Friday, August 07, 2009

Why Women Love (The Idea of) Vampires

My friend Katie and I both watch True Blood, which is now the most popular show on television or something like that, every week. After the episode is over, we dissect it, largely focusing on the mythological aspects and trying to figure out what ancient goddess or old superstition the citizens of Bon Temps are contending with this week. I read the Twilight books because I wanted to see what all of the hoopla was about,; I finished the series grudgingly as the story got more and more ridiculous but I felt like I had to finish. I've read Dracula for a class in gothic fiction. I think I've seen most of Interview with a Vampire. But I am not, and never will be, anything like the Twi-Hards (as Lainey calls them): that breed of girls and women who stalk poor Robert Pattinson all over Vancouver in the hopes that he will meet one of them at a coffeeshop/on a street corner/from behind the barricades erected by his security team while he cowers behind his trailer, realize that one of them is his soulmate, and live happily ever after. I am not one of them. I'm not pining over Lestadt, Edward Cullen, Bill Compton, or Eric Northman. I don't love vampires.

However, I'm very interested in why these women (and they are just as often women as they are girls) love (the idea of) vampires. While Twilight, Interview with a Vampire, and True Blood are all very different (I'm going to focus mostly on the first and last of those three), and pick up on different aspects of vampire lore, the attraction seems to be the same. Just what is it? Here are my theories about why women love vampires, and they reveal some strange and interesting aspects of the female psyche (or at least, the psyches of Twi-hards).

Even while they embrace the benefits of feminism and the advantages of living in a less-and-less sexist world (I'd hope!), many women are nostalgic for the days of highly defined gender roles. This also explains part of the attraction of Mad Men. In these stories, the male vampires were originally born (as humans) at least a few hundred years ago, when men were men, and women were, well...women. They bring along with them, as much as they have learned to roll with the times and get with the feminist program, all of those ideas about gender that were around when they grew up. They are, in other words, stereotypical masculinity personified, with a veneer of contemporary progressiveness on top. When they're not murderous and bloodthirsty, they're chivalrous, protective to a fault, extraordinarily strong, and always ready to defend their partner's honour. And women, while being attracted to these qualities, also seem to be attracted to the female role that this would put them in: passive, uberfeminine, confined to the home (can't leave, when there are other scary creatures out there to get you, and your mate can't go out in the sun), and physically diminutive. I can see the attraction of aspects of this--chivalry will never go out of style, as long as equal courtesy is practiced by women towards men--but the others? No thanks. I find masculinity attractive, but not if it forces me to limit my potential as a human being.

Tied into this hypermasculinity is the notion of the vampire as an extremely powerful being under very tenuous control. This seems to play into the desire of some women to control and/or change their partners (or to be the person who makes their partner control and/or change themselves). A la les Twi-hards: "Ooh, Edward Cullen is so sexy because he can just barely keep himself from killing and eating Bella." Yikes. It might be interesting to believe that your partner has difficulty controlling themselves physically (read sexually) in the face of your overwhelming attractiveness--isn't that the premise of most sex-scenes in women's fiction?--but to take it to the point where it becomes the threat of physical violence? How's that for a sadistic abuse fantasy? I like danger as much as the next girl (skydiving and bungee jumping are still on my to-do list. Any joiners?), but I'd prefer that my fantasies don't involve the possibility of exsanguination.

The third aspect of vampire attraction I can spot is the immortality factor: vampires, unless under extraordinary circumstances (staking, silver bullets, sunlight), don't die. You can be with your man forever! And guess what aspect of the not-so-subtle vampire-loving female psyche this one points to? You guessed it: they're terrified of death. Both their own (hence the fantasies of being "turned," i.e. having your partner transform you into another vamp) and that of those they love. This hasn't come up too much in True Blood yet--Sookie just got the idea of having Bill turn her this past episode--but it's a huge part of Twilight. In fact, it's the whole forward-moving mechanism of the books: what will Bella have to do to make Edward turn her? In her case, it's marry him--turning "turning" into sex, and waiting into abstinence, since Edward won't have sex with her until he's turned her, for all of the possible threat-of-violence reasons I gave above. I wouldn't expect much more from a highly conservative Mormon author, but really? I'm all for responsible teenage sexuality, but is giving girls a role model who becomes suicidal when her partner leaves and marries him at eighteen to keep him from doing so again really a good idea? Not in my books. Not that I've written any, but if I did, my heroine wouldn't be a depressive whiny masochist.

I still love True Blood, and I must admit that Sookie is a much stronger woman and admirable character than Bella--she's got her own powers, she takes charge, and she's not pining to be made immortal--but this societal vampire obsession is troubling. Why do women want to fantasize about loving a creature who embodies many things--hypermasculinity, violence, oppression, possessiveness--that feminism has worked so hard to diminish or reconfigure? Is relinquishing personal power a relief? Is it easier? Do women feel that by subordinating themselves to men, they will become more attractive to them? These are questions, as someone who doesn't see the attraction, that I can't answer. But I can wonder.


moonandtree said...

I was talking about this a little while ago with someone. His opinion was that it was all in the biting of the neck: it's like a super intense hickey.

But I think the fascination lies in the inevitable intimacy that is the result of any interaction with a vampire. They don't tend to do casual chats or coffee. You're either being bitten, ravaged or both; or being intensely scrutinized before being bitten, ravaged or both. Any dialogue you have with a vampire is going to be tense and to the point. With a vampire you would be completely vulnerable, physically and psychologically, all the time, which is incredibly intoxicating - and because vampires are fictional, there is no vulnerability in admitting this desire to be made completely vulnerable.

I don't think the current vampire craze is particular to our time - I think the idea of vulnerability (and the potential for complete trust that accompanies it, i.e. Twilight) is always alluring. Well, for some people - some others are clearly immune :)


Melissa said...

So dating a vampire is like dating a man without all of the dating bullshit? I'm in for that. I think you're right on that--the vamp/human relationship goes from 0-60 immediately, so you cut out all of that preliminary awkwardness that predates actually attempting to be yourself with someone.

I can't say that I'm 100% immune to the vamp thing; that intense intimacy and vulnerability is pretty appealing in an age of cynicism, guardedness, and repression (we're so Victorian). But I'm a pragmatist, and so I generally fancy things that might actually be possible in real life, and vamps clearly aren't it. However, if I could find someone who could be that open with me and vice versa, bring it on!