In the Smart Pop Classics series, we share greatest hits from our throwback essay collections. This week, Sarah Reese Brennan dives into gender dynamics in her essay “Women Who Love Vampires Who Eat Women” from A Visitor’s Guide to Mystic Falls.
Buffy Summers and Bella Swan. What do they have in common? I know, they have the same initials. Isn’t that weird?
Oh, and they both date vampires.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer first aired in 1997, and Twilight was published in 2005. But in 1991, before these fanged giants appeared on the scene, a series called The Vampire Diaries was already wooing the teen set.
And by the teen set, I mean me.
L.J. Smith was my Stephenie Meyer. When I was fourteen, I read The Vampire Diaries and immediately had to read all her other books, too. Vampires with diaries. Vampires fighting the apocalypse. Psychic vampires. You may well ask: what is a psychic vampire? He drank psychic power, I don’t know. What I do know is, he had to kiss her neck to drink her psychic power, and it was awesome. And it wasn’t cheating on her boyfriend either, because he had to drink her psychic powers or he would die. Save a life! Do the noble thing and let a hot boy suck on your neck!
Therein lies the innate appeal of the vampire boyfriend. He’s dangerous, but he is lonely. He needs you, and by sheer virtue of the fact he wants and needs you so much, your companionship after hundreds of lonely years combined with the delicious blood he cannot help but want, you have a certain power over him. He is a beautiful path to death and at the same time a promise of eternal life. It’s easy to see—and thousands have—the allure of a vampire boyfriend. But what kind of woman is both able and willing to forge a relationship with a vampire? Buffy had superpowers, and could pose a bigger threat to vampires than they did to her. Bella was willing to become a vampire, to submerge her human self completely in the experience of vampiric love. The Vampire Diaries’ Elena Gilbert is balancing between Buffy and Bella, and I think doing a pretty damn good job.
Elena is a more normal girl than Buffy or Bella. Buffy by her very nature was part of the vampire world already, and able to protect herself within it. Bella embraced the vampire world and insisted on becoming part of it. Elena is so far resolutely human and thus fragile, but she has to deal with the complications of living in a world where the supernatural is real. So does almost everyone in Mystic Falls, but Elena is the first teenager to learn about the vampires. She is the one most often in danger and the one most aware of the fact that she and everyone else are in danger
To be loved by a vampire is to be hugely vulnerable, perilously close to the things that go bump in the night. It is also to have great power, but it is kind of a problematic power, as you get a lot of it through your vampire boyfriend. The Vampire Diaries acknowledges this while never losing sight of who Elena is as a person, by making her vulnerable but never entirely helpless.
The Vampire Diaries is a show that’s obviously very aware of its heritage—not just the books it’s loosely based on, but the other hugely successful vampire media that came before it. At first—let’s all face it—we saw the promotional materials, the girl with the sad face and the salon-perfect long brown hair staring off into the distance as if communing with an invisible angsty vampire boyfriend, and we said unto ourselves, “Selves! Shameless Twilight rip-off, twelve o’clock.”
We were soon to find out that The Vampire Diaries is not imitating but building on the foundations of its predecessors, constantly turning the tropes of vampire fiction on their heads. Unlike Buffy or Bella, Elena is not the new girl in school. She is pretty, popular, and in no way an outcast, but she has been changed by her parents’ recent death. Through it, she became one acquainted with death both literally and figuratively, as we learn later, because the day her parents died was also the day Stefan saved Elena and saw her for the first time. Having lost her parents, she’s been made both more mature and more restless, seeking for answers and meaning in life, ready for a challenge. It’s easy to see how someone immortal could appeal to her. Having shaken loose her sweet, decent boyfriend Matt, it’s even easier to see that she might be wanting someone a little dangerous. She is in a place where a vampire boyfriend might appeal to her, but she also has the roots and support system to deal with a vampire boyfriend without losing her sense of self. Unlike Buffy, with her slayer destiny, or Bella, uprooted from her home and swept into Edward’s arms, Elena has a choice. She has her own life to lead, and solid ground to stand on while she chooses either to be with Stefan or not—and since her choice is so clearly her own, once made, we believe in it.
Caroline: You know that girl in a book or a movie? You know, the IT girl? Who all the boys go nuts for, the center of attention even though she doesn’t really want to be, everyone’s first choice?
Everyone: Sure. The main character.
Caroline: Being friends with that girl gives you a hella inferiority complex. And it kinda sucks.
