WARNING: VAMPIRE DIARIES SPOILERS AHEAD
Or else just another overly-long post about vampires, young women, and modern-day masculinity. Your call.
With this week’s revelation (or alleged revelation–there’s no proof yet) that newly-vampired Elena Gilbert of The Vampire Diaries is, indeed sired to Damon Salvatore, I’m feeling more excited about the series than ever (especially after last season, which was a languorous, snooze-fest tease). I’m also, however, feeling more worried than ever–about Elena, our heroine, and what this means for her potential happiness (which you know I’m obsessed with).
Question: Why is it so fashionable to write teen heroines these days whose most featured characteristic is indecision? In terms of TVD, would it have been too much to allow the audience, for even one episode, to believe Elena’s decision to be with Damon Salvatore over Stefan Salvatore was 100% of her own volition? Why, the moment she finally seems to find a smidgeon of agency inside that martyring heart of hers, is the instinct to reveal that Elena is, in fact, under the control of the sire bond, and nothing she’s said or done since becoming a vampire is based on her own desires? More than ever, I’m literally dying to ask: WHAT THE F#CK DOES ELENA WANT? Will we ever know for sure? And why is this question, the question of what a main character wants, so popular these days when talking about heroines of teen-based literature and entertainment?
I don’t know. It has something to do, I feel, with many of the representational changes that certain facets of our culture are trying to make in terms of defining masculinity. For the last twenty years, it seems like we’ve been overhauled with girl power (Spice Girls, Buffy), but now, it seems the factor to manipulate is the place and role of boys (and by extension, men). The bad-boy/nice-guy dichotomy has never been so important in literature, and while fictional women have been plagued by this type of indecision for more than a hundred years (Mr. Darcy, anyone?), I feel that now, more than ever, young women are confused as to what they should desire in a mate vs. what they actually do desire. Meaning: What qualities should be attractive in terms of masculinity vs. what qualities actually are attractive, and who’s setting these standards? I really have no idea, but I do know that these decisions are getting tougher than ever for our girl in question: Elena Gilbert.
Chivalry is dead. That’s one you’ve heard, right? It makes me think of that scene in Sleepless in Seattle when Tom Hanks and Rob Reiner are just walking around, talking about dating in the 90s, and Tom tells Rob, in a fair bit of disbelief, that he doesn’t think could ever let a woman pay for dinner. Oh-ho-ho! “Great!” says Rob. “They’ll have a parade in your honor. You’ll be man of the year in Seattle Magazine!” Man of the year!
It’s clear that, in our time, strict societal gender roles in terms of the mating game have, in many ways, been defused, and this has thrown a big, politically correct wrench in the old-fashioned ways of chivalry. Men are no longer expected to open doors, pull out chairs, or toss their expensive jackets over puddles to impress us, because these things are symbolic of an old-fashioned time come-and-gone. Men are also not necessarily expected to be aggressive or dominant in their pursuit of women. We’re all supposed to know better now. It’s “gross.” Some feminists argue that these types of actions are condescending, that the whole chivalry thing, in acts big or small, is actually a “gendered premise,” and it displays that women need special treatment–so even though it’s technically positive or flattering in nature, it’s still sexist. I don’t personally agree with this argument, but that’s beside the point for now. Let’s look at the way things actually are:
If experience serves me correctly (and if Feminist Ryan Gosling serves me correctly) women still, despite this reorganization of social expectations for men, somewhat desire a certain amount of “romance” or chivalry in their mating and dating rituals. Thus the complaint, “Chivalry is dead,” and the overwhelming success of old-fashioned-male-chivalry-porn mags Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey. Considering the Sleepless in Seattle example above, it doesn’t take a genius to see that Tom Hanks, everyone’s favorite leading man of the 1990s, is cast as chivalrous for a reason. Even super-sensitive Feminist Ryan Gosling seems to be extra attuned to a woman’s romantic sensibility, and when bad-ass Buffy Summers, at the end of the episode “I Was Made to Love You” (5.15), enters her home to find a bouquet of flowers by the stairs with a note addressed to her mother, she makes no hesitation to appreciate the gesture: “‘Still some guys getting it right,” she says.
