Monday, September 22, 2008

True Blood. Tired Stereotypes.


Why is it that television writers, who are capable of creating story lines beyond our wildest imaginings, still can't paint black characters that rise above tired stereotypes?

I'm hooked on Alan Ball's (Six Feet Under, American Beauty) new HBO series, True Blood. The drama, based on the Sookie Stackhouse series of books by Charlaine Harris, centers on Sookie, a waitress in fictional Bon Temps, Louisiana. In the world of True Blood, vampires are "out" and fighting for their rights as American citizens. TruBlood, a new synthetic product produced by a Japanese company, means proud vampire Americans can get the nutrition they need without, well, you know, offing anyone. Now, the living dead and the living rub elbows at night, much to the chagrin of conservative citizens, and religious and political leaders, who don't feel minorities should receive "special" rights.




(Yeah, as you can see, there are pretty heavy allusions to civil rights and GLBT issues.)

In the midst of all this cultural turmoil, which is particularly thick down in the Bayou, Sookie (Anna Paquin) is falling in love with 175-year-old vampire Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer).

An out-of-this-world plot line, dark wit, smouldering vampires, lots of sex and violence (It's not TV. It's HBO.), southern accents thick as honey, lots of Spanish moss--what's not to like? I've been a sucker for Louisiana bloodsuckers since Anne Rice wrote "Interview with a Vampire." If only I were better at turning off the anti-racist/feminist part of my brain. Then I wouldn't notice that Sookie's best friend Tara (the wonderful Rutina Wesley) is but an HBO'd version of the typical sassy, black sidekick and that Tara's cousin Lafayette (Nelsan Ellis) is a melange of black male/gay male stereotypes.

The light and the dark

In contrast to wide-eyed, blond, naive, buoyant, literally virginal Sookie, who is admired, protected and coveted by every heterosexual male main character and loved by a sweet, nurturing grandmother; Tara is blunt, sarcastic, morose, love-starved and goes home each night to an alcoholic mother who, in Sunday night's episode, hit her with both a Bible and what appeared to be an empty bottle of Jack. Also, in this latest episode, Tara asks her boss Sam, who of course pines for Sookie, to sleep with her--no strings attached, since they are both horny and lonely.

Tara...





...and Sookie



I love Tara. But it is clear which of the female characters we are supposed to like...which is supposed to be our favorite...and it ain't tough-talking, complicated Tara. Folks on fan forums were already accusing her of being "too angry" after the first episode. It is sexist that to be the "good girl," the character of Sookie must be blond and young and thin and pretty and child-like and virginal. It is sexist and racist that despite the fact that the actress Rutina Wesley is young and thin and pretty, she is drawn as the unwanted one--loud, brash, aggressive and hypersexual--a Sapphire, certainly not child-like and virginal. When will black women be allowed to show dimensions other than strong and angry?

Black and gay men fare no better in True Blood. Tara's cousin and support system Lafayette, played with two-snaps-up-in-a-circle-campiness by Ellis, is a short order cook, who not only deals drugs, but is also a gay prostitute who runs his own porn site.

Am I still going to dig True Blood? Yep. I'm adding it to my list of guilty pleasures. A commenter on Television Without Pity called it "serious mixed with disturbing mixed with sex with a chaser of creepy and a garnish of laughs"--uh-huh and ain't it grand? But seeing, yet again, another great show by an admired director/writer with one-dimensional portrayals of black people reminds me why we need more of us behind the scenes in Hollywood.

Have you caught True Blood? What did you think of Tara and Lafayette?

11 comments:

Ferocious Kitty said...

I caught it by accident, meaning I was reading/writing/dozing in the same room my boyfriend had it on a few weeks ago. I tuned in enough to not the stereotypes you mentioned. Very over the top. Ugh.

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ac said...

I caught the first episode and was so disappointed with the Tara portrayal I was ambivilant about catching the next episode.
I loved the books but either I don't remember Tara's character or they have spun it so out of coontrol it's not recognizable in the HBO series.
As I recall its part of a plot point for Layfette to be so stereotypically snaps up gay, so I let that one go.
As to Sookie: virginal and blonde - yes. Child like? No. As I recall the book had her "stacked" (they talk about it quite a bit and pretty frequently - it's almost a description of Sookie) and placed her firmly in the "white trash" category- the Bellefleurs (the deputy sheriff and his sister) were always turning their noses up at her. Anna Paquin is too child like and lacks that certain street smart toughness that is alluded to in the book as part of Sookie's character.

