Thursday, June 2, 2011

Buffy vs. Dracula

(See the video version here)

Count Dracula: classic movie monster. He ruled with tyranny over the Romanian people for centuries before making his move on England. With dark sex appeal, his power over characters Lucy and Mina fueled women’s rape fantasies for over a century.

Buffy Summers: symbol of girl power. Her superhuman strength and excellent fashion sense enables her to effectively protect the denizens of Sunnydale from the vampire menace with style. With wit and attitude, her subversion of classic damsel-in-distress imagery provides a feminist twist to the horror genre.

What would happen were these two characters to meet and interact?

Dracula: “I am Dracula.”
Buffy: (starstruck) “Get out!”

The first episode of the fifth season “Buffy vs. Dracula” allows for a contrast between the classic vampire fiction of Dracula and the modern ‘90s’ Buffy the Vampire Slayer. While generally looked down upon for having absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the season, I think it’s an entertaining standalone episode offering a contemplative look at the implications of the series and how it relates to vampire fiction overall. The title is simply a reference to the goofy crossovers common to horror movies, but it can also be thought of as Buffy, the series vs. Dracula, the general story.

Count Dracula is a patriarchal rapist figure. Representing Victorian xenophobia, he is the creepy foreigner who passes himself off as respectable only to prey on innocent English women. He creeps into women’s rooms and forces himself on them by drinking from them until they surrender to him. It’s a rape metaphor. In upper class Victorian society, this was the only way you could really write anything remotely racy. Dracula is ultimately defeated by Mina’s fiancĂ©e Jonathan Harker and the wise Prof. Van Helsing.

It’s a different world in modern day Sunnydale. Count Dracula doesn’t have quite the same influence. He is unable to integrate himself directly with the Scooby Gang and has to be upfront about who he is. He’s proud of his reputation as a vampire and was responsible for his story getting out in the first place.

The classic Dracula rape imagery coupled with Bela Lugosi’s good looks made Dracula the original vampire bad boy and forerunner to Edward Cullen. In Buffy, Dracula is still regarded as sexy. All the women fawn over him, even Willow, who’s supposed to be only attracted to women at this point. Anya’s obvious attraction to Dracula makes Xander feel insecure, which opens him up to being enthralled by Dracula, who turns him into a bug-eater like Renfield.

It could be my modern perspective seeing things out of context, but I’ve always regarded Dracula’s enslavement of Renfield as homoerotic in nature. The Buffy writers play with this a bit with Dracula’s enslavement of Xander, as well as treating Xander’s new desire to become a vampire like an addiction to coke. This is morbidly appropriate considering the actor’s later addiction. When Xander comes out of the thrall, he rages at Dracula, but the violation of his mind is ultimately treated as comedic, in contrast to Dracula’s violation of Buffy.

While still the rapist figure as in the classic story, Dracula initially approaches Buffy almost as equals. He is attracted to her because of her power. She is able to kill very effectively and with such passion that he admires her as someone like him, which is very different from the classic Dracula’s simply asserting dominance over helpless women. Nevertheless, Dracula tries to make Buffy his in a similar display, visiting her at night and enthralling her in a manner akin to Drusilla’s attack on Kendra.

Much like Jonathan Harker and Van Helsing taking charge of the situation, Riley and Giles recognize Buffy has been compromised and have her stay at Xander’s while they hunt down Dracula themselves. Of course, Xander is under the thrall of the Dark Prince, so Buffy ends up facing him anyway. She tries to pull a fast one on him, but Dracula’s mind control overpowers her. He makes her drink from him, which was in the original Dracula. I could be reading too much into this, but the way she drinks looks really suggestive of oral sex. It’s a little ambiguous what happens next, but her Slayer power is stimulated and she comes out of the thrall. Dracula tries to recover his grip on her mind, but her will is too strong, mirroring Dracula’s failed attempt to control Van Helsing. Buffy’s position as victim is over and she’s back to being the Slayer, effectively taking over the classic male role of Van Helsing.

