On The Vampire Diaries
Ladies of the Night, Unite!
Damon Versus the Feminist Vampire Movement
By Jon Skovron
The Vampire Diaries is a perfect example of an age-old battle between opposites. Not Good and Evil, of course. Neither the book nor the show is so didactic as to portray any character as purely Good or purely Evil. No, I’m talking about that other age-old conflict: Boy Vampires vs. Girl Vampires. The conflict began a long time ago, in a place kind of far away . . .
The year was 1816. Many called it the “Year without a Summer” because of a series of strange weather events in northern Europe that extended the rains of spring straight into fall. The earnest young English physician John William Polidori found himself in a Gothic villa near Geneva with his good friend and frequent traveling companion, the poet Lord Byron, and guests Claire Clairmont, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. Since they were forced to stay indoors by the freakish weather, they spent a lot of time getting high on laudanum and reading aloud ghost stories to each other. Byron then proposed they each write their own tale of horror. Out of that weekend came two things: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (a book I hold very dear to my heart) and the first known use of vampire folklore in literature, Polidori’s “The Vampyre.” Yes, dear reader, that would be eighty-one years before that Bram Stoker guy wrote that book called Dracula.
Now, we’re going to leave aside speculation on the nature of the relationship between Polidori and his “good friend,” Lord Byron. One thing we can say with a fair amount of confidence is that the vampire in Polidori’s tale was a thinly veiled depiction of Byron himself: mesmerizing, scheming, deceitful, womanizing, eccentric, and, in his own strange way, utterly charming. Remind you of anyone you know? Perhaps Damon Salvatore?
In this first literary vampire tale, written long before Ian Somerhalder smirked his way onto the camera, a young, wealthy Englishman named Aubrey befriends Lord Ruthven, a popular if somewhat aloof member of London society who invites Aubrey to go abroad with him. The two travel to Italy, where Aubrey discovers that Ruthven enjoys making others miserable and robbing innocent young women of their virginity (perv!). Aubrey decides to leave Ruthven’s company, pausing just long enough to prevent one girl from being dishonored (what a guy!), and finds some peace in Greece, where he falls in love with a local peasant girl. It’s
there that he first hears of creatures called “vampyres,” and they remind him of Ruthven in a way he cannot quite put his finger on (creepy!). Soon after, the peasant girl is killed by a vampyre and Aubrey is nearly driven mad with grief. When he recovers, he finds that Ruthven has been caring for him during his time of mourning. He feels he owes a debt to him,
so he agrees to travel with him again. Soon after, they are ambushed by robbers and Ruthven is mortally wounded. On his deathbed, he makes Aubrey swear that he will not talk about him or his death for a year and a day. Somewhat confused, Aubrey agrees (sucker!). Once back in London, he discovers, to his horror, that Ruthven is still alive, posing as
the Earl of Marsden, and wooing Aubrey’s pure, virginal sister. Forced to keep silent, unable to save his sister, Aubrey has a nervous breakdown. By the time he (finally!) resolves to break his oath and tell them all the truth about Marsden/ Ruthven, they all think he’s totally insane and discard his claims as delusional. On the day before the oath ends, his
sister marries Ruthven. The next day, Aubrey is able to calmly and clearly tell them everything, and this time they believe him (why now?). But then he dies. His friends and caretakers try to save his sister, but they’re too late. The last line reads, “Lord Ruthven had disappeared, and Aubrey’s
sister had glutted the thirst of a VAMPYRE!”
One of the things most striking to a modern reader about “The Vampyre” is its blatant objectification of women. The two female characters, Aubrey’s Greek girlfriend and his sister, are utterly helpless and little more than scenery and tools for Ruthven to drive poor Aubrey mad. Neither of them have a single line of dialogue or character development. Well, unless you consider dying to be character development. In an introduction to “The Vampyre,” Polidori describes the author Madame de Stael as “perhaps the first of her sex, who has really proved its often claimed equality with the nobler Man.” So I think it’s pretty clear how he views women in general.
After Polidori’s book, but still twenty-five years before Dracula, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu wrote the first story about a female vampire, Carmilla: A Vampyre. The title character is said to be based on the historical figure of Elizabeth Bathory, a Hungarian countess who bathed in the blood of virgin servant girls to keep her youthful appearance. In the story, Carmilla is a two-hundred-year-old upper-class teenage girl who preys on other upper-class teenage girls by first becoming their BFF, then killing them at a sleepover. The lesbian undertones are pretty hard to miss and it’s difficult to know if the author was exceptionally liberal and open-minded, or if he simply couldn’t conceive of a man being the victim of a woman, even if she was a vampire. Either way, it didn’t go over too well with the generally stuffy English middle class.