Having said all that, I will probably end up watching it a few more episodes at least - just to see if it all irons out. Also I gotta dig up the books again because if Tara is the character I think she is then she sticks around and has a rise in fortunes too. I wonder if in blackifying the character the director/producers plan to let her fortunes rise or if we'll be making more ish up that is more in line with the sterotypical angry black sapphire?

Brother OMi said...

its funny
we talk about this over at Star Wars for Colored Folks and Afronerd all the time.

i wrote a nice piece about it

we just have to write more of our own stories. bottom line.

Mes Deux Cents said...

Hi Tami,

As long as 55 year old White men decide what is going to be on TV and cable this is what we'll get. You already know how I feel about the continued support of racist media (lol) so I won't say anymore.


I hope everything is well with you and your family. :)

Tami said...

(Shrieks!) MDC! You're back!

Claudia said...

Tami, I really enjoy your blog and this post is fantastic. I couldn't have put that opening line better myself. I had been planning to catch up on True Blood, but after those clips, now I'm not so sure... Maybe I should read the books instead? And I can completely relate to the part about not being able to "turning off the anti-racist/feminist part" of your brain... I remember feeling that way watching Lord of the Rings; when those dark-skinned, dread-locked Orcs were being pulled out of the ground, it was like a needle scratching a record...! Anyway, keep up the good work.

Faith said...

I agree with your assessment, though I think there's a minor attempt at making Tara more 3 dimensional. But it's a reach because I don't want to hate Tara. What about Sookie's brother being shown naked and having loveless lustful sex? He isn't exactly a paragon of virtue either. It needs work and remains to be seen whether it will stay on the air. This is the time to write and let our voices be heard!!! I have to say I understood Tara's reasoning for sleeping with Sam though and people seek out sex when they're lonely all the time. At least he looked for her when he woke up.

jaceeel said...

My eyes rolled out of my head after the first episode, matter of fact when tara first made her appearance I actually slapped my forehead v-8 style. Even after all that I still am watching, intrigued I too blame it on Interview with a vampire or the constant amazement at flash slapping in each episode. Then I thought all of the women on that show are stereotypes. The three white female main characters sookie the virgin, the waitress whore and the sexless older woman. The show is all stereotype even the vampires. But I get what you are saying I wish we had the desirable stereotypes too.

Anonymous said...

Interesting the orginal casting different Tara.

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page said...

I was looking forward to this show especially after reading F.zeddies's vampire book. I had not read the series of books this was based on. All characters in the series seem a little over the top - although I guess it goes with the extreme world of "vampirism". I believe (hope) Tara will get a wee bit more complicated. - expecially after sleeping with Lassie....errr
Sterotypes or not, this is the highlight of my sunday night viewing. Sterotypes worked on "the wire" becasue it showed the human complication of what is behind each character. After being spoiled by that -

Anonymous said...

I just spent the last three days of New Year 2010 soaking up season 1 of "True Blood," so I'm very new to the series but finally decided to see what all the fuss is about. I wholeheartedly agree with your conclusion that Tara's character is a blatant Sapphire stereotype. Ironically, however, Tara and Lafayette are the most interesting characters to watch in this entire series. I find Sookie, with her saccharine, artificial sweetness, overly exaggerated naivety, and perpetually skimpy outfits unbearably annoying. I cringe to think that HBO has based this entire show around this Caucasian female character, simply because she is white while Tara, sinewy in physique and speech, is relegated to a supporting character. First of all, Sookie's clueless-dumb-as-a-box-of-rocks, telepathic, constantly-in-need-of-rescuing character is far too one dimensional and boring to carry this entire series. Although Tara is portayed as a firey, outspoken black female stereotype, her character has far more substance and complexity to carry the weight of this show. I find myself groaning wearily during all of Sookie's scenes, while perking up with fascination at Tara and Lafayette's scenes. The stereotypical undercurrents of Tara's character have sometimes left me cringing in embarrassment at the overexaggeration in her temper, profanity and tendency toward random tirades, but overall I prefer her multilayered complexity to Sookie's bland, wide-eyed ingenue. It disgusts me that the whole show is built around Sookie's stupidity while Tara's showstealing appeal is forced into the background. I'll keep watching though in hopes that wonderful things are in store for the actress who portrays Tara.

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