Love(r)

Exploring Love, Sex & Intimacy

Month: October, 2015

How Vampires Represent the Modern Ideal

*EDITORIAL NOTE*

I originally wrote this with the intention of publishing it right before Halloween, because y’know, vampires. But due to hectic setbacks I was not able to finish it in time. Then in November I participated in the National Novel Writing Month challenge, which consumed all my writing time and energy. On the bright side, I did win the challenge!

So here we are, it’s the beginning of December and I just decided eff it, better late than never. So without further ado, enjoy your modern social critique sprinkled with vampires.


 

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It’s almost Halloween (*haha just kidding) so I thought it would be appropriate and fun to talk about vampires! Vampires have been part of our collective mythos for a long, long time, but their image and what precisely they symbolize has evolved. Vampires have had a resurgence of popularity in the last decade or so and have taken on a different, sexier form.

Originally vampires were supposed to be terrifying. Stories of Vlad the Impaler (aka Count Dracula), Nosferatu and the rest of the old school vampires were meant to scare and scandalize people. Vampires were the embodiment of our repressed urges and tapped into human fears surrounding death, violence, cannibalism, blood and the dread that animalistic desires lurk inside all of us.

Eventually our culture embraced the latent violent/erotic connotations vampires had and exploited it, especially for TV and movies. This is when we started to see vampires who were sort of terrifying and a little sexy, like Christopher Lee in the Hammer produced Dracula films, or Jonathan Frid as Barnabas Collins on the Gothic soap opera, Dark Shadows. Nowadays vampires are mostly sexy and a little bit terrifying (except for Twilight – there is nothing terrifying about the vampires in Twilight except for the messages they are sending to impressionable adolescents).

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The current popularity of vampires obviously says a lot about our erotic or violent imaginations and general wish fulfillment in the form of immortality and power. However, I believe their popularity also has a lot to do with the way they exemplify some of the ideals our 21st century culture obsesses over. I would go as far to say that if a person was capable of fulfilling all our contemporary aspirations towards youth, beauty, perfection, etc, which is impossible, the result would essentially render that person into a vampire.

What sort of ideals am I talking about? Well, our modern western culture has a lot of obsessions, beliefs it emphasizes and qualities it pushes us all to strive for. Some of these ideals are pretty ridiculous, others unattainable, while still others are straight up harmful and frightening when deconstructed. 

Let’s break this spooky shit down.

Vampires are forever young (and conventionally attractive)…

Our culture is extremely preoccupied with physical beauty and puts a great deal of value into being young and attractive while prescribing a beauty ideal that is very restrictive. We are even lead to believe that youth and beauty will empower us and make us happy, but that is a misleading oversimplification of reality.

Vampires fulfill this ideal perfectly: they are immortal, in most cases forever youthful, almost always conventionally attractive and these superficial characteristics do indeed bestow them with power. As far as 21st century vampires go I have rarely seen an ugly one, or even an average looking one. Every vampire in Twilight, True Blood, The Vampire Diaries, Interview with a Vampire, and so on is practically flawless. Why do we rarely ever see a vampire who is old or doesn’t conform to our culture’s beauty standard? Because most people would find that unappealing and it would defeat the point. People love modern vampires, because they play into our fantasies of being young and beautiful forever. Almost as if to say, immortality wouldn’t be worth it if you didn’t get to look like a thin, 22-year-old, airbrushed supermodel for all eternity. 

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Vampires never eat…

Well, at least they never eat regular human food. They might be blood-thirsty, but vampires don’t have to worry about their diet. They are the flawless undead and no amount of blood is going to make them gain weight. Not surprising that in a culture ripe with eating disorders and unhealthy relationships with food, beautiful creatures that get to opt out of eating food entirely are so popular. I had not given this aspect of vampires very much thought until a friend of mine pointed out how many times in the book Twilight the main character, Bella, talks about not eating, or how much she admires the vampires for not eating. 

