Bite Me: The Vampire Diaries and The Legacy of Twilight

If Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight had a baby it would look like The Vampire Diaries. The CW’s Cult hit combines the narcotic sexual tension of Meyer’s vampire saga with the episodic, serial narrative of Buffy, complete with quips and snarky one-liners. Premiering in 2009, a year which Entertainment Weekly magazine has labeled the year of the vampire, the show became an instant success- culminating in the highest ratings the network has ever seen. Fans everywhere clamored to watch the adventures of Elena Gilbert as she is gradually pulled into a passionate love triangle between Stefan and Damon Salvatore, two vampire brothers from the Civil War who have recently returned to their small town Virginia home of Mystic Falls. Even before the conclusion of the first season, fans launched an unprecedented amount of paratexts surrounding the fandom, including fan fiction, fan videos, fan sites, fan communities all designed to extend the viewing experience and keep the viewer in Mystic Falls.

Bite Me

Launched amidst the backdrop of the vampire mania promulgated by the Twilight saga, the premiere of The Vampire Diaries featured the highest number of viewers throughout the entire history of the CW network; since the show’s inception, the target audience of which, like Twilight, is predominately female averaged 3.60 million during the show’s first season (The Vampire Diaries Official Site); Critics, such as the New York Times and Entertainment Weekly acclaimed the show’s “zesty script and enticing plotlines” (The Vampire Diaries Official Site) The introductory season of The Vampire Diaries garnished several People’s Choice Awards, including best breakthrough series and best television score (IMDB). Nina Dobrev, the leading actress who plays Elena, and Ian Sommerholder, cast in the role of Damon Salvatore, were also awarded for best lead actress and best villain (IMDB). Fans clamored to the keyboards to create websites, social networking communities, fan videos, fan art, and fan fiction, all dedicated to chronicling the adventures of Elena, the Salvatore brothers, and the rest of the small town.

As a casual fan of the show, I decided to immerse myself in the online fandom of The Vampire Diaries; over the course of a month, I surfed across Wiki-sites, LiveJournal communities, YouTube channels, Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, and fan blogs in an attempt to gain insight into show’s fan culture and to answer one simple question: What is the reason behind the show’s success? One could argue that the show successfully utilizes the serial narrative structure, providing the viewer with an engrossing story arch. Every episode focuses on a different issue relevant to adolescence, and every episode is tied in neatly with the next, usually, leaving the viewer with a semi-cliffhanger which points to the larger narrative arc. Certainly, the show’s ability to provide both suspense and closure within its episodes and seasons’ narratives is one aspect of the show’s appeal, but I would say that in the minds of fans, this aspect is minimal at best. One could also argue that the show presents a convincing portrayal of the turbulence of adolescence through the perspective of an endearing and empowered female protagonist. While, I must admit that Elena’s strong sense of self and compassion combined with her quirky humor awakened memories of my own teenage idol, Buffy Summers, I cannot deny that Elena’s similarity to Buffy failed to register amongst other fans as a crucial element of the show.  Indeed, the success of the series owes less to its Buffy roots and more to the vampire craze created by the Twilight phenomena.  

Through my immersion into The Vampire Diaries fandom, I have identified three essential factors which simultaneously contributed to the series’ success and fueled the fans’ media pervasive dedication: 1) timing, 2) sex appeal, and 3) successful marketing through fandom polarization. Due to the unpredictable nature of the viewing audience, the business of television is a tricky one; the industry relies on popular trends and imitation to ease the financial risks of producing a new show. Thus, the timing of a particular series can prove to be the difference between success and failure. Regarding The Vampire Diaries which was launched during the vampire craze initiated by the Twilight phenomenon, the timing of the series was a pivotal decision by the network. According to Julie Plec, the show’s executive producer, the idea for the series had been pitched four years before it aired to serve as replacement for the losses sustained after Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but it was continuously shot down by the network as it was believed that supernatural teen dramas were on the decline (Plec). However, the executives changed their minds after the startling success of Twilight and the pilot episode of The Vampire Diaries premiered mid-September in 2009.  Though no definitive answer was given as to the reason that the network executives changed their position, the reason seems obvious: the network cashed-in on the coat tails of the sweeping vampire mania created by the Twilight phenomenon.

The Twilight Subculture

Before addressing the show’s use of sex appeal and fandom polarization, the subject of Twilight and its legacy must first be discussed. Indeed, without Twilight, The Vampire Diaries as a television series would not exist as despite the fact that the books upon which the series were based were actually written before Meyer’s lucrative franchise. The four-book saga: Twilight, New Moon, Eclipse, and Breaking Dawn which sold over 42 million copies worldwide on its release date last August, have held the top four slots in USA Today’s list of bestselling novels for one hundred twenty-seven weeks straight and has been translated into thirty-seven different languages (Hisgoldeneyes). Since publication, the Twilight Saga cultivated a fan base which thrived in the internet age; every corner of cyber-space exploded with fan sites, forums, web-blogs, fan videos and fan fiction devoted to everything Twilight. From film adaptations to jewelry and clothing apparel, Stephanie Meyer’s star crossed romance between an ordinary teenage girl, Bella Swan, and a mysterious brooding vampire, Edward Cullen, “resurrected the undead” (Montague) in contemporary culture- turning vampires into the rock stars of the post-millennial generation. As the Twilight fan-base gained momentum, the Edward/ Bella love story gradually pervaded every aspect of the mass media and a simple fandom quickly transformed into a subculture.

