Monday, July 11, 2011

The Vampire Fantasy Is More Dangerous Than Actual Vampires

Sookie definitely has a type.
So a new season of True Blood just started, and there's another Twilight movie coming this fall, there are still ads for The Vampire Diaries on the subway, and Johnny Depp and Tim Burton are remaking Dark Shadows. What do all these projects have in common? (Other than not interesting me whatsoever?)

That's right, they're all about vampires. Humans made immortal by feasting on the blood of other humans are a literary device nearly as old as literary devices, and over the years they've been used as metaphor for all kinds of different things, but the pop-culture vampire craze of the 2000s has been squarely aimed at the fairer sex.

On the surface, it's easy to see why women find vampires, and the vampire myth, irresistable: They wear a lot of black, well-fitted clothes. They're often into leather pants, which chicks are always a sucker for. They keep their hair slicked back, they're thin and lithe (not a lot of carbs in fresh blood), and they're seldom without a little five-o'clock shadow. And they're always played by dreamy white guys. (Although they're usually awfully pale, which, if you asked most women where "legal-pad white complexion" ranks on a list of Most Attractive Traits, I doubt would crack the Top 20, so this one's a bit of a head-scratcher.)

Team Edward all the way!
So, other than the fact that they tend to look like Robert Pattinson and Alexander Skarsgard, what do women find so fascinating about vampires? I have a couple of theories.

First, I don't think it's any secret that there's nothing more attractive to the ladies than an unavailable man. (As a happily married -- and doggedly faithful -- bartender working in Manhattan, I have observed this phenomenon in action on many an occasion. But let's stay with vampires.) And who is more unavailable than a man who can't go out in the daytime, and feeds on human flesh? Talk about a bad boy that'll piss off your dad!

And this is, of course, the ultimate version of the widespread female fantasy as regards wildly inappropriate romantic prospects, the fantasy that boils down to four words: "I can change him." He's total player, and he's slept with all my friends but never called any of them again? I can change him. He's never had a girlfriend longer than a week and he specializes in fake phone numbers? I can change him. He only calls me when the bars are about to close? I can change him! He roams the streets at midnight prowling for virgins to prey upon? He comes home just before dawn, drenched in fresh blood from the chin down? I CAN CHANGE HIM!!!

At least this guy knew how to party.
And change him they have, at least in the last decade's iterations of vampire romances. The gleeful, carefree party-all-night vamps of The Lost Boys have been replaced by the tortured, brooding emo boys who are just filled with longing that they can't be with their one true love, and they'll do anything to prove their undying devotion, including the ultimate form of self-denial: they stop feeding on people, turning to alternatives like animals and (on True Blood) a synthetic blood substitute. They deny their predatory nature in the name of true love. (Not the most complex metaphor.) Even after hundreds of years and thousands of victims, these sexy vampires can fall prey to the charms of one special girl, if she's special enough. If she's special enough, she can change him. We all like to think we're special -- there's nothing wrong with that -- but it's dangerous to think your specialness is so special it can cancel out someone else's.

And of course, a vampire isn't (usually) a vampire by choice: he was preyed upon by another vampire, or regards his decision to become one as a youthful error that he now regrets. This is another element that plays into the warped romantic fantasies of young girls: the misunderstood (and smolderingly good-looking) outcast. It's not his fault! You don't know him like I do! He's good deep down, I just know it!

On a (slightly) deeper level, some women also respond to the idea that by giving herself (and her blood) to one of these dark-eyed strangers, a woman is actually giving him life. True Blood made a point in its first season of equating vampire Bill's feeding on human Sookie with total intimacy. The sex was no big deal, by comparison: Sookie had to beg Bill to bite her, purposely sacrificing part of herself for his sake. He literally needs her.

This point of view overlooks the obvious flip side of the argument, which is that he is literally sucking the life out of her, the same way a mosquito or a leech would. Is that the exact opposite of sexy, or am I missing something? Why not take this metaphor a little further, and have Bill embezzle all of Sookie's inheritance from her dear departed Gran? Will "The Leech Diaries" or "Mosquito Cove" be the next metaphorical romance series? I tend to doubt it.

