Count Dracula’s Brides – Misogynist Femme Fatale Victims of Racism
‘Femme fatale’, or French for fatal woman, is a characteristic attributed to various women in mass media and popular culture. Not only have countless novels been written, and movies made, on this vicious-yet-attractive female figure, this representation has also been plastered over various women in history. I believe the female vampire characters of Bram Stoker’s Dracula represent misogynist representations of femme fatale figures, in that their popular perceptions are not only sexist in nature, but also have an underlying racial connotation attached to them.
Originally published in1897, Bram Stoker’s novel ‘Dracula’ is the first vampire story of its kind, the root from which the rest of vampire stories sprung. Considered one of the classics in the horror genre of English literature, the novel narrates the story of the Transylvanian Count Dracula. A blood-sucking supernatural vampire(albeit with various physical limitations such as a severe allergy to garlic etc), he hopes to gain control of London, and is followed by the other main characters of the novel – the self-righteous human beings – who have vowed to rid the world of this evil. To anyone who has read this novel, ‘Dracula’ would appear to be more of a criticism and/or concern of the Victorian ideals of female sexuality, combined with the innate racism displayed by its characters, than anything else. The femme fatale figures of this novel are Dracula’s three beautiful, seductive, and evil brides, as well as a previously human, and now a very sexually aggressive vampire, Lucy Westenra.
Edward Said’s concept of ‘Orientalism’ helps understand how discourses of racism manifest themselves in the above mentioned femme fatale figures. Orientalism, for those unaware, refers to the Western perception of the East as being exotic, yet inferior(Said). The process of orientalism establishes the western society as the standard or the norm, against which the eastern societies can be judged. “Orientalism depends for its strategy on this flexible positional superiority, which puts the Westerner in a whole series of possible relationships with the orient without ever losing him the relative upperhand”(Said 6). This theory makes itself very obvious in Dracula. While the story does not move beyond Europe’s borders, covering only Transylvania and London, the fear of the ‘other’ and the ‘unknown’ is still intact. What threatens the model Victorian society the most, in this novel, is the ‘outsider’ Count Dracula coming to London and turning Victorian women into his kind; the sexual and voluptuous vampires. The relatively dark-skinned, dark-haired Transylvanian people instilled fear in the minds of Victorian men, fear that could only be related to an unaware form of racism. When one of the main characters of the novel, Jonathan Harker, comes across Count Dracula’s brides, he notes “two were dark, and had high acquiline noses, like the Count, and great dark piercing eyes […] there was something about them that made me uneasy, some longing and some deadly fear”(Stoker 69). Ofcourse, the deadly fear mainly comes from the fact that Harker is already aware of Dracula’s supernatural being, but given the amount of time Harker spends describing the ‘weird’ and exotic Transvylvania, and it’s even scarier and exotic Count Dracula living in a centuries old Gothic castle in the preceding chapters and passages, shows an underlying form of ‘unaware/self-righteous’ racism. This term was used by Gloria Yamato in her article ‘Something about the subject makes it hard to name’(Yamato 66), and explains how the “good whites” position themselves against the inferior “bad whites”, and proceed to shame them by criticizing their very being, something Harker here is doing in his mind. The exotically beautiful femme fatales of Trasvylvania, the brides of Dracula, sexually incite the righteous Victorian male, and at the same time, represent a fear of the Transvylanian ‘other’ gaining control over a Victorian idealistic man. It must be noted that Transylvania has been home to various other monsters or villains of literature, such as the very famous Frankenstein’s creature. Perhaps the very name or image of the location creates fear of the mysterious place.
Further inspection of the literary text and the historical figure displays the ability of femme fatales to be both misogynist and agential representations, given their background context. Starting with ‘Dracula’, Lucy Westenra’s character can be observed in its highly misogynist representation of the fatal woman. Before she falls prey to Count Dracula, Lucy is the ideal Victorian woman, chaste, virgin, and in complete control of her sexuality(which in Victorian times in the nineteenth century meant complete repression of it until marriage). She is liked and desired by many men not only for her beauty, but also for her sexual innocence(Stoker). When Dracula preys on her and turns her into a vampire, it is established that Lucy has broken her limitations as an ideal Victorian woman, as the fact that Dracula cannot cross a threshold without being invited implies that Lucy must have invited him in her room at night. Upon learning of her now vampire state, the men around Lucy go to her coffin to kill her the proper way of eliminating vampires, however, they are surprised to find a very sexually suggestive and aggressive Lucy. “The sweetness was turned to adamantine, heartless and cruelty, and the purity to voluptuous wantonness”(Stoker 249), notes a man upon discovering a now-vampire Lucy. The author uses the word “voluptuous” repeatedly, with a high sexual connotation attached to it. It is only when she is finally killed, that she is returned to her pure, innocent, Victorian ideal state(Stoker 55). The entire chapter dealing with Lucy’s death very vividly shows the nineteenth century Victorian male’s obsession with women’s sexuality, and his want to control it. Sigmund Freud’s concept of psychoanalysis stipulates that men want to contain and control the women around them due to the fear of their castration by the female, and this leads them to overly fetishize the female body form. This then results into female sexual body parts becoming exaggerated in the male perception, and become over-endowed with double meaning(Hayward 133). This concept is reflected in how the men around Lucy notice her “voluptuousness” over and over, and feel threatened by her sexuality because it means losing control over her body, and in a bigger picture, over the Victorian society. When Lucy’s sexuality becomes over-exaggerated to the men around her, as per Freud’s psychoanalysis, it reveals the creation of Lucy’s image as a femme fatale, albeit one created out of the Victorian male’s misogyny and firm belief in upholding patriarchy. The fact that these men want to destroy Lucy more for her sexual aggressiveness than anything else, to keep their own male superiority intact, shows the extreme male chauvinistic mentality they possess, the mentality Stoker is either criticizing, or upholding.
Whether Bram Stoker upheld Victorian standards of female sexuality and racial ideals, or whether he used his excellent literary piece to present his criticism of the stated, it is perhaps entirely up to the reader’s perception and interpretation.
What do you think?
Stoker, Bram. Dracula. Peterborough, ON, Canada: Broadview Press Ltd, 2000. Print.
Yamato, Gloria. “Something About the Subject Makes it Hard to Name.” 65-70. Print.
Hayward, Susan. Cinema Studies: The Key Concepta. 3rd. New York: Routledge , 2006. Print.
Mackie, Vera. “The Metropolitan Gaze: Travellers, Bodies, and Spaces.” Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific 4 (2000): n. pag. Web. 17 Mar 2010. http://intersections.anu.edu.au/issue4/vera.html.
Said, Edward. Orientalism. 1-28. Print.