It’s time for fandom Tuesday! Today I will be conducting an analysis of the The Vampire Diaries online fandom. I’ve been a casual viewer of the show, but I stopped watching somewhere along season 4 (I know, I really need to catch-up); as such this discussion will only include mild spoilers from the first three seasons. Without further ad0, Let’s begin…
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. I have identified three essential factors, modeled after the Twilight franchise, 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.
Premiering in 2009, 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 para-texts 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.
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 . 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 show 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 presentation 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 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 is strikingly similar to Twilight’s very own, Robert Pattinson ; both men have high cheekbones, chiseled jaw lines, 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 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.
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 particularly in regards to advertisement. 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’ fare 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. 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 identity with her, and within the context of the picture, Elena serves as a place holder 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. Like the producers of the film adaptations of Twilight, the CW network executives are well aware that sex sells.
Marketing via Fandom Polarization
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 admission of the producers themselves, 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 Amazon.com 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.
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. 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.
Ask: Has the Vampire Trend Gotten Old By Now or Are You Still Digging ‘The Un-dead?’