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
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 (as 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.