“Something Old, Something New”: Exploring Feminist and Gender Theory within Netflix’s *Dracula*
Feminist theory has always dealt with how power is structured between the sexes. Throughout its evolution, however, the theory has grown to include analysis of what it means to define gender—theorists’ interest in how outward signifiers of gender are conveyed provides ways to challenge and break down systems that perpetuate hegemonic or hierarchical relationships between genders. To explore this evolution, this paper will engage with four different theorists from Western feminist thought, applying their concepts to the 2019 Netflix adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Shifting Dracula through different lenses of feminist and gender theory and observing the deviations the show takes from the original Stoker text penultimately proves the stance of Annette Kolodny: literary canon is fiction (10). Dracula is an enriching space for the ideas of Western feminist figures to play out; feminist and gender theories—old and new—collide in this adaptation in a way that reflects each theorist’s key stance. Starting with Judith Butler, this paper will demonstrate how Dracula portrays her theory from Gender Trouble: that gender is performative with individuals merely acting out personal understandings of femininity or masculinity. In Dracula, gender performance is forced upon Jonathan Harker by the Count; Dracula's abuse of power moulds Harker into a different gender role, demonstrating the fluid nature of gender constructs. Forced to perform a different role, Harker can become a bride of Dracula—a deviation from previous iterations of the text. This choice in Harker’s characterization also proves to be a reinterpretation of Simone de Beauvoir’s ideas of gendered power structures; although Harker and Dracula are both men, the power dynamic Dracula enforces upon Harker reflects the socially developed and oppositional relationship between the male and female sex Beauvoir has emphasized. Finally, this paper will move to theorists Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar. Just as the theories of Butler and Beauvoir are proven in Dracula, so too is Gilbert and Gubar’s argument on the angelic and monstrous women in literature (Gilbert and Gubar 903).
WHY GENDER? WHY DRACULA?
Before descending into a gendered analysis of Netflix’s Dracula, this paper will provide a summary of the episode selected and reasoning for the theorists chosen. Note that this paper will only be looking at the first episode in the 2019 Dracula series for the sake of length. The episode follows the account of Jonathan Harker, as he—recovering in a convent—relays his time at Dracula’s castle to Sister Agatha, a nun who interrogates Harker about his experience. As the episode draws on, the plot mirrors Stoker’s text: Harker arrives in Transylvania as a property accountant to assist Count Dracula with his move to England. The longer Harker stays however, the greater Dracula’s mysterious power grows, and the young man soon starts to search for a means of escaping the castle. In his exploration of Dracula’s castle, Harker discovers the Count’s true identity as a vampire and his undead brides. Straying from Stoker’s narrative, however, this Dracula gives Harker the chance to become a bride himself. Harker refuses the offer and, after many attempts, manages to flee from the hellish experience, an event that leaves the episode back where it started, with Harker reciting his tale to Sister Agatha. As for the chosen theorists, it is this paper’s belief that, by foregrounding an analysis with some of the canonical figures in Feminist and Gender theory, the work done here can serve as a foundational point for richer and deeper theoretical comparisons to other scholars in both fields. This current analysis of Dracula is by no means meant to be exhaustive—if anything, this paper hopes to be an appetizer to a bloodier main course.
REVIVING THE CANON
To watch Netflix’s 2019 adaptation of Dracula is to affirm Annette Kolodny’s argument: “literary history is a fiction” (10). What she means by this is that literary history and the canonization of texts is simply the “model by which … the continuities and discontinuities, as well as the influences upon and the interconnection between works, genres, and authors” were tracked; canon is merely “of our own making” and not necessarily attributed to literary greatness (8). Nevertheless, Kolodny recognizes the historical importance of canon, pointing out that critics and theorists use it to “call up and utilize the past on behalf of a better understanding of the present” (9). Kolodny argues that feminist theory introduces the idea that what is regarded as the current textual canon does not just lead to an understanding of the present but can solidify or reshape individuals’ sense of the past (9). Because of this, Kolodny believes that canon is fiction; firstly in the sense that people recreate canon as they reread the texts that create it and secondly, in the view that (instead of being a collection of texts above questioning) canon should be an ever-adapting form “through which [a] culture perceives, expresses, and knows itself” (17). Kolodny asserts that it is the role of feminist critique to “generate an ongoing dialogue of competing potential possibilities” (19), that the theory should expand beyond any singular reading analysis (such as looking at male versus female binaries) to inspire critical questions about canon and its formation, thus avoiding the oversimplification of texts (21). Even if questions raised by expanded dialogue cannot be answered, the presence of the questions themselves, at the very least, calls attention to problem areas within the canonical discourse, making it harder to ignore such issues (21).
