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The empowerment of women has been problematic within Paper

Words: 2748, Paragraphs: 8, Pages: 10

Paper type: Essay , Subject: Social Problem

The empowerment of women has been problematic within male-dominated societies throughout history, leaving women oppressed and bound by rigid social expectations. Whilst Stoker fails to challenge this confinement in ‘Dracula’, Carter opts to demonstrate the power within female sexual expression in ‘The Bloody Chamber’.

In ‘Dracula’, Stoker presents the ‘New Woman’ as a threat which must be detained and brought back into subjugation. During the Victorian era, the typical ‘New Woman’ rejected the traditional position prescribed for them, opting to possess a more active role and explore sexual independence. As a result, “the New Woman’s sexual independence made her particularly troublesome to patriarchal order” (Waters, 1999). This threat is embodied in the three vampire women in ‘Dracula’: the combination of their aggressively domineering sexuality and rejection of traditional femininity establishes the women as a menace to the traditional Victorian male. This is highlighted in their ability to render Harker powerless against their sexual advances, leaving him submissive as he “lay quiet” in an “agony of delightful anticipation”. The oxymoronic phrase demonstrates the ease by which he was overpowered by seduction, challenging his status as a respectable Victorian male who would have been expected to be repulsed by their sexual advances. This subversion of traditional Victorian ideals represents the supposed secret fantasy of men, by which they find the idea of women granting them sexual gratification as “both thrilling and repulsive”. This reversal of the traditional power dynamic alludes to the justification of male carnal urges as not being their responsibility, insinuating that women who are seductively appealing are deliberately tempting men. As Harker is enticed by the vampire women, his attraction would have been a consequence of female defiance of social expectations where “a woman could not show her legs or even say ‘leg’. Even pianos had limbs, and those wore fluffy coverings so as not to be seen” (Levin, 1996). Women were expected to suppress and constantly refrain from expressing their sexuality; it was unheard of for a woman to be sexually assertive in any way, the concept being especially disturbing in a conservative society. The vampire women “represent all the qualities of how a woman should not be; voluptuous and sexually aggressive” (Pektas, 2005), displayed through Stoker reducing them to “animal[s]”, the simile reflecting how society dehumanises sexually liberated women. Similarly to Stoker, Carter utilises the stereotypical vampire as a symbol of transgressive sexuality through the protagonist of ‘The Lady of the House of Love’. However, unlike the vampire women in ‘Dracula’ who entirely reject conventional femininity, the protagonist subverts two diametrically opposed stereotypes of femininity by being both “death and the maiden”. Carter demonstrates societal constraints on sexual women via the Countess’ isolation and “beast of prey” nature, the metaphor reflecting patriarchal attitudes demonising sexually liberated women. This is emphasised through the protagonist’s lack of “imperfection of the human condition” suggesting that she is socially constructed as a fallen woman. Despite her villainous features, the Countess illustrates a degree of the ‘Damsel-in-Distress’ syndrome. Unlike Stoker, who marginalises the foreign vampire women, Carter evokes a level of pathos for the Countess through instances of first person narration. This provides the reader with a closer identification with the woman whose predominant emotion is “sadness”, the noun associating her with vulnerability. The Countess appears to feel trapped within her role as the aggressor, having a “horrible reluctance for the role”, the alliteration demonstrating the pure functionality. This is reinforced through her iteration “I do not mean to hurt you”, the regular, monotonous rhythm highlighting the difficulty in escaping the role society has enforced upon her as a ‘whore’.

