What’s Wrong With Sparkly Vampires?

Posted by Hannah Priest on July 20, 2011 in Dr Hannah Priest, Guest Blog tagged with , , ,

In my previous post on this blog, I credited Stephenie Meyer with helping to create a new sub-genre of speculative fiction: YA paranormal romance. Today, shop I would like to consider one of her other, somewhat more controversial, creations: the sparkly vampire. When Twilight’s Edward Cullen walks in the sunshine, his skin glitters as though covered in precious gemstones. Little about the Twilight novels evokes such a vehement response – from both readers and non-readers alike – as the vampire that sparkles. But what is it that is making vampire fans so angry?

In case you are blissfully unaware of (or have done your best to forget) the paradigm-changing, and argument-provoking, passage from Meyer’s novel, I will quote it here in full:

Edward in the sunlight was shocking. I couldn’t get used to it, though I’d been staring at him all afternoon. His skin, white despite the faint flush from yesterday’s hunting trip, literally sparkled, like thousands of tiny diamonds were embedded in the surface. He lay perfectly still in the grass, his shirt open over his sculpted, incandescent chest, his scintillating arms bare. His glistening, pale lavender lids were shut, though of course he didn’t sleep. A perfect statue, carved in some unknown stone, smooth like marble, glittering like crystal. (p. 228)

So, what is all the fuss about?

Beautiful Vampires

This passage from Twilight demonstrates quite clearly that Edward Cullen is striking in his physical attractiveness. He is not simply handsome; he is beautiful. His ‘sculpted, incandescent chest’ and ‘glistening, pale lavender lids’ are representative of the sublime beauty of the (apparently) teenage boy. Edward, here, is literally stunning, with Bella noting the ‘shocking’ experience of looking at him.

Beautiful vampires are not new. In John Polidori’s ‘The Vampyre’ – a story often described as the first piece of vampire literature in English – Lord Ruthven is introduced in terms of his sexual attractiveness to women. Though his face is deathly pale, “its form and outline were beautiful” (p. 22). Thus, in introducing us to the (here, literally) Byronic vampire, Polidori specifically associates beauty with the undead. And women cannot resist.

The beautiful vampire has persisted as, arguably, the most popular incarnation of the undead in literature and film. Though Bram Stoker’s literary creation is often read as a bestial and ‘monstrous’ being, Dracula’s appearances in film, television and literature have, on the whole, been far more physically attractive. The Lost Boys, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, True Blood and Being Human have brought sexy male vampires to the large and small screens – to the delight of numerous female (and male) fans. For my generation, the ‘seminal’ vampire literature was that of Anne Rice and Poppy Z. Brite. And, sure enough, Rice and Brite’s works are populated by beautiful vampires.

Moreover, in these works, the vampires are so beautiful, they begin to (almost) sparkle. Rice’s Lestat has an “extremely white and highly reflective skin that has to be powdered for cameras of any kind” (p. 9). Brite’s beautiful vampires wear silks that “caught the moon and threw it back in a thousand shades of iridescence” and have “eyes like silver pearl” (p. 45). The references here to shine, sparkle and precious stones speak clearly to Meyer’s description of Edward Cullen.

While many commentators have suggested that the antipathy towards Edward is because he is not enough of a ‘monster’, or that he is a debased form of the ‘vampire legend’, he is hardly the first beautiful and seductive undead creation. In fact, read in this light, he is more the descendant of Ruthven, via Lestat and Angel, with a dash of cinematic Dracula for good measure. It is not in Edward’s beauty that the problem seems to lie.

Eternal Life

Since the release of Twilight, critics and readers have made much of Meyer’s Mormon background and the impact this may (or may not) have had on her writing. It is possible to read aspects of Mormon teaching into Meyer’s portrayal of Edward. In particular, Mormon theology regarding life after death seems to resonate with the presentation of the vampire.

