Allow me to describe a character for you. Their story begins with their love interest, who unknowingly wanders into a trap set by a malevolent supernatural entity whose name means “Son of the Dragon.” This evil creature traps the love interest in an old, decaying castle far away from the character’s home. Despite the length of the journey and the many perils along the way, our character travels to the foreign land, rescues their love interest, and nurses them back to health. When the couple returns home, they find that the same monster that captured the love interest is now preying upon their circle of friends. Our character gathers all the journal entries, newspaper articles, and other bits of information they can find, and quickly discovers the plan of the evil creature that all their friends failed to sleuth out. Despite being so integral to their success, our character’s friends decide to cut them out of the loop for fear of the character’s safety, which in turn allows the monster to attack them. Undeterred by this attack, the character not only rallies their friends to face the monster, but uses the side effects of the monster’s attack on their person to figure out exactly what the monster plans to do next, and uses that information to formulate a cunning plan that finally kills the evil once and for all.
Would you say this character is important – perhaps even the main character, the protagonist, the obvious hero of the story? Before you answer, what if I told you this characters was…. A WOMAN?!!
One of the greatest scholarly debates about Bram Stoker’s most famous novel, Dracula, focuses on the apparent question of who the main character is. Academia is so utterly confused by this – is the protagonist Jonathan Harker, the first character we’re introduced to? Is it Van Helsing, the first person to suggest Dracula is a vampire and who integrates knowledge of the superstitious past with modern medicine in a desperate but often vain attempt to defeat the monster? Is it Dracula himself? It has to be one of these three, right, or else none at all? I mean, none of these three characters really fit the role of protagonist, and neither do the other male characters like Quincy Morris, John Seward, or Lord Godalming, so if not them then who?
Mina Murray is the protagonist of Dracula. While Academia would believe otherwise, to me there’s no question about it: this is Mina Murray’s story. The book begins with Jonathan Harker, Mina’s fiance, traveling to a foreign land where he unwittingly lets himself get held hostage. To be more specific, Harker is trapped in a castle tower owned by a monster whose name literally means “dragon” (well, “son of the dragon” technically but the son of a dragon is probably still a dragon). In other words, Jonathan Harker is a damsel in distress.
The book then transitions to Mina’s point of view, where we see her counsel her friend Lucy about Victorian love quadrangles. Mina quickly notices that something is wrong with Lucy, as the poor girl becomes quite gravely ill after having some weird encounters with dogs and bats. Mina tries to help Lucy as best she can with her limited knowledge of the situation, and actually does a cracker jack job of it until she hears Jonathan is in trouble. Mina then drops everything to go off and rescue her damsel from the land of the Drago-err, Dracula.
Lucy’s three suitors try to help her recover from her weird disease, but they fail. Eventually they call in Van Helsing, who figures out the whole vampire thing, but they’re too late – Lucy dies and reanimates as a vampire. They stake Lucy, and then struggle to figure out what to do next. While Van Helsing is more knowledgeable than Quincy, Seward, and Godalming, he’s ultimately unable to get any farther than one step behind Dracula’s plotting. He is not up to the task of taking down the vampire – none of the men are.
Then Mina comes back, and only then do the good guys start winning. Mina pulls together everyone’s notes, letters, and diary entries on the situation and, like Sherlock Holmes trapped in a young Victorian music teacher’s body, figures out Dracula’s plan. Her sleuthing is explicitly said to be the reason they’re able to get on top of the whole vampire situation by Van Helsing himself – you know, the guy they always make into the main character when they adapt this novel into a movie. That Van Helsing. In fact, that very same Van Helsing explicitly says that Mina is doing a much better job of figuring stuff out and leading everyone against Dracula than the other heroes, himself included.
In fact, the heroes kick so much ass under Mina’s leadership that they almost kill Dracula too early – but then Van Helsing comes up with the dipshit idea that they should stop telling Mina about their plans because she’s a woman and this vampire fighting business is too rough for her. This then causes their greatest setback, as keeping Mina out of the loop not only allows Dracula to screw up their plan, but also start the process of turning Mina into a vampire as well!
But then Mina – like a total boss – reasserts herself as leader and helps her male friends figure out how to salvage this clustercuss of a vampire slaying job. She exploits the psychic link between herself and Dracula just like Harry Potter did with Voldemort, except without accidentally killing Sirius Black or angsting about it. She figures out what route Dracula is taking and how best to beat him there. She gives a rallying speech to her comrades right before the end game, reminding them that A. Dracula was once a man and is technically a victim too, so they shouldn’t hate him so much as hope they can release him from his curse, B. they have to be strong and courageous because shit is about to get real, and C. if she turns they better stake her in the heart because she will not settle for this vampire bullshit. All the guys are weeping in this scene, by the way, because they have far less control of their emotions than Mina does.
The only traditional protagonist thing Mina doesn’t get to do is finish off the villain herself – her friends/lackeys do that for her instead. Even then, she’s right there as they do it, and they all jump for joy when they see the curse lift off her at the end. She even gets to marry her fiance and have a family. It’s pretty great.
Mina is an incredibly kickass woman for a female protagonist in a horror novel – especially one written in the Victorian “What’s this newfangled feminist movement thing about?” Era. Seriously, it’s amazing. It’s also incredibly frustrating that NONE of the various film adaptations of Dracula I’ve seen recognize what a badass Mina is. Most just cast her as a damsel in distress who shrieks and has to be saved. Some cast her as Dracula’s romantic interest, which sucks even worse in my opinion. Only Nosferatu allows her some agency, as Mina sacrifices herself to the vampire in that movie to keep him busy till the sun comes up and fries him. It’s better than what we get otherwise, but literary Mina wouldn’t have chumped out like that – she would have tricked Dracula into the sun without getting bit, because Mina is a cunning mastermind.
Most movies make Van Helsing the protagonist instead of Mina, and while Van Helsing is cool and this approach has made several great movies (the Hammer flicks with Peter Cushing turn Van Helsing into the Sherlock Holmes of vampire slaying, which is pretty boss), I don’t think it’s as interesting as having a meek, intelligent music teacher blossom into a vampire slayer. Meanwhile, poor Mina is reduced to a supporting character in her own goddamn story time and again, or worse, portrayed as the love interest of the monster that figuratively forces himself upon her. The protagonist of Dracula is so often portrayed as a whining, weak willed, shrill victim without a shred of agency or backbone who exists solely to be victimized by a monster and rescued by a male hero. It’s disgraceful. Mina Murray deserves better. Horror Films deserve better. We need justice for Mina Murray.