“The anorexic’s fantasies of bodily absence [in] her pursuit of extreme thinness might be seen to express the desire for ‘the impossible fiction of the non-body’ (ibid.). Here ‘…the ideal is not merely a thin body…not just a reduction but an eradication of the body’.” – Sally Miller, Vampires, the Body and Eating Disorders: A Psychoanalytic Approach

Vampires are always rich…

At least the ones we like and care about. Every popular vampire protagonist comes from a wealthy family, or is inexplicably rich. They all have luxurious lifestyles, in fancy houses, with fashionable wardrobes and tons of them own night clubs. For some reason being noble, aristocratic, or well-to-do seem to be prerequisites for becoming the undead. The point is, we like our vampire the way we like our reality TV stars, living lavishly.

Vampires are very, very white…

They are almost always white, and their paleness or “whiteness” is often fixated on as a beautiful, admirable or desirable quality. Needless to say it is extremely problematic that most depictions of vampires are white and they are praised for their whiteness. It’s creepy and racist with colonial undertones. 

“[The Twilight] saga upholds dominant ideas about race that associate whiteness with civility, beauty, and intellect on the one hand, and indigenous people with animality and primitivism on the other.” – Natalie Wilson, Got Vampire Privilege?: The Whiteness of Twilight

Vampires are sex-negative…

Being sex-positive means you think sex and the desire for it is healthy and that pleasure is nothing to be ashamed of. If we look at the blood-thirst vampires experience as analogous to sexual desire (a comparison many stories make), then we see how vampires exemplify our own culture’s dysfunctional relationship with sex. A vampire’s thirst for blood is often shown as conflicted and fraught with only two possible outcomes – evil vampires who embrace their desire and become monstrous, or reluctant vampires who struggle and feel ashamed of their nature. So whether you’re a horny human or a thirsty vampire, the message is you’re doomed to either be a tortured soul or a monster! 

Vampires also represent a sexual desire that is predatory and thrilling. Most sex researches recognize that rape fantasies often come from a conflict between desire and shame, that they are about giving into forbidden, sexual desire that a person believes they are not supposed to have. Vampire stories play out like elaborate rape fantasies where they seduce, “glamour”, or mind control their victims into passionate, hedonistic, blood rituals. A vampire is the perfect solution for a person who wants sex, but who feels they are not supposed to want sex. Vampires represent the part of ourselves that wants to control our “shameful” urges, but simultaneously wants to give into them. I believe that this facet of vampire fascination is another subtle expression of the rape culture we live in and need to learn to recognize, process and protest in a conscious way. 

In conclusion…

So let’s review, our modern society idealizes being young, beautiful, not needing to eat (or at least not needing to worrying about your diet and resulting body weight), being rich, being white and having a conflicted, fraught, shameful relationship to your own erotic desires. Sounds like a vampire to me. The problem though, is that we are not undead, immortal creatures of the night, we are humans who have complex, legitimate needs and who come in a myriad of colors, shapes, ages, socio-economic classes, sizes and appearances.

Don’t get me wrong, I can see the appeal. I know I found the concept of vampires very alluring when I was an angsty, teenage girl myself. There is nothing inherently wrong with fantasizing about vampires or enjoying the books, movies, television, etc made about them. I do however, see something very wrong with aspiring to be like a vampire, or exploiting people’s insecurities in order to reinforce unhealthy ideals we have in our culture. The popularity of vampires is a reflection of dysfunctional parts of our culture that we simultaneously fear and desire – parts that we need to shed some light on and examine.

In the end I don’t think vampires are creepy, but the unattainable ideals our culture beats us with everyday as well as the messages we internalize about what we need to be happy are scary as hell.

Lovingly yours,

Clara


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Gender: We Made the Whole Thing Up

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Today I want to share a fun follow up to the three-part series I wrote on sexism (1, 2 & 3) and how it makes healthy intimacy in relationships nearly impossible. Those posts were so heavy and necessary, but today I want to make things a little more lighthearted, because liberation can be fun! No, really, I promise.