While the impact of Twilight upon the mainstream society is apparent, the motivations behind the development of this subculture are not. In examining why the Twilight fandom has been transformed into a subculture, first the principles of what defines a subculture must be addressed. According to Dick Hebdige, a subculture is representative of an unnatural break, a disorderly rupture from the social and aesthetic conventions of the dominant, mainstream society (Hebdige 587). These subcultures must share a common identity and must be unified under a common language. In order to attain this shared commonality amongst group members; Hebdige argues that subcultures possess styles formed through bricolage: the process of taking one insignia, stripping it of its conventional meaning, and applying to it to a new label. A subculture’s bricolage is understood through the concept of homology which “describes the symbolic fit between the values and lifestyles of a group,” (Hebdige 593). In relation to Twilight, the group’s core ideology, homology, revolves around the cult of Edward Cullen; its bricolage is the apple insignia once indicative of the temptation of Eve and now is representative of Bella’s choice to love Edward, ‘the forbidden fruit,’ of Meyer’s fantasy world.

Further research, which elaborated upon Hebdige’s defining characteristics of subcultures, was developed by Paul Hodkinson in his work upon the subcultural substance. Subcultural substance, originally created to account for the emergence of the Goth Scene of the early 1980s, is a re-worked consensus of subcultural theory adapted by the Centre of the Contemporary Cultural Studies; Hodkinson hypothesized that there are four indicators of a subculture: consistent distinctiveness, shared identity, commitment, and autonomy. In the analysis of the Twilight craze, Hodkinson’s indicators are quite noticeably apparent. The collective distinctiveness is represented throughout the diverse female population who identify with the protagonist, Bella Swan- shy girls and popular girls, girls who meet the standards of beauty within the mainstream society and those who do not.

Twilight unites all types of women, the young and the adult alike are all connected with the shared identity of being obsessed with Edward Cullen and the realm of Twilight. The commitment of the self-proclaimed ‘Twihards’ is visible with one click of a mouse: fan message boards, fan fiction, fan sites of the characters and actors are updated daily., the number one ranking fan site devoted to Twilight, receives hourly updates where fans can access the autobiography of the author, see videos of interviews and news articles of the stars of the movies, book reviews of all four installments, be supplied with playlists of music which have the moods and themes of Twilight, take part in fan discussions on the books and films, post and/or read fiction, and even shop for clothes, jewelry, or accessories containing Twilight designs created by fans for fans. The autonomy of consumer consumption may have been hindered by the participation of the commercialized giant, Hot Topic, but fans continue to operate within and outside the mainstream markets to supply their fellow peers with all sorts of Twilight apparel.

The Cult of Edward Cullen

The homology entangled within the Twilight subculture is the ideology which fuels the cult of Edward Cullen and the male idealism he represents. Despite being written from Bella’s point of view, it is Edward that motivates fans’ obsessive behavior. “Edward, not Bella, is the key to the Twilight franchise, the thing that fans talk about when explaining their fascination with the books” (Miller). The entirety of the fan-base is almost exclusively female and thus, because the story unfolds from Bella’s eyes, the reader is drawn into Bella’s narcotic, addictive obsession over Edward (Artimeus). Essentially, the story is designed to have the reader identify with Bella and yearn for Edward. Also, Bella “is purposely made as featureless and ordinary as possible in order to render her a vacant, flexible skin into which the reader can insert herself and thereby vicariously enjoy Edward’s chilly charms” (Miller).

The appeal of Twilight is the appeal of Edward, an appeal that is utterly tainted by aesthetic vanity. Bella is not the only character which lacks substance as even Edward is nothing but a pretty face. Every adjective describing Edward centers upon his physical beauty, phrases such as beautiful, gorgeous, the face of an angel, looking like a Greek god are but some examples of the shallow feelings which constitute Bella’s enthrallment with Edward (Dalfanzo). The emphasis of Edwards appearance, reflect society’s obsession with a rigid standard of beauty to which there can be no deviation. Another basis for Edward’s appeal is his perfection. “You’re good at everything,” Bella often sighs dreamily (Meyer), and it’s true. Edward has super speed, strength, and reflexes. He can play and compose music, has two degrees from Harvard, drives fast cars, read’s people’s minds, and most importantly will sacrifice his life and happiness for the woman he loves.

