Postfeminist Politics in The Vampire Diaries

By Morgan Bennett and Brittany Sanchez

The Vampire Diaries (2009-2017) was a supernatural teen drama centering around Elena Gilbert (Nina Dobrev) and a large cast of friends, family, and enemies. Elena and her two best friends, Caroline Forbes (Candice King) and Bonnie Bennett (Kat Graham), face off against a variety of supernatural creatures, including several vampires. Although there are three female characters in the main cast, who are all invaluable in terms of plot development, the show falls short of fitting into a feminist politic. While The Vampire Diaries was marketed at teen girls and women make up half of the primary cast, there are many limits on their agency: women are consistently turned into vampires against their will, are often put into positions of sacrifice for the men around them, and the series’ two primary romantic leads are portrayed as deeply caring despite also being deeply controlling.

Gina Wisker writes that “Postfeminist Gothic texts reveal that the issues which concern feminism and feminists are, at best, only undead.” The Vampire Diaries can be read as a postfeminist gothic tale as it allows ostensibly empowered female characters to be repeatedly stripped of their agency. One notable way that this happens is the fact that women in the show are often turned into vampires against their will. Caroline, for example, is turned in the beginning of the show’s second season while she is unconscious in a hospital. Caroline is given no say in what will happen to her and while her female friends voice their opinions, she is nonetheless denied the right to decide her fate and is unknowingly fed the blood of vampire Damon Salvatore (Ian Somerhalder). 

Image: Netflix

Elena is similarly unwilling to turn, and is in fact actively opposed to the prospect. In the season two finale “The Last Day,” Elena is the intended sacrificial victim of Klaus Mikaelson (Joseph Morgan). Klaus’ brother Elijah (Daniel Gillies) offers a solution: Elena will be sacrificed, but her death will be reversible thanks to an elixir. Damon, however, does not trust the elixir and forces Elena to drink his blood. This will ensure that she will turn into a vampire should she die. Not only does Elena have her choice taken away from her, she is adamantly opposed to the idea of becoming a vampire, telling her boyfriend Stefan Salvatore (Paul Wesley), “ I was supposed to grow up. Decide if I want to have kids and start a family. Grow old. […] I never wanted to be [a vampire].” The choice that Damon attempts to make for her is exactly opposite to how she wants her life to play out. However, the series does not present this as an unforgivable action. While it definitely causes temporary rifts in Damon’s relationship with the other characters, it is ultimately forgiven, emphasizing the idea that men taking absolute control over women’s lives is acceptable.

Image: Netflix

The fact that vampirism creates familial problems for both Caroline and Elena is a further example of the postfeminist politics of the series. Although family is a strong theme throughout the show, even among the male characters (Damon and Stefan, for example, are brothers), the female characters who are turned are more likely than the male characters to vocalize how vampirism will complicate their family as their primary concern. Not only are the women faced with the prospect of being unwilling turned into vampires (usually by male vampires), they are further restrained by their familial allegiances or hopes. Family and the domestic sphere are traditionally associated with femininity, and we have no way of knowing if Elena’s attitude towards her own impending vampirism would change if she were not concerned about her ability to one day build a traditional heterosexual family. Alternatively, when Tyler Lockwood (Michael Trevino), a werewolf, is turned into a werewolf-vampire hybrid in the season two episode “The Reckoning,” his reaction is (at least initially) a good one. While holding hands with his girlfriend Caroline, he tells her that he feels “phenomenal […]. Everything’s just…better.” While his turning was forced upon him by Klaus, his reaction stands in sharp contrast to the reactions of the female characters who are turned into vampires. Tyler has no vocalized concerns about his current or future family dynamics, and instead is enjoying the change, not interpreting it as a traumatic experience. While later plot developments will show a change in Tyler’s attitude, his initial reaction illustrates the different ways that male and female characters on the show interpret their supernatural changes.