First of all, how much thought have you given to your own gender expression? Your clothing, appearance, mannerisms, way of speaking, pastimes and so on. The accumulation of these choices may seem to you to be natural, fundamental, perhaps even immutable. Maybe it’s something you’ve never given much thought, because you’ve never questioned your expression, how it was presented to you, how it was enforced in your life or your own predilection for fulfilling certain gender stereotypes. If you’re comfortable with your gender (dare I say euphoric?) good for you! But I am going to invite you to give it some thought right now. You see the funny thing about gender expression is that while it is important and constantly present in our daily lives, it is totally arbitrary!

“We are born male or female, but not masculine or feminine. Femininity [and masculinity] is an artifice, an achievement, ‘a mode of enacting and reenacting received gender norms, which surface as so many styles of the flesh.” – Sandra Lee Bartky, Femininity and Domination: Studies in the Phenomenology of Oppression

Hopefully by the time you are done reading this it will become clear that you don’t need to have gender dysphoria, nor be a furious feminist, to appreciate that gender is a construct we as a society have all agreed to utilize. It’s akin to the way we as a society have agreed that colorful paper, metal coins or digital numbers in a bank account are called “money” and allow you to buy goods and services. Our economy can only be based on such imaginary value if we all agree to believe it does, or are forced to conform. No respectable establishment is going to sell you a milkshake without money. Get out of here with your homemade dollars or mountains of salt! Similarly, we have what you could call a “gender economy” that assigns social capital to certain behaviors or forms of expression when enacted by the correct type of person. Thereby, if you have a vagina and you identify as female and adhere to a very feminine gender expression, you get lots of imaginary gender-dollars (yay!), but if you don’t conform you don’t get any gender-dollars (boo!).

Really what I am trying to say is gender and money are actually a lot like Tinkerbell, they only exist because we believe they do. And some people get really upset and start clapping like maniacs when you suggest you don’t believe in them.

There are certain things in life that don’t require our participation or belief to exist: gravity will still work, biology will keep functioning and general “truths” about humans do exist. However, many parts of life are far more subjective and variable than we tend to acknowledge. Even biological sex is not as objective and clearly defined as we once assumed. So sure, if we all decided to stop believing in the existence of germs, microorganisms would go on killing us, but if we all decided to stop believing in gender life would go oooooon! Mark my words, throwing out the gender binary and strict gender roles would not cause the end of civilization – it might just make it a lot more fun.

Gender expression is about as arbitrary as fashion because, like the type of clothes we agree are cool, it’s a cultural construction. And similar to fashion, everything from gender roles/expectations, what has been coded as “feminine” or “masculine”, or what is seen as socially acceptable has varied widely throughout cultures, throughout the world, throughout time.

Eddie Izzard rocking all sorts of gender presentations. Credit due to my awesome friend Anne Bean!

To drive home this point, here are some examples of various differences in gender expression throughout history:

  • In Western society we have a stereotype that the color pink is for girls and blue is for boys. This has become so pervasive that pink is seen as the default “girly-est” color. There are more pink products marketed towards women than you can shake a stick at. But why? Not only are these color-to-gender associations arbitrary, it was not that long ago that they were completely flipped. Pink was seen as a more appropriate color for boys and blue for girls. So please, wear whatever colors you like and for goodness sake stop making all products for ladies pink. There is no good reason we need to start enforcing gender stereotypes on humans when they are still babies… or really ever.

