Friday, November 21, 2008

Attracted to the Bad Boy

Today, in theaters around the country, the motion picture adaptation of the popular novel "Twilight" opens. The story, written by Stephenie Meyer, has enjoyed such success as to be considered the logical successor of J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" phenomenon. The throngs of women (young and old) who will converge upon movie houses tonight begs a question: What's the attraction? Or to paraphrase in my best Seinfeld voice, "What is it with chicks and vampires?"

The answer, I will posit here, is the confluence of several aspects. These factors will be listed below:

1. The fantasy romance industry has enjoyed unchecked success for millennia. To an extent, it holds a legitimate place in literature. Young romance is celebrated even in the biblical anthology of love poems entitled "The Song of Songs." The ideals of romance and mysterious loving discovery know no generational or cultural bounds. For this reason, there have always been those stories that appealed more to female audiences. To the extent that men paid attention to them, they became schooled in the romantic arts necessary to attract the desire maiden. As a result, Shakespeare must hold a prominent place in every young man's library.
There is another manner in which the female fantasy has been satiated though: the romance novel genre. Within any bookstore (or book section of a local Walmart) one will find a vast array of romance novels inviting feminine readers to enter into the pretend world on the cover. In this way, the emotional fantasy is addressed. A romance plays out in a manner that real life does not seem to facilitate. For this reason, the fantasy romance genre of literature will likely never dip in popularity.

2. The forbidden attraction is also a timeless genre in literature. "Romeo and Juliet," as a plot line, has seen innumerable expressions in literature, film and television. Many films and programs have rehashed the story in which the lonely girl, looking for meaning in some formative time of life, having many seemingly normal guys to chose from, instead jumps on the back of the "bad boy's" motorcycle and rides off. It's almost a cliche' to see the teen girl, with a troubled home, wearing her boyfriend's leather jacket. He's from the wrong side of the tracks, the other clan, the warring tribe or the lower-class family. She has plenty of men within reach who represent "normalcy," but she needs the one that doesn't fit with her family or cultural settings. We want what we shouldn't; plain and simple. The forbidden attraction satisfies our longing for the edgy, the dangerous or out of the ordinary.

3. The growing cultural trend of dark tastes is observable in several media forms. Not only do vampire stories abound, but even the "Harry Potter" juggernaut was a storyline coached in a mythical world of witches and warlocks. Fixations with the dead, with ghosts or with horrific gore are seen in the unparalleled success of such films in recent years. These elements are reliably bank-able in the minds of movie producers. In literature, J.K. Rowling rode on this trend, but Anne Rice surfed this wave before her. The former trappings of "Pleasantville" no longer hold their old appeal. It's as if a collective rejection of the previous generations' perfect world is driving this generation to a cold, sinister, contrary one. One of the hallmarks of postmodernity is the fascination with whatever is not what used to be. If the old world was bright, the new one must be dark. If the old world had hope, the new one must not have it. If the old paradigm was that Cinderella was found and rescued by Prince Charming, the new damsel must be found and rescued by a blood-sucking bad boy. Our dark tastes are growing fascinated with not just what's edgy, but evil.
This was the issue I raised with many Christian parents who found nothing objectionable with the "Harry Potter" series. Sure, it's good literature. Yes, it's well written. Certainly, it is good that your children are reading more as a result. But why that context? Are well written stories so scarce that my children's reading prowess must be nourished through a fantasy set in a world of witchcraft? Had the options dried up that much, that my only avenue for encouraging their literary appetite was a young wizard's tale? Why must I jump on the bandwagon of dark tastes, that does not evaluate the value of such tastes before been satisfied by it?

In sum, the romance genre of literature has been referred to as pornography for the female heart. It presents a reader with the opportunity to entertain an unrealistic fantasy that males in the real world can seldom live up to. The plot line "air brushes" the bad boys traits so that his rough edges never seem truly dangerous to the heroine. The forbidden attraction is heightened if the heroine has some hope of saving the "bad boy." Stories such as "Beauty and the Beast" will always have an enthusiastic audience of sighing women. However, it is the added element of our culture's taste for the dark side that explains the success of "Twilight." It's not enough for the bad boy to be a rebellious greaser on a Harley anymore; he must be an attractive specimen of the undead. It's not enough for the couple to get married and live happily ever after; he has to draw blood. Hopefully some women will actually stop and evaluate these tastes, instead of just blindly following the attraction. The heart may want what the heart wants, but does the heart always want good things? Quite often not.

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