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Biting into Books: Supernatural Schoolgirls and Academic Performance

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Girls in Contemporary Vampire Fiction

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Abstract

This chapter ventures into the classrooms of supernatural schools, exploring the role of school-structured learning and academic performance in the construction of girlhood. The first section focuses on the school curriculum in the vampire series House of Night (P. C. Cast, Kristin Cast), analysing the ways in which it addresses feminist concerns about the design of contemporary classroom practices and programmes. Exploring the intersections between gendered and academic identities, the following parts study the depictions of female students’ intellectual aspirations and attitudes towards schoolwork, with a particular emphasis on STEM subjects. Placing these findings within the context of current Western discourses on gender and education, and juxtaposing them with young masculine academic identities, this chapter sheds light on the role of academic investment in popular concepts of successful girlhood, and discusses how vampire fiction for girls responds to social anxieties about young femininity and schooling.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    An early version of this chapter was initially presented as a keynote speech at the conference “Vampiric Transformations”, held at Griffith University, Brisbane, Australia, in November 2018. I am deeply grateful to the organisers for their generous invitation and to the participants and members of the audience for their astute comments and inspiring questions which helped me develop this chapter.

  2. 2.

    One of the most prominent examples of this trend can be found in Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmush 2013). As Sorcha Ní Fhlainn notes, the vampire protagonists of this movie passionately seek knowledge and artistic creativity—“which feels like an entirely logical and deeply romantic manner to while away eternity”—and remain uninterested in “typical” vampire activities such as preying on unsuspecting victims or engaging in taboo-breaking sex (2019, 236).

  3. 3.

    Even texts which position the institution of school in the centre of their analysis often ignore the question of curriculum and classroom learning (see e.g. Smith and Moruzi 2018).

  4. 4.

    An interesting exception is Megan Birch’s (2009) critique of the representation of education in the Harry Potter series, including the analysis of Hogwarts’ curriculum and the protagonists’ attitudes towards book learning. Another example is the work of Gordon Alley-Young (2008), which touches upon racialised curricula in popular school movies.

  5. 5.

    For instance, the Media Center is left open round the clock and—in contrast to Zoey’s former human school—there are no passwords or Internet filtering programmes. As the heroine explains, in the House of Night “students were expected to show some sense and act right” without being supervised or restricted by the school authorities (Betrayed 29).

  6. 6.

    For instance, Professor Penthasilea remembers “tons of amazing details” about life in the early 1900s (Hunted 246). Also, rather than only reading about bloodlust, fledglings are allowed to experiment with blood-drinking from one another (Marked 130, 217, 240).

  7. 7.

    The House of Night curriculum and learning culture have been noticed and appreciated by the series’ fans, who have favourably compared Zoey’s vampire school to their own experiences with school-structured learning. The readers’ approval could be exemplified through the posts on both English- and Polish-language House of Night-related fora. For instance, Ravenna in lubimyczytać.pl emphasises that “[t]he fledglings have heaps of awesome classes at school, much better than ours” (2011, March 27. Accessed April 22, 2020. http://lubimyczytac.pl/ksiazka/10572/naznaczona/opinia/1680269#opinia1680269). kayrose (sic) further expresses a wish to attend the courses at the House of Night, as “they sound way more interesting than my current school requirements” (2009, October 23. Accessed April 23, 2018. http://houseofnight.niceboard.org/t1607-if-you-could-go-to-the-hon-what-teacher-would-you-want); a desire shared by Gość, who declares: “I wish I could have the same classes as Zoey” (2009. “Naznaczona: Pierwsze Wrażenia”, December 31. Accessed April 22, 2020. http://www.domnocy.fora.pl/naznaczona,8/pierwsze-wrazenia,4-15.html).

  8. 8.

    The cult of the Goddess and obligatory participation in her worship are certainly a topic ripe for future research. While the series recurrently criticises fundamental Christian movements as oppressive and discriminative against women, little explanation is offered regarding the experiences of previously religious students who, upon entering the House of Night, choose or are forced to abandon their former faith.

  9. 9.

    Two exceptions include brief references to economics (Marked 117) and to a business class in the schedule of one of the protagonists (Destined 236). However, while other classes are often described in detail, these two are mentioned in passing and never come up again.

  10. 10.

    In 2005, at the NBER Conference on Diversifying the Science and Engineering Workforce, Lawrence Summers publicly suggested that “innate differences” rather than structural discrimination may be responsible for fewer women than men being in STEM-related careers (Bombardieri 2005; Inness 2007, 3).

  11. 11.

    The 1992 Teen Talk Barbie, programmed to say “Math class is tough”, is often cited as a blatant example. The heated debate that followed forced Mattel to remove the disputed phrase from the doll’s repertoire and strive to reduce the harmful stereotyping in subsequent Barbie models (Company News 1992; Hill 2013).

  12. 12.

    Similar gendered representations of attitudes towards technology have been noticed by Dean-Ruzicka in her analysis of Hunger Games, a YA dystopian literary series authored by Suzanne Collins. Dean-Ruzicka observes that the central heroine Katniss avoids technological solutions, relying on her feelings and instincts (typically coded as feminine traits), while her friend Gale demonstrates a “natural” penchant for technology (2016 [2014], 55).

  13. 13.

    She also figures out how to dance through realising that following rhythm is “just kind of mathematical” (GL 227).

  14. 14.

    Wishful identification involves the audience’s desire to become similar to a fictional character (Steinke et al. 2012, 166).

  15. 15.

    For instance, in spite of being interested in the character of Gorgon, the heroine finds herself too agitated to write the essay, and procrastinates on the work for which she has “all weekend” (Betrayed 26; cf. Tempted 214).