However, there exists a darker side to Bella’s and by extension society’s attraction to Edward. Janice Radway discusses why such principles of male idolatry which encompass most romance novels appeal to women. In conducting an audience study of romance reading and the types of readers it attracts, Radway concludes that the intoxication of such literature is a double-edged sword. Romance novels set a dangerous precedence. Romance novels leave women identifying with a narrative which justifies anger and hostility toward women as being proof of the man’s true feelings for her. Women then project, proof of love unto their own spouse or lover as evidence that the women are in fact loved by their emotionally distant and/or abusive other. This is exactly the case in Twilight. At the beginning of their romance, Edward is nothing resembling cordial to the plain, passive Bella. He’s rude, antagonistic, and emotionally abusive with his drastic mood swings. During their relationship, he acts less like Romeo to Juliet and more like a predator who is drawing in his prey.

“He spies on Bella while she sleeps, eavesdrops on her conversations, reads her classmates’ minds, forges her signature, tries to dictate her choice of friends, encourages her to deceive her father, disables her truck, has his family hold her at his house against her will, and drags her to prom against her wishes (Dalfonzo).”

Yet, as is consistent with Radway’s analysis of romance novels, the love of Bella and Edwards hinges upon Bella saving Edward from himself, revealing another side to Edward’s appeal: that of the tragic, doomed hero, cut off from normal hopes and fears, isolated in despair — until Bella’s love offers him redemption. On this point the disordered and destructive side of Edward’s thirst is integral, not incidental, to his appeal: He isn’t just the bad boy, he’s the bad boy who can be saved if only the good girl loves and trusts him enough. He really is a romantic addict, dangerously seductive, proudly resentful, drawing Bella in with those most irresistible words: Stay away from me for your own good. This warning, of course, only proves how much he needs her — and Bella responds by falling “unconditionally and irrevocably in love with him” (Meyer 195).

The Legacy of Twilight

Every subculture is eventually absorbed into mainstream society; Twilight is no different. With the release of the final film adaptation this November, the fandom, though still somewhat vibrant in cyberspace, is winding down from the center stage. Yet, the impact of the Twilight Phenomenon is far from over. As stated in the February edition of Entertainment Weekly, “whether you’ve spent the past seven years loving or hating Twilight….the influence of the franchise will still be circulating in our culture’s bloodstream.”  Twilight, through its redefinition of adolescence in terms of sexuality, proved that media aimed at the young female target audience is highly lucrative, equally rivaling the success of male fantasy films such as James Bond and Transformers which were already established as a marketable audience at the box office.

Meyer’s sparkling predators have transformed vampires away from the monstrous creatures of traditional vampire lore into what has been termed as “guardian angels…with fangs” (Montague, 2010, 164) while simultaneously sparking a renewed interest in both the paranormal genre, young adult fiction, and even fan fiction. Yes, actual books which initially began as Twilight paratexts have been reworked into original narratives and successfully published; the most notable example of this is presented by the erotic and popular novel, Fifty Shades of Grey (Valby, 2012, 44). The same effect is also seen in music as aspiring music groups have written Twilight based songs (Hisgoldeneyes) and, as such is the case with the band Civil Twilight, have received record deals. Television, too, has welcomed the Twilight craze with open arms, launching successful hits such as, The Vampire Diaries, True Blood, and the remake of Teen Wolf which builds off the fan base of Edward’s werewolf counterpart, Jacob Black, in response to the supernatural culture surge.

The Vampire Diaries

While The Vampire Diaries is but one example of the Twilight legacy; the show provides a fascinating example of society’s ability to absorb and recreate a subculture for mainstream consumption. The show was launched during the vampire-hype created by Twilight and is acutely aware of the debt owed to Meyer’s fantasy world. The show even goes so far as to parody its connection to Twilight and the vampire mania, in general, when, during the first season, Damon Salvatore picks up a copy of New Moon. “What’s up with this Bella girl, Edward’s so whipped,” Damon says, comically breaking the audience out of the realism of the show’s mythos and drawing attention to the inherent presentational nature of television. Still, the similarities to Twilight cannot be understated. Both Twilight and The Vampire Diaries seek a predominantly female target audience. The show’s setting focuses on a rural town, reminiscent of Meyer’s Forks, brimming with supernatural creatures such as vampires, werewolves, and witches. Like Twilight, the main protagonist and thereby the viewer’s guide into the show’s mythos is an adolescent female, Elena, who becomes swept up into an epic, star-crossed romance.

The central narrative of the series surrounds the love story between Elena and her vampire suitors – first Stefan and then Damon, chronicling a love triangle similar to Bella’s dilemma in her choice between Edward and Jacob. In fact, the very character of Stefan Salvatore from his brooding struggle against his inner nature to the physique of the actor playing the role, Paul Wesley, all echo images of Edward Cullen. The facial resemblance and build of Wesley are strikingly similar to Twilight’s very own, Robert Pattinson (Figure 1); both men have high cheekbones, chiseled jawlines, toned but thin body structures and must shop at the same store as they seem to use the same hair gel. Even the novel’s heroine was transformed from a blonde beauty into a brunette (Figure 2) whose style is eerily similar to Bella’s own ordinary fashion threads. These similarities were carefully constructed and shamelessly used by the creators of The Vampire Diaries to hook and steal Twilight’s audience.

