Chick-Fangs, Power Relations, and Being Human
Gothic vampire stories are more popular than ever. Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight novels have sold more than 40 million copies and the first two novels have become films. Charlaine Harris’ serialised novels about Sookie and her vampire lover, Bill, have become just as popular; the TV serial True Blood was shown in most western countries last year. These new vampire romances, which I call chick-fangs for short, are a successful combination of gothic, romance and chick-lit. They are examples of today’s ‘compound fiction,’ fiction that combines elements from different popular genres and media. They mix genres such as romance, domestic fiction, crime, gothic and fantasy, and are the result of a dynamic interplay between different media such as literature, film, TV, role plays and computer games. Twilight and True Blood have also initiated a vast production of fan fiction, chatting and vampire societies on the internet. Fans all over the world participate as both consumers and producers in a collectively elaborate fantasy. The books are based on a long tradition of vampire novels and vampire films. Vampires, such as Edward in Twilight and Bill in True Blood, are both examples of the glamorous sympathetic vampire, a well-known protagonist originating from Romantic tales. The first fictional vampires from around 1800 are Byronic bohemians, rebellious aristocrats with a dark past. In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century the vampire became more of a sexy and deadly blood- sucking monster, often an old predatory male-like Dracula in Bram Stoker’s novel. The Byronic vampire was reborn in the late twentieth century as a much more suffering outsider than Dracula. Louis, the confessing vampire in Ann Rice’s Interview with the Vampire (1995), is an illustrative example of this new kind of humane vampire. The last few years, the old predator Dracula has been replaced by a young sympathetic and good-looking high school celebrity, like Edward in Twilight. The playful handling of vampiric elements and generic conventions is another frequently used feature in modern vampire films and serials, such as Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) or Anders Banke’s Frostbite (2006). Also in Twilight and True Blood the distinguishing features of the traditional vampire are deconstructed. Daylight and sunshine are no longer a danger to Edward, and Bill’s vampire fangs do not show until they are about to be used. Bill is in some ways a more traditional vampire than Edward. He sleeps during the day, is fatally burnt by sunlight and cannot enter a home without being invited. However, they have both crossed the line between being a monstrous vampire and a human being, and they are in many ways more honest and decent than most humans depicted in the novels. They always act the chivalrous knight to their fair ladies, and they deny their vampire nature and their desire to drink human blood. Edward tries to survive on wild animals and Bill constantly goes on a reducing slimming cure when he feeds on a synthetic Japanese blood substitute, ‘true blood.’ But the success of these new chick-fangs is not just due to how they use and transform the characteristics of both the classic vampire figure and the gothic vampire myth. It is much more about how the vampire myth is used to explore certain discursive practices and a complex set of power and gender structures. In chick-fangs the vampire figure and other gothic elements are used to deal with burning issues of being human, such as interpersonal relations and the meaning of life and death, as well as the never-ending discussion about good and evil. It is because of this that chick-fangs offer the young audience of today an enjoyable emotional and cognitive experience. They are romances both in the sense of romantic love stories and in the sense of fictional stories that stir the audience’s imagination, secret passions and dreams. They make the audience participate in an emotionally and intellectually challenging adventure. In these stories the exposed female protagonist is not simply a persecuted gothic heroine, she is also a hard working detective solving the mystery of her attentive vampire admirer and his alien vampire community. To be able to be with him she has to explore what it is like being a vampire and deal with the ethical dilemmas she has to face. To her the gothic room does not primarily represent horror but rather a cognitive mystery and a moral dilemma forcing her into new challenging situations. The relationship between the two star-crossed lovers is constantly menaced by threats. As a vampire’s lover the heroine gets involved in ongoing wars between different groups of vampires or between vampires and other monsters. But what turns the love story into a true romance is that the human girl and the vampire man is an impossible match. The two lovers represent two different species, arch enemies as one of them feeds on the other. The female protagonist has fallen in love with a predator that preys on man. If the vampire loses control of his strongest instinct he will suck his mistress to death. As a consequence, both the female protagonist and the vampire lover are constantly dwelling on questions about what is right and wrong, good and evil. Is it wrong to kill another ‘inferior’ being if that is the only way to survive? And is it right to desert