Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Why America is Vampire Heaven

Vampires used to be sexy, dangerous, and cruel. These days they are just as likely to drive mid-priced European hatchbacks, sparkle and have an unhealthy obsession with refraining from human blood.

Whatever you think about Stephenie Meyer’s The Twilight Saga (and, if you are one of my regular blog readers, I’m guessing it’s probably nothing very polite), only a fool would deny that it has had a significant impact on teen (girl) reading, on perceptions of vampires and on popular culture. Although there is superior literary ‘vampiric’ product out there, Twilight shares with Harry Potter the quality of generating a world which many people want to climb inside and live in.

Curiously, for me, I’m not going to lampoon the series, primarily because it would be almost too easy. Equally, I’m not going to comment on the dubious vision of women found in the Saga – the central character, Bella, is clearly utterly obsessed with Edward and has no goals outside of wanting to be with and please him. This is not an attractive vision of young womanhood.

Edward has that, 'Damn I need to crap a hunk of dried blood the size of a boulder again' feeling

Instead, I want to comment upon what Meyer’s representation of vampires has to say about her picture of the USA. This interests me in part because Meyer is a practising Latter Day Saint. The relevance of this is that the Latter Day Saints are, in a sense, the ultimate expression of a certain kind of American self-understanding sublimated into religion. Let me put it like this: there is a key sense in which America has, in its very DNA, a conception of itself as place of blessing and ‘manifest destiny’. Given that, it is logical that God would speak directly to Americans – would single them out for revelation and blessing. Thus, the Book of Mormon – a revelation which, according to LDS story, was found in the US for a chosen people on a pilgrimage of destiny. While The Twilight Saga is not a LDS book – though it clearly is one of the most ill-disguised adverts for pre-marital celibacy around – it is a book which reveals much about Meyers’ prejudices and pictures about her native land.

The Twilight Saga tells us again and again that vampires are both dangerous and alien. Most vampires prey upon humans and keep their distance from conventional human society. We are told that humans have a natural discomfort in their presence, even though vampires can be extraordinarily charming when finding their prey. However, the real story of Twilight, once we see underneath the sickly romance between Bella and Edward, is about acceptance.

Firstly, the central lovers are essentially insecure. They are addicted to each other beyond reason and sense and, even though Edward presents a more mature front, both spend an inordinate amount of time actually holding onto each other; as if they can only be safe and secure in each other’s arms. What they are both desperate for is acceptance and sense of place.

'Is that a Volvo C30 Edward drives? Hawt.'

Secondly, the Cullen clan, under the leadership of Dr Carlisle Cullen, are driven by the desire to belong – to belong to the ordinary company of good and decent Americans. Thus Carlisle works extraordinarily hard in that most respectable of professions – a doctor; his wife Esme is a homemaker and his adopted children all go to the local school, work hard and get top grades. And they love the American pastime – baseball. This is vampirism as ‘fitting in’. Even when the kids are taken out of school it is on the pretext of doing something wholesome – going hiking. Of course they’re actually indulging in that other All-American pastime – hunting grizzlies. In fact, if it wasn’t for the fact that this family are drinking the grizzlies’ blood they’d give the family from Little House on the Prairie a run for their money.

The message of all this is that, even if you are a vampire, you can find real acceptance in America: as long as you make sure you maintain your wholesome image and you don’t give into any, well, dubious/’unnatural’ urges like wanting to drink people’s blood (among no doubt a much bigger list of things). Oh, yes, and you have an exceptional amount of money and are good looking. For the Cullens have more cash than Bill Gates and Steve Jobs (and are obviously better looking – though there are a number of the previously mentioned grizzlies who can achieve that). They love to drive flashy European cars (which curiously does not annoy their patriotic countrymen and women – clearly the US car industry is totally screwed), have piles of cash lying around the house and wear designer clothes.

Indeed there is a truly profound comment on America here[1]: the message of the Cullens is that if you really want to get on the US today, be exceptionally attractive, drive gas-guzzling, environment destroying motors and throw away insanely expensive clothes after one use. That’s right folks: true acceptance in the US comes to those who are wealthy enough to afford to treat the world as their garbage can and do not care that the creation of their expensive threads has ruined the hands of ten children in a back alley workshop in Jakarta.

Of course, the only ones who really see through the Cullens are the Native Americans...wait a minute, isn’t Meyer’s take on them actually a bit racist (native Americans turn into ‘smelly dogs shocker’) and stereotyped? Oh God, what’s the point...
Just go read the books...or don’t...or meet a handsome vampire and give up on your life ambitions...
Nurse! NURSE!!!

[1] By ‘profound’ I mean ‘silly and pseudo-intellectual’