I stated that The Vampire Diaries is a fascinating depiction of mainstream’s society response to the subcultural movement of Twilight; the series, which has no core ideology or insignia, is fascinating not because of its similarities to Twilight but because of its differences, because of what the show improves upon- namely characterization. When a subculture is absorbed and then spit back out for a mass appeal, the original substance of the subculture, that element which makes the subculture unique, is removed (Hodkinson). This process of erasing the subversive element, which in the case of Twilight is the obsession with male idealism, usually renders the new, mainstream text bare and vapid (Hodkinson). As a reaction to Twilight craze, the characters and depth of the story in The Vampire Diaries could be expected to be nothing but carbon-copy Cullen cutouts. However, the opposite is true. In Twilight, “the characters, even Edward, are stripped down to a minimum, lacking the texture and idiosyncrasies of actual people which permits the return, again and again, to the delight of marveling at Edward’s beauty and perfection” (Miller). However, the creators of The Vampire Diaries took notice of the complaints commonly applied to Twilight by critics and learned from them, taking more of a Whedon approach.

Characterization: The Whedon Approach

The characters within The Vampire Diaries, physical attributes of Paul Wesley aside, are modeled more after Buffy the Vampire Slayer than the rather shallow formula of Twilight in which the characters, Bella in particular, provide only outlets for viewer insertion for the sole purpose of wish fulfillment. Like Twilight and Buffy, The Vampire Diaries unfolds the show’s narrative mainly through the perspective of Elena Gilbert. Unlike Twilight, however, Elena is not simply a damsel in distress, needing to be rescued and loved by the gorgeous vampire- or, in the case of The Vampire Diaries, two gorgeous vampires. Elena at the opening of the first season is a normal girl who has recently lost both her parents in a car crash, and, thus, has been thrown into early adulthood. She looks after her wayward younger brother, Jeremy, as he dallies in drugs and sex to deal with his grief. She aids her frazzled Aunt Jenna who is more of a teenager herself rather than a responsible adult in coping with her new role as a family guardian. Elena, also, provides moral support for her fellow friends who attend high school with her.

Even after meeting Stefan Salvatore, falling in love with him, and learning he is a vampire, her priorities towards her friends and family do not change. Unlike, Bella, she has a life outside of being a teenager in love with a vampire and has no desire to join Stefan in becoming a “living undead thing.” While, yes, as she learns more about the supernatural world around her, Elena does stumble into several dangerous situations where she must be saved, but Stefan is never the easy fix. Instead, Stefan, Elena’s friends and family, and even Damon who is originally presented as a villain must work together in order to save the day. Also, Elena, who does gradually progress from damsel- to vampire hunter- to vampire, is not the only character in constant danger; everyone in Mystic Falls is a potential victim of the mystical forces surrounding them.

Like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the show features an ensemble cast which allows the narrative to remove the audience from Elena’s point of view and place the viewer in different character perspectives. The audience, then, assumes the gaze of all the main players, vampire residents included, in Mystic Falls. The audience follows and sympathizes with Stefan’s raging bloodlust, Caroline’s journey for a sense of self, Bonnie’s growing fear about her witch lineage, Damon’s battle against his inner humanity, Tyler’s transformation into a werewolf, and even the town council’s conspiracy to protect the community against vampires. The show does not center solely on Elena and her vampire suitors, and the themes presented within the episodes do not just emphasis teen romance. In using multiple points of view, typical of a serial drama (Mittell), the show’s narrative allows for the audience to truly become immersed in the characters’ struggles and triumphs through adolescence against a supernatural setting, making the characters well- rounded and cementing the emotional connection between the audience (Mittell) and the inhabitants of Mystic Falls.

The transformation of the female protagonist away from a vacant place holder and the use of the different characters as multiple reference points of viewer identification (Mittell) are significant ways in which the creators of The Vampire Diaries have removed or at the very least minimized the subversive element of male idealism promulgated by Twilight. However, in order to truly analyze the absorption and recreation of the Twilight subculture, the vampire characters of Stefan and Damon Salvatore must be evaluated. As discussed earlier, Twilight’s Edward Cullen is a beacon of perfection; Edward’s legacy holds men up to an impossible standard of beauty and behavior. Aware of the backlash resulting from the cult of Edward Cullen, the producers of The Vampire Diaries handled their vampires differently by focusing not on the perfection of Stefan and Damon but rather on their imperfection.

