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.
Normalizing Harmful Behavior
A close female best friend is something rarely seen in girl-driven YA fantasy, and thus seeing a female protagonist so devoted to a best friend as Rose is to Lissa is initially refreshing. Despite their relationship being shadowed by Rose’s subservient position to Lissa, and the psychic bond they share, Mead portrays the friendship between the two teenagers convincingly. “[Lissa’s] fear poured into me through our psychic bond, but there was something else too: her complete faith that I would take care of everything, that we would be safe,” Rose says when guardians from St. Vladimir’s are retrieving them back from hiding out in the human world.
Even though Rose is not officially Lissa’s guardian until she graduates, she takes responsibility for her safety, and the reason they fled was because Lissa felt that she was in danger. Rose never questioned this, but put together a plan, and they escaped. And once brought back to St. Vladimir’s, she is willing to escape again, if need be, even though she clearly wants to finish her training and graduate. “We’re not staying here,” Rose says when she feels Lissa being anxious, and Lissa realizes how devoted Rose is to her, “You really would, wouldn’t you? . . . I saw you talking to the other novices during class, talking about practice. You miss that” (Mead, Vampire Academy, Ch. 4). Rose admits as much, but she is willing to walk away from everything for Lissa.
Rose’s devotion to her friend and guard goes beyond duty and friendship. Lissa’s special magic is spirit, and that gives her the ability to heal, and even bring back the dead, as mentioned earlier. The downside to spirit is that it wears on its wielder’s mind so that she eventually goes insane, and Lissa is already showing signs of that, resorting to cutting herself to release the pressure. Due to Lissa and Rose’s bond, however, Rose can pull Lissa’s darkness to herself, easing Lissa’s suffering but consequently making her own mood plummet. “I could take the darkness . . . Every time I’d worried and wished she’d calm down and fight dark feelings, she had—because I had been taking it all from her. . . . It was like I was being controlled by something else” (Mead, Shadow Kiss, Ch. 23). Despite constant warnings, she keeps sucking up the depression and anger, becoming more and more unstable and angry.
The shared feelings of sadness, anger, and self-harm indicate normalization of harmful behavior, and even though they are both aware of the unhealthy nature of it all, they feel like there is nothing they can do. Lissa starts taking anti-depressants and going to therapy, and that keeps her from using her magic, leveling out her mood swings. However, she soon stops taking her medication, because using spirit enables her to do good, and she wants to help people.
Like so many other fictional females, she is sacrificing her own—and her best friend’s—well-being for the sake of others. But she is also doing it for herself: using her abilities makes her feel good, at the cost of the subsequent plummeting mood. Both young women are stuck in a cycle of self-abuse, Lissa due to her magic, and unwillingness to stay away from it, and Rose due to her desire and sense of duty to protect Lissa. Rose is unaware of pulling Lissa’s dark mood to herself through the bond at first, but once she understands what is happening she still continues doing it.
Rose and Lissa’s friendship also serves as a parental relationship. Neither of the girls has much adult support—an old trope in YA literature—due to absent or dead parents. Rose’s role, in particular, seems to be that of a caregiver and protector, while Lissa’s is in need of constant care, both due to her race and her frailty. Rose is reluctant to share any concerns with Lissa, despite their closeness, while she is acutely aware of Lissa’s every emotion. Rose is weighed down by her responsibilities and her losses, and longs for her friend:
I wanted to pour my heart out to her. I’d had so much on my mind lately . . . I’d been keeping those feelings locked up, and they were tearing me apart. . . . Before I could open my mouth, I felt her thoughts suddenly shift. They became eager and nervous. . . . So much for pouring my heart out. If she wanted to talk, I wouldn’t burden her with my problems, so I pushed them aside and waited for her to speak. (Mead, Frostbite, Ch. 7)
To have a protagonist born into a servant class is certainly nothing new in literature, but Rose’s character is a step further. She takes her inherent duty seriously, but goes beyond that. Nothing is as important as Lissa, and not only has she never considered another life path, but Rose has never even stopped to consider being anyone else’s guardian, much like Tolkien’s Sam Gamgee never entertains notions of putting his own desires above his master Frodo’s. Rose belongs to Lissa, and Lissa expects that of her: “Breathe, just breathe, [Lissa] told herself. It’ll be okay. Rose will take care of everything” (Mead, Vampire Academy, Ch. 4).
