Wednesday, 28 May 2014

From Resistance to Weakness: problems of gender in vampire fiction, part 2

This is the second part in a series of blog posts about late 19th and early 20th Century vampire fiction. The first can be found here.

From Flora to Lucy, resistance to weakness:

While the vampires in early vampire fiction are encoded as effeminate, they find their sustenance, their reproduction, in the weakness, the leakiness, of women. True, not all women succumb. Much of the point of Varney, the Vampyre – if that particular book has a point1 – is that most young women of virtue will not be won over by a well dressed stranger with a charming tongue. Even the narrator of Carmilla, half-seduced, draws back from her vampire-lover's overt declaration of romantic love.

It is only in The Vampyre that we see women as wholly, irrevocably flawed, that we see this effeminacy an innate characteristic that even the most 'feminine' possess: "Remember your oath, and know, if not my bride today, your sister is dishonoured. Women are frail!"

Towards the end of the 19th Century, and beginning of the 20th the frail nature of femininity, its tendency towards effeminacy - become the crux of the vampire narrative. Damn these women, after all, with their bodies that don't give clear signals, their endless 'potential' that only serves to tempt upstanding men! Damn the way the fall out all over the place, their ... fleshy appendages, their wandering wombs, refusal to be contained by our discourses of virtue, of femininity.

Okay, maybe not that thin
And as the female victims fail to remain in their divinely ordained place, so the male vampires cease to be contained by the their skins. From the sang froid of Ruthven, the skeletally thin Varney with his flat, tin coloured eyes, we move the Von Klatka (1860) and Dracula (1897) – no longer serpentine agents of seduction but undeniable lumps of carnal flesh.

Beginning their stories withered, thin, even desiccated, the blood they drink destroys their masculinity. Their cheeks and lips are rouged by it, their mouths become fuller, more sensual. They grow lethargic, glutted and glutinous, getting something of Carmilla's languor with nothing of her cool attractiveness. Yet, despite becoming less male, less 'human', despite becoming more of the body, despite slipping back into their grave-dirt and ruins and shrouds, all of a sudden, women are no longer able to resist them.

Female sexuality as deviant by default:

Franziska, of The Mysterious Stranger would “rather be tyrannized over, and kept a little under” than “loved in such a wearisome manner.” The suitor whom she thus insults is the quiet, kind and cultured Franz, a man who 'serves' her in very much the way traditional Christian rhetoric suggests that Christ serves the Church. She, of course, refuses to submit to his affections. Yet despite her scorn, Franz is the perfect Enlightenment man, a being of the head rather than the body, a creature of reason, not of instinct. It is ironic, therefore, that she levels at him the charge of effiminacy because he does not present something that appeals to her sexuality. Each evidence of his 'true' masculinity is seen as a flaw. Because Franz is rational, she finds him wearisome, because Franz is prudent, she believes him cowardly, because Franz is chivalrous, she thinks him lacking in spirit. Of course, from the moment she meets Azzo Von Klatka - ugly, rude, animalistic - she is utterly taken with him.

Women, eh?” we're supposed to say, reading from the script of 'Nice Guys' everywhere, “Look at everything I've done for her and she runs off with that jerk.” But then, that's women for you, isn't it? Irrational. Dangerous. Sexually deviant. They sleep with lepers, you know?

The women of Dracula don't fare much better. Oh, the don't seek out the vampire with quite Franziska's single-mindedness, but there is something of duplicity implied about them. Of course, with their 'man-brains' they do not want the vampire to attack them, but in their 'woman-hearts?' Why, Mina even states, “I was bewildered and, strangely enough, I did not want to hinder him.”

How do we explain this?

Well, in what is probably the novel's finest double entendre, Dracula announces that the men “should have kept their energies for use closer to home.”

Yes, “While they played their wits against me... I was countermining them. And you, their best beloved one, are now to me flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood... You shall be avenged in turn, for not one of them but shall minister to your needs.”
Used for review purposes
Who wouldn't want that?

Put simply, guys, while you're too busy being macho men, your girlfriend will be getting her kicks by sucking off some backwoods freakshow with hairy palms.2 If there was ever an exercise in heterosexual male paranoia...

