Wednesday, November 7, 2012

On the Purported Emasculation of Stock Movie Monsters

You've heard it: these days, werewolves and vampires are too wimpy. They've been turned into love objects for teenage girls, made friendly to young children, have been figuratively and even literally defanged.

My gut reaction is to prefer monstrosity in my stock monsters, to prize those examples that are violent, bloody and accursed. Until recently, I've never tried to understand why I do this, but now I think I understand: it's because these types of vampires and werewolves are generally better for telling intense, conflicted stories.

I'm still not interested in pushing my preferences on the media culture at large, in pretending to dictate what monsters should be. If we're going to keep using the same monsters over again, we had better keep them open to all possibilities, to reduce the repetitiveness.

The problem is not that monsters have become lovers. I hate Twilight as much as the next nerd, and I don't like the idea of vampires and werewolves as something to fall in love with rather than maul you. But this phenomenon is just one part of the larger thing, the real reason I'm uncomfortable with the "modern" portrayals of vampires and werewolves: that authors transform being a monster into being a gift rather than a curse, and in the process, remove a source of conflict. Being a "monster" now becomes wish fulfillment, and leaves writers scrambling to come up with new sources of conflict.

New writers are often told that the goal of a popular fiction story is to "hurt the hero". It means that you must put the protagonist under fire because how they respond will show who they really are, and it will drive the story. If there is no conflict, there is no plot, and we never get to see what the hero is made of (even if it turns out to be mush).

This is reflected in the many stories that have wishes and dreams that never turn out to be what they appear to be. There are caveats, deception, and eventually the hero will be forced to sink or swim. If a character gets everything they want right away, then there is no plot.

In the standard formula, the vampire or the werewolf is the source of the conflict. They are the obstacle for the heroes to defeat, or the curse that affects the protagonist. In this, it is made clear that being a vampire or a werewolf is not desirable.

Writers obviously have found new sources of conflict to drive stories where being a vampire or a werewolf isn't destructive, but there's still that bedrock need to have werewolves and vampires who are frightening. The desire for conflict isn't the only reason for this, but it's the most relevant. That's why I don't like it when the vampire is no longer a monster to be defeated, and the werewolf is no longer a ticking time bomb. There's no longer any tension, anything to draw an audience in.

Vampires and werewolves becoming lovers is only the offshoot of this. Once you have it so that vampires and werewolves are more like superheroes, or they are just "good people", you have the potential to make them into unalloyed love-objects.

 If you are going to have a vampire or werewolf love interest, that means dialing back the cursed aspects at least a little (how much varies widely), and that would involve taking them in a direction that was more to do with superpowers. It's not that far from Selene to Edward, really.

This is especially true of vampires. You can argue the tradition goes back to Dracula and so is beyond reproach, but even so, the idea that being a vampire means you get to be beautiful, aristocratic, and immortal, with tiny, pretty fangs seems much more like wish fulfillment than even the most easiest and voluntary of werewolf transformations. You can try to layer angst on top of the facts, but even so, it sounds hollow because of the opulence involved.

Yes, it's true that everybody seems to have a much smaller problem with superhero werewolves and vampires than they do with "romanticized" ones, but I think they're two closely related things.

I doubt everybody is thinking the issue through to this degree, both on the side of fans or creators. Some are simply acting out of a conservative instinct: if monsters have always been this way, then there is no reason to change them, no matter what the quality of the results.  That might also be true for me, too, a little.

Many blame women for this phenomenon, considering it the result of girl cooties getting into the horror genre, whether it's Anne Rice or Stephanie Meyer. Usually this is an unspoken accusation, but sometimes it's out there in the open, such as an article about an upcoming TV series based on Guillermo del Toro's The Strain. It characterizes its horrific, parasitic vampires this way: "Fittingly for male-driven FX, unlike the traditional, romanticized portrayals of vampires as tuxedo-clad studs, The Strain‘s bloodsuckers have no seductive powers […]" The implication is that women don't know what "real" monsters are, and have polluted the genre with their idealized blood-sippers.

That's wilful ignorance at its finest, what with sexualized female vampires being so popular. This is a direct example of the sexism brewing whenever  nerds complain about monsters "no longer being scary", but it's not the only time these sentiments are obvious.

I refer to "emasculation" intentionally, because even if they don't blame women for it, the nerd rage is directed almost entirely at male monsters, often calling them "pussies" or "fags". They're no longer scary because they're like icky women, is the message. I haven't seen anyone complaining that modern female monsters aren't scary enough.

Twilight deserves all the garbage thrown at it, but to act like the worst examples of monster emasculation are the result of some female thing, of tainting monsters with femininity in one way or another, or that seductive female monsters are totally okay, just kills the argument that monsters are no longer scary. If  you blame women for it, you lose.

Besides becoming gifted beings and romantic objects, another way that monsters are supposedly emasculated by modern culture is to make them out-and-out good guys, or even persecuted by humans, the "real" villains. Children's cartoons like Hotel Transylvania or the Monster High franchise are the most recent examples, but of course there are many. Because this stuff is for kids, and far older than Twilight, it seems to have passed off the nerd radar, but I'd like to talk about it briefly.

This stuff bothers me is because it just flips the absolute morality around, so that we're still dealing with simple lines between good and evil, but then the writers can pretend they're being creative. Straight reversals can be effective, but a lot of the time it just leaves a story feeling cheap and simple. And that's a lot worse than monsters no longer being scary.

In short, while I do dislike the idea of vampires and werewolves not being obstacles or threats, it's a phenomenon that's larger than paranormal romance. It's about supernatural powers becoming superpowers, about wish fulfillment over conflicts. Not to say it can't be done well, but it can be hard to create new sources of conflict and rebuild a mythology. And whatever the results, just don't blame women for it.

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