And what about Hermione Granger, in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire? Despite her independence and superior intelligence, Hermione still responds positively to the 0ld-fashioned, brutish charm of Viktor Krum. She puts on a dress, does her hair and make-up, and gets weak in the knees when he *chivalrously* kisses her hand at the bottom of the stairs. Taylor Swift sings songs about Romeo and Juliet, sells a bajillion copies (whether you like it or not). Paula Cole asks, “Where have all the cowboys gone?” and Captain Mal takes on Atherton Wing in a duel to win the hand of Companion Inara Serra in the best Firefly episode ever, “Shindig.” Finally: Angel surprises Buffy at the prom (“Every now and then people surprise you…”), dances with her one last time, and then rides off lonely into the night because they simply cannot be together. Gasp! And we’re all like *BALLING.*
…..So, chivalry is dead? I don’t know. I mean, at least not in the realm of entertainment I know, not at this moment. It might be UNdead, but it’s certainly not dead.
Evidence: Damon Salvatore of The Vampire Diaries and Edward Cullen of Twilight are good, rather exaggerated representations of “old-fashioned” chivalry and masculinity: they’re dominant, worldly, strong-jawed, and protective “bad boys,” almost obnoxiously so. These guys are written with a sort of “daddy knows best” rhetoric–sweeping the girls off their feet with a wisdom that only comes from having lived over a hundred years. Meanwhile there are counter-parts: Stefan Salvatore and Jacob Black. These guys are the “good guys,” written as sensitive, feminine in their sensibilities, submissive, and brooding, though with a considerable dark side (that’s been tamed, of course–at the behest of the girl). Stefan frequently defers to Elena’s wishes rather than asserting his own (which, at the end of season 3, costs Elena her life), and Jacob, well–while at times he does display frustration and agency, it’s almost always due to Bella, plus, at the altar of Bella, he freaking worships. It’s like in the old movie The Philadelphia Story (1939) when all Tracy Lord wants is a man to treat her like a human being instead of a goddess. She wants to be desired, not worshiped, not placed, made of bronze, on a pedestal. We can learn something from this.
A lot of old movies explore this dichotomy: men who worship or intellectualize women vs. men who love and desire women. One of my favorites is The Long Hot Summer (1958), in which the ultra-sexual Ben Quick (Paul Newman) blows into town and, after some difficulty, captures the fancy of local beauty and scholar Clara Varner (Joanne Woodward), who prior to and for some time after Quick’s arrival, is in a relationship with an intellectual named Alan who is essentially a mama’s boy and seems to be evolved beyond romantic love and sex.
My favorite segment of the film is the Bid-a-Basket ritual, in which women auction off homemade picnic lunches to eligible bachelors in order to raise money for a local cause. This ritual you may recognize, as it was usurped by the show Gilmore Girls in its second season episode “A Tisket a Tasket,” in which bad boy Jess Mariano shows up to town and unceremoniously outbids nice guy Dean Forrester, winning the picnic basket of and ultimately lunch with Dean’s girlfriend Rory Gilmore–yet another contemporary heroine of indecision.
In both Bid-a-Basket scenarios, and for both leading ladies, the winning bid on their “picnic basket” goes to the “bad boy,” the deviant, the out-of-towner with a good jaw and a smart mouth whose bold, central mission is to get the girl. I mean, we all saw it, right? It’s so obvious. While Dean is busy looking out for Rory’s “best interests,” gushing his feelings to Lorelai about all the bad influences in Rory’s life, Jess is busy swiping Rory right out from underneath him! Hey, they shoot Gilmores, don’t they? I don’t know. Ask Dean.
