Written in Blood – The Commodification and Sexualization of Dracula
by Lauren Jackson
A dark cloak had settled on the shoulders of Victorian England, for the times were changing as the century drew to a close. Sexuality now wrapped its slender arms around society, clasping men and women alike in its languorous embrace. Gender roles now attained an inherent question mark, denoting its future in reversal and experimentation. And consumerism had sunk its heavy talons into the flesh of the people. No one was safe from these blood-sucking, morphing ideologies, and in Tanya Pikula’s article ‘Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Late-Victorian Advertising Tactics: Earnest Men, Virtuous Ladies, and Porn”, we find Dracula may have been the very embodiment of the shifting paradigms.
Pikula addresses the anxieties of the fin de siècle that were running rampant, careening about with horns dragging the ground. The fresh plowed minds of the Victorians were ripe for planting seeds of change. Pikula highlights: “…excessive material production, consumption, and expanding middle-class pursuit of leisure; the rise of commercial advertising directed at ‘modern’ women…the industry’s profit-oriented sexualization of female figures, and the consequent destabilization of Victorian gender norms” (Pikula, 284). But this inherent destabilization that comes of a changing society seems necessary in the face of a turn of the century. A sweeping of the tide is sure to wash away what was written in the sand before. Anxieties are ever-present in society, this shift away from the totality of an all-encompassing worldview, standardized by morality and condemned by lasciviousness had changed, for now God was truly being abandoned in this overreaching goal of sexualization and commodifying sex. Dracula was a packaged vampire that denoted ‘otherness’ yet perpetuated sexiness and questioned gender roles. It also placed erotica on the figure that would otherwise be displaced by the Victorian narrative. These direct impulses would be consumed by Dracula, while the public in turn consumed the notions.
Pikula finds that this method of articulating Dracula, merely aligns itself with the: “…sex-sells tactics as the commercial culture it identifies as threatening and partakes in the discussion, portrayal, and commodification of sex” (Pikula, 284). But if Dracula’s purpose was to suppress these feelings arising in the era of sexualization and consumerism, than the anxieties would only blossom. The role Dracula plays in Stoker’s novel accentuates that which is foreign to the Victorians, and allows them a means of discovering what is new and burgeoning. Pikula seems critical of this when she says: “Its insistence on the purity of London’s citizens contrasts with its racy descriptions of foreign, sexualized, predominantly female vampires, but it’s ‘dangerous material’ is only displaced, distanced, and controlled in this manner, rather than eliminated” (Pikula, 284). But should it be eliminated? Perhaps the method of using Dracula as a vehicle to explore and pursue the new ideas percolating in the minds of the people is a healthy exercise, rather than one detrimental to Victorian society. Perhaps the ‘delicate female minds’ would typically be excluded, but this allowed them an entry into the private world of sexuality. Was Dracula truly ‘othered’ by being viewed as the physical object of anxieties bundled into one being? Or was he in fact the true placement of Victorian society into one accurate rendering?
The overall commodification of sex as directed at females and propagated by males would seemingly stabilize gender roles in modern society, but Stoker seems to point out areas where men succumb to the ‘power’ of women and their growing independence. One such illustration seems to be in the three female vampires that overpower Jonathan Harker in Castle Dracula. Stoker gets the female vampires excited by the thought for: “…kisses for us all” (Dracula, CHIII) and that the females get physically closer to Jonathan than was proper for Victorian ladies of the time. Pikula believes that this text identifies: “…consumption with overt eroticism and transgression of Victorian gender norms” (Pikula, 290). This seems to be accentuated further with the character of Lucy. As she transforms to her vampiric state, sensuousness is highlighted again and again in her demeanor and actions. Lucy’s words in the crypt to Arthur: “Come to me Arthur…My arms are hungry for you” (Dracula, CHXVI), seems to speak directly to this consumerism in a literal sense as well as figurative within Stoker’s narrative and underlying speculation. Pikula sees these female vampires as “sexually aggressive” (Pikula, 291).
This gender role is further reversed in females in that the females of the novel seem to feast upon the young, rather than nurturing them. This is evidenced through the “half-smothered child” (Dracula, CHIII) that the three female vampires are eager to feast on, and the children that Lucy lures as the “bloofer lady”. Mina seems the only bid to reestablish femininity in the Victorian standards. Not the least of which is the fact that a baby is calmly deposited into Mina’s arms at the end of the novel, placing her once more in the role of nurturing, domesticated wife and mother. Mina says also: “–good women, whose lives and whose truths may make good lesson for the children that are to be” (Dracula, CHXIV), seems to emphasize what a good woman ought to be, a role model and help for the children.
