Will We Ever Come First? 'Vampire Academy' and Female (Mis)Representation
Though a surface reading of Richelle Mead's Vampire Academy suggests compelling depiction of women, underneath lies ages-old patriarchal myths.
Vampires have re-emerged as a frequent theme in popular culture during the last few decades. Instead of being portrayed as vicious predators, the vampires are now complex, romantic creatures struggling with the burden of immortality, their love for humans, and the mystery of humanity. The fact that the vampire has persisted and re-surfaced as a prominent character in popular culture suggests that there is some kind of perpetual fascination for the nature of the undead.
I would venture a guess that to some extent this fascination comes from the liberty the vampire allows: a fantastical character provides an otherwise impossible outsider’s view into the human condition. Anne Rice’s The Vampire Chronicles (1976—) were among the pioneers of this “new vampire”, and, more interestingly, her novels are told from the perspective of vampires themselves, allowing us—the humans—to be the “other”. She creates a world that has since become familiar in many other fantasy authors’ works: a parallel, fantastical society, undetected by but a select few humans.
The bulk of vampire fiction today appears to be intended for young adult females—they often feature a female protagonist who is at least as interested in a steamy romance with her love interest as she is with saving the world—and one of the most popular early twenty-first century works in vampire fiction so far has been Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight (2005-2008) series, which tells the story of Bella Swan, a teenage girl who falls in love with Edward Cullen, a vampire—and a sparkling one, at that.
Bella is a damsel-in-distress familiar from the horror and gothic genres of the past. Instead of Rice’s beautiful, sophisticated creatures preoccupied by the nature of good and evil, pondering over theological and philosophical dilemmas, and struggling with the implications of eternity, Meyer gives us a hundred-year-old immortal stalker of high school girls attending high school ad infinitum, ad nauseam. I approached Meyer’s series with great curiosity, but ended up feeling soiled by what felt like a surrender to the patriarchy and a betrayal of the vampire myth. Therefore, I approached Richelle Mead’s Vampire Academy, the first installment in a series of six novels, with apprehension but secretly harboring high expectations.
Rosemarie “Rose” Hathaway, the protagonist in Vampire Academy, is in many ways an exceptional young adult heroine. Mead gives us a character who actually acts like a teenager, despite the demanding situations she encounters, and Rose incorporates the in-between state of awakening sexuality, conflict with childhood and adulthood, and the emotional fluctuations of puberty all in a day’s work as a bodyguard for vampires. Let me illuminate with a blurb from Richelle Mead’s website:
Two races of vampires walk our world. One, the Moroi, are alive and wield elemental magical. The other, the Strigoi, are undead and evil--feeding on the innocent to survive. Rose Hathaway⎯a half-vampire with poor impulse control⎯is training to be a bodyguard for a Moroi princess. Learning to decapitate and stake is hard enough, but Rose’s real danger may lie in an illicit romance with one of her instructors...
There is no mention of anyone sparkling in the sunshine. Granted, the illicit romance seems a tad Harlequin-esque, but that is what one gets for reading YA literature.
Richelle Mead’s world is significantly different from both Rice’s and Meyer’s. Rose is a half-vampire, a dhampir, born into the secret world of vampires. Where Rice introduces the reader to vampires through a human being turned into one, and Meyer takes the more traditional approach of the protagonist as oblivious to the “other” as the reader, in Vampire Academy the reader is given full access to the vampire world hidden from humans. The Moroi do not interact with humans beyond necessity—which mostly means feeding from humans they keep like cattle—and this complete, parallel society functioning by its own rules is part of the appeal of Vampire Academy. But before getting too deep into Rose’s story, it is beneficial to take a look at the vampire as a myth.
Of all the creatures of folklore, the vampire is one of the most fascinating and fearsome. While most are familiar with the vampire through literature and horror films, the vampire did not originate in literature or pop culture (Dundes, Vampire: A Casebook, i-iii). Vampires derive from a long history of traditional legends, and these legends are the basic source of the representations of the “living dead.” The modern vampire myth in media most likely originated in Scandinavia and the British Isles, but took a firmer hold in Medieval Central and Eastern Europe.
