"Switching It On/Off: Emotional Performativity and Melodrama in The Vampire Diaries" by Malin Lidström Brock
Malin Lidström Brock is assistant professor at the Department of English and Education at Luleå University of Technology. She is co-editor of Tove Jansson Rediscovered: A Collection of Critical Essays. Her research interests include contemporary American literature and culture. Other areas of interest include life writing and popular culture. Email:
In 2013, American celebrity chef Paula Deen was sued for alleged racial discrimination by a former employee. The Savanna-born chef’s frequent use of the n-word in casual conversations and a series of televised interviews, where she appears to defend Antebellum slave practices, became national news. Although the suit was eventually dismissed, Deen’s failure to express sufficient regret for her racist statements caused the Food Network to fire her and to cancel her show (Satran; Wolcott 128). After several sponsors severed their ties to Deen in 2013, it has been estimated that her company took a cut by more than 50% (Schaal). Deen’s callous remarks and her tendency to talk about slave holders in the past in the first person plural (“we”) caused one reporter to sardonically ask: “Is she a vampire?” (Satran) The question can be interpreted as a reference to the television show The Vampire Diaries, which premiered on the teen-centric CW network in the US in 2009 and was renewed for a sixth season in 2014 (Stieber). The show, which takes place in the fictional town of Mystic Falls, Virginia, tells the story of a teenage girl, Elena Gilbert, who attracts the affections of two century-old vampire brothers because she is a dead ringer for the ancient vampire Katherine Pierce, who originally turned the brothers. The reference to Deen as a “vampire” can be explained by show’s frequent flashbacks to the vampire brothers’ privileged upbringing on an Antebellum Southern plantation. Like the two brothers, the reference implies, Deen appears strangely immune to historical change.
The reporter’s allusion to The Vampire Diaries illustrates a tendency in contemporary media to describe the ruthless behavior that characterizes late capitalist enterprises as “vampiric,” most famously exemplified by Matt Taibbi, who in 2009 referred to the investment bank Goldman Sachs as a “great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity.” The analogy works both ways. Implicitly, it will be argued here, the media storm surrounding Paula Deen also offers valuable insights into The Vampire Diaries’ structural logic and its status as cultural product of late twenty-first century neoliberal society. What upset Deen’s critics the most, it turned out, was not her “casual” racism per se, but rather her inability, or unwillingness, to publicly apologize for her remarks. When asked by the plaintiff’s lawyer if she had ever used the n-word, Deen callously replied, “yes, of course” (Wolcott, 128). “That ‘of course’ was her undoing,” according to James Wolcott (128). If Dean “had couched her admission in a cheese-drenched macaroni bed of regret,” Wolcott claims, “she might have received leniency from the swift-to-condemn media chorale always eager to swoop” (128). The negative reactions to Deen’s indifference exemplify the increasingly important role public displays of regret have come to play in contemporary Western society. We appear to live in an “age of apology,” which explains the recent tendency among dominant nations and privileged groups to apologize for past atrocities committed on minority groups and individuals (Sorkin). Critical voices have nevertheless been raised as to the sincerity and the effect of public apologies, and include Dov Seidman, who refers to the phenomenon as “apology inflation.”
The media’s reaction to Deen’s unapologetic remarks indirectly brings attention to the role that displays of regret play in The Vampire Diaries. In this essay, the focus lies on the performative aspects of such emotional displays and on the show as serial melodrama. The Vampire Diaries is the network CWs most watched television show to date, with season five averaging 3.8 million viewers in 2014 (Morabito). Compared to other popular vampire shows, such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer or HBOs True Blood, the show has received little scholarly attention. Previous research has primarily sought to link the show to its various conditions of production (Bridgeman, Williams). Bridgeman refers to The Vampire Diaries as an “explicit piece of consumer culture” that simultaneously “manifests a reflection of contemporary cultural anxieties” (8). In this essay, I seek to trace how such anxieties are manifested “textually,” that is, in the show’s plot structure and through one its plot devices, namely the vampire “switch” that allows vampires to turn their feelings on and off at will. The argument presented here is that displays of regret and remorse play important parts in seeking to resolve anxieties concerning selfhood and violence on the show. The performative aspects of these displays draw attention to their function as “apology theater,” I wish to argue, and are effects of The Vampire Diaries’ melodramatic mode, as well as the culture in which it is produced (Sorkin). This essay deals exclusively with the television show and not with any other aspects of the narrative franchise The Vampire Diaries.
