Erotica author, aka Elspeth Potter, on Writing from the Inside

Monday, June 21, 2010

"On the Female Vampire," Evie Byrne Guest Post

Please welcome my guest, Evie Byrne!

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On the Female Vampire

A monster is monstrous because it violates accepted boundaries. Often these boundaries are physical. Creatures of the twilight world like minotaurs, werewolves, insectoid aliens, selkies, sirens and mermaids cause fascination and discomfort because they are cross the reassuring threshold that separates human from animal. Vampires are generally human-formed, but still they manage to be more transgressive than any other monster. They violate boundaries right and left. They’re neither dead nor alive. They occasionally shift form. They live on blood--which makes them cannibals, which, needless to say, is a big boundary--or perhaps it makes them parasites, which aligns them with the insect world--or maybe it makes them demons, which aligns them with the spirit world. And when they’re not invading your body, they’re invading your mind. When you submit to them, you submit body, mind and soul. They own you. They’re slavers. They break all of our laws, conventions and beliefs--and tempt us to break them too.

For a vampire, feeding is sex. It’s a penetrative act of possession. One so powerful that used to eclipse intercourse. Dracula ruins Lucy far more completely than any determined rake. Anne Rice’s vampires, as I recall, don’t have sex. Having experienced the ultimate act of penetration and surrender, they loll around in sensual, bisexual languor. But those are old school vampires. Something has shifted in the perception of vampires of late. Vampires in popular literature and entertainment have become more sexual, more heterosexual and almost exclusively male.

The vampires of today’s romances are masculine, desirable heroes, relieved of both sexual ambiguity and the stench of the grave. This new breed of male vampire is generally isolated and sympathetic in his misery: Mr. Rochester with fangs. He’s an alpha male of an extreme sort, coldly handsome, immortal, preternaturally strong, supernaturally persuasive, and fitted with penetrative equipment both upstairs and downstairs, all the better to claim you--if you’re the one and only woman for him. This makeover strips much of the shivery terror from the mythos, but the trade off is that it makes room for hot fantasy.

But what of the vampire heroine? Female vampires are scarce on the ground, any sort of female vampire, much less a romantic heroine. They occasionally appear as slutty minions in vampire gangs, or as a minor antagonist. And of course, in some romantic vampire tales the hero vampire will elevate his love to immortality by turning her, but that is the end of the tale, not the beginning.

My take on this--and please do feel free to argue otherwise--is that while we’ve normalized male vampires enough to make them romantic heroes, female vampires remain too trangressive to be heroines.

Let’s take a step back. In the 19th century, when all vampires were monsters, female vampires were perhaps even more vile than their male counterparts. Being the weaker sex, they could not hunt fairly. They fed either through sexual guile or by preying on children--making them lower than low. Painters and poets of that age were enraptured with idea of the female vampire as a seductress. Victoria posted a Baudelaire poem about a female vampire on this blog just a couple of weeks ago, and if you didn’t see it, it’s well worth a read. [http://victoriajanssen.blogspot.com/2010/05/metamorphoses-of-vampire-charles.html]

For these sensitive 19th century poet types, the female vampire was the embodiment of feminine devourer who, if left unchecked, sucked dry the masculine life force. She was definitely an erotic figure, but that eroticism was laced with repugnance and the fear of emasculation. One minute she’s slinking up to you, cleavage bared, and next thing you know, you’re not hanging around the Montmartre cafes with your friends anymore. You’re working as a clerk and helping out with the housework.

But I digress.

The sexual power of the female vampire threatens social norms. Earlier I spoke of the penetrative aspect of feeding. It’s inherently a sexual act. Yet while the male vampire may feed on men, he seduces women. (That is, unless you’re reading specialized erotic fiction.) The female vampire tends to be more openly bisexual, so voracious in her appetites that she cannot be constrained by gender. This perception is strong, and continues from the earliest female vampires to today. Miriam Blaylock, as portrayed by Catherine Deneuve in The Hunger (1983), is a sleek, glamorous, ruthless bisexual hunter. She takes both Susan Sarandon and David Bowie as lovers--and eats a child in the bargain as well. To me, she has always been the modern archetype of the female vampire.

Stepping back to the present again, to this time when the male vampire has become a sympathetic hero, the gulf between the female vampire and the male vampire has widened even further. He has special needs. She’s a monster.

I’m not saying this is a bad thing. I’m just saying the terrain has changed. I can’t address all vampires in all genres, only the vampire tales written today by (mostly) female authors for a (mostly) female audience under the banner of romance. In this genre, the prospect of being devoured by your lover is eroticized, as it was for those 19th century gentlemen, but now it is not framed as repugnant. Instead, it is the ultimate form of acceptance and bonding.

