Thursday, January 8, 2009

On Twilight, Vampires, and Romantic Love

As you might notice from some of my other blog entries and my website, I'm interested in superheroes, particularly what their stories reveal about psychological phenomena. "Superheroes" can be defined somewhat loosely, including supernatural heroes, such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Joss Whedon's Buffy is a strong female character: physically strong, plucky, tenacious, direct, and with a dry sense of humor. (To see Joss Whedon talk about his inspiration for Buffy, click here).

Whedon inspired others to create strong female super(natural) heros. So it's clear that Buffy is the mother, or grandmother, of a whole genre of supernatural female supes. One example is Sookie Stackhouse—the protagonist and selfless hero in Charlaine Harris' book series (and also protagonist of HBO's series, True Blood; I've read the Harris books, but not seen the TV show).

I thought that the female protagonist in Twilight, Bella (book by Stephenie Meyer), would be another daughter or granddaughter of Buffy. The film—and the fan hoopla—was getting a lot of coverage in the news, so I thought I'd see what the fuss was about and read the book. (Full disclosure: I haven't seen the movie.)

Boy was I wrong.

In fact, the character Bella—a teenage girl recently come to live with her father in rural Washington—is far from being a hero, super, supernatural, or "regular." Although clearly a bright and capable teenager, Bella seems to have little motivation or passion about much of anything except for [spoiler alert] the vampire who becomes her boyfriend.

A little background for those of you who don't know the story; bear with me. Bella transfers to the small local high school where she meets five very pale high school students who don't eat. No surprise to the reader—they're vampires. Girl meets vampire, vampire meets girl. Cue the violins. As the story unfolds, the only thing she's interested in is her vampire boyfriend. (In fact, though, she doesn't really "know" her boyfriend all that well, nor does she know all that much about vampires.) Despite these gaps in her knowledge, by the end of the book she wants to become a vampire—for all eternity—so that she can live with her boyfriend, both of them forever physically looking young. Bella feels so little interest in "regular" life—potential careers, relationships with others, the possibility of children—that she doesn't think twice about relinquishing her life to have a perpetual adolescence with her vamp boyfriend.

As an aside, the five vampires in this story who are high school students are chronologically older than teens; some of them are hundreds of years old. But they became vampires as teenagers, so that's how old they look; one assumes that they must go to high school forever or get in trouble with the authorities for truancy. Can you image having to go to high school forever? Moving towns and enrolling in a new high school every four years? Endless years of biology, English, and math? Does that sound appealing? [end of spoiler alert]

Back to Bella. Okay, so I was wrong about her being Buffy granddaughter. She's more like Buffy's antithesis. She can't get herself out of jams, doesn't act heroically, and is generally ineffectual.

What really got to me about this book is its themes of disaffected youth and nihilism. And the public's positive response to the film, which I assume is at least somewhat true to the book, leads me to feel even more anguish. This book endorses a concept of romantic love (for girls and young women for sure, and maybe for boys and young men) that goes beyond the "I love you so much that you are my life" type of all-consuming but inevitably flawed and unsustainable type of love. It endorses "love" nihilism—that beyond the relationship, life doesn't really matter. It's the "I love you so much that I will give up life to become undead with you" type of all-consuming but inevitably flawed and unsustainable type of love. But once that love peters out, the consequences are still there.

It seems to me this love nihilism is a vamp variant of the disempowering notions of romantic love that I had hoped were behind us for good:
  • "I love you so much, I don't want to think about the consequences of my actions—nothing matters but this moment."
  • "I love you so much, I'll do things that I know are against my self-interest."
  • "I love you so much, I'll have sex with you even though I don't really want to because I'm afraid of losing you,"
  • "I love you so much, I'll have sex with you even though you don't want to wear a condom."

What happened to role models of female teens who were able to see love without blinders—to have the good sense to realize that life shouldn't be put on hold because one is in love? That being in love doesn't mean giving up oneself?

Buffy was strong, practical and pragmatic, and selfless for others.
Bella is weak, impractical and not pragmatic, and selfish.

Can we have Buffy back—please?