Postmodern Subjectivity and Violence
The Vampire Diaries is a vampire romance show. According to Sarah Bridgeman, this makes it “the ideal narrative ground in which to explore boundaries of the self” (10). Selfhood in The Vampire Diaries is primarily examined through “the dynamics of conventional social groupings, particularly the couple, the family and the community or society” (11). The central love story takes place between Elena and the vampire Stefan, and is complicated by Elena’s increasingly romantic feelings for Stefan’s brother, Damon. This triangular love story turns out to be near-identical to the earlier relationship between Stefan, Damon and the vampire Katherine. Katherine is physically indistinguishable from Elena and, eventually, viewers learn that they are both doppelgängers, physical copies of a young woman whose blood was used to create the first vampires (S3E13). The doppelgänger theme in The Vampire Diaries contributes to the identification of subjectivity on the show as shifting and lacking in signification (Bridgeman 15-6).
Bridgeman identifies subjectivity in The Vampire Diaries as postmodern and links anxieties about this subjectivity to the characters’ “violent means of organization and control” of the body (16). As defined by Fredric Jameson, postmodernism is “the cultural logic of late capitalism” and thus refers to the commodification of all spheres of life. The result is the fragmentation of history, a sense of depthlessness and the production of a fragmented and constantly shifting subject. Bridgeman positions The Vampire Diaries within a “web of consumer-driven relations” by identifying how the show forms part of the network CW’s targeting of a young female viewership (8). She also identifies other postmodern features on the show, including the invocation of older forms through pastiche and irony, self-conscious references to the show’s genre and plot, the layering of stories and the collapse of divisions between high and low culture (9).
The Vampire Diaries may function “successfully as a consumable object in a consumer-capitalist economy,” but the violence on the show can also be understood as an engagement with anxieties surrounding neo-liberal consumer capitalist ideology (8). Elena embraces her doppelgänger status by sacrificing her life to the vampire/werewolf hybrid, Klaus Mikaelson, who needs doppelgänger blood to create more of his kind (S2E21). When Damon feels the pressure to conform to other people’s expectations, he typically reacts by killing someone at random, thereby seeking to identify only with the violent side of his condition. After Elena’s friend Caroline Forbes becomes a vampire, her father attempts to cure her of the condition by means of torture (S3E3). In vain, Caroline explains that it is “impossible. Daddy, you can’t change who I am” (S3E3). The violence on the show, as these examples suggest, temporarily establishes fixed subject positions and momentarily generates meaning (Bridgeman 17).
Bridgeman’s interpretation of the characters’ violent behavior is convincing, but made at the expense of other emotional displays and complicates the show’s romantic mode as characters risk appearing “inhuman.” If “violence, pain and sacrifice [on the show] are . . . the most effective tools for action in the face of complexity,” as argued by Bridgeman, feelings of guilt and regret serve as necessary counter-balance to such action (16-7). The performative aspects of such emotional retrospection can be traced back to the fact that the vampires in The Vampire Diaries are sympathetic and the show is a serial melodrama. These characteristics, it will be demonstrated, both depend on and facilitate displays of regret and apology on the show.
