From Buffy to Bella - has vampire fiction lost its teeth?

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From teenage romances to adult drama, vampires are currently popular in film, television and books. Recent news that a new Buffy the Vampire Slayer film is in the pipeline should have overjoyed fans, but it was revealed that the show's creator, Joss Whedon, would not be involved.

In the original, Whedon set out to change the constant representation of women in the horror genre as victims being attacked in dark alleys. He posed the possibility of them being strong and fighting back, and created a show that dealt with real life topics, including school shootings, bullying, low paid work and date rape.

The move to "reboot" Buffy looks like an attempt to cash in on the popularity of recent books and films like Twilight, which generate huge revenues.

But vampires are just about all that Twilight and Buffy have in common. Twilight's main female character, Bella, is passive, lacks self-esteem and exists to be rescued. Twilight takes vampires out of horror and into old fashioned romance, where sexist stereotypes determine that women fantasise about being swept off their feet by a mysterious man who will bring meaning to their existence. Though marketed to teenagers, Twilight also appeals to older women.

So why do women and girls like it? We are not stupid, and most readers wouldn't dream of picking up Mills and Boon books from the shelf.

One appeal is that Bella is a character who is easy to identify with. She is clumsy and not athletic, tanned or interested in going to proms. Because Bella is quite underdeveloped as a character (mostly described in her first person narrative in negative terms) readers can put themselves in Bella's shoes and enjoy the fantasy. But while identifying with an ordinary girl may be a fair starting point, one of the problems is that Bella is never allowed to become more than this. She believes herself unworthy of her too perfect vampire boyfriend, Edward. She eventually becomes powerful only through her identification with Edward and his family.

Buffy also appeals to viewers of different age groups because it identifies with characters' lives. But this is dealt with in a more challenging way. Buffy always struggles to keep up with her responsibilities as a student, a vampire slayer and in the family.

While fantastical monsters dominate her world she also has to deal with the pressures of life within capitalism, how to pay bills and make ends meet. After her mother's death Buffy gives up college, never graduates and takes a minimum wage job in a burger bar. We can all identify with her struggle to keep on top of the daily routine even without having to save the world too.

Twilight's Bella never has much trouble keeping on top of her routine. She spends most of her time, when not dreaming about Edward, doing homework, cooking for her dad and washing dishes. But this is dull and not the lifestyle she wants. She aspires to be like Edward's vampire family, the Cullens. They have wealth, beauty and effortless style, and are compassionate and good.

While most vampires of fiction are either tortured by the guilt of killing humans or revel in their monstrosity, the Cullens drink only animal blood and live among humans. While Buffy never graduated, they graduate over and over. The family patriarch figure has Christian values and is a doctor.

Vampires are often metaphors for society's outsiders, but in Twilight they are metaphors for aspiration. While Buffy's worst nightmare is to become one, Bella decides early on she wants to be turned into a vampire. She fears old age and wants to retain youth and beauty and be part of an idealised family to escape her dull, clumsy humanity.

And what does this aspiration boil down to? The Cullens are the ultimate consumers. US teenagers are a powerful consumer demographic. Networks, corporations and advertisers are desperate to grab their attention. Teenage girls identify with Bella, who wants to be one of the Cullens and ultimately joins them. They have ostentatious wealth and yet are portrayed as saints. They are the American dream personified.

In Buffy the Vampire Slayer life is hell and there is no escape. Seeking to be a vampire is no cure. In Twilight the maxim could be, "Life is dull: let's buy things." While Buffy shows the reality of the failure of the American dream, Twilight reflects a fantasy of aspiration - a conservative, consumer heaven.