(Post) Colonial Vampires

While driving home from fly-fishing yesterday afternoon, I happened to listen to a PRI: The World story about a recent blog written by the current British ambassador to the United States.

It was about his observation of the trend that British actors are popular fill for vampire roles in mainstream film, American television series, and an upcoming PBS drama.

The PRI piece about the blog and the ambassador’s blog itself are “fun,” slightly tongue-in-cheek pieces about this phenomenon which on its face seems verifiably factual.  I don’t intend to fact check the actual numbers of British actors versus American actors in vampire roles.  Even if the view of a trend is a British conceit, there might be something to it.

The pieces got me thinking because, like a lot of material in popular media including superficially “intellectual” sites like NPR, PRI, etc. there is still a lot of description that passes for or at least implies “explanation.”  And in the current cultural epoch where assertion attempts to pass for description, explanation, and analysis all at once, a bit of analysis from them would have been interesting.

But since they didn’t offer any, here’s some speculation on my part for why the Brits are put into these roles beyond the seemingly obvious economic reasons.  (Weak American dollar.  Cheaper to hire Brits who are actually really good with American accents when they have to don them.  Plus, quite often, they are very good, maybe better than American actors.)

The ambassador’s observation of a “trend” reconnected my thoughts to my question why is it that Brits so often play the characters in the classics as if they’re Greek or Italian.  I was never a regular viewer or fan of the HBO series Rome, but that was the question that kept popping into my brain when I watched an episode:  “Why can’t they get Italians to act in a series about Italians?”  Are there none?  What are the assumptions that inform such decisions to represent historical, cultural, and ideological experiences? Is this some kind of “Italian-face” melodrama?  Why is it that a British accent is needed to portray a classic, to portray a vampire?  What IS going on, anyway?

There are many potential answers of which I’ll suggest a few.

Once upon a time, “Great” Britain was actually great; an empire.  One thing empires do is authoritatively define and organize space, time, culture, i.e. everything under their control, as much as they can, at least.  And this would include defining colonial subjects and their lives.

This specifically included defining the “subjects” as bodies, not “mind” as the empire or any colonizing entity would consider itself.

And part of this defining activity included representing the various aspects of the subordinate cultural experiences in terms beneficial to the dominant, authoritative culture to rationalize ongoing cultural and institutional control.  It meant controlling by erasing, modifying, and replacing subordinate expressions with their own imaginations of the subordinate lived content.

This kind of cultural “projection” onto the “other” by economically, militarily, culturally more powerful groups such as the British during their period of empire is evident in the authoritative “voice” of such filmic representations mentioned above and more.

Of course, central to any notion of empire is consumption of the unwilling other and their cultural “essence” including food, rituals, language, material resources (especially land and bodies).  It’s a complicated socio-psychological process of self-justification on the part of the dominant toward the subordinate other.

Scholar bell hooks, in her seminal essay “Eating the Other” in Black Looks: Race and Representation (South End Press, 1992) on how white culture as part of commodity culture, consumes non-white cultural others and their experiences as part of a process of hegemonic reinvention and pleasure satisfaction without altering dominant-subordinate relations of power (even reinforcing them), addresses some of the issues which I see with these Brits taking “parts” of the other, i.e. primitive Italians and soulless/embodied vampires.

One day, while walking down the street near Yale where she was teaching, she overheard some young white jocks discussing and rating their “fantasies” of having sex with as many young women of color as they could before they graduated from college. (23)

“They ‘ran’ it down. Black girls were high on the list. Native American girls hard to find, Asian girls (all lumped into the same category), deemed easier to entice, were considered prime targets. Talking about this overheard conversation with my students, I found that it was commonly accepted that one ‘shopped’ for sexual partners in the same way one ‘shopped’ for courses at Yale, and that race and ethnicity was a serious category on which selections were based.” (23)

In hooks’ analysis, these young white males’ were seeking experiential knowledge of darker cultural others who were contrasted to the “innocent” cultural experience of whiteness. Indeed, ironically, it is the “other”, the subordinate, uncivilized being who is viewed primarily as body, material to be utilized to “complete” the higher life forms of spirit, intellect, and disembodiment.

In her example here, it is non-white people who have “…had more life experience, were more worldly, sensual, and sexual because they were different. Getting a bit of the Other, in this case engaging in sexual encounters with non-white females, was considered a ritual of transcendence, a movement out into a world of difference that would transform, an acceptable rite of passage.” (23-24)

According to hooks, the goal wasn’t to possess the other, but to be transformed and in this the embodiment of the other served that end.  Still, as hooks goes on to explain, there is no fundamental transformation in the relationship between dominant white self and dark other.  The other only serves as a multicultural leveler in a relationship fantasy for the cultural dominant.

Any sense of catharsis or pleasure of equanimity between the unequal parties is dissolved or hidden as the other merely “witnesses” the ongoing cooptation and reinterpretation of their experience through the imaginative lens of the white (usually) male author.  And this usually means reasserting dominant white western colonizing notions of the “primitive” as body (animal/instinct), not mind (spirit/intellect).

So how is the trend identified by Britain’s ambassador to the U.S. of British actors’ occupancy of roles depicting vampires and my concern over why Italians can’t represent “Rome” on HBO connected to commodity consumption of others?

I want to suggest that these British actors are taking on “others” in the forms of vampires (ambiguous creatures who are simultaneously embodied and disembodied) and Italians (in “Rome” as sophisticated, yet vulgar, primitive creatures bound to fall because their drives are fundamentally instinctual).

Regardless of Britain’s own “fall” from empire status, they continue (even in imaginative artistic/intellectual spaces like public television) to be at the center of authoritative notions of civilization with their self-contained, crisp, even at times brittle use of language and dramatic characterization.

There has always been a stereotype of the tightly, self-contained British culture as disembodied, with a limited range of expressive possibilities, highly controlled and manipulated even in their more bawdy, Monty Pythonesque critiques of British culture.

Add to that the whiteness, even grayness of British culture as an image, a cool dispassionate sort of passion that seems to emphasize reason even as it, as an empire, terrorizes other cultures.  Indeed, for truth and right to rule, reason had to be cold and calculating in its uses of power to ensure submission.

And indeed, colonizing, imperial cultures were and continue to be vampiric in their consumption of the other’s treasure and “essence” (blood) at some fundamental level.  (Even if they never “get” it right.)

Perhaps, in some sense, this reassertion of an authoritative (post) colonial presence and voice reflects a backlash against the progressive, post-colonial advances of others transnationally.  Indeed, there may be a longing for the clear, crisp articulations of a singular, simple author that reasserts a grand narrative of consumption.  Allowing or imagining only one voice to represent the great diversity of humankind globally calms the economic marketplace and reenergizes a world of unequal nations dominated by a few.

Of course, these representations—this form of “acting out”–of the dominant fantasies of others lived and felt experiences remain just that: fantasies.  They are not only melodramatic, creative elaborations of deeply felt desires for what hooks analyzes are cultural compensations for perceived innocence and alienation—looking for an imagined other to “complete” them—but I would argue they may well be attempts to restore and remind listeners and viewers of their authority to continue to interpret and embody power and privilege.

There’s much more to say about the specific symbolic value and representations of British actors in these roles including how whiteness plays into the reinterpretation of Romans, what vampires do and represent (as seemingly amorphous, non-ethnic characters), and the fact that actors seem to love to play evil characters. (To embody the “other:” What does it say about us as “humans” that acting primitively, we are satisfied, feel more complete?  Goes to hooks’ point, I think and ties back to my earlier posts about imperialist nostalgia.)

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