The Vampire Diaries as Serial Melodrama
Contemporary vampires have lost their ontological status as forerunners of evil. No longer the embodiment of satanic malevolence and sin, they feel the pain of their victims and suffer the existential weight of their eternal condition (Zinger 18). At the same time, vampires remain creatures with a “natural” inclination for violence and murder. Stefan, the younger of the two central vampire brothers in The Vampire Diaries, views his vampire condition as a curse and suffers guilt and remorse because of the people he has killed. These retrospective feelings “humanize” him and mark him as an example of the domesticated or sympathetic vampire (Gordon & Hollinger 1997; Zinger 1997). The sympathetic vampire is able to establish friendly or romantic ties to humans and other supernaturals, but this also places him or her “problematically in the realms of the emotions” (Williamson 41). Stefan’s moral opposite in season one is his brother, Damon. In the first season, Damon kills numerous people in visually arresting ways, as if a sense of aesthetics has taken the place of his sense of morality.
The contrast established between the Salvatore brothers during the show’s first season signals the “melodramatic imagination” that informs The Vampire Diaries (Brooks vii). Understood as a mode of narration rather than a genre, melodrama relies on characters that embody roles organized in Manichaean conflicts of good and evil (Mercer & Shingler 79). Stefan’s retrospective feelings of guilt initially contribute to a definition of The Vampire Diaries as melodrama. By refusing to drink human blood in season one he poses no obvious threat to the people of the small town of Mystic Falls. Despite this, representatives of the town’s founding families identify all vampires as monsters. The misrecognition of a protagonist’s virtue is a defining feature of the melodramatic mode (Brooks 33). Another prominent feature of melodrama is the tendency to exteriorize moral and emotional conflict into extreme physical conditions, where physical flaws indicate innocence. According to Williamson, the sympathetic vampire’s entire existence is his flaw (41). In this respect, Stefan’s vampire state appears to signal victimhood rather than evil, while his feelings of guilt point to his “humanity.”
As the show progresses, however, it becomes clear that melodrama in The Vampire Diaries is not a set of stable conventions. Rather, it is a way to address “the dilemmas arising out of the struggle for meaning and significance” by recognizing the inability to uphold clearly defined roles in a world that lacks transcendental ethical truths and meanings (Williamson 40, Brooks 5). In The Vampire Diaries this inability is reflected in the plot. In the show’s first episodes Damon appears as Stefan’s antithesis, a vampire with no sense of guilt or remorse, who revels in his vampire condition. The Vampire Diaries is a serial, however, that is, a television format where a narrative develops across a sequence of episodes (Bignell 19). Contrary to the series, serialized narratives are defined by “shifting perspectives and extended middles,” which “contribute to the moral complications that surround characters” (Williamson 48). As a serial, then, the show is unable to sustain a moral universe characterized by a clear categorization of good and evil for very long. Halfway through the show’s first season, viewers learn that Damon’s presence in Mystic Falls is secretly motivated by love. He aims to release the vampire Katherine from a tomb in which he thinks that she has been enclosed for the last 146 years. When Damon learns that Katherine was never entombed and that she neglected to let him know, he feels betrayed and allows his budding feelings for Elena to bloom (S1E22). In the process, his status as evil brother is compromised and his change of heart sets the stage for a new romantic coupling in season three. The coupling between Damon and Elena is facilitated by the revelation that human blood causes Stefan to lose control and kill people indiscriminately.
Somewhat paradoxically, given melodrama’s reliance on essentialist categories, the serial melodramatic format contributes to the definition of The Vampire Diaries as postmodern. Here, “postmodern” serves to emphasize that melodrama is a particular mode which is constructed over a void, “postulating meanings and symbolic systems which have no justification because they are backed by no theology and no universally accepted social code” (Brooks 21; Williamson 45). In themselves, actions and events in The Vampire Diaries defy clear categorization as either good or bad, indicating depthlessness instead. This is the case also with violence on the show. In this context, Damon’s aestheticization of violence, the gruesome tableaux that he creates when he feeds off the population of Mystic Falls in season one, can be interpreted as an attempt to cover up not only life’s, but death’s, meaninglessness through artistic means.