Such challenging inquiries occur within the latest adaptation of Dracula—variations from the original text make readers question what it means to become a bride of Dracula. By creating the possibility that Harker, a man, might become one of Dracula’s brides, the series creators (Gatiss and Moffat) shift from traditional understandings of the gendered role of the wife. Harker’s depiction and relationship with Dracula breaks from the traditional male versus female, husband vs. wife binary to align with the ideas of Butler; that gender and gender roles are subjective. Additionally, by extending the qualifier of Dracula’s bride beyond the realm of biological gender, Dracula’s Harker also demonstrates Beauvoir’s theories: being a wife is not so much categorized by gender but by a state of submission. By resisting this submissive state, Harker reveals another theory contained in his modern characterization—Gilbert and Gubar’s idea of the angelic and monstrous woman. In a sense, Netflix’s Dracula is (as Kolodny might see it) a rewriting of the feminist theoretical canon. With Moffat and Gatis taking this stance, their adaptive narrative of Dracula serves to “achieve a shift in the material practice through which gender regimes are maintained” (Balinisteanu 121). The very creation of the show is proof that this canonical work is, as Kolodny sees it, “a resource for remodelling our literary history, past, present, and future” (10).
Reviewers of the show have already taken note of the change in gender dynamics and what that means in the context of a canonical text, commenting that, “the most notable thing about this particular neck-nibbling nobleman is that he is sexually omnivorous, happy to take “Brides” of either gender. Terribly modern for 1897” (Hogan). Although this first episode of Dracula contains significant aspect of Stoker’s text (such as pivotal characters like Harker and key moments like his stay in the castle) it has been deliberately remade in a way that will change audiences understanding of literary past, present, and future. For some audiences, this will be their only interaction with the Stoker text, however—as Kolodny advocates—this change is not meant to be a terror, sucking the life out of the canon. Instead, adaptations like Dracula show that, along with understandings of gender, textual history is flexible. Its evolution is a reflection of how a society comes to know itself.
DRESSED UP IN GENDER
Early feminist theory, as this paper will note, has often entrenched feminist criticism within a system that placed limitations on notions of gender and femininity. However, Judith Butler’s perspective questions the system itself, and alters the idea of how gender is “regulated” by asking how it was created (“Gender Trouble” 41). Butler argues that “gender is performative” and that an individual’s identity—whether it be masculine or feminine—is formed through a series of repetitions (“Imitation” 1038). Because of this gender performativity Butler states, “identity is permanently at risk,” since every time an individual ‘repeats’ their gendered identity, that identity “runs the risk of becoming de-instituted” as such repetitions are never perfect (“Imitation” 1038). If the identity of the “One” or the “Other” (that is, the masculine “One” and the feminine “Other,” as will be explained further on) is not re-instated continuously, the two positions risk inversion. Not only inversion, but punishment. As Butler argues, gender performance “occurs as part of a strategy of cultural survival”—if individuals stray from the expected gender repetition, they will be ostracized in order to keep the central “One” in power (Toylan 27). Butler’s notice of this risk implies that gender—and the roles associated with its performance—has a kind of fluidity to it and “to assume that gender always and exclusively means the matrix of the ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ is precisely to miss the critical point that… those permutations of gender which do not fit the binary are as much a part of gender” as the starting binaries (“Gender Trouble” 42). Thus, with Butler’s theories in mind, if the nature of gender is malleable, the idea of gendered roles becomes arbitrary. That is, instead of a role being associated with notions of the masculine or feminine, they merely represent a state of mind and control.
