Strong Female Characters: Mina Harker

For those of you that don’t know, Mina Harker is the leading lady of Bram Stoker’s phenomenally successful novel, Dracula. The story revolves around the titular centuries-old vampire’s attempts to turn humanity into his legions of mindless followers, and the humans who attempt to stop him. In the original story, Mina is one of those humans – she gets caught up in their attempts to bring down his plan after he tries to turn her and her friend into vampires.

The story has been a massive success, catapulting an obscure creature of Eastern European folklore into the popular consciousness. It’s almost impossible to even think about vampires without being influenced by the Dracula legacy, let alone write about them. The story has been a feature of the fictional landscape since its publication, with a new adaptation (or ‘re-imagining’) coming out pretty much every year. There’s been stage plays, radio dramatisations, TV shows, big-budget movies, comic books, Saturday morning kids’ shows, Japanese anime series and even an opera – and that’s saying nothing of the countless other books, films and characters that the original story inspired.

With that in mind, when I set about writing this blog post, it occurred to me that these adaptations have so many different versions of Mina Harker that it could become quite difficult to talk about her character with any real certainty. Dracula as a whole has been adapted so many times that all of these versions of the story tend to merge into one in the popular consciousness. The same thing can be said of Mina’s character: while the original book is still the definitive article, there are so many different versions of Mina that it becomes very difficult to talk about her character as a larger part of popular culture without talking about the adaptations individually.

And that’s pretty much what I’m going to do. I’m going to choose a handful of different Dracula adaptations – including the original story – and see how each version of Mina stands up to my Strong Female Character test.

Let’s get started – but watch out for spoilers!

 

dracula-book-cover-e1436985907366 edited

In the original novel, Mina is never a key player. She’s very much a secondary character, and the bulk of the action revolves around the men: they’re off fighting Dracula and his vampire armies while she stays home for tea and crumpets. This is very much a reflection of the time in which the novel was written, and considering this was before women could even vote it’s not exactly going to do wonders for her feminist credentials.

Mina isn’t in control of her destiny as a larger whole. Dracula is – but as I discussed in my posts about Claire Dearing and Ellie Sattler, when your story is about trying to defeat/get away from a terrible monster, the monster’s the one calling the shots. We don’t hear much about her hobbies, aside from the fact that she took up shorthand to help her husband’s career, and she doesn’t have any clear goals beyond helping the men defeat Dracula – although she was a schoolteacher before she met Jonathan Harker. She’s consistently loyal, intelligent, passive and traditional – and her skills with shorthand actually help with their quests, as she collates all of their accounts of Dracula in order to put together the knowledge to defeat him.

She literally defeats him with the power of administration. (image: theguardian.com)
She literally defeats him with the power of administration. (image: theguardian.com)

You can describe her personality without resorting to her love life, appearance or the words ‘strong female character’, but not her role within the story: she’s only involved – and later, targeted by Dracula himself – because she’s Jonathan’s fiancée/wife. Speaking of, aside from her desire to stop Dracula her love life is really what motivates her – even though she doesn’t really get an opportunity to make many decisions of her own. She doesn’t develop over the course of the story, she doesn’t have any real weaknesses, and her influence on the plot is severely limited – she is able to work out some of Dracula’s next moves, but ultimately her role in the plot is dependent on the fact that Dracula chooses to target her.

In terms of gender stereotypes, Mina pretty much hits them all. Her role is fundamentally supporting the men through the story. She’s submissive, pure, maternal in a way that doesn’t even hint that she will have any sexual contact, and her role in the story is utterly defined by the men in her life. She is close with her friend Lucy Westenra, who is a little unconventional (and may or may not be punished for it) but seeing as Lucy is the only other female character Mina interacts with she can’t get full points. All in all, Mina is a fairly typical fictional Victorian woman: she does little, is mainly in a supportive/secondary role, and while she does get a personality she isn’t given nearly enough development or agency for her to pass my test.

FINAL SCORE: 3.5/10

 

dracula-2

Based on the stage play that Stoker himself endorsed, this 1931 adaptation of the story is one of the most famous. It stars Bela Lugosi as everybody’s favourite Count (screw you, Sesame Street) and is reasonably faithful to the original book. Once again, the plot revolves around the guys fighting Dracula and Mina staying home for yet more tea and crumpets.

OPPRESSIVE crumpets. (image: nzwomansweekly.co.nz)
OPPRESSIVE crumpets. (image: nzwomansweekly.co.nz)

Seeing as the film does follow a lot of the original plot pretty closely – aside from changing Mina’s surname – a lot of what I said in the previous section still applies here. It’s Dracula who drives the plot forward, not Mina. Mina’s role in the story is completely defined by the relationships she has with the men in her life, whether they’re trying to stop Dracula or turn her into a vampire. The only significant relationship she has is with her friend Lucy, who gets killed. Her character very clearly draws on contemporary gender stereotypes: she’s passive, pure, and always needs a man to come and save her. These are all elements of the original novel – they’re certainly not unique to the 1931 film.

