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Women bite back: Female vampires with feminist potential

pam-true-blood-season-3Female vampire characters in supernatural fiction tend to divided into whore and madonna stereotypes, each with a strict set of parameters designed to curtail the potential for unfeminine destruction. But change may be in the air, as True Blood, Twilight and The Vampire Diaries feature female vampires that transgress restrictive boundaries, writes Nyx Mathews.

10 October 2010

As a general rule authors persist in rendering vampire women poor candidates for positive feminist study, despite their intrinsic potential.

A female vampire is a woman who neither dies nor bears children, is as strong as her male counterparts and stronger by far than human men, is purpose built to cause violence and feel little remorse, and – via a convenient, inbuilt dose of 'natural animal instinct' – feels much the same about having sex.

Rather than exploring the radical range of possibilities open to women such as these, scriptwriters and purveyors of supernatural fiction usually opt instead to employ plot devices and character twists that serve to tightly contain and control their female characters, much like the social forces exercised over women every day.

The implied destructive power of strong women unbound by emotional or familial ties is greater even than the superhuman strength (and in some cases magical abilities) applied to all vampires: while in men such power is dangerous in terms of literal destructive potential, in women the consequences reach beyond murder and the property damage to spark fears about the collapse of social order itself.

To allow powerful, childless, remorseless women to roam free is, it is implied, too dangerous even for the pages of fiction. The ripple effect would be far too terrifying.

To this end the authors of supernatural fiction keep their female vampire characters minor and divide them roughly into two groups – whore and madonna – and ascribe to each a strict set of parameters designed to curtail the potential for unfeminine destruction.

More recently, however, a few characters have emerged who – whilst still minor – transgress these boundaries. True Blood's Pam, Twilight's Alice Cullen and The Vampire Diaries' Katherine Pierce bear closer examination than the general female vampire population. In different ways, each of them challenges or subverts the rigid structures that work to contain the powerful potential vampirism imparts to its female carriers.

In the supernatural realms a ‘whore’ can be a woman who ‘fell from grace’ prior to being made a vampire and was, thus, already 'bad', a 'lost cause', and, of course, possessed of character traits that make her transition to blood sucking fiend relatively smooth and devoid of much of the moral angst which often accompanies the change. We have seen such vampire women represented by Buffy’s Darla, The Vampire Diaries’ Isabelle, and initially by the wives of Dracula.

She can also be a woman who was not overtly 'wicked' prior to her transformation, but who embraces the new elements of her personality once she has changed, rather than railing against them.

Madonnas are those vampires who were virtuous in life – good mothers, wives, daughters – and are often virgins, or were, prior to their change. They are transformed in one of two ways: by a senseless act of violence by a vampire who is indubitably 'evil,' such as Buffy’s Druscilla and Dracula’s Mina Harker, or in an effort to save their life by a vampire who is relatively 'good,' such as Twilight’s Rosalie and Esme, and Interview With The Vampire’s Claudia.

In both cases the maker is almost always male, and the women are changed without consultation or consent. After the transformation they resist their new nature, and tend to end up either mad or depressed as a result of the constant battle between their residual moral fibre and the monster they have become.

Both madonnas and whores are cast as minor characters, and both find their supernatural powers tightly constrained. Though the exceptions I cited earlier can be roughly cast in these categories – Pam and Katherine possess certain 'whore' attributes, while Alice can be roughly fitted into the madonna mould – their transgressions exceed their conformative traits and mark them as more interesting subjects of feminist theory within the vampire genre.

True Blood’s Pam

True Blood's Pam is cold, calm, and deliciously comfortable with her bloodthirsty nature...except when it gets gore on her favourite pumps. She is violent, and carnally a-typical (that is, possessed of intent).

Pam’s exceptionality from the 'whore' archetype is the control she exerts over her appearance and, through it, the reception she garners from her surrounding characters; that is, her strikingly normal – and high femme – aesthetic.

