Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Vampires and Women: Why the Fantasy Has Turned Scary

Recently, the Washington Post had a story on how vampires have become Hollywood's new leading man characters. While the article has plenty of typical press-release hype over HBO's "True Blood" the story does touch on the popularity of the current "romantic vampire."

Which is scary. Because of what this particular form of vampire shows about what Hollywood is peddling as a romantic fantasy for women and girls, and the market for it. The problem is, the current vampire fantasy is a highly aggressive, violent, testosterone fueled man who will be meekly under the romantic and sexual power of the female lead. This is both a huge departure in the vampire fantasy as it formerly existed, and disturbing in the messages that inevitably push women and girls towards bad choices that they are already prone to make.

First, it's time to review just what the vampire fantasy has been. Almost every culture has vampires as a folklore culture, fear of the undead is a common human fear. What jump started vampires into the modern media era was Bram Stoker's 1897 novel.

The novel dealt with Victorian fears about the stability and endurance of the nuclear family under threat of foreign immigration and contact with the wider world. Fears that were not unfounded, as we can see with today's Britain having 50% of births illegitimate, and not unreasonable either considering the history the Victorian reformers always had in mind. It was not unusual during the Georgian era to encounter 12 year old prostitutes in most major and many minor cities, including their fashionable districts. Most of the cities were hell-holes of drunken behavior, prostitution, thievery, and murder. Gin was the drink of the day, and most English were drunk most of the time. The same Christian reformers who formed the anti-Slavery movement, such as Wililam Wilberforce also endorsed attempts to reduce drunken behavior (encouraging beer consumption instead of gin, limited drinking hours, drinking in pubs instead of the streets, etc.) and public morality to reduce prostitution's acceptability, and encourage the nuclear family, rather than debauchery and patronage of prostitutes.

Thus, when the novel's proper Victorian middle class gentlemen Jonathan Harker, finds his fiancee menaced by Count Dracula, who seeks to turn her into a vampire and make her his bride, the novel's concerns resonated with Victorian reformers who felt several generations of efforts could be undone by menacing foreigners with ways that could corrupt the English back into their old vices. It's interesting that Dracula is presented as smooth, charismatic, attractive to women and able to influence men, but in the end is both revealed to be a monster in his behavior and appearance, and destroyed by a very middle class group who work together, in middle class cooperation and friendship: a doctor (Van Helsing), Harker the lawyer, an American, and a man of minor nobility. Dracula in the end is killed (really) with a Bowie Knife. The symbol of the American frontier. The novel ends with Mina Harker married to Jonathon, and with a child named after a friend who died fighting Dracula.

The stage versions of this novel was a smash, producing a number of films, including notably the 1922 silent German version by F.W. Murnau (name changed from Dracula due to a lawsuit by Stoker's widow) and the 1931 version with Bela Lugosi. It established the Vampire as sexy, but monstrous underneath, though limitations in effects and the Hays Code meant violence and gore had to be implied rather than shown.

This portrayal of the Vampire as sexy but underneath, monstrous, soon changed into the Vampire as a joke. The deepening Depression, and subsequent War Years, led to audiences demanding comedy rather than horror — their own lives were filled with enough during that time, thank you very much. Films such as "Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein" with Dracula and the Wolf Man along for the ride, and Lugosi once again playing Dracula, were common.

Hammer's 1958 version of Dracula, starring Christopher Lee as Dracula and Peter Cushing as Van Helsing, resurrected the Vampire as both sexy and monstrous, instead of a joke. This particular cycle saw the last "sexy but monstrous" version in 1979's "Dracula" starring Frank Langella, who had also played the role to considerable acclaim on Broadway. The same year, the Vampire was once again, a joke with "Love at First Bite" starring noted champion tanner, George Hamilton.

This cycle has repeated many times: Vampire as monster (to be defeated, by a middle class man, and his wife/girlfriend saved), Vampire as sexy but a monster, Vampire as a joke (Count Chocula, Blackula, etc.). So it was that the somewhat mixed humor and horror versions of this treatment "Fright Night" (1985) and the "Lost Boys" (1987) were succeeded by "Near Dark," a fairly brutal treatment of the Vampire, and 1992's version by Francis Ford Coppola, starring Gary Oldman ("Dracula.")

