SEPT / OCT 2015: BY JESSICA ELIZABETH
The Vampire Diaries has evolved throughout its run. It meant to appeal to the idea of a vampiric romance and the heroine, Elena Gilbert, was to be a refreshing take on the empathic girl archetype. It runs this theme in a skillful way, but there is a dark undercurrent under the initial teen theme of dealing with loss and finding yourself again. It is realistic in its themes of sexism and abuse, and that often shocks us. Throughout the series, magic amplifies dangerous social constructs and displays them on an extreme level. Essentially, Elena seeks the approval of men over women and understands that having these beings in love with her makes her unique. After the death of her parents, she is in a stage of grief and sees herself as ‘the girl whose parents died’ instead of her true self. The danger of vampirism is the idea of being special and unique and Elena is one of the most complex anti-heroines on television.
This is where real life is reflected in the supernatural: the men are aware of hierarchy and take brutal, cynical advantage of it. Elena is objectified throughout, from simply being a special girl to a doppelganger (another magical construct), and finally an inverse of her status at the end of her arc. In the same way, other female characters pay prices the male characters do not.
In the pilot, Caroline Forbes says everyone always picks Elena over her. When Bonnie tells her it isn’t a competition, Caroline answers, “Yes, it is.” Caroline is aware of what she is lacking, in the minutia of her reality; she knows she has no real social power compared to Elena (after all, Elena’s parents died) and what is disconcerting about her is that she never conceals it. Most of the characters comment on her falsity and judge her harshly, but Caroline’s social disparity has very real life and death consequences. Damon Salvatore, overhearing her words in the Mystic Grille, picks her as a victim. Here, the show is in danger of victim-blaming if read superficially, but instead is a reflection of the undercurrent of active sexism in the vampire world. Damon choosing her tells something about him. Compared to Stefan, Damon is “never the one” anyone picks, despite how far he goes and how much self-sacrifice he goes through to be “the one.” Damon’s targeting of Caroline is a reaction to his own feelings, but Caroline pays a higher price than Damon ever does. Her friends even cast some blame towards her more than Damon (“shaming” her for her behavior, even though she was controlled against her will, where Damon’s actions are ignored).
After a twist of fate turns her into a vampire, her characteristics, per the rules of vampirism, are enhanced, and heightened. She soon realizes she makes a better vampire than a human being, because her kindness and sweet nature helps her avoid hurting people. But this doesn’t mean her survival is guaranteed; Caroline has been targeted by Katherine Pierce, her father, and most of all, Klaus Mikaelson.
Because Klaus is romantically interested in her, Caroline is often used to gain information from him for her friends and is abused by him in the process. Klaus echoed the general dynamic of the male vampires: he told her she was special and then took out most of his rage on her when it counted. In a key scene, Caroline has to convince him to save her after enduring his bite: as a hybrid, Klaus can kill vampires with a bite alone. She must convince him through very similar appeals to those Elena has used in the past to save her life. He relents. In this, Caroline’s arc changes again. She has become much more vampiric and gains social competence to survive an extreme world. She must sacrifice quite a bit to do it. What’s what makes her story fall on the more cynical side of honest—and it is powerful.
When we first meet Bonnie Bonnet, she is very enthusiastic about her emerging power. As a witch, she has an incredible well of power and resources within her. In an early scene, she shows Elena her ability in a beautiful way by lifting a feather with her force of will and magic. In subsequent seasons, Bonnie’s power has often been used by her friends, especially Elena. As with the gender dynamic, the racial implications are heightened. Mystic Falls even has references to its South Heritance. In the original books, Mystic Falls is a Northern town. In the show, it is reframed to show multiple Civil War references from the modern day to the actual birth times of the Salvatore Brothers. Bonnie-Elena’s dynamic is meant to echo Emily-Katherine’s dynamic. Bonnie is quickly isolated in her group dynamic. Her grandmother passes away trying to help Elena and Stefan during a spell. Suddenly her support system is actively stripped away from her. She finds out about vampires by Damon physically attacking her. Her instinct is to do whatever she can for her friends because she should. As the show progresses, she gets close to death itself.
Bonnie loves her power and she loves to use it to help, but in the face of the Salvatore brothers, her life is often in danger. She nearly dies fighting Klaus for Elena. Her life compared to her birth mother’s is decided by a coin flip by the Salvatores. The newest season had her sacrifice herself along with Damon to the prison world.
Now, here is where Bonnie’s arc changes. Her bond with Damon helps, as he does see her as a person now. Before, her life was of little value. However, the real change comes in the form of Kai, an evil magic user trapped in the prison world with her. Bonnie relies only on herself and finally begins to feel the bitterness—true anger—towards her situation. When Kai escapes, leaving her alone, she gets the point of even being tempted to take her own life instead of staying there alone. Bonnie walks through an unjust and unfair hell to realize her own pain.
When she returns, she allows herself to show Damon exactly how it felt to be hurt by Kai. In the end of her recent arc, Damon chooses to save her rather than wake Elena up, as Kai tied their life forces together in a spell. The very visual effect of this physical choice is what supernatural shows can offer us. Elena remains asleep and her friend has a chance to choose life. Bonnie’s story ends on hope. She has gained agency, at extreme cost, and often her storyline is uncomfortable—but like Caroline’s, unfailingly honest.
Lastly, we must speak about doppelganger objectification. Elena Gilbert is one of the best anti-heroines in recent television history as is Katherine Pierce, her doppelganger. This storyline explores how much life one girl is entitled to. Elena does grievous things to stay alive, because she has the power to do them. At first, Elena embodies the concept of being alone and having to rely on other people to survive. Her very being, the doppelganger, is objectified by magic itself. The system she tries to navigate often depowers her. She has an aspect of borrowed life and death, and while it doesn’t justify her more unfair decisions, she’s an excellent character who is more cynical than she lets on. She chooses to embrace her role in events rather than being purely vulnerable. Her life is focused on herself and her friend’s bonds with her.
Powerful men find her worthy of being protected. This is where her tragedy of gender dynamics manifests in a brutal way. When she becomes a vampire, her social role changes. She becomes uncontrollable and abuses her new authority. Elena lives up to her doppelganger and is a true reflection of Katherine, who also victimized and objectified others. Their power lies in what they make people feel about themselves, never their own personhood, and if that changed, they’d be abandoned.
Katherine and Elena understand each other more than anyone else. They see the real person they are and hate each other for it. They realize the impossibility of both existing in one place at the same time. Katherine knows her face is what brought Damon to Elena, the same as Stefan. Her own painful past is constantly ignored in comparison to Elena. Their objectification, their constant contrast of Madonna/Whore trope, ends up being their final end. Katherine alone is judged to be worthy of hell in contrast to the other characters (all of whose crimes are just as bad) and Elena is put into a magical slumber, a callback to sleeping beauty as defined by her face, her superficial appearance.
When Elena awakes, she’ll start her life anew. She’ll live on her own terms, no matter how dark. Life demands a price from her and she won’t be able to be herself truly… but like Katherine, I think she can live with it. Due to changes in power dynamics, she would have been far too vulnerable as a human. Elena’s arc is the most uncompromising statement on television tropes and gender disparity in this magical realism medium.
Magical realism works the best when it echoes real life power dynamics as a way to explore issues in a way that is universally understood. Our storytelling can help us learn and acknowledge our world. The dynamics shown on The Vampire Diaries have been told before in other media but not as often with the full intent to their meanings. ♥
As a long time fangirl, Jessica Elizabeth has loved all kind of stories and that hasn’t changed. A feminist and college student, she is interested in science and art. She loves to draw, dabble in photography, and write. She hopes to write a story of her own one day…