The message of Dracula, of The Mysterious Stranger is that women, however good, however pure, are not to be trusted. They are the flaw by which these entities are able sneak into your circle, they will be turned against you by their inexplicable lusts. Oh, of course, they might be the sweetest, kindest, most sensible of women; they may be the most feminine creatures you can imagine, but when push comes to shove, it is that effeminacy that will show through. Effeminacy is nature, it seems, femininity is the construct of society.

It isn't even the vampire's fault, you know, the narratives are pretty clear on that: these women will not want to hinder him.

Male desire, feminine perversity:
Men, of course, fine upstanding, mindful creatures that they are, don't find themselves drawn to such revolting beasts as Dracula or Von Klatka. No. The female vampires that seduce them are much more alluring. Oh, evil, sure, but there is enough there for the attraction to be understandable, even natural, in some measure.

Just as Carmilla is beautiful, forward and unsettling, Harriet Brandt (1897) is “slight and lissome” and desperately improper, Sarah (1900) has a face that is “beautiful in spite of its horror”. The women in Dracula are of “intolerable, tingling sweetness”, they have a “deliberate voluptuousness” which is both “thrilling and repulsive.” It's no wonder the men are attracted to them really – they have all manner of female wiles with which to ensnare him. They do it through that time honoured means, through an appeal to his base nature, through exciting his... flesh3.

used for review purposes
Your classic vamp.
The important thing to remember is that men aren't weird about it. These girls are hot. The desire of the heroes is understandable, given the circumstances. It is sinful, yes, but it is straight-forward rather than duplicitous and self-deceiving. Men are drawn in by these women's deliberate wiles, not led astray by their own, faulty natures.

And these vampire women are studies in effeminacy, too. They are not soft, they are not retiring. If anything they suffocate, they engulf. Gone is Carmilla's light, tripping intensity. Dracula's 'brides', Lucy Westernra and Countess Sarah are seductive, voluptuous. Harriet, more sympathetic, is eager, girlish, hungry for attention, for love, and it is this neediness that smothers those she adores.

The fear against them is simple: these women want. They grasp, they summon. Oh, yes, they are pretty, they are alluring, but to allow these women in, to allow one's lust for them to arise, is to to be seduced, to be made unclean, to be bitten. This, indeed, is a feature of Victorian vampire fiction: one need not, as in the modern myth, 'consent'. One does not need to does not need to drink of the vampire's blood to be turned. In order to be corrupted, all that is needed is to yield to that seduction, to allow oneself to succumb to that bite.

If the men forget their virility, their upstanding virtue and yield, if they show a moment of feminine softness, let themselves be governed by their bodies rather than their minds, then these tempters in such pleasing array will slide in and make leaky vessels of the menfolk, too. Gone will be good sense, intelligence, honest chivalry, worthwhile pursuits. They will be degraded, become decadent, indolent, hysterical, effete. Masculinity will fly out of the window. They will become, in short, effeminate.

But the cause of this is not some inherent flaw of masculinity. Oh, no. The blame is upon these damnable women for desiring, for wanting, for – as the phrase goes – 'asking for it.'

Essentially, you have the classic double bind: it is always the woman's fault.

Vampire women symbolise the lust which will capture a man if his energies are not properly spent. While it is better to marry than to burn, it's better still to be out doing masculine, homosocial things and leaving that wife at home. Sexuality might be a natural drive, but getting so hung up on it, y'know, actually spending time with your missus? That's unhealthy.

Women, of course, are another matter. If you do leave the wife at home, the bizarre perversity of her nature will mean she is not content sitting alone and practicing short-hand – or whatever it is these girls get up to. No. She will allow entrance to a vampire, that weird looking cove who really is repellent in all ways. Yes, the vampire man, that's who she wants, the one who symbolises all that energy that women just cannot expend healthily, all that eternally possible sexuality that cannot be trusted in anyway. Look, when it happens to the ladies, it isn't like you nearly getting bitten that time, no. This is perverse.

Hysterical lot, the females, aren't they?

If they're not utterly overpowered by those wandering wombs, a woman has a very definite place in vampire fiction. That place is... er... not doing whatever it is that she is doing. 

Part Three: Won't Somebody think of the Children

1Questionable, I'll warrant.
2Physically impossible to make someone drink from your chest in that position. Just sayin'.
3No giggling at the back there.

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