One thing has always remained the same: Vampires are either straight out monsters who menace middle class men's girlfriends/wives (or, in "Fright Night" and "Lost Boys" their divorced mothers) and must be killed, or they are sexy rivals who are underneath, monstrous, and must be killed, or jokes for our amusement.

The Vampire took a new, somewhat scary turn, with 1997's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." While the movie (fairly unsuccessful) had vampires as somewhat icky jokes, the TV series had the Vampire presented as both monster, and romantic boyfriend, in the same package. Buffy's sexy Vampires, both foreigners (keeping that part of the tradition), were preferable to the middle class, brave, nice, but "boring" men who sought her. Even though her Vampires kept, well slaughtering people, Buffy presented the disturbing fantasy that a beautiful and "special" young woman could, by power of her beauty and sexuality, control a testosterone-driven, violent, aggressive man and domesticate him into her lover and intimidator. Even after one Vampire boyfriend slaughters some of her friends, and another rapes her ("Spike"), the title character keeps coming back for more, even to the point of professing her love for "Spike" and having implied off-screen sex with him.

Following TV's "Buffy," the 2001 "Sookie Stackhouse" series, by Charlaine Harris, and 2005's "Twilight" by Stephanie Meyer, continued in that mode, i.e. a beautiful young woman controls a violent, dangerous man, by virtue of her beauty and sexiness, in novel form. The former is now an HBO series, by openly gay writer-producer Alan Ball ("American Beauty") called "True Blood." The latter series has sold 7 million books in the US, and reportedly 50 million world wide. Of course, a gay man understanding, let alone having anything meaningful to say, about the ways in which men and women interact romantically, is about the same probability of my winning the lottery next week.

The success of this type of Vampire character is disturbing. For obvious reasons, the Vampire only appeals to women (and well, gay men). The Vampire is stronger, more violent, more aggressive, older, and longer lived than the "boring" ordinary middle class men he's compared to. He promises immortality, eternal youth and beauty (which has a power, a definite power for women, but does not last). The idea that a woman might extend (even forever) her beauty, sex appeal, power over men, is certainly understandable. The trillion dollar beauty industry caters to this desire, among women, and anyone who's seen an "invisible" woman, i.e. one over age 50, ignored by waiters, waitresses, clerks, and so on knows how cruel a youth-obsessed society can be when women lose their youth and beauty.

[Only "Near Dark" out of all the Vampire Films explores the "relationship" of a female vampire and young man. And there, it's reversed. The young man rejects vampirism, saves his family, and "rescues" the girl from vampirism, restoring her to humanity. Obviously, men only value beauty, intelligence, character, and compassion in women as love-interest fantasies. They don't need power, aggression, and violence in their fantasy partners as women do. They'd also rather be the heroes themselves, and don't see themselves as monsters. For obvious reasons (no children, love, marriage) a female vampire is useless as a romantic fantasy for men, since there is no happily ever after.]

However, this fantasy of young women "controlling" aggressive, violent, hyper-testosterone men, through the power of their beauty comes at a price. While women might like this fantasy, in real life men filled with high levels of testosterone and aggression generally lack control, unless it is directed in careful competition such as football, Mixed Martial Arts competitions, and the like. Which in turn are the result of literally years of training and control. Real life analogues of "Edward" from "Twilight" or "William" from "Dead Until Dark" would resemble Johan Van Der Sloot (suspected by some of killing American tourist Natalee Holloway in Aruba) or Scott Peterson.

If Pornography is bad for men, giving them wildly unrealistic ideas about women, their bodies, and sex, these Vampire fantasies are just as bad for women. Power, status, and above all violent aggression in a fantasy where the woman controls the Byronic Vampire? It's as puerile as the nerdy guy fantasy of the super-heroine who likes blowing up stuff too (see any movie with Milla Jojovich or Kate Beckinsale in black leather). However, that fantasy won't lead to nerdy guys making disastrous choices. At worst they'll waste money on the Special Edition DVD, and the video game.

