The setting is Forks, Washington: a dreary, forested town. In one of these forests lays Bella Swan, curled up in a fetal position moments after her beloved vampire boyfriend, Edward Cullen, has left her. Bella loses all ability to function as soon as Edward disappears from her life. She has to be physically carried out of the woods by a family friend, barely conscious from emotional distress. For months after Edward leaves, Bella just watches time go by, literally. She just sits at her window, watching the seasons change. Bella becomes a mere shadow of the person she used to be, all because her 117 year old boyfriend left her behind. This dramatic image isn’t just a scene or two from Twilight: New Moon; it’s the premise of the whole movie. This emotional dependency is present in the whole film series. The pattern in vampire stories of female characters’ dependency on male characters for emotional support, as well as for guidance and fulfillment, can significantly damage the self-esteem of female viewers and normalize this degrading image of female weakness and inferiority in society. This essay will begin by explaining how portrayals of women as dependent can harm the self-esteems of female audiences, and will provide a brief historical background on the vampire-romance genre. Then this essay will examine the love triangles of Bella Swan of the Twilight movie series and Elena Gilbert of The Vampire Diaries television show, two female characters who are almost completely dependent on their male vampire counterparts. Then Buffy the Vampire Slayer will be used as a positive example of how women should be portrayed in the vampire genre in order to boost, rather than deteriorate, the self-esteems of young girls.
A study conducted by two Communications professors, Nicole Martins and Kristen Harrison, found that the self-esteems of young children are directly correlated with how their genders are portrayed in the media, specifically in television. Though this study was conducted about television in all genres, its findings can also be applied to film as well, specifically in the fantasy/sci-fi genre. Since men are usually portrayed as “dominant, assertive, and powerful,” it is likely that boys will have an increase in self-esteem when watching characters with those characteristics (Martins and Harrison 343). These traits are found in many male vampire characters, such as Edward Cullen or Damon Salvatore of The Vampire Diaries. On the contrary, women are often portrayed as “frail, emotional, and sensitive” and therefore dependent on male characters whose dominance is a beacon of light for these women who aren’t strong enough to survive on their own (Martins and Harrison 351). Ironically, women are often the main characters in supernatural dramas. They appear to have their own voices, but this does not lead to female empowerment even if the story revolves around them, especially if the female is victimized as they often are in vampire fiction (Luksza 433). Renae Franiuk and Samantha Scherr call this “faux girl power,” since female characters appear to be empowered but are still perceived through a male-dominated lens (Franiuk and Scherr 18). Victimization, as well as the character traits emphasized by Martins and Harrison, is present in the human girls who pine for supernatural love in the fantasy genre of film and television; these traits are especially harmful because supernatural-type films and shows that feature vampire romances are popular amongst young girls, who tend to associate themselves with the female characters. Because these children “receive emotional education through images and film,” negative portrayals of women who need to depend on men for authority and fulfillment can leave subtle scars on the self-esteems of young girls watching (Romea). Franiuk and Scherr claim that adolescents are especially susceptible to the gender roles portrayed in vampire fiction because they feel pressure to fulfill these normalized roles (Franiuk and Scherr 25). These young girls see “heroines” in fantasy/sci-fi film and television placing their emotional securities in the hands of men, and think that they, too, cannot be truly happy or fulfilled without the love of a man.
Franiuk and Scherr conducted a study about cultivation theory in relation to gender roles perceived in vampire fiction. They cite Gerbner, Gross, Morgan, and Signorelli, saying that “cultivation [is] the process through which television causes viewers to construct a social reality” (qtd. in Franiuk and Scherr 15). In other words, television, among other media, sends messages to viewers that may or may not accurately represent real-world values, creating a sort of para-reality. Cultivation theory refers to analysis of long exposure of media, in this case television and film, which reinforces dominant ideologies of society (Franiuk and Scherr 15). Franiuk and Scherr argue that vampire fiction reinforces gender stereotypes that men are dominant and women are submissive, not unlike Martins and Harrison’s study of gender in television (Franiuk and Scherr 24). Franiuk and Scherr claim that gender stereotypes are harmful because they send the message that women need to “defer to the dominant man in [their] li[ves]” (Franiuk and Scherr 18). Franiuk and Scherr’s study reveals that long exposure to vampire fiction can reinforce the idea that women are vulnerable and need the protection and guidance of men. Reinforcement of existing stereotypes can be harmful to the self-esteems of young girls because they feel pressure to fulfill the negative gender roles of submissiveness and dependence.
In vampire stories in film and television, there is a gradually worsening pattern of female characters being portrayed as dependent on seductively charming male vampires for happiness, guidance, and emotional stability. This arguably began with Christopher Lee’s Horror of Dracula series that ran from 1958-1976, in which the lead vampire is portrayed as irresistible and charismatic (Maloney). Though Bram Stoker is said to have created the vampire genre, his Dracula was a symbol of the fear of invasion rather than of romantic desire (Maloney). Over time, the vampire genre has developed in a way that caters to the seductive rather than frightening male vampire. Of course, this seduction called for someone, usually a female, to be easily seduced and manipulated.