Such is the case within Dracula, in which the Count is the singular character who does not assume the masculine or feminine matrix. He indicates this quite clearly when he refers to the female vampires he keeps hidden. Dracula seems ambivalent when he addresses them as his “Brides,” saying: “Brides yes… I think that’s the right word for it” (49:08), equating the term more with his plans to reproduce than anything else (49:09). While this might be seen as a reinforcement of the typical cis-gender heterosexual dynamic of reproduction, Dracula later tells Harker (an individual that presumably identifies as ‘male’) “you could be my finest bride” (57:21). His phrasing shows that, for Dracula, gender and biological sex are separate. That for him, there is no such thing as gendered roles—he does not equate being a bride to biological femininity, but rather to submissiveness—a trait, according to Count Dracula, that is neither inherently feminine nor masculine. His view might not be apparent initially, as the first appearance of his bride’s reveal that they are all female (44:00–44:41). However, once one of his brides tries to subvert Dracula’s authority as ‘husband’—when she sneaks out of her box and drinks from Harker (46:13)—he kills her (48:16). She can no longer be his bride because she no longer exemplifies the submissiveness Dracula equates with that role. This is further supported by Dracula’s marriage offer to Harker. An offer which comes only after he has broken Harker’s neck (55:29–57:21) and—more importantly—after Harker’s last defiance of Dracula. In his final moments, Harker swears that, should he live, he will do everything he can to prevent Dracula from killing innocents, his verbal resistance further emphasised by his movement from kneeling to a standing position, somewhat symbolizing Harker’s concluding attempt to stand on even, masculine ground with Dracula (54:18–55:32). Thus, Dracula cannot make his marriage proposal until after he has killed Harker—by snapping Harker’s neck, Dracula enacts his final dominion over Harker’s life, not only killing him but creating Harker as another vampire, fully putting the man into his gendered idea of a submissive bride.
Thus, Dracula must subjugate Harker. His forcefulness interrupts Harker’s repetition of identity, which reconfigures him to suit Dracula’s desires. Before his death, Harker does try his utmost to cling to his identity—what Butler might call his repetition of resistance—as his central way of defining himself. However, as Butler argues, this repetition is open to risk. Indeed, once Harker dies and is entirely subdued by Dracula, he is unable to truly recreate the repetition again; as Dracula tells him: “this changes everything” (57:12). Dracula can make his offer and consider Harker as his bride because Harker has been ultimately forced into submissiveness and can now perform the role that Dracula requires of him.
THE POWER OF PASSIVITY
Continuing along this thread of associating gender with power and an exploration of Dracula and Harker’s relationship, this paper now turns to the theories of Simone de Beauvoir. Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex is perhaps one of the earliest texts to delve into gender theory and establishes many central tenets of feminism. Beauvoir’s text defines—or at least attempts to define—the power dynamics between men and women. Within The Second Sex, Beauvoir asks, “What is a woman?” (5), arguing that women are defined in relation to men, always seen as “the negative” (5). Beauvoir writes that women and feminine traits are always seen as the “Other” (6), while men and the masculine are seen as the “One” (7). This dynamic means that “the Other has to submit to [the] foreign point of view” of the “One”; to remain in power, something else must exist in subservience (7). This dynamic quickly creates a cyclical effect, the power of the “One” makes the “Other” inferior, which in turn, creates a dependency of the “Other” to rely on the “One” (155). However, Beauvoir points out that there are attempts to find equilibrium. The “Other” uses “craftiness against force to re-establish equality” (110), demonstrating that women resort to subversion in order to regain some semblance of power in the face of the masculine.
Due to the tension between the sexes, both by the subjugation to and resistance against male control, Beauvoir states that “one is not born, but rather becomes, woman” (283). This becoming of a woman is done “through experience rather than essence” (Mitchell 263): women are forced to adopt passive traits since the masculine refuses “the passive role” (Beauvoir 389). Because of this, Beauvoir argues that masculinity edges towards aggressive or sadistic behaviours. To continually reassert their power, husbands feel the need to provoke their wives in order to assure themselves that “it is really a human being [they are] possessing” (468), seeking out risks to escape the boredom of repetition that comes with being in control (484). What is critical to note within Beauvoir’s historical argument is that—though she is writing to promote female equality—her position regulates passivity with the feminine and aggression with the masculine. As Mitchel observes, Beauvoir, unlike later theorists’, operates under the assumption that gender has an origin point and that it begins at birth before being cemented over a lifetime (266). As such, it is interesting to note that the same power dynamics Beauvoir explores appear within Dracula not just between men and women, but between members of the same sex.
