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Friday, July 16, 2010

 

Vampires, eh?

I'll say it straight out: I'm not very interested in vampires. Or at least, I'm less interested in reading books or watching movies about vampires than I am in hearing what people think those books and movies say about our culture. I was more interested in what Twilight said about teen girls, for instance, than I was in anything about the book itself, and that goes for a lot of things. This isn't to say I think all vampire stuff is bad, but I do think that there's been such a glut of it that an awful lot is soaked in cliche and simplistic sexual fantasy, and that's not particularly my cup of tea. In the Q&A at the back of my first novel, American version, one of the questions was 'Why werewolves instead of, for instance, vampires?', and my answer, while honest enough (Basically, 'I think there's enough vampire stuff already, plus, er, the idea that occurred to me wasn't about vampires, it was about werewolves...'), another answer could equally have been 'Because I don't happen to have a vampire fetish' - which would exclude me from an awful lot of vampire stuff.

However, I heard a very interesting podcast the other day about the TV series True Blood, which I think is worth recommending to anyone who is interested in vampires. (The two podcasters are Tami Winfrey Harris of What Tami Said and Renee Martin of Womanist Musings.) And it got me thinking about how metaphors - something the vampire trope is particularly prone to - work.

True Blood, for those of you who don't follow such things, is a show based on a series of urban fantasy/Southern Gothic popular novels by Charlaine Harris; the basic premise is that in the wake of a new synthetic drink, Tru Blood, which vampires can consume instead of biting people, vampires come out of the closet and into society, taking the position of uneasy ethnic minority, with various social repercussions. (Starting disclaimer: I haven't read the books so can say nothing intelligent on that subject.) The TV series was adapted by HBO, and as that's the channel responsible for The Wire and Big Love, my two favourite series, I'm always prepared to give a new HBO flagship production a go. So, when the first series screened in the UK (which is, I think, as far as we've got), I sat down and watched it.

I have to confess myself not grabbed. The credit sequence, with its swinging music and indie-montage series of images, raised my hopes high, but after a while I had to admit that the credits had an altogether artier, more impressionistic and visually inventive note than the show itself; if the show had been that stylish, you'd be listening to a vampire convert right now. As it was ... well. The story had a tendency to finish plot arcs within a few episodes, often by killing the characters involved, where keeping them alive might have made for developing complexity; characters tended to be basically good or basically bad which, as a fan of The Wire and Big Love, I found disappointing and not what I look to HBO to see; I found it hard to like the heroine. Anna Paquin, who plays the protagonist (Sookie Stackhouse by name) is a gifted and charismatic actress, but the character suffered from a problem I've seen before in this kind of work (specifically, mass-market fantasy work with a female audience in mind): she came across less as heroic than as self-righteous. Sookie flares up at small provocation, which is fine - touchy characters can create drama - but the provocation is usually that somebody has criticised her; she very seldom displays such spirit in a selfless defence of anybody else, which makes it harder to admire. Her central plot revolves around her relationship with Bill, her trying-to-be-virtuous vampire boyfriend, and I have to own myself cynical because it seemed such an open appeal to wish fulfillment fantasy - and the same basic fantasy that drives Twilight: shy, straight-laced girl gets glamorous boyfriend whose outsider status makes her special and gets her lots of attention. Which, y'know, is fine if that's your fantasy, but it is basically wish fulfillment, and from HBO I was hoping for something more.

So, not really my thing. But there were other areas where I wasn't entirely comfortable, to do with the show's handling of race, and on that score I was on much shakier ground: I'm an English white woman, and my judgements about how a show portrays African American characters are always going to be judgements from the outside. It's here that What Tami Said's podcast came along - and I found myself listening with great interest. Because it's a combination between two American women of colour and anti-racist activists, Tami and Renee, who also happen to be fans of the show ... if not entirely comfortable with its handling of race.

