I’d Kill for That Reflection: the Vampire and Body Image

Several weeks ago, I asked the students in my Writing through Media course to view this video on youtube and comment upon it in their course blogs. While the video—a tutorial on how to look like a vampire, ostensibly for Halloween—claims to pay homage to the vampires of Anne Rice, the fact that it was posted only a year ago clearly suggests an attempt to capitalize on the current resurgence of interest in vampires popularly dubbed the “Twilight Phenomenon”. I asked them to consider such issues as the motivation behind the video’s creation, the video’s intended audience, how it draws upon and/or responds to our archetypal image of the vampire, etc. I’d hoped that such guiding questions would encourage them to interrogate the cultural fascination with the “vampiric look”, and while the majority of the class leaned, rather predictably, toward the opinion that this was merely a fun video intended for anyone wanting to dress as a vampire for Halloween, several students pointed to a deeper motivation that I confess I’d overlooked myself.

When we consider the appeal of vampirism to the young, naturally we think of the immortality, the intensity of passion and emotion in which the young and the misunderstood revel; the tendency toward transgression—especially sexual—etc. (This last is, at least in my opinion, perhaps the most appealing for young people exploring or experimenting with sexuality; the vampire, after all, transcends sex and gender boundaries; it doesn’t locate itself within the confines of heterosexual, heteronormative relationships). This boundary-transcendence, the idea that the vampire is and can be anything, is the freedom so exciting to the young—that and the fact that teenagers are especially attracted to the idea of straying outside conventional norms, if only to enact rebellion for rebellion’s sake. As Nina Auerbach proclaims in her much-revered /Our Vampires, Ourselves/: “Vampires…promised protection against a destiny of girdles, spike heels, and approval”. James Patterson’s novel/Violets are Blue/, in which Alex Cross hunts a gang of serial killers claiming to be vampires, similarly interrogates this issue of the vampiric lifestyle as boundless.

I noticed little of this in my students’ responses to the video; the emerging trend in their responses, interestingly enough, gestured toward the idea of the vampire as embodying physical perfection. We know this, of course; Lucy Westenra, Carmilla Karnstein, Lestat, and that sexy and sparkly Edward Cullen—all seductively attractive, perfect physical specimens—or so they would be if they were “alive”. What struck me was my students’ equation of the vampiric body with the perfect body—a haunting reminder that we still find ourselves spellbound by images of the airbrushed beauty. With the exception of our foul-smelling, coffin-dwelling Dracula, most of the vampires we’re acquainted with are uncommonly attractive. Have you ever seen an overweight vampire? A wrinkly vampire? Of course you haven’t, because the vampiric body is perfect and perfectly preserved; untouched by illness, death and decay—the things we fear most. How paradoxical that the creature who casts no reflection is the very reflection of what we long to be.

What interests me here is not specifically my students’ association of the vampiric body with the ideal physical type, but the fact that the observation was made equally by male and female students alike. I need hardly point out that—in terms of physical fitness and beauty—we have traditionally been subject to a gendered double-standard, with women undergoing far more scrutiny. Yet I begin to wonder whether, given some of my male students’ observations, we might be noticing somewhat of an equalizing shift. It isn’t only the female audience after all who has fallen victim to the cult of Edward Cullen; young men too, if not of their own accord, have likewise been exposed to the phenomenon by way of sisters, friends, girlfriends, etc. they might well question what it is about Edward—and specifically Robert Pattinson’s Edward—that attracts young women. Might they feel a certain inadequacy in the face of such matchless masculinity? We can argue that this is merely fiction, of course, but we likewise cannot deny that Hollywood sets the bar of beauty, for men and women alike, almost beyond the reach of mere mortals (quite literally in this case). I’ve read the Twilight saga of course, and am teaching the first novel and film this semester, and I’m beginning to wonder whether or not it might be interesting to interrogate the ways that Stephenie Meyer handles issues of body-image alongside her treatment of gender and sexuality, morality, etc.—all complex issues with which teens and young adults struggle. Somehow the idea of approaching a discussion of the text and film from this angle looks appealing; I’ve been giving considerable thought to how I might make the story more accessible to my boys—or at least to encourage them to participate in our discussions—and I think, or at least I hope, that using this approach, they might just bite.

Think about it!

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