The problems within these relationships make them seem real, however—just as real as the romance. We believe Caroline and Bonnie love Elena, and she loves them back. Bonnie loves Elena so much that Elena was kidnapped so Bonnie would do anything to save the hostage, and in the finale Bonnie’s love for Elena triumphed over her horror of vampires, and she used magic to save Damon and Stefan.
Likewise, when Bonnie revealed her magic to Elena, Elena was filled with joy and wonder for her. In Elena we see someone whose capacity for love and loyalty can encompass even a creature of the night: we believe Elena loves fiercely and irrevocably because we see her fiercely loving a great many more people than just Stefan. We see enough of Elena’s capacity for love and loyalty that we can even envision it extending to Damon.
Of course, it is always a question of Damon, as well as Stefan. Because the show has two attractive vampire boys for the price of one, it can do very interesting things with the entire concept of a vampire boyfriend. Stefan is the good vampire boyfriend, and Damon is the bad one. By separating out the two sides we can see even more clearly how very alluring, but also how very disturbing, a vampire boyfriend can be.
We see Stefan, as the good vampire boyfriend, controlling his bloodlust to such a degree that even when it broke out we never thought his love for Elena was sublimated bloodlust: he was shown as desiring to attack other people, relative strangers to him, and not her, whom he saw as beloved rather than food. When Stefan was at his most unstable and Elena went to him, comforting him, and he put his face in the curve of her neck, we were electrified with doubt about Stefan and fear for Elena. We thought we were seeing the reckless, almost suicidal trust Bella has for Edward.
Elena: There, there, sweetheart! You mistook a blonde full of delicious blood for a donut full of delicious jelly. It could happen to anyone.
Stefan: Oh Elena, what would I do without you? I must nuzzle your delicate neck in love and angst.
Audience: Neck. Blood-crazed vampire. Blood-crazed vampire, neck! Does this not strike you as a bad combination?
Elena: Please do. There, there. Everything’s going to be okay once I STAB YOU WITH THIS VERVAIN DART AND LOCK YOU IN THE BASEMENT TO DETOX.
Audience: Elena Gilbert, I think I love you.
Elena: Damon, get his legs.
It was a classic Vampire Diaries move, showing us the exact opposite of what we expected to see. More than that, it showed that Elena’s wit and nerve mean she can handle herself, that she’s not wrong to trust herself, and that she’s not wrong to trust Stefan. We see exactly why Elena might put her heart in Stefan’s hands, and we feel sympathy for and complicity with her decision. But then we, like Elena, have to deal with the fact that once you open the door for one monster, others might slide in.
Others like bad vampire “boyfriend” Damon. We see Damon watching a sleeping Elena, and we are both moved and disturbed by this romantic gesture à la Twilight’s Edward Cullen—because this isn’t Elena’s boyfriend. She would undoubtedly not want him in her room, beholding her unconscious, touching her hair as she sleeps: the scene was as creepy as it was revealing of Damon’s softer side.
The Vampire Diaries never shies away from the unsettling aspects of vampirism. It steers a middle course between Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s stance of “vampires have no souls, that’s a demon with the memory of the person you knew” and Twilight’s of “that’s the same person, but my, does he have a mad jones for some B Negative.” In The Vampire Diaries we learn, quite a way into the game, that a vampire can choose to suppress certain human emotions. This makes a lot of sense, in that someone who used to be human and suddenly finds him- or herself having to prey on humans to survive would really need to be able to do that! It’s also very scary, in that a vampire in The Vampire Diaries is still the person you loved when they were human, but now they have not only a hunger for blood but the ability to transform into a sociopath at will and so feel no remorse about taking it.
Vampires being able to turn human emotions off and on also makes a lot of sense looking back at the actions of vampires we have seen, and shows us how clever the storytelling is. Damon’s constant drinking once he learned that his one true love Katherine never needed him to rescue her and never loved him at all made perfect sense the first time around— who wouldn’t drink having received that sort of news?—but can suddenly be seen in a new light when we observe Stefan drinking to control his bloodlust, remember Lexi saying that alcohol does that, and realize that Damon’s kill count has dropped dramatically.
Now we see that Damon was not dealing with loss by drinking to excess, but dealing with loss through cautiously reaching out to other people, Stefan and Elena and even Alaric, who may offer Damon affection.
Also, you have to stop being a psycho killer.
