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Writing (on) Girls’ Bodies: Vampires and Embodied Girlhood

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Girls in Contemporary Vampire Fiction

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This chapter brings into the spotlight the narratives of girl bodies in vampire fiction marketed to adolescent women. Contemplating the body as one of the central themes of the genre and a prime construction site of girlhood within Western culture, it examines the meanings of body modification through the Gothic trope of the tattooed skin and looks into the interplays between vampirism and feminine beauty, with an emphasis on the discourses of ageing, “fatness” and thin-thinking. The chapter also draws attention to the dynamics between vampirism, girlhood, style and consumerism, and explores the trope of the feminine makeover in YA vampire fiction as a site of resistance and the performance of subversive girl identities.

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  1. 1.

    See e.g. Engeln (2018), DeMello (2014, 176, 183), Nyman (2017), Moran (2016), and Tazzyman (2017). Similar trends have been identified in literature. As Wright notes in relation to American fiction, physical attractiveness is less important for male characters; “what makes a male succeed or fail is what he does” rather than what he looks like (2013, x).

  2. 2.

    These pressures are also increasingly faced by men, albeit to a lesser degree (Tazzyman 2017, 95, 112; cf. Engeln 2018, 36–37; Gromkowska-Melosik and Melosik 2008, xxi, xxii).

  3. 3.

    In her study on girls and body modification, Tazzyman (2017) observes that a girl’s awakened interest in beautifying practices is commonly construed as a harbinger of her transition from the identity of a child into that of a young woman—an interpretation shared both by girls themselves and the significant adults in their lives.

  4. 4.

    Needless to say, it is an impossible task to consider all the important aspects of girl bodily existence within the scope of one chapter. Most conspicuous by its absence is possibly the discussion of girl bodies as sexual, as well as queer bodies; both are examined in the following chapters of this volume. Another aspect that I develop elsewhere are vulnerable, diseased and disordered bodies in YA vampire fiction (Stasiewicz-Bieńkowska, forthcoming).

  5. 5.

    For instance, the YA literary series The Vampire Diaries, authored by L. J. Smith, Aubrey Clark and unknown ghostwriter (1991–2014), introduce several types of vampire bodies: “ordinary”—created through consuming vampire blood and dying; Original—humans transformed into vampires through magic; and those who came into being through scientific means. For a comprehensive analysis of different vampire bodies in literary fiction marketed to adults, see Piatti-Farnell (2014, chap. 2).

  6. 6.

    While vampirism is usually associated with dying and “turning”, the biologically conditioned vampire body is not an uncommon phenomenon; see e.g. Poppy Z. Brite (currently identifying as male, Billy Collins; Wisker 2016, 158), Lost Souls (1992), where vampires can be created through sexual intercourse; Peter Watts, Blindsight (2006), where they are the result of the processes of evolution, extinct and then brought back to life by human science; or the 2019 Netflix TV series V-Wars, where vampirism is presented as a disease/genetic mutation.

  7. 7.

    Both universes additionally feature vampire bodies that resemble the traditional folkloric vampire template. Mead’s evil Strigoi and Casts’ red vampire fledglings are, at least initially, positioned as villains—vicious undead creatures, animated through dark magic, burning in the sun, bleeding their victims dry and extremely hard to kill.

  8. 8.

    Although in Betrayed vampires are described as “different than humans (not bad different—just different)” (25), the series reveals little about these visual differences except for the bloodsuckers’ extraordinary beauty and their unusual tattoos. All fledglings are required to cover the crescent on their foreheads with make-up when outside of the school walls, a practice that easily allows them to pass for humans.

  9. 9.

    The meanings of dermaglyphs in the Midnight Breed series have been meticulously analysed by Piatti-Farnell (2014, 81–85).

  10. 10.

    It is interesting to note that a number of fans of both House of Night and Vampire Academy have (been) reported to have tattooed their skin as a tribute to their favourite series (Oliver 2011, 43; Mead 2016, v; see also e.g. Martin 2020 and Be 2020).

  11. 11.

    As the leading heroine describes it, “I would spend the next four years going through bizarre and unnameable physical changes, as well as a total and permanent life shake-up” (Marked 8)—an account that can be easily applied to the time of human puberty.

  12. 12.

    A similar narration of the vampiric tattoos can be found in Adrian’s Midnight Breed series, where an individual’s markings stem from their genetic makeup (Piatti-Farnell 2014, 81–85). For a detailed analysis of the interplay between the biological and the divine in the origins of the House of Night’s vampire tattoos, see Oliver (2011).

  13. 13.

