Monday, August 22, 2011

Dear True Blood: Stop appropriating the language of equality movements

There are a lot of reasons I'm losing patience with HBO's True Blood this season:

Down with man-child Eric; bring back Viking vamp. While you're at it, True Blood show runners: Kill the soft focus, soft porn dream sequences and cheesy music.

Marcus, the lank-haired pack leader is not just gross to look at, he is part of True Blood storyline number eleventyjillion that I just don't care about. Focus, Alan Ball, focus!

I didn't think it was possible for Sookie to become more distasteful...yet she has, which makes it more inexplicable that every man in town is chasing after her.

I want Tommy Mickens to go the way of his dingy-drawered daddy Joe Lee. Sleep with the gators, Tommy!

Post-bellum interracial baby killing intrigue...what?

Big sigh...this season is just too much of....something. But I have one criticism that trumps all of these niggles: I am officially over True Blood's appropriation of the language of social justice and its cavalier treatment of race.

There was a time, back in season one of the series, when I hoped that the show was turning phrases like "God Hates Fangs," burning crosses and co-opting the language and imagery of the GLBT and civil rights movements to make some point. Alas, no. Connections are leveraged purely for "edginess" and the points that are made are offensive at best.

Last night, King Bill and PR Queen Nan Flanagan attend a vampire tolerance rally that Bill notices is strangely absent actual vampires, save the two of them. Bill complains that such a gathering is like the civil rights movement without black people. Nan corrects him that "they are called African Americans" and "maybe there would have been less bloodshed if they hadn't been there."

There have to be a thousand ways to explain the politics of fictional supernatural creature-human relations without making comparisons to the history and suffering of real-life groups of people, who have yet to achieve complete equality. Yet, True Blood does this again and again.

No, Nan, black people should not have left the business of our civil rights to white people. And, no, we don't all prefer to be called African Americans. There were several things wrong with this exchange, including Nan's  ignorance of history. Sadly, it was, in part, the bloodshed and violence captured by media that moved many Americans from complacently abetting racism and segregation to proactively standing against the same. But, True Blood is not a show about race, you say? Fair enough. Then why introduce loaded comments about race into the narrative, when you know the story prohibits you exploring them. Furthermore, I would advocate that race does effect the experiences of people of color, and so a show that includes characters of color should address it.

But not like this...

Being wary of creatures that feed on humans, sometimes killing them, is not racism, nor is it in the "same neighborhood and based on the same principles." The history of vampires in the True Blood-verse is nothing like what Tara's ancestors and Tara herself may have experienced as natives of Louisiana. Nevertheless, True Blood has its heroine draw this comparison and we are supposed to side with her because she is spunky and blonde and Tara is an angry black woman that viewers seem to hate (perhaps owing to her lack of blonde spunk).

Nearly every time True Blood attempts to draw a parallel between intolerance against its fictional creatures and real people, it hits a wrong note. One problem is that likening them to high-camp urban fantasy trivializes historic social justice movements and the people they advocate for. The other challenge is that the connection between vampires and real oppressed groups doesn't hold up to scrutiny. Even Allan Ball concedes this:
Still, said Ball, drawing a direct connection between the series' vampires and the gay rights movement is "lazy"... and wrong. "Ultimately, if you latch onto that metaphor and become really serious about it, it would make the show was extremely homophobic," he said. "Because vampires are dangerous, they kill, they're amoral, a lot of them. ... It's a scary romance at the heart of it. Granted, we get very much more into the culture war aspect of things this season, with the Fellowship of the Sun church and we find out much more about vampire politics... I just hope people can remember that." Read more...
But I would caution Alan Ball that he can't have it both ways. He cannot continually create comparisons to sexuality (Think Luke and Jason comparing sex with a vampire vs. same-sex coupling at the Fellowship of the Sun camp) and race (Think Tara, a black woman, running barefoot from a sprawling Mississippi plantation) and then pretend that his viewers are "lazy" for making these connections. Either address racial and sexual equality as issues or stop trading on them.

As a black viewer of True Blood, the show's stumbling around race takes me right out of the narrative. Like a lot of viewers, I settle in every Sunday for sex and camp and humor and intrigue with a dose of the supernatural. The HBO show has all that stuff to spare; not-so-clever allusions to race and sexuality are wholly unnecessary.  Charlaine Harris' Southern Vampire Series, the books upon which the HBO show is based, became wildly popular without attempting to cast vampires as victims of the last acceptable prejudice. There is no reason True Blood cannot continue its success sans the sloppy social justice metaphors.


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