The podcast is too long to reproduce everything they said here, and you should listen to it anyway, but their discomfort arose from the fact that, while apparently the TV version tries to create a more ethnically diverse cast than the books, the black characters in True Blood tend to be stereotypes of one kind or another. Sookie's best friend, for instance, is the African American Tara. Tara is aggressive, defensive, belligerent; in her first appearance, she bawls out a customer at the shop where she works before quitting in fury for no very good reason. I remember watching that scene with disquiet: Tara pretends she has a 'baby daddy' before calling the white woman racist for believing her and assuming she would have illegitimate children because she's black ... which is all very well, but I couldn't help thinking, 'Okay, but this whole volatile, loudmouthed black woman thing? Isn't that a racist stereotype as well?' Tami's comments introduced me to the interesting description of Tara as 'a Sapphire' (a reference to an abrasive character on Amos and Andy, I gather, a show that rings few bells for an Englishwoman in her thirties), which it appears is a shorthand way of saying 'a stereotypically volatile, loudmouthed black woman'. So there we go. Ultimately my suspicion was that the supposed diversity of the cast functioned as much to make Sookie look cool (she has a black friend! and a gay friend! and a vampire boyfriend!), to have non-white/straight/living people function as accessories to the mainstream girl, as from any desire to express the actual experience of a wide range of people. 'Some of my best friends are black, you know.'

Which is troubling in itself. Sookie is every bit as volatile and hair-triggered as Tara; neither character brooks any criticism, and on the whole Tara has better justification for being quick tempered (bad childhood, though black-family-as-dysfunctional isn't a great piece of representation either, plus Tami and Renee commented that, while they doubted the show's writers saw it this way, they could identify with it to some extent, as being the only black woman in a largely white social group is a very stressful experience and none of us are at our most patient under intense stress). Yet it's Tara who's seen as the aggressive character while Sookie is considered a lady. This is the kind of division that does neither side any good: it labels the black woman irrational while failing to hold the white woman to adult standards of behaviour.

The point they made that was really interesting, though, was how vampires work as an ethnic minority. Now, you don't have to write vampires as an ethnic minority - vampire as serial killer, as sexual magnet, as alienated freak, as ... well, anything you like, are all possibilities. But if you decide to write a story in which a particular fantastical group is openly functioning in a fairly naturalistic society, then to write the story properly you do have to have some take on socio-political dynamics. I did it with Bareback, and in fact did something very similar: non-werewolves were the ethnic minority in my scenario, and, being a white, heterosexual, cisgendered, able-bodied, middle-class writer with no personal experience of any kind of discrimination except sexism, I just had to do my best and be careful.

But what Tami and Renee said about vampires as an ethnic minority, at least as conceived in True Blood, was an extremely strong point: to wit, that it doesn't write vampires as if they were anything like actual minorities. They don't have a disability: vampirism is super-strength, longevity and magical powers. Rather than being disabled, vampires are hyper-able. They don't look like an ethnic minority: they're pale-skinned, hyper-white. I'd add that they don't seem to have any money troubles, which for a stigmatised minority is rare to say the least, and such social stigma as exists against them is largely background noise - redneck extras making comments in bars, discussion on television shows, nothing that seriously impacts the plot at least in the first series. Then there's beauty. People of colour often complain, quite legitimately, that standards of beauty are very much white standards of beauty (identify, if you can, an African American screen beauty with dark skin and 'African' features; consider epicanthoplasty and companies that actually forbid their black employees to have natural hair) ... and yet vampires in True Blood, or at least most of them, are super-beautiful, super-sexy, super-glamorous: whatever standards of beauty their society holds, vampires, once again, hyper-conform to them rather than deviate from them. These vampires don't look so much like an ethnic minority as like an ethnic majority that happens to be short on numbers.

And this got me to thinking about the nature of cool in art. Because cool is a trickier concept than ethnicity or class, or at least harder to define, but I think it's a big part of what's going on here.

Let's be blunt: Southern Gothic has its moments, but urban fantasy is not a cool genre. If the story rests heavily on the wish fulfillment fantasy of the shy white girl, cool is going to be a glittering prize rather than a state experienced from within. (I realise that analysing cool is in itself a pretty uncool thing to do, but sod it, I'm having a baby next month. Parents are supposed to be uncool compared with their children, else how does anyone make it through adolescence?) But if we're talking about vampires and we're not explicitly going against the trend, as with Cronos or Let The Right One In (the former using vampirism as a metaphor for aging, the latter as a metaphor for alienation), then glamour is going to be an issue. And this takes us back to Dracula and the lads.

