Drusilla is one of the most interesting characters on Buffy and Angel. She flits in and out of storylines, often playing a very critical role, and she’s also one of Whedon’s Brunettes, the characters who recur over and over again in various forms in Whedon’s work. Fragile, but dangerous. Eerie, but in need of protection from defenders. Mentally ill in a simultaneously delicate and frightening way. Drusilla is particularly interesting because she plays into a lot of deeper themes from our culture, particularly stories surrounding mad mystics and female vampires.
The mad mystic is an ancient figure in mythology. In most depictions of mysticism, in fact, the mystic is usually presented as someone who is mentally ill. Either mystics are driven mad by their visions, or they receive visions because they are crazy, or they are pressured and manipulated into performing, and they break under the strain. As we learn from Drusilla’s back story, she grew in a sheltered environment and tried to rid herself of the visions she experienced because she feared them, before Angelus drove her mad and then turned her to use him for his own purposes.
There are layers upon layers here. There’s a very long tradition of women in Drusilla’s position being framed as mystics; women associated with innocence and purity who grow up in a protected environment and are granted special powers or gifts by deities. Drusilla often appears in white, a colour people associate with purity, and while it could be ironic, given her character, it’s also a reference into the very old history she plays into and perverts. She comes from innocence to evil, she has visions that some people might have viewed as divine inspiration while others might have considered them a sign of mental illness, she is a complex, layered character.
We are introduced to Drusilla in a very fragile state, with Spike absolutely devoted to her, not least because she made him; Drusilla is a creator, not just a destroyer. She has a creepy and compelling power that increases as she grows stronger, and also clearly references classic myths about female vampires as highly sexual creatures. Dripping in sensuality as Drusilla is, she fits into a very old lineage of myths and legends. The female vampire represented an object of fear historically because of her sexuality and it’s interesting to note that many legends featured men being held in thrall by female vampires, just as Drusilla controls Spike and, to some extent, Angelus.
In all these references to very loaded and gendered legends, does Drusilla step outside the box and offer commentary, or does she play into myths and stereotypes? I think it’s kind of a mixed bag. On Angel, we see her as a much more independent and powerful person. She’s the person who decides to turn Darla to save her life, for example. This does not fit neatly into the mad mystic or sex siren stereotypes. She’s ferocious and protective and independent, traits that go against her presentation on early Buffy, where we often see her as just the opposite. She’s whiny, weak, dependent, needy. Later on, we see more of her wild streak, when Spike returns without her and explains that she left him. Drusilla does not stay still and does not permit herself to be confined.
Drusilla evolves over the course of both shows and she becomes more complex as her stories unfold. This is not a mistake; I strongly suspect that she was introduced into the narrative deliberately as a very stereotyped character and the decision was made to consciously shift her presentation over time. Surely, the creators were aware of the stereotypes she plays into, and she is not an accidental character. Whedon has said on numerous occasions that he wants his shows to defy stereotypes and expectations, and sometimes one of the best ways to go that is to introduce a character who looks troped at first glance, but breaks out of the boundaries as you get to know her.
Starting with a fierce, independent Drusilla wouldn’t have highlighted that shift so radically, and certainly wouldn’t have made viewers think about the roles she plays. In her height as mad mystic on Buffy, gabbling over tarot cards and playing with dolls, there’s also a calculating, sinister undertone. To some extent, Drusilla seems to be playing a role. She needs something, because she cannot survive on her own, and she knows this is what Spike wants, and can use. Some people might call that cold, but I think it actually highlights a common problem women experience in a lot of different settings, where they are forced to act out a part to get what they need because they cannot get it on their own. Drusilla’s position references that of many women in the real world who need caregivers and are sometimes forced to play ugly roles to save themselves.
Drusilla is canny. She’s savvy. Angelus may want us to think he’s driven her crazy, but I think it’s more complicated than that. She’s actually a very self aware character, and what could be read as expressions of madness could also be, at least to some extent, an act. Angelus clearly traumatised her in her human form, but after her transition to vampirism, the story becomes more complicated.
She’s vicious, but she’s also perceptive, and good at what she does. What she does, of course, is evil, but that’s because it’s her role. The series could have pushed harder at the mad mystic stereotype, but I think it’s still evident to viewers reading beneath the text that there’s more going on with Drusilla than might originally meet the eye. How much of her presentation is acted, and how much is real?