The changes that the film does make, however, actually take away from her character even more. Her personality is completely different – all of her intelligence and practicality from the novel has been completely removed: she’s a generically good, kind, young woman who is consistently loyal to her friends and family. In this version she isn’t a schoolteacher with practical skills that can help the group; she’s just a pretty young woman who doesn’t really do much of anything. She doesn’t get an opportunity to help the group at all – her role in the story is entirely reduced to that of damsel in distress. She doesn’t get an opportunity to influence the plot on her own terms at all – the only time she does is when she’s hypnotised by Dracula into attacking her friends. All in all, Mina’s agency and individuality as a character has been pretty much hamstrung by this adaptation.

FINAL SCORE: 1.5/10

 

Dracula-1958-1024x614

There’s no way I could write a post about Dracula without talking about a Hammer Horror adaptation. For the uninitiated, Hammer Horror films pretty much dominated the scary movie market in the 1960s and 70s, largely thanks to the talents of Peter Cushing and Sir Christopher Lee. This adaptation follows the events of the novel reasonably closely, aside from making Mina Arthur Holmwood’s wife and making Jonathan Harker a vengeful vampire hunter/librarian (which is, of course, my profession of choice). It was the first in a string of Dracula-related adaptations that eventually became known for their copious amounts of fake blood and as much cleavage as the 1970s could reasonably get away with.

Once again, seeing as the plot of the film is reasonably close to the novel, a lot of what I said in the previous two sections still applies here. Dracula’s still calling the shots, Mina’s role in the story is very much dependent on the men she interacts with, she doesn’t develop or have any weaknesses and she’s still stuck at home eating the crumpets of oppression.

Alan Rickman has had ENOUGH OF YOUR GENDER-NORMATIVE CRUMPETS (image: giphy.com)
Alan Rickman has had ENOUGH OF YOUR GENDER-NORMATIVE CRUMPETS (image: giphy.com)

Where the film really differs is in Mina’s relationships. She’s a much more motherly figure in this film, displaying none of the intelligent and studious nature she had in the book. In this version, Mina is still good friends with Lucy – but here, she’s her much younger sister-in-law, and there are distinctly maternal overtones to their relationship. She also has a mother/child relationship with Lucy’s niece, Tania – although the film is never clear about whether this is actually Mina’s daughter – and frequently converses with her maid, Gerda. Her relationship with Dracula is also a very interesting one. It’s never romantic, but once she’s under his control it’s implied she’s becoming more ‘evil’ – and how this manifests itself is her having more of an influence on the plot and generally acting all secretive and sexy after she’s been bitten. This is hugely problematic as it links together active and sexually liberated women with evil, which is something that is almost never done for male characters. Regardless of the implications this has for her character, because of the range of relationships she has with other female characters, she still does better than the 1930s Mina.

FINAL SCORE: 2.5/10

 

dracula03

This is probably one of the most well-known and well-received modern adaptations of the Dracula story. The film – starring Gary Oldman, Winona Ryder, Anthony Hopkins and a floundering Keanu Reeves – sticks reasonably closely to the plot of the original novel, but turns up the sex appeal to eleven and makes Mina the reincarnation of Dracula’s dead wife. The film was actually quite successful, and is regarded by some critics as one of the best Dracula adaptations out there.

The film follows the plot of the novel reasonably closely, but spends a considerable amount of time on Mina’s character, which really helps the relationship between her and Dracula seem much more believable. She’s still not in control of her own destiny – particularly while Dracula’s hovering around – and her goals, hobbies and beliefs aren’t very well-defined (although just like the original novel she was a schoolteacher before she married Jonathan). Her personality is reasonably consistent – she’s intelligent, sassy, quite naïve and doesn’t really know how to deal with her burgeoning interest in sex. However, her role in the story is very much limited by her love life – which also affects most of her decisions – and she doesn’t really have many weaknesses to speak of.

She's so perfect that hitting this guy conts as seduction. (image: giphy.com)
She’s so perfect that hitting this guy counts as seduction. (image: giphy.com)

Over the course of the story, she matures and eventually comes to know herself better – and also comes to terms with her interest in sex. Her ability to influence the plot is limited by the fact that she’s the reincarnation of Dracula’s dead wife – as I’ve already discussed, influencing the plot just be existing doesn’t count as agency. She does, however, get an opportunity to help track him down, and is also the one to kill Dracula in the end. How she relates to gender stereotypes is a little more problematic: she’s capable, intelligent, and explores her sexuality without getting punished for it, but she’s also completely blindsided by her love life, which pretty much dictates everything she does. Just like in the novel, she’s best friends with Lucy, although she doesn’t always approve of her choices, but she’s also tempted into giving into Dracula’s power when she meets his three brides, which is a really interesting development. All in all, this adaptation does a lot for Mina’s character in terms of growth, agency and stereotypes, but I would have appreciated a bit more of it.