The website of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints explains that “all the love we develop within our families will go with us to the next life” and that, after death, “[e]veryone’s spirit will then be reunited with his or her perfected physical body, which will never die again”. So, Heaven (in this theology) is to be in one’s perfect form, living amongst one’s family, for all eternity.

With this in mind, Edward Cullen, existing eternally with his ‘sparkling’ body and loving family, could very well be in Heaven. He has died and achieved (a very Mormon) eternal perfection. Is this the problem? Are we uncomfortable with a Heavenly vampire?

And yet, Twilight is not the first vampire text to present us with an undead ‘Angel’. The vampire with a soul was introduced to popular consciousness by Joss Whedon – not by Stephenie Meyer. Indeed, though Buffy’s Angel (and later Spike) experiences severe soul-angst, at least he is aware that he has one and is destined to find out the ‘higher purpose’ behind his ‘curse’. Edward Cullen is far more lost for the majority of the Twilight saga – he does not even know whether he is cursed or blessed. We might think that Edward is in Heaven, but he regularly convinces himself he is on the road to Hell.

Perhaps the problem lies more in the resolution of Edward’s story. Unlike Angel and Spike, Edward gets a happy ending. He is able to create his own ‘Heavenly’ family, complete with a wife with ‘shielding’ protective powers and a biological daughter (thus trumping his own ‘father’s’ collection of adopted ‘children’). With the discovery of Bella’s powers and the revelation of Renesmee’s true nature, Edward’s eternal happiness is secure. And it is in this plot resolution that Edward differs from so many of his beautiful forebears.

The question, then, is why do we not focus more of our ire on this fact? Why is the oft-repeated slogan not ‘real vampires don’t have children’ or ‘real vampires don’t live happily ever after’? Why are we so fixated on the sparkles?

All that Glitters…

In the above passage from Twilight, Meyer describes Edward as seeming like he has “thousands of tiny diamonds” under his skin. Diamonds connote permanence, high value and adult feminine jewellery (remember Holly Golighty’s insistence in Breakfast at Tiffany’s that diamonds belong on women over forty); however, critics and readers have tended to focus more on the words “sparkling” and “glittering” in Meyer’s text. Glitter has substantially different connotations to diamonds – it is suggestive of the ephemeral, the trivial and the teenage.

I would suggest that “glitter” is highly symbolic of teen female sexuality, and of the pop culture productions such sexuality entails. Glitter, a staple of schooldays arts and crafts lessons, belongs to childhood. And yet, in its employment in eyeshadow, lip gloss, clothing and underwear, it becomes a potent indicator of burgeoning sexual identity. Glitter is, in the twenty-first century, hyperfeminine; one needs only to consider its almost-excessive use by drag queens to see this. At once childlike and adult, innocent and sexualized, glitter has become part of the uniform of teen sexuality.

Furthermore, while diamonds are forever, glitter is a temporary twinkle. It does not last and cannot be reused; it has no intrinsic value and cannot be used as portable property. In this respect, glitter is an apt metaphor for pop culture productions. Mass marketed fictions, for instance, often derided for their lack of substance and lack of cultural ‘value’, might be better understood as glitter-fictions than literary gems. Indeed, this temporary, ephemeral quality is often the basis for criticisms of pop culture, particularly, it should be added, pop culture productions aimed at women (such as soap operas and romance novels). If, as Catherine Strong has argued, cultural productions aimed at women “have often been positioned at or near the bottom of the cultural hierarchy” (p. 1), then those associated with teen girls are surely right at the bottom.

The rise of ‘glitter’ as an indicative marker of teen female sexuality has garnered much criticism. For some, the ‘prettiness’ of glitter encourages girls to aspire to princess-like femininity. What is often missed in this discourse is the concomitant rise of association of glitter with the sinister. Glitter accessories combine sparkles with skulls, poisons, weapons and other ‘Goth’ images. In teen fantasy fiction, both the love interest and the bad guys sparkle. In Carrie Jones’s Need, for instance, the murderous, near-incestuous pixie king cuts a swathe of destruction through a small town, trailing golden glitter in his wake.