Although violence temporarily engenders fixed subject positions, it has few long-lasting consequences on the show; people in The Vampire Diaries die violently only to rise again as ghosts or vampires. Indeed, the show makes clear that the vampire’s propensity for violence stems from intensity of feelings and not from a state of original sin or evil. Becoming a vampire in The Vampire Diaries involves the intensification of one’s human behavior. Vicki Donovan, the first person to be turned on the show, is an abuser of illegal substances. As a vampire, she finds it especially difficult to control her intense desire for blood (S1E6). When Elena’s friend Caroline becomes a vampire, her previously domineering personality is given free rein and she behaves like “an insecure, neurotic, control freak on crack” (S2E3). Emotions are similarly intensified by the vampire transition. In an attempt to stop a young Stefan from killing people, the vampire Lexi tells him that “everything is intensified when you’re a vampire. When we hurt, we really hurt. But when we love…” (S3E15). New vampire Logan Feel struggles to makes sense of his conflicted emotions: “Why am I so overly emotional? All I can think about is my ex-girlfriend. I want to be with her and bite her and stuff.” Damon explains that Logan probably loved her and “[a]nything you felt before will be magnified now. You must to learn to control that” (S1E9). Damon’s reply suggests that the vampire condition “overflows the bounds of reason, progress, and the universalist politics of Enlightenment ideas of the rational subject” (Bridgeman 16). His definition of the vampiric state draws attention to the need for self-control in a world that lacks transcendental truths and meanings. The need to stem the anxieties of the subjects’ postmodern condition also points to the centrality of the vampires’ so-called humanity switch as a melodramatic plot device on the show.
The Humanity Switch
Feeding on and killing human beings in The Vampire Diaries are invariably followed by feelings of guilt and regret. As Stefan expresses it after he has momentarily returned to his murderous, “ripper” ways: “If I let myself care, all I feel is pain” (S3E14). To avoid this pain, the vampires in The Vampire Diaries can switch off their feelings. The vampire Annabelle/Anna explains to Elena’s brother, Jeremy, that “being alone, always feeling empty inside, no one to understand, but when you’re a vampire, you don’t have to feel this way. You can shut it off” (S1E20). The moment the vampire loses access to his or her feelings, however, instinct kicks in and the desire for blood and death inevitably takes over, suggesting that the sympathetic vampire’s basic “nature” is still to kill. Even Caroline, arguably the best-adjusted new vampire in The Vampire Diaries, confesses to the vampire hunter Alaric Saltzman that she actually enjoyed killing her first only human victim (S3E18). The vampires’ ability to shut off their feelings implies that they are not completely domesticated. Liz Forbes, Caroline’s mother and Mystic Fall’s sheriff, was brought up to view vampires as “monsters; they have no soul, no humanity” (S2E20) and the witches on the show are adamant in their definition of vampires as “abomination[s] of nature” (S3E8). The humanity switch partly confirms these opinions, as it temporarily separates the good from the bad within the vampire, as well as good vampires from bad ones. The latter is made especially clear through the vampire Klaus. As Caroline explains to him: “You don’t connect with people because you don’t even try to understand them” (S3E14). Klaus’ lack of empathy, his refusal to turn on his “humanity,” stops Caroline from acting on her romantic feelings for him. Indeed, a lack of remorse establishes Klaus as the main antagonist in seasons two and three. In this manner, the switch produces the dualisms that define The Vampire Diaries as melodrama.