For women, and particularly younger women, something has been lost. Good judgment about men, including the natural trade-off between intelligence and testosterone. It's true, that there is a correlation between higher IQ and lower levels of testosterone and aggression. Making smarter men who are less aggressive less sexually and romantically desireable for women. But women far too often, in our politically correct society, overestimate their ability to exert control over men with high levels of testosterone and aggression. Writer "Theodore Dalrymple" (his pen name) in "Life at the Bottom" recounts a conversation with one of his patients, in the hospital in London where he worked. A girl of 17, who had her arm broken by her boyfriend. He questioned her, and she admitted she knew the boyfriend was violent and prone to abuse when she started dating him. That was the attraction, the danger, and the excitement. Dalrymple's question was what if that aggression was turned on herself? Her response was that she could look after herself. Dalrymple's reply that men are stronger than women (as her broken arm indicated) produced the retort that such words were "sexist."

This pattern persisted even with Dalrymple's educated, professional nurses. Who chose men who abused them, even at work. They confessed to Dalrymple that they knew the men were violent, they could see it at a glance from the scars from fighting, the tattoos proclaiming a love of violence, and their behavior, dress, and friends. Still they chose them, because ordinary, decent men were in their words, "boring."

These Vampire fantasies are disturbing, because they are both a cultural marker (women have responded to the fantasy of testosterone laden men, with violent pasts and tendencies, as fantasy figures, with sales figures for the books through the roof) and a cultural shaper — it encourages young women to indulge in this fantasy even more. At best this will produce more alienation and distrust between the sexes. The number of men who can meet the criteria of the sexy, brutal, strength and testosterone filled, but controlled, figure of the Vampire is approximately two: Mixed Martial Arts Champion Randy Couture, and Chicago Bears Linebacker Brian Urlacher. No others need apply. At worst, more young women will end up like Natalee Holloway, overestimating their ability to control the aggressive young men around them.

Can't we just move to the Joke phase of vampires now?

14 comments:

Patti said...

I quit reading this drivel when I got to the parts about Buffy the Vampire Slayer and it became obvious that you've not seen the show, nor studied it at all.
Angelus/Angel had been tamed by the soul with which he'd been cursed - not Buffy's sexuality. He was struggling for redemption for the things he did while unsouled. Only without it, did he go back to killing. Soul/no soul equals good vs evil is a major theme of BtVS and the world in which it is set.

Spike did NOT rape Buffy, although there was an extremely dramatic scene it which he appears to be trying to do so in an attempt to prove to her that she does love him. And much of the sex that they did have during their brief affair occurred very much on screen. There was nothing implied about it. Buffy was the aggressor initially. Spike also was seeking redemption - although, admittedly for the love of a woman. To the point that he pursued getting his soul back - suffering trials in able to be worthy of the woman he loved. There was no sex or sexual context in the final season of the show between the two main characters. The two things controlling the demon (Spike) were the soul he had fought for, and a desire help Buffy in her fight against evil.

Ditto for the spin-off show in which Angel continues the good fight against evil and newly souled Spike joins him in that quest. Buffy has no part in their quest.

With that many errors and misunderstandings in only a couple of paragraphs about a very well-known and popular TV show, it was obvious that there was no point in reading any farther in this article. If you are going to use examples to make or prove a point, please be sure that you actually know what you're talking about.

Anonymous said...

Please actually watch the shows you attempt to critique...
And is it my imagination, or do you sound really jealous of the vamps getting all the hot girls?!

fangfaceandrea said...

Wow! if you're gonna diss it at least watch it first.

Patti Said it all before. But in case it wasn't clear Spike Didn't Rape Buffy and she's not some arlequein-esque heroine who naively pretends to control her men. She's not their victim either.

Striker Z said...

These comments are some of the most hilarious outbursts of blatant fangirlism (and, probably, fanboyism) I've seen in a while. Leave it to Joss Whedon drones to jump mindlessly to the defense of their master. Seriously, I'm sure these are the kind of people who'd also prefer Christine Daiae end up with the Phantom of the Opera rather than Raoul.

