Lessons From the Vampire

Suzanne Fields

11/21/2008 12:01:00 AM - Suzanne Fields

He's handsome and dresses with care, and he's what Joe Biden might call "clean and articulate." Women love him. He's the new beau ideal of the popular culture. But we're not talking about Barack Obama.

Men hardly look to politics to find a heroic model to aspire to, nor do women go there seeking a man of elegance and eloquence to sweep them off their feet, having given up on the knight in shining armor with whom to gallop into the sunset. The horse finished out of the money. We no longer care whether Rhett Butler gives a damn about tomorrow, and Prince Charming, looking for a foot to fit a glass slipper, might settle for a stinky running shoe abandoned in a marathon somewhere along the way.

But a woman won't be deprived or discouraged in seeking the man of her dreams, and in the transition to post-election paradise there's suddenly a hot new hero who isn't even a real man. He's a vampire. At a theater near you, virginal young girls, anxious young women and lots of mothers are lining up for the opening of "Twilight," a movie based on the first volume of the best-selling four-book vampire series by Stephanie Meyer, all of which sold in the millions. The books, aimed at the young adult market, are advertised as "wholesome fare."

But a vampire is still a vampire who wants to make dinner of a bucket of blood, so what's the attraction? Vampires have their roots in stories about the bad boys of literature -- think Heathcliff in "Wuthering Heights" or bad Byron, a lord but a romantic poet for all that, who mocked and defied prim and proper 19th century social conventions. But something else is going on here. Those bad boys weren't out for blood.

The modern vampire comes to us with an ironic twist. He's Mr. Nice Guy, the kind you might take home to meet Mom. He's more into the teasing passion of '50s foreplay than the explicit down 'n' dirty of music videos and rap lyrics. That makes him too good to be true, a young man even Dad might approve of. He has a conscience that accompanies courtship, but he dominates like an alpha male. Eschewing equal opportunity sexuality, he wants his girlfriend to indulge femininity rather than asserting feminism. He woos with manners.

Is this wish fulfillment or what? In an essay titled "Love in the Time of Darwinism" in City magazine, Kay Hymowitz observes that "the dating and mating scene is in chaos." Men are angry that women demand both equality and deference, giving off mixed signals, damning men if they do and damning them if they don't. If men open a car door (or any door) they show chauvinist boorishness, and if they don't they show a lack of breeding.

These were matters for great debates in the first stages of contemporary feminism, and until now they've survived only underground. Nobody can assume or easily discover what's expected of anyone. Standards for romantic behavior were sent packing on the wind.

Fans of the "Twilight" series, and hence the movie, are less into the supernatural than what comes naturally even if they fall to the usual temptation to confuse actor with character. At personal appearances, the actor Robert Pattinson is treated as a superstar. The fictional character, tempted by bare necks instead of plunging necklines, is a modern vampire and doesn't drink human blood, only that of animals, and constantly shows restraint lest his biological antecedents loose his incisors and his girlfriend suffers the consequences. It's the restraint that captivates, the leash that allures.

When "hook-ups" replaced hookers in what the young call a "Menaissance," males in the dating cohort changed strategies. "We can be slovenly from the start," one troglodyte tells the dating columnist for the New York Observer. No one who observes the passing scene can doubt it. But some surveys suggest that young men, especially young black men, are beginning to look to Barack Obama, who played it straight, courted a beautiful, educated woman to be his wife and gives expanded meaning to family values in the photographs of Michelle, Malia and Sasha.

The president-elect didn't get there with dreadlocks, sagging prison britches, foul language and coarse attitudes. But vampires, no matter how dapper and well behaved they appear in fiction, are still the stuff of legend. Men of real flesh can be inspired by blood without having to drink it.