Carmilla: A Queerly Fractured Fairy Tale

How will they retrofit this queer web series for primetime?

I’m not rude, you are.

“ A f*g makes a pass at a marine in the men’s bathroom on the 44th floor of the Empire State building. The marine throws the f*ggot out the window. The marine gets down to street and passes the f*ggot in the gutter and the f*ggot gets up on one elbow and says, ‘Yoo-hoo, I’m not mad.’ ” — Personal Best, 1981

Peel back the circa 1981 vitriol, and this analogy is wrapped about a discomforting fact. The good: The queer community might be the gentlest, most inclusive, compassionate, patient culture to ever exist. The bad: All too often, when we are being treated poorly or abused, we resemble the joke. Why is not within the purview of this piece to explore but suffice it to say the gay wild child was raised by straight wolves. Surviving with a belief in our right-to-exist has been, well … tricky.

Burgeoning queer content and new media platforms are changing the landscape of media, but traditional media (and the journalists who support it) do not yet have their bearings and cannot grasp what is happening. This confusion isn’t necessarily due to ill will, but that they, too, are operating off an old traditional model that is heteronormative, sexist, racist, and firmly ensconced in traditional media formats. They also have an investment in their continuation of power.

It’s not rocket science.

So when, for the second year in a row, an actor from a queer content/new media platform won the fan choice award at the Canadian Screen Actors Awards — this year it was Elise Bauman from Carmilla; last year, it was her co-star, Natasha Neglovanlis — the mainstream media was, frankly, boggled. How could new media surpass traditional media in any way? Clearly, someone had some explaining to do.

Season 1: Elise Bauman (left) as Laura Hollis and Natasha Negovanlis (right) as Carmilla. (2014)

After giving an inspired speech on the importance of diversity, representation, alternative media platforms, and announcing that Carmilla was in primetime development, Bauman was ushered backstage to answer questions from mainstream media journalists. The actor ran through a gauntlet of questions that amounted to polite demands for an explanation as to “how” this phenomenon could occur.

From a traditional media worldview, Carmilla is a new media platform with demographic that should not make them that successful. In other words, the series was not real media about real people — meaning those who count, meaning them. From their perspective the show was not a combination worthy of success: Carmilla was a web series, queer, and female-driven. How could this happen? One could almost hear the dialogue from Fried Green Tomatoes, “It’s murder of a white man. Someone’s going to have to pay.”

So perhaps the gay joke has changed a bit. The world is less openly hostile. Now they smile, politely wondering in the most congenial manner, “how it is that Carmilla has garnered so much success?” Don’t be fooled by the thin-lipped grimace that barely veils the journalist’s dismissive disbelief. You, my dear queers, have just been ever-so-politely thrown out a window.

It’s progress.

The questions were designed to make new media content creators explain themselves. By contrast, within the old school media dynamic, most people on award-winning shows are not expected to define the show’s success because they are already within the bubble of a traditional media platform with some heteronormative narrative — so the achievement is normalized. We know why Game of Thrones is popular. There is no need to reason out the established cultural formula.

Defining or explaining queer new media that skirts the sacred boundaries restricted to traditional commercial media is not solely the job of content creators. Such an examination is a cultural chore that traditional media must participate in, otherwise the onus is squarely upon those who never had a place at the table to begin with — why must they educate the mainstream, get them to understand the nature of their narrow, exclusionary standards, all while fielding questions just this side of rude?

In other words, if they’ve thrown us out the window and into the gutter, we need not be so congenial, despite our inherently gentle nature. We don’t have to say, “Yoo-hoo, I’m not mad.”

And what of the “how did you do this?” queries coming from new media journalists and artists, who aren’t perplexed and dismissive, but in genuine awe? When content produces a success that no one knows how to replicate, perhaps there’s only one valid answer. It would be satisfying to hear someone say, “Hey, we just made a fucking good show.”

Me? I’m not desperately fangirling online.

So, if not the creators, then whom shall explain the success of Carmilla? The web series is a queer feminist reimagining of the 1871 vampire novella of the same name. The show has over 71 million views in 193 countries, been translated into 20 languages, and won brand content of the year at the 2018 MIPTV Awards in Cannes and numerous other digital industry awards. The series was so popular that the fandom helped fund a movie through presales after the series ended.

