Thursday, October 21, 2010

Monstrous Musings: Vampires and Domestic Violence

This is a guest post from Natalie Wilson

I am a literature and women’s studies scholar and author of the blogs Professor, what if…? and Seduced by Twilight. I am currently writing a book examining the Twilight cultural phenomenon from a feminist perspective. My interest in vampires and werewolves dates back to my childhood fascination with all types of monsters.

Given that October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, I thought a post on interpersonal violence, domestic violence, sexual assault, and rape culture as depicted in vampire narratives would be appropriate.
 

Vampire narratives certainly offer all sorts of ways to explore issues of sexual violence, rape, and consent. Given that most are turned into vampires and/or have their lives/blood taken from them without consent, we might read the genre as an enduring metaphor for rape – usuMally with male (vampires) raping female (humans).
 

I was also spurred to write this post due to continuing comments at my Seduced by Twilight blog that refuse to see Edward’s and Jacob’s actions towards Bella as forms of interpersonal violence. Regarding Edward, though many admit he is controlling and domineering, many others blame Bella and/or excuse Edward’s behavior. Likewise, many blame Bella for what they cite as her manipulation of Jacob and use the “he just couldn’t help himself” argument to justify Jacob’s forced kiss as well as Sam’s attack on Emily. While Bella certainly has her faults, I worry about the tendency of many readers to blame and criticize her for the violence done to her – as if it is her fault the men in Port Angeles nearly gang rape her, her fault Jacob attempts to kiss her without her consent, her fault Edward is “forced” to control her due to her supposed weakness. This, to me, smacks of the “blame the victim” mentality that is part and parcel of rape culture.
 

However, given that these issues are covered elsewhere in relation to Twilight (including by WMST student writers (yeah!) – as here and here), I want to also think about how other vampire narratives represent these issues.
 

While The Sookie Stackhouse Series is rather critical of rape and violence against women (which is no surprise given Harris’s first novel – A Secret Rage - functions as a critique of rape culture), the television adaptation, True Blood, often leans more towards sexualizing violence – Bill’s twisted neck “she asked for it” scene with Lorena being a key example. As Renee has argued here, there is a reoccurring theme of violence against women in the series. Yet, I would posit that it still an improvement on the likes of Dracula and the Twilight saga in terms of this issue– as least we have the strong fairy-human hybrid Sookie, the strong, witty, and non-heteronormative Pam, the wonderfully complex Jessica, and the rape avenger Tara. Though the television adaptation too often sexualizes violence, it does counter this representation with characters who resist and condemn this violence.
As for The Vampire Diaries, it has given us many a strong female vampires – Pearl, Katherine, Anna, Caroline, and even a witch bent on social justice, Bonnie. While these characters vary a great deal, what they share thus far is that they have not been used in ways that glorify or sexualize violence against women. Further, Elena, the key female human protagonist, has sexual agency and refuses to be lorded over by Damon or Stefan. Violence against women (and people in general) is largely condemned in the television series rather than idealized – a nice departure from the many narratives that suggest violence and non-consentual sexual activity is uber-hot.
 

The recent film Let Me In, also alludes to sexual violence when the young Owen spies his neighbors in what appears to be a domestic spat. Later, the male character pulls back the woman’s robe. Though we never find out if this is a case of domestic violence, the suggestion is that Owen’s sees all sorts of violence in the world around him – from the bullying committed against him and others to the suggestion that all sorts of violence happens behind closed doors. Abby, the female vampire heroine, though violent herself, is never violent towards Owen – instead, she wreaks vengeance against his bully’s, serving as a rare vampire indeed – a female revenant protecting a male human.
 

Perhaps the strongest anti-rape vampire narrative yet is The Gilda Stories – a novel by Jewelle Gomez set in motion when a white man attempts to rape a young runaway slave. Once turned a vampire, Gilda, the former slave, lives through several centuries, fighting against not only sexualized violence but also racism, sexism, homophobia, and environmental degradation. Now there’s a vampire I would gladly let grace my television screen – somebody, please, turn this book into a film or series!!!
 

What do you think, dear readers? Which vampire narratives deserve to be lauded for raising awareness about domestic/sexualized violence and depicting characters who resist, critique, and/or denounce such acts?