That sexual dynamic only works one way, however. It’s hot when an alpha vamp claims his mate through blood and sex, but that power relationship cannot be flipped. When a female vampire penetrates her human lover, it somehow makes him less of a man. Her claiming of him might make for good horror, but it doesn’t add up to satisfying romantic fiction.

The double standard goes on. The intense predatory drive that makes a male vampire sexy doesn’t translate in the same way for a female vampire. That same drive makes her a dangerous, unbalanced stalker. Similarly, a male vampire is usually portrayed as handsome and aware of his magnetic attraction, but he’s not vilified for it--in fact, it’s part of his appeal. Whereas when a female vampire uses her seductive powers, its trickery. Doing so breaks the unwritten commandment that a romantic heroine be modest: either she doesn’t know she’s ravishing, or doesn’t care. Only wicked women use their looks like a blade.

It’s all about reader identification. The best part of reading a romantic fantasy is imagining what it would be like if you--ordinary, human you--found yourself face to face with a creature of the otherworld. How would you react? Could you love such a being? We enjoy experiencing a romance through the eyes of a woman whom we can relate to--an ordinary woman who finds herself in extraordinary circumstances. It is much harder to relate to a heroine who is a powerful, ruthless, bloodthirsty, and possibly immortal.

And that’s not because we don’t appreciate a powerful female, but rather because being unable to identify with her takes some of the fun out of this particular kind of reading experience. One of the oldest and most compelling storylines is the one in which an ordinary person tests herself against powers and mysteries beyond her imagination--and earns love along the way. That kind of story always hits the spot. There’s good reason for its enduring popularity.

So as much as I like a lady vampire, I don’t expect to see them crowding romances as heroines any time soon. And having thought about this for a while, I’ll admit I’m okay with that. I like the idea that they can’t be domesticated into do-gooder heroines who settle down into a happily-ever-after. Like their progenitor, Lilith, they embody the darker side of female power, and that stuff is too powerful to be bottled.

Love and Pain by Edvard Munch, 1894

Evie Byrne is the author of three hot vampire romances: Called by Blood, Bound by Blood and Damned by Blood. Link. In the spirit of full disclosure, she admits that while two of her heroines are down-to-earth, regular humans, her third heroine is a vampire who is as wicked as the day is long.


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Thanks so much for the great post, Evie!

Anyone have any comments on female vampire characters?

10 comments:

  1. Great post!

    My take on the traditional female vampire has always been that she's a caricature of a debauched woman. In western society, there has been a tendency to see women as governed by their instincts (you know, the old dichotomy female-biology, male-civilization) and therefore constantly struggling to remain pure and not give in to their baser needs. The female vampire provides a picture of what would become of a woman if she lost control over her appetites. Lucy in Dracula is a prime example of this, just like The Hunger. Once corrupted, women cannot control their base needs and turn insatiable.

    As for vampire heroines, well, women with a voracious sexual appetite still aren't generally considered 'heroine' material. And since vampirism is still very much a symbol for sexuality, a female vampire will be problematic.

    Not to mention that the idea of a vampire heroine, much superior to a human hero, would upset the power balance in the traditionally hero-heroine relationship. So I would assume she would need another supernatural creature for a partner to be acceptable to most readers.

    Hm. Now I'm going to be thinking about this all day... As I said, great post - very thought-provoking!

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  2. Anne Rice's Gabrielle is one of the only sympathetic female vampires I've run across. Even though she's presented as an emotionally cold person (and therefore more of an antiheroine), she's relieved from being tarred with the usual misogynist brush in a few key ways. First, she's the mother of numerous grown children and so it's presumed she's past her sexual prime (whether or not this is true is never explored in much depth). Second, her son turns her into a vampire to save her from a horrible death from some miserable medieval disease -- she's weak and he saves her, and that's totally acceptable. She didn't *choose* to be a monster. Finally, she's spent her entire adult life cooped up in a castle like Belle married to an aristo Gaston, and readers feel sorry for her, since Rice establishes that she's an educated, well-traveled human being who is in no way suited for serial, obligatory childbearing.

    What makes Gabrielle so interesting as a vampire is that she is a fairly unrepentant monster once she gets down to it. Why is that? I think the point is pretty swiftly made by Gabrielle's predilection for chopping her hair off and wandering the streets disguised as a young man. For the good mother, freedom is the ultimate aberration. So, Rice turns the misogynist trope of the female vampire on its head -- she's not a devouring, insatiable sex-beast, she's a cold-hearted philosopher-explorer who wants to live forever so she can read all the books and see all the places, and if she has to drink blood in order to do that, well OKAY. Now, *that's* a bad woman!

