Why Vampires?

I don't find the current vampire craze very mysterious, and I find my interpretation of it to be so stunningly obvious that I can't really claim it as an original idea.  But for anyone out there who's wondering why people (and girls especially) are so into vampires - and asking the heavens when this vampire craze will end - here's my take on the subject.

I think it's all about feminism.  Hit the jump to find out how and why.

I'm going to generalize here, but not wildly, so bear with me.  Girls today are brought up believing that a good relationship consists of two equals who respect and admire one another, who split responsibilities both professional and domestic.  It is marked by compromise and negotiation, and any attempt by one partner to dictate, commandeer, and control the other will meet with stiff resistance.

So when women have fantasies about a different kind of relationship, and a different kind of man, they run into a problem playing them out.  Remember the 70s?  Bra-burning, Roe v. Wade, Title IX, the Equal Pay Act, etc., etc.?  That was also the heyday of the bodice ripper - all the visible progress made by feminists had a strong undertow as romantic heroes in pulp novels became more and more violent, always ravishing their TSTL (too stupid to live) heroines, usually to the tune of her feeble, blushing protestations.  A lot of those fantasies were put at a safe distance, set in an assortment of far-off places and times where the leading ladies could not be expected to know any better.

Eventually, the mood changed: a lot of women today refuse to self-identify as feminists, even as they fiercely guard the rights that feminism won for them.  Some of the old guard think that we're slipping, perhaps losing the ground we've gained, or at least slowing our progress unacceptably.  At the same time?  Well, the bodice-ripper has fallen out of favor.  Historical romances these days are oddly proto-feminist stories - the heroines in them are always busily laying the groundwork for 20th century advances, running small-scale businesses, volunteering with astonishing professionalism, called to a vocation if not a career.  And Mr. Jerky Rapist Dude is not a turn-on for this new brand of leading lady.

To me, the implications are really clear.  Women are no longer comfortable engaging in fantasies about men they'd turn down flat in reality.  Our new historical fantasies are full of continuity - women have always been bold, purposeful, and doing-it-all, they say.  Women have always craved independence and nourished goals of their own.  They've always wanted a marriage of equals, founded on mutual respect.

But.  There's always a 'but,' and this one is pretty significant.  Those bodice-ripper fantasies haven't really gone away or died.  They've just been displaced. The imaginary past is no longer distant or safe.  Instead, our unacceptably controlling, violent, dominant heroes have themselves become...imaginary.  They're vampires and werewolves now.  They are figments of our imagination, and they are not human.  That's two new axes of distance that we've created.  Axis one: these are impossible creatures, creating an explicit, pure fantasy.  Axis two: they belong to a different genetic pool, so readers are excused from the need to expect them to conform to human standards.

It's the latter qualification that I'd like to examine in more detail.  The imaginary creatures that feature most prominently in these new fantasies are vampires and werewolves.  Team Edward and Team Jacob, in the popular vocabulary.  But the Twilight series is just a variation on a theme, expressed repeatedly in other books and TV shows.  Vampires and werewolves represent, pretty consistently, a unique type of unacceptable fantasy: vampires are Masters, and werewolves are Brutes.

Vampire/Master: lordly, dominant, controlling, frightening, superior, unemotional (or rarely moved to emotion).  In almost every vampire mythology circulating right now, the vampires build insular, feudal societies - they are aristocratic, chaining their bloodthirsty natures through the rule of law and elaborate ritual.  They are cold and noble.

Werewolf/Brute: hot-tempered, instinct-driven, family-oriented, hyper-protective, unpredictable, high-energy, openly aggressive, often affiliated with the military or military in spirit.  Gentle, faithful, and tame in an intimate family setting, modern werewolves in fiction exult in their animal natures.  They're primitive, back-to-basics cavemen types.

They're just two versions of the classic alpha male, re-imagined with fangs or fur.  The important thing is that they can't be changed or reformed.  It's in the nature of vampires to be Masters, just like it's in the nature of werewolves to be Brutes.  The heroine is released from the need to find a better specimen; if her vampire is resisting his urge to drain every last drop of blood from her body, he's already head and shoulders above the rest.  If her werewolf is jealous - well, if he can resist the desire to tear other potential suitors limb-from-limb, he deserves a reward.  They only have to meet the high standards of their type, they are excused from meeting the qualifications the same woman would demand of a human male.

There are a lot of other issues at play here.  One, for example, is choice - it's been much noted that unlike in the old bodice rippers, it's up to Twilight'sBella to pick her poison.  The other, of course, is the fact that masculine identity is very much in the hotseat now; but that's a discussion for another day.  In the meanwhile, I think it's safe to say that vampires and werewolves aren't going away any time soon.  Not until we find a new variation on the theme, anyhow - or until we hit a major shift in gender relations, and head off in a new direction.