In essence, the power imbalance between opposite genders that Beauvoir’s ideas rely on is complicated within Dracula, where the imbalance occurs between two male characters: Jonathan Harker and Count Dracula. The establishment of power between the two characters is largely shown through Dracula’s oppressive nature and the physical space. Upon Harker’s initial entrance into Dracula’s castle, he is set below Dracula, as the vampire quite literally casts a shadow over him (9:47). The placement of Dracula on the balcony over Harker serves as a visualization of both the dichotomy and hierarchy between them; Count Dracula, being the ultimate male “One,” presides over Harker, the subjugated “Other”. This dynamic is further established during the character’s first conversation. Though their exchanges start off balanced—each man allowing the other to respond in turn—it shifts towards Dracula’s favour once Harker mentions his departure (11:21). Dracula’s response, “You are staying…You will remain with me…” (11:53–12:14), keeps Harker from reclaiming power. Dracula’s commanding phrasing does not allow Harker to speak back and forces him to submit to his view.
The physical features of the castle also establishes Dracula’s power, its labyrinthine layout the physical manifestation of what Beauvoir describes as the male restriction to a woman’s world: “as high as she climbs, as far as she dares go, there will always be a ceiling over her head, walls that block her path” (311). The castle is similarly, though more succinctly, described by Dracula as “[t]he prison without locks” (13:37). The oppressiveness of both Dracula and of his castle, however, do not displace Harker’s power without resistance on his part, as he makes various attempts to escape Dracula’s initiative to put him into the passive role. Harker verbally challenges Dracula’s domineering statements (25:53–26:51), tries to help whom he believes is another prisoner (22:30), and ultimately opposes Dracula until his human death (54:59–55:30). Interestingly though, Harker's use of subversive methods within his escape attempts reflect the ‘craftiness’ that Beauvoir argues that women use to re-establish power against the male “One”.
As Dracula displaces more of Harker’s power, Harker is pushed into the submissiveness of the “Other,” which is visually depicted by Harker’s increasingly decrepit state as the episode progresses; he is physically forced into the role despite his resistance (27:01–27:29). The ultimate shift from “One” to “Other” occurs during the final confrontation between the two characters. Just as Beauvoir argues that “the very meaning of [a woman’s] existence is not in her hands,” (485) Harker’s existence falls into the hands of Dracula; Harker is unable to kill himself—to end his undead existence—without the vampire (1:18:49–1:19:26). The cumulation of their dynamic shows that while a masculine identity may start as the center of power, it can be altered. Otherwise stated, Dracula demonstrates that although gendered bifurcation between “Other” and “One” is more common between opposite sexes, it has the potential to occur within or between the same sex. This potential shows that gender is performative, which substantiates Butler’s claims (of gender being a series of repetitions) mentioned earlier.
BECOMING A MONSTER
These relational tensions between Harker and Dracula manifest as one final feminist theory: the notion of the angelic and monstrous woman proposed by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar. Gilbert and Gubar’s argument from “Infection in the Sentence: The Woman Writer and the Anxiety of Authorship” states that the female writer, trapped by the anxiety of revising the male genre, attempts to escape literary subjugation by creating a monstrous double of themselves within their texts (Gilbert and Gubar 904). This double is, in a way, a kind of reclamation for the female writer, as she has been “conditioned to doubt [her] own authority” (905). Gilbert and Gubar argue that, due to this doubt, female writers use their medium to both express and camouflage themselves (909). The angelic characters within a woman’s text remain caged in passivity, while the monster woman offers a glimpse at freedom, representing “the power of self-articulation” (908).
In Dracula, Harker is the embodiment (rather literally) of Gilbert and Gubar’s theory. At the beginning of his stay, Harker is the epitome of a naïve and well-intentioned young man; he shows emotional devotion to his fiancé Mina (6:51), is polite in his initial interactions with the Count, (9:51–12:33) and displays concern when he realizes that someone else in the castle may need “assistance” (22:25–22:52). However, as the episode plays out, Harker is bodily undone. His rebellion against Dracula’s oppressive power—a power that constantly undermines Harker’s male gender—can arguably be seen as Harker’s attempt to revise his own masculinity into what it once was. Just as Gilbert and Gubar’s female writer is desperate to escape male literary subjugation, Harker is desperate to reclaim autonomy and in doing so he shifts from angelic to monstrous. Dracula diverges from Gilbert and Gubar’s theory, however, in that it has no need for two separate characters: both are contained within Jonathan Harker.
