Verve Magazine, Culturescape, February 2010
The immense worldwide success of the Twilight vampire love series and James Cameron’s epic film Avatar have made fantasy a romantic prerequisite. Fangs, love bites, fairy dust and aliens pour out of the Pandora box of magic potions, brewing tales that sell imaginary love to bewitched humans. Sitanshi Talati-Parikh finds herself taking love-struck bites
As humans get more barbaric as a race, romances tend to swirl around a fictional character of an imaginary species. What is it about Pandora and the Na’vi tribe that makes them so beautiful and desired? Or about the blood-sucking undead that makes them the modern version of Byronic or Darcyian romantic heroes? Or what attracts us to a ghost, a spirit or a powerful figment of our imagination? It’s not just the fact that their being unreal or non-real, gives me the ability to superimpose the characteristics that I wish to see in the person I love. It is also the fact that by virtue of being unreal, they can be more than we are. Either as humans we are deeply ineffectual at romance; or as people we need, nay we demand more. The inability of romantic deliverance from a human race appears to send our hearts racing towards the inhuman – in true escapist fashion.
Escapism at one point of time was candyfloss romance – where the romantic hero was kind and considerate and loved you for the woman you were, not the woman he wanted you to be. It was human to be imperfect, it was human to accept these imperfections and it was human to love them. Women have always been suckers for the knight-in-shining-armour story – it is as if, we are still waiting to be rescued if not from atypical danger, then from ourselves, and our deep-rooted insecurities. The age of Feminism masked these things under the coat of smart trousers, shorter hair, and a career. Scratch the surface though, and you will find a rather unapologetic little romantic girl hidden inside every driven woman. As Vatsala Kaul Banerjee, editorial director, children and reference books for Hachette India, publishers of the Twilight, House of Night, Sookie Stackhouse, Blue Bloods, Vampire Diaries, Night World and other such series states, “Feminism is not, and should not be, exclusive to the idea of love. Not everyone who chooses to love a male or be loved by him, even if occasionally beyond all logic, is a needy little twerp. C’mon, we’ve all been there – fallen for someone so bad, it’s been hard to think of anyone or anything else, including school or friends or family. But eventually, you get real.”
What is Edward Cullen, the famous vampire hero of the Twilight saga by Stephenie Meyer, if not a paternal caregiver to the rather insipid heroine Bella Swan? His primary role is in protecting her, because he is that much stronger and more powerful than she can ever be (until she turns into a vampire, that is). As she gets embroiled repeatedly in danger, he appears miraculously to save her – because she means the world to him. When he can’t be around, it is the young werewolf Jacob Black, who, again with greater powers, remains her protector. Bella, it appears, is in love with security, and whichever good-looking, charming man who can provide that kind of security to her. It is primarily the love of a teenage girl for an older, stronger man, a benefactor, a lover, and a protector.
With the fact that there is a burgeoning cult of ‘Twilight Moms’, the notion that this is merely the infatuation of teenage girls is immediately put to question. As some of these 30-plus women grudgingly admit, there is something deeply hypnotising about this romance – which fulfils their own unrequited high-school love. The trials of high-school romances and self-doubts never change – Bella, in her rather characterless state becomes an easy avatar for the reader to identify with. As an avid reader from France in her 20s, Myriam Belkis admits, “We can empathise with Bella particularly because of her unremarkability.” The reader, hopefully a stronger Bella, can morph into a young girl, who just wants the perfect guy to love her unconditionally. And so what if the guy is a blood-sucking, cold-blooded (literally) vampire? The very fact that he finds her blood intoxicating and thirsts for it, fights a moral battle every time he is with her, struggling to control himself to be with her, kisses her and withdraws from her raw passion, is inherently sexy. It is guilt-edged, morally unsound and dangerous desire that leaves the reader panting for more.
What is bothersome is Bella’s lack of control and vapidity as a heroine – at least in the first three books. While it may be easy for girls to slip into her character because it’s an empty shell, it’s rare to find readers rooting for Team Bella. The men superimpose the woman, and despite it being her story, she remains vacuous and annoying at best, irritatingly dependent on a man to make her life credible (except for the fourth book, Breaking Dawn, where she comes into her own). ‘Even after half a year with him, I still couldn’t believe that I deserve this degree of good fortune,’ says Bella in New Moon. We can’t believe it either, because she never considered herself worthy of anyone. On a very superficial level, her crisis is that of any teenage girl’s deafening insecurity and self-doubt; on a deeper level, it is disturbing to see the protagonist in one of the most popular romances of the time behave like a suicidal sacrificial lamb at the altar of love. It makes you wonder if women have come a full circle – willing to do anything for love and for a man – and does that make it endearing or frightening?
Bella is unnaturally attracted to the supernatural, making us wonder if she is inherently other-worldly (they suggest she was born to be a vampire) or if she is battling a normal teenager’s rebellious nature with an uncanny curiosity for trouble. Isn’t it more likely for Bella’s love to be infatuation than the unflinching deep love it is proclaimed to be? As a 17-year-old she takes the kind of hazardous decisions – in the name of love – that a 27-year-old would shudder to contemplate. Belkis confesses that, “At that age you are often reckless, and personally I remember my teenage feelings as the most intense I’ve had in my life.” While its appeal to a teen audience is understandable, its appeal to an older audience is Potteresque – fantasy captures the imagination like nothing else does.
And it asserts the notion of being attracted to the bad guy, and wanting to ‘fix’ the bad guy. Edward (and later Jacob) try to make Bella believe that they are dangerous and therefore shouldn’t be anywhere near her, but that just draws her to them even more, testing their endurance. We understand why she loves them, but why, oh, why, do they love her? Is it meant to be a beacon call of hope for all the spineless women out there who want to believe that Mr Perfect is hovering somewhere, even if he is an alien?
