Two things I think we all could do with less of are movies about pirates and books about vampires.
Personally, I have a little more patience with pirates. They’ve got historical legitimacy, and sometimes the movies even dredge up a little honesty about their crimes, motives, and hygiene. Hollywood pirates are no worse than Hollywood cowboys, really.
I’ve about had it with vampires though. Werewolves and witches too. You’d think the dozen vampire novels Anne Rice wrote would be enough for anyone (fifteen, if you count the ones with witches in them), but no. Readers demanded more, and now we have an entire genre of soft-core possession porn that dwells on physical and emotional violation, even as it clumsily extols personal power.
I’ve tried to read a couple of these books—ones written by, about, and for women—on the recommendation of friends (if “You might not hate it” counts as a recommendation). On the surface, there isn’t much to object to. All the carefully constructed worlds and magical systems and rules of power and whatnot strike me as an elaborate excuse for outfitting characters in capes and thigh-high boots. They’ve taken most of the guilt and all of the sin out of the vampire myth, leaving a bunch of dark broody characters who might do dreadful things to innocent people but are, you know, conflicted about it. I don’t find it very compelling myself, or entertaining, but millions of people do. Is this why everyone is taking Zoloft these days?
What’s creepier is the way the stories continually repeat the exact same fight scenes, wherein the sassy-but-vulnerable heroine is attacked by some ungodly enemy and either drained of, or infused with: blood, essence, energy, poison, evil, inexplicable rage, or ecstasy. The rape imagery is pretty hard to ignore, and I’m probably the only reader of these books who ever tried.
And then at the peak of this crisis (I refuse to use the word climax), the heroine summons up some deeper power—or else a church bell chimes, or the mirror cracks—and she’s free of the spell. She then either kicks her enemy’s ass, or escapes so she can kick it eight chapters later. Or, in a slightly less common variation, she then has sex with her enemy.
The same episode is played out over and over again in each book. Most of the remaining action is dedicated to nudging these set pieces into position every sixty pages or so. And I wonder what readers get out of this repeated, ritualistic narrative device. I mean, I understand the sex part. But it bugs me, somehow, that it’s stitched together so simplistically with the whole “magic and power and ass-kicking” theme. Because let me tell you something, speaking as a woman who has literally kicked others’ asses: Actually wielding power isn’t usually an orgasmic experience.
And what exactly is the message of empowerment here, anyway? That if you somehow discover you have magical powers, or are forcibly endowed with magical powers by someone who already has them, well, then… you’re powerful. It’s not exactly Susan B. Anthony material, is it?
For some reason it bothers me to see people—especially women—groping so awkwardly for power, in such shallow waters.
I know, they’re only romance novels, read for fun. The bite of a handsome vampire isn’t really any worse than a kiss from Prince Charming, is it? The guy’s just a lot paler, is all (or the girl—these books feature a strikingly high percentage of bi-curious vampires and witches). But the squeamish part of me hates to see people soaking up this idiocy, the desire to be anointed, chosen, empowered by some outside force or fang, magically endowed with eternal youth or magical powers or what-the-fuck-ever vampires are supposed to have going for them.
Well, to each his own, as my mother always says. Who am I to tell other people what they ought to read? I own every Nancy Drew title published between 1930 and 1979.
All I can say is, God forbid my daughter should grow up reading this drivel and thinking that female power only looks cool when it’s wrapped in the supple black leather of superstition and reconstructed occult bullshit.
Because the thing is, there are so many real opportunities to connect to and acquire power. And they’re so much more satisfying.
Power, as I learned it, comes from the legs—from where you stand, and how. A good punch rises from the ground, the power flowing through the hips, into the torso, then the arms, which send it slamming into the target. When I strike the makiwara, a pad of wood and canvas fixed to the wall of the dojo, I concentrate that power in the first two knuckles of my fist. They contact the makiwara with a heavy thud; hard enough that when the punch lands, it sinks in deep, though the padding isn’t soft. The canvas cuts tiny red squares into my skin. The force of each strike ripples through the makiwara into the brick wall behind it. And through my tensed fist, and arm, and torso, and legs—tense only for an instant, at that moment of impact—the power pushes back into me, sinking me into the ground where I stand.
Unlike a punching bag, the makiwara doesn’t yield. So I can’t either. When I strike the makiwara, each blow connects me to the wall, which I’m hitting, and also to the floor, on which I’m standing. I drive my fists into the board, over and over, and each punch nails my feet to the ground.
“Knowledge is power,” I was told as a child, usually when I had homework to do, and even though I believed this in a general way, I still can’t explain why I thought an advanced degree in Victorian literature would somehow increase my personal power (or job options, or credit rating). Because, as I learned after acquiring no fewer than four university degrees, the uses for the kind of power you acquire in a 15-year college career are few and esoteric.