Damon as the bad vampire boyfriend is not the only example of the way The Vampire Diaries refuses to flinch from how dangerous vampires can be, and thus how much danger a human mixed up with them might find herself in. Vampires are shown as having an approach to things that truly is inhuman—even the good vampires. Damon “There Was Nothing on TV So I Killed Someone” Salvatore goes without saying, but even if good guy Stefan talks a good game, he obviously does not prioritize human life the same way a human would.
Other Character: That Damon, he is an evil piece of work. He’s like the president of Eviltonia.
Stefan: I know, you are so right, it makes me really upset.
Other Character: He should be put down like a rabid dog.
Stefan: You’re right, you’re right, I know you’re right.
Other Character: Okay then! I’ve got a stake, let’s—
Stefan: Don’t you dare hurt my brother!
Other Character: Whaaaaaat? But you said—
Stefan: Theoretically, Damon should be put down like a rabid dog. I thought we were just having a philosophical discussion! Put that stake away before someone gets hurt.
Other Character: Like Damon’s innocent vic—
Stefan: I MEAN SOMEONE IMPORTANT.
And why should he? Stefan’s not human, and he can’t see things the way a human can. At his most furious with Damon, he drugged him and locked him up in a cellar full of vervain and said he planned to put him in the family tomb and after fifty years, they’d reevaluate. This is not just an example of how stone-cold and also stone-cold-crazy the littlest Salvatore can be; it’s an example of how differently Stefan views the world. In fifty years or so, Elena will be dead. Humans are temporary, and vampires are eternal. In his plan, he could have Elena for her lifetime, and then get his brother back again.
Since the divide between vampires and humans is made so clear and so unsettling, that does bring us to another element of the vampire and vampire’s girlfriend relationship: there is a huge power imbalance. Elena is very brave, at one point fighting off a vampire with pencils in a move reminiscent of Buffy the Vampire Slayer—not the show, but the cheesy nineties movie in which Kristy Swanson stakes a vampire with a ruler. Elena is as brave as Buffy, but she doesn’t have superpowers. Despite her cleverness and courage, at a physical level she has no way of fighting vampires on equal ground. Elena is very, very vulnerable, as are the majority of the humans—mostly women—in The Vampire Diaries, and the show examines what the relationship between a vampire and a vulnerable human really means
When we see Damon compelling Caroline, we certainly don’t think, “Excellent work, Mr. Salvatore, please carry on,” but we are not exactly shocked, either. Dracula swoops on Lucy Westenra just like this. Dark handsome vampire bewitches and bewilders a screaming blonde . . . well, it’s a classic, isn’t it?
Until the show does what it does best: takes a familiar picture, and turns it on its head. In a flashback, we see Katherine controlling a human Stefan, and then we are shocked. Stefan Salvatore, our hero, is someone we’re used to seeing as a strong and capable vampire, a character with agency and a personality we know well. We see Katherine take all of that away. Stefan still remembers being compelled by Katherine. A century and more later he told Damon that it took him years to work out exactly what Katherine did to him. We see very clearly that Stefan was violated, that something terrible was done to him without his consent by someone who was having sex with him, and that it has affected his whole life. It’s only then that we realize exactly how much what Damon did to Caroline might affect her. We have yet to see how, but I have every confidence it will.
That’s not the only way the show underscores human vulnerability. Not only did Stefan give Elena a vervain necklace, a shield against his own kind, but Damon put the necklace back on Elena when she took it off. It was a tacit admission that compelling someone is deeply wrong: that it is something a vampire will not do to someone they love. Damon and Stefan showed their love for Elena by trying to make her less vulnerable—which highlighted how vulnerable she, or any other human, is in the presence of a vampire.
We don’t just see Stefan compelled by Katherine and Caroline compelled by Damon. We also see Katherine’s pupil Isobel, who compelled a man not to be gay so she could use him as a sex toy and blood bank, and compelled another man to kill himself. We see Jeremy, whose memories Damon wiped away, feeling wronged and confronting Damon and Elena about it. Neither Damon nor Elena can entirely justify their behavior, even though both of them meant it for the best. We keep being shown that vampires ruin your life and take away your will: I do think that Damon will have to pay for what he did to Caroline.
So I am super impressed by how thoughtful The Vampire Diaries is in its treatment of vampires and their relation to humans: positioning both men and women as vampires’ victims, and never waving either’s victimhood away. We viewers love Damon, who has the best lines and the best bone structure on the show, but we’re never allowed to ignore how very harmful he is.