In fact, neither Carmilla nor “The Vamprye” made an enormous impact on English culture. In addition to the shortcomings in writing, both were short stories with minimal plots at a time when dense Gothic novels were becoming all the rage. And frankly, a pale, less humorous Lord Byron
and a waifish, snooty lesbian just aren’t that scary. The people wanted real horror.
Ultimately it was Bram Stoker’s Dracula that landed like a thunderclap on the European psyche and established the popular concept of the vampire. It was big. It was epic. It was, at the time, really, really scary. Back in the 1800s, England was simultaneously fascinated by and frightened of foreigners. Scary stories have a long, time-honored tradition of preying upon our fear of “The Other,” a culture or person we don’t understand. At around the time of Dracula’s popularity, steamships and trains made mainland Europe and beyond far more accessible to the English middle class than in times past. This made for some splendid holidays abroad (or not, as in Aubrey’s case), but it also made the British Isles much more vulnerable to everything from new diseases to foreign business competition. The figure of Dracula, with his dour looks, broken English, and hairy palms (ick!) descending upon pristine, virginal England with all his exotic, wicked eastern European ways, was both enthralling and terrifying.
So it was Stoker who set the precedent in vampire literature. And unfortunately, even though Dracula was published almost a century after Polidori’s book, it progressed little in its depiction of females. Mina Murray (later Mina Harker) has the potential to be a real character with something vaguely akin to motives, at least until the dirty foreign vampire corrupts her, but Lucy Westenra is never anything more than a plot device. And while Dracula had succeeded in making the male vampire a true figure of horror, female vampires were a different story. Dracula’s female vamps are sad, wretched, hissing scavengers, always subservient to the lone alpha-male vampire master.
After Dracula, there was a bit of a lull in the development of vampire mythology until the early twentieth century, when the first vampire movies appeared: Nosferatu (a supremely creepy silent German Expressionist film that was essentially Dracula with all the names and some of the plot changed) and Dracula. For all its faults, the original Dracula movie with Bela Lugosi is an elegant piece of work that is still somehow unnerving even for many modern viewers, although these viewers will also find that the early twentieth century was no more progressive in its portrayal of women than the nineteenth.
That could have been rectified a few years later with the Hollywood invention of Dracula’s Daughter, which follows Countess Marya Zaleska and her attempts to cure herself of the vampirism she inherited from her father. But Dracula’s Daughter is a cheap knockoff that makes little sense and frequently borders on slapstick. Throughout the movie, there is the sense that “the fairer sex” simply can’t handle being that evil. Of course, that wasn’t really a new idea in literature. Even Lady Macbeth, that ultimate female evildoer, says, “Come, you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, and fill me from the crown to the toe topful of direst cruelty!” She believes she has to abandon her gender in order
to truly be bad.
Over the next forty years or so, vampire movies came and went, usually recycling the same old Dracula-type imagery and themes, and lots of hissing, cringing, submissive vampire women. In the late sixties, there were a few noble attempts. Some might say that the first real success was The Vampire Lovers, loosely based off Le Fanu’s Carmilla and released in 1970. While a movie about wealthy lesbian vampires was a modest hit in France, the American public wasn’t quite ready for it yet.
But soon after, in 1973, one year after the Equal Rights Amendment was passed in Congress, a novel called Interview with the Vampire was written by a woman named Anne Rice. Published in 1976, it introduced the vicious yet tragic Claudia, a female vampire trapped in the body of a little girl. This unlikely character was just the beginning, though, of a whole new era of female vampires: Miriam in The Hunger, Mae in Near Dark, Marie in Innocent Blood, and of course the countess in that timeless classic Once Bitten (come on, you know you love it). These were women who could be strong, feminine, and damn evil all at once.
But the female vampire archetype didn’t just stop once it reached Dracula-level evil. It continued to evolve until we finally had strong, female, vampire heroes. I’m thinking, of course, of such characters as Selene, the gun-toting, leatherclad, ass-kicking, werewolf-loving vampire played by Kate Beckinsale in the movie Underworld. Now that, dear reader, is liberation.
The evolution of the vampire archetype was not limited to females, though. In the book that birthed the first truly fierce modern female vampire, Anne Rice also introduced the male tragic hero vampire. Louis was a guy who didn’t really want to be a vampire, felt pretty bad about it, and tried everything he could to avoid doing vampire-like things. You know, like killing and stuff. And since poor whiny Louis and his hopeless crush on Claudia in Interview with the Vampire, we have seen a slew of tragic, conflicted, impotent, or repressed male vampires: Edward from The Vampire Tapestry, Jack from The Vampire Files, John from The Hunger, Caleb from Near Dark, Angel from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dracula from Coppola’s reinvented Dracula, Edward from Twilight, and of course Stefan Salvatore in The Vampire Diaries.