The humanity switch offers few visual clues to the vampire’s current state of mind, yet as a plot device it serves to gauge the vampire’s current position in the melodrama. A recurring subplot on the show is whether a vampire’s humanity is switched on or off. In season one, Stefan and Elena look for signs of Damon’s humanity and identify them as his growing and eventually articulated feelings for Elena. In the third season, Stefan has been compelled by Klaus to switch his emotions off. Stefan now feeds on and kills innocent people, but he also protects his brother from Klaus. Unable to understand the significance of his brother’s actions Damon suspects that for Stefan there must be “another option at play; a bit of a dimmer switch” (S3E10). Indeed, a closer look at instances when the humanity switch is off undermines its effectiveness, even its existence. New vampire Vicki does not need the switch to feel, she does it instinctively, immediately blurring the line between feelings and vampire instincts for blood and death. In fact, it could be argued that the desire for blood is a feeling. Stefan acknowledges this possibility in the show’s first episode by pointing out to Vicki that when you’re a new vampire, “it’s difficult to separate your feelings: love, lust, anger, desire. It can all blur into one urge: hunger” (S1E1). Such “blurring” motivates the need for a switch, but Stefan himself seems unable to keep his humanity switched off for longer periods of time. Although he turns his feelings off to follow Klaus and enters into a destructive ripper mode, this is an extreme state that he cannot sustain. When Damon and Alaric find the bodies of two dead werewolves, Damon immediately recognizes Stefan’s modus operandi as a ripper: “[He] feeds so hard that he blacks out, but then, when he’s done, he feels remorse. It’s the damnedest thing. He puts the bodies back together” (S3E1). Arguably, Stefan does not really turn off his feelings; they are merely sublimated into increasingly disturbing and contradictory expressions of guilt. Earlier on the show, the 500-year old vampire Rose goes as far as to claim that the humanity switch is “a lie, you know. There’s no switch you can turn off. Sure, when you’re a newbie, but after a couple hundred years you just have to pretend” (S2E9). Rose’s admission draws attention to the switch as a form of pretense and to the vampires’ feelings of guilt and regret as performative.
In line with Judith Butler’s theory on gender, the vampires’ display of regret can be understood as performative, indicating that “humanity” in The Vampire Diaries is an empty category (Butler). This interpretation is both confirmed and complicated by the show’s melodramatic mode, which strives to uphold the distinction, not only between good vampires and bad, but also between humans and vampires, yet simultaneously recognizes the impossibility of doing so. The most striking role-reversal on the show can be attributed to the protagonist, Elena. A study of Elena makes clear that “humanity,” defined as goodness, is an equally unstable category when it comes to the human characters on the show. As the leading heroine, Elena constitutes The Vampire Diaries’ moral center in seasons one to three. Her defense of the right for vampires to exist is informed by pathos. Virtually all the younger characters in The Vampire Diaries evaluate their own or their friends’ behavior in emotional terms. When Bonnie finds out that her friend Caroline has killed a person shortly after becoming a vampire, she momentarily experiences a moral dilemma: “I can’t ignore what happened. If you want to be friends you have to prove that the Caroline I remember isn’t gone” (S2E3). Although Bonnie objects to Caroline’s vampire behavior, ultimately she is willing to overlook that Caroline is now a murderer because she wishes to remain friends with her. Like the other characters that choose to practice forgiveness on the show, she decides “to take a page from the Elena Gilbert handbook” (S3E18). A subjective and personal moral outlook equals moral relativism. Logically, then, no person’s view should be preferable to another’s on the show. Because of Elena’s central position as heroine, however, her views motivate events in the serialized narrative and her sense of pathos excuses the vampires’ violent behavior.