We are constantly reminded that Edward is beautiful and perfect, Jacob is warm and attractive – and it seems to be okay, particularly from a sound feminist point of retribution, to objectify men under the pretext of unconditional love, in this three-way interspecies romance. No regular teenage boy (or man for that matter) would stand a chance against a sophisticated vampire or powerful werewolf with super powers and a burning, intense, monogamous love.
It is in much the same way that the Na’vi tribe and the female lead Neytiri are objectified in Avatar – their other-worldliness, devoid of the trappings of human failings, the beauty in their every movement and relationships with their environs is viewed with reverence, envy and admiration by the voyeur-protagonist Jake Sully. It is easy for Jake to be reborn as a freer soul, powerful in ways that a human cannot be, and in tune with a better moral and ethic fibre. He is escaping from a rotten life to a better world. Aren’t we all hoping for an avatar that can help us escape the monotony and failings of our world? There is the obvious call for humans to be better, to rethink their priorities and non-ideals, because if not, all the good men are going to be falling in love with good aliens!
The love affair in Twilight is as, another reader in her late 20s, Megha Gupta, believes, “unrealistic and teenage, even stalkerish in the real world – but oh so romantic! What attracted me initially to the first book was the fantasy element, but what kept me hooked was the star-crossed lovers theme. I wanted Edward and Bella to stay young and beautiful and in love, ‘every single day of forever’.” The romance of eternity is an obvious attraction with the love of the undead: to be frozen in time appears to be an acceptable price to pay to remain eternally bound together – even if it is at the risk of losing your soul.
In Carole Matthews’ It’s a Kind of Magic, the protagonist, Emma wishes the love of her life, Leo, could magically turn into a better boyfriend, and lo behold, he does, but with an impossibly fabulous fairy girlfriend, Isobel, in tow, whom Emma cannot possibly compete with. Love has some sort of magical element attached to it that leads you to do uncontrollable things; and yet often rights things that are wrong – because as humans we are sometimes incapable of doing so.
Lara leads a desperately boring life in Sophie Kinsella’s Twenties Girl. It takes the advent of the ghost of her great-aunt Sadie to create delicious havoc and weave a wand of romance in Lara’s life, with the touch of a nostalgic past – that of a more chivalrous time. Are we harping back to a time of better – different, more meaningful love? Is something old-fashioned genetically imprinted in us, where we wish for a time where things were simpler and more complicated all at once?
Banerjee finds that the attraction lies in “an unusual, unreal, unearthly, extraordinary romance, against all odds, enticingly impossible, potentially dangerous and possibly forbidden. Whether it’s shape-shifters, ghosts or vampires…it’s dark, action-packed and sexy. Because it’s not just ordinary men and women, the parameters of romance itself become fluid, different and challenging. The emotional and physical interfaces between two people are transformed…that’s quite thrilling, I daresay. It raises the unpredictability bar and makes for exciting unknowns to unfold.”
It is as if we, as humans, yearn for everything good that doesn’t exist in our own version of the world. Is it a deep existential quest for a better world, a better life and a better romance that we are now looking at extraterrestrial fantasy? Or is it just that a Clueless-type romance doesn’t meet our thirst for romantic fulfilment as much as the thrill of a blood-sucking or alien fantasy might? Edward has the trappings of a perfect romantic hero – he has the lineage and hails from a time of great chivalry, he is the strong-silent type, loves unconditionally and is deeply faithful, morals and ethics mean the world to him, has all the right educational qualifications, is knowledgeable and artistic, is extraordinarily rich and doesn’t ever age! It’s true – he isn’t real. It is easier to establish perfection in one that is not human – because isn’t by definition the idea of being human equal to being interestingly imperfect? And yet, Bella and Edward are a romanticised version of award-winning film, American Beauty’s (1999) Jane and Ricky – freaks to the world that doesn’t understand them.
So what are we saying? Women thoughtlessly yearn for men they can never have? The fantasies will remain largely unrequited and there will be a deep sense of dissatisfaction with their men – who will, being human, be unable to live up to these other-worldly expectations. Which human man, because he may hurt her with his brutal strength, will be willing to abscond from the pleasure of sex eternally? While Meyer’s Mormon background leads her to spell out a strict moral code of abstinence and a romance of deep fortitude, I wonder if the spellbound teens may follow suit. In a racy age when sex scandals and illicit love are the order of the day, Meyer, Kinsella and to some extent Matthew refrain from it. The sensuality is derived from restrained kissing, controlled passion and stemmed desire. It is the contemplation of the act that leaves one wanting more – it is the romance of mental and suggested foreplay. It draws one to a time where love precluded lust, where instant gratification was frowned upon.
These books are not making excuses for what they represent. There is no deep-rooted agenda, no desire to change or improve the world, but in that very sense, as popular fiction, they are making a statement about society as a whole. As Banerjee points out, “Fiction is not about being prescriptive, didactic, apologetic or redemptive…not for publishers, and not for authors. The protagonists are characters, not examples for edification. Readers may subscribe to the subtext in their personality or personal life, and that’s their choice; but for some, saying that they are what they read may be akin to saying something as simplistic as they are criminal-minded if they read crime fiction or bile-blooded freaks if they like horror. Many mothers/parents use books such as those in the Twilight series to discuss issues of love, relationships, boundaries and choices with their girls – now there’s an unexpected good thing.”
Whether you consider alien fantasies escapist fare of the worst kind or a subversive pleasure in the other world, the fascination towards romance, whether human or interspecies will remain one of the most popular forms of writing to come. As we explore galaxies, planets and the dark side of human nature, we open our minds to that which may exist outside the realm of our understanding, imagination and acceptance. It’s just heartening to know that romance isn’t dead, even if it is with the undead.