After the girls return to St. Vladimir’s, Rose slips into her old party girl mode, and we find out from flashbacks that they had been the cool kids on the yard. Lissa was fulfilling her societal duties as last of her royal family, and Rose was enjoying the fringe benefits of having a famous friend, all the while strengthening her reputation as reckless and impulsive: “I wanted to go to all the royal parties and wild drunken festivities . . . I was a pretty dhampir, one who didn’t mind getting into trouble and pulling crazy stunts. I became a novelty” (Mead, Vampire Academy, Ch. 4).
She never gave a second thought to her future: it is not until she falls for her handsome guardian instructor, Dimitri Belikov, that she starts to fully comprehend the repercussions of her career choice. Even when her feelings for Dimitri grow, she attempts to squash her feelings for the sake of her career and her friend. Dimitri is also destined to be Lissa’s guardian, which creates a conflict of interest. They cannot both be Lissa’s guardians, since a guardian is supposed to value his or her assigned Moroi above all: “They come first.” Rose’s devotion to Lissa raises the question of how much Rose’s career choice is really her own, and how much of it comes from her being bound to Lissa, emotionally, legally, and magically.
Earlier, I mentioned the Harlequin tone of the Vampire Academy series’ promotional blurb, and, at its heart, this novel is a love story. Despite the supernatural elements and the fighting action, the core of this saga is based on the love Rose has for Lissa and Dimitri. Rose matches many of the archetypal aspects of romance heroines as famously drawn out by Janice A. Radway in Reading the Romance: Rose is more than capable of opposing men both verbally and physically, but unlike Radway’s Smithton women⎯a tight-knit group of readers from a small Midwestern town Radway uses in her ethnographic analysis on these women’s reasons for reading romance⎯Rose is not particularly innocent: she is very interested in sex, perfectly aware of her effect on men, and not overly bothered by her flirtation with Dimitri, even when she knows it will harm them both (Radway, 126). She is, however, seven years younger than Dimitri, and arguably not his equal in terms of life experience and emotional maturity, which fits the romance stereotype. In the end, it is her beauty that is her downfall (Radway, 126), since Dimitri is unable to resist her feminine wiles.
Rose is one of the few female guardians, as most dhampir women choose to stay home and raise their children, fathered by Moroi men. Here, she complies with Radway’s desired characteristics of a successful romance heroine, since she has a typically male profession, trains with men, and is expected to fight deadly, preternaturally powerful Strigoi (126).
A good deal of her exceptional ability to guard Lissa specifically comes from her additional gifts of being shadow-kissed: she can always find Lissa and sense if she is in danger. Rose’s spunk is a traditional trait for a romance heroine. She also prizes her appearance, as most guardian women cut their hair and become leathery in the sun, but she accepts the sacrifice as part of her career choice. It is still a struggle for her: “Fighting and training and always being outdoors—they aren’t pretty anymore. . . . this life. It destroys them. Their looks, I mean. . . . I don’t want to cut my hair” (Mead, Vampire Academy, Ch. 13).
To her, keeping her long hair means holding on to her attractiveness. Even though she is in training to learn how to kill evil creatures of the night, she is still a seventeen-year-old worrying about things that other girls her age worry about, at least if we go by the YA fiction cast at large.
Rose’s pronounced femininity serves a familiar purpose of defining her gender. The way we understand gender has been greatly influenced by Judith Butler’s explorations of the way in which society constructs gender roles. Butler states that “being female” is actually a series of “discursively constrained performative acts that produce the body through and within the categories of sex” (Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, xxxxi). The “performance” describes the dynamic that shapes the way gender is perceived and conveyed: certain gender ideals are deemed appropriate for women, and discursive, cultural acts, for instance, deem women feminine.
Thus, gender is not fixed on a woman’s or a man’s body but is instead constantly articulated by performances. It is still important to realize that the body also plays a significant role in the formulation of gender. In a patriarchal society, the body must be recognizable as one sex or another, with the eventual goal, according to Butler, being to make women socially distinguishable as female. At its heart, the ultimate goal of conventional gender performativity is to support heteronormativity (Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex”, 2).
Curvaceous Bodies and Killing Rampages
It seems, then, that Rose’s role as guardian, a protector, and her physicality run the risk of marking her as male, so her curvaceous body and long hair are constantly mentioned in order to erase any doubt for her femininity. “Don’t cut it,” Dimitri says early on, and the hair plays a pivotal role in Dimitri’s redemption in the last novel, Last Sacrifice (Mead, Vampire Academy, Ch. 13). “Find one thing. One thing that’s beautiful,” Rose urges Dimitri when he has lost all hope of finding salvation after having been a Strigoi. “Your hair. Your hair is beautiful” (Mead, Last Sacrifice, Ch. 19).
