Vampires & Rape Culture

by September 2, 2012
filed under Activism, Entertainment

This article has been a long time coming. I love vampires. The vampire genre is one of my two favourite horror sub genres (the other being New French Extremity, if you’re curious). I’m just like all those other girls who go crazy for the latest vampire show or film even if it tends not to be of high quality. You all know what I am talking about.

Someone asked me the other day: What is it with vampires? Why do people (especially women) seem to flock towards them? Well I know that there’s been at least one documentary and a book or two written on the subject. He’s not the only person to wonder. For some it is the erotic aspect that has been associated with vampires even before Dracula (see the 1872 short story Camilla and the legends surrounding 16th century Hungarian serial killer Elizabeth Bathory). Since the cinema versions of Dracula were released in the 20th century up to today with the popularity of True Blood and Fifty Shades of Grey (which began as Twilight fanfiction) it is apparent that the majority of us seem to embrace a darker side of sexuality, even if only through pop culture. Vampires have come to symbolically represent a subculture of ‘unusual’ sexual tastes, which by the day is becoming more and more mainstream. In my opinion it goes deeper than just the sexuality that has become inherent in this monster genre. Vampires are the closest of the popular monsters to human beings. They were human once, still look human, and in most fiction they are still like us. Vampires simultaneously represent our hedonistic desires and our visceral fears. We can see ourselves in them, what we want to be or alternatively what we dread.   That’s also why zombies are experiencing such a resurgence right now. With the increased fear of apocalyptic diseases (think of the scare over West Nile Virus or H1N1), paired with the growing criticism of our unsustainable capitalist consumerist lifestyles (we are all a “slave to the wage” whether we like it or not), doesn’t humanity seem kind of zombie-esque?

I digress. I think the obsession with vampires can reflect multiple things, depending on how you look at it. Embracing the different ideas of sex or style associated with vampires is not a bad thing. Certainly not for the people who have been alienated for just being the way they are, indulging their personal preferences. But is there a negative side as well? A lot of the sexuality found in the vampire genre is of male dominance over women who are virtually helpless next to their supernatural strength. There’s also the frequent absent of consent. It’s so common it’s become a cliché, and is more or less the entire basis for the Twilight series. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a certain power dynamic in the bedroom. BDSM does not equate to abuse. (And an interest in vampires also does not equate to an affinity with BDSM.) But is there more to it than that? Where do we draw the line between art and misogyny?

The writers of True Blood inarguably like to walk that line time to time. However that is a show intended for adult audiences and displays a wide array of relationships. What about a show like The Vampire Diaries, which is watched by adults but created for teenagers? A promo was recently released for the upcoming fourth season about how “love sucks.” It depicts the main character Elena’s ongoing love triangle between two vampire brothers, which is one of the central themes in the show. One in theory is the ‘good’ guy and ‘obvious’ choice, the other is domineering yet endearing. Damon goes back and forth on the show between feigning indifference as he kills and uses women like sex slaves, to caring and selfless (albeit with control freak tendencies). In this promo we see these conflicting sides of Damon not-so-symbolically represented as he grips Elena by the throat. The attitude taken by Elena as she narrates the ad, highlighting the pain she experiences with love, and the overall character of Damon are troubling.

Now I have watched The Vampire Diaries, so I can say there is a lot more depth than what is shown in this ad. However it is interesting to note that this is how the minds behind the show wanted to advertise the series. The love triangle is undoubtedly one of the major draws, but it is not the only thing that keeps viewers coming back. What this reflects is not only the undying appeal of love and lust over essentially everything else in entertainment, but also the types of relationships people seem eager to see these days. It demonstrates a lack of control for the female, conflict between the men, and most importantly male dominance. It appears as though it doesn’t matter what Elena wants because the two brothers already have their hands all over her. There is a clear lack of control on her part.

This can be particularly problematic considering the perpetuation of rape culture in our supposedly modern media. When it is easy and even romantic or sexual to dismiss a woman’s ability to consent and browbeat her into a relationship on television, it becomes normalized (or even further accepted) in reality. The blatant mistreatment of women is abundant in the vampire subgenre, but it does not always serve as commentary or even demonstrate an awareness of this being an issue (so much of it seems to be gratuitous). While some series attempt to address or deal with consent and rape (Buffy, True Blood, The Vampire Diaries) others seem content to disguise the lack of control as romantic abandon or overwhelming lust (Twilight is the most obvious thing that comes to mind, Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake novel series also falls into this category). It’s not difficult to ignore the disturbing and virulent reality of rape if women’s right to choose and the clarity of this choice become invisible.

One of the biggest criticisms of the Twilight series and its unwanted progeny the Fifty Shades series is that they both depict unhealthy (even abusive) relationships and emphasize as Stephen King famously said “how important it is to have a boyfriend.” The women are subservient, giving up virtually all their independence and even identity just to be with these larger than life men. And if you really take a second to consider their personalities, Edward Cullen is as boring as they come and Christian Grey is basically a rich, tantrum throwing 4 year old in a grown man’s body. These books are teaching women of all ages that it is okay to be illogically desperate for the conditional love of incredibly flawed men. They demonstrate that choice, consent and even individuality are minor whims compared to what their men want for them. This is what’s popular today: Poorly written misogynistic literature. It has obviously taken root in our culture, otherwise a book like Fifty Shades of Grey would never have attained such dumbfounding levels of popularity. If that isn’t disturbing, I don’t know what is.

Just to be clear, not all vampire fiction consists of negative relationships, or even questionable interactions. While that can be the appeal sometimes, it’s not a prerequisite for this subgenre. The issue is that in a genre where human women tend to be powerless next to a supernatural man, it becomes too easy to forget that the woman is a person beyond the relationship. Hopefully there will be a backlash against the popularity of rape culture in vampire fiction, taking the form of less victimization and more feminism. If you’re tired of the violence and sex of True Blood, the gray area relationships in The Vampire Diaries, and the religious propaganda of Twilight, there’s always Buffy.  

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