Okay, back to my original topic: In both Twilight and The Vampire Diaries, our heroines are inarguably drawn to the sex and dominant nature of the old-fashioned chivalrous “bad boys”–the boys who pull out chairs, open doors, bring enough money to outbid competitors on picnic baskets–and meanwhile, these same girls are almost obligatorily inclined to covet the sensitive guy who, like argued in this pretty interesting article about the roles of boys and masculinity in contemporary YA fiction, “rejects social status and dominance with respect to morality,” and this somehow makes him the better choice–because he rejects dominance, or whatever. It’s the moral or, politically correct(?) thing to do.
Either way: It’s clear, in watching The Vampire Diaries, that Elena is drawn to the “in charge,” confident, and sexual dominance of Damon Salvatore, but her ambivalence about what it would mean to succumb to this attraction keeps her latched to the sensitive, more submissive Salvatore, Stefan. Meanwhile, in Twilight, Bella wishes she could be in love with Jacob Black, because it would be “right” (he is warm-blooded, human, and they could have human children); however and unfortunately, Bella is helplessly in love with Edward Cullen (cold-blooded, undead, old as shit), despite the fact that her love for him means she will have to become a vampire and will probably not be able to live a normal life. While both situations are different, there’s this common, odd separation of “sexual love and desire” and love that is “correct” or morally acceptable, between what makes our heroine happy and what should make her happy. “I should be with Stefan, not Damon.”/”I should be with Jacob, not Edward.” Who, or what set of guidelines, are these girls appealing to when they succumb to such indecision? Such goddam indecision!
In this season’s fourth episode, “The Five,” Elena is shown almost euphoric, dancing and losing herself with Damon at a college party where she’s arrived to try and learn to be a vampire without remorse–and without killing anyone. She’s experiencing significant satisfaction from being a vampire, and while this kind of behavior might seem a little morally ambiguous (a lot), she hasn’t really hurt anyone, and neither has Damon. Actually, in terms of this show’s standard of living for vamps, this is about as innocent as it gets. So the two have kissed before (Damon and Elena), and Elena knows how Damon feels about her (and we know how she feels about Damon). But the moment Elena’s friend Bonnie walks in and sees them, wearing a look of, um, total judgment and disgust, Elena promptly abandons Damon on the dance floor, (just leaves him there!) starts crying, and says to Bonnie, “I should be here with Stefan.”
Despite her earlier happiness: I SHOULD! Or, I shouldn’t. I shouldn’t be happy? I should be correct? What is correct? When has happiness become separate from “correct?” I’m not sure.
So what makes Damon, our representation of old-fashioned chivalry more dangerous than Stefan, our representation of a more submissive and sensitive mate? Of course, these two types of male characters (the bad boy and the nice guy) have foiled each other in really familiar ways that we see in Buffy and the True Blood series and certainly all over entertainment and media these days. But I’m very interested in the young heroine’s “forbidden” love for a man with a traditionally old-fashioned or more dominant masculinity–why that love must be forbidden, and why Elena, for example, cannot feel free to love Damon without having to accrue hypocritical criticism from her friends and family (a la Caroline in this week’s ep “My Brother’s Keeper”) who, like Stefan, seem more concerned with Elena’s “innocence” and “correctness” than with her happiness. Sexist much?
Especially since Stefan, our stereotypical “good” guy, is really, actually…not so good. Despite his sensitive and submissive sensibility, Stefan has once already ditched Elena in Mystic Falls to go on a murderous rampage across the country with Big-Bad Klaus. It was Stefan who initially tricked Damon into feeding on human blood over 100 years ago after they were sired by Katherin Pierce–despite Damon’s desire to die rather than turn into a vampire. This season, Stefan is working with Klaus (yet again) to find a cure for Elena’s vampirism, at first claiming that he wishes to cure her because he loves her, because he cannot bare to see her in such pain; however, in this past episode, “My Brother’s Keeper,” it’s been revealed that Stefan’s true intentions for curing Elena are more along the lines of…well…he is unhappy with what she’s become. Because it just ain’t pretty! And I guess he wants his martyr back–the girl who loved him because it was “right,” because it was “good” and moral, despite her growing feelings for Damon (which are “wrong” and “bad,” but still–they’re there).