Nevertheless, and despite the show’s protagonist-centered morality, the melodramatic logic eventually causes even Elena’s moral dominance to be overthrown. Indirectly, this questions the meaning of what it means to be human in The Vampire Diaries. Caroline’s father is killed by Elena’s guardian, Alaric. By season three, Alaric has developed an evil alter-ego personality and he ruthlessly sets out to kill all the vampires in Mystic Falls and any humans who have had dealings with them. Elena sympathizes with Caroline’s grief, yet she also feels conflicted, since Alaric used to be a close friend: “It is horrible, and I feel horrible about it, but he [Alaric] is the victim of something supernatural. He didn’t ask for this. […] None of you asked for this, but who would I be if I just turned my back on all of you?” (S3E18). In line with the show’s protagonist-centered outlook, Caroline does not question Elena’s reasoning. Instead, she humorously refers to her as “Elena Gilbert, savior of the crippled and the banned” (S3E18). Other characters on the show do question Elena’s perspective, however. Notably her critics are mostly adults. After his transformation, Alaric turns into a monstrous version of a parent and he becomes one of Elena’s staunchest critics. To him, she is now “an 18-year-old girl without parents or guidance or any sense of right and wrong any more” and he reminds Elena that her parents were once vampire hunters: “Do you actually think that they’d be proud of you?” (S3E21). Although the criticism is voiced by a serial killer, Elena recognizes that her actions can be interpreted as selfish. In a later conversation with Jeremy she acknowledges this possibility:
Mom and dad were right. Alaric should just kill all the vampires and put an end to all this, but then that means that Caroline dies and Bonnie loses her mom. The Mayor loses her son and I lose Stefan and Damon. So if it that makes me the bad guy for wanting to keep those people alive then fine, I’ll be the bad guy. (S3E21)
Elena’s words turn out to be prophetic. The scene foreshadows her melodramatic transformation into a vampire at the end of season three. Unable to uphold a worldview based on the moral righteousness of Elena’s single-minded compassion for vampires, the show effectively negates her moral authority; she is literally transformed into “a bad guy.” This moral collapse is indicative of the postmodern stance of the show, where a narrative’s only purpose is to persuade, to have the “next” rather than the last word (Bridgeman 16). As a consequence, and in line with the postmodern premise, the show eventually ends up questioning its own “grand narrative,” in this case, Elena’s emotionally defined worldview (Lyotard).
Of course, as a new vampire, Elena’s “humanity” can be restored, only this time through the display of guilt and remorse. In season four, Elena is nearly consumed with guilt for feeding on and then killing a human being. In true melodramatic fashion her guilt takes material shape, in the form of hallucinations that urge her to commit suicide (S4E6). The remorse also transforms her into a sympathetic vampire. To alleviate her pain Damon, to whom she is sired and must therefore obey, orders Elena to turn her feelings off. As a result, she becomes indistinguishable from the badly behaved vampire Katherine, in character as well as in appearance. In a surprising plot twist, Elena then feeds Katherine a vampire cure, which returns Katherine to her human state (S4E23). The reversal temporarily reestablishes both humans and vampires in the Manichaean system that informs melodrama. At the same time, Elena’s transition to a vampire illustrates the instability of the very categories human and vampire, and the recognition that “humanity” on the show is established through emotional performance rather than through any inherent, human qualities.
Through melodramatic means The Vampire Diaries illustrates the difficult balancing act involved in becoming a subject in the twenty-first century. Critics tend to see vampires as “personifications of their age,” who will appear wherever power resides (Auerbach 3). In the twenty-first century, the vampire on television is American. As The Vampire Diaries progresses, the vampires become increasingly indistinguishable from the young adult human characters on the show and vice versa. In addition, Elena’s transformation into a vampire suggests the latent “vampirism” in all human beings. Already in 1978, Christopher Lasch observed a trend among Americans getting increasingly self-absorbed at a time of diminishing economic expectations. “People have convinced themselves that what matters is psychic self-improvement: getting in touch with their feelings” (Lasch 4). Although harmless in itself, Lasch argues, this pursuit “elevated to a program and wrapped in the rhetoric or authenticity and awareness, signify a retreat from politics and a repudiation of the recent past [i.e. the 1960s]” (4-5). Over the last three decades, American college students have scored increasingly higher on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (IPD) test, developed in 1988 (Pinsky and Young 180). The significance given to personal feelings is indicative of the “hyper-individualistic” American culture in which The Vampire Diaries is produced and consumed, yet the show’s focus on feelings as moral guidelines can also be understood as a logical and necessary extension of neoliberal late capitalist culture in general (Twenge and Campbell xii).
