Feminist Fridays: "The Supernatural Powers of Young Women: Lesbian Vampirism and Queer Teenage Sexuality" by Brynne Rebele-Henry / by Aidan Forster

The lesbian vampire has become a trope, the sullen counterpart to the portrayal of heterosexual desire in horror, a genre that is rife with queer subtext/text. Historically, queer vampires are used as either anti-gay, anti-feminist propaganda, such as Regiment of Women,  a popular novel published in 1917 around the peak of the Suffragette movement, which involves a sadistic lesbian headmistress of an all girls boarding school who corrupts the girls under her charge with both feminism and undead powers until a good man rescues the other headmistress (whom the former has seduced).  It’s not clear what happens to the girls. Or, alternately, as a form of titillation that is safe in its heterosexuality/disapproval. The myths and rites surrounding the portrayal of lesbian vampires are startlingly similar to the myths and rituals surrounding menstruation and the expected behavior of teenage girls, and the general reception towards their sexual desires (especially queer desire). The portrayal of the lesbian vampire is almost parallel to the portrayal of the lesbian teenage girl in both the ever-present tropes and expected punishment/repercussions.

 

Lesbian vampires are almost always portrayed one of three ways:

 

1. The Mature Woman: she’s usually a countess/somehow rich and dresses in a way that, if not masculine, is certainly not feminine. She’s the lesbian version of a patriarch (money is a substitute for male-ness when it comes to power), and she usually seduces newlywed brides, wait staff, or generally impressionable young girls, who quickly take to the blood-sucking lifestyle, therefore abandoning their veneer of innocence/virginity/heterosexuality.

 

2. The Promiscuous Teenage Lesbian: she is either voluptuous and/or blonde, or she is titillating and rebellious looking in a way that remains consumable for the male gaze. The  trope is that The Promiscuous Teenage Lesbian is seduced by a vampiristic power figure, and is now living a life of homosexual-sexual perversion, converting other girls to both lesbianism and vampirism.

 

3. The Dominatrix/Butch: she’s not a man, but she plays the role of one, while simultaneously fitting into the safe, heterosexual-approved stereotype of a manly lesbian, whose masculinity makes up for her sexual identity.

 

The feminine woman-girls are always beautiful, in a safely conventional way, while the masculine woman-girls are portrayed as all hard edges or their beauty is unconventional in a way that looks dangerous, not like the all-American pin-up of their femme counterparts. The lines between beautiful but dangerous queerness, and beautiful and comforting heterosexuality are always especially apparent in vampire films/literature. On the other hand, excessive beauty is often portrayed as a form of depravity or the supernatural.

 

Much like the vampire, queer women are expected to be either paranormally beautiful to the point that their beauty overtakes the rest of them, or un-beautiful, not fit for a man’s gaze. In parallel to this trope, gay men, who are rarely portrayed in such films, when they are they portrayed, are always extremely beautiful in a way that doesn’t overshadow the rest of their character. However, they are often to some degree closeted.  Their beauty is an object, erotic in its excess.

 

Queer horror is safe for the heterosexual, cisgender viewers, it allows them to bask in otherwise taboo sexual fantasies or desires that are presented in a way that, while not pornographic or overtly explicit, cut it pretty close. The queer vampire is also palatable in another way: before their vampiric conversion, the women-girls are always safely heterosexual and innocent, and who can blame such a girl for being seduced and then converted by a power figure? Their lesbian desires are explained as caused by their metamorphoses into vampires, creatures who sustain themselves by homoerotically sucking blood out of their victims, which draws symbiotic parallels to the consistently taboo practice of period sex. Newly bloody teenage girls are simultaneously revered and feared, much like the vampire, who is newly drunk on blood-lust. Teenage girls are considered filthy from their desires, pumped full of blood-hormones, dangerous from their excretions and sudden mood swings and sexual activity or desire.

 

Menstruation is often portrayed as another form of vampirism, a taboo secretion or desire that manifests after a sudden metamorphoses (in this case, puberty). In keeping with traditional vampire oriented superstitions (garlic, mirrors, permission to enter houses, Holy Water), similar practices are used with menstruating women and girls. Take for example, one old fashioned but still occasionally practiced myth from India where it is advised that a menstruating female not eat spicy food because it will give her “firepower.”

 

In some villages in Nepal  and Ethiopia girls are isolated in huts for the duration of their periods. In the vast majority of cultures, menstruating women are considered unholy or unclean (this belief is practiced with various degrees of extremity, from the general American taboo towards the discussion of menstruation to extreme ostracization or excommunication if women-girls do not exile themselves while menstruating).

 

Other cultures consider first menstruation a cause for celebration and throw miniature weddings in which they announce their daughters’ fertility and newfound availability for marriage.  They believe that menstruation is pollution, and women-girls are not allowed in kitchens, houses, or near others food while menstruating. Orthodox Christianity advises women not to receive their communion while on their periods.

 

In an interesting conundrum, however, hymeneal bleeding is considered something pure, clean, in relation to the just-taken virginity. Traditionally, marital bed sheets would be proudly displayed after the post-wedding de-virginization took place. The blood in this case is considered clean because it is mainly heterosexual blood that has been drawn via the penetration of a previously chaste woman-girl. Given that the de-virginization is, in legends, painful, the woman is like the innocent women in horror films who fall prey to the demonic whims of vampires. They are not supposed to enjoy it, but rather are supposed to be passive but inevitable victims.  Heterosexual sexual penetration could be said to be symbiotically mirrored by vampire staking in terms of the physical act of penetration by a phallic object and the subsequent dissipation or expected loss of autonomy.

 

In various folklore and sexually explicit books/films, menstrual sex is an act akin to the changeling becoming a vampire. The sucking of blood through the neck is also enacted via hickeys, a stereotypical symbol of teenage sexuality that is traditionally viewed as a claim of possession/marking another person’s body with your presence.

 

The trope of the lesbian/queer vampire or the newly menstruating person as beautifully out of control teenage girls is further emphasized by these popular beliefs and practices. These beliefs and practices still hold on to the comforting excuse of demonic or supernatural possession (something that homosexuality was once/occasionally still is diagnosed as) as an explanation for lesbian sexual desire, or un-innocent girls, and their new-found queer desires, these responses are designed to circumvent the supposed havoc they wreak on heterosexual institutions and systematic societal sexual repression.

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Brynne Rebele-Henry’s poetry, fiction, and visual art have appeared in such journals as The Volta, Revolver, Souvenir, Pine Hills Review, Open House, Powder Keg, So to Speak, Ping Pong, The Offending Adam and other magazines, and her work is forthcoming in Adroit, Denver Quarterly, Fiction International, Dusie, Poetry Crush, and Prairie Schooner among other publications. Her book Fleshgraphs is forthcoming from Nightboat Books. She was born in 1999 and currently lives in Richmond, Virginia.