December 20, 2010
The Role of Women and Feminism in Vampire Literature Over the Years
Vampire literature and lore has long been a topic highly discussed by fans and intellectuals alike. One facet of this genre however strikes a particularly sensitive chord in today’s society: vampires and feminism. What women actually mean and represent in vampire literature has changed and developed over the years, but each explanation reflects the time in history during which it was written’s view of women.
Tamar Heller explores the idea of a “hysteric” girl in his writing “The Vampire in the House.” Hysteric was a term used to diagnose women who did not fit into the Victorian era definition of a proper woman. Heller describes these ideas through the analyzation of Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Carmilla,” a 19th century ghost-story in which it’s narrator, Laura, describes her encounters with a vampire. Heller uses a multitude of sources to relay his ideas about the mystery that femininity presented to Victorian-era men.
The first definition we receive of female hysteria comes from American physician Weir Mitchell. He uses a metaphor to paint the picture: “A hysterical girl is…a vampire who sucks the blood of healthy people about her.” He goes on to say that, “…I may add that pretty surely where there is one hysterical girl there will be soon or late two sick women” (Holmes 78). This shows that Mitchell believes hysteria to be contagious among women. It also shows his underlying beliefs that women are something of a burden, needing to feed off of others in order to survive. This parasitic quality is reflected in Carmilla; she feeds off of unsuspecting victims in order to survive. In Le Fanu’s story, Laura becomes very sick after a mysterious houseguest, Carmilla comes to stay with them. Laura only begins to recover after it is found out that Carmilla is a vampire who has been preying on her at night. Heller makes a crucial point when he says that, “the parallel between this story and Mitchell’s image of the self-reproducing hysteric suggests an interdisciplinary cultural dialogue: not only, for doctors, is the hysterical woman like a vampire but, in takes like Le Fanu’s, the vampire can be read as a figure for the hysterical woman” (Heller 78). The connections between Carmilla and hysteric women are obvious, Carmilla was described as languid, prone to sudden outbursts of anger, and does not eat or sleep. Symptoms of hysteria were faintness, insomnia, irritability, loss of appetite or libido, and the general tendency to be a nuisance. Nowadays, we would see these as symptoms of depression and like disorders. Heller tells us that there were two main theories for female hysteria. The first was to ascribe the hysteria to sexual frustration or desire. The second theory blamed the female’s sensitive nervous system. Apparently it never occurred to these doctors that the supposedly sick women might just be sick of their lack of a role in society.
Another interesting element of Carmilla Heller explores that ties into feminism is that of lesbianism. When reading the story, the lesbian elements are very apparent and plain to see, even if they do make one do a bit of a double take. Carmilla’s interest in Laura is identifiable from the very beginning of their relationship. Carmilla states, “I cannot help it; as I draw nearer to you, you, in your turn will draw nearer to others, and learn the rapture of that cruelty, which yet is love; so, for a while, seek to know no more of me and mine, but trust me with all your loving spirit,” while laying cheek to cheek with Laura with her hands about Laura’s neck, kissing her cheek (Le Fanu 263). That Carmilla, the vampire villain temptress, is such a sexualized character reflects Le Fanu’s and many other Victorian era men’s fear of a woman that understands her sexuality and the world around her. Sexuality was something reserved for men and they wanted to keep it that way. “This anxiety sprang from a fear, even if as yet only partially articulated, of the sexual implications of such friendships, while also belying a wariness about the formation of emotional bonds that might hinder a girl’s entry into the world of heterosexuality” (Heller 87).
It was important that girls enter the “world of heterosexuality” because that was the route to femininity at the time. Femininity meant being the obliging, smiling wife and Carmilla interrupted Laura’s path to that. Even after Carmilla is killed, Laura is unable to forget about her experiences with Carmilla, thus tainting her. Laura even goes so far as to say that writing down her tale “…has unstrung my nerves for months to come, and reinduced a shadow of the unspeakable horror which years after my deliverance continued to make my days and nights dreadful, and solitude insupportably terrific” (Le Fanu 316). In short, since Laura’s path to becoming the quintessential Victorian woman was interrupted, she is scarred and can never lead a normal life. This deduction leads the reader to believe that Carmilla serves as a warning to women to not stray from their pre-determined roles. “If, as Helene Cixous says, ‘the hysterical woman is the woman who disturbs and is nothing but disturbance’ we can see what happens to such disorderly women” (Cixous and Heller 89). By giving Carmilla the characteristics of a hysteric woman and calling it vampirism, Le Fanu reflects the attitudes of his Victorian era contemporaries in his complete dismissal and blacklisting of the unknown.
Two centuries later, the bestselling Twilight saga interprets feminism in a very different way, yet also enforces the traditional role of women. Females and vampires were explored in a broad scope in Caitlin Brown’s article, “Feminism and the Vampire Novel.” Examples are drawn from modern and older vampire books and television shows highlighting important themes shown throughout vampire lore. The ever-popular Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer serves as a prime example in Brown’s discussion about sexuality, gender roles, and feminism.