In fiction, victims of a vampire attack are usually in a trance and almost sensually embraced while their blood is sucked, and if we could scan the facts and rumors circulating as vampirism, we would find a polymorphous confusion of activities and desires under the name of vampirism (Jaffe & DiCataldo, Vampire: A Casebook, 145).
In many cases, the criterion for becoming a vampire correlates with being an outsider against an in-group, and people who are different, unpopular, or great sinners are the ones who may return from the dead. In other words, not only does vampirism serve as the exclusion of the different, but it also eliminates the need to mourn: unwanted people are removed from the community and since they become inhuman beings, there is no need to express sorrow over their passing (Rickels, The Vampire Lectures, 1-2).
Looking at Vampire Academy, it is clear that Mead has done her research into the history of vampire legends: she has pulled the terms Moroi and Strigoi from Romanian folklore, and both terms refer to the origins of the Slavic vampire. The dhampir is likewise traceable to Eastern Europe, one example being a gypsy tale of vampires, who were believed to have an unquenchable sexual appetite, impregnating a human woman who would then give birth to a dhampir. These half-vampires were known to have special skills to track down and kill vampires and Mead morphs this tale to a race dedicated to protect the weak from the undead monsters (Melton, The Vampire Book: The Encyclopedia of the Undead, 589). Rose even has an added skill of sensing when Strigoi are near her.
The Strigoi are most closely relatable to the traditional vampire myths in Mead’s universe: they cannot go out in the sun, they are incapable of empathy and love, and they drink from the victim until s/he is dead. “Moroi were alive; Strigoi were undead. Moroi were mortal; Strigoi were immortal. Moroi were born; Strigoi were made. And there were two ways to make a Strigoi. Strigoi could forcibly turn humans, dhampirs, or Moroi . . . could become Strigoi by choice if they purposely killed another person while feeding” (Mead, Vampire Academy, Ch. 3).
Thus, Moroi turning into a Strigoi is seen as the ultimate evil deed, which indicates that they are the great sinners apt to return from the dead as mentioned before. In the Vampire Academy society, it is customary to consider dhampirs and Moroi who are turned Strigoi as dead, but they are not mourned accordingly, especially if they were Moroi who turned willingly. So the Strigoi are the traditional evil bloodsuckers, the “other”; no need to mourn.
The Moroi, however, are very far removed from the original myths. They are mortal vampires who can stand the sun and they wield elemental magic. They are also the elite of their society, especially the royal Moroi, and dhampirs are an inferior race dedicated to serving the Moroi as their guardians against Strigoi, since dhampirs are physically strong and the Moroi are weak. “Moroi blood makes them [Strigoi] stronger. . . . And that’s why Moroi numbers are dropping. They aren’t strong enough—even with guardians—to protect themselves. . . . And as the Moroi disappear…so do the dhampirs,” Rose explains the reason behind the dhampirs’ devotion to their guardian role (Mead, Vampire Academy, Ch. 4).
Like so many crossbreeds in nature, dhampirs are infertile. The catch is that they can only have children with Moroi, and a child born from a Moroi-dhampir union turns out dhampir. The end of Moroi would lead to the eventual extinction of the dhampirs. So, both races are mutually dependent, but it is clear that the dhampirs are lower class. “They come first” is the guardians’ motto—one that Rose keeps repeating to herself throughout the series—and their gravestones read “Eternal Service” (Mead, Last Sacrifice, Ch. 4). Rose is a character predestined to sacrifice.
The Moroi society is introduced to the reader through Rose and her best friend, Vasilisa “Lissa” Dragomir, a royal Moroi princess, last of her family lineage. They are seventeen-year-olds on the lam from St. Vladimir’s Academy, a co-educational Moroi/dhampir boarding school. Rose is fierce. She is a dhampir—half vampire, half human, all kick-ass.
We first meet them in the middle of the night in Portland, Oregon, when Lissa wakes Rose up with her nightmare, literally. See, Rose and Lissa are not only best friends: they are what the Moroi call “shadow-kissed” Rose died in the car crash that killed Lissa’s family. She died but Lissa brought her back using her magic—spirit. Now their souls are bound, and Rose can feel everything that Lissa feels, and she can enter Lissa’s head to experience what she is experiencing.