The Feminists Making Vampires Gay Again
Cult Canadian web series ‘Carmilla’ has been lauded for its centering of female, queer, and non-binary perspectives. Now this lesbian love story is coming to the big screen.
Carmilla is the queer feminist Canadian vampire web series you didn’t know you needed. Over three seasons, Carmilla’s bite-sized YouTube episodes have been eagerly consumed by a growing fan base, generating more than 69 million views since its 2014 launch. Over the course of 108 installments, the now-complete cult series told the story of Laura (Elise Bauman), a college freshman, and her roommate from hell turned vampire girlfriend, Carmilla (Natasha Negovanlis). Now Carmilla and Laura are back for The Carmilla Movie, which will premiere across Canada and on streaming platforms on Oct. 26.
For too long now, vampirism has been presented as the exclusive domain of sculpted, pale men and their fawning female victims. The most popular vampire story of our time is Twilight, the blockbuster series that chronicled the relationship between a controlling vampire and his easily injured mortal of choice. Twilight is multi-layered propaganda—an intensely old-fashioned romantic relationship paired with a decidedly pro-life plot line. But Twilight’s straight agenda is no match for the decades and centuries of queer occult narratives that exist on the fringes; a forgotten history that projects like Carmilla are building on and reclaiming.
While the ill-informed occultist might trace vampire pop culture back to Dracula, Carmilla’s source material, a gothic novella by the same name, predates Bram Stoker’s masterpiece by 26 years. Published in 1871, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s novella actually casts a woman in the predatory role, telling the story of a female vampire and her homoerotic hunts. Although Carmilla producer Melanie Windle is quick to point out that the original Carmilla is “studied in many gender studies,” it’s hardly standard horror fare—and isn’t destined to start outselling Edward and Bella anytime soon.
In their efforts to make a gay, feminist web series, Carmilla’s creators came across the gothic novella and saw immediate potential. Carmilla’s own source material was, according to creator and producer Steph Ouaknine, “a cautionary tale about the evils of lesbianism.”
It’s not hard to draw a connection between the queer and the monstrous. At the heart of every horror story is a monster that threatens to upend a community’s entire way of life. The monster is the abnormal creature that barges into an idyllic world and makes it strange. As Karen Tongson, an associate professor of gender studies and English at USC, told the Los Angeles Times, “people who lived with a lot of their love and their passion in the closet, or who felt demonized in the broader culture, it’s very easy to find points of identification with monsters.” Author Michael Bronski added, “In some way, gay people, queer people, are the worst fear for heterosexuals, as well as on some level, the best fantasy—the sheer pleasure of not being on the inside, of not having to control everything you do and think and say to fit norms.”
Natasha Negovanlis, who plays Carmilla’s titular vampire, boils the queerness/occult connection down to “feeling like an outcast.” Like another popular vampire show, True Blood, Carmilla has “used vampirism as an allegory for sexuality,” says Ouaknine. The idea is to put the societal “evil” of non-normative gender and sexuality into perspective.
“What we’re saying is what’s really dangerous here is the end of the world, not your sexuality,” Ouaknine says, adding that this ethos is on full display in scenes in which characters are so busy grappling with an impending apocalypse that a non-binary character’s pronouns become a non-issue. “Yeah, I guess if I can deal with vampires, I can certainly deal with calling you they.”
The stars and creators of Carmilla don’t see their show as wildly radical any more than they see it as intrinsically niche. If anything, their queer agenda is to so normalize media representations of the LGBTQ community as to erase the boxes that queer content is consistently confined to. As co-star Bauman says, “I think the story of Carmilla in our universe has always been a love story between these two women, and it was just part of the story. It didn’t need to be introduced, it didn’t need to be explained, as it doesn’t need to be in real life. I don’t think sexuality ever needs to be introduced or explained, or it shouldn’t have to be.”
The fact that we’re conducting this interview at New York Comic Con, evidence of Carmilla’s popularity not just among queer viewers but within a larger genre community, doesn’t go unnoticed. Elise continues, “One of my biggest hopes for the film is that we can reach an audience that is broader than our original fan base, which has been so supportive and so wonderful throughout the seasons. But I hope that this movie reaches people who maybe haven’t seen a love story between two women before, and to not have to make the distinction. To not have to say that this is a queer love story, to just say that this is a love story, this is a fantasy movie, this is a sci-fi movie, this is a rom-com. This is all of those things. I hope that we are moving towards a point where we don’t have to make the distinction. And I hope that we’ve provided some accurate and positive change towards that direction.”
