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Taking a bite out of gender relations in vampire media

Jessica Ireland | Interrobang | Lifestyles | October 26th, 2009

It seems that lately, many girls and some women will either enthusiastically or bashfully admit that they're crushing on a vampire.

They're most likely referring to Edward Cullen of Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series.

With the insane growth of the Twilight series, now made into a movie with the second installment New Moon in theatres this November, and a subsequent explosion of more vampire media on television with Vampire Diaries and True Blood — society's clearly experiencing a resurgence of vampire popularity since Buffy the Vampire Slayer went off the air.

But while this is all seemingly fun entertainment coupled with a bevy of attractive men and women with star-crossed romances — what kind of narratives are viewers getting from it and are these love storiesmore hurtful?

Professor Tim Blackmore, an associate professor in the media, information and technoculture faculty at the University of Western Ontario, specializes in research on popular culture. He believes the issues in these types of narratives stem back to the conflicting messages girls receive in their youth on how they're supposed to act.

“There are two directions,” he explained. “One, (girls) need to be passive, want to be princesses. Two, there's the sexualization of young girls.”

Professor Susan Knabe, assistant professor in women's studies and feminist research at the University of Western Ontario also believes that the narratives people are exposed to in their youth play a large part in why such stories are so attractive.

“It taps into the 14-year-old girl in all of us. Disney fairytale stuff — draws on people's understanding of romance and interpersonal relations that they get from Disney, Cinderella,” she said. “It appeals to a generation already primed to understand a text like this.”

So with the conflicting sexualized and princess ideals — what are most girls left with?

“What we've got — girls become young women at 17 — who want romance (but) to get romance, they need to give sex,” said Blackmore.

With Twilight and its insistence on abstinence — because if they do it, Edward might kill fragile Bella — readers and viewers are given a “safe” narrative that's just about the romance, Blackmore said.

Ergo Bella and Edward's Romeo-and-Juliet-like love story is hugely popular. These types of ill-fated lovers' tales have a “mythic quality,” said Blackmore. Viewers are able to escape into this fictional relationship and no longer feel the pressure to pick between the two roles society has determined for them. “It's a drawn-out emotional experience,” he explained.

However, what ends up happening is by watching these films and engaging in the literature — female viewers can be tricked into believing that's what they should seek out in a relationship, when this isn't even close to reality. “Guys look at this stuff and say, ‘This is not part of my world,'” said Blackmore on males' perspectives.

Concepts such as fate bringing two people together can be a dangerous concept for people to latch onto, said Knabe.

“This obsessive idea that these two people are destined to be together, this assumption of what an ideal relationship is has led to 1,000 restraining orders,” she said.

Another issue with the relationship dynamic involving vampires is that it seems to make certain male behaviour that society has attempted to eliminate acceptable. For example, Edward may appear like a valiant boyfriend, but his protectiveness borders on stalking and almost violent.

“It's an eroticization of what's quite misogynistic… ‘He loves her so much he can't help himself,'” Knabe explained.

Meanwhile, female stereotypes are also rampant. Bella is shoved into the female stereotype of a “lamb” — weak and always needing saving, she is consumed by this relationship and all other parts of her life are pushed aside.

“This innocent pleasure is deeply problematic,” said Blackmore. “They get the romance from Twilight, but underneath (Edward's) a stalker. What happens when you leave the theatre? You go looking for that.”

The issue of sex eventually arises too — when Edward makes love so violently, he bruises Bella, yet she covers them up because she likes it and doesn't want him to see them. This adds to the confusion for consumers of the story because now it's not just romance — there's sex and it's violent, but it gives the impression that it's okay for it to be that way.

Not every fan of the current vampire books and movies will fall for these types of dated roles — but surprisingly there will be a lot who do. Log onto any fansite and you'll see young girls and even mothers obsessed with and desiring such a relationship in their own lives.

But the fact that these trends catch on is a disconcerting reality of how many individuals appear to embrace these gender stereotypes.

“Very little of what comes out of Hollywood is good for women. Things that go nova like this are bad news,” said Blackmore.

Being aware of such trends and exploring the “underlying messages” that such romance texts have will help readers and audiences to disseminate what's okay and what's not okay, advised Blackmore. Questioning the story for what it really is helps keep the story fictional, instead of as some sort of backwards reality.

“When we take a text like this, we have to look at its politics,” said Blackmore. “It's about women being second, women coming out of men's ribs.”
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