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Stoker, unlike Carter, wrote at a time of sexual repression where women were confined in rigid gender roles; they were deemed to be either wives or they were regarded as ‘whores’ who were expendable in all circumstances. This ‘Madonna-Whore’ complex, by which men, in a means to minimise anxiety, categorise women as those they admire and those they find sexually attractive, is manifested in Mina and Lucy in ‘Dracula’. Mina is constructed as the perfect embodiment of womanhood: “so true, so sweet, so noble” the adjectives coupled with the repetition in the triadic emphasising her purity and position as a respected, obedient woman. Mina also aspires to fulfil her destiny in fitting into the traditional role of a mother, demonstrating her maternal instincts and “woman’s heart” when comforting Arthur like the “baby that someday may lie on my bosom”. Despite this, Mina possesses qualities reflecting those of the ‘New Woman’; her “man’s brain” provides her with the masculine principle of objective rationality. Yet, Mina mocks the ‘New Women’, being amused by the notion that they “will do the proposing” themselves. In comparison, Carter depicts the idealised female in the allegory of ‘The Snow Child’ as the embodiment of male desire and whim. The Count expresses his longing for a girl as “white as snow” and “red as blood”, the juxtaposition implying male “desire” for both a ‘Madonna’ and a ‘whore’. The monosyllabic adjectives demonstrate the way in which men ironically desire an innocent, promiscuous woman. The deep sexual connotations when she is “prick[ed]”, “bleeds; screams; falls” reflects the execution of Lucy in ‘Dracula’, the undertones of rape leaving the reader unsettled. The loss of autonomy is a poignancy in the story, by which her fate “depend[s] entirely on the Count’s words” (Bacchilega, 1997). This is emphasised by the lack of speech from the victim, whose ultimate purpose is to please the Count. It is interesting that despite foregrounding female voices in her stories to subtly critique patriarchal attitudes, the ‘Male Gaze’ (the phenomenon by which heterosexual males are the intended audience, causing the objectification of women) arises frequently in the novel. In fact, Duncker (1984) claims that “Carter envisages women’s sensuality simply as a response to male arousal” , suggesting that her stories are not inherently feminist. However, Carter “can’t see what’s wrong with finding out about what the great male fantasies about women are” (Simpson 2006), using the indirection and metaphor of fantasy to critique such phallocentric discourse.

Lucy, like the Snow Child, fulfils a specific function in ‘Dracula’; the tragic victim. Initially, Lucy is depicted as pure and innocent as Mina, frequently described as wearing “white”, establishing her virtue. She appears to perceive herself as subordinate to men, questioning “why are men so noble” whilst women are “little worthy” of them, demonstrating her compliance within the patriarchy. Despite this, she appears to exude a level of carnal energy typically associated with males. The erotic imagery of her ‘la petite mort’ expressed through her “long, heavy gasps” and “moan[ing]” reflects this. As a result of this, and the rhetorical question “why can’t they let a girl marry three men?”, some modern readers take the stance that, with her quiet sexual expression, Lucy possesses a hidden desire to infringe on the societal constraints. Others tend to construe Lucy as a promiscuous woman who takes pleasure in the power and control granted to her by her sexual allure. However, this view is, arguably, false. She expresses her devotion to Arthur in her letters to Mina, adhering to his idea of domestic bliss and considering eradicating slang from her speech, fearing his disapproval. Carter implicitly suggests that this idealised version of women (as dependent and prudent) lacks the ability to manoeuvre difficult situations imposed by men. In ‘The Company of Wolves’ the protagonist is described as an “unbroken egg”, the metaphor not only connoting her virginity but also her susceptibility to corruption. This inclination becomes evident through her “dawdl[ing]” to ensure the stranger “win[s]” her kiss, the verb demonstrating her latent sexuality. Carter exploits the protagonist to subtly criticise female dependence on men for “protect[ion]”; g[iving] the stranger her knife leaves the protagonist vulnerable. This flawed presentation of women operates in direct contrast with the protagonist utilising her sexuality, recognising that “fear did her no good”. The ritual undressing of the man ensures her control, allowing her to recognise that she is “nobody’s meat”. By claiming her bestial desire, the protagonist is able to render the wolf “tender”, the adjective demonstrating female wit when outsmarting men, suggesting that passivity is not an intrinsically virtuous state.

