Disclaimer: This is a rewrite of a much earlier post on my own blog, but it’s been changed to protect the innocent. Or something like that.
I do oh so hate Twilight. I hate everything about it. I hate Robert Pattinson, I hate the greyscale pallette, I hate Taylor Lautner’s abs, I really hate Kristin Stewart and her total lack of facial expression. These people are not actors. This is not a horror story. It’s not even a romance. It’s nothing. Oh, how I hate Twilight.
But there’s more to my Twi-hate than merely the lack of apparent directing, acting or script-writing skills. It’s the whole effed up nature of the story. It’s the thinly disguised hatred of women. It’s the fear that is attached to sex and that is considered — Christ! — romantic. And it’s the fact that it has taken over not only literary notion of vampire-dom, but film as well.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula was not sexy; he was not tortured over his vampire-ishness. What he really wanted to do was drain everyone’s blood and create an empire of the undead. He was a good, old fashioned take-over-the world kind of villain. He had fangs. He turned into a bat and a wolf and assaulted Victorian womanhood. He was exceptionally unattractive, described more like a villain out of the Marquis de Sade than a dapper foreign gentleman. He brought out the cruelty and nastiness in the staunch Victorian middle-classes, making them turn on each other, forcing them into deeper and deeper depravity in their attempts to annihilate him. He was one evil sonofabitch.
Then stage and screen got ahold of him. Almost before the ink was dry, Dracula was being transformed into a tortured lover. Nosferatu came the closest to Stoker’s original image of the Count, but it was a fleeting moment. By 1931, Bela Lugosi was the incarnation of a tortured and erudite blood-sucker. Dracula became more and more the romantic anti-hero and less and less the villain. Christopher Lee gave us a sexier Dracula, to be sure; a Dracula with sex on the brain and heaving bodices on the screen. Frank Langella gave us full-blown disco Dracula, complete with psychedelic love scene. Gary Oldman in Coppolla’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula lingered for a moment in the Old World, but soon became a romantic foil of sorts for Winona Ryder’s libido. But through all of it, at least Dracula – and by extension, vampires – never really lost his fangs. Until now.
Vampires represent the sexual confusion and mores of their time periods. It’s no accident that that most memorable vampire showed up nearing the end of the Victorian era. It was around the same time that the first encyclopedia of sexuality was compiled, labeling everything from pedophilia to homosexuality a psychological disorder. A time of Jack the Ripper on the one hand, and the viciously homophobic trial of Oscar Wilde on the other. Into this came Dracula, an inhabitant of the Old World come to London, bringing with him disease and darkness; a monster who typified everything that was repressed in the Victorian psyche. It is no mistake that the ‘release’ of one of Dracula’s victims reads like a sex scene, or that Mina Harker is attacked in bed. Vampirism was thinly disguised sexual depravity.
That Dracula transformed over time into a tortured lover reflects the changing desires of the culture he comes out of. Dracula began to stop being scary when sex stopped being scary. He became romantic and brooding and passionate and misunderstood. But today, something very weird has happened. We’re giving the Victorians a run for their money.
In Twilight, the vampire becomes instead fully integrated into the society he once stood apart from. A misunderstood, not terribly dangerous celibate, continuously repressing natural desires in favor of asceticism: being a ‘good’ vampire. Sex is not to be indulged until marriage, at which point it becomes violent and bruising. For the girl. It’s the girl that chases the vampire. It’s the girl that wants blood and sex. Poor sparkly Edward just wants his veggies. Those awful girls.
The imagery that accompanies Edward is a fan-fiction universe of teenage lovers. Robert Pattinson is pale and perfect, just this side of feminine. He has the faintest trace of an English accent, which to America is the Old World. He’s also a stalker, an all-consuming lover who keeps the libido of a teenage girl at bay. His lack of emotion isn’t a drawback; it’s a turn-on. He’s passionless, which makes him safe. Rather than bringing out the darkness in others, he keeps them repressed. He’s a fucking vegetarian.
The movies typify the shift in our vampiric perspectives. They provide a fantasy world where vampires are the tortured and misunderstood Other, celibate and safe. The animalistic Jacob, with his six-pack abs and tendency to morph into a puppy, is no match for the ethereal Edward. The films present Edward as the ultimate romantic lover, but the entire romantic relationship is a reinforcement of the very patriarchal norms (men are animals, sex is evil and painful, etc.). The Twilight franchise inverts the purpose of the monster as the return of the repressed and instead transforms him into a figure symbolic of all that repression. He’s the very figure of patriarchal norms, wanted and desired and utterly in control of the girl’s passions. What’s so dark and disturbing is that it is not called monstrosity; it’s called love.
None of which is to say that it’s wrong to enjoy the Twilight franchise. It is a fantasy and fantasies are important. But I think we need to seriously consider what these fantasies say about our society, particularly our attitudes towards sex. With the BDSM-lite fantasy 50 Shades of Grey set to come to cinemas, we seem to be moving in a very dark direction. If the Cullens are not really vampires, then what are they?