This trend towards seduction in modern vampire stories may be indicative of an increasingly sexualized society that is simultaneously unchanging in its sexism towards women. As Agata Luksza writes in her essay “Sleeping with a Vampire,” fiction is often used to comment on society, so vampire fiction can be considered a comment on or reflection of gender roles in Western society. Often, a female character “achieves success through her partner or finds failure when betrayed by her man” (Romea). These girls are entirely emotionally dependent on their men because they base their success in life and feelings of fulfillment on whether or not their love is requited. This emotional dependence is intensified by love triangles in vampire stories in which a human girl is torn between two supernatural men. Often in these scenarios, the plot revolves around the girl’s decision about which male creature she loves more; she is emotionally dependent on not one, but two men. As opposed to just being independent and forgetting about both men, the girl has an internal struggle about which man would be better suited to fulfill her dreams of happiness and safety.
This internal struggle is evident in the Twilight series, based on a book series written by Stephanie Meyer. Twilight, a world-wide success, has a very large audience, but this success can be detrimental to how women are viewed in society precisely because it has so much influence. Bella Swan, the main character, is considered a heroine because she is the protagonist, but in reality, Bella “exhibits none of [the] qualities [of a heroine]” (Eddo-Lodge). The toughest struggle that Bella must overcome is breaking her love triangle. Reni Eddo-Lodge explains Bella’s character and her relationship with the male characters well in his critical article about Twilight:
[Bella] displays very little courage…little fortitude…is constant[ly] in need of reassurance or protection from the dominant male figure…stand[s] precariously on the side-lines…in full faith that men will fight her battles for her…. [S]he is…fragile and breakable… [T]he physical interaction between Bella and her male counterparts reveals a loss of control… a willing relinquishment. She is often pulled, dragged and restrained by…Jacob Black and Edward Cullen…” (Eddo-Lodge)
Bella constantly needs to be taken care of by the male characters, mainly her love interests Jacob and Edward. She’s weak, and depends on both male characters for almost everything, especially for emotional support and guidance. The males control nearly every aspect of her life; they deem her too delicate and precious to be independent. Edward frequently makes life decisions for Bella, including what she can do with her body and who she is allowed to be friends with. Jacob, on the other hand, constantly asserts that Bella has feelings for him, even as she denies this, and goes as far to kiss her without her consent. Jacob is the fictional embodiment of the “nice guy syndrome,” by which a man befriends a woman only for a sexual and/or romantic reward (Howley). Jacob cannot simply enjoy Bella’s platonic feelings for him; he feels he deserves more from Bella because he is protective and treats her the way he thinks she wants or needs to be treated. Both men treat Bella as if she would not survive without their watchful eyes, and Bella submits to this by consistently begging both men to stay in her life. Though being protected and viewed as delicate may seem flattering, a young girl watching Twilight might strive to also attain this possessive kind of love and think she needs to be taken care of by a man. Bella is hardly a role model, regardless of her heroine status; her character promotes the idea that women need men in order to be emotionally fulfilled and to make decisions. The love triangle aspect of the series exemplifies this even more, since it reveals that when Bella is not emotionally fulfilled by one man she looks for happiness in another, as opposed to looking inward. If a young girl watches Twilight, she might come to view her self-worth based on whether or not men treat her the way Bella is treated by her love interests.
The CW’s The Vampire Diaries is only slightly better in its message about women. Elena Gilbert, the female protagonist, unlike Bella, actually has the potential for many good qualities that don’t revolve around weakness or her love interests, Stefan and Damon Salvatore, vampire brothers. The key flaw in Elena’s character is her relationship with these male characters despite her potential for strength and independence. Like Bella, Elena’s entire storyline is driven by which Salvatore brother she loves more. She depends on them to save her and to be emotionally fulfilled, and bases her decision to be with either one on who fulfills her emotional needs more. There isn’t a moment in the whole series where Elena is happily independent. In her essay, Luksza argues that Elena suffers through actions inflicted on her that help her discover “hidden layers” of herself, but Luksza fails to realize that almost all of these actions are inflicted by, for, or because of the Salvatore brothers. Luksza cites Elena becoming a vampire and having her humanity “turned off” as ways Elena grew on her own, but doesn’t recognize how both of those actions were directly caused by Damon and Stefan making decisions for her. In fact, not only did Stefan and Damon make the decision for Elena to “turn off” her humanity, Damon physically made her do it as well. The vampire brothers are intertwined with all of Elena’s self-discoveries and struggles; therefore, she can’t really be considered independent and self-aware. Elena is emotionally dependent and vulnerable as well. At one point in the series, Elena admits to only loving Stefan because he could never die, and thus never leave her. Elena can’t stand alone, even when she too becomes a vampire; she latches onto Damon, who she knows would spend eternity with her.