Spike was a #$%#ing monster. Please do not try to cover for him. In fact, in the beginning of his time as a 'good guy', the ONLY reason he was trustable was because of the deus-ex-machina of a chip in his head!

What I really find funny (and why I assume these are just Joss Whedon drones) is that they ignored just about everything said in the essay, focusing only on a few sentences that dared to suggest that Joss Whedon might be wrong about something.

Though, I do want to add my own thoughts on one point - I am willing to believe that a gay man could, in theory, competently write about a woman's desires. Not, however, Alan Ball. Having seen American Beauty, as well as all of Six Feet Under, (I haven't seen 'Towelhead', though I've read several of the positive and negative reviews) I am pretty much completely convinced that he's actually a member of NAMBLA. His inability to portray how to actually raise a child, coupled with his teen girls continuously throwing themselves at older men, does not lead me to believe he operates within a stable and healthy reality.

This does, however, make him perfect for creating stories about the modern, and disturbing, incarnation of vampire. I work at a library, I've seen and sometimes read these books. They are frightening, and are one of the reasons that I'm beginning to worry that mysogeny is making a comeback in our culture.

botias said...

I find your post well-meaning, but paternalistic and thereby sexist. (Not to mention homophobic. What sort of romantic relationships do you think gay men have? Some sort of alien ritual that bears no resemblance to hetero relationships?) Men engage in exciting but high-risk behavior all the time. Rock-climbing, flying fighter jets, 'insert extreme sport here'. Some women like to date bad boys because it's exciting. Yes, it might kill them or give them broken bones, comes with the territory.
Personally, I'm an armchair dater of bad boys, just as many men would rather watch ESPN than get a bruise or break a sweat. I watch Buffy and read vampire romance novels.

CT said...

They don't need power, aggression, and violence in their fantasy partners as women do.

Why do you feel men, as decades of literature, art, and cinema show, are so drawn in by & attracted to the "femme fatale", an archetype that is largely male-invented?

Anonymous said...

I agree with Patti's every word.
But it's okay, it's not your fault that Buffy was too complex for you to understand....if you even saw the show at all.

You seem to think that this vampire culture is being bought into by all these women verbatim. I'm sorry, last I checked, no woman was actively seeking out vampires and taking the stories as truth. That's why it's called fantasy.

Fantasy...as in not real. Just like the video games, movies, etc that are so prevalent in our culture. But we will try to see your point.

kyence said...

I'm not a big fan of Buffy myself, but your diatribe about how vampire fans are only women maketh me laugheth. The cycle you spoke of was insightful, as well as the parallels of Stoker's work to Victorian living, I'll give you that. While vampires have become a cliché nowadays, it doesn't mean they can't be executed well from time to time. I happen to like Kim Harrison's vampires as a metaphor for drug addiction (they are essentially walking heroin for humans, check out her series of books, The Hallows), and her distinction between living and undead vamps.

However, you have lumped yourself in with that group of people who believe human beings never did anything stupid or violent prior to the advent of media. Plenty of men and women have made dumb decisions when it comes to relationships: you don't think there are men out there with as unrealistic perceptions of the opposite sex as some women do? They did it before Bram Stoker and Buffy, and they will do it long after.

Believe it or not, there are plenty of men abused by women: but, due to the stigma and double-standard carried by many and implied in your post, they keep it hidden or understated due to shame.

I don't blame stupid men on video games or porn: don't blame stupid women on the vampire mythos. Sounds very very silly, lmao.

hartfa said...

Seriously? No really, you're like joking, right? Ok, I'll cut you a little slack and simply assume that you only did roughly half of your homework on this particular issue. You then followed that by using wording that sounded good, and was the most likely to get you a mention on the most blogs and fan sites. Interesting approach. Though I gotta say, not exactly the way I'd want to be noticed.

Some of your deductions are sound. The rest, not so much. First, you are making broad generalities about women. Not something you'd generally want to do and post. Second, you ignored the equally broad generalities regarding the exact same issue in men. Which was also demonstrated in at least one show you used to illustrate your point.

