In Defense of True Blood

14 July 2009 at 17:27 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , )

Slate.com’s excellent women’s blog, Double X, ran a story last Friday entitled “Vampires, and the Sluts and Virgins Who Love Them” by contributor Latoya Peterson. Just as Bitch Magazine argued in its most recent issue, Peterson points out that The Twilight Series problematically depicts the relationship between primary protagonists Bella and Edward as chaste, with the threat of Edward’s vampirism not so subtly aligning sex with violence.

Peterson also discusses the HBO series True Blood as perpetuating these same stereotypes and uses Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a point of contrast because it depicts its heroine as physically strong, sexually assertive, and generally independent. Before I proceed any further, I want to admit that I have not watched Twilight or read the books, nor am I a huge fan of Buffy in spite of required viewings in my Feminist TV Criticism course. I did, however, recently complete the first season of True Blood, and having seriously considered the series, find Peterson’s assessment of the show’s gender politics to be quite simplistic. Thus, I would like to make a few points in defense of True Blood and its characterization of human/vampire relations through the characters Sookie and Bill.

Image taken from TheTwoCents.com.

Image taken from ch3guest.files.wordpress.com.

First, a brief plot summary for the uninformed: True Blood takes place in a speculative world in which vampires can live amongst humans due to the wide availability of synthetic blood. As a result, some vampires choose to go “mainstream,” such as Bill Compton, a soft-spoken vampire transformed during the Civil War. He encounters Sookie Stackhouse, a young waitress in a Louisiana town. Sookie takes to Bill immediately, and their relationship quickly becomes romantic. Because many humans still see vampires as dangerous, Sookie faces ridicule because of her association with Bill. Meanwhile, a serial killer terrorizes the small community where Sookie and Bill live, targeting women who have been sexually involved with vampires. Sookie attempts to find the killer, fearing that she may also be at risk.

I could say so much about the politics of the series, given the obvious allegorical relationship between vampires and homosexuals (a church billboard in the credit sequence states “God hates fangs”), but instead, I will keep this entry focused on the issues raised by Peterson. Below are some of her statements followed by my remarks:

1) “In [Sookie’s] case, being a virgin marks her as different in the Southern town of Bontemps, where sleeping around is one of the few recreational activities available.” – I agree that Sookie’s virginity distinguishes her from her peers. Still, Peterson omits a related difference between Sookie and her friends: Sookie can hear people’s thoughts at will. In fact, Sookie’s telepathic gift is presented as the primary reason for her virginity. Because Sookie can hear what people are thinking, she is particularly sensitive to the male gaze. In one episode when she explains her chastity, a montage depicts Sookie on several dates with men who objectify her mentally, causing her to recoil. Inherent in this moment is a feminist critique of the objectification of women. Of course, the series itself uses camera angles and costuming (or lack thereof) to objectify the female body, but Sookie’s resistance to the male gaze should not be discounted for that reason alone. Furthermore, because the series presents Sookie’s virginity as a consequence of her powers, it resists the impulse to portray virginity as a strictly moral choice; in other words, Sookie has no qualms with premarital sex in principle, it just hasn’t worked for her personally.

2) “Sookie frequently finds herself the subject of Bill’s wrath while he is trying to protect her.” – I did not find this to be the case in True Blood. In general, Bill is a mild-mannered guy with an almost antiquated sense of good manners. I can only recall one scene in which he expresses anger toward Sookie, and that occurs when he discovers her with another man. This seems to be a reasonable time in which to express anger in any romantic narrative. I am sure that Buffy’s lovers expressed anger toward her–that’s the way that romance rolls. Conflict creates drama and keeps the story interesting. Bill and Sookie’s relationships seems pretty typical of similar romances in fantasy films, regardless of Bill’s status as vampire.

3) “After a relatively celibate Season Three, Buffy proceeds to sleep with three more men (two human, one vampire) before the series closes. . . . This seems unlikely for Sookie.” – The series hints at possibilities for romance between Sookie and her manager, Sam. The implication that Sookie is blind to other possible relationships seems to be without any merit.

True Bloods Sookie and Sam, oozing with sexual tension.  Image taken from Birmingham News blog.

True Blood's Sookie and Sam, oozing with sexual tension. Image taken from Birmingham News blog.

4) “In the end, as much as I immerse myself in the worlds of True Blood and Twilight, I still find myself longing for Buffy Summers. She’s the one who subverts the generally accepted paradigm of what a woman should be and how she should behave. She manages to be both tough and vulnerable, but is still recognized as an object of desire.” – Peterson implies in this statement that Sookie follows “the generally accepted paradigm of what a woman should be and how she should behave” and does not “manage to be both tough and vulnerable.” In fact, Peterson’s own caveat earlier in the piece contradicts such implications: “Sookie, who sleeps with her undead suitor Bill, ends up marked as bad, although she ultimately gets the upper hand on the killer.” Hence, Sookie does “subvert the generally accepted paradigm” of proper female sexuality in the show’s fictional world.

