Elsa Martinelli in "Blood and Roses" (L); Sarah Michelle Gellar in "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."

How Female Vampires Sucked the Patriarchy Out of Pop Culture

From 19th century Irish literature to "Buffy," the vampiress has been redefining "acceptable womanhood" for centuries.

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Oct 31 2018, 4:37pm

Elsa Martinelli in "Blood and Roses" (L); Sarah Michelle Gellar in "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."

It was 1871, and in the world of Irish literature, a mysterious and enchantingly beautiful character was stalking the pages of a new gothic novella. The Victorian public was hungry for horror, and Joseph Sheridan La Fanu, a leading ghost story writer, had something to pique their curiosity. The tale in question centered a teenage protagonist named Laura, whose widowed father takes in a young woman after she is injured in a carriage accident outside the family castle in Styria. The enigmatic stranger, Carmilla, eerily resembles a spectre who appeared in a nightmare when Laura was a child. But before long, her fear fades, and an ardent relationship blossoms between the two.

All is well until young maidens in nearby towns begin mysteriously dying from an unknown illness, and Laura has visions of a large, cat-like creature attacking her at night. Eventually, the truth finally comes to light: Carmilla is in fact the centuries-old vampire Countess Mircalla Karnstein, and has been preying upon Laura in the night. Together with the vampire hunter Baron Vordenburg, the trio uncovers Carmilla’s hidden tomb and stake her corpse.

While Carmilla is now recognized by many as the “original vampire novel of modern Europe,” Victorian society had no place for a female-centred story of supernatural seduction—especially one with the Sapphic, homosexual undertones of bite marks on breasts. The book, at the time, was a flop. Then, a quarter of a century later, the significance of Le Fanu’s beautiful, blood-sucking immortal was further eclipsed by the tale of an aristocratic vampire residing in a decaying castle in the Carpathian Mountains: Bram Stoker’s now classic 1987 novel Dracula. Inspired by Carmilla’s representation of predatory female vampires and the wise vampire hunter who went after her, Stoker’s Count Dracula took those characters and put them in a more palatable, heteronormative mold. In the process, he created the archetypal predatory male vampire that came to dominate subsequent gothic literature and still appears in TV shows and movies today. Meanwhile, the vampiric Brides of Dracula that Stoker conjured exuded a monstrous, perverted femininity—existing solely to prey upon male visitors to the castle, and feed upon infants.

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An illustration for Carmilla, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fan. (Public domain.)

Carmilla might not have been of public interest when she first appeared in print, but she was by no means buried. Over the course of the twentieth century, she would continue to stir the cultural imagination, offering up subversive alternatives to the rigid stereotypes of pliable victim and monstrous villain that dominated the genre. Take the jealous, obsessive Carmilla from Blood and Roses (1960), the erotic portrayal of Marcilla Karnstein in The Vampire Lovers (1971), or Catherine Deneuve’s mysterious and well-coiffed Miriam Blaylock in The Hunger (1983); all of whom owe their existence to their beautiful, predatorial predecessor. As U. Melissa Anyiwo notes in her essay “The Female Vampire in Popular Culture,” Carmilla “represents the most complete vision of the female vampire: a lesbian seductress who desires to overturn patriarchy by promoting female independence from men, and the rejection of biological reproduction.”

Even as the iconic figures of Carmilla and Count Dracula popularized the image of the sexualized female vampire, representations of vampiric women shape-shifted once more in twenty-first century pop culture. Anyiwo identifies a genre of “The Warrior Vampire,” in which “tough chicks offer an alternative to the dangerous, yet disempowered, Carmilla descendent by shifting the paradigm from villain to hero.” These characters transgressed the two-dimensional archetype of a beautiful vampire with murderous tendencies, and brought gender reformation to the fore, with themes of female power, independence, and desire.

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Kirsten Dunst and Brad Pitt in Interview with the Vampire (1994). Image via Netflix

In the 70s, Anne Rice introduced a series of supernatural fiction that would change the representation of vampira and lay the foundations for take-no-shit characters of the millennium. The first installment, Interview with the Vampire, introduced a pre-adolescent vampire named Claudia (played by Kirsten Dunst in the 1994 film adaptation), a beautiful and tragic woman whose frustration at being trapped in the body of a child slowly morphs to murderous rage. But it’s in the sequel, Queen of the Damned, that Rice created a fascinating range of complex, dominant vampira: the ancient Roman Pandora, Lestat’s mother, Gabrielle de Lioncourt, and the 6,000 year old Egyptian twin sisters, Maharet and Mekare. By far the most memorable of them all, however, is Queen Akasha, the mother of all vampires.