This association of the ‘prettiness’ of glitter with the sinister and violent goes hand-in-hand with the rise of the ‘monstrous cute’. An enduring staple of Japanese popular culture, the monstrous cute, with its “sugar-coated monsters” (to use Maja Brzozowska’s term) is on the ascendant in the West. Sparkly vampires are a part of this – as are glittery poison bottles, killer pixies and spangled spell books. Again, I would suggest that this underlines the teenage quality of such cultural productions. It also underlines their Gothic nature. As Ellen Moers argued, Gothic has always been an outlet for the “savagery of girlhood”. Picking up on Moers’ argument, Catherine Spooner notes that ‘girlhood’ here might be understood as a “barbaric overthrow of ‘proper’, patriarchally sanctioned, adult femininity” (p. 89).

To return to Twilight: this notion of the ‘monstrous cute’ and Spooner’s argument of the Gothic heroine as occupying “a liminal zone between the Rousseau-esque innocence of childhood and the sexual maturity of marriage” (pp. 88-89) might be used to describe the monsters and heroine of Meyer’s work, but might be more properly applied to its voracious readers. And it is here, I would suggest that the hatred of the sparkly vampire really begins.

Generation Gap

In a (somewhat provocative) conclusion, I would suggest that the reason so many of us hate sparkly vampires is because, put simply, they are not written for us. When we say ‘real vampires’ don’t sparkle, what we really mean is that ‘our vampires’ didn’t sparkle. What we are witnessing is a distinct, and perhaps impassable, generation gap in vampire fiction. And it is striking how much anxiety is provoked by this – often ironically in scholars of the Gothic. Older readers, reviewers and critics often betray a certain possessiveness of the vampire, and a reluctance to relinquish this control to a new generation of vampire fans.

Teen female readers of Twilight and other YA paranormal romance rarely complain about glittering vamps. (And, I would note, nor do adult female readers who fully buy into the genre.) The Twihards are the new Catherine Morlands. When we rail against sparkly vampires, we are railing against another generation’s Gothic. We embody Northanger Abbey’s description of commentators who “abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in thread-bare strains of the trash with which the press now groans” (p. 828). What is significant is that the “trash” to which Austen refers is now the ‘correct’ Gothic against which sparkly vampire fiction is now measured.

My final suggestion, then, is not that we all simply embrace the sparkly vampire. I do not, and will not be persuaded to like Twilight, and I find much to criticize in its presentations of femininity and sexuality. What I argue, instead, is that we should begin to turn some scholarly attention to the glittered vamp, rather than simply dismissing him as an ‘inauthentic’ or ‘trivializing’ creation. To deride sparkly vampires is, in effect, to consign teenage girls’ pop culture (once again) to the bottom of the cultural hierarchy.

Sources:

Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey, in The Complete Novels, ed. by Claire Booss (London: BCA, 1984).

Poppy Z. Brite, Lost Souls (London: Penguin, 1994).

Maja Brzozowska-Brywczy?ska, ‘Monstrous/Cute: Notes on the Ambivalent Nature of Cuteness’, in Monsters and the Monstrous, in Monsters and the Monstrous: Myths and Metaphors of Enduring Evil, ed. by Niall Scott (Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2007), pp. 213-26.

Carrie Jones, Need (London: Bloomsbury, 2010).

Stephenie Meyer, Twilight (London: Atom, 2006).

John Polidori, ‘The Vampyre’, in Great Vampires and Other Horrors (London: Chancellor Press, 1992), pp. 22-37.

Anne Rice, The Vampire Lestat (London: Warner Books, 1985).

Catherine Spooner, Contemporary Gothic (London: Reaktion Books, 2006).

Catherine Strong, ‘“…it sucked because it was written for teenage girls” – Twilight, anti-fans and symbolic violence’, paper presented at The Australian Sociological Association 2009 Annual Conference, Canberra.

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