The Imaginary Heroine

searching for the plot

A New Dawn part 6: “Tall, Dark, and…Thirsty?” by Ellen Steiber March 14, 2010

[Part of a series discussing the essays in A New Dawn edited by Ellen Hopkins. These posts may contain spoilers about all four Twilight novels.]

This essay was one of my favorites of the lot. It started with a fun overview of vampire mythology, literature, and movies and some of the social constructs our changing vampires have reflected over the years. Unsurprisingly, when Steiber begins interpreting Meyer’s vampires as part of that continuing tradition she’s more than a little disappointed in how they stack up. As a traditional vampire novel, Twilight kind of sucks (lame pun intended). [Maybe because they’re a different kind of blood drinker? The “drink this wine it is my body” kind of blood drinker?… Ahem…] She then finds something even more creepy than blood-drinking monsters lurking beneath the vampiric veneer.

Steiber places the origins of our current crop of vampires in the Balkan “Vampire Epidemic” of the 1730’s. The legends and old wives tales found their way to Britain and were popularized by two works in particular. The first was John Polidori’s “The Vampyre” (I got my hot little hands on it for free right here). Published in 1819, Polidori’s tale of the vampire Lord Ruthven is said to be a product of the same ghost story session that spawned Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The darkly magnetic Ruthven, Steiber tells us, was even based upon another of the session’s participants, the bad boy, rock star poet Lord Byron.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) amped up the sexual tension. What with his trio of sexy lady vampire roommates and taste for young innocent women, Dracula was clearly a metaphor for the specter of sexuality in the repressed Victorian Era. “He’s a perfect example of the exotic, inscrutable stranger whom good girls really should avoid,” says Steiber. In 1931, Dracula became immortalized on the silver screen by the Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi. His portrayal was so arresting that it has held up for 80 years as the prototypical vampire. Ask anyone to do a vampire imitation and I’m betting it will owe quite a bit to Lugosi’s Dracula.

Over the years vampires have become even more tied to sexuality and romance. Steiber points out the advantages to a vampire as a romantic lead. A vampire is powerful and magnetic, making him immediately appealing to other characters and readers alike. The vampire has also become something of a sympathetic loner, making them emotionally vulnerable in ways that can be exploited for a number of plot devices, particularly a romance.

After setting up the source material for our modern vampires, Steiber decides that Meyer has actually inverted numerous traditional elements of the vampire. Edward is not a dark parasite destroying the life and virtue of his innocent victim. Quite the reverse, Edward is a paragon of Victorian morality, safeguarding his beloved’s virtue – even when she begs not only to become a monster, but to jump his bones as well. Even Bella’s transformation into a vampire is an inversion of the classic story line. Bella does not become a fallen monster, instead her transformation saves her life and enables her to raise her child.

If the vampires in Meyer’s universe aren’t about sexuality and destruction of innocence, then what on earth are they about?

“What I’ve come to see about vampires, though, is that they change with the time and culture they appear in. They’re mirrors of our fears and desires. Early bloodsucking vampires were all about the hold that the dead had on the living…The stories of psychic vampires told of people who fed on other’s energy, drawing their strength from weakening those around them… Even Bram Stoker’s Dracula has been interpreted as a reflection of fears of its time: of foreign influence threatening british society, of our animal nature threatening to overwhelm our reason, and of illicit and irresistible sexual compulsion threatening marriage…Meyer’s vampires – or more accurately Bella’s obsession with Edward seems to mirror our current terror of aging, our own deep fear that without flawless physical beauty, we’ll never truly be worth loving.”

The prevalence of the beauty as virtue has a major impact on the young women of today. Especially now that we live in an age of rhinoplasty for sixteen year olds and Photoshop features for personal digital cameras. Steiber is rightfully concerned that Twilight seems to whole-heartedly endorse this philosophy and export it to the millions of teen girls who read it.