I would also like to point out that while Sookie can be vulnerable, she also exhibits a toughness and intelligence that enables her to outsmart various criminal elements. After her first encounter with Bill, she saves him from a couple who try to steal his blood so they can sell it as a drug. I also noticed that in the final fight of the season, it’s Sookie who seals the kill, even though Sam assists her. On the flip side, Bill often exhibits vulnerability as a result of being a vampire. Sookie rescinds her invitation allowing him to enter her home; Sookie must untie him from silver wire that burns his skin; Sookie helps save him after he walks into daylight. These moments undermine the implication that Sookie is merely a damsel in distress. Here’s that first scene I mentioned:

Of course, this scene does reveal problematic elements in the series and in the relationship between Bill and Sookie. Notice, for instance, Sookie’s classist language throughout the scene (the criminals are “low rent,” whereas she is a “lady”). Bill also comes off as threatening in these early scenes with his comments about his capabilities as a vampire. But I love that in spite of Bill’s posturing, Sookie never shrinks back. She even laughs in his face when discovering that his name is Bill, rather than something more exotic. In essence, the interaction demystifies Bill’s vampirism and reveals Sookie’s courage in spite of his difference.

I don’t fault Peterson for taking issue with True Blood and it’s mingling of sex and violence; I do fault her failure to fairly evaluate the text on its own terms. By simply lumping it together with Twilight, Peterson fails to adequately account for the differences between these very different portrayals of heterosexual romances between the undead and the living.

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10 Comments

  1. Alyx Vesey said,

    Rad post, Caitlin! You’ve convinced me that I need to check this show out!

  2. Alyx Vesey said,

    Not related to the Peterson piece, but as a reference to your mention about the allegorical relationship between vampires and homosexuals, I was wondering if there were actually any queer characters on the show. I caught part of an episode last fall and turned it off because I didn’t know what was going on — anyway, Sookie has friends who are brother and sister, both of whom I read as queer.

    Related to the Peterson piece — can we look for someone else other than Buffy Summers to be the feminist savior for popular culture? Gah. I’m a fan of the show, but even I would like us all to branch out past Buffy.

    • c8ic8 said,

      Glad that you liked the post! I think the characters you’re referring to are Lafayette and Tara. They are actually cousins. Lafayette is overtly homosexual and Tara portrayed as straight, but Tara’s close relationship with Sookie could read as queer. Lafayette’s strong presence brings a lot of other queer characters into the mix, both human and vampire.

      I completely agree with you regarding Peterson’s use of Buffy–I feel like Mary’s call for feminists to move on from Buffy has not been heeded. Peterson’s invocation of Joss Whedon also bothered me–why do so many feminist media scholars take him at his word regarding his politics? Yeah, I was annoyed.

  3. Susan said,

    I can’t comment on True Blood specifically as I haven’t seen it (though your description makes it sound a lot more interesting that the other things I’ve heard about it). But I can definitely comment on the Buffy argument, which I think is wayyyy oversimplified.

    Have you seen this Twilight/Buffy mashup vid thing that everyone’s been linking to and posting recently? I got into some interesting discussions as a result of it. On the one hand, it is a really effective piece and makes a great argument about how problematic Twilight is (it’s also uncommonly well-edited). But it also has a whole other significance if you’re familiar with BtVS (one that I think was probably also intended by the vid producer, but that isn’t discussed nearly as often). In case you (or somebody else reading this thread) haven’t seen it, it’s pretty easy to sum up–Edward from Twilight says various creepy/supposedly romantic things and Buffy, basically, tells him he’s being weird and where to get off. Clearly, Buffy is positioned as the sort of assertive character that would never respond favorably to the icky overtures of a guy like Edward.

    But if you know BtVS, you know that it’s a lot more complicated than that. Buffy’s comments are, originally, aimed at three characters: Angel, Spike, and Dracula (who appears in a single, rather kitschy episode). She ends up in a relationship with Angel (albeit after he has proved himself), lets Dracula bite her (while “in his thrall”) and sleeps with Spike while (who eventually proves himself too, but only after their sexual relationship has ended). In other words, all the guys she tells to screw off are guys she ends up having sex with or allowing to bite her in an overtly sexual way.

    This isn’t to say that BtVS is an anti-feminist text as a result. I think part of what makes the show interesting is that Buffy is strong in some respects, and ultimately is a survivor, but she’s also got her flaws and makes some really bad decisions at times. I guess the notion of what does and does not constitute a feminist text is still somewhat up for debate, but I don’t think there are many out there who would claim the old “feminist portrayal = near-perfect female character” formula makes sense anymore.