But then, that completely pulls the bottom out of your argument. So I can understand why you'd ignore that tidbit.

May I suggest that next time, you finish your homework. May I also suggest that you seek some therapy and education regarding your misguided and somewhat freigtening understanding of women. It is precisely that, which is the truly scary part of this entire thing.

Anonymous said...

Firstly, I think your essay is well written and argues a strong opinion.

However, I am not sure that your points are as valid as you see them. Vampires, though currently popular in fiction and on television, are not a major draw for women overall. Having asked friends in response to this essay, most replied with the statement “Well Brad Pitt was hot in Interview, but I don’t really follow that stuff”. Sci-fi has always drawn a specific audience, and will continue to do so. I don’t think the popularity of vampires and this ‘corruption’ of your evidently ‘helpless’ female population is as high as you think it is.

And testosterone is very weakly linked with high IQ and violent behaviour. To the degree that there have to be a slew of other causal (environmental and genetic) in order to account for the simple effect of testosterone.

Not all vampire characters are portrayed violent and strong as you suggest. Even Stoker’s Dracula wasn’t a ‘testosterone-pumped’ violent man; he was portrayed as quite dignified and aristocratic. Monstrous, yes, but so was Frankenstein’s monster and isn’t Dr. Frankenstein the true monster? I would suggest that unless you want to suffer further wrath from the Joss Whedon department you study the intricacies of Buffy and Angel before offering further critique.

Vampire characters from what I’ve studied at least, are supposed to be quite lust inspiring and tempting. They are demonic versions of the Sirens, warning people of the dangers of allowing strangers into your home and approaching them on your own. Take the sisters in Dracula as an example of that. They certainly seduced many men into their claws.

And if you are going to critique a homosexual man’s ability to speak about relationships between men and women, how can you believe your opinion (I have assumed you are male) is relevant to critiquing how women think? You can’t possibly understand them if you actually believe in your earlier statement.

Whiskey said...

Well Patti, I saw the shows, in their entirety. Marti Noxon, along with Whedon, conceived the rape scene to cement Spike's bad boyfriend status.

But more to the point, neither Spike nor Angel nor Buffy herself really fight for anything? What is their religion? Belief in God? Right and wrong? Ties to friends and family? Who are they? What do they want? For the last, mostly to be the coolest guy around (or the coolest girl). Eternally 1968.

Striker Z -- I think it's most likely that gay men simply will miss the dynamics between men and women. Those dynamics are absent in gay relationships.

Botias -- the relationships that characterize that of gay men are transient, promiscuous, and narcissistic. It is precisely for these reasons that AIDS is mainly a gay scourge. Gay marriage in Toronto, for the approximately 8 years it has been offered, has had less than 200 takers. What is different about Gay men is that both are charged with lots of testosterone, neither will get pregnant, and choosing wisely the father of a child for genetic and character reasons is totally irrelevant. These are very important differences to the nature of largely transient, exhibitionist, and narcissistic gay relationships (check out any gay pride festival).

Among other things, this is why Alan Ball's and Darren Stars women resemble gay men in drag.

CT -- the femme fatale is well, fatal. A cautionary tale not a celebration.

More to the point, the lack of social interactions, near total anonymity, high personal mobility, make the media environment dominant. People don't live in small towns or the same urban neighborhoods most of their life. They don't go to church, mostly, or volunteer. Their work relationships are superficial and meaningless, and mostly take place after their ideas of how the sexes relate are formed. Just as the average nerdy guy is going to draw disastrous lessons that will harm his interactions with women from various "butt-kicking" female heroes ("hey! Women like stuff blowing up just like I do!" -- no they don't); well young women are likely to draw the same bad conclusions about men. Buying into the fantasy of hyper-masculinity without drawbacks. Since there are few older women around to argue that the hyper masculine can be disastrous (a role often played by Aunts and Grandmothers not party to the mother-daughter battles of the late teens).

Higher IQ = lower testosterone (http://www.gnxp.com/blog/2007/04/intercourse-and-intelligence.php). Just one study, but suggestive. Certainly women will avoid "smart" seeming men like the plague.