“According to child development experts, children are just becoming conscious of their gender between ages 3 and 4, and they do not realize it’s permanent until age 6 or 7. At the same time, however, they are the subjects of sophisticated and pervasive advertising that tends to reinforce social conventions.” Jeanne Maglaty, Smithsonian.com

  • Speaking of fashion and how greatly it can fluctuate… It is common and acceptable today to have your children wear “gender neutral” clothing when they are playing and generally being kids. However, the “gender neutral” clothing that are deemed acceptable are things like pants, t-shirts, rompers, etc. But it used to be very different. It used to be that all children regardless of their assigned sex or gender identity were dressed up in, well, dresses. Because they were easier to clean and allowed more freedom of movement. So what children used to wear wouldn’t be considered gender neutral now, it would be seen as feminine, and what we put our kids in now would have been seen as masculine and inconvenient back in the day.
  • Continuing on with fashion… High heels started out as a men’s fashion, then became acceptable for all genders, and eventually became the female only shoe it is seen as today. The funniest part about the whole thing is women started wearing high-heels in the first place as “an effort to masculinise their outfits”.
  • Knitting used to be considered a very “manly” craft.
  • Cheerleading was originally an all male sport.
  • In the earlier part of the 20th century women who were athletic “tomboys” were stigmatized as examples of “disreputable heterosexually deviant womanhood” (i.e. straight sluts) until eventually society flipped this on its head and decided they must be lesbians instead. Switching the stereotype from penis-lovers to penis-haters in a mind-mindbogglingly short and misogynistic amount of time. This is also a great example of how people often confuse gender expression for sexual orientation, or think they are inexorably linked when they are not.
  • Beer brewing used to be a female dominated industry until about the time of the industrial revolution
  • Crying used to be perceived not as a “soft”, “emotional” and “feminine” sign of weakness, but actually as a “masculine” demonstration of strength. Or once upon a time people understood and accepted that there were different kinds of crying in different contexts. The bottom line is the idea that “boys don’t cry” is a very recent invention. For most of history masculinity allowed for, or even encouraged, crying.

The examples go on and go, but I choose a few I found to be interesting and salient.

So how does this affect intimacy? Well, self-acceptance and self-esteem are a huge part of healthy intimacy. Be who you want to be, wear what you want to wear, participate in the activities you feel passionate about, express yourself as you want. Whenever someone tells you what you’re doing is feminine or masculine, as yourself, does that make sense?  Are they conflating biology with gender? Why do they even care what you wear? Are they trying to force you into a box that makes them comfortable at the expense of your own comfort? What does it matter anyways what a person’s genitals might be and what hobbies they want to participate in? A person can have ovaries and want to brew beer. You can have testes and enjoy wearing eyeliner and nail polish. Not everything marketed towards women needs to be fucking Pepto Bismol pink. Not every man needs to smell like Old Spice. WHY DOES CLOTHING MADE FOR FEMALE BODIES NEVER HAVE POCKETS?!? I swear it is a conspiracy. Saying that pink is a girls’ color, that videogames are a boys’ activity, that men are rational and women are nurturing perpetuates stereotypes that simply are not true.

People who want to control you and your gender make me so mad. Seriously, fuck them, and not in the fun way. What society really needs is breathing room for everyone. The more you are comfortable with yourself, the clearer you are on what you want and why you want it, the more liberated you will feel and the more you will love yourself. These are all parts of being intimate with the most important companion you will ever have in your lifetime – yourself! And the better intimacy you have with yourself, the better you will be at developing it with others.

“The identity of men and women is developed by embracing the important human qualities that all people need to live well. There is more to the human identity of real men and women in being disciplined, just, wise and dedicated to our self improvement than the social dictates of fashion or socially defined gender based roles can ever give us through the incoherent fiction of gender identity.” – Max Maxwell, A Socratic Perspective on Gender Identity

Invest your time and energy into being a happy, healthy person rather than a socially acceptable womanly-woman or manly-man. Because while the former is actually attainable and will improve the quality of your life, the latter is an incoherent, social fantasy we all made up and will constantly reinvent.

Lovingly yours,

Clara


Love(r) wants to hear from you! Here’s how:

  • Leave a comment below!
  • Email – theintimacyblog@gmail.com
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