Sunday, November 29, 2015

A Lovely Mess of Contradictions: A Carmilla Karnstein Appreciation Post [Contributor: Melanie]

Vampires are a huge trend in media and pop culture in recent years. And, unfortunately, this is not very often a compliment.

Back in the mid-90s, Buffy the Vampire Slayer helped to reignite a lot of the interest in vampires by painting them with their own in-world mythology, and creating sympathetic, human-envying creatures of the night. Fast-forward to 2007, and Twilight’s off-brand version of angsty teenaged vampires begin to dominate the field, quickly followed by The Vampire Diaries and True Blood. Needless to say, vampires were everywhere. Fast-forward again to August 2014 when another addition to the canon of vampire media enters the field, this time with a very different take on what it means to hold the mantle of the undead.

Carmilla, by literature's standards, is the mother of all vampires (well most of them). While John William Polidori’s The Vampyre (1819) was the first work to fuse vampire plot elements with literary writing, Carmilla (1872) was the first vampire novel (technically a novella) to truly set the bar for many vampire motifs — things that would eventually be attributed to the copycat novel Dracula published over 20 years later. So what does this mean? Carmilla, traditionally, stands out among her vampire brethren in fiction as one of the few females of the species and became a feminist and lesbian icon in the late 20th century, enjoying a few adaptations of her story here and there. But the 2014 webseries adaptation (and something of a sequel) to the novella portrays a lens on a vampire who is worth of some attention.

Carmilla is a lazy, bump-on-a-log, peanut gallery-ing, philosophy digesting, snarky, quiet observer who sits in the corner for many of her scenes throughout the two seasons of the webseries, Carmilla. She’s not some ethereal, dark temptress gliding through the night. She’s apathetic, sarcastic, and usually has one hand occupied by a cup of blood and the other by a book. She sleeps until 5 PM, doesn’t clean up after herself, casually commits theft when takeout and unattended wallets are concerned. And while it’s all funny and great characterization with more than enough opportunity for physical comedy (nailed by actress Natasha Negovanlis), there’s an interesting flip side to these facets of her personality. Because Carmilla does get off her butt to protect Laura, she cares what Laura thinks of her, and stomachs a lot of annoyances on her behalf. And while it’s the exact type of thing Tumblr fans will squeal over for their ship, it also makes for some interesting character study.

The way in which Carmilla lives is very believable, because after over 300 years enduring the world withering away around you, why wouldn’t you become disaffected and disinterested by people and things? But then the series enters a tenacious 19-year-old journalism student who tells Carmilla “even you deserve better.” At face value, it’s kind of an adorable line, but on deeper analysis it reveals a lot about Carmilla’s view of her own self worth. And having a self-conscious, self-loathing main character is something a lot of young adults out there can relate to and don’t often get the opportunity to see portrayed media — especially when the main character is a woman.

This little exchange sets of a string of events involving Carmilla awkwardly admitting to liking Laura, Carmilla awkwardly volunteering to risk her life for Laura, and Carmilla, finally losing the awkward, making good on her promises and returning to win fair lady’s heart. Season one is a supernatural rom-com both as far as the tone is concerned and the way Laura and Carmilla’s story plays out.

Then season two comes to ruin everyone’s life. A lot of the more unfortunate parts of Carmilla’s character come out to play after she and Laura break up. And it’s awesome. Where else do you get to see: a woman deal poorly with a break-up that she initiated, look like a mess, act like a complete jerk from the audience's perspective, and make jokes out of using the communal tampons (thanks, U by Kotex)? The writers — much like with Laura this season — were not afraid to make Carmilla look awful (both internally and externally because that looked like quite the hangover).

And furthermore, they had her reject, time and time again, the idea of heroism for heroism’s sake. In doing so, they created an interesting dialogue about why we do the right things, who decides what the right things are, and if microcosmic efforts to protect just one person are enough to be considered a hero. And the icing on all of it? She goes on a rampage, she threatens Laura, she starts biting students at random and even, in some cases, mauling some down as her panther other half. She ain’t pretty or nice and loses a lot of sympathy in the middle of her heartbreak. But at the end of it all, she comes running when Laura calls for help, despite her betrayal. And the question is posed: is that enough?

What does it all add up to? Carmilla’s got a soft underbelly beneath some very ugly facets she presents to the world. She’s not torturing herself for a human soul or desperately wishing she was never made. She prides herself in her vampirism, watches vampire media, she makes jokes about her own “de-fanging” thanks to Laura’s influence. She waxes philosophic and looks at the stars and has almost no filter. She lets people get hurt and bargains others’ lives for her own gain. And at the end of the day, Carmilla puts herself through some serious physical and emotional suffering for the sake of a teenager she admits is “sacred” to her. It’s a lovely mess of contradictions that all make perfect sense and elevate what means to be a vampire. Because Smokebomb’s portrayal goes beyond a simple trope or genre and paints an extremely human character out of an extremely inhuman condition.

Also, leather pants.

You can watch the first two seasons of Carmilla on the VerveGirl TV YouTube Channel and Season 0 on the U by Kotex YouTube Channel!


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