The Salvatore Brothers

Take Stefan Salvatore- I must admit that I was initially reluctant to watch The Vampire Diaries as upon glimpsing Stefan’s character in the show’s commercials all I could think of was that he seemed so… Edward. This comparison, within the context of the pilot episode, proved more or less true. In the pilot, Stefan is introduced as the brooding vampire who is new to Mystic Falls High and who seems mysteriously drawn to Elena Gilbert; he just “has to know her.”  Indeed, the eye flirting between Stefan and Elena in the classroom will make any viewer who is familiar with Meyer’s Saga feel as though they have been thrown back into Bella’s Biology class with Edward. Stefan’s gaze towards Elena is intense, and his eloquent speech echoes a gentleman mentality from another time. Stefan, however, does not appear to loath Elena as through his diary entry, the audience is already aware that he is a vampire and the mystery is removed. Stefan is warm and inviting, though somewhat distant. Yet, even after Elena’s discovery of his vampire nature, he serves as a constant source of compassion and support in Elena’s life. Stefan really is the good guy, but he is not perfect.

He is everything that Edward should be – the good and the bad. Stefan’s decision to feed off animals instead of humans limits his abilities and hinders his ability to save Elena. He lacks the strength, speed, and endurance of a normal vampire; this limitation that he suffers is a consequence of the choice he makes to be a better person. Stefan does not drive a designer car nor compose music. Stefan drinks whiskey to curve his cravings for blood and is not above using sex as a fall back to suppress his pain. He is, of course, widely read in all types of literature and excellent in American history, but these traits are presented, in the show, as a byproduct of time rather than inherent talents. Stefan falls prey to jealousy as he witnesses Elena’s growing attraction to his brother Damon and will intentionally try to make himself look nobler than Damon, but only so that he can shine in Elena’s eyes.

Perhaps the most important difference between Stefan and Edward, however, is that Stefan, and all the vampires in the show are actually dangerous. Edward is presented as having a dark past but in reality, his one decade of killing only murders and rapists could be constructed more as a noble act rather than a predatory one. Bella is never actually in danger around Edward- at least not from him. Stefan actually does have a dark past. Over the course of the show, the audience finds that Stefan is constantly at war with his bloodlust; his fight against his thirst serves as an exaggerated depiction for the inner conflicts of the human condition. For decades on end Stefan would give up animal blood and become a ripper, that is to say, he would massacre his victims, women and children included, into several pieces before blacking out and re-arranging the body parts into perfect placed, bloody dolls. Eventually, his guilt would overtake him and he would try animal blood again. The show takes on an alcoholic metaphor with Stefan in regards to drinking human blood, and like many alcoholics he often relapses, putting everyone in danger- even Elena.

As if Stefan did not add enough ambiguity to the construction of vampires in the show’s mythos, the narrative also features another vampire who eventually vies for Elena’s, and by extension the audience’s, affection- Damon. Damon Salvatore is introduced at the end of the pilot episode and serves as the main antagonist throughout the first season. Unlike Stefan, he freely exercises his vampire nature, killing without discrimination. Stefan is constantly fighting to stay in control of his darker side while Damon revels in the pleasure of being out of control. Right down to his emblematic leather jacket, Damon is the typically bad boy. His human diet keeps his abilities sharp and his charisma charms everyone he comes in contact with as he is a master manipulator.

Damon uses Elena’s friend Caroline for food, information on the town, and sex shamelessly. Damon acts solely in his own self-interest, or as the beginning of the first season demonstrates, in the interest of making his brother miserable since they both have loved and lost the same woman – Katherine Pierce. Yet, even Damon transitions away from the one –dimensional bad boy image. Piece by piece the episodes reveal multiple layers to Damon’s character, illustrating a lonely, broken individual who is struggling to understand his place in the world. Of the brothers, Damon is the extremist; for better or worse, he feels emotion, be it love or rage, more powerfully than Stefan and often to violent ends. Furthermore, though Damon is meant to serve as Stefan’s foil, he is actually less dangerous than Stefan; unlike his brother, Damon understands and can control his thirst for human blood in a way that Stefan can only envy. Thus, since Damon is not hindered by his blood lust, he can choose to be a better man, and his character narrative charts that progression.

The show’s narrative transforms Damon from villain to anti-villain to anti-hero to hero all in the course of two seasons. Though the tension with Stefan never abates, Damon’s complicated relationship with his brother reveals his best attributes.  He envies Stefan’s connection to humanity and his relationship with both Katherine and Elena. He resents Stefan from turning him into a vampire, thus destroying his own humanity. Yet, Damon is always there for Stefan when it really matters such as saving him from being tortured, helping him through blood withdrawal, and working with him to kill common enemies. Also, both Stefan and Damon will still give up his own life for other’s survival, despite the fact that Stefan retains the love of the only women Damon ever loved. Damon is the unlikely romantic who go to every, selfish end for the woman he loves- first Katherine and then Elena.