Harker’s bodily transformation becomes the visible signifier of his emotional rebellion against Dracula as well as demonstrating his shift from angelic to monstrous. The audience’s first view of Harker is after his time at Dracula’s castle—at this point he has already become a hairless, sore-riddled, skeletal figure (0:59). This horrifying transformation is needed; it is only by completing his shift from centralized control to a sort of half-man “Other” that Harker can self-articulate his experience via written account (1:13–1:25) and find freedom in the safety of the convent (2:22). However, Harker, so caught up in his need to self-articulate and remove the doubt of his experience, completely misses his evolution into said monstrous figure. Gilbert and Gubar comment that a woman becomes “not only a prisoner but a monster” (Gilbert and Gubar 914), that the recognition of her cage transforms her into the creature that resides within. Such is also the case for Harker—it is not until the end of his retelling that he realizes “I’m not breathing” (55:35). With Sister Agatha’s prompting, Harker remembers the reality of his flight from the castle and that he has turned into another undead creation of Dracula. Just like the tension Gilbert and Gubar identify between the monster and the angel in women’s writing, Harker becomes trapped in a binary that leaves no room for another type of existence; it must be one or the other.
Though feminist theory began by critiquing how power structures were established between the sexes, it has grown to propose that gender is formed through performative roles, with traits being assigned masculine and feminine titles. However, analyzing those same roles show that gender can be broken down, and that the previously ascribed ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ traits of passivity and aggression have less to do with gender than they do with how power is wielded. These various aspects of feminist and gender theory, from Butler to Beauvoir, are proven within the 2019 version of Dracula. Observations of Dracula and Harker’s interactions, most notably the option for Harker to become a ‘bride,’ display the show’s ability to provide engaging commentary on gender hierarchy and bifurcation. Additionally, by verifying that the hierarchies and binaries surrounding gender can be challenged and changed through its portrayal of Dracula and Harker, Dracula demonstrates Kolodny’s belief that literary canon is fiction—that Bram Stoker’s story can be rewritten and reread to influence audiences’ understandings not just of literary history but of gender. It is in this way that Dracula proves itself to be an adaptation that allows for enriched feminist theory application to take place and one that cries for scholars to sink their teeth into.
Balinisteanu, Tudor. Spellbinding Stories. Gender Theory and Georges Sorel's Concept of Social Myth. vol. 42, 2014, ezproxy.aekc.talonline.ca/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edb&AN=96239632&site=eds-live.
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Tenth Anniversary Edition. Routledge, 2002, ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/kingsu-ebooks/detail.action?docID=180211.
---. “Imitation and Gender Insubordination.” The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. Edited by David H. Richter. Bedford/St.Martin’s, 2016.
de Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex. Vintage Books, 2011.
“The Rules of Beast” Dracula, written by Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, directed by Jonny Campbell, Netflix, 2020.
Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. “Infection in the Sentence: The Woman Writer and the Anxiety of Authorship.” The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. Edited by David H. Richter. Bedford/St.Martin’s, 2016.
Hogan, Michael. “Dracula, First-Look Review: BBC One's New Horror is a Bloody Good Show.” The Telegraph, December 12, 2019, www.telegraph.co.uk/tv/2019/12/12/dracula-first-look-review-bbc-ones-new-horror-bloody-good-show/.
Kolodny, Annette. “Dancing through the Minefield: Some Observations on the Theory, Practice and Politics of a Feminist Literary Criticism.” Feminist Studies, vol. 6, no. 1, Feminist Studies, Inc., 1980, pp. 1–25, doi.org/10.2307/3177648.
Mangan, Lucy. “Dracula Review – a Blood-Sucking Delight that Leaves You Thirsty for More.” The Guardian, January, 2020, www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2020/jan/01/dracula-review-bbc1-steven-moffat-mark-gatiss.
Mitchell, Elspeth. The Girl and Simone De Beauvoir’s the Second Sex: Feminine Becomings. vol. 32, Routledge, 2017, ezproxy.aekc.talonline.ca/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=sih&AN=126846409&site=ehost-live, doi:10.1080/08164649.2017.1407640.
Toylan, Gamze. “Subversion and Reiteration of Gender Norms in Television Comedy through Costume and Performance: A Study on the League of Gentlemen.” Studies in Costume and Performance, vol. 3, no. 1, 2018, pp. 23-42, h8.relais-host.com/posttoweb/aeu/PKU-10582775.pdf.
Date submitted: 06 January 2022
Date accepted: 28 March 2022
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