or betray your own group or species because you are in love and are loved by someone belonging to another group and species, a natural enemy to your own people? The illustration of these ethical problems and subjects reflects some topical issues in today’s global postmodern society. The dangers the heroine faces and the way she handles her situation might explain some of the popularity of chick-fangs. The attractive representation of the male vampire is another catching feature. The lure of the male vampire is bound up with the melodramatic structure. His vampiric transformation has been enacted unwillingly and he is a victim of an unjust fate. He is what Everett V. Storequest calls a marginal man, a being living in two different worlds torn between what he once was and what he has become. The portrayal of the male vampire as well as the female protagonist might therefore, as many feminist scholars observe, resonate with the experience otherness and marginalisation particular to women in patriarchal societies. It might also resonate with many adolescent girls’ experience of transformation and of not belonging anywhere, being neither girls nor women. Milly Williamson’s investigation of fandom shows that many female fans identify with vampires because of the physical aspect of transformation involved, the experience of physical pain and change. The female fans are fascinated by the thought of moving beyond the limits of the body and its physical sensations. That is, these chick-fangs deploy elements of gothic fantasy as a metaphor for problems associated with contemporary adolescence. The Twilight serial is very much a high-school drama about a bunch of kids that face what most kids face: conflicts with parents and a feeling of otherness. The most clumsy and odd girl of them all, Bella, manages to handle both her own family problems and the trouble of being in love with a vampire, as well as all the dangers her love puts her into. The gothic deployment of supernatural beings and forces illustrate everyday problems can be compared to the exaggerated plot lines found in most soap operas, where the personal life is dominated by conflict and catastrophe, blown up to improbable proportions. Bella’s and Sookie’s worlds are regularly threatened with apocalypse but this functions to address the problems and conflicts of the personal sphere, and in such a way that the audience finds it both interesting and credible. My point here is that gothic and romance make for a captivating combination. In chick-fangs it is always the heroine’s romantic relationship with ‘Mister Right’ that makes her a prey to evil forces or creatures originating in the gothic plot, and it is her love that forces her to participate in her lover’s, or his vampire community’s, ongoing war against evil monsters. However, the trials and sufferings of the female protagonist do not make her a victim as much as a heroine: her struggles become heroic deeds, deeds of valour. Her life-and-death struggle might not save the world but it does save those persons, or vampires, whom she loves and cares about. That is, to her, the relationship with the outsider is worth the price she has to pay. To be chosen by the glamorous vampire gives her life meaning and makes her special: it satisfies her desire to be involved in something that matters. It makes her stand out, just as much as her boyfriend stands out being a vampire. The melodramatic representation and gothic form of the stories serve to show that reality can be grandiose and therefore offer the audience – at least for a while – the feeling of participating in something exciting and significant. What I claim is that these romantic vampire narratives of today very much reflect a contemporary dilemma of the ‘self’ and offer means of handling the experience of a central cultural paradox; the promise of personal success in a social set-up that prevents the majority to realise their potential for that kind of fulfilment. These stories might satisfy the audience’s and their fans’ ‘wish image’ and especially their thirst for romance and for a romanticised past. The heroine and her vampire lover might, therefore, represent forms of recognition of the self in the idealised other, or what can be seen as recognition of the desired self in the idealised other. They offer significance rooted in the fame that surrounds the vampire figure and the stories describe a successful way to deal with a complicated life and an incomprehensible world. The female protagonist is both the victim and the heroine of the tale and in both ways she dominates it. She is the one who mediates the story; she is the dominating focaliser whose perspective decides the narrative and the one whom the story is really about. As Williamson has pointed out these vampire romances are parts of the self-help culture of the 1980s. The important message of these stories is how to ‘get on with life’ or ‘to get a life.The female protagonist’s relationship with the vampire makes her a special girl. It also makes it possible for her to conquer death and the inevitable aging of the body. If her lover turns her into a vampire she will remain forever young and attractive, free from disease and physical decay. If she, out of love, becomes a vampire she will be rewarded with what most people desire but never get: an experienced and mature mind in a forever young body. This message can be experienced as emotional support and as a