Brown starts her article by discussing the common paradigm of male vampire/female human almost always seen in vampire novels. This model is very clearly seen in Twilight. Edward is a 109-year-old vampire whose ridiculously good looks is the stuff of legends. He is a supremely practiced pianist, has read almost every book, and sparkles in the sunlight. Bella is his human girlfriend, a pretty, family oriented teenage-girl that loves classic romantic novels. The two unconventionally fall in love and their epic story goes on through four books. According to Brown’s paradigm, the male vampire has unlimited power, physically as well as intellectually while the human female is weak and “unable to resist the lure of the dashing corpse” (Brown 1). These women have two choices, says Brown. The first is to “forsake their initial quasi-independence and embrace the status of victimhood which the men in the text combine to foist upon them,” the second option is to “give into the seduction of the vampire and so gain power” (Brown 1). That the woman must give up her independence to gain power exemplifies the control men have over women.
Much to some feminist critics dismay, Twilight embraces traditional gender roles. While Edward is powerful and “godlike” as Bella describes him, she is clumsy, soft, and a genuine caretaker. Many critics have deemed Bella a “weak” character given her gentle demeanor although I felt the opposite. An often-brought up example is in the second book, New Moon; after Edward leaves Bella (for her own good) she enters a near catatonic state of depression. “This one is anti-feminism 101, folks. Bella needs a man in her life. She can’t function without one. It’s exactly that simple.” Says Nikki Gassley in “Feminism Doesn’t Sparkle: What Twilight Teaches Young Girls.” While I see her point, I interpreted Bella’s sadness differently. To me, Bella and Edward’s love was something that neither of them could control; it was eternal and not reversible. Edward left Bella because he believed that his presence in her life was harmful to hear, it was an action done out of love and affected him deeply as well. It is true though that Bella was extremely depressed but it was her love for others that kept her alive and eventually brought her back. Bella has an important relationship with her father, Charlie, and her love for him is what kept her going. While she was depressed, Bella still got perfect grades and kept up with her chores. These bare minimums were not enough for Charlie, though, and once he expressed his deep concern for Bella, she made a concerting effort to get back to normal. That she put her own sadness aside for Charlie shows a mighty power within.
Bella’s driving force in life is her love for those close to her. Some may see this as weak but I think that being able to love someone enough to have their needs be put above your own takes a rare strength. Yes, Bella is traditionally “female” (or what society associates with female qualities) but this does not need to be a quality looked down upon. Feminist.org defines feminism as “the policy, practice or advocacy of political, economic, and social equality for women.” Equality means having equal rights, which comes down to the right to choose. Bella’s decisions are her own despite what they may be.
Edward does take on the role of protector for Bella, and yes, he may come off as controlling at times, but the reason for his concern is completely justified. Bella seems to be a source of mayhem; trouble follows her wherever she goes. Edward recognizes Bella’s tendency to fall into dangerous situations and does his best to ensure her safety. Edward’s deep love for Bella is a fact not addressed in many feminist responses yet it is crucial to understanding his relationship with Bella. In New Moon, after Bella and Edward are reunited he tells of what life was like without her. “Before you, Bella, my life was like a moonless night. Very dark, but there were the stars -- points of life and reason. And then you shot across my sky like a meteor. Suddenly everything was on fire; there was brilliancy, there was beauty. When you were gone, when the meteor had fallen over the horizon, everything went black. Nothing had changed, but my eyes were blinded by the light. I couldn’t see the stars anymore. And there was no more reason for anything.” After hearing this, Bella muses, “I wanted to believe him. But this was my life without him that he was describing, not the other way around” (Meyer 514). These quotes prove that their love for one another is reciprocated equally.
The issue that these Brown and Gassley take with traditional gender roles is a bit disheartening, in my opinion. What’s wrong with a good, old-fashioned love story? That both writers seem to take such issue with Bella’s love for Edward almost seems anti-feminist. Feminism became a movement when women decided collectively that they wanted a choice--a choice and involvement in their futures just as men had. Author of the Twilight series, Stephenie Meyer responds to whether Bella is anti-feminist by saying that because of the limitations some feminists seem to set on women’s choices, “It's as if you can't choose a family on your own terms and still be considered a strong woman. Are there rules about if, when, and how we love or marry and if, when, and how we have kids? Are there jobs we can and can't have in order to be a ‘real’ feminist? To me, those limitations seem anti-feminist in basic principle.” I agree with Meyer, the entire point of feminism is that women have a choice. That some critics attack Bella for choosing her own path is controlling and as Meyer says, “anti-feminist.”
