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Guest Blog: Revamped – How the Twenty-First Century Vampire Is Redefining Masculinity

By Tracy L. Bealer, Colorado State University

Power, good looks, and a preoccupation with penetration. These qualities unexpectedly describe both privileged masculinity and vampires. With their preternatural strength, lethal attractiveness, and penetrative fangs, the figure of the vampire has long been understood, by Nina Auerbach and others, as a literary and cinematic representative of the hypermasculine ideal. The vampire in fiction has his origins in John Polidori’s 1819 novella The Vampyre, written as part of the same ghost-story competition which also gave us Frankenstein (Polidori was, along with Percy Shelley and his wife Mary Shelley, one of Byron’s guests at Lake Geneva during 1816). After that, the most famous one to appear was, of course, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which appeared in 1897. However, towards the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first, the so-called sympathetic vampire began to complicate that equation. Characters like Angel in Joss Whedon’s television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel; Edward Cullen in Stephenie Meyers’s Twilight Saga; the Salvatore brothers in The Vampire Diaries; and Bill Compton in True Blood inhabit hypermasculine bodies but struggle mightily against the dominative and lethal predilections those bodies (and the literary genres in which they find themselves) encourage and excuse.

My current and future research aims to explore the progressive possibilities offered by the twenty-first century sympathetic vampire, through the lens of gender and genre theory. By investigating the ways these characters resist what Kaja Silverman and other contemporary feminist theorists term “toxic masculinity” through a supernatural framework, I suggest that vampirism provides a workable model for dismantling gender privilege. Though Angel, Edward, Stefan, and Bill have bodies that are designed for domination, particularly of the human women they fall in love with, their repeated attempts to work through their bloodlust can be read as a metaphor for how equitable relationships can be constructed in a masculinist world.

I am also interested in how genre conventions inflect and complicate this problematic. Angel, Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer spin-off, seems, in its early seasons, to be consciously citing visual and textual cues from film noir. The hardboiled heroes of these stories are often violent and emotionally closed off—characteristics that make them successful detectives, but woeful friends and lovers. Angel, because he is a vampire with a soul, cannot allow himself to be similarly isolated from human, due to the risk of descending back into the very evil he is pledged to combat. The first two seasons of the series in particular investigate how Angel negotiates the benefits (physical strength) and drawbacks (pesky bloodlust) of vampirism in a detective fiction context. I will be presenting a talk at this year’s Pop Culture Association conference in Washington D.C. that discusses this dichotomy entitled “Fang Noir: Revamping the Hardboiled Hero in Joss Whedon’s Angel.”

The series-long existential crisis articulated by Edward Cullen in the Twilight saga gives depth and philosophical import to a melodramatic plot. Because he is brave, noble, and handsome, Edward conforms to the stereotype of the melodramatic hero. However, he is not fearless, as most melodramatic heroes tend to be. His anxiety stems from the terror that he will indulge his impulses towards anger, jealousy, and lethal violence—traits assigned to villains in melodrama, and all related to his vampirism. As Edward articulates, he is the good guy and the bad guy, and the only resolution to this internal ambivalence is found through loving Bella, the teenaged human heroine of the novels. Though Bella often finds herself in need of physical rescue, Edward in many ways is a demon in distress, needing to be “rescued” from his vampiric and isolationist impulses through loving Bella. This generic gender inversion, along with Edward’s commitment to imaginatively projecting himself into Bella’s more fragile body in order to protect her from his supernatural strength, feminizes his character in a way that does not make him less masculine, but rather more empathetic. Whereas melodrama typically positions women in a passive and vulnerable state, the Twilight Saga subversively makes its hero embody the typically masculine and feminine characteristics endemic to the genre. This angle looks to extend the argument about Edward’s progressive masculinity found in my chapter in Bringing Light to Twilight.

I am working towards a book-length project that will additionally explore True Blood’s Bill Compton in terms of the Southern Gothic genre, and the Salvatore brothers of The Vampire Diaries in the context of the Novel of Manners. Each of these figures takes a traditionally heteronormative hero and, by and through his vampirism, suggests a more progressive and equitable way of inhabiting a masculine body. That, I contend, makes these characters’ phenomenal popularity not only culturally interesting, but politically important.

Tracy L. Bealer teaches composition at Colorado State University and blogs at Once More with Geekery. She can be reached at tracy.bealer@gmail.com with any and all comments and reading suggestions relating to vampires both sparkly and not.

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About interestingliterature

A blog dedicated to rooting out the interesting stuff about classic books and authors.

Posted on February 25, 2013, in fantasy, Fiction, Gothic, Literature, Novels and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. You don’t mention Anne Rice’s The Vampire Chronicles (Interview with a Vampire/The Vampire Lestat/Queen of the Damned)? I feel she explored all these ideas in great depth before Buffy etc. fully took off & the later books/programmes/films owe her a great deal…

    • I’m with you here. How do you jump to Buffy and Angel as the beginning of the romanticized vampire but not even mention Lestat et al? That’s not to say this article doesn’t have merit, but it skipped an entire generation – one where vampires weren’t just pretty and strong but equally terrifying and godlike.

    • This is certainly an interesting article and I agree with a lot stated. I look forward to there being more to read in future. However, I agree that consideration needs to be given to the characters within The Vampire Chronicles where these matters are examined in great detail.

  2. I agree that these books’ popularity is culturally interesting, and marks a change in ideas about roles that may have significant cultural and political impact; but I think I would have phrased it much more simply: Edward Cullen (and similar types), as an object of women’s fantasy, represents how many women wish men would behave. But have they not been wishing for a long time that men would be more considerate and sensitive, and more keen to suppress their own power for the good of others? The question is whether or not men will buy into it this time. For once upon a time, the ideal of chivalry also urged men to be meek at table, and to suppress their own power for the sake of others; but that aspect of the ideal was never realized, and today many remember chivalry (or what was left of it) as an example of toxic manhood. I wonder if this new model for masculinity will suffer a similar fate. I wonder what aspects of the modern vampire will remain popular after a generation or so.

  3. I agree that any discussion of the reluctant vampire or the vampire trying to balance out the unfair distribution of power which has tilted into his favour must begin with Anne Rice, but this is a fascinating idea. I also think that Mr Beardedpoet above makes a good point. What has changed is who is in control of the images and the creation of character. Anne Rice, Stephenie Meyer and Charlaine Harris obviously all have their double x-chromosomes in common, while Joss Wheedon is a staunch feminist. The men you mention are female fantasy incarnate. In the case of Twilight, it’s teen female fantasy in particular: a handsome heroic protector who does not pressure you about sex=jack-freaking-pot! I look forward to more on this topic from you.

  4. I always felt uncomfortable with Edward’s character, because of the undercurrent of domestic violence in his relationship with Bella (e.g. her – I’d had worse – bruises on her honeymoon etc). In this context his implicit appeal to be rescued appears a little disturbing (if sincere). The attraction of rescuing a dangerous Byronic hero seems to be as old as … Byron, at least. It reminds of some moments in (the awful) Varney the Vampyre, where he appeals for female pity and protection. On the other hand, I’d be very interested to rethink my approach to Edward and I hope we have an update on your work here.

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