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.
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.
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.