Friday, October 16, 2009

No Commitment to Sparkle Motion (Twilight)


“Real vampires don’t sparkle.” This is a common line heard from the Twilight haters, along with “Real vampires burn”. I can understand the concern of those who think the story is sexist or just think the story is cheesy. Those are valid opinions, but I just don’t really get the hatred of the story element in which the vampires sparkle in the sunlight. I think it’s an unusual divergence of the vampire mythology, but makes as much sense as anything in the context of the story. I think the whole backlash against the sparkling may be influenced by ageist and sexist lines of thought that associate sparkling with the aesthetics of young girls, and Edward is thus considered “sissy”.
First of all, vampires aren’t real. Sorry, but I have to go there. Vampires are an idea, one that has changed a lot over the years. In their standard mythical form, vampires are evil spirits that reanimate corpses of heretics or people buried in a heretical fashion, and rise from their graves at night to drink the blood of the living and also function as incubi (I believe because the decomposition process causes blood to show up at the mouth, and make males appear sexually aroused). Bram Stoker took the vampire concept and historical Romanian leader Vlad “Dracul” Tepes, and created Dracula, which utilized the vampire myth to make the closest thing to a trashy romance that could be accepted in the sexually repressed Victorian era. Dracula brought many new elements considered today to be standard vampire fare to the vampire concept, such as the turning into a bat to name one example.
When critics of Twilight say that Stephenie Meyer’s vampire mythology is unrecognizable as proper vampire lore, I suspect they are comparing it to contemporary vampire movies, mostly based off of Dracula. Dracula movies have been made and ripped-off all throughout the 20th century, and have standardized vampire conventions. If you ask a random person the image in their head when they think of a vampire, it would probably sound something like “It’s a blood-sucking undead person with fangs who sleeps in a coffin to avoid being burned by sunlight, who can be killed by a wooden stake through the heart,” right? Twilight fulfills only the blood-sucking undead part of this classic vampire image, and their vampires may seem rather unrecognizable in contrast.
However, many of those elements were introduced after the book Dracula itself, established in popular movies and reproduced in remakes and rip-offs. The original Dracula owned sharp teeth, but had no real fangs, a trait shared by Edward. Fangs were introduced in the 1958 film adaptation of Dracula and have since become synonymous with vampires, but were not present in the book or the previous Dracula films. Wooden stakes were in the original book and were used to kill vampires, but Dracula himself was slain with a knife to the heart.
And what of sunlight? In the original Dracula, the Count was a nocturnal creature who did indeed sleep in a coffin, but aside from his sleeping patterns there was no aversion to sunlight itself. A protagonist briefly mentions that he has never seen the Count in the daytime but that’s just his paranoia talking, as the reader can tell by flipping back in the book to an earlier scene, and the Count does disprove this later in the story. The vampire’s aversion to sunlight itself was introduced in the 1922 Dracula rip-off Nosferatu, which contained the classic movie moment of a vampire shrinking back from dawn’s light and vanishing into a puff of smoke.
After Nosferatu, there was the proper Dracula movie made in 1931 with Bela Lugosi, which kept true to the book by having the Count just fine with sunlight. In the 1958 remake, however, Nosferatu’s addition to the mythology was included. Since then sunlight has been a serious problem for the vampire. It tends to function as napalm, incinerating the vampire, which then may turn to smoke, ash, or dust. However, there are a few variations. Sometimes sunlight doesn’t incinerate them, but it does sap their strength away. Sometimes it harks back to Dracula, where the vampire is only a nocturnal creature. It could be the brightness that hurts their eyes. I Am Legend had it that vampirism is a man-made disease, and their skin highly susceptible to sunburns. Sometimes daytime isn’t a problem at all, the element of the mythology dropped as easily as the garlic thing often is.
And in Twilight, the reason vampires avoid sunlight is because it causes their skin to sparkle, exposing them as inhuman. Now, sparkling is a pretty major departure from the vampire convention, so I can understand initial bafflement at the idea. Within the context of the story, however, it does make sense – or as much sense as sunlight burning vampires, at any rate. The Twilight vampires’ power derives from extreme strength and hardness of the skin. Their skin is so hard and dense that it is often compared to cold marble, and when seen in sunlight it appears as though thousands of diamonds have been compressed into the vampire’s flesh, which leads to sparkling. It makes a sort of sense, and seems more thought out than the “sun = holy; vampire = unholy” explanation featured in many vampire stories.
Why specifically is the sparkling in Twilight? A dream. Author Stephenie Meyer first had her inspiration for the Twilight series from a dream featuring a beautiful vampire who sparkled in the sunlight while confessing his love to a human girl. Dreams are often quite random, and I personally would have culled the scene somewhere in the editing process. I think she managed to work it into the narrative pretty well, though. Bella has just committed herself to what seems either a certain death or a dangerous relationship with Edward. Edward is full of self-hate and shows her how deadly he is, how she can’t outrun him, nor fight him off. He steps into the sunlight to show her his clearly inhuman armored skin, and she can only see the beauty of his shimmering flesh. It works pretty well, all things considered.
“This is the skin of a killer, Bella.”
–Edward
The hate shown for the sparkling seems to me to be based off of the association between sparkling and young girls. My Little Pony, princess outfits, etc. are the images that come to mind when sparkling is mentioned. Then preteen girls’ fashion has sparkly rhinestones, sequins, and glitter. Sparkling jewelry is another interpretation, and while men may wear jewelry the more sparkly items are often perceived as effeminate, the well-dressed gentleman probably gay. I’m quick to blame ageism, in that it is seen as ludicrous to have something as powerful as a vampire carry a property generally only seen in aesthetics targeted for young girls, but I think sexism is a prejudice worth considering as well. The dark and strong vampires have generally been masculine figures, based in the incubi legends that evolved into rape fantasies. Female vampires tend to be either submissive wives of powerful male vampires (as in Dracula) or dominant evil lesbians who still exist to be objectified by the straight male viewers.
Why is sparkling seen as laughable? It’s probably ageism, the disrespect of qualities favored of the young, associated with weakness. However, it’s probably also sexism, in that sparkling is associated with femininity, which in turn is associated with weakness. Both prejudices are likely to play a part in the disrespect of Edward’s sparkling skin, which makes it ironic in my opinion when critics of Twilight say things like “I don’t like Twilight because Edward is a misogynist and he sparkles”.
“I don’t like vampires. I’m gonna take a stand and say they’re not good.”
–Xander, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, episode “The Harvest”
I don’t like sexism. I’m gonna take a stand and say it’s not good. I believe Twilight has themes based in sexism, but that the series itself is okay because of the nature of the story. It’s a fantasy about being a girl named Bella who is in an obsessive, edgy relationship with a vampire named Edward who is the hottest boy in the world. It was written by a female author for a female audience, and it’s really just a fantasy. It’s only an issue if some boy somewhere starts sneaking into some girl’s bedroom at night because he was directly influenced by Twilight, and even then it’s his own issues with mistaking fantasy for reality, and is probably the reason those Superman capes tell you they won’t enable you to fly. My point is I do agree sexism is a problem but think that the general negativity to Twilight based on sexism is overblown.
I think that how people generally think on a day-to-day basis is a more pressing issue. There’s this meme that boys and girls are intrinsically different and that any crossover between the two groups, be it in personal traits or items held in favor, is intrinsically wrong. Then there’s the overarching belief that men are better than women to add a different flavor to the whole thing, where females who become associated with masculinity may be accepted as doing a girl power thing, and males who are associated with femininity are seen as especially weak and laughable. This hate of Edward’s sparkling seems to be part of that whole mess.
In conclusion, the vampire is not a static idea. The concept of the vampire has evolved throughout the years and years of storytelling. If one were to actually look at the mythology that inspired Dracula, they would find a lot of stuff not used in Bram Stoker’s novel that sounds really weird. We have become used to the conventions of the vampire that evolved out of Dracula, but even so its nature is constantly in flux. Stephenie Meyer added a new element born from a dream, which will perhaps set the stage for future sparkling vampires – not from compressed diamond skin but from the retrovirus, perhaps. Who knows? The important thing is not to dismiss new versions based only on personal prejudices.

