We Are No Birds: Sexy Vampires

Since its inception, vampire fiction has incurred a great deal of criticism. Like any category of genre fiction, vampire fiction has been derided as not “real” literature and nothing more than sensational pulp. The genre has been characterized as immoral and rife with sexual eroticism, containing nothing of literary merit.

Although I myself have never been a huge fan of vampire fiction, I can appreciate it for its ability to communicate ideas about the society in which it was produced. In particular, we can use vampire fiction to read ideas about sexuality. Vampires in English and American literature have almost always carried some kind of sexual weight. As a subgenre of supernatural fiction, vampire fiction is also known for exploring what is and is not socially acceptable. However, not all iterations of vampire fiction push social boundaries, as we see with Stephanie Meyer’s popular Twilight series.

A foundational text in the vampire fiction genre is Bram Stoker’s Dracula, published in 1897. Dracula explores many Victorian era social norms, including sexuality. In the Victorian era in the United States and England, sexuality (especially female sexuality) was something to be repressed and hidden behind closed doors. Female sexuality was so feared, in fact, that women in the Victorian Era who were perceived as sexually forward were diagnosed with hysteria, as if sexual desire in women was some kind of ailment. As such, a number of novels, including Dracula, explored this theme.

Dracula both defined traditional Victorian sexual norms and pressed on anxieties and fears with regard to alternative sexuality. Dracula defines “normal” Victorian sexuality with men taking the active role and protecting fragile, innocent women. Women were not expected to have knowledge of sex, nor were they supposed to take any actions with regard to meeting their own sexual desires. (In fact, women who had sexual desire outside of marriage were considered to be unwell.) We see these norms represented in several places in Dracula. First, the men of the novel take the active role to defend the women (Lucy and Mina) from Dracula, a social outcast and “other” figure. In the novel, the women who make sexual advances toward men are vampires who are also coded as “other” for this deviant sexual activity. We also know that these women’s behavior goes against societal norms because of the reaction of the man who receives their attention: Jonathan Harker is terrified. However, we can also see an exploration of nontraditional sexuality in the novel as well. When the vampire women attempt to seduce Harker, he is not only afraid but also filled with a “wicked, burning desire” at seeing such forward women. There are implications of oral sex—“the fair girl went on her knees, and bent over me”—yet another example of nontraditional sexuality. These anxieties about sexually knowledgeable and independent women may also be code for a fear of homosexuality. As Marjorie Howes writes, “Because the fundamental ambivalences motivating the novel revolve around…male homosexuality, Dracula uses the feminine to displace and mediate the anxiety-causing elements of masculine character.” Although Dracula does not necessarily condone alternative sexualities, it does use the genre of vampire fiction to explore them.

Another more modern vampire novel that deals with the theme of sexuality is the popular young adult romance series Twilight. Twilight’s vampires are young and attractive—unlike the pale, deathly Dracula—and attempt to coexist with humans rather than conquer them. The book itself is also categorized as a romance, which contains a number of other genre conventions, mainly concerning sexuality. This overlap, then, might breed a contemporary exploration of sexual norms, especially considering it was published in the early 2000s when the policing of sexuality was not as harsh as it was in Bram Stoker’s time. However, this is not the case.

Twilight, in contrast to Dracula, more strictly adheres to traditional norms of sexuality and gender. The main character Bella is extremely dependent on her vampire boyfriend Edward and is given very little personality outside of her feelings and relationship with him. As Melissa Ames writes, “Bella is consistently depicted as the damsel in distress forever in need of rescue by a male.” Ames continues that “sex is sinful and off-limits” in Twilight. Edward refuses Bella’s sexual advances until after they are married in the fourth book, and when they do have sex, Edward hurts her due to his hard, cold body. Even within the typically-acceptable confines of marriage, sex is dangerous.