The relationship between Rose and Lissa is far beyond the usual scope of female friendship, which no doubt plays a part in the constant reiteration of Rose’s femininity. The first novel opens up with a highly erotic scene of Lissa feeding from Rose:
I tilted my head and tossed my hair back, baring my neck… A hungry expression crossed her face, and her lips parted slightly . . . Her fangs bit into me, hard, and I cried out at the brief flare of pain. Then it faded, replaced by a wonderful, golden joy that spread through my body. It was better than sex—or so I imagined, since I’d never done it. It was a blanket of pure, refined pleasure, wrapping me up and promising everything would be right in the world. (Mead, Vampire Academy, Ch. 18)
Later, when they have returned to St. Vladimir’s, and Lissa has easy access to feeders, Rose is troubled by her feelings: “I swallowed, watching Lissa drink. . . . A surge of emotion grew in my chest: longing. Jealousy. . . . Mentally, I scolded myself. . . . But I couldn’t help myself, couldn’t help the way I felt as I recalled the bliss and rush of a vampire’s bite” (Mead, Vampire Academy, Ch. 4). Her feelings are the highest taboo among their society: “[A dhampir] letting a Moroi take blood from you was almost, well, dirty. In fact, one of the kinkiest, practically pornographic things a dhampir could do was let a Moroi drink blood during sex. Lissa and I hadn’t had sex, of course, but we’d both known what others would think of me feeding her” (Mead, Vampire Academy, Ch. 5).
But had they, indeed, not had sex? The penetration, blood-sucking, and the pleasure derived from it is nothing if not a sexual act, and the feeding has traditionally played a dual role of nourishment and sexual fulfillment in the vampire lore. The instinct to keep it hidden as something shameful further proves the nature of Rose and Lissa’s relationship as more than just a platonic friendship. Rose’s strong, physical relationship with Dimitri, which moves from strangers to star-crossed lovers in matter of weeks, and Rose’s overall active sex drive come across as over-corrective moves to assure Rose’s heterosexuality and femininity. Lissa’s equally strong and fast attachment to her boyfriend, Christian, emphasizes the attempt at erasing any homosexual and gender-confusion innuendo.
Tricia Jenkins notes an increase of lesbian characters in teen films in her article “‘Potential Lesbians at Two O’Clock’”. She claims that the rise in numbers has resulted in lesbians being portrayed as one-dimensional, and suggests that the casting selections speak to the idea that lesbianism is acceptable to mainstream audiences only if it is “heterosexualized” for the straight male audience. I claim that the categorically avoided lesbian allusions between Rose and Lissa are taking what Jenkins asserts as a step further: the idea that these girls would have a deeper desire and love for each other is so incredible that it does not even deserve a contemplation, despite the obviousness of their attachment. Even an illicit romance with a teacher that could ruin both their careers, and potentially get people killed, makes more sense to Rose than a sexual relationship with a female friend.
Frostbite, the second novel in the series, has Rose and Dimitri pretending indifference to each other as they spend time with other people. Rose is trying to date her friend, Mason, but once she realizes that she is not in love with him and cannot get Dimitri off her mind, she breaks up with him. Directly after she talks to Mason, he takes off with two other students and goes on a Strigoi-hunt, and Rose, feeling guilty, goes after them. “Was it possible I’d upset him so much with the making-out disaster that he’d gone off the deep end?” (Mead, Frostbite, Ch. 18).
Rose is able to rescue the two Moroi and another guardian novice, as is her duty, but Mason dies in the battle. “No one gets over their first kill easily. Even with Strigoi…well, it’s still technically taking a life. . . . And it tore me apart to think of that happening to you so young,” Dimitri says to her after the incident. “It’s my fault . . . Mason getting killed,” Rose says, confessing her guilt to him (Mead, Frostbite, Ch. 23). Rose is finding out that killing, even if it is killing the evil undead, is not as glorious as she thought it would be.
In Shadow Kiss, book three in Vampire Academy, Rose is suffering from what is clearly survivor’s guilt and post-traumatic symptoms, and is sent to a counselor after she starts seeing Mason’s ghost. She opens up about her forbidden love and starts to realize that she is harboring some resentment towards Lissa due to own her desires always having to come second. “You’re saying that I’m seeing Mason because I secretly resent Lissa for the things I can’t have in my life?” (Mead, Shadow Kiss, Ch. 22).