particular comfort to young women in a western society glorifying youth and beauty. Many scholars have claimed that the appeal of most vampire tales is the way they deal with sex: the vampire’s bite has been seen as sexual penetration and rape. Sex, sexual excitement and intercourse are frequently depicted in True Blood; while the Twilight serial is a remarkably chaste story about true romantic love. Still the Twilight series is loaded with sexual connotations. But although sex smoulders beneath the surface, chick-fangs are far less concerned with sex than they are with body and health. In the traditional vampire tale the bite is fatal to the victim, bringing disease or death. The transformation into a vampire is depicted as a fatal disease resembling the most feared diseases of the times, such as tuberculosis and syphilis in the nineteenth century and cancer and aids in the twentieth century. In today’s chick-fangs the vampire is less often depicted as a carrier of infections than as a healer, often working as a successful physician or surgeon, like Edwards father in Twilight. Bella and Sookie, who are often severely injured when attacked, are cured or returned to life by their lovers’ blood. In these tales vampire blood cures almost anything, especially fatal wounds and poisoning. To conclude, in chick-fangs the predatory blood-sucking vampire has become a blood-giving healer, the fatal bite has been replaced by a life-restoring blood transfusion and the affected victim has become a successfully cured patient. That is, in chick-fangs the bite is not as fatal to the victim as to the predating vampire. The humane vampire more often injures himself to offer his blood to his beloved than feeding on her blood. If the vampire bites his beloved he risks losing control, to give in to pure lust and instinct. To him feeding is connected to perversion and irresponsibility. Thus, lust is a complicated thing in modern vampire tales. To today’s vampire the dominating urge is not sex or killing but hunger. To him gluttony is in every sense of the word a fatal mortal sin. Replacing sex by feeding, genitals by guts, may be attributed to the changing perceptions of modern audiences and reflect important contemporary trends. Food and feeding might be more of an issue than sex in a time where diet, slimming cures and exercise programs are claimed to be the means to beauty, health and a long and happy life. To be fit and youth-looking has become desirable personal qualities. A beautiful face and a good-looking and healthy body are important to a person’s image and success. To some people the purpose of life seems to be to achieve and preserve good looks. Undisciplined feeding has become a shameful activity. The focus on feeding and hunger as the most conflicting needs and desires in the modern vampire tale might tell us something about present day taboos. Twilight, True Blood and other chick-fangs have been criticised by feminist scholars for being part of a new and developing backlash movement against feminism. They have been accused of advocating a conservative sexual politics and a patriarchal ideology, stressing the difference between the sexes and endorsing submissive versions of femininity. To the devoted audience of chick-fangs these narratives probably tell another story. They might confirm as well as challenge current ideas of the ideal way of life in postmodern society. Just as with fairy tales for children the fundamental effect of romance might be to create and maintain hope. Chick-fangs are likely to have much the same therapeutic value. Edward and Bill are in many ways superior to Bella and Sookie but still these stories are very much chronicles of female competence and triumph. They focus on an intelligent and able heroine who finds a man, and makes him recognise her special qualities. Both Bella and Sookie repeatedly prove that they are capable of handling extremely complicated and dangerous situations by themselves, sometimes situations their vampire lovers are unable to handle. It is because of this that the male vampire loves the heroine the way she wants him, and it is because of this that he, out of love, is prepared to defy and stand up against his most itching desire in order to protect her from his most primitive urges. Because she is special she is capable of softening him, turning the vampire into an ideal humane man. It is hard to think of a more utopian vision of female power. In my opinion, chick-fangs provide a remarkably hopeful promise. They may advocate an old-fashioned gender structure, but although the odds are against it they show that male-female relations can be managed successfully. At least, that is the case when Cinderella becomes the gothic final girl, the survivor who fights back, in today’s vampire romance.
Yvonne Leffler is professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden. She has published several books and articles about gothic fiction, the Swedish nineteenth century novel and popular fiction in postmodern society. Currently she is leading an interdisciplinary research project called ‘Religion, Culture and Health’ and its first theme ‘Fiction, Play and Health,’ which is to explore how basic values are portrayed in fictional stories and what relevance they have for people’s thoughts about happiness, success and well-being.
The article originally appeared in “The Gothic-Probing Boundaries” published in 2012 by Inter – Disciplinary Press.