So why might Twilight, a book series that for the most part conforms to traditional norms of gender and sexuality, be so popular in our modern age? Kristine Moruzi argues that, for one, “the ability of the gothic to provide a strong, postfeminist heroine is constrained by traditional romantic conventions.” Since the romance genre is predominantly interested in heterosexuality, little room is left for Bella or any other character in Twilight to explore an alternative. Another reason for the popularity of the series might be that, despite living in a more gender-neutral society, teen girls may have been drawn to Twilight because of its strict adherence to traditional sexuality. In the same way that Victorian readers may have been drawn to Dracula because of its exploration of nontraditional sexualities, readers of Twilight may have found the series appealing because it offered a portrayal of sexuality that was, to some degree or another, being discouraged.

There’s certainly an irony here. Of course, the genre of vampire fiction is much wider than the two books I’ve examined here, and they all have their own takes on sexuality. However, as Melissa Ames writes, “it is also clear that the vampire narratives have the potential to develop subversive storylines that can question these very notions [about sexuality].” While we’ve seen many different portrayals of the vampire—from the pale and terrifying to the “wicked” and sexy to the brooding and sparkly—the link between the vampire genre and sexuality is one that cannot be ignored.

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Works Cited:
Ames, Melissa A., “Vamping up Sex: Audience, Age, & Portrayals of Sexuality in Vampire Narratives.” Faculty Research & Creative Activity, 12, 2010. http://thekeep.eiu.edu/eng_fac/12

Howes, Marjorie. “The Mediation of the Feminine: Bisexuality, Homoerotic Desire, and Self-Expression in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language, vol. 30, no. 1, 1988, pp. 104–119. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40754849.

Moruzi, Kristine. “Postfeminist Fantasies: Sexuality and Femininity in Stephenie Meyer’s ‘Twilight’ Series.” Genre, Reception, and Adaptation in the ‘Twilight’ Series, edited by Anne Morey, Ashgate Publishing, 2013, pp. 47-64.

Stoker, Bram. Dracula. Edited by Nina Auerbach and David J. Skal, Norton Critical Editions, 1997.

We Are No Birds: Which Witch

Halloween is and always has been my favorite holiday. I love dressing up, I love the chilly autumn nights, and I love the spookiness that hangs in the air throughout October. I love driving through my neighborhood and seeing houses that have been transformed into haunted mansions, seeing lawns transformed into graveyards with plastic skeleton hands reaching up through the dirt. It is this element of Halloween that I love the most: transformation. On Halloween, nothing is quite what it seems to be. A garish, illuminated grin is no more than a pumpkin. A fearsome monster is only a child wearing a mask. Everything is just a bit darker, but all the more thrilling for its magic.

Perhaps the most magical (and the most transformative) Halloween figure in contemporary times is the witch. Over time, the witch has seen a number of iterations and transformations. The witch has been an old hag, a beautiful enchantress, a dark figure, a friendly figure, an ugly crone, and a sexy temptress. So which witch is which? (I’m sorry; I had to.) How can the witch inhabit all of these identities at once?

The image of the witch we know today was originally created by the patriarchy as a way of ostracizing independent women. Thinking historically, women persecuted in witch hunts in Europe and North America were often women who lived alone and had knowledge of things they shouldn’t. As Kristen Korvette writes, “These were healers and midwives with intimate knowledge about sexual reproduction and the human body who threatened to educate a highly uneducated populace” and were thus punished. In addition to knowledge, these women also “raised suspicion by amassing too much land, wealth, or influence,” things that women at the time were not supposed to have. As Chloe Germaine Buckley says, the label of witch was used “to delegitimise powerful women and locate them on the outside of society.”

In contemporary popular culture, we tend to think of the witch in one of three ways. Korvette opines that the witch “…is all at once wizened hag, poison apple in hand; learned spinster, married to her books; and enchanting seductress with bared breasts and hypnotic stare.” (I will discuss later a fourth category of the “fun” witch.) The first witch—the “wizened hag”—might be what we think of as a “classic” witch, an old woman with warts, green skin, and snaggled teeth. The wizened hag witch draws her power from a rejection of society and its values, instead putting stock in what she can do to harm others.

