thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Bare Your Fangs: Torture, Women, and The Vampire Diaries

In misogyny, Television, Uncategorized, violence on May 15, 2012 at 9:13 am

Sarah T.

I do not want to write about The Vampire Diaries and torture porn. If I write about it, I have to watch the torture scenes again, and that makes me feel at best feeble and at worst extremely nauseous. But after watching “Before Sunset,” the penultimate episode of season three, I can’t put it off any longer.

In many ways The Vampire Diaries is a compelling show. The plot moves at a clip as lightning-fast as the show’s bloodsuckers, and there are enough juicy love triangles to stump (and enthrall) a practiced geometry teacher. The central characters are permitted to evolve over time, often branching out in surprising new directions.

The show has its problems too. Racialicious, for example, has featured two great articles outlining the issues with the show’s treatment of characters of color, particularly Bonnie Bennett, teenage witch. TVD also features a mind-boggling amount of scenes that depict protracted physical pain, violence, and human suffering. All of the show’s main vampires have been tortured at one point or another, but the character who seems to get tortured most often is the young, blonde Vampire Barbie—also known as Caroline Forbes.

No way I’m showing an image of violence against Caroline here. Instead, here she is befriending a horse.

Caroline is one of the show’s most well-developed characters, a rightful fan favorite. (Sarah S. explains in more detail what makes her so awesome here.) She’s funny, neurotic, and deeply caring; her commitment to social events and proper dress attire is unparalleled. Theoretically Elena, as the kind and broody girl torn between two brother vampires, is the show’s central character, but Caroline tends to get more emotionally rich scenes and storylines.

She also tends to get caged, bound, gagged and tortured while she screams in pain and begs for her suffering to stop. These torture scenes render the most physically powerful woman on the show—a character with superhuman strength and speed, not to mention immortality—essentially, though temporarily, powerless.

In “Before Sunset,” the evil Alaric drives pencils through Caroline’s hands into the desk. He gags her with a cloth dipped in vervain—a plant that’s poison to vampires—so that “it’s like inhaling razor blades with every breath.” The camera emphasizes Caroline’s physical suffering, focusing on the bloody wounds on her hands and on her skin as it sizzles and burns. It also highlights her helplessness. She begs Alaric, “No, no more, please don’t”; her cheeks are streaked with tears; she screams and gasps for breath.

This is only the latest in a series of scenes that graphically depict extensive violence against Caroline. Earlier this season, she was tortured by her own father in a dungeon. He tries to cure Caroline of her vampiric instincts through a deeply messed up form of aversion therapy. Holding a blood bag in front of her face, he exposes her to burning sunlight whenever her natural responses betray her bloodlust. As she screams, weeps, and asks him to stop, he tells her, “This is how I’m going to fix you.”

And in season two’s “Daddy Issues,” Caroline gets kidnapped by a group of werewolves in human form. She’s caged while a male werewolf repeatedly shoots her with wooden bullets and poison darts and sprays a burning poison into her face.

It’s incredibly difficult to watch these scenes. I can’t imagine most TVD viewers take much pleasure in them either. (The vast majority of its audience is women between the ages of 18 and 34—not exactly what we think of as the main viewership for scenes that exploit violence against women.) So why does The Vampire Diaries believe that torture porn is something its viewers would want to see? And what, exactly, are the purposes that scenes like this are supposed to serve?

In part, I think, the scenes that feature Caroline being tortured are symptomatic of Women in Refrigerators Syndrome—a term coined by comic book author Gail Simone to refer to stories that use the death, injury, and disempowerment of female characters as a plot device. Because almost all of the main characters on the show—humans, vampires, and witches—care about Caroline, putting her in peril can create conflict and spur them into action. Making her a damsel in distress is a cheap way to give the other characters, particularly male rescuers, motivation and move the plot along.

But even that doesn’t explain why TVD goes the torture porn route. The show also frequently uses Elena as a damsel in distress (not that I’m a fan of that strategy either). But while she’s often in danger, she’s never been tortured as far as I can recall. Even in “Before Sunset,” when Klaus kidnaps Elena and tries to drain her blood, he assures her that her death will be painless, like falling asleep. Elena looks pale and weak, but not like she’s physically suffering.

Clearly, Caroline’s torture scenes are prompted by more than a narrative need to keep the action moving. The extended depictions of Caroline’s torture are borne out of the sexual politics of the show, wherein torture frequently brings conflict between men and women into physical form. For example, another torture scene earlier in this season had a scorned female lover torturing Damon, the “bad boy” vampire.

Caroline, meanwhile, is almost always tortured by an older male character. Sometimes those scenes are intended to titillate as well as horrify viewers, as violence against women is all-too-frequently eroticized in our culture. (“It’s gonna be a long night, sweet pea,” the werewolf says, clearly taking pleasure in watching Caroline suffer.) And sometimes, as in the scenes with her father and Alaric, the torture functions as a metaphor for the rage and cruelty that a powerful woman can evoke in people who hate blindly.

Caroline’s torturers cause her incredible pain in order to exercise power over her. This is one of the key differences between the scenes where Caroline is tortured and the ones where Stefan or Damon are tortured. While the male vampires are in excruciating pain, they never ask for mercy. Instead they make wisecracks, pull tricks, or insult the person who’s torturing them. They may groan or yell, but they never do or say anything that affirms the power of the person who is hurting them.

Caroline’s experience of torture, however, is specifically gendered. The torture scenes, and the torturers, seem to want to debase her as a woman by forcing her to plead with them to stop, thereby acknowledging the power her torturers hold over her. She may be superhuman, but the message behind these scenes is that she’s not so strong that she can’t be broken. Her torturers use violence to dominate and subdue her and thereby affirm their own superiority.