She does, after all, have a penchant for lavender; she may wear leather and fishnets as Fangtasia’s dominatrix maitre de, but it’s just a clever disguise. She wields her sartorial choices expertly, and the disconnect between her pastel preferences and the woman they contain evoke Pam as 'other' in a surprisingly interesting way; a bizarre feminine type who blurs the lines women are supposed to walk religiously between good and bad, virgin and slut.

This is rare territory, particularly within the strictly regulated realm of vampire fiction.

Twilight’s Alice Cullen

Alice-cullenTwilight’s Alice Cullen, on the other hand, exhibits excessively normal madonna-like physical traits: she's delicate, beautiful, and as graceful as a dancer.

In her case it is personality that separates her sharply from the crowd. She’s virtually omnipotent, at times deliberately solitary, in complete control of her relationships – familial and romantic – and, most stunning of all, evolved through the various stages of vampirism (from indiscriminate newborn violence, to a diet of human blood, to a vampiric form of vegetarianism) all on her own, and for her own – albeit mysterious – reasons.

Crucially, Alice also has no origin story. Though she must have been made by someone, she retains no memory of the event or of ever having been human.

This null retention of her human life is particularly interesting from a feminist perspective. It imbued Alice with a unique opportunity to craft her own attitudes to her vampirism, without learned human morals or human memories to interfere.

In Alice's case her amnesia allows her agency in a manner largely unexamined in female vampires to date. She's set apart from her adoptive sister and mother (madonnas both), as a woman wholly vampire whose actions are motivated by reasoning arrived at without a shred of human memory.

The Vampire Diaries’ Katherine Pierce

The subversive potential of The Vampire Diaries’ Katherine Pierce is different yet again. Rather than employing an unusual personality or mode of dress, breaking the boundaries of conventional female vampirism is both obvious and straightforward. Katherine is sweet, beautiful, strong, seductive, passionate, violent, amoral, manipulative, curious and vengeful.

katherineHer character does not conform to the boundaries usually imposed upon female vampires because she refuses to accept them. While she remains a minor character in the narrative, she creates havoc through an untamed meld of traditional 'feminine wiles' and a stolid refusal to accept the thwarting of her desires.

What makes this exceptional is that Katherine’s desires are not curtailed to blood and sex; nor does she allow these two fundamental wants to get in the way of other, more complex, desires.

Katherine, unlike most female vampires, has been allowed a broad range of emotions and ambitions, setting her far apart from the singleminded bi-fold nature of the traditional whore, whose only lusts are carnal and nutritional.

Katherine has myriad wants and more than enough self control to obtain all of them. It is this element of self-possession that makes her highly unusual and interesting as a female vampire.

Whether it’s literary cannon or apparently a-typical TV, the choices have always been slim for female vampires. But it's nice to see that along with this vogue for supernatural fiction, the options available to female vampires are also expanding.

As symbols of feminine strength and sexual agency, this gradual broadening of possibility in supernatural characters has, I think, the potential to incite positive discussions around power, sexuality, and violence in fictional settings and other contexts.

Nyx Mathews writes on the aesthetic politics of feminism, femme-ness, art, and disability at designs on fragility and divine.

Images from top: Kirsten Bauer as Pam - Photo courtesy of HBO;  Katherine (Paul Wesley as Stefan, Nina Dobrev as Katherine, Ian Somerhalder as Damon) - photo courtesy of Art Streiber/The The CW Network; Alice Cullen – photo courtesy of Twilight Wiki.






0 #1 Max Attitude 2010-10-09 21:48
Do you think perhaps that "self-control" is a characteristic denied to female vampires/women? That is, that women(vampires) are supposed to be (especially) unable to control their desires, and that these women/vampires do - and that's what gives them the potential to provide a more interesting reading of feminist/femini nity & vampirism?

I just noticed on the Twilight Wiki that Alice's super power is "self-control" - which I get in vampire mythology is a super power, ie that she can resist the urge to kill, unlike everyone else - but nevertheless, there is something in that...(and by something I mean something sexist).

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