Meanwhile, Lissa is using more spirit, which makes her mood plummet. Rose absorbs the darkness from Lissa, which makes her increasingly unstable. She finally explodes after another student attacks Lissa, and she almost kills him. Dimitri drags her away and they struggle until Rose’s anger deflates, and—predictably—the situation turns carnal. “It really was a lot like when we’d fought on the quad earlier—the same passion and heat. I think at the end of the day, the instincts that power fighting and sex aren’t so different. They all come from the animal side of us” (Mead, Shadow Kiss, Ch. 23). No matter how hard Dimitri tried to resist Rose, he was brought down by her sexuality.
Despite her reputation as promiscuous party girl, Rose is a virgin when she has sex with Dimitri. They manage to work out a compromise where they can both work as guardians and still be together: “Yes, it was really going to happen. All of Deirdre’s [Rose’s counselor] worries about me coping with conflicting pieces of my life would be for nothing. I was going to have it all. Lissa and Dimitri” (Mead, Shadow Kiss, Ch. 26). Alas, here comes the twist: only a day after their coitus, they march into a big battle with Strigoi. They both fight fearlessly, saving a lot of people, but at the last moment, Dimitri gets captured and turned into a Strigoi “[A Strigoi] grabbed Dimitri and pulled him to the ground. They grappled, strength against strength, and then I saw those fangs sink into Dimitri’s neck” (Mead, Shadow Kiss, Ch. 26).
Rose is devastated. True to custom, Dimitri is treated as dead; “After all, how did you say goodbye to someone who wasn’t exactly gone?” (Mead, Shadow Kiss, Ch. 29). Rose cannot really mourn him properly, anyway, due to the illicit nature of their relationship.
Rose reacts to her grief by taking action. She believes that she has to rescue Dimitri from a life as a Strigoi, and she drops out of St. Vladimir’s to hunt him down in Siberia, where she is convinced he went. Interestingly, this is the first time Rose acts against Lissa’s best interests, and Lissa does not take it gracefully. She is used to Rose’s unwavering attention and feels betrayed by her departure, and this is the first time they have been apart.
“We’re supposed to be together . . . You love him more than me. . . . Please don’t leave me,” she pleads to Rose. But when Rose lost Dimitri, she also lost some of her dependence on Lissa. “All my life, Lissa…all my life, it’s been the same. They come first. I’ve lived my life for you. I’ve trained to be your shadow, but you know what? I want to come first” (Mead, Shadow Kiss, Ch. 26).
Rose’s crusade is a major turning-point in her life: she gives up her education and, subsequently, her career—not to mention her best friend who has, up until this point, been her main concern—to go save the man to whom she gave her virginity.
One of Western culture’s most prevailing myths, asserts Edward Ingebretsen, is that only men can be brave and complete in isolation, while women are offered the role of being grounded, enmeshed in civilization, in family, social connection and love: women can be complete only when they are a part of a community. The only socially acceptable moment of transcendence for women is romance (Ingebretsen, “Anne Rice: Raising Holy Hell, Harlequin Style”, 102). Rose’s quest is the first time she pursues something other than things related to protecting Lissa, but instead of going after the fulfillment of a personal goal, she is merely latching on to another calling, another sacrificial duty. In her case, the community is someone she has to protect or save, and the romantic relationship allows her to go after something that was seemingly for her, but really stems from her need to serve a purpose, a greater good.
Rose’s recklessness peaks during her trip. She goes on a rampage of killing Strigoi, in the hopes of one of them telling her where to find Dimitri. She eventually ends up in Dimitri’s hometown, Baia, in Siberia, and finds his mother and sisters. For Rose, this is the first time their relationship is recognized by anyone, and the family treats her as Dimitri’s widow. She finally gets to mourn him as the town gathers to a memorial for him. Everyone there treats Dimitri as if he is dead, too, because acknowledging his transformation to a Strigoi would not allow for mourning.
Patriarchy Broods Beneath the Surface
Rose finds relief in the Belikovs, but she cannot stay. “I had been deluding myself, pretending Dimitri’s family was my own in order to soothe my grief over him. But they weren’t. This wasn’t home. . . . The only thing I had left was my promise—my promise to Dimitri” (Mead, Blood Promise, Ch. 15). She finally leaves in the middle of the night to join a renegade dhampir group who hunt Strigoi and puts herself in grave danger by insisting that they interrogate the undead for information about Dimitri before killing them. In the end, it is Dimitri who finds her.