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  3. Thank you so much, Felicia! Your comments are spot on--and stated much more concisely than my meandering post. :)

    The power dynamic between the couple is, I think, the biggest impediment to writing a romance with a supernaturally strong heroine. As you say, it pretty much makes it impossible for the hero to be a normal human. (However, I'd love to see it attempted!)

    My 3rd vamp book, Damned by Blood, has a vampire heroine--but the hero is a vampire as well, and that was hard enough to write!

    See, I made the heroine my hero's equal all across the board, in terms of power, prestige, physical strength, etc., because she was his arch-rival, and I wanted her to be a worthy opponent.

    But it was difficult for me to find a happy ending for them because neither wanted to submit to the other--and I think, at heart, vampire romance is very much about submission. I'm happy with how it came out, but man, those dynamics are tricky!

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  4. Minnie:

    Ah, excellent points about Gabrielle. I'd forgotten all about her--tragically! You're right. She does subvert the trope. And I also find her sympathetic, in an anti-hero sort of way, because if I were a vamp, I'd pretty much be her, I think! ;)

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  5. My personal favorite vampire (male or female) is Le Fanu's Carmilla, a lesbian vamp from 1872. She seems to genuinely love the human female she wants to feed from, but whether that love is a "human" love (affection, desire, similarity of mind/purpose) or a "hunter's" love (empathizing with one's prey, finding more joy in the feed if there is an emotional element) is up for debate. But I love this, which seems to highlight the uncertainty:


    "How interesting!" she said, languidly. "But see what beautiful moonlight!" She glanced through the hall door, which stood a little open. "Suppose you take a little ramble round the court, and look down at the road and river."

    "It is so like the night you came to us," I said.

    She sighed; smiling.

    She rose, and each with her arm about the other's waist, we walked out upon the pavement.

    In silence, slowly we walked down to the drawbridge, where the beautiful landscape opened before us.

    "And so you were thinking of the night I came here?" she almost whispered. "Are you glad I came?"

    "Delighted, dear Carmilla," I answered.

    "And you asked for the picture you think like me, to hang in your room," she murmured with a sigh, as she drew her arm closer about my waist, and let her pretty head sink upon my shoulder.

    "How romantic you are, Carmilla," I said. "Whenever you tell me your story, it will be made up chiefly of some one great romance."

    She kissed me silently.

    "I am sure, Carmilla, you have been in love; that there is, at this moment, an affair of the heart going on."

    "I have been in love with no one, and never shall," she whispered, "unless it should be with you."

    How beautiful she looked in the moonlight!

    Shy and strange was the look with which she quickly hid her face in my neck and hair, with tumultuous sighs, that seemed almost to sob, and pressed in mine a hand that trembled.

    Her soft cheek was glowing against mine. "Darling, darling," she murmured, "I live in you; and you would die for me, I love you so."

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  6. Anna Katherine: Beautiful, wonderful! Thank you for posting that.

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  7. Fascinating post-I particularly liked 'Mr. Rochester with fangs'
    Now I'm thinking about my Tudor Vampires and I'm even more determined to make sure that I have a good worthy Vampire heroine in one of them-but not quite yet...

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  8. Well, I think part of the problem is that we need our heroines to be do-gooders in the first place. Why do we need that? We don't need it from our heroes.

    I don't mind do-gooders as heroes or heroines, but I'm generally more drawn to the morally ambiguous sort. I'd love to read books about lady vamps that /don't/ try to defang them.

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  9. Woodburner:

    "I don't mind do-gooders as heroes or heroines, but I'm generally more drawn to the morally ambiguous sort. I'd love to read books about lady vamps that /don't/ try to defang them."

    I'm not big into the self-promo stuff, Woodburner, but since you've said that, I think you'd really like Damned by Blood--if you don't mind lots of violence between the hero and heroine. The heroine is plenty dark, and not defanged in the end. It's the 3rd in the trilogy, but stands alone fine if you don't mind cameos from characters from the other two books.

    Dark heroines are an interesting problem. I like them too. I agree with you that heroes get away with much more badness, that female readers forgive them more readily. Why this is so is such a stewpot of factors I don't even want to try to get into it before my second cup of coffee.

    What I will say as a writer is that it is hard to sell a wicked heroine--in the romance genre, at least. Writers who like ambiguous/difficult/unsympathetic characters tend to migrate to other genres.

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