ON VAMPING UP CONVENTION
THE advent of Stephenie Meyer’s teen vampire romance saga Twilight , now a blockbuster film, was for some readers a new dawn after the end of the Harry Potter series. For others, such as me, it promised to fill an older gap left by the demise of Joss Whedon’s cultish, iconoclastic television series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer . I still long for more vampire stories with spunky girls at the centre. This loss was a big factor in my purchase of the Twilight saga’s large first volume at the airport before a long flight last year.
Meyer’s oddly hypnotic story turned out to be a perfect antidote to the pain of jetlag: an oldfashioned, dreamy romance.
It soon became clear, however, that rather than slaking the post-Buffy thirst, this vampire story was tapping into something much more unsettling. It was at some point in the third or fourth volume, right when the chaste heroine Bella admires how handsome her vampire boyfriend Edward looks in his ‘‘ khakis and pale beige pullover’’, that my suspicions were fully confirmed. Vampires in pale beige? I was, in fact, reading something like the anti-Buffy.
Both critics and admirers of Meyer’s Mormoninfluenced vision have steadily noted the series’ conservative sexual and social politics ( though it must be said that moral conventionality looks pretty weird when seen through Twilight ’ s distorting supernatural lens: sex should wait until you are married. Married to a vampire . Having vampire babies and slurping blood from a cup designed for milkshakes.)
Twilight exchanges Buffy’s message of girl power for the stalest — but, it seems, the most compelling — narrative of female masochism, where sex is not only bad but also something you get punished for.
In Whedon’s series, the vampires sometimes mistake Buffy for a victim from some outdated story, doomed to scream helplessly and wait for a guy to save her but they pay dearly for those expectations: this girl surprises them and kills all the monsters with a little help from her friends. Whedon’s witty, quirky critique of sexist narrative tradition seemed to signal that we had moved into a world where those obsolete expectations were turned on their heads. How could we go back?
Unlike the well-groomed Buffy, Bella is careless of her appearance, not a girly girl ( she has a natural beauty, naturally, of which she is charmingly unaware). She is, however, creepily like a perfect little wife to her divorced dad from the day she moves in with him. She hurries home from vampire make-out sessions so she can be
KATE and Steve lived in their haven on the hill in Toolangi State Forest for just a few months, but it was their place before they even moved in.
Someone else bought the 16ha block when the subdivision took place in the 1950s, and a creative builder constructed an interesting little house of local timber and found objects. These included a couple of stained glass windows, from an old property in the area, that glowed in the setting sun. One wall of the shed was a forsale sign from the days when that piece of paradise was first on the market. But these people were just caretakers; this small home and its bushy surround awaited Kate and Steve.
It began to show their special touch as they continued what others had begun. Steve replaced the shiny metal handles of the stove with stripped tea-tree branches, polished to a honey gold.
As soon as they had possession and long before they moved in, Kate’s green fingers started revitalising the abandoned but once abundant vegie patch. With Steve’s mate Johnno they insulated the walls, lining them with panels of another local timber that was tinged with pale pink.
They cleared around the house, got rid of scrubby undergrowth and encouraged the native orchids and indigenous plants to thrive. back in time to cook dinner for Dad and do the dishes, since he’s so bad at looking after himself.
Bella’s not so old-fashioned when it comes to sex. She wants to sleep with her vampire paramour, Edward, but he is so beholden to his turn-of-the-century beliefs that he insists on marriage first, and a 2000-page courtship. He is also afraid that he will accidentally kill her if he lets himself kiss her.
Vampire stories have always conveyed a powerful sexual allegory: the kiss that gives into the darkest desires; the ecstatic penetration of the bite. Edward wants equally to kiss Bella’s throat and tear it out. He masters this impulse, the monster within, but it is a daily struggle supposed to convey his strength of character.
Bella’s and Edward’s arguments about sex make real every metaphor you’ve ever heard or imagined about women’s supposed fragility and the violent force of male desire. ‘‘ I won’t be able to control myself. You’ll get hurt,’’ Edward pleads before their wedding night. He’s strong and hard as steel; she’s a delicate, crushable
The place shone with their loving care. But it wasn’t only the house and vegie patch that were renewed; they too thrived in the peace and tranquillity of this tree-filled space far from the noise and bustle of suburbia.
Marley and Ralph, their small canine companions, thought they were in heaven as they roamed the 16ha, unsuccessfully chasing the scents of echidna, kangaroo and possum.
Old friends who were lucky enough to visit them there in those months saw the love Kate and Steve had found for each other and this little piece of Australian bush. Locals who had known them for only the few years they had been together in the Yarra Valley recognised that the couple had found something special.
And I, Kate’s mother, was filled with joy that my daughter had found a person and place to love more deeply than she had imagined possible. Her brother Dave and sister Jane were flower. Bella claims to be less fragile than Edward thinks, and the books linger over every detail of her erotic excitement, the thrill of every touch amplified by the constant effort to restrain herself, not go too far, not excite the monster too much. He’s the one saying no, but only because his embodiment of potentially monstrous sexual appetite is matched by an equally excessive streak of protective feeling and moral nicety.
Edward is the romantic hero taken to dizzy extremes: he’d kill to keep you safe — and chaste — but his ardour is such that it would destroy you if fully awakened. How he loves you!
The success of Meyer’s gorgeously crafted hymn to convention proves that authors and filmmakers are still happy to create stories that end with cowering girls being saved by powerful guys, and girls are more than happy to embrace them. Witness the depressing spectacle of violence that ends the first book, and the movie, where Bella is brutally tortured and rendered helpless before being rescued by Edward: precisely the kind of familiar nightmare that Buffy tore apart.
Bella has her desires, but their cost in this drama of masochism may break your heart. She wakes up from their first night of ecstatic marital sex to find her body battered, covered in bruises from unintended injuries she was numb to at the time. Edward turns his face away in shame: sadly his predictions were true.
It’s popular ( Mormon) teen vampire romance: what did I expect? And is it so bad to enjoy this kind of guilty pleasure, a good story that just happens to reinforce a whole battery of patriarchal values?
‘‘ This book’s success makes me wonder about the future of mankind,’’ says a post on an internet discussion page dedicated to Twilight . ‘‘ I work in a bookstore that had a release party and there were hundreds of teenage girls there who were totally, genuinely in love with Edward. They are the kind of books that are so bad they are good. To know that there are girls and their mothers who take this misogynistic bullshit seriously saddens me.’’
But who knows? Maybe the young fans of Twilight will be inspired to watch re-runs of that ancient TV series about the blonde who kills vampires and imagine a different kind of world, where girls can kiss as hard as they like, and look after themselves. thrilled that their big blooming with love.
Now our joy is washed by more tears than we can ever shed.
On Saturday, February 7, 2009, it took just moments for Kate, Steve, Marley and Ralph to die together when the wind changed direction and a wedge of fire raced through their place. It happened so fast, they would not even have known that it was coming.
The announcement of their death, printed alongside the pain of so many others also trying to understand how a moment can take away so much, says it all: ‘‘ It was the place they loved. They would not have wanted to be anywhere else.’’
But the depth of sadness in Dave’s eyes while he tries to find solace with his own little family, the intensity of the grief and anger in Jane as she rails against the world and struggles to accept that she will never see her Kate again, and the depth and intensity of my grief also say it all: sweet as memories might be of the happiness they found on that hill in Toolangi, it isn’t fair that they died, and our pain will never cease.
thislife@ theaustralian. com. au For This Life guidelines, go to www. theaustralian. com. au/ lifestyle. Kirsten Tranter lives in Ithaca, New York. She is working on a novel.
sis was content