The second witch—the “learned spinster”—lives alone, often on the edge of town or in the woods since she has been ostracized by her community. The spinster witch is often called upon for a magic favor (like a potion or spell) from the protagonist, who must make the journey to her far-off dwelling to receive help. While this witch is often not portrayed to be as violent as the wizened hag, the audience is still expected to be wary of her because she is a woman who lives alone and commits herself to books (in this case, spell books), rather than having a family or a husband; thus, she is not to be trusted.

The third witch is the “enchanting seductress.” This witch draws her power from her overt displays of sexuality as part of her plan to seduce men, in particular the male hero, into submitting to dark magic against their will. The seductress witch has knowledge of sex and magic that the “average” woman wouldn’t, making her intriguing to men. The seductress witch is also often depicted as having a sexual relationship with the Devil, making her sexual appeal even more deadly.

These three types of witches possess traits that originate from the patriarchal fear of independent women. The patriarchy fears the wizened hag because she has knowledge of things he doesn’t (magic) that she can use to take away men’s power. Patriarchy may also despise the wizened hag because of her old and ugly physical appearance, which refuses to cater to the male gaze that desires young, beautiful women. The patriarchy fears the spinster witch because she lives alone and is invested in literacy and education. Any woman who would choose this kind of life over a traditional one where she plays the role of wife and mother is a deviant. Her interest in education is transformed into an obsession with magic. Perhaps the most direct tie to the patriarchy’s historical fear of witches is illustrated by the seductress witch. Much like those that feared midwives and healers for their knowledge of sexuality, the patriarchy fears the seductress witch because not only does she have knowledge of sexuality that the “average” woman shouldn’t, but she uses it against men. Women who express their sexuality and sexual desire, then, are cast as witches who prey upon men’s “natural” sexual urges and turn him to a dark path.

While the image of the witch has historically been built on patriarchal fear of independent women, a surprising trend has emerged in recent years. In addition to the three types of witches described above, a fourth type of witch exists, the “fun” witch. The fun witch is seen most often in children’s and family movies like Harry Potter, Matilda, and Kiki’s Delivery Service. Rather than seeking to harm, this witch uses her powers for the betterment of others. This witch is often seen as different from her peers, but she is not ostracized. In fact, after a period of time, she is accepted by her community after they see the good that her magic can do. Importantly, the fun witch’s independence is not something to be suppressed or feared: it is to be celebrated.

The witch is all of these women at once. As Halloween is all about transformation, it is only fitting that the witch is one of Halloween’s most prevalent images.

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Sources:

Buckley, Chloe Germaine. “Hag, temptress or feminist icon? The witch in popular culture.” The Conversation. http://theconversation.com/hag-temptress-or-feminist-icon-the-witch-in-popular-culture-77374

Korvette, Kristen. “Witches are some of the most enduring feminist icons of our time.” Quartz.  https://qz.com/535433/witches-are-some-of-the-most-enduring-feminist-icons-of-our-time/

We Are No Birds: Super-/Em-Powered

I’ll be honest. I was never really interested in superheroes as a kid. Comics were something that boys read, and besides, they were all a bunch of beefy men beating each other up anyway, so what was I really missing? As I came of age, so too did superheroes, it seemed. When I was in high school, Marvel was popping out movies nearly every year. So, as someone who was desperate for friends at the time, when it was suggested we go see Iron Man or Captain America or Thor, I agreed, even though I didn’t really think it would be “my thing.”

While I did enjoy these movies—it turns out watching a bunch of beefy men punch each other can be fun—the budding feminist in me wondered where the women were. Sure, Iron Man had Pepper Potts, Captain America had Peggy Carter, and Thor had Jane Foster, but these women inevitably ended up in a romantic entanglement with the hero that turned her from a potentially strong character into yet another heart-eyed fawn. Even at that age, I was quite familiar with (and sick of) this trope. I would come out of the theater feeling like a superhero who could run fast, punch through walls, or fly, but this feeling wore off in about twenty minutes. These movies were entertainment, but they fell flat of having a real effect on me.

