July 2009

Jessica Ferri

Kissing Dead Girls


" 'You are my life. You're the only thing it would hurt me to lose.' I was getting better at this. It was easy to admit how much I needed him."

As I sat scratching one of my fifty thousand mosquito bites last night, I found myself wondering about our fascination with vampires. It makes sense: they're erotic, dangerous, and immortal. Luckily mosquitoes can be squashed, but these vamps just keep coming back for more. Their cultural importance waxes and wanes depending on pop culture trends, and, as some have theorized, the state of the economy. Vampires are really the only species resilient to a recession, and their glamorous, worry-free lifestyle is totally enviable when one's unemployed and beaten down by the mundane concerns of the living.

It's no surprise, then, that Stephenie Meyer hit the jackpot with her young adult vampire series, Twilight, which is now a major motion picture enterprise as well. In case you've been living under a rock, here's the rundown: Bella's a smart young woman in a new town enticed by a young, eerily beautiful man named Edward. At first, he seems to dislike her, giving her dirty looks in biology class, and even running the other direction when he sees her coming down the hallway. But of course, as it turns out, that's only because she smelled so delicious he was thinking about eating her right then and there. Because he's a vampire.

Bella would have to smell good for Edward to take an interest in her. She's described as plain, uninteresting looking, "I was ivory skinned, without even the excuse of blue eyes or red hair," although almost every guy in the school seems to have a hard-on for her. She's ambivalent about her new life in Forks, Oregon, where she's moved to live with her Dad because she doesn't like her mom's new boyfriend back in Phoenix. She complains about the weather and hates snow, and has apparently already read every book ever. She consigns to read Wuthering Heights again because it's "okay," she guesses. And she calls her Dad by his name, Charlie.

In other words, Bella is your typical teenage girl, and Meyer wants to emphasize her ordinariness by making her one of the most boring, annoying obstinate heroines ever. Hell, at least Tess of the D'Urbervilles had hobbies. Bella admits: "I didn't relate well to people my age. Maybe the truth was that I didn't relate to people, period." Once Bella meets Edward he becomes her entire life, her entire reason for breathing (and, not breathing) even though it takes nearly one hundred pages for him to speak to her. As other vampires try to kill her (remember, she's a fine wine), she not so subtly asks Edward "wouldn't this be easier if I were just like you?" Edward refuses to make her a vampire, but girl power really goes downhill from here.

Now, Stephenie Meyer is Mormon. She's obviously operating under a very unique religious ideology. Like Bella, Meyer grew up in Phoenix, and like Bella, married her childhood sweetheart. Edward, like any respectable young Mormon man, is fighting the very human urge to have sex with his girlfriend. But this is high drama: the threat here is life or death. Edward's afraid if he and Bella get too intimate he'll accidentally kill her. Was that message clear enough girls? Sex = death. Bella balks at the danger but what she doesn't understand is the consequences of having sex with Edward. We all know that Twilight is really an abstinence tract. There's no getting around it. Full disclosure: I have not read the other three books, but apparently Edward eventually agrees to make Bella a vampire on one condition: that she marry him. As if condemning someone to an immortal life and possible eternal damnation isn't commitment enough.

But as a child of the nineties, and quite possibly the biggest fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I have to ask: what the hell happened to us?

Recently, I was privileged enough to attend a Buffy party at an art space in Brooklyn. There was a huge trivia game, clips from the show, and in between each trivia category, the organizers played music videos from the decade on a big screen on the stage: Spice Girls, Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys, Madonna, the whole kit and caboodle. The place was packed; we were all united by a love of Buffy and our nostalgia for a time when anything seemed possible, before the internet invaded and demolished our relationships, when Buffy kicked-ass, Jane Austen was adapted in comedy gold, and Paul Rudd played the nice guy.

And now we get sparkly vampires (the real reason, according to Meyer, that vamps can't go out in the sun is because their skin sparkles) and a female lead that systematically alienates herself from nearly every single person in her life to spend time with a dead guy. She doesn't even seem slightly miffed that he's been watching her sleep at night. At least when Buffy meets Angel she's creeped out that this dude's been following her around Sunnydale. She asks questions. At first, she refuses to associate with him. He has to work at winning her trust. Bella does about two seconds of research on the internet by googling "vampire." Buffy reads an entire volume on Angel's history. And though Buffy wanted Angel, she never forgot her family: the Scooby gang. She never would have considered joining the ranks of the undead simply to hang out with her boyfriend for eternity. She had work to do. She had a career.

Predictably, Twilight is hugely popular among teenage girls (it has sold 42 million copies worldwide). And yes, it is addictive. I read the first book in about five hours. But honestly, I don't think I'll be reading the sequels, unless someone convinces me that they improve. In the second book, Edward leaves Bella, concerned for her safety, and she's quickly scooped up by another guy, Jacob Black, who just happens to be a werewolf. Something's up here -- in a world where a young woman jumps from the first vamp she sees to a werewolf? Bella, you're not even eighteen -- believe me, there are other ghouls in the mausoleum.

What I wonder is, would I be voraciously reading these books if I were thirteen? Doesn't it say something about women's lib if the dice has rolled from Buffy, who slayed vamps without even breaking a nail, to Bella, who does nothing the entire book but whine to be deflowered by one?

Ghouls and monsters have been used to scare people into some sort of societal norm since the dawn of horror. Slasher flicks started as a catharsis for the guilt we feel when we act bad: the punishment for drinking, drug use, partying, and sex is death at the hands of a lunatic. Dracula was compelling to a Victorian audience because it warned white women of the sexual power of foreigners: watch out English ladies! Their money and their accents will only lure you into eternal vampire wench sex slavery! It wasn't really until the nineties that horror movie heroines could get laid and live to see the credits. But the nineties changed all that -- the tables were turned: the cheerleaders were doing the slaying, and Neve Campbell, even though she made the mistake of sleeping with skeeze-ball Skeet Ulrich, not only survives Scream but kicks butt in the end.

Twilight has to be a love story if it's going to appeal to a kagillion teenyboppers, but would it have been so difficult to give us a heroine who thinks about her choices? It's one thing to fall in love, but when it's with a guy who's a hundred years older than you, a slight hesitation or even just a brief interlude of "maybe I should date someone my own age?" might be in order. More importantly, Bella's relationships with her friends could contain the potential for more engaging storylines than whether Edward's eyes are black or coffee-colored that day. Her strained relationship with her parents is also a great opportunity for Meyer to reach out to sixty percent of kids whose parents are also divorced. Instead she treats the awkwardness between Bella and her dad as a discomfort she must simply endure.

I don't think that all books have to be moral or that all authors have to be role models. That isn't the purpose of art and literature, although oftentimes these fantasy novels can give us a means of escape and inspiration. But perhaps the young adult genre is different -- Meyer's focus on abstinence and her inability to give Bella a life outside of Edward seems dangerous. Perhaps what's more troublesome is the mass consumption of this sort of an ideology by practically every young person in America. Putting your all your eggs in one basket always ends in disaster. It's worrisome that total and complete co-dependence is still so appealing to those of us seeking a good fantasy novel.

I sincerely hope this is the first and last time I have to say this in this column: but seriously, ladies. But the book down and turn on the television. Buffy is free on Hulu!