Sex, Love, and The Vampire Diaries

By absorbing the subcultural Twilight phenomenon and recreating the vampire-hype for mass appeal, The Vampire Diaries, through its characterization actually adds substance and depth rather than stripping it away. However, while the character structures within the show merit praise for breaking away from the shallow formula of Twilight, they mostly serve to keep the audience’s attention alive past the point of initial captivation and have little bearing on bringing the audience to the show in the first place. I now move to my second reason for the show’s success, a reason which was completely modeled after Twilight– sex appeal. Twilight links sex and love as one and the same regarding teenage romance. Bella’s obsession with Edward is predicated upon his physical attractiveness, and the sexual subtext of the story both contradicts the author’s intended message of abstinence and enthralls the audience over the course of the four books and by extension, five films. Though The Vampire Diaries brings more substance to love affair between Stefan, Elena, and Damon, the marketing of the show hinges upon same sexual tension as Twilight, deviating only in the representation of that tension.

Despite the context of the show’s narrative where romance is formed through emotional connections between characters, The Vampire Diaries is dripping with sex appeal – a fact particularly noticeable in the show’s advertising.  Every commercial which focuses on the show in general and not on particular episode arcs features the three actors playing the pivotal roles draped over one another as they lay in bed, dressed in little to no clothing. The lighting of the commercial accentuates the actors’ fair skin and Elena’s red lips, inviting the viewer to partake a voyeuristic pleasure of watching three actors sexually entwine themselves – lips to lips, flesh against flesh. Other commercials also blatantly remark of the show’s sexual undertones, featuring select clips of Damon dancing half naked, Stefan and Elena in bed, and other characters ripping off the clothes of their respective on-screen romantic counterparts amidst the backdrop of techno music; “Catch VD,” the commercials tell the audience as the network brazenly promotes the series’ sex appeal, correlating the narrative with a contagious sexual disease. Yet, television commercials are not the only forms of marketing the sex appeal of The Vampire Diaries, posters, t-shirts, and merchandise exudes the same premise.

Perhaps the best example of the overt sexuality of the show can be found on the cover of the 2012 February issue of Entertainment Weekly (figure 3). The cover features the three main characters with bare upper bodies wrapped in a silky red bed sheet. With Stefan on the left, Damon on the right and Elena in the middle; the cover illustrates the intensity of the love triangle. Both the male actors are turned towards Elena, who appears to be wearing nothing but a black lace bra, and their bare arms are wrapped around her. Elena is the only one whose eyes meet the viewer; thus, the viewers are meant to identify with her, and within the context of the picture, Elena serves as a placeholder for the female audience. Similar to Bella, the audience is seduced into inserting themselves into Elena’s position so that they can enjoy having the men, in the words of Katherine, “worship at her alter.” Thus, while the characters of Stefan and Damon are not beacons of perfection, their physiques are still promoted as ideal icons of masculinity, fueling female lust. Images such as those found in the Entertainment Weekly are based off the marketing practices found in the Twilight Saga, and though these images provide a powerful hook for the audience, they undercut the progressive elements of characterization found within the show by objectifying the male leads (see figures 4 & 5). As the producers of the film adaptations of Twilight, the CW network executives are well aware that sex sells; judging from the show’s sensational ratings, the message is getting across loud and clear.

The overt sexuality, which the show markets itself on, is amplified through the show’s subtle emphasis on visual aesthetics. Every character, every frame, the southern small town setting, is breathtakingly beautiful. The actors are airbrushed to perfection while wearing the latest fashion trends. The houses, cars, and sunsets are filmed and edited with high gloss techniques- techniques that within the film adaptations of Twilight are reserved solely for the Cullens and their environment. In Twilight, this use of makeup and glossy filming serves to separate the bland look of normalcy with the extravagant beauty of being a vampire. Yet, In the Vampire Diaries, everyone-be they human, vampire, or some other supernatural creature- is beautiful. This overall beautification of the setting and cast does not primarily serve to add equality amongst those who are human and those who are not, as one might expect, but only seduces the viewer into a yearning for that imaginary small town. The allure of Mystic Falls reinforces the viewer’s desire to not only live there but, indeed, to be one of the show’s characters, particularly Elena, as she is the main protagonist, the center of the show’s narrative, and most importantly, she is the one who is has the affections of both Damon and Stefan.

The love triangle, more than any other aspect of the show, serves as the main vehicle for viewer captivation and fan devotion. The love triangle between Elena and her two vampire suitors is the subject upon every fan’s lips (The Vampire Diaries Wiki). “Who will end up with Elena,” is the question that keeps the fingers typing in the fan communities and constitutes the dividing line between the fans. Whether it’s browsing a fan website, watching a fan video, or reading fan fiction, the message to the viewer is clear: pick a side- Stefan or Damon.  Like Elena, the fan must make a choice. There is no middle ground; the entire fandom is polarized. This line of separation, as I have discovered, is not arbitrary and crossing it is tantamount to fan suicide.

The phenomenon of fandom polarization, however, is not unique to The Vampire Diaries as it was co-opted from the fan practices of the ‘Twihards,’ regarding the characters of Edward and Jacob. In fact, many fan forums, blogs, and fan fiction perfectly mirror the fan activity of the ‘Twilighters,’ with one major difference. The Twilight phenomenon was fan driven; the merchandise, at least in the beginning, was created by fans for fans. In regards to The Vampire Diaries, it is not the fans who create the merchandise, but the network itself. Shirts, binders, and other collectibles are created by the network and sold to fans. The CW network regularly interacts with the fan base and encourages the fan polarization in order to generate a profit; thus, CW has created a brilliant marketing strategy- a strategy which stemmed from Twilight.