4 comments:

WordyDoodles said...

This is fantastically well-thought out! I love your analysis of the sexism within the story *and* from those who dislike this aspect of the story. And I appreciate that you delved into the evolution of the myth, pointing out that it isn't static and that it's free game to change it for the author's purpose (though some will think she's been disrespectful to the classics like Dracula and Nosferatu).

I confess I was a big eye-roller at the sparkly-skin thing, but I think you've offered some good challenges to why I was doing that.

Ana Brígida Gómez said...

Great analysis. I think the whole this books are sexist is a little bit like a friend of a friend told me that has make it look like just because a lot of "smart" people say it then it must be truth. I also feel a lot of hate for teenage girls and women, they way hatedom harass us usually use a lot of derogatory terms that are not even related to Twilight.

Jamie said...

While I appreciate the deconstruction and historical perspectives on vampire lore, at the same time... Edward is a vampire in a modern setting. Bella is a human who would have been tangentially aware at least of modern vampire lore before she finds out about his being a vampire or his sparkling.

And. Yet.

SHE NEVER SEEMS TO COMMENT ON THIS. Maybe I'm remembering it wrong, but...

Nobody ever really cracks a joke about it. It's not ever referenced, the fact that it's so "random" and odd or at least funny that "real" vampires in that world sparkle whereas "fictional" vampires don't. It's not even commented on! Not even noticed!

I don't dislike Edward Cullen because he sparkles. I dislike Edward Cullen because he sparkles and I don't feel like this fact was treated with realistic expectations in the book, of how people would actually react to the revelation of "real" vampires actually sparkling.