Dracula, you see, was an aristocrat. A Count, no less, pitting his Old Europe wits against the rising British middle class, with their typewriters and their telegrams and their shorthand and their new technological respectability and upright sexual morals: we're dealing, here, with a class conflict as much as a supernatural one. The old-style vampire in his opera cloak is, in effect, a bloodsucking landlord: he has his family manse and his style and his lineage, and he preys ruthlessly upon those lower down the food chain than himself. It's a neat and consistent package: he has the cachet of the upper classes, and incurs the same intimidated ambivalence from those below.

As the genre drifted on, however, the cachet seems to have come uncoupled. We still have aristocrats kicking around the real world, but they aren't the socially dominant force they once were, and we've yet to see a vampire revival with CEOs of multinational corporations, the new aristocracy, as the bloodsuckers. (Possibly they aren't sexy enough.) Instead, we now have sexy vampires who also suffer the anguish of social rejection - or at least nominal social rejection, as it doesn't seem to stop them getting laid. Popular writers tend to pick up on the glamour and ignore the social discomfort ... and since vampires are sexy, they sometimes transfer them into the out-group because outsiderdom is also sexy.

So what are we looking at with modern fantasy vampires? I'd call it an aristocracy of cool rather than of social position. The sexy outcast, in fantasy at least, is higher up the cool rankings than the ordinary person, and vampirism picks up on that perfectly.

The trouble is, cool doesn't carry much socio-political power in the real world. If you leave socio-political conflict out of it, nobody's going to notice or care - but if you try to engage with it, you wind up with someone who looks aristocratic to the reader's social tastes without giving them responsibility for the power that actual aristocracy would bring. It's a kind of best-of-both-worlds which might explain why vampires are such a popular fantasy: you get the overdog strength and glamour, plus the underdog exemptions.

I very much doubt that True Blood is the only fiction to trip over this contradiction. It strikes me as an inherent problem: if you give a group superior supernatural powers, you need to contrive one heck of a reason why they'd be the underdogs as well. I wasn't consciously thinking of this when, in Bareback, I decided to make the supernatural creatures the majority - but in retrospect, I would have given myself an impossible problem if I hadn't. People aren't persecuted for being physically stronger than average, or capable of greater feats; the only way to deal with the situation was to flip it, making the magic powers a kind of metaphor for the privilege that majority status gets you.

Keep the vampires in the minority, though, and exactly how like a disadvantaged minority are they? Whatever Sookie says about it, the plain fact is that there's a good reason to discriminate against a vampire: their very life depends on criminal behaviour. Even if you did invent a drink that made the behaviour unnecessary, most vampires will have a lot of murders in their past. You could, I suppose, try to paint a portrait of vampire as disadvantaged community for whom crime is the only possible way of life, who face glass-ceiling prejudice if circumstances change adn they try to become respectable ... but oooh boy are you kicking a beehive if you try to make any kind of racial comparison there. Fundamentally, there's just the hint of an implication that minorities are more naturally criminal than everyone else in using the vampire-as-ethnic/sexual-minority imagery, and that is, in the deeper sense of the phrase, Not Cool. When you get right down to it, sleeping with your own sex or having some melanin in your skin are morally neutral; eating people is not.

Vampirism as a metaphor for outsiderdom, in short, is a slipperly little sucker. I can see the appeal, but if you start thinking about it, it's liable to turn and bite you.

Comments:
I haven't seen the television show, so I can't really comment on it.

I like Charlaine Harris as a writer quite a bit, mostly for her two mystery series, one a cozy featuring a retired librarian, t'other an interesting blend of noir and Southern gothic.

The first Sookie Stackhouse book was quite good; the vampires were pretty much background noise. The focus was on Sookie's own paranormal power, and how the ability to read minds made it impossible to fit in with a Southern American culture that relied so much upon genteel hypocrisy.

I found it to be in places a biting satire of the way Southerners (particularly those of a certain class) tend to glorify the worst aspects of their past and present as if they were in fact their best features. Sookie appears as an ambiguous protagonist, not a heroine to admire; she's likeable enough to root for, but half the time you want to take her outside the diner and smack her upside the head for bringing her own troubles on herself.

