In talking about soaps, I often talk about how predators and abusers of women are glorified as heroes, and how the more possessive, controlling and violent a male character is, the more it seems to speak to his machismo and his viability as a romantic lead. Nowhere is this motif more obvious, though, than in the myth of the vampire. The blood-drinking night stalker who ravishes virginal women in the night has been around for centuries, be it as Bram Stoker’s Dracula or Nosferatu. And every few years, the concept experiences a renaissance — whether at the hands of Anne Rice, or of Joss Whedon’s double threat of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, or the new fascination with True Blood and the Twilight franchise.
The CW’s offering to the genre is The Vampire Diaries. And while I was initially resistant to watching a show based on books I’d read as a teen, I find myself growing increasingly fascinated. And I am compelled and repelled, in turns, by the show’s most dynamic character: Damon Salvatore. He was a budding sociopath in the novels, but in the hands of Ian Somerhalder, who is hauntingly beautiful to look at and chillingly genial when Damon needs to be, he seems a thousand times worse. He’s this cold, carelessly abusive creature who treats women like playthings, and mimics the act of rape as he hunts them down and bites them…and I honestly don’t know what The Vampire Diaries is trying to do with that. Are they trying to deliberately subvert the idea of Stephenie Meyer’s chaste, virginal Edward Cullen-style vampire with this voraciously sexual beast who hungers for both sex and blood? Because I actually approve of that. Vampires are not fluffy bunnies and should not be portrayed as guys who just want to hold your hand. But I do not approve of the idea that Damon’s abuse of women and constant manipulation of their consent should be shrugged away because he’s handsome and charming. Is that what The Vampire Diaries wants us to do? I honestly haven’t figured it out.
I tend to give vampires slightly more leeway than human males because it’s their raison d’etre to break the skin, to draw blood. But I hope the show moves away from this aspect of Damon’s character, especially as they delve into their mythology and (hopefully) follow the path of the books and bring in other antagonists. Because the one thing that saves Damon from being the outright villain of the piece is that in his incredibly dysfunctional way, he does actually love his brother and Elena. Those two keep him connected to humanity. However, if the show keeps portraying him as a quasi-rapist, those connective threads will only grow more tenuous…and then break.
Make no mistake, I absolutely tune in to see what Damon will do next — and the rest of the show is interesting as well, especially when Stefan and Elena aren’t doing their best impressions of Edward and Bella — but they’re walking a thin line here. Damon’s combination of sexual magnetism and violence, and the mixed message it sends…it’s pretty damn disturbing on a network targeted at teenagers.