Way back when I was a college professor (i.e. last month) I felt it was beneficial to keep up with pop culture references for a few reasons: (1) so I’d have a broader frame of reference from which to pull relevant examples that I could use to explain things to my students; (2) because I think it made me a wee bit cooler in the eyes of some students who came to college with the assumption that professors, as a condition of employment, had to be ignorant of what “the kids these days” were in to; and (3) because I’m kind of a fan of lots of pop culture and the teacher thing gave me a good excuse for watching cheese-tastic movies and t.v., reading trashy teen novels, and knowing who Justin Bieber was.
So there’s all this vampire stuff going on lately. And by “all this” I’m referring specifically to Twilight, The Vampire Diaries and the Sookie Stackhouse chronicles and their videotic manifestations. The popularity of vampires in culture is certainly not a new phenomenon, but there seems to be a resurgence lately for some reason. I’m not confident enough in my analytical abilities to be able to provide an entirely valid explanation of the cultural conditions that have spawned this resurgence, but I find it interesting.
Here’s where my info is coming from: I’ve watched True Blood on HBO, Vampire Diaries on the CW, and though I regret it and feel slightly embarrassed about it, I saw the first movie in the Twilight series. I recently read Charlaine Harris’s Dead Until Dark, the first book in the Sookie Stackhouse series and the basis for the first season of True Blood. I haven’t read any of the books by L.J. Smith or Stephanie Meyer that were the basis for Vampire Diaries and Twilight, respectively. I’ve also spent far too much otherwise-potentially productive time reading articles, blogs, wiki posts and reviews of all these things online. I don’t claim to be a vampire pop culture scholar (and, yes, there are people out there who do make that claim).
Here are a few things I’ve noticed about these three recent manifestations (and the novels they’re based on):
1. apparently, most male vampires are have great abs and great bone structure. They look, as Stephanie Meyer wrote of Edward, “like an underwear model.” That is, the heterosexual vampires anyway. The only gay vampires I’m familiar with come from the True Blood series and they seem to be fat and/or fashion-challenged.
2. The Civil War is important for some reason. Bill Compton and Jasper Cullen were both confederate soldiers and the Salvatore brothers were both “made” during the Civil War. The Southern-ness of these characters allows their authors to cash in on a number of deeply ingrained popular perceptions, e.g. the “Southern Gentleman” stereotype, the Southern Gothic darkness, and a strong connection to a genteel, romantic vision of the past that persists despite the bloody, violent reality that ended it.
3. Vampires tend to hang out in the same places as shape-shifters (e.g. Jacob in Twi, Sam in TB, Tyler in VD) and chicks with special powers (e.g. Bonnie the witch in VD, Sookie the telepath and Maryann the meanad in TB, and Twilight’s Alice Cullen, who was clairvoyant even before she was turned.)
4. All three stories hinge on that rarest, most improbable breed: the sexy, gentlemanly vampire with a heart of gold who wants to overcome his bloodlust to protect our beautiful, mortal heroine. And sure, he goes a little crazy sometimes and he has a bad habit of killing people, but deep down, you know, he’s really a good guy. Bill, Stefan, and Edward are total dream-dates for virginal young girls.
5. There’s a non-democratic government and hierarchy in these worlds: actual monarchies in True Blood and Twilight and an oligarchy of sorts in Vampire Diaries where the “founding families” of the town rule.
6. Powerful apotropaic objects proliferate. Apotropaics, for those of you without a dictionary handy, are more or less ordinary objects that appear to have magical, often protective powers. These are common in traditional vampire folklore; garlic and silver, for instance are common apotropaics found in old vampire stories. Interestingly, many of the most common apotropaics are religious items in most vampire lore, e.g. a crucifix, a rosary, holy water. Bill in True Blood, however, makes a point of demonstrating that he’s not scared by crosses; and none of these religious items bother the vamps in the Twilight books. There are other things in each of these stories, though, that have powers. The vamps in Vampire Diaries have special rings that allow them to walk around in daylight, but they’re weakened by the herb “vervain,” which is also called Devil’s Bane. Sookie and Elena both put on necklaces that protect them (silver for Sookie, a vervain-filled amulet for Elena).
7. Certain characters turn black when they appear on film. In the books, Twilight’s Laurent, VD’s Bonnie, and Sookie’s friend Tara all have dark-hair and olive-toned skin; their filmed counterparts are African-Americans. Hmmm.
8. Parents are troublesome or non-existant. Elena’s parents and Sookie’s parents are all dead before the plots of VD and TB begin; Bella’s mom is an irresponsible knuckle-head who remarries and sends Bella off to live with her depressed, loner dad. The vampires in Twilight have a bizarre psuedo-family relationship with Carlisle as the daddy; Daddy Vamp turned Edward originally cuz he was lonely and wanted a companion then turned Esme and married her. Creepy. The Salvatore brothers were sons of a member of Mystic Falls founding family; he was a vampire hunter; Stefan killed him. Meanwhile, in the Vampire Diaries world, Tyler Lockwood’s dad is the mayor…and he’s abusive, and he’s a werewolf; Matt and Vickie Donovan’s mom is an unrepentant, irresponsible slut.
So, if we consider all these things cumulatively, it’s fairly easy to see why teenaged girls dig these stories, right? We have the quintessential dreamboat boyfriend in each of these stories—super hot, very strong, always ready to protect you from stuff, and, most of all, desperate to sink his, um…teeth…into you and make you bleed, but able to control that impulse…until you give him permission. You live in a fairy-tale reality with royalty and magic and multi-cultural friends. You’re okay with religion, but not all crazy about it, and your boyfriend’s okay with it, too. You get special jewelry, you get to stay out late and have exciting adventures in the middle of the night, and your parents don’t really exert much control over you. Sweet!
Well, I mean, teenaged girls and a certain subset of gay men. Oh, and moms who, as fans of Sex and The City wish they were still teenaged girls or gay men.
(Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course.)
And, when compared to zombie stories (which I think are popular for an entirely different reason deserving of its own, separate blog post), all these stories are focalized through the perspective of the young heroine. It’s her world we’re in and it’s her point of view we follow. She can be an active protagonist dealing with all the drama and the vampire-folk are exciting characters in her story. (Another blog post could be about how Buffy is so different from these recent manifestations of vampire mania.) In zombie stories, we side with the people trying to kill the stupid, ugly undead. In these recent vampire stories, we see the world through the wide eyes of the young girl who wants to be able to take care of herself, but who can’t really do it without the help of her sexy vampire boyfriend.
What new flavor of feminism is this?