overthinking the idiot box

April 24, 2006

A column tackling gay issues, gay themes, and just general gayness in television.

Bite Club

Vampires gone vanilla while Supernatural is watching
by Whitney Cox

I know, I know, I was going to write my column on something else this week, I promised myself, I even started it. And then I saw "Dead Man's Blood," the most recent episode of Supernatural, and... something in me snapped. No, wait — don't run away! I promise I'm not talking about Wincest (aren't little internet terms cute?) this time! I'm not even going to have major spoilers for the episode! No, the subject of today's consternation is: vampires!

I have to make a confession: As a young teenager, I had an Anne Rice phase. So, I think, did much of the world at the time. However, the key word being 'phase,' I grew out of it and moved onto slightly more sophisticated vampire offerings — like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its exponentially mopier spinoff, Angel. Others, though, were not so lucky. Others (such as the writers of this and of many other terrible vampire episodes) are still stuck in the mindset that says vampires are automatically deviantly hyper-sexualized creatures of the night, and that anything you do with them is instantly kinky, just add blood.

There're about fifteen individual fetishes rolled up into one — and that's even ignoring variations about changing into wolves, getting burned by holy accoutrements, having to be staked through the heart, and the like. Vampires are a real site for potential queer sexuality, the embodiment of dying young and living forever.
Which is not to say that there isn't something inherently highly erotic about the concept of vampires; in fact, vampire figures have historically been a source of great sexual anxiety: they subsist on drinking bodily fluids, they bite vulnerable pulse points, they're supposed to be super-humanly seductive, they only come out at night (as the song goes), they live both chronologically and situationally outside the realm of any contemporary ethical codes, et cetera. There're about fifteen individual fetishes rolled up into one — and that's even ignoring variations about changing into wolves, getting burned by holy accoutrements, having to be staked through the heart, and the like. Vampires are a real site for potential queer sexuality, the embodiment of dying young and living forever.

How do you screw that one up? Well, in my experience, there are two primary ways to de-fang (ha ha) vampire sexuality, reducing the seductive children of the night to the level of campy, toothy menaces. The first is to bog them down in personal guilt, weigh them under the concerns of their hemophagic nature to the point where guilt and regret are all they do or think about (Angel, baby, I love you, but we all know you're so much more interesting as Angelus). The second is to make one's vampires pretty damn vanilla, yet keep up the pretense that they're somehow interestingly sexually transgressive, when they're actually about as kinky as putting Nutella on your toast instead of butter.

Supernatural's vampires fell smack dab into the latter category. They weren't kinky. They were bourgeois. They were the Hot Topic goths of the vampire world. They were the worst kind of stupid teenager — the kind that doesn't die.

Which isn't necessarily a bad thing, mind you — if, like Joss Whedon does, you call them on it, showing up pretty girls calling themselves fancy words that are really just the names of mushrooms, letting them wax poetic about death and then freaking them the hell out when it finally approaches, playing it up for comedy as well as for the moral that you shouldn't romanticize the monsters in your closet, because they sure as hell aren't romanticizing you. If I may put on my anime hat for a moment, I kept praying as I was watching for a redux of an early episode in Hellsing (which delights in calling its vampires bourgeois when the stake fits) where two crazy kids set out to become vampires by killing a lot of people, drinking blood, and painting creepy slogans on the side of walls — only to have Alucard1, the biggest, baddest No Life King of them all, show up and destroy them to bits, all the while laughing at who posers they are.

I was waiting for the laughter. It never came. No, instead, what we were given was a little vampire coven who sleep in hammocks in a barn somewhere, who blow into town once in a while to kill an old guy, who use themselves as human speed bumps to trap unsuspecting young couples, and whose leader uses a lot of product for a guy born in the nineteenth century. Apparently they even mate for life, which not only pastes a big heteronormative smiley face over pretty much any possibility for true sexual deviancy, but makes me wonder how enduring of a contract the idea of 'mating for life' is when you're already dead. When John (the dad) mentions that he suspects vampires are their monster-of-the-week, the boys are taken aback: Vampires? asks Dean. Aren't they imaginary? Oh, how I found myself praying by the end of the episode that Dean had gotten to be right just this once.

Since this is the gay column, we're especially going to take a moment to talk about the pseudo-lesbian scene. Your setup is this: Lead Vampire (the one with all the product) and Lead Vampire's Girlfriend (tight black leather shirt) have captured a Tender Young Thing and are having some very enthusiastic clothed sex in her presence (it's the WB, don't ask). LV and LVG then turn their attention to TYT, they taunt her a little about how she likes to watch (she doesn't, it's pretty obvious), someone gets cut, LVG drinks and proceeds to kiss TYT sloppily, getting blood all over everything, and LV watches the whole scene hungrily.

I yawned, reminded of all the times I have sat stone-bored through lesbian porn. Let's get one thing straight here: If it's to impress men, it's not gay. If I may now swap my anime hat for my feminist theory hat (briefly, I swear), pornography is about the (usually male) gaze, which is itself penetrative, and tends to negate almost by definition anything purely sapphic about the situation, leaving you with a pile of dirty girls just waiting to be breached in one way or another by you, the viewer. This kiss, obviously meant to be so kinky and titillating — the two-girls aspect, the bloodplay, the non-consentuality of it — ended up so dull and formulaic that I had to laugh at the spectacular failure.

Let this kiss be symbolic of how the entire episode played out, vampire-wise. It wasn't even so much that it promised deviancy and failed to deliver, as that it was so sure the whole time that it was being way kinky that the actual result was not only disappointing, but ridiculous. At least Joss had the good sense to make fun of his fanged monstrosities frequently and with great enthusiasm — after all, it's hard to have a show titled Buffy the Vampire Slayer and not keep some sense of humor about the whole process. And Joss never claimed his vampires were particularly kinky in general, while the ones who professed to be so in particular usually just ended up being caricatures of themselves.

I think my point here is: Vampires are not automatically sexy. They are automatically potentially sexy, but as with so many things, potential and a dollar will buy you a coke. While Supernatural is far from the only sufferer of Boring Vampire Syndrome out there2, it's a pretty good example of the terrible pitfall that is making a big deal out of being kinky when you're actually not. Because then all the actual kinky people call you a poser, and sometimes turn into truly terrifying monsters in order to dismember you, and no one wants that.

...Of course, the upshot to this vampire heteronormativity was that it lead to about the only actually queer moment in the episode: At one point, John has LVG held hostage, bargaining with LV for the episode's fetch quest prize-cum-ultimate weapon, as LV agonizes over potentially losing his undead life-bonded snugglebunny. Very shortly after this, LV has Sam3 held hostage, trying to get Dean to drop his weapon. At this point in our viewing, my girlfriend exclaimed, "No, Winchesters mate for life!" And it was true. So very true.

NEXT TIME, ON OUT-TAKES: Captain Jack, Doctor Who, and Mr. Right; or, No Sex, Please, We're Gallifreyan.

1Yes, it's 'Dracula' backwards. Yes, it's stupid.

2X-Files, I'm looking at you, good grief, you'd just better be glad 'Bad Blood' almost entirely made me forget about '3.'

3You know, nearly three months have passed since I wrote my first Supernatural column, and though the show has evolved, Sam remains a damsel in distress.

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