such, all of these texts ultimately reinforce the idea that as long as you find your true (vampire) love, all will be well in the end. True Blood most radically troubles this fairy tale meme, but even it suggests that Sookie needs her Bill.

The real life spin off of this focus on the happily ever after of the white, heterosexual, monogamous couple spills into the real world via the ongoing fascination over allegations that Rob Pattinson and Kristen Stewart are really lovers. And, in a fictional spill into reality, Anna Paquin (Sookie) and Stephen Moyer (Bill) are engaged.

Thus, while our current vampire fascination reveals we are more open to non-normative notions of sexuality, desire, gender, visual pleasure and privilege, it also confirms we are still hopelessly devoted to romantic, sexual love. Is this the irreducible difference that scholars have explored so long – that all of us, at our core, really just want ‘the one’? I think not. Rather, the obsessive focus on true love as what brings us ultimate happiness constructs us as beings who are addicted to love – and, to a notion of love that is utterly impossible – one that is eternal, immortal, and sparkly.

Why love, though? Why create a world of people seeking their Edward/Bill/Eric/Jacob/Stefan or Sookie/Bella/Elena? Well, love is rather safe when you think about it – encouraging the masses to desire desire will keep the wheels running as they are – if the masses were instead encouraged to desire social change, wealth equality, racial equality, sexual equality, etc, well, the world would have to change quite a bit. Keep ‘em in love with love and you’ve got a captive audience of consumers who will buy your stories, your products, your fictions so that you can keep on keepin’ on with your global militaristic imperialism. Sorry to be a Debbie Downer at the end of this post, but methinks we need some politicized vampires to balance out all those hot, hard, muscular ones…

10 Comments leave one →
  1. Courtney permalink
    November 29, 2009 3:12 am

    And now The Man will thrill at the knowledge that I am delving single-mindedly into the creation of a (yes, moderately blasphemous) 100 chapter, Bolívar-as-vampire story.

    You’re right– we really are addicted to romantic love. I hope there can be a Reformation of how we see and express our true desires, at some point, and that we could learn to follow those desires even as they go off the beaten path. Who knows– Twilight could be the catalyst for someone to recognize their own fantasy and desire and assign it some importance. That would be a step in the right direction for those of us who tend to suppress our desire. And yep– the next step will be political domination. ;)

    Also, I really do love this blog.

    • natalie wilson permalink*
      November 29, 2009 8:05 pm

      Courtney,
      Thanks for your comment.
      I like your positive attitude — I too think we can glean positive messages from the series and its popularity — unlike the naysayers. In fact, just published a new piece refuting the claim made at Wired that Twilight teaches only unfortunate lessons to girls.
      So glad you like the blog!

  2. Louis permalink
    December 8, 2009 2:22 am

    Very interesting blog, do you by any chance study human geography?

  3. Louis permalink
    December 8, 2009 6:59 pm

    Many of the issues you raise are relevant to human geography, for example othering. I am currently studying a module on “monstrous geographies” that examines the creation of monsters in society and how monsters can show us the fears an anxieties of the age that they were created within. With the introduction of a ‘moral’ vampire its a shame that Twilight reinforces many of the stereotypes that such a vampire in this day and age could be used by the author to fight against.

    • natalie wilson permalink*
      December 10, 2009 8:23 pm

      Louis,
      Very interesting!
      I find monster studies so interesting (did my dissertation on monsters and the grotesque).
      Yes, I agree that Meyer’s “moral vampires” actually promote many immoral power hierarchies/ideologies!
      Any interest in writing a guest post on “monstrous geography” and Twilight? Be in touch if so!

      • Louis permalink
        December 11, 2009 7:43 pm

        Natalie, thanks for the invitation but I have my own dissertation to wright along with some other projects at the moment! Have you read the book, “Our Vampires, Ourselves” by Nina Auerbach, if not read some reviews I think you might find it interesting. I like your list of female Vampires I was going to ask if you have seen Let the Right One In until i saw it on that list. Could you recommend your favorite vampire film with a leading female vampire since I need 3 films in total for my upcoming essay? Thankyou!

      • natalie wilson permalink*
        December 23, 2009 10:12 pm

        Sorry for the delayed reply Louis!
        Yes, I really like the Auerbach book you mention.
        As for vampire films with female leads, I like The Hunger and Near Dark.

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