Because of the shifting uncertainty of the female role at the time, and their growth and independence as the managers of their households, the female became the prime target of advertisements. Females were the target of ads not only because of their primary role as purchaser of the household, but as the most susceptible and the weakest of the sexes to pandering or manipulation of any kind. And because of the blossoming sexuality in society, the businesses quickly learned that sex sells, and pandered to that in their advertisements. Magazines soon became filled with glossy ads selling products to women, shaping the idea of the time as one in where women were most likely to independently purchase things that they wanted or needed. The virtuosity of Victorian women was now questionable, and Stoker may have capitulated on that in his novel.
The females are dubbed ‘ravenous female consumers’ by Pikula in her article. She claims that in fact: “Mina Harker and Lucy Westenra are also, from the outset, identified with forms of unrestrained consumption, or one’s desire for it: while Mina states that their appetites would have shocked the New Woman, Lucy wonders why a girl cannot marry three men” (Pikula, 288). Indeed, because women were the primary targets of advertising and marketing, they were seen as the ultimate consumers, and Stoker points this out by their consumption and the fact that they are also consumed within the novel. Pikula likens Dracula to an advertising mastermind that accomplishes his goals through creating a new type of human that ‘devours’ and will ultimately control the world. His vampires do quite literally consume and devour. Dracula frustrates the men of the novel when he proclaims: “Your girls that you all love are mine already; and through them you and others shall yet by mine-my creatures, to do my bidding and to be my jackals when I want to feed” (Dracula, CHXXIII). In this speech Dracula already owns the women, he consumes them and possesses them. But Pikula finds that not only this aspect of the speech is terrifying, but the possibility of role reversals: “…also predicts he will control the rest of Britain, with the implication that even men will ultimately fall prey to the same ‘infection’, thus becoming feminized” (Pikula, 289). This fear is heightened and rather penultimate, with Dracula proclaiming this as a sort of crux of the novel.
If Dracula can own and control England through owning and controlling their women, it does seem like a heady and overwhelming sense of the changing tides. It was in fact, in this era that pornography began slamming the markets and itself was consumed. Pikula names nine pornographic texts of the time, all of which include the world ‘voluptuous’ in their title. For example: Voluptuous Miscellany, The Voluptuous Night, The Voluptuarian Cabinet, and The Confessions of a Voluptuous Young Lady of High Rank. These publications and many others like them, circled around this key word. It denoted something sexual at the time. It is now worthwhile to note that Stoker used the word ‘voluptuous’ in his descriptions of his vampires and all sexualized or erotically charged moments. For example: “voluptuous lips,” “voluptuousness,” “soft, voluptuous voice,” “voluptuous wantonness,” “voluptuous smile,” “voluptuous grace,” “voluptuous mouth,” “the voluptuous lips,” “voluptuous beauty,” and “so exquisitely voluptuous”. They are mostly in description of the female vampires and the encounters the males of the story have with them. The word is used throughout the text in its many forms, fourteen different times, in description of vampires. This obvious coding and reference of contemporary times to pornographic materials charges the text sexually, and appeals to the reader in a more erotic way than would have at first been obvious.
Pikula makes the argument that the scenes in which the vampires are present are often more pornographic than appears, if the text is paid close attention to. Pikula points out that: “The three passages feature a plethora of adjectives, most of which are tautological, as well as quintessential symbolic imagery of predominantly male-made and male-oriented pornography” (Pikula, 294). Some of these adjectives Stoker uses are: “dreamy,” “intoxicated,” “trance,” “ecstatic,” “insensibility,” “languorous”, and “ecstasy,” as well as “quick and panting” and “beating heart”. These open up new dimensions to the text and give it a distinctly sexual connotation, especially when taken in conjunction with the publications and sentiments of the time.
In typical Victorian literature, language was used to express morality. It was a direct link to class and gender. It formatted itself around the fallen woman and the womanly woman, and this is both present and fleeting in Dracula. Mina is seen as the virtuous woman in that she does not succumb to Dracula’s sexuality by being bitten and eventually becoming a vampire herself. She is punished for her involvement by being branded and excluded at times, but she is restored in the end when the ultimate evil – Dracula – is defeated. Lucy however, succumbs, almost willingly, to Dracula’s prowess, and becomes a wanton sexualized vampire that is ultimately destroyed. The totality in this novel is lost not through the absence of God, but through the presence of evil.
