Fang-Bangers, Fur-baiters and Fuzzy Bunnies: What’s right about vamps, and wrong with the Twilight Saga.

July 28, 2010

THE RANT.

SPOILER ALERT: I’m up to speed with America on True Blood, I’ve seen Twilight: Eclipse (for my sins).

First off, let’s get one thing straight: I am not band-wagon jumping. I was digging vamps before you lot had heard of the Voltori, let alone Daywalkers, The Eliminati or death-by-beheading. And I’m not a sci-fi nerd. With the exception of my beloved Doctor, and the occasional Twilight Zone fest, if it ain’t undead, it ain’t for me. I’m a child of the Buffy generation, and I’m not a purist. I’ve read my Kevin Jackson, and I’m always on the lookout for an intelligent new mythology, or a smart new spin on an old one. Vampires allergic to silver? Fine. That’s got some dignity – and it does one of my favourite tricks, which is to play with the idea that the ‘truth’ about Fangers and their occult brethren has been distorted into popular myth; traditionally silver does away with werewolves, but there’s no reason that we shouldn’t think that because someone misunderstood which impossible beast they saw slain… and so on. But despite being able to go on the record as being Team Edward (because I’m suspicious of the racial stereotyping, and because Twilight wolves might as well be pussycats), I remain entirely opposed to the whole day-glo excercise in monster castration. Here’s for why.

Fang Bangers, or The Lady and The Vamp.

Buffy Summers is a superhero. She alone in her generation (except Kendra and Faith, obvs) can fight the vampires, demons and forces of darkness. Long story short, she alone among contemporary fang fiction heroines, hits back. And that’s entirely central to making Buffy the groundbreaking enterprise that it was. The appeal of having the lover who is, to all intents and purposes, part animal, and barely able to contain his bloodlust when he is around you (Angel, Bill Compton, Edward Cullen) is powerful, because it gets steamy scenes in under the censor’s radar. It’s a particularly potent device to use on a young audience who are likely to be doing their first ‘wanting to be wanted’ at round about the same time as they’re tuning in. Sexy TV is a good thing, I’m all for it – but I’m utterly opposed to daft gratuity or to using adolescents’ libidos to uphold a rightwing, repressive world view. So here’s how Buffy gets it right, and Twilight gets it so very very wrong.

Both the Twilight franchise and BTVS use vamps and demons as a metaphor for the internal demons every adolescent has to face. Big, scary, life-changing things that you could never, as a child, have imagined were out there, things that wreak havoc with your emotions and with your body. This is explicated in Buffy episodes like The Pack or The Freshman in particular. When Buffy first goes to bed with her undead lover, everything goes horribly wrong and is irrevocably changed – when he has his soul ripped from his body, the result of a long-standing gypsy curse. Buffy finds this easier than she thought she would to discuss with her mother, Joyce: ‘What, he wasn’t the same guy you fell in love with?’ says mom, wryly. Buffy is, obviously, devastated: but she fights back. She rallies troops, she gathers strength, she has a season-long battle that results in sending Angel off to his own personal (and one must assume introspective) hell, to come back to her redeemed. She moves on, and she gives the blighter who treated her badly what for. She grows up.

Twilight’s Bella Swan isn’t given the opportunity to grow up. Because her big tough monster-men (lucky Bella has two – vamp Edward and wolf  Jacob) make her decisions for her. Edward doesn’t believe he has a soul – but he’s sure as hell going to marry her before he’ll sleep with her, just to make sure hers doesn’t get damaged in the process. Even though he is undead. Even though she is willing to die, just to be with him. At one point in Twilight: Eclipse, competitors Jacob and Edward even discuss Bella and her feelings, and what is best for her, over the top of her head as she sleeps. And yet this pile of clap-trap likes to masquerade as feminist, having Bella at least attempt to resist Edward’s marriage proposals, and call the men who wolf-whistle her and her friends as they try on prom dresses ‘disgusting’. But the truth of the franchise is revealed all too clearly when she breaks her hand clocking Jacob on the jaw for kissing her against her will. She is completely, utterly helpless. She is, after all, a girl. Edward Cullen, in his tough-to-resist R-Patz package, shouldn’t be on screens where young hetero women can see him; he is dangerous. He says it himself: ‘My face, my body, even the way I smell… it’s all designed to attract you’ (or summat like that. All Twilight quotes approximate). On screen as well as in the movie’s mythology, the whole shebang is designed to make you believe him, and the awful, Palin-ite bilge that he propounds.

Briefly, True Blood should get some props on this point. Sookie Stackhouse can at least protect herself – although she reminds me somewhat of Sue Storm, in that her powers (thus far…) are all about empathy, protection and self-defence, whereas Buffy and Faith are straight-up badass. But True Blood and Buffy are also the only ones to buck the hetero-normative trend: True Blood has gay and bisexual characters amongst heroes, villains and somewhere-inbetween-ers alike, which makes the whole ‘male as sexual predator’ schtick harder to uphold.

And that’s not even what really gets my goat about Twilight.

Vampires are Scary.

Basic. Bloody. Truth. A vampire franchise that introduces a safe, cuddly alternative before establishing just how terrifying these creatures of the night are, is almost certainly doomed from the outset. True Blood trod a fine line on this one, but Bill Compton’s pallor and extreme strength and speed are demonstrated from the outset – as is his complex moral position: even as he orders some (synthetic) Tru Blood from Merlotte’s bar, he talks about his predilection for drinking blood from a particular vein in a woman’s groin. He’s obviously a bit of a monster, and he also has the decency to lurk in the shadows, only come out at night, not talk much and generally behave like a massive sinister weirdo. From the outset on Buffy, vamps were allowed to be savvy and funny – but they also brutally murdered teenagers, and belonged to a cult in an underground church, where they worshipped an ancient, shrivelled beast known only as ‘The master’. There are crypts, mausoleums, and moments of classic gothic horror interspersed with the stressful glamour of SoCal high-school life.

Edward Cullen goes to high school. Edward Cullen Glitters in Sunlight. He is a vegetarian. He shows willing by lurking in Bella’s room as she sleeps, making her think it’s a dream, à la Dracula, but only because she is So Damn Cute. Vampire-as-metaphor only works if the viewer’s disbelief is in crisis, and there is some kind of frisson around whether this is just a bad, lusty man or a real life, actual, blood-sucking fiend who can bring you into his thrall and control you for centuries to come.  The worst Cullen can offer is a severe case of puppy-dog eyes and a tendency to want to hold hands at moments of extreme crisis. Moments of extreme crisis that it’s rather hard to believe would ever come about, because this immortal individual is just SO DAMN BORING.

Redeeming features of the Twilight Saga: Washington State landscapes (although I recommend walking holidays or Twin Peaks as better sources), Bella’s dad, who worries and tries to advise, but also listens, respects her and gives her independence (utterly wasted on this youth, who is as boring as her paramour). He likes the outdoors and he likes fishing. And I jolly well like him. Everybody is very pretty, but a bit pale – except the wolf pack, who are First Nations Americans – because this is Hollywood. There are quotas to be met, but absolutely no necessity for those quotas to be reached without crude resort to racial stereotyping.

In conclusion: Vampires are good. Vampires are great. They’re subversive, they’re liberating, they’re sexy. But vampires are only good as long as they’re bad.

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