Are Vampire Stories Sexist?
Consider the scene most expected in almost any vampire film. A supposedly virginal young woman opens her eyes in the middle of the night. She gets up, her translucent gown billowing slightly as she moves in the moonlight. Then she opens the window before returning to the bed, lying down in expectant terror. A fully clothed stranger, his semi-bestial face alive with lust, approaches her. Pierces her. Literally uses her as a source of food. And she whimpers in humiliation and joy. Behold vampire as rapist. From Varney the Vampyre to almost every single version of Dracula, from Fright Night to most versions of Dark Shadows. But what seems most disturbing is how such scenes rarely play out as horror. Rather, we experience them as erotic.
In a corollary, one surefire symptom of any woman infected with the undead taint is nearly always a new sex drive. Consider as an extreme example Barbara Hershey’s character in Dracula, Prince of Darkness. A prude, who forgets every danger or horror once she looks into a manly vampire’s eyes. Then, she becomes a succubus eager to seduce and feed. Same thing happened to Rebecca Grayheart’s character in From Dusk Till Dawn 3, to almost ever single version of Lucy Westenra, to all but one of the female cast in Dracula’s Great Love and so on.
At the same time, finding sympathetic female vampires proves rather difficult, and most seem totally under the thumb of some male, from the title character of Dracula’s Daughter (both versions) to Carmilla in The Vampire Lovers or the Countess in Brides of Dracula and continuing with Elizabeth in Dracula 2 & 3 as well as the female lead in all four Subspecies films. We see plenty a male vampire with a harem of scantily clad befanged slaves, but not until Sophie Anne in True Blood do we see a vampiress with a stable of eager young men. Naturally enough, a much weaker male vampire destroys her.
You can justify any one or two or a dozen of these examples. But the point is not any single instance but the pattern. For the vast majority of vampire plays, comics, t.v. shows, novels and movies the gender roles are pretty clear. Women, if good, are almost always victims or at best self-sacrificing maidens, betrayed as often as not by sexuality. If bad, they turn out to be especially vindictive (or horrible, like the pedophile in Lemora) and/or totally under the dominion of some one else who invariably turns out to be male.
Still, let us be honest. There have been exceptions. Indeed, the exceptions have grown more numerous of late.
Abby in Let Me In may well be the first genuinely sympathetic female vampire a la Angel or Nick Knight. Tropes involving women and gender roles as well as sexuality continue to challenge expectations on True Blood, including what looks to be a genuine (interracial) love match between two vampire women. In Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows, Victoria Winters for the first time in the franchise takes total control of her own choices, eyes open. Of course she’s a lovely victimized ingenue while the raving villain of the piece is a voluptuous femme fatale… Drusilla in Buffy and Angel is at least a powerful creature in her own right, as is Darla, the latter maybe achieving an interesting bit of redemption in the end.
Then there’s Twilight. At least Bella Swann, if not an aggressive fighter a la Lara Croft, acts as a positive influence on the men around her. And Alice makes for arguably the most charming vampiress in history. But when it comes to gender roles, throughout all four and a half books as well as five films it is the most traditionally masculine female vampires who come across as the most terrible–specifically Victoria and Jane. Those who long more for relatively feminine goals–motherhood, fashion–make up the good guys. Or gals.
It is all about the patterns. Not individual cases. Nor is this about formulas, as if automatically turning everything around will result in superior stories. But simple awareness of the sexist patterns can make us better audience members, as well as better story-tellers.
Do you agree?