Now, another crucial example of chivalry failed: When Elena asks Stefan to save Matt instead of her at the end of last season when their car goes off the bridge, Stefan listens. He saves Matt’s life and Elena ends up dying. Seems weird, a little confusing that he would sacrifice her like that; however, when she is resurrected as a vampire, Stefan is somehow cast as the “good guy”–for saving Matt and allowing Elena to martyr herself, while Damon, who proudly states he would have ignored her wishes and saved her life instead, is cast as the asshole. One can make a pretty good moral argument for both sides, I guess; however, because Damon admits that he would have defied Elena’s bidding, even to save her life (pretty chivalrous, if you ask me–like knight-in-shining-armor chivalrous), he’s somehow condemned for it, and insensitive. (Even though now, ironically, all Stefan wants is for Elena to be human again–when it’s his fault she is not–and Damon, who accepts Elena despite her being a vampire, would have stopped the whole situation in its tracks by simply saving her life in the first place.)
So Stefan, despite his fanatical tendencies as the ripper and his unclear motives for wanting to cure Elena of her vampirism, is frequently cast as the “good guy,” the sensible mate, because he defers and submits to Elena’s will (without fail) and wishes to preserve her mortal “innocence.” Meanwhile, Damon, whose love for Elena remains unchanged despite her transformation into a vampire, is cast as the “bad guy,” ostracized for valuing dominance, being aggressive, sure of what he wants, and mostly, I feel, for his smart mouth and disregard for authority–Elena’s included. Stefan lets Elena do whatever she wants, no matter how ridiculous (ie: killing herself), and while, at first, this seems positive (since when should anyone tell Elena what to do?), this failure to directly challenge Elena when she’s making bad decisions–especially since she’s what, seventeen years old? And she has no parents, no authority in her life?–isn’t really doing much for her self-esteem, and in the end, it’s not really saving her life either.
When Damon challenges Elena’s authority, she is forced to adapt as an individual. To grow. Not all of her decisions are good decisions. She is not a goddess or all-knowing or incapable of screwing up. Damon’s willingness to point this out on a daily basis makes him the “bad guy,” even though he almost always seems to be the one character on the show that truly understands Elena, and he almost always ends up being the one Elena turns to in a time of crisis (and vice versa).
Conversely, whenever Stefan does challenge Elena’s decisions to act (which he has before, like in “The Killer”–when she wants to infiltrate a hostage situation to save her brother Jeremy, and Stefan won’t let her), it’s typically in his own best interest and not always to protect her. Had Stefan allowed Elena to infiltrate, attack Connor, and save Jeremy, he would have blown his cover: his alliance with Klaus and the secret plot to cure her. It’s also interesting to note that not once does Stefan sit down to engage Elena on whether or not she really wants to be human again, and what that means–what it could mean for Jeremy, and what it will mean for her (because she won’t be just Stefan’s human, but a human doppelganger-blood factory for Klaus’s hybrid super-race)–he just goes off and initiates the plan without her, playing the hero and displaying his own self-interest, yet again. Further, in “My Brother’s Keeper,” Stefan willingly puts Elena’s brother Jeremy’s life in danger in order to further his plot to cure her since he’s so sure it’s what she wants–but if there is anything that we are sure Elena “wants” in TVD, and there isn’t a whole lot, it is to protect her brother Jeremy, right? So, Stefan, where is your heart?
