Monday, October 03, 2011

Bloodlust: Sex, Teens & Vampires

The vampire was an object of fear, but recent Hollywood portrayals — brooding, dangerous, eternally young — make him the young woman’s ultimate sex symbol.

In an article I found in one corner of the Internet, columnist (and clearly not a teenager) Drew Zahn writes of Twilight: "a misunderstood heroine falling for the perfect guy — athletic, rebellious, dark, mysterious, sensitive, strong, protective, but wounded, needing her to heal him and at the same time worshipping her like a princess, a combination more seductive to girls than any pheromone and more addictive than cocaine." It isn't just the appeal of this older (though he doesn't look it) and deeper (after all, he is *living* history) vampire who falls in love with the heroine; it becomes a question of a relationship with something extraordinary. A tortured soul who needs healing, and teenagers acutely aware that healing isn't just emotional, and expressive love doesn't stop at words.

When I was a teenager, the biggest thing in my television world was Buffy the Vampire Slayer. A 16 year old in love with a vampire-with-a-soul (a vegetarian vampire, as it were), conflicted by the human vs monster dynamic. In that show Buffy is a vampire slayer, so the question of romance with Angel, the vampire, becomes even more complicated. After Angel 'proves' his love to her with puppy dog eyes and by saving her life — and not biting her — they finally have sex, after a particularly hairy night. The consequence? He loses his soul and becomes her arch nemesis. Which really gives whole new meaning to the oft-experienced complaint girls have that guys "change after sex".

I'm ten years older than I was when I saw Buffy, and I've got another vampire on my TV, this one courting a 17 year old girl. (Yes, I know. I know!) The show is called Vampire Diaries, and many of my 28 year old friends are equally enthused by it. The girl is confident, she quickly figures out her almost-boyfriend is a vampire, accepts it, and they begin a sexual relationship. There is minor betrayal after the act — she finds out she looks exactly like his ex — but the matter is rectified quickly enough and it's back to bedroom for them.
The romantic market value of the vampire rocketed with great casting — six packs, angular jaws, broodiness —and story upon story drilled it into the psyche that sleeping with the vampire was special because he was so deeply in love with the human, that he would never hurt (read: bite) her

Somewhere along the line, we stopped fearing the vampire. We humans stopped fearing them so much, that, unlike Dracula, they no longer need to put humans in their 'thrall'. Humans are jumping up and down, begging to be had, as Bella asks Edward repeatedly throughout Twilight. Elevating his status from a mere mortal — and teenage boy — his "ancient" chivalry just makes him more sexy to her. And so the vampire has gone from a coffin toting pasty bloodsucker to an eternal 17 year old who keeps a copy of Gone with the Wind in his bedroom. Now that's hot.

It gets hotter. Some of you were probably waiting for me to get to True Blood, the sexiest, raciest, most graphic vampire show on television. Some would say its soft porn, others would say it feeds every masochistic tendency you have ever had. Without spending too much time on the details, let me give you a few: sex between vampires and humans, unlike our teen lovers, is aggressive and uncontrolled. Humans who go after vampires in this world (called, subtly, "fang bangers") like rough sex, and there are scenes which have vamps doing it while their victims are lying bleeding under the bed. Yeah. In fact, even the oh-so-virginal Twilight hints at a rough ride for Bella when the morning after brings torn pillows all over the room and bruises all over her body.

Its not just these wildly popular TV shows that have us gasping for breath, its the books too. Vampire books meant for teenagers have a great deal of sex in them - some would even call it an inappropriate amount - and its got some people worried. Researchers at the Journal of Sex Research found that scenes meant for 12-13 year old were no less steamy than those for over-14s. Also, since these were vampire related stories, in none of the books (including those for adults), was there mention of safe practices or negative consequences. At the same time, TV shows are freely available to download (legal or illegal) and some of the supernaturally crafted scenes are just plain disturbing. What would have otherwise been shelved at the back of the video store, with promises of handcuffs, dog collars and whips, have made it to prime time telly, with sex and violence intermingling, and the majority of viewers not really alarmed at all.

Over the years, we've adjusted to the fact that vampires are beautiful. Flawless, breathless, perfect shapes; frozen in time but not in emotion. The romantic market value of the vampire rocketed with great casting — six packs, angular jaws, broodiness —and story upon story drilled it into the psyche that sleeping with the vampire was special because he was so deeply in love with the human, that he would never hurt (read: bite) her. The second step, which always follows, is that she lets him bite her, normally because human blood can heal a wounded vampire. The act of biting and sucking is deeply personal; in Buffy it bordered on sexual, while in the Vampire Diaries it is more about the exchange of energy and trust. While there are female vampires in these universes, the story is extremely focused on the vampire man and human girl, because, in the end, the stories are for young women to lust after. Desire is the essence of any love story, but drop it into a parallel universe with little or no rules and it begins to unravel. A horrific scene in Twilight is when Bella's rib cage breaks as the vampire baby inside her grows at an abnormal pace. The TV ad campaign for Vampire Diares — "got wood?" — had parents up in arms about it crossing a line. For True Blood, well, to quote Joey Tribbiani — the line is a dot to it!

In interpreting the vampire's cultural significance, Franco Moretti had described Dracula as a metaphor for capitalism, and blood his currency. Stephen Arata believed it to be a story of colonisation, with the vampire moving to new lands to dominate its citizens. Then, what would today's vampire — sexy, strange, human-lover, as it were — signify? Writers have offered that today's vampires are a voice for America's sexual revolution, where being boring is bland. Or, is it, asks writer Stephen Marche, an acceptance of gay men? Or a wholesome acceptance of different people, with their peculiar choices and sexualities?

Chew on that.


Pratik Mandrekar said...

Well written! Helps explain why romanticizing vampires has been so popular of late.

egg style said...

Cleverly concluded. That succinct little bit at the end puts it all in perspective frightfully well. In advertising, they speak of ‘vampire ads’, where the sex appeal part vacuums all interest away from the sales message. The Liril bikini ad that made waves (both water and soundwaves) across India back in ’74 was hailed by adgurus and adgyaanis for actually escaping that fate and selling lots of soap (though, of course, this depends on who you ask… some wickedly say the ad was five years too late).

And before upside-dozing ‘vampires’ turned so hot in chiclit, there were these so-called ‘witches’, cloaked in black from head to toe and accused of concealing a ‘third nipple’ down somewhere in medieval Europe, who underwent a transformation in popular perception as readers started lightening up. At least one literary analyst says that the ‘tongue of bat’ in the cauldron recipe of Macbeth’s witchbrew was intended as humour even back in the 16th century.

Witches and vampires are now all the rage these days, it appears, though the S&M aspects of the latter, as portrayed in these books you mention, seem rather overdone; blame the Sales & Marketing guys… whips and cuffs, for fangsake?? Perhaps this suggests some residual pre-sexual-liberation need to beastify the overly lustful, even if superhumanly restrained (at least in that peculiarly slurpful lust). Then again, as you say, perhaps it’s just a boredom buster, given that this sort of wildness has lost much of its malevolence in popular perception (kinky is cute on some US campuses).

And yeah, the most intriguing element in all this is the gender conundrum. Male witches? Female vampires? Maybe that’s the success formula of the modern age. Guess male witchbrew is heady. And female fangs all-devouring!! [Hey, just kidding]

A said...

Just stumbled across your blog following some of your old columns in IE - interesting that you can write about anything!


mahima said...

Thanks Arvind. Just back after a long bout of travel and going to write more!