Image: Netflix

If we read the different reactions that Elena and Tyler have to their changing supernatural status as a gender difference, then we can read their reactions in terms of how gender is performed. Judith Butler defines gender as being performative. She says, “we act and walk and speak and talk in ways that consolidate an impression of being a man or being a woman.” Instead of being a gender, gender is something we perpetuate through our daily actions. When it comes to gender performativity, it tends to be very binary, especially when represented in media. Women tend to be portrayed as passive, nurturing, and fragile, while men are portrayed as active, strong, and providers. This is something we can also attribute to hegemonic masculinity and emphasized femininity, both of which rely heavily on gender roles. The nurturing trait delegated to women as part of emphasized femininity is often used as a plot device in media that usually results in a woman sacrificing herself or her own desires for the good of a male character. Throughout The Vampire Diaries, a recurring theme is that of women making sacrifices for the good of male characters. 

Image: Netflix

For example, in Season 6, Episode 5: “The World has Turned and Left Me Here,” Bonnie Bennett, a witch, and Damon Salvatore, a vampire, are trapped in a magical prison world with another witch named Kai Parker. The prison world was built to contain Kai, who murdered his entire coven. When Damon and Bonnie arrive, he quickly threatens them into helping him escape. Bonnie and Damon manage to get the tools they need to escape and successfully avoid Kai, up until the very moment when they’re about to transport back to their regular world. Kai shows up and maims Bonnie, whose first concern is about sending Damon back to the regular world. She forces him to escape, which leaves her trapped in the prison world with Kai. This instance is not uncommon. In the past, due to Bonnie Bennett being one of the only, and strongest witches they know, she often has to clean up the messes of Damon and Stefan Salvatore. Bonnie is not often involved in decision making, but without fail, she is always involved in resolving the situation. Even though Bonnie often has ideas and wants to give her input, the male vampires, especially Damon, threaten her into remaining passive, therefore revoking her agency. 

In “(Un)safe Sex: Romancing the Vampire”, Karen Backstein writes about female heroines and how the revival of vampire literature in popular culture is female centric and is all about female desire. Backstein writes, “This is not to say that vampire narratives are necessarily feminist. Their degree of girl power varies..”. Although the show has a female protagonist and focuses on female desire, the show is decidedly not feminist. While women are the main focus, they are often given backseat roles and suffer in place of the male characters. 

Image: Netflix

For instance, as is this case with Liv Parker, a witch. In Season 6, Episode 5: “The World has Turned and Left Me Here”, she befriends and has romantic interest in Tyler, a werewolf. There are two instances in which she makes sacrifices for Tyler’s sake. The first one is when Tyler and Liv are driving and someone runs out into the road. Tyler swerves to avoid hitting them, because if he kills someone, his werewolf gene will be activated. He ends up swerving into a corn maze and hits another person with his car. The person is near death, and Liv, knowing that if the person dies Tyler’s werewolf gene will be activated, suffocates them before he can die from injury. Tyler protests, but makes no move to stop her. Liv makes the sacrifice of killing someone else in order to save Tyler from the pain of transitioning into a werewolf every full moon. Even though Tyler protests and asks her what she’s doing, he doesn’t stop her because her actions will end up benefiting him. While death is common in The Vampire Diaries, Liv is a witch and has only ever killed two people, one of which was accidental. Her killing the victim is another act of nurture and care; she suffers so that Tyler doesn’t have to. 

Image: Netflix

In another instance of self sacrifice, in Season 6, Episode 22: “I’m Thinking of You All the While”, Tyler and Liv are brutally injured and are near death after an attack by Liv’s brother, Kai. Tyler has still not activated his werewolf gene, which would heal his injuries. Knowing this, Liv urges Tyler to kill her so he can survive. Tyler initially protests, but again, he goes through with her plan. They exchange a heartfelt goodbye and then Tyler kills her. Liv makes the ultimate sacrifice of dying in order for Tyler to survive. This complies with notions of emphasized femininity, which involves women serving men and catering to their needs before their own. In this situation, Liv is serving Tyler by giving him her life. She’s taking care of Tyler the way she knows how, by putting him first even if it means giving up her own life.