As for Riley and Giles, they never even make it to Dracula. The castle is just too big, and Giles gets distracted by the Three Sisters. Commonly referred to as the Brides of Dracula, these three vampire women live with Dracula in his home castle. In the original novel, it’s unclear if they’re supposed to be Dracula’s brides; some have suggested they are supposed to be his daughters. In any case, they are submissive women who worship Dracula and seductively prey on men. Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency recently commented on how they reproduce the misogynistic Lilith figure represented by the Evil Demon Seductress trope. I also think it’s problematic how their sexual dominance over Giles is portrayed as comedic instead of abuse. Giles even tries to go back to them after Riley rescues him. Because men are thought to always want sex, there is a persistent idea that men can’t be raped, leading to this kind of depiction. The Three Sisters themselves are presented as sex objects for the male gaze, while Giles embodies humorous male debauchery. The issue of abuse, very present in the novel, is never brought up here, although they probably would have eaten him at some point.

Buffy defeats Dracula, and he leaves Sunnydale. The battle’s done, and she kinda won. She resists the thrall of the most famous vampire ever. It’s a feminist subversion of the classic vampire pseudo-rape fantasy. Its biggest weakness, however, is with the male Scoobies, specifically Xander and Giles. While Dracula’s violation of Buffy’s mind is treated with utmost respect, Dracula’s violation of Xander’s mind and the Three Sisters’ molestation of Giles are treated disrespectfully as comic relief. As feminism is about gender equality, a more feminist handling of the episode would be to treat each abuse seriously. You can imagine how subversive it would be to the Dracula story to feature a heroine standing up for male as well as female autonomy by staking the evil rapist and then keeping him in a dustbuster or something.


Anonymous said...

I'm posting this out of disgust. You severely misuse the word rapist, it's offensive to real victims of such crimes that you call anything seductive 'rapist'. It's not funny. It's not cute. And it's not hip. I don't know why you thought it would be amusing or right to call the Dracula character a rapist. There is no sex in that Buffy episode or the Dracula novel. It's not something to make fun of and you should be ashamed of yourself.

Dragonclaws said...

He isn't a literal rapist, but there are definite rape-y vibes about him. Dracula was published in an era and to a social class that would not have accepted literal sex, but Bram Stoker put plenty of implication in the text. This is accepted as fact among historians. The well-known 1931 adaptation was also during a period of cinematic censorship, keeping them restricted to implication, which I think they pulled off rather well with Bela Lugosi forcing himself on women--even if he is trying to drink their blood.

Dracula isn't seductive; he's coercive in a psuedo-sexual manner, similar to the creatures of the Alien series. The fact that Dracula's head doesn't look like a penis shouldn't make you think he isn't just as much of a rapist symbolically. Book Dracula was ugly, but because Bela Lugosi was attractive, people started associating him with being sexy. A sexy person is still capable of symbolic rape, but because he's sexy, he's now "seductive". Try watching Nosferatu and claiming Ellen is seduced by Orlock. Orlock is basically the same as Dracula, but because he's ugly, people are quicker to view him as a monster. People may not use the word rape, but they'll say something like "Orlock attacking her has sexual connotations that make it creepy". Force plus sex equals rape. Symbolically, Dracula/Orlock counts as a rapist.

In the series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, they could get away with a sex scene, so I can understand how Dracula's rape threat being less than literal would come across as being nonexistent, but you have to consider where he came from. He was used as a rapist metaphor, and that implication is brought with him. Multiple things he does come from sources old enough to be sexual metaphors. Him coming into Buffy's room and imposing his will on the feminist figure of Buffy has certain implications that I can't ignore. When Buffy eventually turns on him, it's a rejection of the patriarchal dynamic Dracula represents, a big part of that being the rape metaphor about him. Other rape metaphors Buffy's encountered include the Master biting her ("Prophecy Girl"), Oz's wolf form ("Phases"), the snake demon the frat boys were trying to feed her and Cordelia to ("Reptile Boy"), the old woman with the penis-shaped second head that spits paralyzing liquid ("Doublemeat Palace"), and the Watchers forcing the demon spirit into the First Slayer ("Get It Done").