(Besides, it presented Elvis as a failed vampire "turning", and who couldn't be charmed by that?)

However, the series quickly degenerated (for me) into the worst aspects of the current Urban Fantasy / Paranormal Romance craze, many of which you note -- the glamorization of the Bad Boys (later books get heavily into the whole vampire pseudo-aristocracy thing), the Mary Sue-ification of the heroine, the obligatory love triangle/quadrilateral/pentagon, and (a pet peeve of mind) the indiscriminate indulgence of every fantasy creature the author can drag in (where there are vampires there must be werewolves, right? And every other kind of were. And fairies. And... but you get the idea)

And if I keep this up, my comment's going to be longer than your post. But since I *JUST TODAY* finished creating a display and booklist of "Sookie Stackhouse" readalikes, I've got a lot of pent up vitriol.
 
Hey, comment away! It's always interesting to hear what you have to say. :-)

It's interesting what you say about the 'genteel hypocrisy', because that didn't seem at all a feature of the TV series. We see that she hears what people are thinking (sometimes; it kind of comes in and out of the story), and what they're thinking is bad/about her a really large proportion of the time, to what I found an implausible degree. I mean, people are very seldom thinking something nice, and just about never thinking, 'Hm, I could totally go for some cake right now,' or 'Blame it on the bossa nova, la la la la la...', or all the other distracted little half-thoughts that I suspect a psychic would pick up if they came near me, at least. Being able to hear people's thoughts struck me as a really inconvenient plot device if it's non-stop, because if you can't turn it off, you ought to have it in every scene, and that could turn into a right pain.

And yeah, I'm not mad about throwing every imaginary thing you can into the pot. (I call it Open Mike Fantasy, http://www.kitwhitfield.com/lexicon.html, but basically the same thing.) It tends to water down the sense of the remarkable and turn magic into a lifestyle or a subculture rather than anything actually magical, which I find a pity: if someone can turn into an animal or live on blood or whatever, that's a pretty intense state of being. Readers may get used to it if they read a lot of that kind of thing, but open miking seems to project the readers' jadedness into the imaginary world, which is seldom rewarding.
 
I haven't seen "True Blood" either, but I agree 100% with your analysis of the modern vampire genre.

Personally, I like vampires - as long as they're handled "classically", not as frickin' "Twilight" sex symbols. (I don't mind if they're sympathetic, as long as it's acknowledged that they are indeed monstrous.) However, it seems not many people currently write them like that.
 
Disclaimer: I haven't seen the series, and I haven't read the books, so I should probably just shut up. However, when have I ever done that, especially when I probably really should? So here goes.

In the U.S., at least, there's a fairly long tradition of ascribing to minority groups greater physical strength and magical powers. Cases in point: the stereotype of African Americans as physically stronger than whites (the physicality of the minority group contrasted with the rationality of the dominant group--there's that old mind/body dualism again, thank you very much, Mr. Plato, sir) and the non-Christian and therefore both scary and enticing spirituality of Voodoo in the Deep South and of Native American spiritual practices.

At least the first few True Blood novels are set in the Deep South, and the very first is in Louisiana, where Voodoo is very much alive.

The "coolness" of certain disadvantaged minority groups is also part of what linguists, at least, call "covert prestige," behavior or status that isn't prestigious within the larger society's standards, but which establishes one as a member of a (desirable) in-group.

So it seems to me that the pattern you've identified works for vampires aimed at an adult audience. Vampires written specifically for a teen or young adult audience tend to be presented as outcasts--just the status that would be attractive to young people. But they also are physically stronger in fact than one might think by the way they are treated, which also fits with teen fantasy patterns. Vampires written for adults, as you pointed out, tend to fit with the overt notions of prestige accepted by the broader society. Maybe, then, the problem is that there are two ways of writing vampires, for two very different audiences? In that case, it's not surprising if they're not mutually consistent.

Just my thoughts, and again with the disclaimers, of course.
 
Ouch! Just reread my comment. What a pompous jerk I sound like! There was a decent point in there somewhere, probably about different vampires for different audiences, but I sure did manage to express it annoyingly. (It certainly annoyed me when I reread it, anyway.) My apologies for the tone.
 