The signs of autonomy associated with the ‘New Woman’ are what make Mina and Lucy susceptible to Dracula’s attack, which awakens their latent sexual power. Lucy’s metamorphosis from a subordinate female into a sexually liberated woman renders her “tainted”, “lusty” and “unclean”, the adjectives creating a semantic field of impurity and disgust. Lucy is provided with vices in direct opposition to the virtues she possessed prior to being turned, becoming a “devilish mockery of Lucy’s sweet purity”. Like the Countess in ‘The Lady of the House of Love’, Lucy is described as predatory, with her “voluptuous wantonness” and exclamation for Arthur to “kiss me!” demonstrating how she has become a ‘femme fatale’. Lucy veers away from her maternal instincts, “growling over [the child] as a dog growls over a bone”. The simile suggests that motherhood is not necessarily an innate desire for women; it is forced upon them by society, as they are deemed callous if they are not nurturing. Lucy’s transformation at the hands of a foreign figure is correlated in ‘The Bloody Chamber’, in which the idealised female embraces her sexuality. Initially, the protagonist portrays herself as the perfect female, aiming to appease her husband. She defines her self-worth by the notion that “he must want me!” the short exclamatory sentence highlighting her pleasure in male recognition. Carter interestingly contorts the ‘Male Gaze’ as beneficial to women, enabling the protagonist to see herself “as he saw me” which “awake[ns]” her dormant sexuality. During the ceremonial undressing, the protagonist implicitly recognises her refusal to take pleasure in sexual acts due to societal constraints, the short exclamatory sentence “enough! No more” symbolising the shedding of traditional expectations. Her ability to shatter the Marquis’ “deathly composure” reveals the power of female sexuality that enables women to see men vulnerable. The protagonist recognises this, utilising it as a tool to distract; she saw how he “almost failed to resist” her. It is interesting to note that despite the Marquis releasing her latent sexuality, his presence “always subtly oppressed me”, the assonance reinforcing that regardless of their ability to provoke sexuality, men continue to ironically marginalise women.

Mina’s encounter with Dracula, where “some leaden lethargy” appears to affect her “will”, suggests a level of complicity in the exchanging of bodily fluids, which was “associated with intercourse” (Pektas, 2005). This coupled with her “white” clothing “smeared in blood” symbolises Mina’s status as a fallen woman. The fact that both Mina and Lucy succumbed to Dracula’s advances implies their desire to be emancipated, leaving the ideal woman under threat. However, unlike Lucy, Mina consciously rejects the activation of her sexuality, exclaiming “unclean! Unclean!”, the repetition demonstrating her desire to remain within her submissive role, opting to enter a conventional domestic marriage at the end of the novel. This is a result of Lucy’s transformation functioning as a cautionary tale, alerting Mina that such transgressions must be brutally brought back under control. Commentators assert that the transition from chaste to sexually aggressive should be considered a commentary on attitudes towards female sexuality in Victorian society, where “The worst nightmare […] of the Victorian male: the pure girl turned sexually ravenous” (Griffin, 1980). The transformation from the idealised female, as created by men, into a liberated woman is reflected in ‘The Tiger’s Bride’. Similarly to Lucy, the protagonist is initially presented as “pretty”, passive and virginal whilst possessing a level of autonomy as she quietly criticises the restraints of society and the authority of her father, referring to him as a “self-deluding fool”. Beauty appears to be aware of the flawed male-dominated society, but lacks the power to unshackle herself from its restraints; she is “force[d] to remain silent” as her father gambles her life away, objectifying her. Like Mina and Lucy, Beauty is sexually liberated by a foreign figure who allows her to recognise that she hides behind a “mask” of gender expectations, by which “the lion lies down with the lamb”. The metaphor reflects the conventional inequality within society, the juxtaposition of nouns symbolising typical female vulnerability. The Beast encourages Beauty to shed these traditional expectations, exciting her passion and autonomy. This is achieved through the reversal of the ‘Male Gaze’ where The Beast tells Beauty to “prepare to see me naked”, placing her within a position of power. Like Lucy, Beauty sheds her perfect femininity embodied in the mechanical maid, where she lived an “imitative life”. However, she is rewarded for her liberation, being free of societal expectations as “each stroke of his tongue ripped off skin after successive skin”. The repetition of the noun connoting the many layers of restraints placed upon women, which left her “so unused to my own skin”.