    For instance, the face of the vampire horse mistress Lenobia is adorned with two rearing horses (Hunted 279); vampire Erik Night’s drama mask tattoo indicates his talent in acting (Chosen 235); and the forehead and cheeks of the poetess Kramisha are ornamented with ever-changing words related to creativity (Loved 23; cf. also 93). The tattoos are described in detail and the narrating Zoey often marvels at their attractiveness.

  14. 14.

    The warrior vampire queen, Sgiach, is an exception as her face is tattooed with swords and blades (Burned 188; Found loc. 423).

  15. 15.

    Similarly, among the Alchemists, tattoos are identical for all the members, regardless of their gender.

  16. 16.

    That said, it must be noted that numerous examples of physically repulsive, terrifying or simply ordinary-looking vampires continue to be present in popular culture texts. For instance, in the short-lived series V-Wars (Netflix 2019), vampires turn into figures of horror with disfigured faces and enormous jagged fangs when about to attack. See also Ní Fhlainn’s analysis of the vampire body in John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Let the Right One In (2004) (2019, 223–224, 227). Ní Fhlainn juxtaposes Lindqvist’s vampiric corporeality with that of Rice and Meyer’s creations, emphasising its divergence from the popular contemporary models. Lindqvist’s text, as Ní Fhlainn asserts, “deliberately lingers on the physical perversity of vampirism”, discernible in Eli’s abject, permeable body and Virginia’s horrific transformation (223–224). Furthermore, the vampire continues to exist as a symbol for disease and contamination, their representations intertwined with the traditional zombie formula (Ní Fhlainn 2019, 220).

  17. 17.

    Another reader admits that the novel’s title alone made them laugh (Dana 2016). McDoniel’s vampiric protagonist is ancient Yulric Bile, who returns to the world after several centuries only to discover that he is “too ugly” to be considered a vampire at all.

  18. 18.

    As such, they are inscribed into the wider trends of American fiction; see e.g. Wright (2013, x).

  19. 19.

    Some are described as vulture-looking (VA 17); others struggle with “terrible acne” (RC 7).

  20. 20.

    They are also predominantly White—a construction that could be read as a considerable limitation to the series’ vision of female empowerment. However, racial diversity finds its reflection in the narration of Moroi, Strigoi, dhampirs and humans as racial categories—with taboos and socially imposed limitations indicating racial (and classed) tensions.

  21. 21.

    Noteworthy, the series’ ideal of feminine beauty encompasses women of various ethnic and racial backgrounds, with the Cherokee heritage of the central heroine Zoey (and later, her brother Kevin) repeatedly brought to the forefront. In “There’s No Place Like Home”, Christi Cook examines Zoey’s hybrid identity as a human/vampire and Anglo-American/Cherokee, construing her escape from the human world with leaving her Anglo-American self behind and tracing her ever-growing identification with Cherokee culture (2015, 49–52).

  22. 22.

    Although this falls outside the scope of this chapter, it is worth noting that in House of Night the representations of desirable heterosexual male bodies also closely adhere to the popular stereotypes of the ideal masculine physicality, with the majority of heroes being tall, strong, muscular and powerful-looking warriors.

  23. 23.

    It is interesting to note that in her description of her grandmother’s body, Bella focuses almost entirely on various signs of bodily changes connected to age—e.g. white hair, “wasted cheek”, or withered skin “bent into a thousand tiny creases” (New Moon 3–6). This scene has been examined by, among others, Kapurch (2016, 140), Kokkola (2011, 177), and Crossen (2015).

  24. 24.

    This is, for instance, the case in Twilight and Bella Forrest’s A Shade of Vampire series (2012–present), where the heroine is turned into a vampire. In Adrian’s Midnight Breed, women do not age or die as long as they drink from their vampire mates (see Piatti-Farnell 2014, 67). The “plastic surgeon’s” role can also be fulfilled by magical substances, like the water from the Fountain of Eternal Youth and Life, drunk by Elena in Destiny Rising (390). Vampirisation can also be narrated as parental decision, as it is in the case of Ben, a vampire couple’s son, in A Shade of Vampire (CoP).

  25. 25.

    Mead’s Strigoi are an exception that I discuss later in the chapter. It is unclear whether the new vampiric “race” of red vampires in House of Night is immune to dying of old age.

  26. 26.

    In recent years a number of scholarly works have challenged accounts of the postfeminist focus on youthfulness. See Gill (2016, 620), for examples of studies that highlight postfeminist culture’s preoccupation with middle-aged and older women.

  27. 27.

    In a mockumentary horror comedy What We Do in the Shadows (Waititi and Clement 2013), a relationship between senile-looking Katherine (who became a vampire at the age of 96) and the ever-youthful vampire Viago (who is still, as he points out, four times older in the number of years) is used as a vehicle for comic relief—a construction that is telling of the social anxieties related to the ageing female body and romance.

  28. 28.