The popularity of the series in teenage girls is not purely a social construct, Leonard Sax explains for The Washington Post. “Three decades of adults pretending that gender doesn’t matter haven’t created a generation of feminists who don’t need men; they have instead created a horde of girls who adore the traditional male and female roles and relationships in the ‘Twilight’ saga,” he writes (Sax 2). This fact struck me as fascinating and possibly very true. It is my guess that the women deemed hysteric in the late 1800s, did not have any serious mental problems (for the most part, I’m sure some were actually sick). Rather they were not satisfied with their role as only mothers and wives. Not being able to change their status was, I’m sure, extremely frustrating and could make one exceedingly unhappy. This lack of satisfaction with their status led women to create the feminist movement in the early 1900s. Throughout the growth of this movement, mothers have taught their daughters that they are able to choose their own path even if it is not a traditional one. In his article, Sax explains that through the encouragement of defying gender roles, we’ve created a generation of girls that are actually attracted to tradition. That this new development in feminist thinking could be displayed through a vampire novel only highlights just how much they still mirror contemporary society.
In addition to gender roles, another facet of power much discussed in relation to Twilight is that of sexual power. “The act of biting a victim, of transforming a human to a vampire, is inevitably linked to sex,” Brown explains (Brown 4). And since the male is usually the vampire, it is his choice to bite, therefore leaving the sexual power to him. We can connect this to Twilight through Bella’s eventual transformation into a vampire. Edward does grant her with this, but in the process, Bella gains power. She is now physically strong and it becomes clear that she has powers of her own, even before her transformation. Bella’s mind acts as a shield, protecting her brain from others who might seek to see into and control it. Bella eventually learns to extend her shield to others, thereby protecting them. Again this depicts Bella’s extreme selflessness.
Perhaps the most controversial theme drawn from Twilight is that of abstinence. Bella and Edward refrain from sex until marriage and this decision also reflects the power men hold. In Twilight, it is stressed that Edward is from a different time and therefore holds different moral values while Bella’s values reflect her time. She sees no reason in waiting for marriage while Edward insists on it. Because of his super-human strength, Edward fears that he would hurt Bella in the act and through this Bella’s physical health morphs into a metaphor for her virginity, which Edward devotes himself to protecting. This is perhaps the only instance in which I agree with critics citing Bella as anti-feminist. Though I do not feel as strongly about this topic as some, I admit that I do see how Edward holds power over Bella. However, his reasons are ones I understand and feel a bit of gentlemanly respect towards. I do not believe that it is Edward’s intent to hold this power over Bella; his desires to wait stem not only from concern for Bella’s physical health, but also for her spiritual health. Being raised in the early 20th century has instilled some core values in Edward, one of them being that sex before marriage is a sin. He wishes to protect Bella’s soul as well as his own last shred of one. To me, this seems to be another example of traditional gender roles—the man protecting the woman. Though it may be antiquated, the thoughtfulness on Edward’s part should be appreciated.
Christine Seifert further explores abstinence in her article “Bite Me! (Or Don’t).” According to her, that Bella and Edward did not consummate their relationship for so long makes it “hot”. In other words, the temptation is what readers loved so fiercely. Seifert goes on to note that, “the removal of the couple’s sexual tension reveals two tepid, unenlightened people” (Seifert 2). She goes on to say that Twilight compares the loss of Bella’s virginity to the loss of her individuality. This is a statement I see absolutely no merit in. In fact, after Bella and Edward are married, Bella becomes even more of herself. Although she always displaying a maternal, nurturing side in her human years, the loss of Bella’s virginity gives her a baby, who catapults her into discovering how much she is actually capable of.
Though Carmilla and the Twilight saga were written well over 100 years apart, they both reflect their respective society’s beliefs and thoughts about women. While the role of women in vampire literature has changed, that they are an integral part of the genre remains the same.
1. Le Fanu, Sheridan. "Carmilla." In A Glass Darkly. New York: Oxford UP, 1872. 243-319. Print.
2. Hellar, Tamar. The Vampire In The House: Hysteria, Female Sexuality, and Female Knowledge in Le Fanu's "Carmilla" (1872). Article.
3. Sax, Leonard. "'Twilight' Sinks Its Teeth Into Feminism - Washingtonpost.com." Washington Post - Politics, National, World & D.C. Area News and Headlines - Washingtonpost.com. 18 Aug. 2008. Web. 20 Dec. 2010.
4. Seifert, Christine. "Bite Me! (Or Don't) | Bitch Magazine." Bitch Magazine | Feminist Response to Pop Culture. Web. 20 Dec. 2010.
5. Brown, Caitlin. "Feminism and the Vampire Novel - The F-Word." The F-Word: Contemporary UK Feminism - The F-Word. 8 Sept. 2009. Web. 20 Dec. 2010.
6. Meyer, Stephenie. New Moon. New York: Little, Brown and, 2006. Print.