Instead of heroically releasing Dimitri from his soulless existence, Rose finds herself getting drawn into a hazy, sexually charged affair with Strigoi-Dimitri. Dimitri plans to turn Rose into a Strigoi, too, and has a dream of them ruling the world as supernatural crime lords. Dimitri wants Rose to turn—or awaken, as he now calls the process—on her own accord, so that she will not resent him for it. Rose allows Dimitri to feed on her while they engage in heavy foreplay, and she becomes more and more physically and mentally addicted to the powerful endorphins in the vampire bite, all the while growing weak due to the blood loss.
The sharp bite of teeth into my skin as he closed his mouth down on my neck. For half an instant, it was agonizing. Painful and horrible. And then, just like that, the pain disappeared. A rush of bliss and joy poured through me. It was so sweet. I had never felt so wonderful in my life. It reminded me a little of how it had been when Lissa drank from me. . . . It was like being in love for the first time, filled with that all-consuming, joyous feeling. (Mead, Blood Promise, Ch. 19)
Now Dimitri’s prisoner in a golden cage, Rose has forgotten all about Lissa and her plans of freeing Dimitri’s soul. She has turned into what she has always despised the most: a dhampir (usually woman) who lets Moroi drink blood during sex. These dhampirs are called “blood whores,” and Rose is continuously making dismissive and contemptuous comments about these women. Now, she is a blood whore for a Strigoi.
Rose is hopelessly addicted to Dimitri, and is starting to lean towards “awakening,” when her friend (and admirer) Adrian Ivashkov from St. Vladimir’s visits her in her dream, reminding her of the life and loved ones she left behind. “I want you both [Lissa and Rose] to be happy and live your lives like you want…but not when you’re both heading down destructive paths,” Adrian tells Rose (Mead, Blood Promise, Ch. 22). Lissa’s being in danger and needing her brings Rose out of her haze.
She eventually manages to escape, staking Dimitri with the last ounce of strength she has before getting rescued by passers-by, only to return home and receive a message from Dimitri. “Dimitri was still out there, still a Strigoi. As long as he was loose in the world, there would be no peace for me. No closure” (Mead, Blood Promise, Ch. 30). Rose is still Dimitri’s prisoner.
Rose’s headfirst leap to hunt down Dimitri is typical of her impulsive character, but goes against her protective nature and sense of duty to Lissa. At the risk of generalizing, she is perpetuating an old cliché that women will put men before each other, and be loyal to female friends only until succumbing to male seduction. Rose’s complete devotion to Lissa is replaced by the even more consuming obsession with Dimitri, and in this lateral move she is replacing the role of a servant with the stereotypical subservient female role. Rose is taking a calculated risk by going after him, and on some level she is exhilarated by the element of fear and her harmful behavior. Even when she feels at peace with the Belikovs, she finds a reason to leave the safety and comfort and continue her crusade.
Ironically, the reason she leaves is that she finds out Dimitri’s sister is a “blood whore,” as she so delicately puts it. Her aversion to giving blood stems from more than just social norms: she is drawn to the forbidden pleasure, and her first love, love towards Lissa, is tied to their blood sharing. After they return to St. Vladimir’s, Rose is mercilessly shamed by her letting Lissa drink from her, when a Moroi boy wants to drink from her during a make-out session: “‘I’m not a blood whore,’ [Rose] snapped, pulling away from him [Jesse, a Moroi]. ‘But you want to. You like it. All you dhamp girls do’” (Mead, Vampire Academy, Ch. 9).
This classic slut-shaming is heightened with Dimitri walking in and warning Rose against ruining her reputation. Considering that Strigoi are her mortal enemy, her sexual blood play with Dimitri is even more shameful than her feeding Lissa. After she escapes she is terrified of anyone finding out, paralleling her sexual experiences and first love with her similar feelings towards Lissa before. Her high-risk behavior points to an underlying desire to harm herself, and the mood swings that come from her bond with Lissa suggest that she is being suffocated in her roles.
Once Rose returns, Lissa avows to never let her go anywhere without her, even if it is dangerous, thus binding both girls into recklessness through commitment. Harmful behavior is nothing new to either girl: Lissa uses her spirit to heal people, even at the risk of it weakening her, and releases pressure through cutting herself while Rose absorbs Lissa’s moodiness, and then lashes out in rage.
