Friday, January 24, 2014

GBLT Characters in Dracula: Playing Trope Bingo

Dracula is a period centered gothic horror and as such we were really surprised by the inclusion of GLBT characters. It has been quite normal to see erasure in period pieces and having such erasure justified as being normal for the time period. Anyone who has done even the smallest amount of research into the history of LGBT people is quite aware that they didn’t suddenly begin to exist in the 60’s and 70’s. Dracula actually had two gay men and a bisexual or lesbian woman this season. As progressive as this may have seen, Dracula really fell apart when it came to the characterisation of said characters. Inclusion doesn’t always make for positive representation, as the rest of this article will explore.

The first overtly GBLT characters we had were Lord Laurent and Daniel Davenport. Gay men living a closeted life in deeply homophobic Victorian society - which is not a bad depiction by any means. Quite the opposite, Victorian society was deeply homophobic and being openly and overtly gay was a virtual impossibility. The persecution against GBLT people was rife and vicious in this era and, as we’ve said before, it is not problematic to depict societal or historic prejudices (especially if challenged); quite the opposite, not depicting such prejudice would be a revision of history. Such erasing of prejudice does not help marginalised communities, it serves only to clean up history, so privileged people can indulge in nostalgia without the nasty stains of bigotry ruining their fun.

Dracula’s depiction even went further than merely acknowledging that GBLT people existed before the 60s - it showed some elements of the subculture that existed at the time. Just as GBLT people have been around since time immemorial, so too has GBLT culture and even GBLT activism (the first same-sex marriage in the UK happened in the 17th century): it did not all begin at Stonewall. The Molly Houses, places where GBT men gathered, as depicted in Dracula, have existed for centuries, though we rarely see this reflected in the media, certainly not in most historical dramas.

Unfortunately, while these were excellent positives, the negatives run down the same horrendous lines we’ve seen so many times before. First of all, the sexuality of Laurent is used as a weapon against him by Grayson - using blackmail to coerce Laurent. This homophobic attack is not only seen as a valid tactic but is exacerbated by it being a valid tool in the protagonist’s hands. No-one can argue that Grayson is supposed to be a nice or even a moral person, obviously not, but he is still the protagonist, he is still the person we are supposed to be supporting, supposed to be rooting for and whose victories we’re supposed to celebrate. And one of those victories was threatening a gay man with outing, so a straight man could get his way. It would have been different if there had been any attempt to call out or challenge Grayson’s behaviour - or even for the show to make it clear his actions were deeply wrong, but this didn’t happen.

It doesn’t help that there is a long history of not only this kind of blackmail, but also using this as justification for firing GBLT people from many positions on the argument that they are vulnerable to blackmail (one of the reasons given for removing Alan Turing’s clearance - and in the US it was legal to deny GBLT people security clearance right up until 1995). Again, there is an argument for depicting real world prejudices that existed and continue to exist - but there was no challenge to this and by making the protagonist the instigator of this homophobia without any questioning of it, there is even tacit approval of his actions.

Of course the result is classically tragic. Laurent is murdered by the Order of the Dragon for helping Grayson. And Laurent’s partner, Daniel Davenport, committed suicide. Tragic gay death strikes again - there’s a reason why “Bury your gays” is a TV Trope. It feeds the old, eternal trope that minorities die much more commonly and much more problematically than privileged people and the equally troublesome trope that gay relationships and gay love simply must end in bitter tragedy and pain. Happily Ever After is a straight luxury far too often

Additionally, because Laurent and Davenport had so little time on screen, their entire characters are reduced to “the gay lovers who die.” Being gay is the sum total of who they are, an endless problem with depictions of GBLT people who are there merely for tokenism, to die, or to be titilating; rarely to be fully realised characters.

When we first met Lucy and Mina they were portrayed as just being really close female friends.  Over time the writers have Lucy give Mina subtle looks to indicate that at least on her part not all of the feelings involved were platonic. Over time it became extremely clear that Lucy was desperately in love with Mina. What’s not to like about that you ask?  Well, it’s another case of gay person falling desperately in love with a straight person. A love that has not chance of being reciprocated. This is quite the common trope.  It presents the idea that GLBT people are constantly lonely and unloved; it also serves as a useful tool to make GBLT people devoted and servile to straight people - and we can certainly see that with Lucy virtually taking over the preparations of Mina’s wedding.

As bad as the aforementioned storyline was, it at least was typical.  Not content to portray the anti-gay trope that has become normalised, Dracula escalated the situation by manipulating Lucy into confessing her love to Mina, only to be horribly rejected. They then doubled down on this by having Lucy sleep with Harker for revenge. The only sex this gay or bisexual woman has had is with a man - a man she didn’t even like.  This of course serves to make Lucy desperately unhappy - just like far too many other gay characters in the media.

Lucy was then punished by being savagely attacked by Grayson and turned into a vampire.  Not only did she have to endure the violence, Grayson very specifically said, “If you’re going to act like an animal, then I’ll treat you like an animal.” This is quite telling because GLBT sexuality has a history of being labeled animalistic as a way to suggest that sex between two people of the same sex is deviant. Lucy essentially became a vampire not through her betrayal but because of who she loved. Lucy isn’t considered special, or even loveable she is simply the poor lesbian who doesn’t know her place and is too naive to know that the world does not want her.  Everything about Lucy’s character is absolutely tragic.

By having GBLT characters in a historical setting and even going so far as to not isolate them; by presenting them as part of a larger culture rather than unusual oddities Dracula is immensely better than what many of our shows - and certainly better than most shows set in a historical setting.

But the treatment of those characters is absolutely appalling; they are laden with so many homophobic tropes that I’m crying bingo: they are tragic, they are tortured, they are manipulated cruelly by straight people, their love (depicted as predatory and/or deviant) ends in death and pain and ruin. And their characters primarily - or entirely - are defined by their sexualities. We would dearly like to see inclusion that wasn’t outright painful to watch.

Also, it’s no surprise that the only pictures of Laurent and Davenport being affection we can find happen in low light - that’s an old trope we see repeated as well.