Poor, pathetic Stefan Salvatore. He just wants to be a real boy! One-hundred-and-fifty years of arrested development can really mess you up. There are times when one sides with his brother, Damon, and wonders why Stefan can’t just get over himself already and dibble a little from the blood bank without turning into a psycho about it. At least it’s better than making out with your best friend’s mom, then beating him up (leave that to the werewolves). But Stefan is so trapped by his own self-loathing, he can’t seem to accept that being a vampire doesn’t make him intrinsically good or evil. Even though he is a modern vampire, he’s stuck thinking of them in the old Dracula model.
But just as Stefan’s forebear Louis had Lestat to goad him out of his tragic paralysis, so Stefan has his brother, Damon. I cannot think of a single vampire in all of the books and movies I have consumed (and trust me, that is a great many) who is more in keeping with the original model of Lord Ruthven, aka. Lord Byron. It pains me to admit, but not even my favorite vampire, Lestat, matches Damon in that celebration of self-absorbed, self-mocking, arrogant, charming, cruel, noble romanticism. It is his humor that sets him apart, a humor that is so self-serving yet so utterly beguiling that we cannot help but smile in spite of ourselves. Back in Lord Byron’s day, at a time when poets were like rock stars, Byron
was the quintessential English heartthrob. People loved him. They hated him. They loved to hate him. So it seems to be with Damon. But there is one important difference between the two: Lord Ruthven never had to contend with a female of his own species. Which is why Damon is having such a tough time being a truly scary alpha vampire in Mystic Falls. Byronic heroes don’t really cut it these days because chicks don’t put up with that kind of crap anymore. Damon, by hearkening back to the original vampire model, doesn’t fare any better with the ladies than Dracula would, were he to turn up in Mystic Falls today. It almost seems purposeful the way the writers break down Damon’s machismo slowly, bit by bit, using a long list of female vampires.
The first is Vicki, a mortal girl whom Damon decided to turn on a whim. But unlike Dracula, Damon wasn’t interested in having a harem of docile female vampires to fawn over him. If anything, he seemed to find Vicki’s dependence on him tiresome. The only amusement he got from her was
by using her as a means to upset Stefan–as a tool, just as Lord Ruthven does with Aubrey’s girlfriend and sister. Whenever Stefan began to get Vicki under control, Damon said or did just the right thing to send her spiraling back out again. Finally, Damon goaded her into leaving the house,
and soon afterward she attacked Elena’s brother, Jeremy, forcing Stefan to put her down. It was only then, when Elena was guilt-stricken over Jeremy’s shock and horror, that Damon showed any remorse. His gesture to erase Jeremy’s memory was a generosity that we hadn’t seen in him previously. It was, in its own strange way, somewhat gallant. But more than that, it was what we tend to think of as “human”–and while Damon was still at that point the villain of the series, with that one gesture we began to see the possibility that he could be more.
Then there was Stefan’s old vampire gal-pal, Lexi. Even in her short time on screen (sigh . . . ), she made it quite apparent that a direct confrontation between her and Damon would not end well for him. It was a jarring moment because it was the first time in the show where we understood that Damon was perhaps not the most fearsome thing out there. In order to neutralize her, he had to resort to posing as a human and staking her. (You want to talk about dick moves, Damon? What about that one?)
Pearl, played with chilling understatement by Kelly Hu, was another big roadblock for Damon. The moment when she nearly gouged out his eyes with her thumbs pretty much summed it up: while Lexi showed us that Damon wasn’t the most powerful vampire in existence, it was Pearl who showed us that he wasn’t the most ruthless, either.
But while Lexi and Pearl were impressive, it was Katherine who really exposed Damon’s weakness. Katherine turned, then abandoned Damon. He thought she was taken from him and his every action was bent toward recovering her from the tomb he thought she was imprisoned in. After
much difficulty and sacrifice, he learned that she was never even in the tomb. That she could have contacted him at any point in the one hundred and fifty years since they were separated. And she did not. It was a blow more terrible than anything Bonnie, Lexi, Pearl, or an entire legion of female vampires could have delivered. Suddenly, we could empathize with Damon, and he didn’t seem so “bad” after all. At least, no more so than Stefan, with his addictive personality, is “good.”