@Dash - that's okay, but the thing is, it's a pattern that's only going to 'work' for white people, and white people who aren't discomforted by the racist associations at that. Everyone else, it's going to offend. I don't call that very functional.

Credit where it's due, the hyper-able thing was identified by the podcasters rather than me (I was just remarking upon it), but being members of minority groups themselves, they found it alienating rather than effective.

I'm not sure your interpretation fits either: ascribing greater physical strength to minorities tends to go with ascribing lesser intelligence - with treating people as animalistic, basically. And that's not the way True Blood goes; its vampires tend to be intelligent as well, tending more towards faux-European than Voodoo. Not so much the strong-back-weak-mind thing as the coldly-cruel-yet-compelling thing. (Which this European isn't charmed by either, come to that.)

So basically, I don't think your theory works; I think if we're going by audiences, it requires an audience that doesn't think about the implications too hard.
 
Maybe it's because if you write vampires that much prefer human to any other blood*, you have to come up with a reason why the non-vampire isn't expendable like everyone else? And that is usually because the non-vampire is too important or capable to get drained? And if that's the case, it's a lot more impressive if the vampire is hyper-capable, because that makes the non-vampire who's not a victim even more capable by contrast. Maybe not so much wanting to make the vampire look good, but wanting to make the heroine look even better. Would that make sense?

*As opposed to ones who prefer cows to human, because the taste is the same and with cows the non-vegatarian humans are quite happy to pay you good money for the chance to dispose of the body for you.
 
I think it's perfectly possible, structurally speaking, but in terms of portraying minority status the problem remains. Especially when you've got a white heroine who gets away with stuff her black friend doesn't: if you're fudging minority status just to flatter the white heroine, it winds up privileging whiteness even more.
 
Kit - ever so slightly off topic, but this is a post about a supernatural tv show and you did mention Bareback - is anything happening with the movie option for Bareback, since it's been about 4 years or so, and there still isn't a movie? Is it going to expire and revert back to you soon?
 
If I remember the contract correctly, rights revert to me after eight years. It's in development right now, but that could mean anything; the Hollywood writers' strike, though entirely reasonable, was unfortunately timed from my point of view and might have put a spanner in the works. So basically it's still wait and see time...
 
I haven't seen the TV show, but read the first three books and stopped when I got bored of Sookie forgiving Bill for being a complete twat to her.

I agree with your analysis of vampires in modern urban fantasy literature, and it takes me back to my old pet peeve: the watering-down of monsters. Today vampires and werewolves are more or less angsty people with pointy teeth, and often not a whole lot more depth given to them. There's rarely any exploration of what immortality might do to the human mind, for example, or if the ethics of a man who turns into a wolf once a month are different from those of a normal person.

It frustrate me, but it seems to be what readers (mostly) want - the fantasy lover who can protect you from anything, and in exchange just wants the occasional blood donation. I suspect True Blood may not be the show for me...
 
"Not so much the strong-back-weak-mind thing as the coldly-cruel-yet-compelling thing."

To this USAian, that stereotype seems less of the faux European than the fetishized Oriental.

Which is a whole nother can of worms.
 
I agree about the super-capable vampires – P.N. Elrod's Vampire Files series was bad about this, to the extent she de-powered her main vampire protagonists somewhat.

If you really want a different take, however, check out Catherine Jinks' The Reformed Vampire Support Group. Vampirism is regarded as a disease, not a blessing; certainly Jinks' vampires aren't bursting with super-powers. (Jinks' heroine makes her "living" as a writer of these über-vampire books, so the contrast is played up.)
 
However, the series quickly degenerated

Huh. I was thinking that all of the claims in the post seem at least technically false if one looks at the TV show to date. (And the deconstruction that popped up recently seemed quite good to me.) I don't know if they even used a racial comparison early on - the opening makes a clear comparison with homosexuals. Possible I should feel offended.

Mind you, if you find it unpleasant to watch I see absolutely no reason for you to keep going in the hope this will change. (For a start, I don't know how I feel about year 2 in its entirety.) If anything, it probably helps to think of the show as unusually clever vampire porn rather than a story where every aspect serves a non-sexual purpose.
 
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