    I could debate about the complexities of this question, but in practice, when I watch shows, it’s pretty simple. If a show is progressive enough to get me hooked (significant anti-feminist currents always prevent me from engaging with a show at first), then if ambiguous stuff comes up, I interpret it in the most feminist-friendly manner possible. I wouldn’t turn a blind eye to something that really isn’t ok. But any TV show worth watching, any show that’s complex enough to be really interesting, has a lot of material that you could interpret in disparate ways. I think it’s pretty natural to interpret a show you like as closely to your own beliefs as you can. It makes sense, as long as you don’t actually compromise your beliefs or lose sight of the fact that other legitimate interpretations are possible.

    I haven’t seen True Blood, but your defense against Peterson’s criticisms seems like a solid interpretation to me. Hers may be as well, but it definitely seems to be favoring a less charitable view of the show’s politics at the cost of certain nuances.

    • c8ic8 said,

      Thanks, Susan, for taking on Peterson’s remarks regarding Buffy! I also wondered if she idealized Buffy’s relationships but felt less comfortable commenting on that given my lack of knowledge on the series. I also appreciate your points about how we as feminist fans interpret a text in all of its nuances. I think fandom is an important element to the response that is often taken for granted.

      I appreciate your post and hope I can continue to come up with content that will inspire so many responses!

  4. Annie Petersen said,

    Great post, Caitlin. I was drawn to it in part because I vehemently disagree with the critique of Twilight in Bitch — not because there aren’t things to critique (Twilight is certainly ‘abstinence porn’) but because the tone of the article was so incredibly and offensively derisive…even though many-a-feminist (and many non-identifiying feminists) find pleasure in it. It’s the same sort of simplistic critique of women’s pleasures that the cultural studies folks dismantled in the ’80s as pertains to romance, the soap opera, etc.

    But as for True Blood — I also love the show, and I also find the critique simplistic. One more point I’d like to add is that (for those already deep in the second season) another love interest has definitely been “proposed” (or at least alluded to) for Sookie….that girl has DESIRE.

    I also LOVE the recent growth in the newest addition to the vampire family….

    Totally linking to your blog from my own!

    • c8ic8 said,

      So glad to hear that you enjoyed the post! I was irritated with that issue of Bitch, and I whole-heartedly agree that the article should have contained more caveats and accounted for nuances. It’s bothersome when critics sweepingly dismiss female fans’ pleasure in a text. Thanks for raising that concern!

      Thanks also for giving some details (without spoilers) on developments in the Second Season! I eagerly await the DVD release, as I am without cable, but it’s good to know that some of my suspicions about Sookie have been confirmed.

      And lastly, I appreciate the link-up! I think it’s great that so many of us RTFers are blogging and dialoging through our entries. In fact, my next entry will allude to your piece on Megan Fox, so stay tuned!

  5. k said,

    okay i finally watched the first two episodes of True Blood and i agree with your thoughtful and complex analysis.

    i also would argue that True Blood doesn’t have as much in common with Twilight, beyond surface level comparisons related to their vampire characters and narratives. I utterly disliked (maybe hated would be the best word) Twilight (i’ve only seen the movie i haven’t read the books), particularly for the ways in which the character Bella lacks agency and is often acted upon rather than acts on her own behalf. Also Twilight constructs vampires and vampirism in the most heteronormative (white-washed and classed) ways – particularly in relation to Edward’s family.

    True Blood however relates vampires and vampirism to queerness (and otherness in general) and i appreciate the show’s constant references to issues related to homophobia and racism. moreover, the show includes characters of color and queer characters of color as integral members of the cast and the fictional community.

    one last thing i’d like to note about True Blood. based on the episodes that i’ve watched so far, i would argue that the show’s slut is actually Jason, Sookie’s brother – since it is common knowledge throughout Bon Temps that he is a “horndog” and not all that smart.

    • c8ic8 said,

      Excellent points, Kristen! I appreciate hearing more about how Twilight compares, given that I’ve yet to see the film or read the books. I think your comments about race interestingly reflect the regionalism of each text with Twilight being set in the Northwest and True Blood in the Deep South. Obviously, these settings reinforced choices that the authors already made about which issues they wanted to grapple with in these texts.

      And yes, you’re so right about Jason! There is far more discussion about his promiscuity than any of the women on the show, which throws a wrench into Peterson’s argument to some extent.

  6. piercedpom said,

    I realize this post is over two years old but since I have just come upon it and definetely resonate with it I figured I may as well comment. I very much agree with your perspectives RE: True Blood and TB vs. Twilight & Buffy. I’m also pleased to see the conversation that emerged around this post. This is the kind of discourse we are interesting in on our blog, http://www.piercedpomegranatetavern.blogspot.com which looks at social issues through the lens of True Blood from a uniqely feminist perspective.

    We are interested in having people who watch the show from a critical feminist paradigm join the conversation at our site and we’d be pleased if you checked it out.

    Since your post speaks to S1 of TB, I hope you’re still watching/enjoying/analyzing the show.

    Thanks!

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