Carmilla, Season 2 (2015)

So that’s successful by any standard.

But why? Can anyone possibly know? Success is an alchemy one stumbles upon, an educated guess and luck mixed with intelligent design. After all, if triumph were a known formula, no venture would fail.

There is well-trodden mythology around the success of Carmilla that has become the standard party line: Gays are desperate for representation; the series is hosted on a platform that allows for worldwide distribution; and the audience is so young, fanatical and vocal they bolstered the brand to success. Carmilla creators and queer audiences know these are the rationalizations furnished to mainstream media when they require an explanation for Carmilla’s success. The fans know the truth: the show was magnetic … had that certain something. Still, when asked, fans will likely shoot off the same canned justification, as we’ve been training to do since we were born (and explaining every queer thing we did thereafter), like some gay Olympic sport.

But what would happen if queers didn’t feel the need to justify ourselves or explain away the audacity of success? Because while having an aroma of truth, these canned replies are not the truth.

Myth #1 — Desperation

To begin, queers just aren’t that desperate. I propose we’re oddly kind of picky. We might watch a show just because our options are limited, but we will just as often meh as embrace. True, once content is embraced, the fandom is the most loyal imaginable — perhaps that fervor gets confused with desperation? If the queer world were desperate for any representation, how does this account for all the queer content that does not score fans? Note that viewers are different from fans. Fans are invested, viewers are not. We might be viewers of TV show X, Y, and Z, but we are fans of Wynonna Earp and Orphan Black — there’s a clear difference.

Myth #2 — Platform

While a platform with worldwide distribution capability is relevant, why hasn’t similar content and platforms reached the same heights as Carmilla? There is a suggestion that Carmilla’s social media outreach and supplementation contributed to the show’s success. There is a lot of validity in this and makes for a great industry talk, but we must recognize that while great PR or transmedia storytelling (e.g., character twitter accounts) might help engage viewers, such activities cannot make a mediocre product a success. While this outreach might hook some far-off fish and feed the enthusiasm of those already caught, such converging supplementation is dependent upon the canon product’s quality, never the other way around.

Myth #3 — Fangirls

Because the vocal audience is young and a large part of the visible fandom (48%, aged 18–24, according to YouTube analytics), there is a crazed fangirl trope in full force. But let’s pause here to explore because the view of a fangirl is not held in the same esteem as a fanboy.

Fanboys are known for supporting product because the content is thoughtful — they are fanatical because ideas are invigorating and worth exploring. Fangirls tropes don’t fare quite so well — too often considered frivolous and shallow (with surface concerns about appearances), and there’s much crooning involved. And while fanboys might “croon” similarly, such adoration is never portrayed as the focus of their fandom because boys can think. But what if fangirls also gravitated toward a property because the content was thoughtful? What if they were fanatical because the ideas were invigorating, smart and well done? What if they, too, liked content because it was worthy of their exploration and time?

What if fangirls can think too?

And why do we discount teenagers as being less intellectual, less picky about content? Has no one met or lived with a teenager? Is no one watching the #NEVERAGAIN movement? They are smart and easily the pickiest people on the planet in any given era of modern history. And who do we think of when we consider young adult content? I would say mostly young women. Why? Because young men are already deemed men, and the culture moves them onto “serious topics.” This means content with male-focused stories, which means most of the adult content created.

Traditional male content matters at all ages. Don’t think so? Imagine Stranger Things with an all-girl cast instead of the boys. Before your eyes, has it not just morphed into an entirely different show? Would it not be immediately categorized and shelved as young adult content? Content that anyone above the age of 17 would now be embarrassed to watch (certainly no male of any age would be caught dead watching it). But put middle school boys in the story and it is content fit for all ages, genders, and races. If one thinks this is a benign fact, I’m afraid they do not understand the implications of this cultural mirror.

I’m a fan of Carmilla and I’ve lived through the 70s, the Reagan years, grunge and the L Word. I liked the series because it was good. Not because I’m a queer person living in desperation for content, not just because the show was accessible online (that didn’t hurt), not because I’m a young fangirl (so not). But I am disturbed by how we view fangirls; we need consider reimagining the term if we are not holding them in the same esteem as fanboys.

