The 16th Century Woman
Life for women in 16th century Europe was very similar to those of the Victorian era (~1837-1901); they mainly served as keepers of the household with their opportunities limited. They were seen as little more than set dressings for men and incubators of their husband’s children. Women were to attend to their families - particularly their husbands - and education was strongly discouraged. Providing education was thought to be “detrimental to the traditional female virtues of innocence and morality” (Encyclopedia.com). If women vocalized against the patriarchal structures and/or the ruler of the household (the husband), she would risk being exiled from her community, or even worse, if they were unmarried, branded as a witch. If a woman were to be ostracised/shamed out of her community, her options were finite and she would most commonly be thrown into a state of poverty.
If a woman’s life was in shambles during the 1500s, prostitution was one of very few viable life choices. In The Covent Garden Ladies: Pimp General Jack & the Extraordinary Story of Harris’ List, Hallie Rubenhold mentions that “women of this class, whose voices were unheard and who were virtually sidelined by society and the law, had little recourse in the tragedies that befell them.’ Though it might have provided some form of presumed social freedoms, it came with heavy risks and stigma.
Darla: The Syphilitic Vampire
“Can’t a woman wreak a little havoc without there being a man involved?” (Angel S02E11)
The fierce blonde woman we know as Darla was born in the late 16th century in the British Isles where she worked as a prostitute (now called sex workers). According to Laura Diehl in Why Drusilla’s More Interesting than Buffy, the “show draws upon historical fact that prostitutes were routinely forced to emigrate to the colonies in the seventeenth-century”, which would explain why a prostitute like Darla would find herself immigrating from England to the Virginia Colony in North America. During the year 1609, Darla would contract a common venereal disease of that time period, syphilis, and would be found dying in her home by The Master. It is The Master who sires her/turns Darla into a vampire, saving her from a terrible death and a life that was never truly her own.
Darla as a vampire (and former sex worker), is another example of the “bad girl” or “unruly woman”. All three - female vampire, unruly woman, and bad girl - “evokes not only delight but disgust and fear” (Sex and the Slayer: A Gender Studies Primer for the Buffy Fan By Lorna Jowett). Fascinating variations between male and female vampires can see the male vampires “used to problematize boundaries between human and monster, while female vampires, though retaining the attraction of villainess, remain monsters, objects of fear.” (Jowett). In life, Darla was highly threatening to her society as her sexually free and unmarried body was used for the pursuit of pleasure, not for child bearing - a woman’s known duty to herself and her husband. Sexually free women are monstrous, vampires are monsters, and to blend the two together makes them highly dangerous. Darla is a beautiful woman and knows how to use her “feminine wiles” to lure her victims - due to her past as a sex worker, she was almost an expert in seduction and appeal. Angel was drawn to her, and “he is easy prey because he sees in her the promise both of power (she is “a lady”) and of sexual pleasure” (Jowett). She knows her allure has only been heightened as a vampire.
Darla is the first vampire that we encounter in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (S01E01). She is introduced to us as a meek young woman in a school girl outfit, and we assume she is about to be the victim, but then she (and the show) subvert this tired trope and Darla “vamps out” and kills the young man she has snuck into the high school with. At this moment, viewers knew that Buffy was something different, and special. Vampire Darla (as she is raised from the dead as human later in Angel) is often in her vampire face; she isn’t afraid to show her bumpy, ugly face. Not only has she has fully embraced her vampire lifestyle - she thrives on it. Darla desperately yearns for her vampiric lifestyle when she is a human again as it gave her such power, something she had little of as a mortal woman. As a vampire she had escaped death, and this is a powerful feeling.
Darla doesn’t spend a lot of her screen time fighting; she is often seen enjoying the fruits of her labour (the killing), sex, and the company of other vampires. She feasts and enjoys the pleasures of eternal life, but fighting isn’t for her, especially hand to hand combat (she even has used guns before), and that isn’t why she loves being a vampire.
Sex workers, in most decades, are not seen as “appropriate women”. Sumptuary laws (to regulate consumption) in 16th century England sometimes passed statutes that required prostitutes to wear attire that was different from “respectable” women so that they would be easy to recognize. It was common for prostitutes to use brothels to conduct their business, but they were also found to frequent the wharves and shipping yards to find sailors looking for a release, and for them, some quick cash. This increased their exposure to a variety of sexually transmitted diseases, like the one Darla almost succumbs to.
As a ‘whore”, Darla’s sexuality was seen as “socially bad” (Howett) and as a vampire, this label remains, or at least for both the actions are perceived as scandalous. Though Darla wasn’t explicitly a prostitute in the Victorian age, the attitude towards these women were very similar; women were considered to be the cause of many aspects of the degeneration of society (and men). As we saw in the discussion of Drusilla, women - if kept in the home environment - were the face of morality in the community and women who conducted their lives outside of these roles were often “prostitutes, vectors of disease, contagion and degeneration. Because civilization depended upon the containing of sex in marriage, civilization was threatened by the prostitute, especially the syphilitic prostitute” (Diehl). Darla was a threat to her community and to the sanctity of heteronormative marriage. She was inept, a pariah, and without self worth.
