Vampires. Every time we think they’re dead as a trend, they pop back up out of their coffin, and no amount of garlic or silver can get rid of them. The fact that HBO’s campy new southern vampire drama, True Blood, has definitively become the network’s most popular show since The Sopranos, (a third season was just announced) means that even in between Twilight installments we’ve still got the alluring undead on our collective brains.
But what to make of True Blood, which aims to be the anti-Twilight, a progressive, sexually explicit, provocative mishmash of vampire motifs? In its world, vampires have "come out of the coffin" and begin to debate assimilation, while human-vampire couplings are frequent, hot and viciously targeted by religious conservatives. On the surface we appear to be a long way from Forks, Washington, the setting of the breathlessly un-feminist Twilight.
But is True Blood the same thing sans abstinence? Vampires after all, are often reactionary messengers masked in seductive cloaks, symbols used to express fears of changing sexual dynamics. Some observers think True Blood fits the trend. But to read True Blood as just another retrograde vampire tale would be to simplify the message of this admittedly absurdist series, which centers around the residents of Bon Temps, Louisiana, both human and supernatural, as they adjust to each other and track down the murderers and evil creatures in their mix.
Rather than making an explicit political point, True Blood is a series of thought experiments and playful takeoffs on our sexual mores, fears and paranoia.
It may not escape some of the underlying conservative currents that inform vampire stories, but it does a good job of scrambling and subverting them. The show follows the same impetus with racial, regional and even supernatural-identity stereotypes: when it started the characters all seemed to fit into predetermined niches based on external characteristics, but their personalities, motivations, and destinies get confused over the course of the wild soap-opera ride. Maybe that’s creator Alan Ball’s parodic intent: we are and aren’t what society labels us.
In the past month, as True Blood’s ratings climb higher, progressive critics have identified what they see as troubling implications . Latoya Peterson at Double X makes the point that the primary relationship between heroine Sookie Stackhouse, a human, and her Southern gentleman vampire lover Bill Compton does have some echoes of the icky Bella-Edward pairing from Twilight–positing an overprotective, dangerous,"old-school " male partner as the ultimate sex symbol. Sookie also has a whiff of wholesomeness about her: she started out the show as the town’s only virgin (although it wasn’t out of choice, it was because she could read the thoughts of her partners and therefore never go through with it). Peterson writes:
But, from a feminist perspective, [True Blood creator Alan Ball] is still transmitting the same idea: To be desired, a woman should be beautiful, virginal, and submissive.
In both series, sex is spiked with danger. A man’s protection and a woman’s desire are intimately connected to violence. Sookie frequently finds herself the subject of Bill’s wrath while he is trying to protect her.
She’s right. Particularly in recent episodes, Bill’s neuroses about Sookie’s well being indeed results in him being a little Edward-ish, as does his catchphrase growl: "Sookie is Mine!"
But Sookie is far from naive, self-hating Bella, Edward’s love object. Sookie openly grapples with the fact that her lover has a superpower and its implications for her life as an independent women. She is an unmarried woman who is quite content with her healthy sexual appetite–which she realizes after understanding she can’t read Bills’ thoughts in bed–and she doesn’t get punished for it by the show’s creators. She is smart in a "Southern-cute" way (which can be quite irritating). But she’s perhaps better able to manipulate the vampire hierarchy than the quick-to take offense Bill with his male pride. And instead of swooning over her handsome partner and talking marriage, she accepts that it’s an imperfect pairing that may not last. In a recent episode, she tells her best friend Tara that Bill is not Prince Charming, but rather the most compatible partner she can find–and as we know from the books, theirs might not be a monogamy-until-undeath pairing.
Finally, Sookie may be naive and silly at times, but she gets a lot of things accomplished that the men around her can’t, most notably offing a vampire-hating serial killer with a well-timed shovel blow to the neck, as two of her shape-shifting and vampire beaux try and fail to protect her. She rescues fan favorite character Lafayette from a vampire dungeon by commandeering a gun and driving a shrewd bargain with his captors. In short, just as Bill’s desire to live among humans subverts his image as a cold vampire, Sookie subverts her image as a simple southern belle. The other characters who begin as stereotypes have begun to branch beyond them as well, from Tara who started off as a bit of an "angry black best friend" stock character but has shown sweetness, insecurity and understandable hurt, to Eric who began as an icy, authoritarian Nordic vampire king but has recently shown some sentimentality and even humor. The fact that we basically have no clue what direction any of the characters are headed in right now is evidence that our initial stock impressions of them have been largely swept away.
The other concern levelled about the show is that the allegory of vampires as a persecuted group fighting for acceptance is a dangerous one for gays and minorities because a lot of vampires really are bad and do want to eat people–in other words they’re an oppressed minority who may deserve it. Michelle Goldberg at the Daily Beast writes:
This conceit is cheeky and clever, but it has troubling implications, because the vampires, political rhetoric aside, aren’t really interested in joining human society…most of the vampires we meet are arrogant, perverse, and cruel—everything the far right believes gays to be…the local vampire headquarters is tawdry, decadent nightclub called Fangtasia, where human tourists come for the kink and some are ensnared and corrupted. The vampire leaders are voracious and vain; in one of this season’s most darkly funny scenes, one of them dismembers a man while getting foil highlights, then frets about the blood in his hair.
It’s a huge mistake to believe that Alan Ball doesn’t know that his vampires, with their sexual magnetism and perverse power, are directly playing into fears about gays as hypnotic sexual deviants. His world isn’t in any way a direct allegory for ours, but rather a purposefully boundary-pushing imaginary world in which a minority group actually does have ungodly power and ability to pull others into their "lifestyle." In this world, there are vampires who want to use their powers to dominate humans and those who want to befriend humans, and on the other side humans who want to accept vampires while their fundamentalist and bigoted neighbors (by far the creepiest characters in the show) want to kill them all. And in the middle, the inter-species couple of Sookie and Bill try to bridge the gap while sometimes showing the price of trying to do so in a polarized world. She can be too trusting of supernatural beings while he, in the midst of self-loathing, can’t imagine his fellows vamps doing anything good.
Ultimately the show looks at sex, gender, race, religion and oppression based on those categories through the lens of outlandish parody. It uses a big bubbling cauldron of different ideas and images as its aesthetic vehicle. So instead of making a explicit "point" or containing a core message, it aims to exaggerate, subvert and muddle the motifs that are already out there. The show is pure provocation–but it’s intentional provocation, and the debates that it’s now engendering are part of its raison d’etre. So don’t worry– even good liberals can enjoy this "guilty pleasure" with clear conscience.