Through bonding these heroines together with the psychic connection, Mead manages to provide a one-size-fits-all character: Lissa and Rose are the proverbial two sides of the romantic heroine coin: a wraith-like delicate, blonde princess immersed in her spirituality and a voluptuous, exotic warrior with an explosive character and pronounced physicality. They both act jealously when the other has deep feelings for someone, and they are also often in a power struggle with each other.
This struggle between Lissa and Rose heightens when Lissa turns Dimitri back into a dhampir. Lissa uses her spirit to save Strigoi-Dimitri, staking him with a charmed silver stake and releasing his soul. This forms a bond between them; not the same kind as Rose and Lissa have, but more of the messiah-follower kind. Not only does Lissa manage to do what Rose did not, she also does it better. She cures Dimitri instead of killing him, for which Dimitri is eternally grateful.
He also refuses to see Rose, and Lissa complies with his request, leaving Rose confused. “So frequently in our relationship, I’d been the one assertive and explaining to her why things had to be the way they were. Somewhere along the way, with me not realizing it, Lissa had lost that fragility” (Mead, Spirit Bound, Ch. 18).
This marks a turning point in their relationship. No matter what has happened before, no matter the bond they have, there is a clear shift in the balance. Lissa is on her way to be a queen, and Rose is just a dhampir, a servant, in love with another servant. They come first.
In the end, Rose almost dies again, but instead of Lissa bringing her back, she fights her way to life through her own will to survive. This breaks the bond. “I had my life back¬—my own life. I would protect Lissa, I would serve, but I was finally my own person” (Mead, Last Sacrifice, Ch. 36). With these last lines, we leave Rose as Lissa’s guardian and Dimitri’s partner. No more lesbian romance, no more blood sucking, no more larger-than-life bond to her best friend; she has grown out of her deviance and settled into her destined role, and her private life is safely heterosexualized.
Earlier, I declared the Vampire Academy saga a love story, but it is more than that: it is a complex love triangle. Rose, Lissa, and Dimitri each have different but equally powerful feelings for each other. They are in constant conflict with each other’s desires, duties, goals, and social standings. Rose goes from unquestioningly pursuing a career as a bodyguard without realizing the extent of the sacrifice it entails to throwing this all away in a self-harming—and self-delusional—quest to free her lover, and finally she becomes her own person again once the shadow-kissed bond is broken. This happy ending is one of the more relatable ones. She ends up becoming Lissa’s guardian, but it is with full knowledge and acceptance of the sacrifices, together with the compromises she and Dimitri have to make in order to stay together.
While Mead’s prose is not very polished, her characters are fully developed and their actions are believable. I originally started reading Vampire Academy in the hopes of finding strong female characters—role models even—to contrast with the ubiquitous submissive female image in the horror genre. While Rose and Lissa certainly are strong women, and take action in their own lives, there are several disturbing aspects to this series. The glaring heteronormativity and the compulsive need to assert Rose’s female gender and heterosexuality give the impression that to be anything else is undesirable. The way her sexual desires are portrayed as something to keep hidden suggests that her desires are shameful.
She is supposed to not seek personal fulfillment, but focus on her duty: protect the Moroi and at some point have a child with a Moroi man to do her part in continuing the race. If she lets Moroi drink from her during sex, she is a blood whore, and her reputation is ruined. The unhealthy bond Lissa and Rose share is part of this shaming of non-hetero relationships: it suggests that nothing can come from too deep an attachment to someone of the same sex. All of Rose’s big decisions are done for someone else, and she ultimately portrays no independent, individual goals. It seems like a waste of a fervent female character who maintains her characteristic nature while maturing from an attention-seeking adrenaline junkie to a responsible young woman.
I love Rose. She is fierce, rude, bull-headed, wild, sexy, and overall formidable. She has the potential to, if not redefine the female heroine, at least provide a viable contender to Katniss from The Hunger Games and Tris from Divergent. Instead, she is diluted with conformity to gender stereotypes and self-sacrifice.
In a way, Rose is much more dangerous as a role model than Bella from Twilight: Bella is so obviously passive that the young readers have a fighting chance to recognize the problematic behavior she portrays. Rose Hathaway is so strong and assertive that I am afraid her compliance to gender stereotypes remains too subtle for most readers to recognize, and Richelle Mead is feeding her readers patriarchal conformity disguised as a feminist warrior.