Team Romance: Shipping and Fan Culture

Before accessing the network’s marketing strategy of exploiting the fandom polarization which began with Twilight, the fan culture must first be discussed. Fan culture, a subject initially ignored by academics due to the once prevalent belief that fans only constituted a crazed few of the general viewing audience, is both a personal and social phenomenon (Mittell, 374).  Fans who, according to Matt Hills do not typify all television viewers” (Hills, 30) form intimate relationships with the characters, incorporating elements such as character speech and fashion into their own identity, while also engaging in social activities such as  group viewing, where fans “find support and form interpersonal bonds” (Mittell, 375) with other fans. Originally, fan culture was limited to the exclusivity of the fan-zine world or confined within small viewing parties such as those found in sports bars or college dormitories.  However, the advent of the internet changed everything, “enabling social interactions beyond the physical locale” (Mittell, 375) and dispelling the myth of a television viewer as empty glass waiting to be filled by the trends of the media elite (Mittell, 374).

In the internet age, online fan sites and forums have become the most prominent method of fan communication where fans negotiate and recreate meanings within the source text (Hills, 30). These fan sites allow for a wide variety of fandom representation and provide a sense of validation for fans, proving that their interests are normal, healthy expressions of identity and pleasure (Tushnet, 63). Fans gather at the keyboards to create and share paratexts such as fan fiction and fan videos, seeking to prolong the pleasure derived from the initial moment of captivation (63). The basic premise of most fandom paratexts centers on the phenomenon of shipping which refers to the fan practice of encouraging a romance between certain characters of the source text at the expense of other characters (63). From fan fiction to fan videos and fan art to entire sites dedicated to character romance, the practice of shipping which originated as a mere outlet for fan creativity has taken center stage in all fandoms.

Though originally applied only toward female fans of Sci-Fi genre, shipping has now been extended to all types of shows from soap drams to shows focusing on criminal investigation. However, shipping is still largely a female phenomenon (Driscoll). The evolution of shippers trace back to the fan-zine culture of Star Trek, regarding the characters of Kirk and Spock and building off the show’s homo-social undertones (Driscoll). The fan interest in the possible romance between the gung-ho captain and meditative Vulcan is also recognized as the first slash pairing. Yet, this early fan practice does not represent shipping in the modern sense due to the limited parameters of the Zine culture (Driscoll). Character shipping as it is recognized today began with the X- Files; because the show’s emergence coincided with the internet age, The X-Files, was one the first television shows to have an online fandom (Jensen). The internet exploded with the chemistry between the two paranormal investigators, Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, and the fact that the romance was kept largely off screen only fueled the fans’ obsession (Jensen).

As the phenomenon of fan shipping grew in popularity, the fan’s interaction with television shows and their respective networks also increased (Jensen). Xena: Warrior Princess presented the first instance where fan shipping was credited to influence a show’s narrative, as the show concluded with a lesbian kiss between Xena and her female companion Gabrielle due to the fan interest in their romance (Jensen). Buffy the Vampire Slayer also marked another milestone for fan shipping as it was one of the first shows to make shipping a primarily adolescent phenomenon (Jensen). Also, the division of fans between those who preferred Buffy romantically paired with Angel versus those who preferred her with Spike provided the first glimpse into a fan shipping binary (Jensen). However, this binary was not complete due to the fact that Angel and Spike are never vying for Buffy’s affections at the same time; the relationships that Buffy has with Angel and Spike are not equal because they occur at vastly different periods in Buffy’s life (Jensen). Thus, it was not uncommon to find fans that supported both pairings. Indeed, the most significant influence on fandom shipping resulted not from a television fandom, but from Twilight (Montague).

Shipping has become the most powerful way in which fans identify and interact with the text; Twilight changed the phenomenon of shipping entirely by featuring a romantic decision between two male leads and a female protagonist as the narrative’s sole climax (Montague). Due to Twilight’s lack of substance both in characterization and overall story narrative, the reader is left with no alternative but to be drawn into Bella’s narcotic dilemma of choosing between the love of her life, Edward and her best friend, Jacob. This choice polarizes the fandom, as the reader who is meant to insert herself as a replacement for Bella, must also make the choice between the beautiful vampire and the loyal werewolf (Montague). Thus, fans raced to the computer screens to cast their vote as to which male lead was the perfect partner for Bella, and by extension, themselves (Montague). Fan sites exploded in response to the Twilight saga, voicing their preferred choice as teams (see figure 6) as they created various paratexts supporting their ideal man. Since the characters of Edward and Jacob, who are actually compared to fire and ice within the saga, are presented as polar opposites in personality and temperament, their fan bases too became instant rivals. Edward fans were hostile to Jacob fans and vice versa. This hostility only fueled the popularity of the fandom, as each team went to great measure to ensure they were well represented in cyberspace. Team Edward and Team Jacob banners, t-shirts, tote bags, jewelry and more saturated the internet. Female fans proudly proclaimed that they either “ran with the vampires,” or were part of the “wolf pack” (Hisgoldeneyes). Interestingly enough, the whole concept of fandom polarization in the Twilight franchise has no actual bearing on the original source material; the shipping binary between Edward and Jacob is entirely created through the fan culture. Within the context of the narrative, Bella is never in any danger of actually choosing Jacob over Edward. Edward is always presented as Bella’s true love. Thus, the polarizing effect of Twilight is only proof of a fandom’s power to transform and add meaning to the text, a power which is harnessed by the creators of The Vampire Diaries in order to ensure the show’s success.