  16. 16.

    Similarly, the heroine is transferred to an upper level of literature, Spanish and drama class due to the changes in her schedule rather than her academic success (Untamed 190; Hunted 245).

  17. 17.

    One of the few female protagonists to exhibit some academic application is Zoey’s friend Stevie Rae. Stevie Rae appears to have interest in vampire history, politics and literature (Tempted, 212, 214; Burned 23, 24, 68; Awakened 174), although she still confuses Scotland with Ireland (“Aren’t they kinda the same thing?”; Burned 92). Particularly in the later volumes, Stevie Rae seems unabashed about her academic engagement, encourages her female friends to read more and declares that she likes school (Destined 7; Tempted 169). She also occasionally serves, along with her friend Jack, as an interpreter of advanced words which her female friends do not understand.

  18. 18.

    Other examples involve a student named Becca, who is portrayed as distracted during a lecture “by her need to stare” at a good-looking drama teacher (Untamed 190). Zoey herself spends a class admiring a handsome male student rather than learning (Marked 129).

  19. 19.

    Paradoxically, nearly all the girl protagonists featured in the original House of Night series become teachers straight after high school in House of Night: Other World. Even those who have underperformed academically and openly expressed their aversion to book learning eventually decide to join the faculty at various Houses of Night. In this light, a teaching career comes across as disconnected from formal education or specialist knowledge as it is narrated as being based on inborn or magically gifted talents and a person’s readiness to work with young people.

  20. 20.

    While a detailed analysis of the portrayals of teachers in YA vampire texts falls beyond the scope of this chapter, it is worth mentioning that in the first volumes of Vampire Academy, teachers are often depicted as harsh, negligent and unfair, with their didactic skills and personal conduct leaving much to be desired. A few examples include Mr. Nagy, an alcoholic who enjoys embarrassing his students by reading their private notes in front of their classmates (VA 126–128; 202); the rude and obnoxious Stan Alto, who sprays spit while yelling at the students (VA 30–34); or the mentally unstable Ms. Karp, who chooses to turn into an undead murderess (VA 236).

  21. 21.

    In turn, Edward is narrated as a highly educated man, proficient, among other things, in science, literature, languages and music, and deeply devoted to the pursuit of knowledge.

  22. 22.

    Sometimes, vampire fiction features well-educated vampire women; see e.g. the central heroine of The Addiction (Abel Ferrara, 1995), vampire Kathleen, who is a doctoral student. For an analysis of The Addiction see McDermott and Daspit (2013, 231–246).

  23. 23.

    See e.g. May (2008) on Debbie from Puberty Blues, or Fisher et al. (2008, 110), on Cady from Mean Girls.

  24. 24.

    Cf. Brickhouse et al. (2000), on girls’ positive identifications with science.

  25. 25.

    Cf. Pomerantz and Raby’s study, in which some of the female adolescent interviewees admitted that they had refused to actively participate in class (e.g. asking questions or volunteering answers) even though they had the competence to do so (2017, 65).

  26. 26.

    Although impressed with her performance in class and planning to benefit from her knowledge, Zoey mocks Elizabeth, calling her “Ms Perfect Student” (Marked 131). Elizabeth herself proves to be a figure of no consequence to the plot, an impression reinforced by her non-existing surname (Marked 131). She enters the storyline only to become the first victim of the rejection of Change (a fatal illness leading to a fledgling’s death) and to be later resurrected into a zombie-like state and killed by the main heroine (Betrayed 287).

  27. 27.

    Damien’s knowledge and academic competence surpass not only those of his peers but sometimes those of his elders. For instance, in Burned he successfully disputes the decisions of the Vampyre High Council referring to the vampire law system (75) and displays an extraordinary ability to solve riddles and draw conclusions (Hunted 215; Burned 145). Remarkably, while his friends often benefit from Damien’s academic diligence, they just as frequently mock it, calling him “Mr. Studious”, “Miss Perfect Schoolgirl” or “Vocab Boy” (see e.g. Untamed 79, 92, 227; Burned 83; Marked 92), comparing him to a teacher and “shut[ing] out” his “lectures” (Betrayed 163). This appears to change in the sequel series, where Zoey declares her admiration for Damien’s studiousness and his insatiable passion for “learning and growing” (Found loc. 794). Damien’s academic excellence is combined with another marker of potential vulnerability in the school milieu—a homosexual orientation; an intersection of precarious identities that invites further research.

  28. 28.

    See e.g. Burned 88; Redeemed 184; Hunted 188–189; Tempted 158–159, 261. Also, Dimitri of Vampire Academy recalls being an accomplished student and maintains his passion for reading even after becoming an evil undead (VA 123; BP 308–309).

  29. 29.

    While Stark remembers both the readings and in-class discussions on this particular subject, and offers his Oath knowingly, Zoey is largely unaware of the ramifications of their bond.

  30. 30.

    Interestingly, Sydney’s male friend Trey, a football star and an aspiring vampire hunter, also attempts to hide how “brainy” he really is, placing emphasis on his athletic prowess to mask his academic excellence (see e.g. GL 31).

  31. 31.

    See e.g. Archer (2012, 980). Cf. Francis (2000b, ch. 5, 121–122, 128), for a shift in the construction of young femininities that are inclusive of academic excellence and ambitious careers.

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Correspondence to Agnieszka Stasiewicz-Bieńkowska .

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Stasiewicz-Bieńkowska, A. (2021). Biting into Books: Supernatural Schoolgirls and Academic Performance. In: Girls in Contemporary Vampire Fiction. Palgrave Gothic. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-71744-5_6

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