When I tell people that I watch The Vampire Diaries, I usually qualify it with this: I loved the books when I was in high school. I loved The Vampire Diaries more than a decade before it was a tv show. I’m a little bit of a hipster about it.
Even before that though, I loved L.J. Smith’s trilogy, The Forbidden Game.
The story centered around Jenny (blond hair, blue eyes), her boyfriend Tom (he might be on the football team, I can’t remember), and Julian, a bad boy wizard type (his eye color is described as the blue of the sky just before the sun rises) who has a big crush on Jenny and a penchant for sadistic survival board games. In the first book of the series, The Hunter, Jenny buys a carnivalesque board game at a creepy little shop. Once she begins playing the game with her friends, they’re all whisked away into a life-sized version of the game.
Yaddi yaddi yada, Jenny finds out that Julian, has been watching her for her entire life from another dimension, and he’s fallen in love with her. Which is not creepy at all.
And it turns out that by playing the game, Jenny has unwittingly agreed to play for her freedom from Julian. (He wants her to be his queen.)
And she also has to try to save her friends from death traps.
Super romantic, right?
After The Forbidden Game, I headed straight for The Vampire Diaries.
In the original story, Elena (another blond, blue-eyed teenager) falls in love with Stefan, a brooding and serious guy who turns out to be a vampire. Things get complicated when Stefan’s brother, Damon, comes to town and starts causing a ruckus. Namely, he begins threatening Elena and also seducing her somehow (???), and so — a love triangle is born.
I also loved The Secret Circle, which features a coven of teen witches. The main character is a girl named Cassie (if you guessed that she’s also blond-haired and blue-eyed, you’d be correct), and the coven is made up of both men and women. There’s also a love triangle in this series, but I honestly don’t remember it that well.
I had a friend who also devoured these books and talked about them at length. Mainly, we talked about which boy in the love triangle we would choose. These talks always posed conundrums for me.
For example, in The Forbidden Game, Tom (as I remember him) was a sweet, safe guy. He was perfectly wonderful, respected Jenny’s independence, and supported her ambition. But he just didn’t appeal to me as much as Julian.
Yes, I preferred Julian, the wizard-stalker from another dimension with white hair and eyes the-color-of-the-sky-just-before-the-sun-rises.
What was it about him? Well, he was gorgeous, clearly. He was also lonely. He had a lot of angst about having to live in this other dimension, with the object of his affection so oblivious to his existence and unable to reach her. He had never experienced affection or love or a healthy relationship, so the only way he knew to court Jenny was to imprison her in a game of death traps and make her play for her freedom.
In all seriousness, looking back on those books, and my inclination toward the “bad” or “darker” sides of the love triangles, speaks to L.J. Smith’s ability to write muddy characters. In The Forbidden Game, the clear “right” choice is Tom. Humanizing Julian and making him a sympathetic character (at times), makes the choice less clear.
The same goes for The Vampire Diaries. I don’t think I ever really felt the same affection for Damon that I did for Julian. He had his human and complicated moments, but he never really hooked me. But making him a more rounded character made the choice less clear.
What ultimately makes L.J. Smith’s “bad boy” characters untenable as the “right” choice is this: they don’t change. They reveal their softer sides, they make themselves vulnerable, they reveal emotions. But in the end, they continue to commit acts of violence and generally terrible behavior. The constant back and forth between softness and vulnerability to violence are classic tools of real life manipulation and abuse.
When I found out that The Vampire Diaries was being turned into a TV show, I lost my shit. Past Rachel was beside herself with excitement.
The first few episodes of the season followed the book pretty closely, and then the show’s writers began taking the storyline in a much different direction. And for the most part, I’ve loved it.
Initially, what I loved was how each episode started off like a scary movie. And I loved that Elena is played by Nina Dobrev, a brown-haired, brown-eyed woman. That seems like a low bar, but… you know? We can’t all be blond, L.J. At first glance, I thought the casting choices for Stefan and Damon were too pretty, and I was terribly, horribly wrong. Paul Wesley and Ian Somerhalder are perfect for their roles in every way.
What else have I loved about the tv series? The evolution of Caroline, played by Candice King. She has grown to be one of my favorite characters of all time. (YES.) In the books, Caroline was mostly just a mean girl who is easily manipulated. In the tv show, she turns into a badass girly-girl vampire, and I love her.
The other thing I love about the show: Damon. In the books, Damon is terrible and horrifying. In the show, Damon has a centuries-long history of being completely irredeemable, but his character arcs toward redemption and learning what it means to be a ‘good’ person. His evolution really hinges on these questions: when you have spent centuries being one of the worst and most murderous vampires in the world, how do you begin to be a better person? How do you atone for your violence? How do you begin to forgive yourself? How do you begin to believe that you are worthy of love? How do you embrace the darker parts of yourself and still be a “good” person? What does it even mean to be a "good" person?
I love that journey. I love those questions, and I love how complicated the answers are.
In real life, I have zero tolerance for abusive behaviors. I believe that abusers can be rehabilitated. I believe that people can change. But they rarely do, because they aren’t given the tools and support to create change within themselves. Because there is no reason for abusers to change their behavior. Because we live in a society where one of our presidential candidates can brag about sexually assaulting women, and nothing happens to him. Because this same presidential candidate can try to use physical intimidation and bullying on his opponent (who happens to be a woman) during a debate on a national stage, and nothing happens to him. Because a man can be found guilty of assaulting an unconscious woman behind a dumpster, but only have to serve 3 months of his ridiculously short 6-month sentence, and the world cries about how his swimming career is over.
And so on, and so on, and so on.
So maybe that’s the thing. Maybe L.J. Smith’s bad boy characters are initially appealing because they’re mysterious, dark, supernatural, charming — like so many bad boys in actual life. But despite the magic, they’re just as human, just as unchangeable as an abuser.
Ian Somerhalder’s interpretation of Damon explores what a reformed abuser might look like. He’s white and never been oppressed in his life. He’s exerted power and control and violence over so many people throughout his centuries of living. And he lives in a world where he is supported in self-actualizing toward being a better human.
Imagine if everyone had that. Everyone.
Of course, as with most things, it's never that simple.
I believe that people can change, that people are ultimately good. But we haven’t created a world where every person is supported and nurtured into being the best people they can be. We haven’t even created a world where trans folx can use a public bathroom without fear for their safety. Or a world where trans folx of color don’t fear for their lives every single damn day. Or a world where a womxn — cis or trans or queer — can walk down the street at night — or any time of day, really — without fear of violence or death.
And so on, and so on, and so on.
We’ve got a lot of fucking work to do.