FINAL SCORE: 5/10

 

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I’m going to go a little off-piste with this one. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen – loosely based on a series of comic books of the same name – is a film that picks up Mina’s story where Dracula left off. After divorcing her husband, Jonathan, Mina starts working for the British government as part of what is basically the Victorian Avengers. Her encounter with Dracula left her with vampiric abilities, which she and her steampunk superhero friends must use in order to track down a megalomaniac intent on starting a word war.

Mina gets a lot more agency in this one. She’s not always in total control of her destiny – much like Black Widow, she often gets sent on missions rather than choosing where she goes – but it was her choice to work for the government and later on, it’s her choice to go against them. She has a clear interest in science, a total disregard for the morals of Victorian society and a strained relationship with her own vampiric powers, but the rest of her beliefs, hobbies and goals aren’t clearly defined. She’s consistently intelligent, reserved and spiky, and is always capable of solving scientific problems and using her vampire superpowers to kick people’s teeth in. You can describe her role in the story without resorting to the men in her life, too: she’s an intelligent, reserved scientist with vampire superpowers who gets called upon to save the world.

Sorry, got my references mixed up there for a second. (image: giphy.com)
Sorry, got my references mixed up there for a second. (image: giphy.com)

She doesn’t have much of a love life to speak of, but when it is mentioned she doesn’t really seem to care much about it at all. She doesn’t really develop over the course of the story but she does have a weakness; she pushes people away, and this actively stops her from forming relationships with the other characters. She’s a driving force on the plot – whether she’s working stuff out or kicking some butt – and while she doesn’t have relationships with any other female characters, she’s very progressive in terms of gender stereotypes. She’s a scientifically-minded, independent, sexually liberated ass-kicking vampire who cares absolutely nothing about what other people think about her, which frankly, is COMPLETELY AWESOME. It’s a far cry from the original story, but in terms of development and agency she’s come on leaps and bounds.

FINAL SCORE: 7/10

 

Dracula NBC

This is one of the most recent ‘re-imaginings’ of the Dracula story, and one that was pretty much panned by critics. In this ten-episode TV series, Count Dracula is actually the good guy – he’s posing as an American businessman in an effort to financially ruin the members of a centuries-old order that originally turned him into a vampire in a convoluted revenge plot. In this version Mina is the reincarnation of his dead wife – who was also murdered by the thinly-veiled Illuminati reference – who happens to get tangled up in his plans. It’s crammed with so many historical inaccuracies that I was physically unable to watch it without maintaining this expression:

Oh Ben, you beautiful tropical fish. (image: giphy,com)
Oh Ben, you beautiful tropical fish. (image: giphy,com)

That said, Mina does get a lot more agency in this one. True, Dracula is still ultimately the one who moves the plot forward, but she’s trying to take control of her own life long before he comes along. She’s training to be a doctor – a long-established goal of hers – despite the challenges this presents for a woman in the nineteenth century. Her beliefs are pretty liberal in this regard – as well as believing in pursuing a career, she also indulges in pre-marital sex, and wants to continue working after she’s married (something that was practically unheard of for Victorian women). She’s consistently portrayed as an intelligent, kind-hearted, liberal young woman who’s determined to follow her own path.

Because she’s the reincarnation of Dracula’s dead wife, you can describe her personality but it’s kind of impossible to describe her journey through the story without referencing her love life. However, this isn’t what influences the bulk of her decisions in the story – what motivates her more is her passion for learning, her desire to have a career, and her own curiosity, although her love life does factor into it. She doesn’t have much of a weakness to speak of, and while her character doesn’t really develop through the story, her relationships certainly do.

She’s another one of those characters who can influence the plot simply by being in the story, but this isn’t the only impact she has: she does make some decisions that impact both her storyline and the storylines of other characters. The way she relates to gender stereotypes is also pretty interesting: when you look at her independence, her intelligence and her disregard for social norms it becomes clear that she’s been set up to be a ‘strong female character’, but the plot as a whole still casts her in the role of ‘love interest’, which kind of hampers her agency and impact as a character. She also has some really interesting relationships with other female characters, most notably her friend Lucy – in this version, Lucy is harbouring secret romantic feelings for her, and eventually gets rejected in a truly heart-breaking scene. All in all, this version certainly had its faults, but despite all that, it really managed to develop Mina’s character well.

FINAL SCORE: 7/10

 

So that’s my breakdown of the many faces of Mina Harker. There’s been many different incarnations of her character in countless adaptations, and I’m sure there’ll be many more. Regardless of how the different adaptations treated her character – and regardless of what you all think of my analyses – I still really enjoyed looking at all the different versions of Mina’s story, and seeing how different eras treated her character.

Next week, I’ll be returning to the old format and looking at one of my favourite books ever. Scout Finch, I’m coming for you.

 

And if you’re looking for all my posts on Strong Female Characters, you can find them here.

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