Dark Ladies: Vampires, Lesbians, and Women of Colour

Article excerpt

Abstract

The lesbian community of colour in America has been largely overlooked amidst the current popular culture mania for all things vampiric. Yet the complex ambi- guity of the lesbian vampire very readily lends itself to women of colour, who frequently explore in their gothic fiction the intersections of gender, sexuality, race, class, assimilation, and the transgressive significance of the vampire myth. This essay discusses two works by African-American Jewelle Gomez and Chicana- American Terri de la Peña as lesbian Gothic romantic fiction, as feminist affirma- tion, and as prescriptive, community-building activist discourse.

Keywords: Terri de la Peña, Jewelle Gomez, lesbian vampires, feminism, Louisiana, African American, Latina, Los Angeles

Vampires currently rule the western world. Ubiquitous Twi-hards - a popular culture term for the teenaged supplicants of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight novels and films - obsess over Robert Pattinson, and when he's between filming sequels of the series, they tune into television's TVW%fo-equivalent young adult saga, The Vampire Diaries.1 More mature vampire aficionados imbibe Charlaine Harris's Sookie Stackhouse novels and enjoy HBO's popular adaptation, True Blood.2 Homosexual men can watch on television not only Harris's delicious African- American Lafayette (his role expanded beyond the novels' parameters by True Blood's gay producer Alan Ball) - but also, on Showtime in the US, the gay- oriented vampire programme, The Lair.

Within these luxurious celebrations of blood and sex, the lesbian community of colour in America has been largely overlooked, despite the vampire being 'a figure whose existence (whether derived from the precedent of folklore or of fiction) is apparently ideally suited for appropriation by writers expressing the pleasures, frustrations and, indeed, dangers of the [LGBTQ] lifestyle'.3 This omission may also reflect a possible 'new era of racial confusion - or perhaps a crisis in repre- sentation', as addressing race in American media productions 'has rarely been a matter of simple step-by-step progress' but rather something which has 'pro- ceeded in fits and starts, with backlashes coming on the heels of breakthroughs'.4 Lesbian eroticism was codified as violent and transgressive in English lan- guage vampire literature by Samuel Taylor Coleridge's 'Christabel' (1816), while Sheridan Le Fanu's 'Carmilla' (1871) canonised increasingly stereotypical expec- tations of plot and female character, and the three 'brides' of Dracula in Bram Stoker's 1897 novel have an almost deliberately indefinable mutuality of sexual evil and degradation. Throughout the nineteenth century, male authors contin- ued to situate paradigmatic literary female vampires within narrow heterocentric definitions of Gothic and supernatural genres. Hence the erotic relationships these female characters had with other women 'more often than not [were] a form of rape in which the vampire, generally a woman possessed of some social status or power, attacked or seduced a woman of no status'.5

As Ellen Moers noted, later women writers of vampire fiction appeared and 'continued to make monsters in the twentieth century ... as aberrant creatures'.6 Yet those female-created vampires were showing signs of evolution. Mary Wilkins Freeman's 'Luella Miller' offers one of the first depictions of the psychic, sexually ambivalent vampire, while Mary Elizabeth Braddon's 'Good Lady Ducayne' is an oddly sympathetic latter-day Elizabeth Bathory, re-envisioning that iconic figure of feminine sexual perversion and signifying evolving approaches to estab- lished lesbian vampire constructs. As Andrea Weiss noted in her landmark study Vampires and Violets,

[T]he lesbian vampire is more than simply a negative stereotype. She is a complex and ambiguous figure, at once an image of death and an object of desire, drawing on profound subconscious fears that the living have toward the dead and that men have toward women, while serving as a focus for repressed fantasies. …