“She’s taken our warped attitude toward age and made it even more extreme, and because Bella is so easy to identify with, I can’t help but feel uneasy with this. Life is change. What Bella’s so eagerly signing up for is everlasting stasis.”

Ellen Steiber‘s essay really surprised me. I thought I was in for a bit of historical info, but she really shifted my perspective on Edward’s sparkling, marble pecs and gave me another interpretation about the underlying meaning of Twilight. Her assertion that we have abandoned our disgust of the monstrous, parasitic vampires of the past in order to focus our loathing on humanity has given me plenty of tasty food for thought. Her bio at the end of the essay says that she’s also written for a book called Demigods and Monsters: Your Favorite Authors on Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians Series. Sounds delicious… *Adds to Amazon wishlist*


4 Responses to “A New Dawn part 6: “Tall, Dark, and…Thirsty?” by Ellen Steiber”

  1. I agree with Strieber’s reading of the saga as playing into our beauty/youth obsessed culture…
    I am wondering, how would you rate this collection overall? Is it worth reading? Amazon seems to frame it as “YA only”

    • It is written to a YA audience, but I enjoyed a number of the essays, particularly those of Nuzum and Steiber. There was a mix of discussions about both surface elements and deeper meaning. I feel like the diversity of the authors really helped the collection cover different approaches to the novels. Some were more successful than others.

      However, it never really addresses the implications of the series on the topic of women, which is a glaring oversight, considering it’s a book of analysis for *young women*. It also doesn’t cover more controversial issues like Native American heritage hijacking and influence of Meyer’s Mormonism on the overarching philosophy of the books.

      The collection did get me thinking, as you can see from the multiple posts, but I get more satisfying analysis from both your site and also that of John Granger. Which may be because, it’s a YA book and they don’t want to set off any trip alarms from the appropriateness police.

      I have high hopes for “Twilight and Philosophy” from the Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series, which I’ll start reading as soon as I, y’know, stop having to do silly things like go to work or clean the apartment or whatever ; 9

  2. Ana Says:

    Its interesting, and I agree but the obssesion with youth is also born out of the possibilities we have now as modern individuals.

    In other times methods of extending life and beautification were only available to the upper classes but now we not only have the masification of plastic surgery, botox, procedures to transplant hair and kidneys, as well as yoga and fitness diets, creams, massages, we have had women mothering kids at ages that were prohibited on other times thanks to the help of technology … are available now, mortality and aging are researched and every day we hear new advances on this idea that we can extent our lifespan and our health and youth, something that we didn’t had the time on other times when we could barely cover our basic needs. Our generation for the first time has the chance to consider “immortality” as a real possibility, thus fantasizing of how would you like to spent forever sounds like a theme we can allow ourselves to in merge in.

    Its very interesting that this positive portray of immortality is so popular right now because previous works on the matter treat it as curse. Edward himself is also an example of immortality sucks, but his relationship with Bella force him to change this idea. Maybe Edward is the metaphor to our fears of immortality, while Bella is the metaphor for hope that immortality could really be as satisfying and happy as we dream to. Specially given that we are choosing to live longer and look younger everyday.
    Just my two cents.

    • I like your idea of Edward representing the old tradition of immortality (fear/tragedy) while Bella represents the modern tradition of immortality (acceptance/triumph).

      I wonder what it means that Bella’s philosophy on immortality is the one that prevails at the end of the Saga.

      I also feel like Steiber has a really good point about how this reinforces fears of aging and anxiety about physical perfection. Sure we have more plastic surgery, creams, and spa treatments than you can shake a stick at, but are these actually healthy practices? Is it good that women in Hollywood are nipped and tucked into smoothness in order to keep from being type-casted as a villainess or a mom of an actor whose romantic counterpart she played not five years earlier? What about the personal and societal worth of women excluded from these practices either by race, ability, or socioeconomic status?

      I feel like it’s not really a healthy aspiration to never age. Media that accepts aging and physical maturation are probably better for us over all… Now…where is that media? It’s pretty slim on the ground, y’know?

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