We must earnestly consider why male stories are considered universal and why female stories are not. We must consider the damage done to girls when we say a boy’s story matters to adults, but your story does not. We must consider the damage done to women when we say a man’s boyhood is serious stuff, but your story is childish and must be compartmentalized into a box and labeled as such. If 48% of the viewers are between 18–24, what of the other 52%? The invisible audience that doesn’t fit neatly into the crude compartmentalized boxes assigned to female stories?

Success is like quantum physics: We can only predict probabilities.

Th (1sc) = Int (theater with one stationary camera equals intimacy?)

After spending time debunking the myths and the party-line explanations for Carmilla’s success, is there anything substantive to be said about why series worked? I have no excavated formula to share (my crude attempt above aside), but I do know that there is some element of emergence when art grows a soul, when it became something more than the sum of its parts. I am a narrative geek. Narrative is all we are, all there is. Physicist Lee Smolin said all we are is process, some slower, some faster, but that the only kind of explanation of a process that is truly adequate is a story.

I stumbled upon the Carmilla while looking for queer narrative within new media platforms. I didn’t expect the show to hold my attention, yet I was fascinated just a few episodes into the first season. Written and blocked like a play with a static single camera view, much like you might have sitting in a theater (but with the best seat), one is first hooked via the writing and Elise Bauman’s performance as our narrative anchor and college student, Laura Hollis. The writer, Jordan Hall, is a playwright and her background works beautifully for the format. Hall has a delicious knack for intertwining headier classical references with nerdy pop world references, and Bauman’s delightful delivery and spot-on portrayal of the plucky heroine brings that wit to life. The story is substantial and self-propelling, and the chemistry between Laura and her new vampire roommate, Carmilla (played by Natasha Negovanlis, who inhabits the role with an impenetrable grace) is a slow burn that blows up masterfully by the end of season one. The actors have a yin-yang presence that a producer can only dream of, and this is elevated by actors that are both skilled and intuitive — know when their chemistry works and how to utilize it subtlety. The supporting cast was just as carefully chosen, leading to plumper scenes, and that beefed up the storytelling.

Carmilla, Season 3 (2016)

So really, Carmilla is a hybrid play. Action happens off stage and information is imparted as one would expect in this medium. There are few cuts, so the scenes are mostly done in one take, and for that reason alone the short episodes inherent to the web series make sense — bite-sized scenes with writing that emphasized that rhythm. It worked. The performances were closer, less polished, less set up than film or TV. There was something about it that felt less artificial.

While it had the organized structure of a play, it felt different. Plays have a distance built into them — you know you’re watching something; you’re not part of it. And though film and TV can pull you in, there’s a polished performance, so it’s still not immediate — it doesn’t stand side by side with life, there is a filter. What was so unique and exciting about what happened here was that it had an authenticity that felt so immediate, as with a play, but with camera work that made it more personal than a stage.

An intimate moment between Laura and Carmilla.

It is a mix of authenticity and intimacy rarely captured within a visual medium (one finds that sort of genuineness more often in literature). Combined with clever writing, lead actors who were plugged into each other, talented supporting actors, and this new media format that was fresh and energetic — it felt unique. You cannot really reference Carmilla to past work. It is future works that will reference Carmilla, which is why it is an interesting piece of media.

While I fangirled out over the movie too, one must recognize it was mostly fan service. The producers called it a “love letter” for the fans, and that feels right. The film was an extension, not the heart of the story. And yet, it cements the convergent nature of the property as it makes forays into all connected transmedia (digital, books, TV, movies) possible, which is just more icing on the brand’s cake.

Carmilla, the movie (2017)

Something feels organic when you find a piece of art that works. Carmilla is alive. The irony is hard to miss: the series, like its vampire namesake, is couched within a medium that most don’t consider lofty enough to have a soul, and yet it’s more alive, more soulful than most “real” (traditionally formatted) content.

The magic of the series was that it wasn’t a play, it wasn’t TV, it was this awesome hybrid piece of new media that thrived on its own bit of intimacy and wit. And queer media inherently thrives within a new media platform because when the heteronormative world isn’t watching, queers are more relaxed, more at home in the world, more confident and most of all: more authentic. Carmilla took terrific advantage of new media’s non-conformist format and married it to queer-inclusive content.