Then came The Avengers. Finally! I thought. A female superhero who gets to fight with the boys! And Black Widow did just that—at least, in part. I could never quite identify with Black Widow at the time because although I was thin, I never thought of myself as sexy, one key to Black Widow’s power. But I continued to go see Marvel movies, since, as I said, they made for a fun evening and gave me momentary feeling of power afterward.

That is, until Marvel released Avengers: Age of Ultron. By this point, I’d just finished my second year of college (and perhaps importantly, my first Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies class). When the stereotypical Forced Heterosexual Romance reared its ugly head between Black Widow and the Hulk, I lost all interest. The little autonomy Black Widow had had in the first Avengers movie had been completely eroded and her character had been reduced to a flimsy, man-dependent shell of what she had been. And thus ended my short affair with the superhero genre. Or so I thought.

Summer of 2017 had kept me busy, from graduating college to going on various trips. I had, though, still heard the buzz about Wonder Woman. I heard the movie was smashing box office records and critics were raving. Friends asked me repeatedly if I had seen it yet. Thinking all of these people had to be onto something, I took my boyfriend to see Wonder Woman in July, just before it left theaters.

I did my best to reserve judgment to keep from getting my hopes up, but ten minutes into the film, I was enamored with it. I left the theater feeling so much more than that fleeting sense of power I got after any previous Marvel movie. I came out of Wonder Woman feeling, in the fullest sense of the word, empowered. Here was a character who was not only physically strong (and more so than her male companions) but also emotionally and intellectually capable of engaging with the complicated world. Finally, Hollywood was depicting a female superhero as a feminist, the kind of hero who inspires and emboldens women like me. For example, rather than letting her grief for Steve Trevor prevent her from defeating the villain, Diana (Wonder Woman’s real name) overcomes this feeling to do her duty for the good of the world. And yet, at the same time, Diana expresses a variety of emotions, just like any real woman, a human being, would: she is angry at the all-male war council who refuses to listen to her; she is delighted to see a baby in the street; and she feels grief when inhabitants of the small Belgian village are killed and guilt at not being able to prevent the carnage. And while Steve and Diana do have a romance, Diana does not let her feelings for him impede her mission, thus avoiding the Forced Heterosexual Romance trope. Rather, as in the real lives of women who are feminists, romance and work coexist.

I could go on about what I liked in Wonder Woman, but my main point circles back to that feeling of empowerment. Here’s the thing about the superhero genre. Superheroes are supposed to be the best versions of ourselves. Even if the hero has been genetically modified or is from another planet, we still recognize them as human. Even if they have powers (like super speed, flight, or super strength) that mark them as non-human, their sense of ethics is what makes us respect them and recognize a part of ourselves in them. As such, putting aside their superpowers, we want superheroes to be as “real” as possible. We want them to have and express emotion, to make meaningful connections with other people. It’s no surprise, then, that when a superhero’s character simply fulfills stereotypes, rather than being “real” and complex, we feel disappointed. Characters like this fail to really resonate with an audience due to their lack of depth. Even if superheroes are supposed to be the best versions of ourselves, they still ought to contain the complexities and multitudes that your average non-super human does. When I saw superhero movies like Captain America, I was disappointed because the hero (and his female sidekick) did not resonate with my idea of the best version of myself. Although I admired Captain America’s sense of justice, the movie, for various reasons, supported a bias that supported the dominant, patriarchal power structure.

For groups who have been historically underrepresented, misrepresented, or stereotyped in Hollywood, seeing people like you on the big screen and portrayed in ways that do not perpetuate stereotypes is a truly great feeling. I don’t know if I have ever seen as many women on a movie screen at one time as I have in the opening scenes of Wonder Woman at Themyscira. And what are the women in this scene doing? Training. Being physically strong and athletic, without catering to the male gaze with “sexy” shots or with weakness in emotions or strength. I hope that there are more movies with unbiased tones like Wonder Woman to make women and other historically marginalized groups of people feel, well, super.