Dracula, Gender, and the unbearable shiteness of being Victorian

I’m reading a lot of Classic Literature at the mo. Not because I want to (far from it), but because I am compelled to by two facts which may at first seem unrelated. The first is that is I am the owner of a Kindle. And the second? Well, the second is that I am a tight-arse (there, I’ve said it). Susie, gifted as she is with great generosity of spirit, calls me Mr.Thrifty, but this is to gild the stingy lily, I’m afraid.

So how does being a Kindle-owning Scrooge lead to a consumption of the Classics? Well, it’s because their authors are long dead, and this means that the books are in the public domain – ie free – if you know where to find them. One such place is gutenberg.org. Dicken’s A Christmas Carol – to take one example at random – can be downloaded here.

Which is all a very roundabout way of explaining why I recently read Bram Stoker’s Dracula (download here). Dracula is kind of like the Bible – and not just because you can download both for free at gutenberg.org (Hang on just a second! Does the fact that the Bible is in the public domain prove that God is dead?). No, the parallel I meant to draw your attention to is that they are both books you think you know because they are so constantly referred to and referenced in other texts and contexts, but which very few people have actually read. Well, I have now read it, and it wasn’t entirely what I expected. It was, for example, much more difficult than I anticipated to distinguish heroes from villains, particularly when it came to their treatment of women.

You see, another way in which Dracula is like the Bible (as it turns out) is that both are often found in the same sentence as the word ‘misogyny’ – though when it comes to range and complexity in the representation of women, the Bible leaves Dracula for dead (pardon the pun). It is almost as if Bram Stoker set out to write this book as an exemplification of the virgin/whore dichotomy. The women in his novel are either wanton, undead temptresses or chaste ‘ideals’ of womanhood who serve as a passive prize to be fought over by the competing forces of male desire and male virtue. Mina Harker, the ‘heroine’ of Dracula, is at times given credit for her insight and intelligence, but this is fleeting, and in the later parts of the novel she evolves into a kind of Delphic Oracle, giving her male protectors access to the mind of Dracula under hypnosis, but aside from that she is more a liability than an asset in their pursuit of the Count. As was the case in Pedro Almodovar’s Talk to Her, the message in Dracula seems to be that the only good/useful woman is a woman in a coma.

Now, like Mina Harker, my daughter is also a Victorian woman, though in her case it  refers to an area and not an era. This parallel did, though, cause me to reflect on how much better it will be for her to be a 21st Century Victorian. Obviously, things are infinitely better for girls and women now than they were then, and in countless ways. And yet as the popularity of True Blood and the Twilight series reminds us, we still live in a world of Vampires and Heroes, and those Vampires and Heroes remain, with few exceptions, male. Have things really changed that much?

It is easy from our vantage point to see the rapacious sexuality of Count Dracula as the return of the Victorian repressed – the distorted return of the powerful sexual forces that Victorian society sought to control and deny. Yet is that what we have done with the equally powerful forces that exist between the sexes? Is this what has conjured up our own vampires?

My friend Patrick put a link on Facebook to the following story on sexual harassment in the online gaming world (see here). The article talks about the amount of gender-based abuse that women who game online are subjected to. In part, it is the so-called ‘Online Disinhibition Effect’ that gets the blame; how the anonymity of the online gaming world results in people saying things to each other that they never would in other contexts.

As I read the article I was struck by how many parallels there were to what we see in Dracula. The vampire and gamer misogynist both sleep during the day, a time when they are weak and vulnerable (owing in both cases to their woefully inadequate diets?), whereas at night, they come alive (as a virtual/undead – replicating the form but not the essence of real existence), and are transformed from dusk til dawn into invulnerable agents of havoc and destruction – doing and saying all the things that daytime society has denied, disallowed or repressed.

I’m sure in the Victorian Age they genuinely believed that they had outgrown the animal urges of earlier generations, just as we do. Are we as deluded as they were? As I watch male toddlers repeatedly hitting, pushing and snatching toys from my daughter, I am reminded how much work there is (and always will be) for parents to do, to prevent today’s toddlers from becoming tomorrow’s perpetrators and victims of sexual harassment and abuse (online or otherwise).

I certainly don’t want it to be necessary for stakes to be driven into the hearts of any of Tilly’s future boyfriends, though if it has to happen I want it to be her with the mallet in her hand, and not me.

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