Dawn of the New Feminist Vampire

A Cultural Analysis of Night Teeth

Jorge Lendeborg Jr. and Debby Ryan in Night Teeth, Netflix (2021)

Each generation produces the vampire it requires. From the 1920s where Nosferatu sought to instil fear of The Other to the 1930s when Dracula nods to its Victorian origins of women’s sexuality being inherently sinful; and the boom of popular vampire culture in the early 2000s which gifted us with the chisel-jawed six-packed fantasies of Edward Cullen, Eric Northman and Damon Salvatore. Though the vampire craze has died since the last season of Vampire Diaries fizzled to an end, this essay will argue that the vampire archetype is on the dawn of resurrection through the birth of a new feminist vampire.

Night Teeth, available on Netflix, provides the first heartbeat of this new generation of vampires in Hollywood and is viewed through a hybrid of both cultural populism and pessimism. While its representation and regulation are overtly popular, the movie’s production and consumption are marred by its dissemination through Netflix. However, the film grapples with identity in an equal mix of pessimistic and populist views by upholding some historical narratives of white power while simultaneously moving away from the appropriation of black magic storytelling by traditionally white authors. This essay will take Night Teeth through Du Gay’s Circuit of Culture by comparing the cultural values that have historically aligned with the vampire genre in Hollywood.

Traditional vampiric narratives have centred around male vampires and their feminine romantic interests, often forming a construction of heterosexual relationships entwined with corresponding symbolism of sexual desire represented by the consistent presence of uncontrollable blood-lust, which is only achieved through the penetration of the female protagonist. This representation perpetuates the patriarchal myth of the masculine being eternally dangerous and dominant, while the feminine is subjugated to fragility and submission. This myth can be seen by dissecting the romantic relationship depicted throughout the Twilight saga where Bella (Kristen Stewart) is willingly imprisoned by Edward’s control and demands in her journey to satisfy her own sexual desires. Meanwhile, The Vampire Diaries sees Elena (Nina Dobrev) ‘sired’ to Damon when she is unwillingly turned, and True Blood sees Sookie’s (Anna Paquin) two male vampiric suiters laying claim to her body as each envoke, at various stages, the vampiric rule of Mine, to prevent others from feeding on her.

If women can control their innate “primal” urges, then so can men.

Night Teeth buries these archaic myths in the ground as the story trails after two female vampires, Blaire (played by Disney star Debby Ryan) and Zoe (played by Australian actor Lucy Fry), who spend the night murdering rival vampires and destroying the truce between vampires and humans in Las Angeles — all the while, holding their male protagonist Benny (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), hostage throughout the night. And although a love interest blossoms between Blaire and Benny, the initial horror and panic depicted by Benny in the discovery of the nature of our two female vampires is in stark contrast to the morbid curiosity and submissive acceptance usually displayed by female love interests of the genre of the early 2000s. Further, male vampires are often represented as going into a ‘frenzy’ and being unable to control their blood-lust — a dangerously toxic narrative that instils the myth that men cannot control their sexual desires. In contrast, in a scene reminiscent of that papercut scene in New Moon, our male protagonist cuts his hand open, and our female vampires make no response to the exposure of his blood other than to tenderly wrap his hand up in a bandage in a later scene. This drives a stake through the myth of uncontrollable masculine sexual desire by shifting the blame of reactionary events of ‘desire’, such as assault, ­­from the victim to the perpetrator. If women can control their innate primal urges, then so can men.

Night Teeth actively moves away from resurrecting patriarchal social relationships and myths and celebrates its female vampires leaning into powers that are typically held for traditionally male characters ­­ — while also opening the coffin for black American men to be shown as desirable in a genre that has only ever depicted a white romance narrative at its heart — making it an ideal example of cultural populism.

Where historically vampires have been identified as Other and leaned on the narrative of us v them, the genre has a pattern for glorifying its vampires as white, wealthy and beautiful, while simultaneously depicting people of colour as working-class magical beings often in conflict with the vampiric heroes of the story. Twilight did this by depicting the Native Americans of La Push as werewolves; Vampire Diaries portrays Bonnie and all other black Americans relevant to the storyline as witches, and the same narrative can be applied to Lafayette in True Blood. However, the identification of black people with witchcraft has its roots stemmed in colonial New England when enslaved Africans brought with them Creole and Gullah languages, voodoo, traditional folk medicines and other social practices and religious beliefs relevant to their culture. The trend of appropriating black cultural history by white authors for the benefit of whi­­­te heroes is problematic to say the least. Fortunately, Night Teeth steps away from this racial narrative and places its black American protagonist firmly in reality. Benny is a university student who is struggling to get by financially while living at home with his grandmother on the fringes of suburban LA, in a house that sits besides a main motorway. Like many people living in an insecure financial situation, he has aspirations for a better life — one where he’s successful producing music and does not have to worry about money. And although the trope of the white, beautiful and extremely wealthy vampire continues to maintain its eternal narrative in the genre through Blair and Zoe, which can be argued to be rooted in cultural pessimism (Clarke, 1990), the story ends with Benny joining the ranks of vampirism and with it, the stability that he desired. Thus our protagonist’s identity is not only relatable and constituted by difference through classificatory systems, but it allows the fluidity for him to move from one end of the social class spectrum to the other; and dismantles the traditional appropriation used by this genre, allowing Night Teeth to also partially identify with cultural populism.