They also torture Caroline largely because they hate vampires. Her difference makes her powerful, but it also puts her in a highly vulnerable position. The scene with her father specifically evokes vampyrism as a metaphor for homosexuality, with Caroline explaining that she can’t change who she is. Her father’s long-held prejudices make him hatefully determined to “fix” her by any means necessary. (As Phoebe pointed out to me in conversation, the metaphor gets more interesting, and complicated, given that Caroline’s father himself is gay—which lends the torture scene an undercurrent of self-hatred on his part.) Depicting the misogyny and bigotry that underlies the torturers’ motivations could almost be a feminist undertaking, but for the fact that the camera lingers on Caroline’s suffering, seemingly taking pleasure in it.

In that way, torturing Caroline serves the same purpose as killing off the pretty blonde popular girl in slasher movies. In many of those films, women are gruesomely punished. The designated good girl (often a brunette) avoids death, while the blonde girl, often more confident and sexually experienced, pays the price for her gender. This satisfies the deeply ingrained Western mandate that the most beautiful woman, and most highly prized victim, is a dead white woman, as Phoebe’s post on Once Upon a Time and Grimm explains in depth.

But since Caroline is undead, the show can kill her over and over again without having to sacrifice her character. Furthermore, since vampires heal fast, the show can erase the torture as soon as it’s over. The marks of brutality vanish from her body almost instantly once she’s freed, and she generally recovers from her experience quickly so the plot can move forward. By the end of “Before Sunset,” Caroline is jovially hosting a party for her friends, no matter that just hours before she was writhing in agony in the schoolroom. The show gets to have its torture porn cake and eat it too, since Caroline’s vampire status acts as narrative justification for making torture consequence-free.

When TVD shows Caroline, Damon, or Stefan being tortured, the scenes are meant to elicit sympathy as well as tantalize. But at the same time, the show discourages identification between the viewer and the tortured vampire by virtue of the vampire’s supernatural-ness. Vampires are stronger than humans; they heal faster; their physical weaknesses are different from our own and require special torturing devices (sunlight, silver chains, wooden stakes and bullets, vervain). All these differences encourage the audience to distance themselves, at some level, from the vampire’s pain, and to differentiate between orders of suffering.

This is a dangerous road to start traveling down, teen vampire television show or no. As Laura Mulvey writes, film “satisfies a primordial wish for pleasurable looking.” Therefore, onscreen violence arrives to the viewer coded as pleasurable. I understand that a show about vampires is going to engage in violence. Sex and violence are pretty emphatically the official vampire jam. But there is a particular danger in torture porn: namely, that watching it helps inure people to real human suffering. And the fact that TVD discourages the audience from identifying with the tortured subject—because that subject is a pretty blonde vampire, or a werewolf, or in some other fundamental way not like us—compounds the issue. The show dehumanizes the person in pain in order to relieve viewers of their instinctive discomfort.

The paradox of The Vampire Diaries’ approach to torture is that it both wants the audience to care that Caroline (and others) are in pain and asks that we relish the sight. My hope is that the show underestimates its audience. I believe TVD viewers can look at the suffering of a character they adore and recognize her pain, and her humanity, as a part of our own. And when we realize what her torture says about popular culture and the society we live in, we may all need to throw up.

  1. I 100% agree. I tried watching TVD but had a hard time jumping into the plot after missing so much of the earlier storyline. My 11 year old daughter however does love the show and after reading this article I have to ask myself if by watching it she is descenitizing herself to horrific scences such as wrtiiten in the article. I have not seen all of the guresomness it has displayed. I am second guessing myself on continuing to allow her to watch the show.
    I on the other hand fell in love with the characters and the plot of the secret circle, which I hear is cancelled or is in trouble of being canceled. Although the show also displays violence, I do not think it is to the extreme of TVD. Plus I have watched TSC from the beginning and it is a shame as I looked forward to season 2!

  2. I’ve been musing on this post for the last couple hours, particularly the way the show also proposes but then avoids dealing with psychological trauma and profound grief (my bailiwicks, obviously). In particular, I’m interested in the physical and psychological violence that recurs in forcing people to become vampires against their will, a plot twist that encompasses Stefan and Damon in unique ways, Caroline, Tyler, Caroline’s dad, Bonnie’s mom, Jenna, and (spoiler!spoiler!spoiler! seriously! shield your eyes!!!!!) Elena. I don’t know what to make of this yet but it recurs so consistently as to be a theme (and not just a plot point) and relatively unique to VD. I suppose the bigger-picture, connecting question is what is the relationship between violence, suffering, trauma, grief, torture, viewing, narrative pleasure, and forced transition? Put altogether it sounds ridiculous or impossible but compelling.

    • Those are such great ideas and questions, Sarah!! And your list of all the character who’ve become vampires against their will makes me think about vampyrism as a loss of innocence and coming into a new, darker, more complicated understanding of the world (and the grief, loss, violence, and trauma it often entails). This doesn’t just apply to the teens, for whom it makes a lot of sense, but also to Caroline’s dad (who becomes a vampire after he’s found out the truth about his daughter and come to a reluctant but nonetheless real acceptance of her) and Bonnie’s mom (who becomes a vampire as she’s finally taking responsibility for her daughter). In those last two cases they reject the new and darker world of life as vampires–either by refusing to transition or by running away from themselves and their loved ones–maybe in part because they’re older and therefore less malleable and capable of handling such a radical change. What do you think though? This is just one theory, I’m sure there are lots more excellent ones.

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