Friday, August 21, 2009

MOAR VAMPIRES!

Emily of Evening All Afternoon left this great comment on my last post about vampires:
. . . It's interesting that vampires have become so desirable/sympathetic in modern literature, and zombies have become so disgusting and killable, since as far as I can tell, in the original folk traditions vampires were victimizers and zombies were largely just victims. A cynical part of me wonders whether there's any racist component to why vampires became all sexy and zombies didn't, since the popular version of vampire lore originated in Eastern Europe, whereas zombi-ism is originally an African and later a West Indian idea (zombis were originally living people reduced to a state of half-death, bewitched to do a sorcerer's bidding - which became a metaphor for the slavery in the Americas). Maybe the western psyche find the idea of being preyed upon by the white aristocracy strangely seductive, but the idea of a rebellion of the non-Caucasian slave class is just threatening?
She actually brought up a couple of points I had intended to address but ended up leaving out. So I thought I'd discuss them here.

Desirability and Aristocracy

When I initially read that comment, I thought the word in the first sentence was "synthetic." Which is funny because vampires nowadays really are very synthetic!

The modern vampire (dating back to the nineteenth century) has always been inherently desirable. Of course, since they're the reanimated dead who want to feast on you, this is also highly disturbing, as exhibited in Dracula. The problem right now is that this desirability is so . . . synthetic. In Twilight Bella actually compares the female vampires' figures to the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition. That type of beauty simply does not exist in real life – those models are always posed under specific lighting, heavily made up, and airbrushed afterwards.

And since they're often rich as well, today's vampire is really all about living the ultimate fantasy. They're like the supernatural SS: a perfected, superior master race that wants to kill you. Anne Rice's vampires lamented their eternal damnation as the bloodthirsty undead, but that component is all but gone now.

(Zombies and Nazis: greatest villains ever. In fiction, that is.)

Dracula was never depicted as a paragon of male beauty. He was more of a Rochester or Heathcliffe – very strong, dramatic features with a charismatic personality. Lucy and the Brides were technically beautiful, but marred by their inhuman bloodlust.

Vampires and Race

There is definitely a racial component to this discussion. I honestly cannot name one single non-white vampire. In the Twilight movie Laurent is played by a black guy with dreads, who actually looks way too badass to be in that teenybopper sparkle-fest. But in the books (I've only been able to stomach the first one, so this is coming from the Twilight wiki) he's described as "olive-skinned," which makes me think of a Greek or Italian or other European Mediterranean look. Anne Rice had some ancient Egyptian vampires, one of whom was played by Aaliyah, an African-American, in the Queen of the Damned film. Again, however, this is another vampire actually described as more "Mediterranean"-looking – like a dark-skinned white person.

I believe Rice actually addressed this issue of non-representation at one point, saying that she wouldn't know how to get inside a non-white character's head or what they would think about or something to that effect. And yet she wrote The Feast of All Saints, a very race-centered novel about the free colored people of New Orleans in the antebellum era. I get the impression that she's simply very interested in European art, literature, and history (particularly ancient Rome, the Renaissance, and the eighteenth century), and that's something she enjoys incorporating into her stories. She really is very knowledgeable. I wonder if she's actually worried that a depiction of another part of the world would seem shallow in comparison to her very rich portrayals of Western culture.

But yes, it is very odd and very glaring. I noticed it a long time ago, even as a white person. I guess you could link it back to the vampire's current association with wealth and power. Even when a vampire doesn't actually have money or influence, they still possess the physical indicators of status: taste, sophistication, good looks, fashionable clothing, extensive knowledge (education), an appreciation of "high" culture, and are often well-traveled. They are also frequently of aristocratic origin (i.e. Dracula, Lestat). And, quite frankly, most of those things have been historically denied to people of color in the West. "Whiteness" has, unfortunately, long been a major social privilege. If someone were to write a vampire story in the current popular style (sexiness, sophistication) but featuring black or Hispanic characters – would it succeed?