    Albeit to a lesser extent, the authors of the Other World series also raise problems of substance abuse and adolescent depression. For a detailed analysis of representations of mental and mood disorders, self-harming and suicide in twenty-first century vampire narratives, with a primary focus on Mead’s Vampire Academy and Bloodlines, see Stasiewicz-Bieńkowska, forthcoming. Cf. also Darragh (2016).

  29. 29.

    For a review of research on the meanings associated with slim- and large-size bodies in non-Western cultures, see e.g. Grogan (2017, 29–30).

  30. 30.

    Following the example of Murray (2008), I put terms such as “fatness” and “fat” in inverted commas to acknowledge the ambiguities surrounding these problematic notions in the contemporary cultural, political and medical discourses, and to recognise their relative, arbitrary and politicised character.

  31. 31.

    See e.g. DeMello (2014, 201–203), Averill (2016), Bosc (2018), Bordo (2003), Engeln (2018, 113–116), Grogan (2017, 11–14), Murray (2008), Younger (2009, chap. 1). See further Grogan (2017, 13–14), for a concise review of research on weight stigmatisation and Averill (2016, 16–17), for further readings on the historical development on the discursive link between body size and moral virtue within Western culture.

  32. 32.

    Quoted after the Polish translation by Marta Bazylewska, Obsesja piękna. Jak kultura popularna krzywdzi dziewczynki i kobiety (2018).

  33. 33.

    A frequently evoked example is the internationally popular Barbie doll, repeatedly criticised for embodying the impossibly skinny female body ideal and for socialising children into the “cult of thinness”. According to Lauren Bosc, a similar function is performed by fairy tales, which tend to privilege slim bodies and to position the larger ones “as antithetical to the fairy-tale dream, as a threatening figure to be fought and overthrown, and/or as the butt of a joke” (2018, 255). Bosc further states that “[i]n the fairy tale imaginary … [desirable] princesses are helpless and thin” (2018, 252). While in the stories of today, the first prerequisite is often no longer valid, the second is rarely challenged, and a lean figure remains essential in portraying heroines.

  34. 34.

    Admittedly, in some stories even vampresses need to be careful about their diet in order to maintain or reach the desirable thin silhouette; see e.g. Claudia Gray’s Evernight (2008, 185), where vampire girls reduce their typical intake of blood to improve their figures before a school dance (Smith and Moruzi 2018, 13).

  35. 35.

    An interesting take on the vampire body can be found in Johnny B. Truant’s six-volume Fat Vampire literary series (Sterling & Stone 2012–2013) or Fat Vampire. A Never Coming of Age Story by Adam Rex (Balzer + Bray 2010); both feature overweight vampires as central protagonists and mix the elements of comedy and horror.

  36. 36.

    Zoey criticises also the bodies of girls “who puked and starved themselves into what they thought was Paris Hilton chic”, further complicating the navigation of the terrain of the “right” bodily size for girls (Marked 51).

  37. 37.

    Furthermore, in Redeemed, the series’ arch-villainess Neferet chooses to first murder all her hostages who are categorised as “[f]at, ugly, and unimpressively dressed”, once again linking larger size with laziness (“I wager their blood tastes like sloth”; 199) and death.

  38. 38.

    Cf. DeMello where she refers to various studies uncovering the same trends within the wider society. According to these analyses, individuals who fail to adhere to the culturally defined standards of beauty are at a disadvantage in terms of romantic relationships or professional opportunities; attractive people, in turn, tend to be viewed favourably and associated with high social status and happiness (2014, 181).

  39. 39.

    Later on, Elliott returns from death only to meet his ultimate end as an outcast of the vampire community, sentenced to perish in the desert, as he associates himself with an expelled evil vampire in order to avoid schoolwork (Revealed 213–216).

  40. 40.

    Like classical zombies, most are also deprived of individuality; they move in a horde, indistinguishable from one another (cf. Tenga and Zimmerman 2013, 76, 80).

  41. 41.

    For the animal imagery as a signifier of female “ugliness” in American fiction, see Wright (2013, 19).

  42. 42.

    Rather alarmingly, the victim is described by Zoey as resembling “a big trash bag full of garbage”. As the heroine urges Stevie Rae to let go, she emphasises the danger of contracting lice rather than of causing another person’s death (Chosen 42–43). Similarly, when remembering the forceful feedings (and possibly killings) that she committed in her evil days, Stevie Rae emphasises her feelings of disgust at consuming a “wino”. Ignoring the atrocity of the violent act, she reminisces about the resulting hangover and her “burp[ing] cheap wine for days” (Hunted 154)—a troubling narration that deserves separate analysis.

  43. 43.