What brings us over to Damon’s side, at least for short periods, is his seemingly endless capacity for unrequited love. Because when he did discover that Katherine was no longer interested in him, his attention began to turn toward her fragile, human look-alike descendant, Elena, who is in love with his brother. There are several reasons why this was a really bad idea. But ultimately, for someone trying to be the alpha-male vampire of a town suddenly crawling with them, the biggest problem is the vulnerability it brings. It doesn’t matter how strong or invulnerable you are, if the person you love is fragile, that makes you fragile, as well.
That vulnerability was quickly exploited by Elena’s birth parents, Isobel the vampiric ice queen, and her toady, the human Johnathan Gilbert. Unlike Lady Macbeth, Isobel has no difficulty reconciling her femininity with her cruelty. She is refreshingly frank in her brutality, threatening her own daughter’s life to get what she wanted from Damon. Even though she eventually showed us her weakness, and it was (surprise, surprise) her love for the human Alaric, she never really let it distract her or get in her way. Not coincidentally, I think, she was the only vampire who successfully escaped Mystic Falls unscathed.
If there is a truly unlikeable character in The Vampire Diaries, it isn’t a vampire. It is Isobel’s onetime lover and Elena’s father, John Gilbert, the most loathsome and weaselly vampire hunter that has ever existed. In his attempts to eradicate vampires from Mystic Falls, he was smarmy, backstabbing, pitiless, and utterly spineless. With a human like him around, who needs vampires?
Okay. So I admit it. The main reason I hated John Gilbert was because he killed my favorite character, Anna. Poor lost, loyal Anna. A goth geek boy’s dream: cute without being intimidating, smart without being pretentious, and blunt so you don’t have to worry that you’re not picking up on “girl signals.” She knew that Jeremy was trouble, a selfish little twerp who can’t see past his own pain. And even if she hadn’t known, her mother made it abundantly clear that, be their name John, Jeremy, or Johnathan (her own long-lost human love), the Gilberts were bad news for vampire ladies. But just like her mother, Anna fell victim to the love of a human–and it was her undoing. Had she left Mystic Falls when her mother first urged it, perhaps they both would have survived. Had she not gone back to warn Jeremy that other vampires were planning to attack the night of the Founder’s Day celebration, she might still be alive.
But of course, she didn’t. And really, if Anna had ignored her love for Jeremy, she would have remained the harsh, sneaky little scamp we first thought she was. Oh yes! Don’t forget that when we first met her, she was turning people into vampires because they were “useful,” kidnapping Elena and Bonnie to use as leverage against the Salvatore brothers, and being generally indifferent to the suffering of humans. Anna, like Damon, was humanized largely through love; it was Damon’s love for Elena and Anna’s love for Jeremy that changed the show’s genre from traditional Gothic horror to modern tragic romance.
In the final episode of the first season, it seemed there was a moment when the power could have shifted in favor of the boys or the girls. Both Damon and Anna laid helpless in a burning basement, staring at each other in a “We are so screwed” sort of way. But then John Gilbert came in and staked Anna before there was even the possibility that she could be rescued. And as an ardent member of Team Anna, my question was–why? Damon gets to keep on pining for his tragic human love, why couldn’t she?
There are two reasons that make sense to me from a storyteller’s perspective, one based on character, the other more abstract. From a character perspective, Anna wouldn’t have sat around pining for Jeremy for long. The only reason she got as attached to him as she did was because that wanker John Gilbert killed her mother. But soon, she would have moved on with her life, just as she said she would before her
mother’s death. And it’s just more interesting to have someone murdered tragically as a consequence of trying to save someone they love than just have them fade out of the story.
The other reason is because she had to make room for the queen. You know who I’m talking about. Katherine. When you talk about a character for an entire season and only show her in flashbacks, you are purposefully building that character up to the point of near-mythic levels. Just as Anne Rice popularized the strong female vampire and the self-loathing male vampire, she also brought to popular culture Akasha, Queen of the Damned. An alpha-female vampire reminiscent of Kali from Hindu mythology. Creator, Lover, Destroyer. For the Salvatore brothers, at least, Katherine is all these things. Just as Stoker didn’t include other male vampires that might pull focus from Dracula, the writers cleared the decks
of all the female vampires before bringing Katherine onscreen. When she finally made her appearance, it was with a strike of surgical precision aimed at the two strongest male characters. Within minutes, she seduced Damon and brutally murdered John Gilbert, immediately establishing her
Forget Caroline and Founder’s Day–the real Queen of Mystic Falls has returned and she hasn’t got the time or the patience for human emotions like love. Tragic romance must take a backseat to horror once again. At least for a little while. It is, after all, a story about vampires.