However, the question of who is harmed and who has the power on this show is a little problematic. Women don’t fare very well on The Vampire Diaries. We have seen both Caroline and Vicki compelled and fed upon, and Elena only protected by the gift of vampire boyfriendly love. And women who can hold their own—at least the nonevil ones—tend not to stick around. Bonnie is a powerful witch, but the show isn’t called The Witch Diaries. It would be nice to see a sympathetic vampire woman who doesn’t die.
How, as a girl, do you survive appearing on The Vampire Diaries? I hope you guys can hang on a minute: I’m off to become a vampire and then—this is the most important part—join Team Evil. It’ll be great; I’ll get to wear revealing clothing and make out with Damon.
Best of all, I might live.
The first important vampire girl on the show was Vicki, Jeremy and Tyler’s sometime bad-girl girlfriend, who was turned into a vampire by Damon on a whim. She’d barely become a vampire before Stefan had to kill her because her bloodlust was out of control and she was going for Elena. Kevin Williamson said in an interview with TV Guide about this abrupt end to Vicki and Jeremy’s romance, “A love story between a vampire and a guy? We’re watching that on True Blood [with Jessica and Hoyt].” Good point, Mr. Williamson, we can’t have a minor plotline that involved a vampire girl and a human guy. Man, dodged that stake. Imagine what would be even worse: if both The Vampire Diaries and True Blood had major plotlines about a human girl who attracts two very different vampire guys! Wouldn’t that be terrib—uh. Look, a flying vampire! Gotta go.
As you can see, I was as unconvinced that Vicki needed killing as I was excited by the idea of seeing a vampire girl on the show, but part of the charm of The Vampire Diaries is that it has a very fast-moving plot, and people die early and often. Just before Vicki’s death the last Salvatore descendant, Zach, also died, and at Damon’s hands. “This is just the kind of crazy ride The Vampire Diaries is!” I told myself. Vicki’s death was, however, followed by the death of Lexi, an older, experienced vampire lady who was Stefan’s best friend. I winced then, but worse was to follow.
Pearl and Anna, the mother-daughter vampire pair, were definitely my favorite vampire ladies ever on the show. Pearl was old, wise, and never looked for trouble or put up with any nonsense, and Anna was smart, sometimes deceptive. No matter what men they loved, their first loyalty was always to each other. I particularly enjoyed that Anna and Jeremy’s romance was the one that actually echoed the relationship in Twilight more than any other relationship on the show, with Anna as Edward, much older and drawn to vulnerability and innocence, and Jeremy as fascinated and reckless as Bella. Jeremy is the one who wants to be a vampire, while Elena says she doesn’t; Jeremy is the one who immediately invited the vampire in and tempted her with his blood, while Elena’s first reaction on learning the truth about Stefan was to tell him she couldn’t be with him. The Vampire Diaries took a classic character, the damsel with a near death wish, and made her a boy, and we see how different Elena is by comparison.
Stefan, much younger and weaker, caught a stake that was shot at him. Pearl was killed by one. Anna was dragged off to a house to die, with Jeremy putting forth an amazingly poor effort at protecting her—he yelled at the men dragging her off, and that was all. Damon was in the same house, but naturally he lived.
“Yes, Ms. Rees Brennan,” you may be saying at this point. “The main characters of a show are unlikely to get killed off. Are you . . . new to television?”
I waited until the season one finale to write a large portion of this essay because I knew that depending on whether Anna survived or not, the essay would have a very different tone. Anna did not survive. On one hand, this was not exactly a surprise. The Vampire Diaries is notorious for killing off its characters—the only ones we can be sure are safe are Stefan, Damon, and Elena—and I do find the uncertainty and excitement of this appealing. But I also feel the show is the poorer for losing the last lady vampire we have seen so far who is not aligned on the side of evil. We are left with Katherine and Isobel, both of whom are very interesting and well-rounded characters who obviously have complex inner lives and softer sides—Isobel cares about Alaric and regrets becoming a vampire, and Katherine told Stefan she loved him and may have meant it. They are nevertheless positioned as the antagonists, and they both treat humans significantly worse than any of the sympathetic vampire characters do. They are both entirely removed from humanity. Apparently Isobel still loves Alaric, but there is no suggestion they can be together: apparently it’s okay for a human girl to have a vampire boyfriend, but not for a vampire girl to keep a human boy. If a vampire girl tries for a human boy—see Jeremy “Catnip for the Undead Lady” Gilbert—she will die for it.