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Aaliyah in "Queen of the Damned."

Bloodthirsty, immoral, and beautiful beyond compare, Akasha is the most inhumane of all Rice’s vampires. She starts life as a monstrous human long before she transitions, ordering the rape and humiliation of the twins Maharet and Mekare, and eventually casting them adrift in stone coffins at sea. After she awakens from six centuries of silence, she is even more depraved, with a plan to kill 90 percent of the world's human men in order to create a New World Order where she is worshipped as a goddess. Devoid of humanity and single-minded in her thirst for destruction, Akasha serves as a fatal warning that vampires are abominations, regardless of their allure.

By the 90s, representations of vampira that possessed true agency had begun to proliferate. Laurell K. Hamilton’s characterization of Anita Blake, a necromancer nicknamed "the Executioner," in the Vampire Hunter series, addressed the question of gender inequality in detective fiction head-on. Though not technically a vampire, Anita’s powers of necromancy in re-animating the dead, and eventual transition into a succubus, sidestepped the traditional supporting role and put female characters with vampiric instincts center-stage.

By the tail end of the decade, the villainous vampires Darla and Drusilla in Joss Whedon’s female-empowerment epic Buffy the Vampire Slayer were tackling the patriarchal genre with plenty of complex character development. Tortured to insanity and sired by Angelus, Drusilla turns from a pure, innocent Christian girl to a vicious predator who terrorizes Europe and takes gleeful pleasure in torture and murder. Her emotional instability, as Onyiwo notes, offers “a stark comment on the impact of emotional abuse on the female psyche.” Meanwhile Darla, a wicked predator who spends four centuries torturing innocent people, undergoes a fascinating journey in the spin-off series Angel, where she makes the ultimate sacrifice of staking herself to save her unborn son.

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The Death Dealer Selene from Underworld (2003) is another prominent example of the new-age vampiress. A cold-hearted killer clad in black spandex, Selene devotes her life to hunting the Lycans (werewolves), who she believes were responsible for murdering her family, and is capable of brutal acts of violence in her quest to exterminate the species. One of the strongest vampires of her master Viktor’s coven, Selene possesses great physical strength and endurance, though it’s her emotional detachment and singular interest in vengeance that defies the weight of history. Not only can she withstand shotgun blasts to the stomach and survive 10-foot-story drops without sustaining a scratch, she can single-handedly cut the throats of six Lycans. While one suitor, Kraven, believes Selene takes "this warrior business far too seriously," Selene retorts that Kraven is “a pig, a coward and an insufferable egotist.”

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By the 2000s, the contemporary vampire narrative was fast evolving. The Blade Trilogy (1998-2004) brought a diverse array of female vampira to the genre, particularly in the character of Dr. Karen Jensen, a gifted haematologist who discovers the cure for vampirism. Meanwhile, the television series True Blood, based on The Southern Vampire Mysteries by Charlaine Harris, depicts a world where vampires have “come out of the coffin” and allowed their presence to be known to mankind. Here we meet a host of dynamic vampira, including Pamela Swynford De Beaufort, co-owner at Fangtasia, a vampire nightclub in Louisiana. At once seductive and lethal in combat, Pamela falls far outside the acceptable model of womanhood: assertive, independent, bisexual.

The last decade has been characterized by the cultural ubiquity of young adult fiction, where romanticized vampires from the Twilight saga and The Vampire Diaries play upon traditional gendered stereotypes. Yet other depictions are refreshingly nuanced, moving far beyond the fatalistic narrative of a perverted, predatory woman rejecting her reproductive abilities. Byzantium (2012), for instance, critiques class and gender politics through the protagonist Clara and her daughter Eleanor, who must navigate patriarchal codes from the time of the Napoleonic wars to the present day, which persist regardless of their immortality. Meanwhile, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (2014) follows a shape-shifting vampire vigilante who is riding her skateboard through a ghost town one minute, and stalking misogynist men who abuse women the next. By reclaiming the instincts of the female vampire, which once mirrored patriarchy’s fear of femininity, we are now, finally, able to sink our teeth into broader definitions of womanhood.