In headlines this week, a Dark Prince who preyed on younger women over whom he wielded great power in the New York governor’s office. In summer reading, the dominance of escapist stories about powerless girls and powerful male vampires. Is it just coincidence, or are our stories normalizing predatory behavior?
The predatory male character is alive and well in vampire novels despite feminists’ numerous attempts to drive a stake into his literary heart. Stephanie Meyer’s newest, Midnight Sun was ranked #1 in Teen and Young Adult Contemporary Fantasy when I last looked it up on Amazon. The Kindle version was #2 and the first book in the saga, Twilight, held the third and fourth spots. Edward and his family of vampires are dominating summer reading. I think a review of sorts is in order.
But first, a quote from Midnight Sun (p. 3) to give you a taste you won’t soon forget:
“Jasper was…picturing himself getting up…to stand beside the little girl. Thinking of leaning down and in, as if he were going to whisper in her ear, and letting his lips touch the arch of her throat. Imagining how the hot flow of her pulse beneath the fine skin would feel under his mouth… I kicked his chair.”
The story is told in the voice of Edward, the vampire Bella falls in love with. One of his talents is to hear what others are thinking. Another is to resist the urge to sink his fangs into human necks, something his brother Jasper has a bit more trouble with.
As this quote demonstrates, the sadistic domination of helpless young women by powerful and ruthless males is thematic in vampire stories. As commentator Caitlin Brown puts it, “little has changed in terms of the relative roles of men and women since the publication of Dracula in 1897.” The problem, as she describes it in Feminism and the Vampire Novel (in The F-Word: Contemporary UK Feminism) is that Vampire novels “represent the male as virtually unassailable in terms of power, and generally intellectually superior due to the centuries of wisdom he has accumulated…The female human is physically weaker and…unable to resist the lure of the dashing corpse.” The whole setup is a “metaphor for the dominance of men within society.”
Bella eventually gains power by becoming a vampire. Does this solve the problem? I’m not so sure. Her power is given her by a much older and more powerful protector. Without him, who would Bella be? One difference between vampire novels of earlier centuries, such as Dracula, and the Twilight novels, is that most of the stories are told in Bella’s voice. But giving Bella a voice and giving her agency and power are not the same, and Bella has very little of either.
The problem is that Bella is swept up in the story like a bit of driftwood on a raging river. According to an analysis by Victoria Mikros (in Female Dependency in the Vampire Genre, Rhetorikos blog, Fordham University, p. 817): “Bella loses all ability to function as soon as Edward disappears from her life…This emotional dependency is present in the whole film series. The pattern in vampire stories of female characters’ dependency on male characters for emotional support, as well as for guidance and fulfillment, can significantly damage the self-esteem of female viewers and normalize this degrading image of female weakness and inferiority in society.”
The me-too movement seems to have been eclipsed by the pandemic, but did it leave us with any lasting insight into the behavior of powerful men who prey on young women?
If the popularity of stories about all-powerful vampires seducing young women is any indicator, apparently not. The stories normalize terrible behavior. Consider the early James Bond movies, which include frequent scenes in which a powerful, older male harasses, overpowers, and has forced sex with younger women. The studios making movies with this kind of predatory behavior turned out to be run by men who actually behaved that way and got away with it.
It’s gaslighting to present such behavior as acceptable. The fact that a series with such relationships is dominating the bestseller lists tells us that we have not put the problem behind us.
As an author, I’m writing vampire characters who are kick-ass women, probably gay, certainly not dependent on patriarchal male protectors. And as a parent, I’m warning my kids that Bella’s relationship is unhealthy and that they mustn’t be gaslighted by such stories.
But what I’m saying is obvious. It’s not news that Bella is a helpless child compared to Edward’s power and experience. So why are these stories popular? One thought is that readers may identify with Bella because they themselves feel powerless and swept by life’s currents. Caitlin Flanagan, a staff writer for The Atlantic, says:
“The salient fact of an adolescent girl’s existence is her need for a secret emotional life—one that she slips into during her sulks and silences, during her endless hours alone in her room, or even just when she’s gazing out the classroom window … she is a creature whose most elemental psychological needs—to be undisturbed while she works out the big questions of her life, to be hidden from view while still in plain sight, to enter profoundly into the emotional lives of others—are met precisely by the act of reading.” (What Girls Want, The Atlantic, December 2008)
It is this emotional deep dive into reading that may make readers profoundly vulnerable to the manipulation of vampire novels. The big questions in life are best not answered for adolescent girls by older, predatory men, whether in real life or in stories. The scandal involving a years-long pattern of predatory sexual harassment behavior by the governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, ought to be considered in light of the stories we tell and how they justify such behavior.
Alex Hiam is the author of Silent Lee and the Adventure of the Side Door Key and Silent Lee and the Oxford Adventure now available at Amazon. In addition to writing more Silent Lee adventures, he has begun work on a new kind of vampire story.