“But a lot of people die in The Vampire Diaries!” you might say at this point. “You are simply quibbling!” In any show about vampires, there is the question of dying and coming back. On this show, there is a whole other method. Elena’s uncle Johnathan Gilbert and Alaric Saltzman, the vampire-slaying history teacher, were both killed, and both came back to life because they had magic rings. The point of these magic rings is to protect against death, a little bit the way sunscreen protects against sunburn. Please pass the Factor Immortality.
Only nobody is going to be passing the Factor Immortality to me: the two characters who are not vampires but came back from the dead are both men. After seeing a lot of vampire ladies killed and knowing the two vampire brothers will survive, seeing two more dudes get to survive death is a little much. This is part of the reason I was so pleased to see John Gilbert appear to meet a sticky end in his own kitchen in the finale! Speaking of death and The Vampire Diaries finale, in it Caroline, Matt, and Tyler were involved in a car accident. Caroline was seriously injured and spent the summer in surgery, with no promises she would be all right come season two. The guys in the car were okay, because the guys on this show are more likely to live, more likely to be supernatural (or wear life-saving supernatural objects), and more likely to, while being supernatural, still be on the side of light: see our List of Surviving Sympathetic Supernatural Characters. Bonnie with her magic, great! Two vampire brothers. One vampire slayer with a magic immortality ring. One possible pending vampire. One werewolf.
. . . Okay, I admit Tyler has not yet been confirmed on the show as a werewolf. But given the frequent scenes like this:
Tyler: I just don’t know why I keep acting out in violent or sexy ways! It’s so animalistic! I’m so out of control! What could be going on?
Camera: DRAMATIC LINGERING SHOT OF FULL MOON
Well, I guess Tyler could be a were chipmunk, but I’d lay you pretty good odds.
This is not just a problem for supernatural girls anymore. If Caroline dies as a result of her internal injuries—I do not think she will but there is always a chance with the tricksy, tricksy Vampire Diaries—that will leave us with Elena and Bonnie: She Who Is Beloved by Vampires and her token best friend forever who never ever gets any romance at all (the one time Bonnie scored a date all season, it was with an evil vampire who was only intent on her magical spell-casting ability, not her magical making-out skills). Both Elena and Bonnie are considerably more complex and interesting than those descriptors imply, but it would be a very familiar story to us: the story of Just the One Girl All the Boys Like, the girl surrounded by boys.
I am not exaggerating. Watch me do mathematics, without the aid of a safety net. The women of The Vampire Diaries are starting to look truly scarce in comparison to the men: we have Stefan, Damon, Jeremy, Tyler, Matt, and Alaric as main characters. If Caroline dies, the girls are outnumbered three to one.
There are excellent minor characters, like Caroline’s mother, Sheriff Forbes, and Elena’s guardian, Jenna, but they simply do not get the same screen time, number of lines, or involvement in major plot points. We’re given less opportunity to care about them and be interested by them: even Bonnie, arguably the secondmost important female character, disappeared for four episodes of the first season. If Damon disappeared for four episodes, the viewers would be hysterical. None more than me, I hasten to add: I would be swooning on the sofa with my smelling salts, in deep Damon withdrawal. But this doesn’t mean I want to go without Bonnie for that long either!
Part of what made me love this show was how different it is from other shows, and from what I was expecting the show to be at first. It’s different and it’s daring, and part of what made it so for me was seeing characters like Pearl and Anna, and seeing Elena’s bond with Bonnie and Caroline, and how important it was to her. The first time I loved Elena was when she went on the warpath to defend Caroline from Damon. Vicki and Anna should not just be fodder for Jeremy’s angst. We should not love Elena just because Stefan and Damon do.
I think The Vampire Diaries is an awesome show. I hope they will continue with their risky storytelling and their truly scary yet often truly sympathetic vampires. I do see a worrying trend developing, but I also see how much the show has done right, so despite my cries of sadness about Anna and my cries of “Save Caroline!” I remain a huge fan and will be waiting with breath that could not be more bated for season two—where the current deficiency of girls may be repaired by the arrival of Meredith, a friend of Elena’s from the books who has not yet appeared on the show.
The Vampire Diaries has done so well thus far that things can only get better. I think that we will continue to see why a vampire could not help but love a woman like Elena Gilbert, and how a woman like Elena could cope with loving a vampire. I am certain there are more fascinating, frustrating interactions between humans and vampires in Mystic Falls to come.
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