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 email@example.com with any and all comments and reading suggestions relating to vampires both sparkly and not.