The erotic is highlighted in the novel by Pikula as well. She rightly points out the scene between Dracula and Mina that Jonathan watches while incapacitated. It involves Mina drinking the blood of Dracula from his very bosom. However, we do not understand that this is actually what is happening until the very end of the paragraph. Or as Pikula so quickly explains: “As he initially makes no reference to blood and biting, Dr. Seward could be informing the reader that Jonathan was aroused by watching Mina perform oral sex on Dracula” (Pikula, 295). The passage is as referenced below:
On the bed beside the window lay Jonathan Harker, his face flushed, and breathing heavily as though in a stupor. Kneeling on the near edge of the bed facing outwards was the white-clad figure of his wife. By her side stood a tall, thin man, clad in black…With his left hand he held both Mrs. Harker’s hands, keeping them away with her arms at full tension; his right hand gripped her by the back of her neck, forcing her face down on his bosom. (Dracula, CHXXI)
It is only on the last sentence that our attention is taken from the flushed heated possibility of sexual actions, to the understanding that Dracula is making Mina suck his blood. The reason this passage is so unseemly and sexual, is that we have never before encountered this method of creating a vampire in the book. Throughout the novel up to this point, Dracula was always sucking his victim’s blood. Yet now we are confronted with a very different picture, and Stoker never once pauses to inform us what is happening. Or as Pikula explains: “…the role reversal is not something that the text has taught its readers to expect” (Pikula, 295). Thus it seems more and more telling that Stoker was attempting to create a sexually and erotically charged scene. Pikula claims that Stoker: “…creates a sense of taboo that titillates long after it has been ostensibly counteracted by the men’s rhapsodies about Mina’s purity” (Pikula, 295).
In question is whether or not gender roles are actually destabilized in the erotic passages. Pikula believes that sexuality is in many ways reversed throughout Dracula, yet the man controlling and using the woman in this passage seems poignantly to reinforce sexual gender roles, rather than to subvert them. Pikula feels the passage concerning Jonathan and the three female vampires who attempt to kiss him, works strongly to destabilize: “The passage works to arouse and in turn generate anxiety about the destabilization of gender roles, testifying once again to the contradiction between Dracula’s sex-selling tactic and its insistent traditional arguments” (Pikula, 294). For in this scene, the female vampires possess the aggressive position and Jonathan is the submissive figure. They want to sink their teeth into his flesh, representing a phallic symbol, and therefore emasculating Jonathan. Although, in that instance he does not seem to oppose the reversal. Yet this fear was one that caused anxiety in late Victorian society; the emergence of female sexuality.
There is a further argument that Dracula is in fact a representation of pornography through the use of ‘color-coding’. The blood-red colors and tones of the scenes and the novel itself provide a visceral aspect and indeed, visceral reactions to the text. It is pointed out that throughout the novel, Stoker uses descriptions such as the obsessive focus on the vampires’ “red lips,” “scarlet lips,” “lips…crimson with fresh blood,” “lovely, blood-stained mouth,” “opened red lips,” “full red lips,” and “parted red lips” and that this is all part of the seduction that Dracula plays on humans through his vampires.
Pikula says in summation of this that: “Dracula’s descriptions of vampiric women, therefore, are points of verbal stagnancy that belie the text’s strategic commodification of sex: distanced by Eastern European vampirism and contained by insistent expressions of patriarchal ideology, the erotic cliches of Dracula nevertheless titillate its readers, many of whom have already been conditioned into quick response by direct or indirect knowledge of erotic lingo and tropes” (Pikula, 298). The direct displacement of all sexual anxieties onto the vampires and onto Dracula in particular, as their creator, seems satisfactory to Pikula who believes the stresses of the time revolved around emerging sexuality, and a burgeoning society wherein women were claiming more and more roles. Along with these roles, women were able to become dominant sexually, reversing the roles and ideologies prevalent up until that point. The moral compass that had for so long guided women, and the very language of Victorian texts, was morphing and forming a whole new standard. For now women could be ‘upper class’, ‘fallen’, and live! But was virtue reinforced by making Mina into a mother and doting wife at the conclusion of the novel? Or did Stoker allow women to emerge as a new social class and executors of their own lives? It is ironic that to depict commodities, and sexual ones in particular, Stoker created a product that appealed to those sensations. However, Stoker allowed Dracula to cast his shifting shadow upon the changing Victorian era, yet it illuminated far more than it concealed.
Pikula, Tanya. “Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Late-Victorian Advertising Tactics: Earnest Men, Virtuous Ladies, and Porn.”English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920 55.3 (2012): 283-99. Print.
Stoker, Bram. Dracula. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.
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