That and I don't like Edward Cullen because I don't have a submission or danger fetish like Bella does (...and you KNOW she does). :P

While it is true that Edward Cullen is often labeled a pussy or implied to be less than heteronormative... in actual fact, the sparkling is only icing on the cake when it comes tot hat. The prissiest parody portrayals I've seen actually are the ones that contrast him to the OTHER Twi-verse vampires, who also sparkle. The "prissy" interpretation needn't have required sparkly skin; simply the fact that it's over a hundred years old and Bella is the first girl he fell for and apparently he never even masturbates would have been enough. Add to this that he claims to have picked up a lot of hobbies... the Growing Up Cullen parody interprets this as he learns to knit and the like. Again, this isn't written that way because he sparkles; this is written that way because of his personality, because he is also contrasted with all the other vampires in his vampire "family". All of whom... you know, sparkle too.

So, while there is some heteronormative bias to complaints about Edward Cullen, I strongly suspect that they would occur regardless of whether or not he sparkled. And let's not forget either that a good half or more of the complaints about him DON'T stem from his alleged non-heteronormative status, but rather from him being unstable and obsessive and unhealthy as a lover for Bella. It's interesting to note that a lot of such critiques never bother to mention any perceived girliness on Edward's part; clearly they see him as manly enough, to the point where he becomes the stereotype of the abusive boyfriend... the sparkling is not enough to distract them towards assuming a different gender identity for him.

We all see such things with different eyes, but... again, I would tend to assume that the sparkling is only the smallest portion of the problems that people have with Twilight. Even in cases where it's the first thing they list, I often get the feeling that it's more like the straw that broke the camel's back: one last bit of absurd, random-seeming, stupidity that made them dislike it and just tipped the scales towards that. In other cases, it seems like the sparkling isn't the most offensive thing, so much as the most obviously oddball and thus the most worth mentioning. Again, it's worth mentioning itself that even female vampires and super-manly vampires alike will sparkle like Edward does in the Twi-verse. It's just that it seems so arbitrary that it's hard not the laugh at it for some people.

Dragonclaws said...

Jamie:

I don’t find sparkling innately silly. In certain contexts it may be seen as silly, but with the buildup of Twilight it doesn’t seem silly. Strange, maybe, but not silly. It took me a while to come around to the idea that his skin sparkles, and the movie helped. It does kind of come from left field, as dream-based inspiration will do, but I don’t find it incongruous.

Edward had been established as this powerful, dangerous guy with supernatural powers. We were just getting through the explanations of what Twilight vampires were – every vampire story has to have a section to explain this, as everyone has a different take on vampires. Edward runs her out to a field; he demonstrates his power, his unique vampire characteristics. And then he sparkles, and it’s unusual, but it’s in-line with the subject of defining vampire traits. It’s an intense, dark scene, and then he’s beautiful in an inhuman way.

I will agree that without a doubt Twilight is one big submission fantasy. That is a central part of the story’s enjoyment for me. It’s like PG-rated BDSM erotica, which is fairly standard for the vampire genre, really. Vampires are dark sexual fantasies, or at least that’s how they’ve been constructed over the years.

So, Edward’s the dominating object of desire. He is established to be powerful. He has sex appeal, and he’s talking about resisting his dark side because he cares about Bella and he doesn’t want to be a monster. And he sparkles. Given the context, I think he can have the sparkling trait and have it be absorbed into his sexy vampire theme without detracting from it, because sparkling is not innately silly.

While technically all Twilight vampires sparkle, the focus in humor is on Edward because he’s the focus of the story. In Twilight humor based in a visual medium, the sparkling is used to link Edward with femininity to imply he’s gay and of course pathetic as a natural consequence. Bella may be portrayed as an idiot for not recognizing Edward to be gay, the implication that a real heterosexual man would never have traits that may be considered feminine. This, I suppose, is only a certain type of Twilight humor, but it is prevalent as far as I can see. As for the knitting, I would suggest that it’s considered funny because that activity is considered feminine, much like the joke in Harry Potter when Dumbledore asks to borrow a magazine on knitting patterns.

Stephenie Meyer seems to have some sexual hang-ups that I would need to specifically analyze before I could really comment on why Edward doesn’t seem to masturbate, but to speculate I would say that Edward is supposed to be dark and dangerously sexual but ultimately safe. He is a fantasy object of desire who is incredibly devoted to his one true love, he considers sexual intercourse an act only done with someone he loves, and will only have sex with Bella after they marry. He’s edgy, but ultimately safe in a predictable way that corresponds with Mormon values. Perfect? No, but it’s a fantasy.

I probably shouldn’t have brought the article to the viewpoint that Twilight is dangerously sexist. That is something I wanted to talk about, but it’s not so related to the sparkling topic. I will say that I think Twilight is just a sexual fantasy for people who like dominating vampire dudes. It’s essentially PG erotica for girls, and I don’t think that’s necessarily bad. It might be prudent to criticize a culture that promotes female submission, but that’s a larger issue.