The Modern Woman
Women of the 21st century, thankfully, have to deal with vastly reduced gender expectations, and long have they outgrown the “spinster” label if they want to remain unmarried or childfree. However, in the age of digital technology and with our right to vote and specialize in careers, marketing/advertising has diminished our confidence. Not only is our intelligence, sadly, still questioned as women, there are still high expectations to remain youthful and beautiful. This has been deeply ingrained into our society, causing women to often feel inept.
In a 2017 study by Kim Parker, Juliana Menasce Horowuitz and Renee Steples, it showed that Americans place high value on honesty, morality and professional success in male identifying people, while for women, physical attractiveness and being nurturing/empathetic were at the top. In the same study, it also showed that 52% of women say “it’s at least somewhat important for them to be seen as feminine, including 20% who say this is very important to them. Among men, slightly less than half (46%) say it’s important to them, personally, that others see them as masculine, with just 9% saying this is very important.” To be beautiful, and have typical “feminine” traits (maternal, compassionate and expressive emotions) are bound to women, and if someone falls outside that very rigid box, they are deemed as “unfeminine” and inappropriate.
For women in the 1990s, it was a glorious time of “girl power”, loud femininity, and self expression. Women, young and old, were gaining more confidence and were making great strides in the professional world. In How the ’90s Tricked Women Into Thinking They’d Gained Gender Equality by Allison Yarrow, she states that
“The “Girl Power” movement promised that progress for women would trickle down to girls, too. Indie subcultures defined by girl-made zines, music, art and websites flourished, providing young women new platforms for self-expression. Girl culture was reclaimed and celebrated by the Riot Grrrl movement, Sassy magazine, websites like gURL.com, government initiatives, subversive feminist musicians and independent films.”
Unfortunately though, it seemed we still had a ways to go for equality as the harder we pushed to gain power, the more force was reciprocated to tear us down. The power and autonomy we had achieved was often relinquished to the “opposite sex”, and we really saw the effects of the “glass ceiling”. At the time (and currently less so) we were living in a culture that “celebrated outright hostility toward women and commercialized their sexuality and insecurity. Feminist movements were co-opted. Soon, women would author their own sexual objectification.”
Toxic femininity, like toxic masculinity, is partnered with sexism, but different in the way that sexism wants to remove rights/freedoms/autonomy, and toxic femininity/masculinity is a rigid set of shallow rules set by society on how to be/perform as masculine and feminine. Both inspire great insecurities for all: men, women, non-binary folks, and more. Choosing to live a child-free life is considered “unfeminine”, giving makeovers to “ugly” teens/young women to make them appear more feminine and “attractive” are damaging, and in Toxic Femininity Holds All of Us Back by Devon Price, “Anything can be a threat to a woman’s acceptable, alluring femininity: sweatpants, jeans, a competitive streak, love of one’s career, a few hair follicles in the “wrong” place.” Gender expectations of femininity are everywhere: pink razors and pens, fruity boozy drinks at the bar; it’s no wonder we all become snared by these standards and fall prey to their marketing schemes -- “We are all infected with toxic femininity. We all deal in it, perpetuate it, suffer from it—every day” (Price).
Harmony: The Dumb Blonde as Vampire
““You just can’t stand the fact that I'm my own person now. There comes a time in a woman's life when she realizes she has to take that next step. I've taken it. I've found the real me, and I like her.” ―Harmony Kendall (Buffy S05E18 - Real Me)
Harmony is an underrated character/vampire in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. She parallels -- in attitude -- to Cordelia in the early seasons of Buffy, and even Buffy, when she lived in LA, prior to her move to Sunnydale. She is the “Valley Girl”, the “Blonde Bimbo”, the “Dumb Blonde”; this is vastly different from our other prominent/popular Monstrous Women with Bite, Darla and Druscilla. Harmony is our Modern Women/New Woman, our Modern Vampire, and with her “dumb blonde” attitude, she subverts the expectations of the female vampire. In Biting Humor: Harmony, Parody, and the Female Vampire by Lorna Jowett, she states that Harmony is “both a stereotype (of a dumb blonde) and a direct challenge to a stereotype (the female vampire)” and “is a parody that subverts the traditional spectacular representation of the female vampire.” She is an image/caricature of the common tropes of the 90s/00s of the dim witted blonde women who makes an overall incompetent vampire, one that is still holding onto many aspects of her mortal life. Compared to her counterparts (Darla and Drusilla) she is downright laughable. Harmony subverts the age old female vampire symbol as predatory lesbian, which is hugely refreshing. She remains only interested in the male species throughout both shows, with an intensely passionate, rowdy sexual, on/off again relationship with Spike.
Though she is decidedly heterosexual, her vampirism takes her sexuality and appearance to the next level. In Buffy, Harmony, in her human life, was a pretty and popular girl in high school -- she ruled the school with the Cordettes. But, she wasn’t overtly sexual/sexualized. It wasn’t until she became a vampire that she showed more physical confidence, and with that, more skin. She is often seen in short skirts and corsets, baring more than just her teeth to those around her. Harmony is the classic symbol of immortality causing everlasting, enhanced beauty, something that I have always admired and enjoyed about the vampire (and her). Whereas; Drusilla gained a sexuality and confidence from vampirism as well, but isn’t seen as physically more alluring than her mortal self per se. And Darla was a beautiful woman before and after being turned. Harmony overall becomes more coif; her hair bigger and curlier, and her clothes tighter, more restraining. She enjoys wearing makeup, with lip gloss enhancing the perky/pouty labial symbols of her vagina dentata mouth.