(A note: even "smart" zombies, such as Bub in Romero's Day of the Dead, as still bestial and childlike.)

Actually, race seems to be an issue with genre fiction in general. Back in December 2008, an author known as Lilith Saintcrow wrote a really whiny, bitchy essay about how the reason urban fantasy is seen as low-brow is because it's female-dominated. (Um, honey? You call yourself LILITH SAINTCROW and write a series about a katana-welding, airboard-riding "necromance" named Dante Valentine whose boyfriend is half-demon. No, that's not cheesy at all. . .) But not a word from her about how this genre also perpetuates whitewashed beauty stereotypes that have done great harm to women, especially women of color.



*rolls eyes*

But seriously, that video's also a great overview of the current vampire craze.

8 comments:

Susie Sharp Librarian said...

That video is great I have been noticing this trend too,There's been a few covers I've been tempted to put a sticker over in the YA section :)

the_young_dude said...

I read your post yesterday and didn't have time to comment.. There's so much to be said on the subject... I actually met a fellow scholar who was working on zombies and race,arguing that zombies were a metaphor for asian people (in a nutshell). Anyways, I haven't read the Sookie Stackhouse series but I'm very partial to the TV series...I'm not tired of the theme yet..

E. L. Fay said...

Susie: I actually read an article awhile ago about how racy YA is becoming. The author brought up the squeaky-clean universe of Sweet Valley High, but not a word about the V.C. Andrews books that my mom remembers 13-year-olds reading in the early 80s. But the books in this video aren't YA - they're urban fantasy/paranormal romance, which is generally aimed at adult women.

Dude: That's really cool! Zombies-as-Asians sounds intersting - I hope you blog about your friend's conclusions. I've seen a few episodes of True Blood and loved the Southern Gothic vibe.

Emily said...

Wow, a more in-depth response than I was anticipating, but very cool! On zombies & race: I thought it was interesting that in the film 28 Days Later, the whole zombie-as-rebellious-slave idea is reenacted by the sinister white army dudes who keep the infected black guy chained up in the courtyard in order to observe the progress of the zombie-making disease. And then the contained threat is let loose...I thought that element of the film played with the oppressor/oppressed dichotomy in really interesting ways. Who is victimizer & who is victim, in the end?

E. L. Fay said...

Emily: I LOVE the 28 Days/Weeks Later movies! Actually, the "Infected" aren't undead - they're living people infected with a "Rage" virus, similar to rabies. But stylistically, they definitely are zombie films: the Infected gang up and pursue lone survivors, one bite and you're one of them, the collapse of infrastructure, the social commentary, and so on.

The race aspect there is interesting, I agree. There's also the attempted gang-rape of Selena (who is black) by the white soldiers.

Emily said...

"Actually, the "Infected" aren't undead - they're living people infected with a "Rage" virus, similar to rabies"

Which is so interesting, since the original zombis (in obeah/voodoo beliefs) wasn't reanimated dead, either, but living humans bewitched to do whatever their "masters" made them. So in a way, 28 Days/Weeks Later is a return to source material! Fascinating. Except that "The Rage" isn't reversible, like the original zombi-ism was...at least, I don't think so? (I haven't seen 28 Weeks Later.)

I'm finding this in-depth vampire/zombie breakdown really interesting!

E. L. Fay said...

Emily: Wow, I didn't know that. I thought the original zombies (in voodoo) were always the reanimated dead.

Technically, since Rage is a disease, it would be reversible if they could find a cure for it. In 28 Weeks Later it's established that some people can be asymptomatic carriers (like "Typhoid Mary" was), meaning they carry and can spread the disease but don't show any symptoms.

28 Weeks Later is a very worthy sequel. I recommend it.

Anonymous said...

Hey! I was googling something for my own research into the lack of POCs in the vampire genre, and I came across your article. I just wanted to share some neat info with you.

Turns out, that Anne Rice actually does have non white vampires, and most of them show up in the book Pandora.

Also check out Octavia Butler's amazing book Fledgling. It's more scifi than horror, and still amazingly awesome!

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