However, where younger fans of earlier vampire series and movies bought into the romanticised interpretations of toxic relationships, which existed before #MeToo and #TIMESUP, Night Teeth seems to cater to an audience who has developed an awareness of boundaries, respect and feeds into female revenge narratives in a time that now loudly condemns sexual predators.

Night Teeth is produced and distributed by Netflix, a company that has adhered to a template of marketable feminism by churning out tv shows and movies that align with today’s social expectations. In an age where ‘cancel culture’ exists, Netflix has accurately read the shift in modern culture and built its success by producing cultural commodities that portray complex female characters. Night Teeth is just one of the many feminist-orientated productions to come out of Netflix’ assembly line. The standardisation of its production, when considered as part of the Netflix monolith, aligns with Negus’ view of industrialised culture and identifies with Clarke’s definition of cultural pessimism.

Where Twilight, Vampire Diaries and True Blood over-shadowed the early 2000s with sequels and series which spanned seven to eight seasons (Vampire Diaries has had two spin-off series, with its current offspring Legacies now on its fourth season) and developed a brand culture amongst its hoard of fans, Night Teeth remains a lone occurrence as a single love letter to the vampire genre with a refreshing twist; but harbours no foreseeable plans to sire a sequel. However, where younger fans of earlier vampire series and movies bought into the romanticised interpretations of toxic relationships, which existed before #MeToo and #TIMESUP, Night Teeth seems to cater to an audience who has developed an awareness of boundaries, respect and feeds into female revenge narratives in a time that now loudly condemns sexual predators. It is consumed and enjoyed by people who enjoy the vampire narrative but seek a revised version of the archetype that aligns with current social expectations. And although Night Teeth fulfils this need, it offers no additional avenues for consumption beyond viewing it on Netflix

As such, the process of ‘buying in’ to Netflix through a paid subscription to access Night Teeth aligns with the passive consumption theory discussed by Clarke, lending the consumption process to align with cultural pessimism. In contrast, there may be an argument available where the growing demand for feminist media by consumers, along with the swift execution of cultural commodities through cancel culture, has allowed consumers to play a more active role in shaping the decisions made by monolithic cultural corporations such as Netflix. However, this argument would require a more detailed analysis of marketplace feminism — which falls beyond the scope of this essay.

Both formal and informal forms of regulation can be applied to Night Teeth. Formal regulation is seen through the application of a viewer rating. In Australia, it is the law for films to be classified before being made available to the public. This formal regulation compels Netflix to classify all of its tv shows and films to align with Australian classification before launching their shows to Australian audiences. In other countries, where classifications may differ compared to Australian standards, Netflix’ shows may be given a vastly different rating. For example, with its violent scenes and copious amounts of blood, Night Teeth is classified as MA15+ and is technically, legally restricted to people over the age of 15. However, there is no way for this to be monitored and enforced other than through parents regulating their child’s content. In America, this rating is reduced by a year, making it available to 14-year-olds.

However, informal regulation has proven to be the prominent theme, with feminist constructed values shaping the narrative of the storyline and rebirthing the traditional patriarchal archetype into a new version of feminist storytelling that challenges patriarchal myths of power and tears away from the romanticised tropes of abusive relationships, coercion and sexual assault. In essence, Night Teeth takes the archaic vampire narrative, which has traditionally upheld patriarchal culture and injects it with a new meaning that is shaped around the social demand for more films and tv shows to align with feminist values, leading its cultural regulation to align with cultural populism.

The vampiric genre has always enjoyed the hybrid myth — where a character possesses both traits as werewolf and vampire or in the instance of Twilight, its infamous half-human-half-vampire baby. Ironically, this essay concludes that Night Teeth encompasses in equal parts both cultural populist and pessimistic traits. Where previous vampire films and tv shows can be clearly identified as culturally pessimistic, Netflix’ Night Teeth appears to have evolved beyond its vampiric ancestors and produced a new hybrid form of vampire culture. One that is nonetheless still popular to fans of the genre but firmly takes a stake to the heart of its archaic and patriarchal bloodline. Meanwhile, news of reboots of popular vampire stories such as True Blood, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Interview with a Vampire and even rumours of a new Vampire Diaries, it seems the rise of the feminist vampire is clawing its way into popular culture and will inevitably surface onto our screens in due time, making Night Teeth the first of its kind to lay claim to this new generation of vampires.

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Laura E Fox

LLB (Hons) and BA (Gender Studies and Philosophy) student. A collection of academic essays.