Volunteer opportunities for Victorianists are rare, to say the least, and paid academic gigs require you to spend your days reading, writing about, and otherwise taking seriously a lot of peculiar people. People like Camille Paglia, an influential feminist theorist and academic whose work I never could discuss intelligently because 1) I think she’s a loon and 2) She looks like what would happen if my mother and David Bowie had a baby.
Paglia writes about power and women (and vampires too; she covers all the bases), and she’s said plenty of nutty things—that date rape is a “myth,” for example, or that female strippers are “goddesses” who wield absolute power over the men in their audience (a dynamic that notably fails to account for the omnipresence of security guards in strip clubs). Her theories, like paranormal romance novels, are preoccupied with sex and the titillating theme of transgression, presented like a third-rate magic act: You thought prostitutes were victims of male hegemony? Well watch, amazed, as Paglia transforms them into “conquerors of men”! You thought Michelangelo’s paintings were art but—Abracadabra! They’re really pornography! You thought Hustler magazine was porn? Voila! Paglia’s scholarship turns it into art. Presto! Now it’s a rabbit! And so on.
Paglia’s writing showed me that academic power was, for a lot of people, just another lame excuse for the cape and the boots.
Around the same time I encountered Paglia, I was shoved, whimpering, into a classroom with twenty-five impressionable young minds and told to explain Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to them. Every day my students and I would stare at one another in appalled silence, all of us aware that I could make them do just about anything, and flunk them if they failed to comply. I could make them proofread Riddley Walker, or translate Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnets into Portuguese, or compose essays on whether Shakespeare’s plays were in fact written by Grendel’s mother. I could assign any task, no matter how cruel or pointless.
I had power, all right, but it wasn’t truly mine. It was on loan, so to speak, from the English department. I had been “empowered,”—a curious and often misused word—invested with the authority of a larger, more powerful entity. I wasn’t too keen on that kind of power—the kind that called for a cape, or perhaps a swagger stick and a monocle.
But I’d been told to teach them, so I tried. My students were bored and confused by Gawain, until I happened to mention that the whole poem can be viewed as a bondage fantasy (the story is rife with bindings and knots, locking and linking). Then the questions started. What is a promise, they wanted to know, and why do people take oaths? What is courage? How do you demonstrate faith?
When they began asking those questions, you could feel a connection. The poem and the students, facing off, were feeling and testing one another’s power. Why does Gawain fail to fulfill his oath? What is the fatal combination of fear, lust, politeness, and duplicity that makes him, as good a man as you could hope to find, break a promise he had every intention of fulfilling? And what are we supposed to learn from his failure?
It’s an unyielding wall of questions, and the Gawain poet pounds his literary fist into it over and over again, for 2,500 lines. My students and I stood alongside him and did the same, and while it was kind of painful, it was worth it. We gained something vital.
Now the irony here is that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a romance, with an undying anti-hero, a ritual bloodletting, and even a witch: Morgan Le Faye in a cameo role. Like a bad vampire novel, it repeats the same damn seduction scene three times (and believe me, in Middle English it feels like thirty). There’s no black leather, but we get endless descriptions of everyone’s armor, from the Green Knight to Gawain to Gringolet, Gawain’s horse (“þat gret watz and huge”). We’re treated to very detailed scenes of our hero Gawain getting dressed, with references to his “smooth haunchez” and his “swange,” which is usually translated as “loins,” and that’s all I’m going to say about that word. The poem isn’t exactly a philosophical treatise, is my point.
Still, it’s worlds away from the genre of vampire fiction, and not just because it’s in the Norton Anthology. More importantly, in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, magic isn’t the answer to anything. The Gawain poet is profoundly uninterested in magic. He’s interested in an individual’s intentions, choices, and actions—the things we actually have within our power. He wants us to think about where we stand, and how.
Fans of today’s vampire-and-witch novels might prefer some feminist interpretations of the poem, which I also suffered through in graduate school. In these Paglia-esque analyses, the successful tempting of Gawain and the machinations of Morgan le Faye are evidence that the women in the story exercise the “real” power—i.e., sexuality and magic.
I won’t deny that the story is misogynist as all get-out (hey, it was the Middle Ages). But to simply reverse the male-female dynamic and claim that the other side “wins” the gender war and thus Gawain is really all about female power is to miss what’s most valuable about the poem. The true power struggle it describes isn’t about who makes whom do what. It’s about who chooses to do what, and how they live with their decisions.
And that’s where power comes from. Not from bite wounds or incantations or provocative academic essays about Madonna. From the ground. What we require, from life and from literature, are obstacles that push us back on our heels, and force us to feel where we’re standing. That’s how we connect ourselves to power.