Something Whedon himself plays on. In the pilot, "Jessie" is a geeky guy who cannot attract Cordy's attention. Once made into a vampire, he does become very attractive to her, because he's dominant, stronger, and violent. So too Angel, with Buffy. Or Spike, who was a Momma's boy as a man, unable to attract even the attentions of not very spectacular "Cecily" and made into a vampire, drives railroad spikes (hence his name) into those who mocked his bad poetry.

Spike's injury, and being supplanted by Angel for "Dru's" affections, or Spike being forgotten when Angel returns to Buffy, is par for the course in Whedon's world of women driven by testosterone (only Gay-now Willow does not do this with Oz). Even more fascinating, is Warren and Spike. The same Momma's boys, unable to deal with women because they put them on pedestals and have no clue as to how they make selections among men, frustrated because more manly, testosterone driven man supplant them. Both have sex bots (Warren builds Spike's). Both come up with the same basic plan to get their sweethearts back: tie them up and threaten to kill them until they love them! Both use magic powers (Vampirism for Spike, various other devices for Warren including his "magic balls") to make them more dominant. Heck Warren wants to kill Buffy so he can be as dominant and sex as Spike, who after all is best known for killing two slayers.

The only real difference between Warren and Spike is that the latter is better looking, the former smarter with technology. But we are suppose to like the latter and abhor the former, in terms of the show. Why?

The fantasy of testosterone, I suppose.

Anonymous said...

Ok, so if I understand you correctly, because I like vampire stories, I am in danger of submitting myself to an overly agressive man in the belief that I can "control" that aggression with my sexuality. I'm sure my hulking by very gentle husband would get quite the laugh out of that assesment. As would anyone who knows me and knows that at the first sign of male aggression towards me I would kick certain anatomical bits out of their normal orbit and then call the cops.

Someone else mention this also but it bears repeating. Vampires, vampire books, vampie movies and tv shows are .... FICTION. As in not true, made up and without facts to back it up. And if, by some weird turn of genetics, vampires DO exist, I'm sure they are getting a laugh about this as well seeing as how their existance has NEVER been discovered or proven. (Not that I believe they exist....just playing both sides here)

Besides, as popular as all things vamp have become over the last 10-15 years, there have been other such fads, for lack of a better word. At one time, cowboys were all the rage in romance novels. Rodeo riding, cattle branding, live on a ranch 50 miles from their nearest neighbor cowboys. If we were to go by your theories, then at that time, women were in danger of isolating themselves in the middle of nowhere with men that, based on the books, believe that women of any beauty are weak and in need of protection and protection. Because, as we all know, the only women suited to ranch life are plain sturdy women.

Or then there are the popularity of Regency romances. The women in those are all beautiful and uneducated. With no knowledge of the real world, they are easily taken advantage of with no family (father) or husband to direct their life.

Each of these types of books seem very detrimental to the women who enjoy them. Apparently, if one believes your line of thinking, we women are too stupid to determine what is safe and what is FICTION!!!!

Moron.

goldenlightpass said...

Seriously WOW, this article is fear based and a product of mens insecurities, obviously your insecurities..its fantasy just like all the other types of fantasy out there that people indulge in. I mean gimme a freakin' break, this entire read is just so ridiculous and you really should do proper research before you refer to other material as reference/ examples for your ideas that you try spreading around like some fear based propaganda. Try reading a twilight book or actually watching a episode of Buffy or true blood. Not ALL women are obsessed with beauty, seems like lots of men are though!! and lots of men are boring EVEN the violent ones!! THERE IS NO black and white and that's all this article is about...black and white..and that just isn't reality. Life people and relationships aren't black and white. What a waste of my time.

By The Sword said...

CT said: "Why do you feel men, as decades of literature, art, and cinema show, are so drawn in by & attracted to the "femme fatale", an archetype that is largely male-invented?"

We men actually don't like the "Femme Fatal", she has just been shoved down our throats for the last 20 years. Oh I am sure that if you asked around, you might find some guy who gets turned on when a woman kicks his ass. But it's not at all common.