The recent resurgence of the vampire genre, arguably led by Anne Rice and Buffy, has inevitably led to a lot of cultural criticism, talking about what this trend means for society, and some of the most interesting criticism is coming from people discussing the role of sexuality and women in the genre. Whether you’re talking about Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Moonlight, Blood: The Last Vampire, Let the Right One In, True Blood, Twilight, Anne Rice, Charlaine Harris, or Anita Blake, there’s a lot of material to explore, and I’m noticing more and more articles lately about the impact of the vampire trend on women, like a discussion about the fact that women usually play supporting roles while men carry the stories and the leads and a recent Nerve article about differing portrayals of sexuality in True Blood and Twilight.
It’s especially interesting, to me, to see that Buffy is still cited as the perfect exemplar of positive portrayals of women and sexuality. At least once a week, I read some variation on “Buffy was the greatest feminist show ever and it was so empowering for women and [insert faddish vampire series here] is bad for women and degrading.” But, the thing is, Buffy doesn’t always stand up well under feminist examination, and a lot of the things that people are complaining about in new vampire shows could be said of Buffy as well. Conversely, not many people are talking about some of the groundbreaking work being demonstrated in other entries in the genre.
For example, numerous authors have pointed out that Edward in the Twilight Saga is possessive and clingy, and doesn’t allow Bella to think for herself. Well, so is Angel. Angel is very possessive and protective of Buffy, he actively stalks her whether he’s being good or evil, and he’s often highly controlling “for her own good.” In Angel, he’s got a whole posse of women to be protective over, including a particularly egregious plot line in which he plays the conquering hero and rescues Fred from another dimension. Sure, Buffy has a bit more of a spine than Bella does, but I’m not sure that the difference between the characters is as black and white as people seem to want to make it; after all, Buffy is repeatedly punished for her sexuality, while Bella is rewarded for abstinence, two flip sides of the same anti-sex coin.
Or perhaps the criticism is about the power dynamic between Sookie Stackhouse and Bill Compton on True Blood, with people complaining that Bill protects Sookie too much from the world and that Sookie is powerless, unlike mythically endowed Buffy. Only, she’s not. Like Buffy, she doesn’t take shit from nobody, she often strikes out on her own even if it’s dangerous, and in the novels the books are based on, she does things like blowing a werefox away, point blank, to protect herself. In the first season of the television series, she takes out a serial killer! Sookie may have a veneer of Southern respectability, but she’s no fainting violet, people. She and Buffy have a lot more in common than being blonde and supernaturally gifted, and unlike Buffy, she is allowed to enjoy sex.
I think it’s very interesting to examine the role of women in Gothic classics like Dracula, The Vampyre, Carmilla, and Varney the Vampire, contrasted with the role of women and the shifting dynamics in the new vampire media. You want to talk about a vampire trend which was harmful to women, let’s talk 19th century Gothic vampire literature, people, because this shit gets ugly, and the difference between Gothic and Modern works is pretty radical, yet at the same time, a lot of things stay the same.
Female characters in Gothic novels are often helpless halfwits who need the support of big, strong men. Or they’re beautiful and sexually independent, in which case they serve as ideal prey for the vampire, which means that the big strong men will eventually need to slay them before they get a chance to corrupt children or turn into bats. The “good” women are vapid, uncomplicated, and often uninteresting, relying on their male protectors for guidance, while the “bad” women are more intellectually complex, but sexually independent, and we can’t be having that sort of thing, so we’ve got to kill them off.
Carmilla features the ultimate transgression, a lesbian vampire who preys on an innocent young women. It manages to encapsulate every imaginable fear about female sexuality and independence with an array of stereotypes, like the older lesbian who preys on young women, childish innocence in virginal women, and of course a big strong man to save the heroine from vampirism/lesbianism. This is a far cry from Willow and Tara’s tender relationship on Buffy, or from Sookie’s steadfast and adventurous sexual independence in the Sookie Stackhouse novels, let alone the orgiastic conditions in novels by Anita Blake and Anne Rice.
Vampires themselves in the Gothic tradition are evil; perhaps the greatest difference between the Gothic and Modern trend is, in fact, the characterization of vampires. The modern vampire obsession revolves around good vampires who reject the morals of their kind to live more like humans, literally “mainstreaming” in Bill Compton’s case. To underscore their difference from the rest of vampire society, they are contrasted with bad vampires who often take the form of former sires, children, or nestmates. Varney is the exception to this rule, being a Gothic work featuring the introduction of a tormented romantic figure as vampire hero, rather than a human man bravely resisting vampirism and defending hapless womenfolk.
Men have experienced a pretty radical shift in the modern vampire genre as well; we see them vulnerable, we see them relying on women, we see them as much more emotionally complex and conflicted characters. Some daring authors and producers are even willing to explore homosexuality and male sexuality, although these subjects are largely taboo on the small screen. (With the exception of Lafayette in True Blood.)
The treatment of women in the modern mythos is a bit more tricky. The genre certainly continues to promote certain values for women which I am uncomfortable with, and it’s unfortunate to see that a lot of the characterization of women in modern works is similar to that in the Gothic period. The romantic vampire male hero who rescues the weak defenseless women is simply a modern day version of the Army veteran/doctor/adventurers of the Gothic era who kept women safe from vampires. On the other hand, there are some outstanding female characters, even though many of them are flawed, and these characters would not have been possible 150 years ago.
It’s interesting to see that while the modern trend has radically altered vampire and male characters, it often relies on antique tropes regarding female characters. Women in the modern mythos are often still punished for their sexuality, and even when they have supernatural powers, they are forced to rely on vampire characters (usually men). The metaphor of vampire as sexuality and drinking as a sexual act is far from new, as is the idea that sexuality is equal to corruption, and that women especially are vulnerable to corruption through their sexuality; it’s nice to see Alan Ball taking this in a different direction with True Blood, where the portrayal of sexuality is highly positive and characters are allowed to grow as people and explore their sexuality. Somehow, I think that the fact that the show is on HBO has a lot to do with this.
We are dealing with social issues which were unthinkable to people in the 19th century, like openly gay people and interracial relationships, but apparently we still can’t come to grips with the role of women and empowered sexuality in society, even in the fantasy version of society presented in the new vampire mythos.