Historically, syphilis was described in vampiric terms, those having “bad blood” and caused by perverse sexuality. Prostitutes were a marginalized group of Othered women who could turn into vampires after death (along with witches, suicides and the godless). Based in folklore and Victorian science, the uproar in the communities about prostitution and the quick spread of syphilis, amalgamated with the belief that female sexuality was “vampiric and diseased. Both the vampire and the prostitute, after all, are predatory creatures of the night” (Diehl). Our “women of the night” were “unruly”, overly sexed women, their sexuality demonized and their lifestyles “the source of social and national decay” (Diehl). Our “syphilitic prostitute as vampire (or vampirism as syphilitic virus)” was the scourge of humankind, and like so many other women with “abnormal” and “freakish” sexuality, Darla was left dying, alone and willingly, accepting her fate, as foretold by the morally superior and ‘supposedly’ righteous patriarchal systems.
Darla is a very emotionally driven woman, much more so than our beloved Drusilla. Some might view this as the “feminine” weakness, being ruled by emotion, but Darla is passionate. In her human life, this was missing, so in her vampiric life it is accentuated. She sired Angel and remained bonded to him for centuries. Darla loves Angel and we can see this more clearly in Angel than Buffy (in Buffy she is the rejected/dejected/jilted woman) but in Angel we see her intense emotional bond to him. According to Angel, since vampires don’t have souls, she couldn’t have ever truly loved him, and vice versa. This crushes her, minimizing her centuries old feelings of attraction and adoration.
Because Darla sired/developed Angel as a vampire, she has an intimate bond with him, a dedication and commitment that we can see with her subordination to The Master (who sired her). In her human life, we can assume she was powerless, and disrespected by countless men. Once turned, she was given the strength to form these bonds, gain respect (and give it) to those that deserved it. Darla was considered the “second hand” to The Master in season one of Buffy, she wasn’t the “top vampire” then, but with the foursome (Darla, Angel, Spike, Drusilla) she is the matriarch. She was fiercely loyal to her vampire family as in her human life she had none.
When we see flashbacks to the early days of Darla as a vampire, she is always shown in the period's appropriate female garb (unlike Drusilla who most often is seen wearing Victorian style clothes) and “Such costuming underlines traditional femininity” (Jowett). This shows one of the aspects of vampirism that Darla loves - the elegance/extravagance. Unlike many other vampires, she doesn’t yearn for fame/fortune or become the “top vampire” of a clan; Darla wants to live a rich, fulfilling life, something she desired as a human, but never had. Living a “rich life” means having access to the luxuries that humans have - big, warm beds, hot showers, beautiful clothing, and all the fresh blood a vampire could ever want! You would never catch her living in some grungy, decrepit crypt like Spike. As once a social leech in her previous life, she now wants to wrap herself up in the missed opportunities of old, taking back her life from a community that shunned her. This is, of course, at the expense of many, many innocent people.
Within the theory of the Cult of Domesticity, Darla is the true Fallen Woman; she defiled all the virtues of piety, purity, submission and domesticity - she spat in its face, throughout her human and vampiric life. This is incredibly empowering! According to this concept, and in The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860 by Barbara Welter, “women were the passive, submissive responders. The order of dialogue was, of course, fixed in Heaven. Man was "woman's superior by God's appointment, if not in intellectual dowry, at least by official decree”. As Darla lay dying, she said to the Master (whom she believes to initially be a priest), “God has done nothing for me” and that “My soul is well past saving. Let the devil take me if he'll have me. It doesn't matter. Either way, I die” (Angel S02E07). In the eyes of men, and God, Darla isn’t a “true woman” but in death she is extraordinary.
Like Drusilla, Darla will forever be the “uncivilized” woman, one that never reached her feminine potential as wife and mother; never marrying or giving birth to human children. Since motherhood is seen as the essence of femininity according to oppressive, patriarchal religions and discourse, Darla is truly monstrous for “Motherhood is the dam holding back women’s innate animality and bestial passions, and any behavior that vitiates reproduction or disaggregates female sexuality from procreation could result in intellectual infirmities and moral sicknesses'' (Diehl). Darla is immoral and unintelligent, both in her prostitution and vampirism, and thus completely deviant.
Regularly in the Whedonverse we see the demonization of female sexuality; our women are punished for sex outside of relationships, one night stands, for being celibate, or just having sex altogether. There is an incredible amount of trauma related to sexual activities - Angel loses his soul after Buffy and him make love for the first time, Buffy is sexually assaulted by Spike, Cordelia is forcibly impregnated, and Darla, once brought back to life as human, has to suffer from the same human illness she was supposed to die of in that old Virginia colony. Darla will never be forgiven for her sins, and never able to forget her whorish life.
Our female vampires are not triggered by their sexual urges, nor are they explicitly penalized for it. Perhaps “a woman must be two hundred or more years old before she can have a robust, unpathologized sexuality, or maybe she has to be monstrous or psychotic (psychosis is a rejection of the symbolic)?” (Jowett). In the Whedonverse, you have to be a monster to truly be free from the bondage of social expectations and gender.