In the third installment of the Twilight series, Eclipse, when the vampire Edward Cullen refused to consummate (through sex or by bite) his love with Bella Swan before marriage, you probably wanted to gag. As if any hot-blooded twentysomething, be he human or undead, would pass up the chance to lay down with as fair and sullen a vixen. Still, this startlingly pro-abstinence, Victorian view of romance hasn’t stopped The Twilight Saga from grossing $2.5 billion worldwide to date.
Recall the scene that finds Edward and Bella locked in a sexually charged embrace, and there she is, practically begging Edward to give it to her. As she unbuttons her shirt, he stops her: “Not tonight. I just want to be married to you first.” Bella, a product of divorce, is skeptical about marriage and embarrassed by the rejection: “You really make me feel like I’m sort of the, like, villain trying to steal your virtue or something.” He responds: “It’s not my virtue I’m concerned about … It’s just one rule I want to leave unbroken.”
That “rule” — that virginity is paramount to marriage — would seem outdated for a story set in 21st-century America, but Edward is no postmodern Millennial reared on The Hills. He’s more than 100 years old, born at the end of the notoriously repressed Victorian era. Then, modern vampire mythology laid down its roots in Bram Stoker’sDracula, now the bible for the genre’s lore and mythology.
At the time, Gothic novels were still fresh in the literary canon. Each tale was rife with sexual undertones, often centering on dark, mysterious, and powerful men who took pleasure from preying on young, innocent virgins. Just think of Emily Brontë’s rapist and abuser Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights.
The first vampire to appear in English literature was during this period, in John Polidori’s Gothic short story “The Vampyre,” published in 1819, which introduces the idea of this blood-sucking pursuit of a lady’s “innocence.” In Carmilla, published in 1872, author Joseph Sheridan La Fanu also takes up the new vampire trope; this time, the evil vampire is a female who preys on young women. Stoker drew from both of these stories when he wroteDracula in 1897, making his Count the most famous of all Gothic villains. This is where the archetype for the virgin-obsessed vampire comes from.
Ever since, creators of these stories have tortured and celebrated the idea that female sexuality comes in just two shades: vampy (the evil female vampire who uses her sex appeal to lure her prey) or virginal (the doe-eyed girl who must be steered away from the temptations of a mysterious, foreign man). In the introduction to Dracula’s 100th-anniversary edition, Leonard Wolf — the father of the vagina-obsessed Naomi Wolf — reminds us all, “Dracula has embedded in it a very disturbing psychosexual allegory … that there is a demonic force at work in the world whose intent is to eroticize women.”
Fast-forward to now, where pole dancing is a legitimate form of exercise, celebrity sex tapes are entertainment, and the yardstick by which young relationships are measured is how many times the couple has hooked up. It goes without saying that society’s attitudes about sex are completely and irrevocably different. But our anxiety about sex is no less omnipresent. This is especially true among teens who are grappling with losing their own virginity, and for girls who are increasingly bombarded with the idea (and possibly fear) that sex now comes before love.
You’d think that would make vampires even more aggressive now, but Edward’s restraint is why so many young women swooned over him. The vampire, as a character, has gone from seducer to emo-boyfriend. And, tonight, when The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2 comes out, we’ll see him as the protective father. It’s satisfying, of course, but it would have been better had Edward not condescended to Bella (and her virginity) throughout.