So how does one move that to a traditional primetime format?

Typically, TV = TV

Now that there is a primetime series in development, what will this traditional format mean to the established canon? What are the expectations of network television? Do those dubious myths of why the series succeeded — desperate queers, the internet and young fan girls — still reverberate?

Playing in the big leagues typically means conforming to the classic template, but part of what made Carmilla work was its invention of form. To try and retrofit this beautiful new species into the same old classical format could amount to a tragedy (like forcing a non-passing queer into a straight ‘costume’ and telling them they must pass on the street). Where new media is inclusive, traditional media has a long history of being exclusive and a poor fit for queers. Also, and this is relevant, we still feel freer in our queer-defined safe spaces than when we are thrust out into a less welcoming heteronormative world. Again, this is not a benign issue. One must wonder: Can they keep the story queer-identified and intimate, and not play to the cheap seats?

Or will primetime demand its sacrifice? (cue theme song music)

What will happen to the-not-quite-ready-for-primetime Carmilla? Indeed, the classic TV structure requires different rules of engagement that anticipate the well-trodden paths of audience expectation. Will Carmilla toe the line and play to this traditional norm, or will they continue to explore the unconventional? Will the hardcore fans be looking for something closer to what the series delivered or are they open to reinterpretation?

And it begs the question: How will they manage the vlog-style narrative? Laura’s narration was the linchpin that held the series together. That connection to the audience is the final piece, in my best guess, as to why the series worked. Discarding that component requires a complete reimagining of narrative voice, tone, and spirit of the show — a massive part of what made Carmilla successful. Of course, they can retain it with a fourth wall break (it’s certainly doable; it works for Fleabag).

Finally, will they keep the original writers? Hall’s writing could hold tension and toy with expectation, while cleanly moving the story forward — it was charming, lean writing. Her pop cultural references, topped with classic literary allusions, made for fusion dining at its best. Heart of gold, do-gooder Laura and brooding, unrepentant Carmilla were witty and full of passion, sometimes massively fucking up and hitting all the wrong notes before coming back together, and always the yin to the other’s yang. They were deliciously imperfect, and that made them more appealing. The creators constructed the exact character framework needed for the actors to breathe life into them. In turn, the actors gave credence to the characters in a way that is not easily usurped — putting others in these roles is risky, and that extends to the supporting cast. They were no small part of why the series has fans worldwide.

Creation is alchemy, take an aspect away and you lose the magic. Is the property strong enough to withstand a new cast? New writers? A change in narrative tone?

It remains to be seen if the primetime series can duplicate the romance of the web series because the original Carmilla became a living breathing entity — the series and audience danced together. The rise of a fandom is an emergent property, unexpected and magical. A relationship forms and it’s a little like falling in love. One can’t command love, demand it appear, because love is a delightful surprise, a gift.

Can they stay true to the quirkiness, the originality of the narrative form? Will the brand continue to have the devotion and loyalty of their fan base, even if they stray from canon? In my quantum world of predictions and best narrative probabilities, I’m hopeful. But like any relationship, loyalty is cultivated not through regime but through trust (and passion doesn’t hurt).

I cannot stress enough how much I want them to succeed.

There is a fantastic opportunity here. Carmilla would be at the forefront of primetime shows with queer characters as leads, not side characters, but actual leads. Where the fact that they are queer is inherent to story, it doesn’t sit outside of it like the cute, gay third wheel. That would not be an insignificant event.

What if we stopped making excuses for queer success? What if we stopped compartmentalizing the female story into tiny boxes that diminish and infantilize our narrative? What if we found a way to financially support new media so content creators might continue to break form and create fresh works?

What would that world look like?

I suppose my dearest dream is that queer culture will stand a little taller, a little prouder, and stop letting the heteronormative world throw us out windows — that we stop feeling the need to prop ourselves upon broken and bruised bodies and call out, “Yoo-hoo, I’m not mad.”

Perhaps we need Laura Hollis to tell us to queer the hell up.

Source: Carmilla on KindaTV.