This level of emotional dependence shows that Elena is defined by her relationships with Damon and Stefan because she always needs the protection and love with which they provide her. Fan Li wrote an article praising The Vampire Diaries, but it is his praise that points out the flaws in the relationships between Elena and her love interests. In this article, Elena is described as a “pretty teenager,” while Stefan is described as “gentle, kind, and magnanimous” and Damon as a “mixture of cold appearance and warm heart who is sometimes selfish…headstrong” and courageous (Li). The fact that Elena is judged solely on her appearance in this article shows that even though she is the protagonist, she is defined by her relationship to the two brothers. The personality traits of Stefan and Damon mentioned show that they are the dominant characters worthy of exploration of character, whereas the only thing apparently worth mentioning about Elena is her looks and her relationship with the Salvatores. This subtly reveals how The Vampire Diaries promotes the idea that women lack substance compared to men and are defined by their relationships to men; this can lead young girls to think that they need men in order to be worthy of anything and to be emotionally fulfilled.
In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in contrast to both Twilight and The Vampire Diaries, the female protagonist, Buffy Summers, is completely independent, though still emotional and feminine. In fact, Buffy was created by Joss Whedon to counteract the portrayals of defenseless feminine girls in the horror genre (Fudge). Buffy, a true heroine, doesn’t depend on anyone else besides her own strengths, and fights for others wholeheartedly and selflessly. Buffy thrives on the love of her friends and even on the two vampires that love her, Angel and Spike, but in no way is she completely dependent on them for anything. As Lottie Ashton writes, “unlike the myriad of Bella Swans that came before and after her, Buffy doesn’t throw everything else in her life under the bus to be with Angel.” In fact, Buffy eventually kills Angel, who has lost his soul and become evil. Though this pains her, she survives without him. As for Spike, he appears to take the subordinate role commonly applied to the female character; Spike pines for Buffy’s love and seems to define his self-worth as how Buffy feels about him. He even goes through the painful process of gaining his soul back to please her. Buffy cares for Spike, but easily pushes him aside for more important matters such as the safety of her sister and her town. The way Buffy handles her romance with Angel and Spike’s infatuation with her shows that Buffy “recognizes that slaying and saving the world is more important than her love life” (Ashton). Buffy promotes female empowerment and independence. The show goes against all gender norms that women are inferior to men, and that they need men to survive. This is the kind of female character that would increase a young girl’s self-esteem. When asked why he writes strong female characters by an interviewer, Buffy-creator Joss Whedon was quoted as saying “Because you’re still asking me that question” (Whedon). It shouldn’t be out-of-the-ordinary that a female character is simultaneously strong, feminine, independent, and emotionally available. Multilayered female characters should be as prevalent as their male counterparts in order to boost self-confidence in young females.
In order to begin to resolve this issue that preys upon the self-esteems of young girls, writers and producers of film and television should follow Joss Whedon’s footsteps. It’s time to start writing strong female characters in the fantasy/sci-fi genre that may be in love but know they don’t need a man for happiness, authority, or survival. Love triangles in vampire stories need not be abolished, but altered so that the female character is not portrayed as desperately needing the love of two men; females can be portrayed as doubly in love and yet still look inward for guidance, happiness, and fulfillment. This needs to be better expressed in film and television characters. The decrease of self-esteem in young girls and the normalization of women as dependent on men only prolong the societal idea that men are superior and thus destined to lead women.
Ashton, Lottie. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer: A (Semi-)Feminist Retrospective.” Velociriot. Velociriot!, 6 Aug 2012. Web. 7 April 2015.
Eddo-Lodge, Reni. “The Anti-Feminist Character of Bella Swan, or Why the Twilight Saga is Regressive.” Kritikos. Intertheory.org, Jan 2013. Web. 16 Nov 2014.
Franiuk, R., & Scherr, S. “The Lion Fell in Love With the Lamb.” Feminist Media Studies. Vol 13. Taylor & Francis. Routledge, Feb 2013. 14-28. Print.
Fudge, Rachel. “The Buffy Effect.” Bitch Magazine. Bitch Media, 1999. Web. 7 April 2015.
Howley, Nicole. “So You Think You’re in the Friend Zone…But It Doesn’t Exist.” Reporter. Reporter Magazine, 13 Feb 2014. Web. 16 May 2015.
Li, Fan. “Analysis of the Success of The Vampire Diaries.” SCIK Publishing Organization, 2013. Web. 16 Nov 2014
Luksza, Agata. “Sleeping With a Vampire.” Feminist Media Studies. Taylor & Francis. London: Routledge, 2014. 429-444. Print.