Transcending the Virgin/whore Dichotomy: Telling Mina's Story in Bram Stoker's Dracula

Article excerpt

This essay explores an alternative perspective on the virgin/whore dichotomy, a frame often used in feminist criticism of popular media. Past use of the dichotomy emphasizes how women are classified according to men's needs and experiences, a useful approach for examining the manifestation of patriarchal ideology. However, our approach asks instead how representations of sexuality might be decoded if women's needs and experiences are used as the foundation of inquiry. We offer a case study of Bram Stoker's Dracula, interpreting representations of sexuality in the film and screenplay as experienced by the primary female character, Mina. In doing so, we suggest an alternative interpretation of the virgin/whore dichotomy, one that attempts to legitimize women's perspectives.

**********

Feminist critiques regarding media representations of women have noted that female sexuality is often depicted within the boundaries of two opposing categories; one encompassing characters who are moralistic, nurturing, and asexual, and the other consisting of those who are unethical, dangerous and erotic (Allen; 1983; Rushing, 1989; and Millet, 1970). This is often referred to as the virgin/whore dichotomy, and it is thought by some to be the result of the shift that occurred in female identity when the goddesses of prehistoric religions were replaced by the male god of Judeo-Christian religions.

This paper begins by recognizing that this dichotomy can be a useful lens through which to analyze representations of female sexuality in that it illuminates how women are often defined by patriarchal needs, thus contributing to social inequities by undermining the power of women to define themselves. However, we then argue that this dichotomous perspective is itself limiting, and can benefit from a re-examination and expansion. Specifically, we suggest that by not problematizing male sexuality, the virgin/whore dichotomy begins with a premise that standardizes male experiences and concludes with articulating how women compare to--and are affected by--this standard. It does not lend itself to questioning the centrality of those androcentric perceptions from which many critiques begin. Thus, in attempting to account for how female sexuality is classified according to male needs, this dichotomy does not allow for speculation about what roles men might play in women's efforts to define themselves.

This is not to suggest that simply switching from examining how women are compartmentalized by men to investigating how men are similarly categorized by women would enhance our critical perspective. Rather, it is to illuminate how looking at female sexuality from an alternate vantage point--one which rejects male models of normalcy and highlights female needs--may provide a provocative contrast to the traditional virgin/whore dichotomy. Such a contrast may result in humanizing needs that are often viewed as gendered. It also illuminates the origins of such dichotomies, potentially serving as a basis for deconstructing them. This would lead to a more postmodern approach to analyzing representations of women that could extend classic feminist theories. As Bohman (1988) observed, "postmodernism in philosophy typically centers on a critique of the modern ideas of reason ... it is above all the 'project of Enlightenment' that has to be deconstructed ... and the tyranny of representation thought and universal truth that has to be defeated" (p. 68). Therefore, to the extent that the "universal truths" of gender are embedded in such perspectives as the virgin/whore dichotomy, shifting how that dichotomy is articulated allows for a postmodern examination of its presumed truths and their cultural repercussions.

Moreover, Frentz and Rushing (1993) claim that a critic can determine the value of a text by "placing it within a toaster myth, the end point of which is cultural individuation--an ethical ideal in which a culture becomes more aware of its unconscious and a sense of community is achieved" (p. …