Image: Netflix

In the episode “The Sacrifice,” Elena is prepared to sacrifice herself to Klaus to save her friends and goes to another vampire’s house to wait for him. Damon catches wind of her plan and shows up to bring her home. Elena refuses, and she and Damon fight. The fight ends when Damon catches her fist and threatens to break her arm. Although Elena is physically hurt by Damon, this scene is meant to illustrate the fact that he cares about her wellbeing. In her essay on vampire romances, Wisker writes that, “Seeking romance, young women are easy targets for passive-aggressive or violent partners, whether alive or undead.” Elena, seventeen and recently bereaved, is a perfect candidate to illustrate her point. Throughout the series, Elena is regularly prevented from making her own life decisions, occasionally being physically held back by the men in her life. This physical restraint is representative of the way that the show takes away the agency of the show’s lead female character, with whom the audience is meant to identify. However, this passive-aggressiveness and overbearing control is generally excused by the fact that the controlling men are Elena’s romantic love interests; the show encourages viewers to conflate romance and domination, “[normalizing] pain […] as a necessary feature of romantic relationships” (Kelly). 

While emphasized femininity is about women being fragile and needing physical protection, more often than not, these “weak” women usually aid men emotionally. A common thread in The Vampire Diaries is of salvation and redemption. Women often act as the “saviors” of these bad men.  Men are repeatedly committing harmful acts and then asking for forgiveness or salvation. Stefan Salvatore and Damon Salvatore are both included in this. Stefan is revealed many times in the show to not be a normal vampire. Instead, he’s what they call a “ripper”, meaning that he can’t have any human blood because he has no self control; he rips people to shreds. 

Mukherjea details that recent vampire stories “all share a distinctly sympathetic view of the love between a young, high school aged human girl-woman and a blood-drinking boy-man who is taking pains to refrain from killing humans or to turn his beloved into a vampire,” which is the case of Elena and Stefan. Backstein writes that, “across every medium, from books to films to television, today’s vampire at least…has transformed into an alluring combination of danger and sensitivity, a handsome romantic hero haunted by his lust for blood and his guilt for the humans he killed in the past.” Part of Elena’s draw to Stefan over Damon is the ways in which they heal each other; Stefan helps Elena with her grief and Elena reminds Stefan that no matter what he’s done, he’s still a good person. 

Image: Netflix

Damon, on the other hand, repeatedly commits unforgivable acts such as murdering Elena’s friends, turning random people into vampires for fun, and putting Elena in situations she doesn’t want to be in. When Elena later falls in love with Damon and dates him, their relationship is the same. Damon even describes how Elena is the only reason he’s a “good” vampire now. Elena tries to change him during their relationship, but she usually ends up having to change her morals to redeem Damon’s actions. 

Image: Netflix

While The Vampire Diaries does center a female protagonist and revolve around the subject of female desire, the show is ultimately not feminist in its politics. The female characters are repeatedly sidelined, turned into vampires against their will, and are also put into situations where their sacrifice is needed for the greater good. The female characters constantly play into gender roles of servitude and their own agency is consistently revoked.

Sources:

Backstein, K. (2009). (Un)safe Sex: Romancing the Vampire. Cinéaste, 35(1), 38-41. Retrieved November 19, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/41690852.

BigThink. “Judith Butler: Your Behavior Creates Your Gender | Big Think.” YouTube, YouTube, 6 June 2011, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bo7o2LYATDc. 

Mukherjea, A. (2011). My Vampire Boyfriend: Postfeminism, “Perfect” Masculinity, and the Contemporary Appeal of Paranormal Romance. Studies in Popular Culture, 33(2), 1-20. Retrieved November 19, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2341638.

Kelly, C. R. (2016). Melodrama and Postfeminist Abstinence: The Twilight Saga (2008-2012). In Abstinence Cinema: Virginity and the Rhetoric of Sexual Purity in Contemporary Film (pp. 24-53). Rutgers University Press. 

Wisker, G. (2019). Postfeminist Gothic. In M. Wester & X. A. Reyes (Eds.), Twenty-First-Century Gothic (pp. 47-59). Edinburgh University Press.

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