Neoliberalism can be understood as a form of social organization in which economic rationality is exported to all areas of life, including “personal conduct” (Vrasti 6). It is often defined as a theory of political economic practices that relies on free individual entrepreneurship, free market and free trade (Harvey 2). Neoliberal government, however, is not about less government but about governing differently, through other means and rationalities (Vrasti 5). It is characterized as a “flexible” form of capitalism, which requires successful individuals who have a desire for “social change, an ability to operate in distant and diverse settings and an interest in experimenting with one’s self and the world around it” (9). To become a subject in a neoliberal culture it is no longer enough to possess market rationality. One must also be equipped with “emotionality, creativity and mobility” (10). The neoliberal subject is remarkably different from the capitalist subject of the 1980s, perhaps best personified by Bret Easton Ellis’ fictional character Patrick Bateman in the novel American Psycho (1991). A possible serial killer, Bateman is like the vampire with his “humanity” permanently switched off. Like the characters in The Vampire Diaries, he, too, seeks to bridge an existential void by increasingly violent means. Significantly, Bateman never asserts his humanity through expressions of emotion, such as remorse, but then, American Psycho is not melodrama.
The neoliberal need to control personal conduct suggests that the emotionally informed rationality in The Vampire Diaries is not so much a sign of adolescent narcissism, as a reflection of a necessary competence in the neoliberal market economy. According to Sara Ahmed, emotions are not personal feelings that reside in individuals. Instead, they are essential and practical tools for understanding how we “become invested in particular [power] structures” (10). Unlike feelings, emotions are public displays that can be either genuine or false (Shouse). In that respect, emotional display is always performative. People who invest emotionally in a neoliberal economy seem to believe that it will lead to a better society, or as Slavoj Žižek expresses it, they believe that they can both “have the global capitalist cake (thrive as entrepreneurs) and eat it (endorse the anti-capitalist causes of social responsibility, ecological concern etc).” Between 1993 and 2003, the number of humanitarian foundations in the US rose by 77 percent (Hudson Institute). During this time, business moguls, such as Bill Gates and George Soros, became strongly associated with corporate charity (Žižek). Capitalism without an element of self-criticism built in is no longer deemed morally acceptable (Boltanski & Chapello 28; Vrasti 14). When the vampire’s impulses are given free rein in The Vampire Diaries, they invariably cause death and destruction. The solution is not to abstain from drinking blood, however, but to control the urge, or as Caroline explains to her mother: “I want to [kill]. It’s my basic nature now, but on a healthy nature I can control it. I’m getting better at it. I’m better than Stefan. He’s a bit of a problem drinker” (S2E6). When death does occur, as it often will in The Vampire Diaries, the proper response is not denial of one’s actions, but a verbal admission of guilt.
Expressions of empathy and remorse are public displays of feelings. As viewers are rarely privileged to the inner lives of the protagonists in The Vampire Diaries, distinctions between the words feeling and emotion have no validity. They are both performative in their mimicry of the Judeo-Christian value system replaced by the logic of late capitalism. What chef Paula Deen’s story and The Vampire Diaries both suggest is that in late capitalist society, it does not matter whether emotions are genuine. What matters is that questionable actions must be accompanied by sufficient displays of regret and public apology. Like the vampires in The Vampire Diaries, neoliberal subjects feel conflicted by their inability to separate their feelings from their more violent instincts. As such, neoliberal subjects, too, must learn the balancing act of switching on and off their “humanity” as the situation demands. In other words, they must learn to play their part in the “apology theatre.” For Deen, the consequences of not taking part in the theatre equaled severe financial losses, for the vampires more often than not it equals social or romantic ostracism. If the narrative logic that informs The Vampire Diaries seems narcissistic and relativistic this is hardly surprising, since it reflects the post-sacred late capitalist society in which the show is produced, a society where individuals and corporations rely on a melodramatic rhetoric of guilt and “mistaken virtue” to distance themselves from the violence they have committed on themselves and on others.
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