Friday, June 8, 2012

Vampires: The Duty of Conformity

Many times in Urban Fantasy we see the various monsters and preternatural beings as a stand in for marginalised groups - and this is often extremely appropriative and skeevy in many kinds of ways as we have discussed.

But there is one message we see repeated in many of these TV series and books that certainly has parallels with both being marginalised or just different from the “norm”. The message of how to be appropriately “Other.”

So many of these stories cover supernatural beings integrating opening into a human society - and the measures they take to be accepted. In short, they are stories of how the alien Other manages to become part of society. And one message we see repeated in many of these is one of acceptability - one of conformity. The way the Other becomes part of the Mainstream is to become the Mainstream, to repress its otherness, even repress who and what they are.

We see this most strongly when there’s a romance in the air - usually with a human woman and a Musty Vampire. The Musty Vampires are nearly always contrasted against a vampire that is either evil or morally ambiguous at least - we have the vampire who is trying to be human, denying his vampirising against the vampire who embraces his own nature and doesn’t compromise to please the mainstream.

Obviously, many of these vampires have reasons to resist their nature - murder and mayhem being primarily among them - but the mustiness is taken to extremes and the contrast between them is large, almost exaggerated, to carry the full weight of the message - to be good, the Other most Conform.

Whether It’s Being Human U.S., or Being Human U.K., a good vampire is one who abstains from blood and associating with his own kind. The objective is to be as close to human as possible.  While being a vampire means a loss of control and most likely death to any human in the vicinity, to be truly understood as good one must maintain the model of conformity. In both of these series, Vampirism is an analogy for drug addiction, which in itself is problematic because of the appropriation of a human experience.

In Being Human U.K., Mitchell pays the ultimate price for his failure to conform by dying.  He commits suicide by werewolf by having his best friend George kill him.  Mitchell begs for death because he knows no matter how hard he struggles that he will always return to drinking blood and thus killing humans.  When you consider the analogy to drug addiction, what hope does this give those who suffer with the disease? It says that one is inherently damaged and that there is no hope.

Another obvious comparison is Angelus and Angel from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel.
Angelus is Angels other half and he is utterly and irredeemable.  Angel is loved by Buffy despite the fact that he is a vampire because he conforms to human expectations.  He fights his nature every step of the way.  Interestingly enough, Buffy is a vampire hunter but she is more than willing to put aside her duties, as well as ignore what Angel is, because over time, he proves himself to be good.  When Angelus replaces Angel and he embraces his vampire nature, he is seen as evil and dangerous.  Angelus is killed by Buffy because he is everything that Angel is not.  

What Mitchell from Being Human U.K. and Angelus have in common is that they both ended in death.  It is worth noting however, that the writers did eventually come up with a way to bring Angel back from the dead.

The more recent examples of this ridiculous binary there is The Vampire Diaries and, of course, True Blood.  The first vampire we are introduced to is the long suffering, infinitely boring Stefan who survives on human blood. When Damon comes to town he is the evil brother.  He is excessive and loves being a vampire. Even when their relationship changes and Stefan becomes the ripper, Damon’s inability to completely conform and stay off human blood is still seen as a mark against him, even as Stefan is busy decapitating people.  If a vampire has a choice, he has to choose to conform.  

In True Blood, of course the obvious comparison is between Bill and Eric.  Bill is the moping musty vampire who is doing his best to mainstream with a primary diet of synthetic blood. He sees what he is as evil and even becomes a virtually powerless king because he is committed to being as human as possible. Eric, on the other hand, revels in being a vampire, though he does not always kill his food. He loves the freedom and the power and he never wants to be anything other than what he is. There is an obvious difference in morality between the two - Bill the mainstreamer is the good vampire while Eric is, at best, morally ambiguous. In fact, in Sookie’s eyes, Eric is only redeemed when he completely loses his personality and history to become an innocent, blank slate to be molded.

This is a trend that continues beyond vampires. In Grimm we see Nick’s constant suspicion of any and all Wesen, even when convinced not all are evil, he very rarely approaches one with anything like a neutral attitude. In one episode he even chases someone down as a suspect simply because they are a Wesen. The Wesen are too Other, too alien, too dangerous for Nick to trust - that trust has to be earned, either by weak and a victim, or by being Eddie.

Eddie, the Blutbad (Big Bad Wolf) who practices yoga to stay calm. The Blutbad who attends therapy sessions to control his anger. The Blutbad who plays the cello and fixes clocks. The Blutbad who is a vegetarian! Eddie lives to push back and repress his nature above and beyond any reasonable level - his desperate effort to deny his self and conform to human standards makes him an acceptable friend - one of the “good ones”.

And in books we see this turn up as well - again with werewolves in Carrie Vaughn’s Kitty Norville Series, one of the ongoing themes of the book is how to get by in human society, how to live as a werewolf in the human world and much of that revolves in controlling and suppressing the wolf. Yes, again, there is a good reason for that, though often taken very, but at the same time it’s an example of the trope - integration requires conformity and self-suppression from the Other.

Interestingly, in Laurell K Hamilton’s Anita Blake series, (before it descended into one-handed reading) had, perhaps, the most overt examination of this on a personal, rather than societal, level (and many other wonderfully deep issues). With Anita Blake confronted with 2 ways to live - Richard, the werewolf who hates being a werewolf and is driven to be as humanly “normal” as possible contrasting with Jean-Claude who is unabashedly and unashamedly a vampire that embraces his nature without a second’s doubt or reservation beyond driving Anita away. It goes deeper because Anita is presented with two choices of life - one she would want as a “good, normal” member of society (even to the point of 2 point however many children and a picket fence - and how Richard’s Ozzie and Harriet desires made her uncomfortable). The other is sexy, dangerous, non-monogamous, violent and heavily involves death - all the things that she should not want, not and be a “good girl” (even if it actually fits who and what she is more than what she “should” want).

It’s an overt and personal portrayal of the trend we’ve seen presented here - Anita’s choice between being true to who she is or enduring what she should want is a micro-version of these Musty Mainstream Vampires who conform to societal demands of normality against the Villain’s refusal to destroy his self for the sake of acceptance.

Again, yes there are often other good reasons for these beings to suppress themselves - especially since they are dangerous predators who, if they lose control, become dangerous (this is, after all, why it’s inappropriate to compare these to marginalised people), however that doesn’t mean there isn’t another message here as well.