So, vampires. I teach 'em. (And, may I add, for the record, that no fewer than three members of my flist did yesterday start their posts with "So, ...", which is probably expressive of something important, I'm not sure what.) I hasten to add, before you all obligingly imagine rows of little five-year-olds with pasty complexions and pointy teeth sitting attentively in a midnight classroom while I hold forth, I teach undergrad students about vampires rather than trying to teach vampires anything. (A bit difficult to maintain teacherly distance and mystique when pardon me
, your teeth are in my neck). Also, I teach vampires and the erotic to strictly third-years, who presumably by this stage of their development are capable of reacting sensibly and without giggling, or at least without too much giggling, to explicit discussions of sex and phallic imagery and Freudian what have you. In the course of this epic teaching quest, currently filed under Department of Things That Keep Me Sane, I naturally get to be very, very rude about Twilight
, and yesterday came to a quite sizzling and spontaneous insight which added about fifteen minutes to the lecture by way of digression and interesting debate. I shall now inflict it upon you, whether you like it or not.
See, in a broadly narrative sense vampires morph. They mutate. They are as all symbolic as all get-out, and thus are quite beautifully dense and layered reflections of their context - social, moral, historical, cultural. What vampires have mostly done for about two hundred years is provide us with powerful myths through which we can talk about sex, because the act of biting is a particularly explicit metaphor for sexual penetration, but the nature
of the sex has changed over time. They fill, if you want to keep with the Freudian imagery, gaps - they're about desire, and desire is about something missing. Victorian vampires explore sex and seduction and intimacy, in a relatively simple way, because sex and seduction and intimacy were not OK as topics of ordinary literary representation, but were OK when you slithered them off sideways into the symbolic. They were particularly powerful as a vehicle for women to vicariously experience sex, and for men to vicariously work through all their anxieties about homo-eroticism, or women nicking phallic authority. Victorian vampires rock some serious repression.
These are not the concerns of the late twentieth century, which got progressively more open-minded about representing sex; post the sexual revolution of the 60s and the feminist movement, simple sexual freedom or women with fangs were not the major source of anxiety. Which isn't to say there weren't anxieties, and the last few decades of the 1900s saw a huge upsurge in the popularity of vampires - often angsty, interior, half-sympathetic monsters of maximum attractiveness. They kept the vampire power, though, the qualities of strength, mind control, shapeshifting, and were thus a beautiful vehicle to talk about the aspect of sexuality which wasn't OK in these particular times, namely the pleasures of submission. In a feminist and post-feminist age it's somewhat frowned upon, other than in the fringe of BDSM, to enjoy the jolly old stereotypes of an explicitly heterosexual dominance/submission relationship: gosh your fangs are so big, I'll just relax and enjoy it, shall I? So more modern vampires are powerful, dominant, with a swing towards violence (Buffy
), but a subtext of seduction and desirability nonetheless. They're deeply non-PC in all sorts of ways, and we lap them up, hence the ridiculous success of Anne Rice, Laurel K. Hamilton and the rest of the heaving bosoms. Twilight
, though, Twilight
is something different. Of course its attitude to sex is all up the pole, being as how it's a thinly-disguised (and badly-written) Mormon abstinence tract; Edward is all desirable but horribly dangerous because SEX! is DANGEROUS! and you SHOULDN'T HAVE IT! no matter how much you want it, cue yearning, repression and smouldering stalker behaviour. He could snap you like a twig, you know, and you're only allowed to get off on the idea because he's not actually touching you.
But I realised yesterday that that's only half of it. Meyer is plugging straight into the American zeitgeist, namely the religious right's frothing hypocricies about sex, but she's also allowing her vampires to morph yet again into another reflection of their context: celebrity culture. Edward glitters. He's a beautiful, powerful, distant, shiny object that you desire hopelessly but can't have. Bella's response, and the response of any screaming Twihard who wants him, is identical to their response to poor Robert Pattinson - it's a fan relationship of the more obsessive kind, desire for a distant ideal which is always unattainable. The first three novels are emotional porn for exactly this kind of relationship, spiced up with the unbelievable, wish-fulfilling fact that the iconic object of affection, in all his unreal beauty, actually reciprocates. Meyer's also not alone in exploiting this fact of modern media life: if you look at the fang-bangers in True Blood
or the Sookie novels, they're basically groupies to the celebrity cult of vampires in general. Dracula had his gypsies, but in this day and age he has hordes of teen and post-teen idiots conditioned by media cultures into slavish and often self-destructive devotion to a powerful object of desire.
We get, in short, the vampires we deserve. I can only hope to goodness we grow out of them soon. I also have to say, I didn't realise how incredibly overt with all this Annie Lennox is in Love Song for a Vampire
. I should totally have shown that to the class, if only for its lovely concentration of vampire symbolism. Also, does anyone have The Vampire Diaries
? Half my class seems to be obsessed with the show, which means I should probably watch it. Sigh.