Commentators have asserted that the real threat in ‘Dracula’ is not the evil of vampirism, but the loss of female innocence, a trait extremely valuable and important to men. It is argued that Stoker’s viewpoint aligns with the patriarchal mode of thinking where the threatening power of sexual liberation needs to be eradicated and conventional gender roles re-established in order for Victorian society to survive. This danger of female sexual liberty is conveyed through Van Helsing’s hesitation prior to staking the three vampire women; their “radiantly beautiful” appearance causes his head “whirl with new emotion”. The realignment of traditional values is achieved in ‘Dracula’ through the gruesome executions of the vampire women and Lucy. The driving of the stake into Lucy connotes deeply sexual meaning, the repetition of the stake being plunged “deeper and deeper” into Lucy as blood “welled and spurted” being “reminiscent of sexual intercourse and orgasm” (Bentley, 1972). Feminists, however, regard this as “nothing so much as the combined group rape of an unconscious woman” (Senf, 1988), the stake being a phallic object that is forced into her. This possibly symbolises the involuntary consecration of Arthur’s and Lucy’s union, suggesting that he has placed Lucy back into a position of monogamy and passivity. The decapitation of women is also a frequent occurrence in male ‘fin de si?cle’ writing; they “control the ‘New Woman’ by separating the mind from the body” (Showalter, 1990). Killing Lucy effectively punishes her for her sexually liberation; she was a threat to male willpower and judgement. Her death maintains the sanctity of womanhood, ensuring the restoration of the patriarchy, reassuring male readers. This demonstrates the typical Victorian male stance that a woman is “better dead than sexual” (Craft, 1984). It is interesting to note that Stoker’s inspiration for Count Dracula was a sadist who punished sexual transgressions using enigmatic approaches to sustain control over the minds of his people. Vlad the Impaler punished maidens who did not remain virgins until marriage by having “nipples cut from [the] woman’s breasts or a red hot iron shoved through the vagina until the instrument emerged from the mouth” (Bohn, 2008). Vlad’s emphasis on chastity is ironic considering Dracula’s role in releasing the latent sexuality of women in the novel. This idea is paralleled in ‘The Lady of the House of Love’, where the soldier is a semi-satirical reimagining of the masculine Gothic heroes presented in ‘Dracula’. Regarding himself as a conventional hero, and the Countess as a hapless victim, he plans to treat her for “nervous hysteria” and “put her teeth into better shape”, aiming to completely strip her of her power to ensure her integration into oppressive society. The belief that a sexually forward woman is suffering from hysteria was common during the early 19th century, suggesting that female sexual desire is unnatural. Therefore, the soldier does not offer the Countess an escape from seclusion, but, instead, represents another form of incarceration.

The authors of both novels tackle societal preconceptions towards female sexuality, exploring the way in which it is a threat to male dominance. Whilst Stoker’s anti-woman text depicts the expression of sexuality as villainous, Carter attempts to provoke the reader to acknowledge gender inequalities and see the oppression of women as problematic. The ‘Second Wave of Feminism’ arose as a result of discontent from women who were expected to remain in the subordinate role of the housewife, which Carter critiques in her novel through the distortion of the idealised female created by the patriarchy. Stoker, however, constructs the threat of female liberation only to dismantle it, possibly in a means to reassure readers that the contemporary social structure is secure, regardless of the uprising of the ‘New Woman’.

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