I now come to my third and final reason that belies the success of The Vampire Diaries, the blatant utilization of the shipping binaries within fan culture (see figure 7). The success of Twilight demonstrated the lucrative nature of fandom polarization. Thus, the creators of the show seized upon the opportunity to create fan rivalry by incorporating the love triangle as one of its main marketing tools. The love affair between Elena, Stefan, and Damon constitutes the main tension of the show’s narrative, but unlike Twilight, the fan polarization is completely intentional. In transitioning from the written stories of L.J. Smith, the show’s creators deliberately play up the triangle by adding further depths of humanity to the character of Damon Salvatore who within the books is always the villain. The show transforms Damon’s character into that of the reluctant hero in order to make a companion worthy of Elena’s affection and a suitable rival for Stefan. Episodes, by the admission of the producers themselves (Plec), are directly tailored to meet the desires of fans of the romance between Damon and Elena, also known as ‘Delena’ fans, and fans of the romance between Elena and Stefan, ‘Stelena’ fans.

In advertisements, Elena is always featured with one or both of her vampire suitors – never alone. Half of a season will chart Elena’s progression with one male lead and then the season will depict her growing affection for the other; thus, the viewers, like Elena, are placed within an endless tug a war between the two Salvatore brothers and playing right into the hands of the network.  The show’s creators know that the longer the love triangle continues with each brother having a fair shot at becoming Elena’s destined true love, the more passionate the rival between Delena fans and Stelena fans will grow and the more dedicated the show’s fan base on a whole will become. Furthermore, as fan dedication builds, profits increase. The network has learned from Twilight that a polarized fan base is more likely to enhance merchandise sales (see figures 8 and 9) as fans become eager to buy shirts and other collectibles in support of the favorite pairing. The merchandise is not created by fans for fans but is instead licensed and marketed through the network itself. Team Damon and Team Stefan memorabilia are found solely on the Warner Brothers official fan site store or through licensed retail markets such as and Hot Topic. Also, the network streamlines the viewer’s interest in the show through their online website where fans can post questions to the writers and producers, chat with other fans, listen to music from the show, read the Facebook, and Twitter feeds of the cast, and even watch episodes and interviews. Due to the careful attention paid to fan behavior throughout the hype of Twilight, the CW network has wrestled control away from the fans, depriving them of their voice by using their own practices against them.

Conclusion: Life with the ‘Undead’

In many ways, The Vampire Diaries is society’s direct reaction to the Twilight phenomenon as the show’s narrative strips away the subversive obsession with male idealism, presented by the cult of Edward Cullen, choosing instead to learn from the often forgotten footprints of Buffy The Vampire Slayer and to grip the audience emotionally by adding depth to its characters while simultaneously exploiting the sex appeal and fandom polarization left in the wake of Meyer’s narcotic star-crossed romance. Fans of the show clamor to the keyboards to write and blog about their favorite Salvatore, eager to share in Elena’s struggle between the love of Stefan and Damon – and the network executives are listening. After three seasons, all the characters of Mystic Falls have loved, lost, and triumphed. Elena has now become a vampire herself. Yet, the love triangle remains strong and it will continue to do so until the show’s conclusion. The show’s initial attraction may stem from its relation to the Twilight phenomenon but the creators of the show have kept viewer interest alive by transgressing the weaknesses of its predecessor, fueling society’s preoccupation with adolescent sexuality, and actively encouraging its fandom- rather than running from it.

The impact of the Twilight phenomenon has been far-reaching and I can make no predictions about what next trend will be in popular culture …. but I assume that the next craze will continue down the path of promoting sex appeal and fueling fan participation. This prediction may be erroneous, but I highly doubt that Twilight’s influence will disappear altogether anytime soon. One fact, however, is certain. In the digital age, the days where trends were set solely by executives and celebrities are over. Fans, who were once dismissed as crazed exceptions of the norm have now, through the internet, gained a powerful voice. Thus, the next craze will undoubtedly reach a wide audience range; transcend the boundaries of media platforms, and polarize society into either lovers or haters; there will bloggers, fan fiction writers, vidders, and those who just want to run into a dark corner, wishing it all to go away… that legacy of Twilight is most definitely here to stay.

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