When Halloween is right around the corner, my thoughts turn to my favourite creature of the night: the vampire. During my formative years, I had (and still have) a big obsession with anything related to vampires. Dracula, Edward Cullen, the Salvatore brothers, Lestat, and even Blade. What do these vampires have in common? They’re all men. Throughout the history of the vampire novel and the portrayal of vampires in media, women have traditionally been coined as ill-fated victims. They often tend to be either a prey to the supernatural predator or a ‘damsel in distress’ for vampire hunters. Are our portrayals of vampires fundamentally masculine?
Let’s start with the vampire who (apparently) started it all: Dracula. It is because of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel that we owe the popular image of the mysterious, suave, opera-cloaked bloodsucker that we are now so familiar with. Although he is seen as the original vampire, there is a novel that predated Dracula by 26 years: Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1871 gothic novella Carmilla. Carmilla is the story of a woman vampire who preys on young women, and essentially a lesbian romance novel, in a time when same-sex attraction between women was invisibilised, and women’s intimate relationships were written off as friendships. Although the novel enjoyed attention and critical praise, the representations of Carmilla in popular culture are few and far between. It seems that women vampires, especially queer ones, are apparently not as interesting, thereby leaving their stories to be forgotten.
When women vampires are represented, they are depicted as gorgeous predators, with the ability to devour their prey (both drinking their blood and having sex with them), standing as a perfect metaphor for cultural fears about strong, independent women owning their sexuality. The 1890s New Woman, represented a more modern understanding of women’s role in society. This was around the time Carmilla was written, which illustrated Victorian fears of women being more sexually open, comfortable initiating sexual relationships, intellectual, independent, and open to exploring alternatives to marriage and motherhood. By portraying autonomous women as evil monsters and seductresses, the novel could be said to construct them as a danger to society and traditional ways of being.
Essentially, there was an expectation that life for women follows a pre-established pattern that goes as follows, birth, girlhood, marriage, motherhood, old age, and death. Stories about women vampires demonstrated an alternative mode of existence, one that rejected these assumptions. Indeed, the promise of immortality shatters assumptions on the chrononormativity of the expected life cycle for women as child-bearers and reproductive sexuality as the motto. The image of women vampires as strong and active beings also puts into question patriarchal beliefs defining women as weak and passive.
Since this apparently cannot be, women vampires are often represented as threats such as Katherine Pierce in The Vampire Diaries or Queen Akasha from Queen of the Damned (2002). This could also explain why most vampiresses end up being punished or killed in media representations. Their punishment or death acts as a warning to women who try to disrupt the patriarchy. The best example of this is the fate of Carmilla, whose “deviant sexuality” and construction as a femme fatale leads her vampiric nature to be discovered, and ultimately, results in her death.
Having said this, the next questions to be asked are, how were the human women treated in my favourite vampire novels and films? What messages are young women learning by watching these vampire movies?
The cultural phenomenon of Twilight is probably the best place to start unravelling this question. Bella, the main human character, plays into the ‘damsel in distress’ trope and consistently puts herself in dangerous situations, waiting for a man to come and save her. Her wishes could be said to be disregarded by her manipulative boyfriend Edward (the vampire). For instance, when Bella wants to have sex with Edward, but he refuses until they get married (a choice Bella consents to in the end, despite saying earlier how she ‘shudders at the thought of marriage’). His presence in her life also pushed her to isolate herself from her friends and family for his safety, and on numerous occasions he uses his superhuman strength to assert physical dominance over Bella. Even when Edward is absent, Bella continuously imagines his voice and goes so far as to commit self-harm in order to see visions of him. Talk about a toxic relationship.
Similarly, Elena in The Vampire Diaries is also regularly prevented from making her own life decisions, and is even physically held back by the men in her life. Elena’s life revolves around which Salvatore brother she is in love with, and although the two romantic leads are deeply caring, they are also deeply controlling. These dynamics could be said to mirror abusive relationships in real life, thereby normalising them, even positioning them as something desirable.
Similarly, while the men in Twilight exist as characters full of personality and ambition free of a woman counterpart (like Jacob for most of the series), the despair expressed by the single women and the opposite-sex pairs throughout the series sends a message that women exist in order to fall in love with men. This not only teaches girls that their whole life should revolve around men, and that they should wait to be saved by these men, but also significantly normalises an image of women’s dependence on men. Shouldn’t we be fostering young women’s independence? Scholars also argue that vampire fiction reinforces gender stereotypes that men are strong/dominant and women are weak/submissive, especially since the majority of vampire-related media only shows men as vampires. When women do become vampires, it is by force/trick (think, The Vampire Diaries) or to be forever in their heterosexual relationship.
There are some exceptions to the rule, namely, Buffy in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Many scholars argue that Buffy engages in feminist rhetoric and politics. For seven years, this show allowed the heroine to be a girl and a young woman, full of contradictions: not only a vampire-hunter, but also a student with maths homework, trying to date and dodge curfews. She had layers and was depicted as a full person, whose main personality didn’t centre around a love interest, but instead around her friends, saving the world, and taking control of her own life. The show gave space for traits often dismissed as silly and feminine, to sit alongside world-saving superpowers.
Despite being produced and consumed in different epochs, various vampire narratives have been accused of being hostile towards women’s sexuality and empowerment. They consistently reproduce ideas about women’s fragility and passivity, constructing them as victims in need of protection by the strong and sexy vampire.
In the end, vampires are not real but they do tell us a bit about the patriarchal gaze through which we understand the world we live in. And although I still love Twilight, I cringe every time I see Bella’s freedom to choose taken away from her.