Continued: Damon sees what he wants and simply takes it, while Stefan goes through a considerable amount of hemming and hawing, bemoaning and self-loathing–displaying his many weaknesses. His weaknesses are what, I suspect, make him seem so safe. Elena is never endangered of becoming overpowered by a man who hates himself as much as Stefan does. In fact, his frequent self-loathing is almost cast as an attractive quality (ew) like it is with other brooding, introspective heroes such as Angel in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Damon, however, is extremely confident, and he threatens not only to consume Elena with his way of life, but also to challenge her decisions and, yes, sometimes even dominate her body with his. Stefan, again like Angel in Buffy, is way up in his own head, over-analyzing the ramifications and seriousness of being in love with a woman, beaten down by his past and burdened with neurosis, and this often causes him to act selfishly under the guise of self-sacrifice, while Damon, like Spike, is happily “love’s bitch”: He sees, he wants, he takes. He may act selfishly from time to time, but these acts rarely come with ulterior motives like they do with Stefan, and they are almost always in the purest interest of love. This kind of thing is undesirable, at least intellectually, because it too closely resembles man as animal rather than as evolved, analytical being–it depicts him as slave to the basic instincts, like lust.
However, Damon is anything but animal, as his love for Elena consistently manifests in some of the show’s most honest and tender moments. I think of the episode “Heart of Darkness” (3.19), in which Elena is caught spying on Damon as he drinks alone in their hotel room in the middle of the night. Also: episode 2.8, “Rose,” in one of the show’s single greatest moments, Damon confesses his love to Elena in her bedroom before compelling her to forget–since he characterizes the decision to tell her that he loves her as “the most selfish thing [he’s] ever said in his life.”
Damon: I love you Elena. And it’s because I love you that I can’t be selfish with you, and why you can’t know this.
Where Elena cannot turn to Stefan, she turns to Damon–because of these moments. Damon, being the more traditionally masculine Salvatore, does not typically advertise his emotions (unlike Stefan, who is constantly brooding). He does, however, share his feelings with Elena when he feels it most necessary. He is not afraid of being honest with her, but he always does this without expecting anything in return. Damon is frequently shown comforting Elena at her lowest and her most unbecoming–embracing her pain, allowing her ugliness, whether she’s a human or a vampire. The only other character who seems to do this is Matt, a childhood friend, while, alternatively, Stefan exists mostly to reassure Elena that he will fix the ugliness, whatever it is. He will make it better, while Damon allows it to manifest, to burn, because it’s part of who Elena is. In fact, in the end, it seems like Stefan is always off trying to “save” Elena (whether it be by pushing her away when he’s back to his old ripper tricks, or making shady deals with Klaus to restore her humanity) while Damon is always there, actually being physically with Elena (gives me flashbacks to the Jess-Rory-Dean triangle of Gilmore Girls). So Damon seems to love the flesh and blood of Elena while Stefan worships and lives to preserve the idea of Elena. These are two very different things. I suspect that, like me, most viewers are more inclined to believe the former.
Speaking of the fans: TVD fans, or at least the ones I know, are typically getting pretty sick of Stefan’s bullshit. In fact, most of us actually prefer him as the ripper, because then at least he’s assertive and makes decisions based on his own needs, rather than yielding to Elena’s all the time. These days, Stefan mostly just clomps around like an expectant martyr, doing the right thing, it seems, so he can hold it against her later on, or so he can look like the “good guy” in front of Caroline, Bonnie, and especially Damon. Stefan’s desire to cure Elena’s vampirism so that he can have his all-sacrificing princess of compassionate purity back, is a little disgusting–regardless of whether Elena is sired to Damon or not.
In conclusion, Stefan is threatened by Elena’s blood lust because, well, it’s just not so lady-like! That’s just not very pure of you to drink that frat boy, Elena. And, further, he is threatened by Elena’s relationship with Damon, one he cannot suss out, because it just won’t seem to go away. It just keeps coming back again and again…and meanwhile, most everything Stefan does still seems driven toward getting that pesky, bittersweet taste of Katherine out of his mouth, one that certainly can’t be getting any better as, with every moment that passes, Elena begins to resemble her more and more…
Anyway, again, I hit you with:
? Okay? Unrelated? Probably? It’s just a really hot picture. I’m very much looking forward to how the season unfolds. For Elena’s sake, I hope that her feelings for Damon are at least partially real and not totally controlled by the sire bond; however, who really understands a sire bond, anyway? I’m not a vampire. Maybe it’s as real as love gets. Maybe it’s even better.