We’re still a long way from a pop culture landscape in which feminist, queer representation is unexceptional. Carmilla is a relatively unique project on multiple levels, including but not limited to centering queer, female, and non-binary characters—the women giddily tell me that only one male actor was cast in the upcoming film—and privileging women’s creative voices and input.
Negovanlis was immediately taken by the idea of working on something that was “very female-driven behind the camera.” Having female creators, writers, and producers had a tangible impact on the project from the get-go, she says, recalling the “beautiful description” that writer Jordan Hall wrote for her character. “So often as an actor you read breakdowns for female roles that are like ‘fun-loving and pretty,’ and there’s no real meat to them. And I think that’s changing, but at the time it was the most interesting breakdown I’d ever seen. It described her as someone who was languid and sarcastic but charming but lonely, all of these words where I was like, ‘I need to play this, that’s me.’” Plus, in Carmilla, Negovanlis saw “two things that I’ve always wanted to play: a lesbian and a vampire,” she laughs. “So I got to kill two birds with one stone.”
According to GLAAD’s annual “where we are on TV” report, 4.8 percent of characters on scripted primetime programming in 2016 were identified as LGBTQ (43 out of 895 series regulars). While this marked an increase in representation, only 17 percent of these characters were lesbian identified—a 16 percentage point drop. And while bisexual representation on broadcast television rose, the report noted that, “Many of these characters still fall into dangerous stereotypes about bisexual people.”
While counting characters is important work, not every percentage point marks a positive stride, as sorely underrepresented queer women are often portrayed through harmful stereotypes. Carmilla’s creative team actively avoids the tropes that have come to define queer women in pop culture. “One thing that was important to us back in Season 1 is that we had another character, another female character that Laura would be interested in in the beginning before she gets more into Carmilla,” Ouaknine explains. “Just so we don’t feed into that trope of the evil lesbian who comes and turns you—that’s just a part of who [Laura] is from the beginning.”
And where a more conventional show might feature a big, emotional coming-out scene, Carmilla is a love story between two women where coming to terms with one’s sexuality isn’t used as a major plot line or source of stress. “All of the issues stem from where they don’t see eye to eye as people,” Bauman points out. “It’s not like in other stories where it’s like, ‘Oh you’re a woman so I can’t.’”
Unsurprisingly, the group seems to agree that privileging the experiences of actual queer women goes a long way toward producing authentic scenes free of stereotypes. “I think that something we discuss a lot whenever we have to do scenes that are more intimate is that we just want it to feel as authentic and genuine as possible,” Negovanlis notes. “And so we don’t want it to be something that’s for a male gaze or to look like it’s for men, ever. It’s not like, ‘Oh look at us we’re lesbians and we’re making out!’ It’s like we’re two people who love each other. For us it’s more about the connection, giving each other eye contact and making sure we do things that really are realistic, like look at each other’s mouths or touch each other’s hair or just hold each other in ways that are intimate without being sexual."
Giving folks a platform for telling their own stories sounds simple; and, as Carmilla’s YouTube series to feature film trajectory has shown, there’s a hunger for this sort of content. So the absence of good queer representation is as confounding as it is frustrating. As L Word creator Ilene Chaiken relayed just before the series’ reboot was officially announced, “When we went off the air in 2009, I think a lot of people thought, OK, the baton is passed now, and there will be lots of shows that portray lesbian life… There’s really nothing. It feels like maybe it should come back.”
In part because of the paucity of these stories, Carmilla means a good deal to its most dedicated fans. The show’s fandom ensured that Negovanlis took home the Fan’s Choice Award at the 2017 Canadian Screen Awards, despite starring in a relatively niche YouTube series. During her acceptance speech, she joked, “Most of you are wondering who the heck I am,” continuing, “It has been an honor and a privilege to provide more positive on-screen representation for the queer community. For my community.”
When I ask Negovanlis if she was ever worried about the effect that being out publicly or “playing gay” might have on her career, she insists, “It’s something I never really considered. I really wanted to play a queer character, and I did, and it’s been nothing but great for me.”
“I hope it’s something that fans take away from Carmilla, that when you are your authentic self you will be able to flourish and blossom,” she adds. “It’s not always easy and it’s not always safe to be open, and I understand that and I understand that I am very lucky, but I hope that they know that—if you are your true self and you’re really living your truth, you don’t need to fear not being successful or not getting to do the things that you want to do. I think your best work is going to come when you’re being honest.”