(A side note on True Blood: I know people love it because it has a lot of sex and nudity and soapy details, but I'm sorry, this show is really terrible, and not (just) because it indulges in the tired metaphors outlined above. It started with a potentially interesting premise -- vampires have found a way to live with humans without feeding on them, and now live like any other persecuted minority -- but got bored with it before the end of its first season. Does anyone even remember anymore that the show is named after the synthetic blood the vampires drink to avoid biting people? When the show ran out of ideas along these lines almost immediately, it started adding more and more supernatural elements -- shapeshifters, maenads, werewolves, witches -- that have no deeper meaning at all and totally undermined whatever higher meaning the show might have once aspired to. Watch for next year's Bon Temps mummy invasion, followed by the arrival of Dr. Frankenstein in season 6.)

Distant, cold, dreamy

I've been watching, God help me, The Bachelorette this season, and this year's lucky lady, an also-ran from the previous season of The Bachelor named Ashley, is a perfect case study in the mentality that all this vampire crap is both feeding and feeding off of. In the season premiere, before she met the 25 guys who would be competing for her hand, she was warned by an acquaintance that one of the guys, Bentley, was only coming on the show to promote his business, was a player, and that Ashley should watch out for him. When Bentley stepped out of the limo and introduced himself, Ashley was suitably guarded, but couldn't help noticing that Bentley was super-duper-dreamy. Bentley soon told America (but not Ashley) that he had come on the show hoping one of the other Bachelor also-rans named Emily would be the bachelorette, and was in no way attracted to Ashley. At their second meeting, Bentley was aloof, distant, and clearly not interested, and Ashley fell head-over-heels for him. Even after making out with her, Bentley was clear (to the cameras, not to Ashley) that Ashley was not for him, and behaved accordingly: he insulted her to the cameras and was emotionally detached whenever they spoke, but Ashley began to intimate that she had found her future husband. Bentley sensed that Ashley was over the moon for him, so he made an excuse and left the show, and Ashley spent the next three weeks pining for him, ignoring the 20 other guys competing for her attention, and generally making a fool of herself.

He's on the show to promote his business? I'll win him over. He's a player? I can change him! He's emotionally unavailable and clearly not interested? Wait till I turn on the charm! He has left entirely? I CAN GET HIM BACK!
The Bachelor is usually chosen from the losing field of the previous season of The Bachelorette and vice versa. I would bet the farm that the next bachelor will be Bentley -- with all the controversy he stirred up, it will be ratings gold. One might argue that he's such a jerk, why would any of the ladies want him? You watch. Bentley will be the bachelor, and the field of 25 ladies will have a couple of conscientious objectors; the rest will go for Bentley hook, line, and sinker, just like Ashley did, spurred on by the challenge of trying to change him with her extra-special specialness while cameras broadcast it all to an envious nation of the women who think they could change him faster.

Look, I don't begrudge anyone the right to have exciting encounters with strange, dangerous partners. But we have a whole generation of young girls who are growing up identifying with Sookie Stackhouse and Bella Swan, and imagining that the brooding, mysterious guy who won't call them back is a potential life partner when he's really just a dick.


  1. You must have missed out on Angel-- he is Buffy the Vampire Slayer's vampire boyfriend, possibly the precursor to the current trend, who fits nicely into your thesis. A large portion of Buffy was dedicated to the impossible romance btw the two of them. He made the ultimate romantic gesture by willingly suppressing his bloody urges to be with her. He even had a spin-off of his own where he had some kind of a detective agency that was dedicated to helping people fend off demons or something like that. Casting agents over at Buffy went seriously against type though, because they picked a big, brawny meathead type for Angel instead of the typical scrawny, pale rocker dude, and it's hard to take him seriously. But it's probably important to show a greater diversity of body types in the vamp community. Not all vampires are ectomorphs.