The Insecure New Woman
“I've done a lot of reading, and, and I'm in control of my own power now.”
―Harmony (Buffy S04E08 - Pangs)
In Harmony: The Lonely Life of a Modern Woman by Gert Magnusson, they discuss how vampires enjoy being vampires (unless you have a pesky soul!). “Xander is devastated to see that Jesse has become a vampire, but Jesse assures him that he feels good, strong, and connected to everything” (Magnusson). Newborn vamps are elated by their keen senses, superhuman strength and immortality. Unfortunately, Harmony doesn’t always share in this enthusiasm; she struggles as a vampire, and says “being a vampire sucks”. She continues to struggle with her identity, something that has remained since her shallow days in high school. Harmony was a popular girl with rich parents, you would think she would “have it all”, but even our rich spoiled kids are challenged with insecurities surrounding who they are as people. That continued into Harmony’s vampiric life. She feels she must be liked/popular and beautiful to be valued.
Kathleen Tracy in The Girl's Got Bite: The Original Unauthorized Guide to Buffy's World speaks to this; “Like Dawn, Harmony has image issues. Alive and undead, she’s always felt faily maligned and underappreciated, and plans to prove her mettle by being one to bag the Slayer. All she’s looking for is respect and to be somebody.” When you are a part of a clique, it’s hard to create your own identity, and without the guidance of other, more experienced vampires, Harmony continues to be a follower, and not a Leader. She tries to run her own vamp gang, but fails. Her plans are often foiled (by Buffy) and any work goes underappreciated. She doesn’t truly gain the confidence that vampirism is “supposed” to provide which makes her the most relatable female vampire on Buffy and Angel. In later seasons of Angel, Harmony gets a job as Angel’s assistant at Wolfram & Hart, trying to make something of herself. She actively tries to better herself (since being evil didn’t always work out), and she routinely is denigrated by Angel and his friends. What is frustrating for a viewer is that Spike, who used/abused her for sex, who sexually assaults Buffy, is routinely given the chance to improve himself. He becomes a part of the Scoobies, and eventually Angel’s team, gaining sympathy from Fred. He did get himself a soul but that doesn’t cancel out the negativity he has brought to the women of the shows. Our New and Monstrous Women aren't allowed redemption (ie: Faith) when they fall, even when they attempt to change. Once a disgraced woman always a disgraced woman as we aren’t allowed to falter in our femininity.
“Harmony's a vampire? She must be dying without a reflection.”
―Buffy Summers (Buffy S04E03 - The Harsh Light of Day)
Harmony exudes extreme performed femininity; the construct of gender roles of femininity are exposed by her “masquerade” of it -- “....and the markers of extreme femininity that surround her (pink and pastel clothing, the collection of unicorns, a childish voice and language) are juxtaposed with her vampire strength, bloodlust, and narcissism which contrast the passivity, softness, and self-sacrifice of stereotypical femininity” (Jowett). Unlike other female vampires, she isn’t hugely assertive/aggressive but more submissive, which in turn is coded as “feminine”. Harmony struggles with how to conduct herself as a vampire, and as a modern woman. She feels all of the uncertainties that the modern woman does, along with the added challenge of immortality.
Harmony provides comic relief, and like Anya in Buffy, she is seen as “tactless” but she is just brutally honest and tells it like it is. She doesn’t hold back her emotions and will stand up for herself. Harmony’s childlike behavior (remember that slap fight with Xander?) prevents her from being taken seriously, and her unicorn obsession is interesting as they can be a symbol of “princess” culture, which adds to her immaturity. Unicorns are magical, mythical and enchanting -- they are also rare. They are gentle but fierce creatures of legend, just like Harmony.
Harmony is a fighter, a woman, a vampire and, well, still evil. But, “she tries. All the time, she tries to live her own life. This, of course, doesn’t mean that she is good. That she betrays everyone to the Senior Partners is no surprise. She is evil, but she is an evil creature who fights her innate evil every day. Sometimes she succeeds, sometimes her urges take over. In that respect she most of all resembles a human.” (Magnusson). She is the most human of our three vampiric women, and in that humanity we can see that she -- and they -- still hold intense power over the men in their lives. Spike will never have Druscilla out of his mind - they were together for years, and Angel is forever tied to Darla - his sire. Once Spike becomes corporeal, he immediately has sex with Harmony, despite his lack of emotion for her. He is lustful, and she is willing, and their chemistry is undeniable, which keeps Spike coming back for more, and her inability to say no.
The Virgin, the Whore and the Free Woman
What’s fascinating about our vampiric women is that, although they express a lot of human emotions, they are not, and therefore don’t fully struggle to define themselves - they don’t care! They don’t grow or change and revel in just who they are. They are unapologetic in their feminine monstrosity, and I think we can all harness aspects of that in our own lives.
Although Harmony has less societal pressures and expectations than Darla and Drusilla, she has more personal and emotional struggles. As with our modern Free Woman, we can be challenged by the perceived duality of women: do you show yourself as a strong yet sensitive woman or do you show your "vampiric" aggressive self to get what you want? Either way you are destined to be degraded to a mere objectified body so we, and she, does what she wants.
Darla embellishes her saucy fiendish self, and Drusilla lives in her own macabre world where she reigns supreme; our vampiric women of Buffy and Angel are not only empowering but they are liberating. They are wonderful examples of subversive female vampires and some of the most fascinating in the Whedonverse.