    A similar transformation is experienced by Other Kevin, Zoey’s brother living in an alternative world, who is stripped of his death-and-decay smell as soon as he chooses good in Loved. Along with Stevie Rae, other red fledglings who renounce Darkness are restored to their previous well-groomed and attractive bodies—a transformation that testifies to their inner change.

  44. 44.

    This conclusion applies not only to girls, but also to boys, albeit to a lesser extent. When Zoey meets Jack Twist, she immediately links his bodily image to his social prospects at the school: “He was cute, in a studious kind of a way … Clearly he was one of those geeky kids who is a dork, but a likable dork with potential (translation: he bathes and brushes his teeth, plus has good skin and hair and doesn’t dress like a total loser)”. (Betrayed 139).

  45. 45.

    Aware of the injustice of that rule, Zoey declares that membership cannot be based on appearance after she has assumed the leadership of the Dark Daughters (Betrayed 37).

  46. 46.

    It is worth noting that male homosexual characters appear as invested in the question of style as their female friends—a construction that will be commented upon in the next chapter.

  47. 47.

    At times, this produces a comic effect, like when sassy fledgling Erin is shocked into silence when her friend jokes about her hair (Marked 2015). Even the issue of substance abuse is discussed in terms of physical appeal, as smoking marijuana apparently makes attractive boys “less hottie” (Betrayed 56). This emphasis on the glamorous and stylish feminine body partially abates in the House of Night sequel, the Other World series. Already on the first pages of Loved, the narrating Zoey recalls that she introduced a more relaxed dress codes as soon as she became the new High Priestess—a piece of information followed by Zoey going to breakfast in slippers and sweat pants (16).

  48. 48.

    See e.g. Reed (2013, 142–143), Piatti-Farnell (2014, 110, 181–191), Wilson Overstreet (2006), and Latham (2002). An interesting take on vampirism and capitalism can be found in Daybreakers (Spierig and Spierig 2009), a film that, as Ní Fhlainn elucidates, “articulates the growing horror of the neoliberal agenda by using its vampires as precarious subjects at the mercy of hyper-capitalism” (2019, 245) On the anti-Semitic tropes in the Gothic genre, and the associations between the image of the wealth-accumulating vampire and Jewishness, see Reed (2013).

  49. 49.

    Note Driscoll, about the ways in which Twilight’s Bella resists and critiques the commodification of girlhood and girl consumer culture, both as a human and a vampire (2016, 101–102).

  50. 50.

    See the authors’ brief analysis of the items for sale promoted through and sold thanks to the audience’s engagement with the Twilight films and books; Tenga and Zimmerman (2013, 81).

  51. 51.

    Another student intends to pursue a career that comes with an “unlimited golden card” and a celebrity position rather than becoming a poet despite her exceptional talent, as “poets, they don’t make no money” (Hunted 67).

  52. 52.

    Similar conclusions have been drawn by Heaton (2013, 83) with reference to Twilight’s Cullens, whose fashion choices, as Heaton comments, serve to set them apart from the “ordinary” residents of the town. Cf. DeMello (2014, 178, 187), for the accounts of the “right” appearance as a prerogative of elite classes.

  53. 53.

    See e.g. multiple descriptions of the flamboyant clothing of Rose’s vampire father Abe Mazur or of the carefully styled hair and designer attire of the vampire Adrian.

  54. 54.

    It is worth emphasising that the portrayals of mature female guardians focus primarily on their competence, strength and courage rather than their looks.

  55. 55.

    These seemingly contradictory identities are acknowledged by Rose’s combat instructor and future fiancé Dimitri, who pushes her hard in her training but also takes time to learn about and purchase her favourite shade of lip gloss in order to please her.

  56. 56.

    According to DeMello, makeover reality shows that transform “plain” women into “beauties” are one of the most popular TV programmes (2014, 177). For an analysis of the transformation trope in cinema, see Jeffers McDonald (2010).

  57. 57.

    For a different interpretation of the classic Cinderella tale through its use of fashion as a site of resistance and empowerment, see e.g. Montz 2016 [2014], 114–115.

  58. 58.

    Montz further designates the character of Cinna, the androgynous stylist that works on Katniss’s appearance, as “the most rebellious figure” in the first volume of the series (2016 [2014], 111). For a different interpretation of Katniss’s transformation with a focus on the female makeover as a visual spectacle aimed at attracting acceptance as a condition for female success, see Nilson (2013) and Averill (2016, 18).

  59. 59.

    For instance, Elena swaps her sleek hairdo for a shorter, tousled haircut with red-died streaks as she explores her newly discovered wild vampiric self (Nicol 2016).


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Stasiewicz-Bieńkowska, A. (2021). Writing (on) Girls’ Bodies: Vampires and Embodied Girlhood. In: Girls in Contemporary Vampire Fiction. Palgrave Gothic. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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