Thursday, December 11, 2008

Theorizing Race and Slavery in HBO's "True Blood"

A good deal of the blogsphere’s discussion of the first season of HBO’s “True Blood” has swirled around the puzzling representations of race on the show. What are we to make of the rapid images of civil rights sit-ins and black church worship, intercut with shots of the Klan, in the dazzling opening montage? How are we to interpret the suggested analogy between the struggle for vampire equality and the civil rights and gay rights movements (the latter signaled in the opening sequence’s roadside sign, “God Hates Fangs”, only one letter removed from a homophobic slur)? What is the status of the various cross-racial and cross-species liaisons and romances in the show? Is the “blood” in the show’s title an alibi for American racism’s obsession with the supposed “truth” of blood and bloodlines?

Considerable discussion centers on the African-American characters played by the remarkable Nelsan Ellis (Lafayette) and Rutina Wesley (Tara): are they stereotypical sidekick characters rendered as secondary to the white protagonists or do they in fact dominate the dramatic crux of the show?

For examples of the blogged conversations on race in the show, see:

and a response:

Among the comments to the latter post is a mini-debate over the “good” vampire character Bill’s lack of apology for his father’s slave-owning, a brief moment as the former confederate soldier speaks to a nearly all white crowd of southern Civil War enthusiasts. Yet, I wonder if the problem of slavery and its legacies, rather than only a passing concern, is in fact at the center of the entire series. Tara rages against her mother for having named her for Margaret Mitchell’s mythical plantation, the summation of white cultural denial of the horrors of slavery. What precisely is being exorcised from Tara and from her mother? Might it be, among other things, the enduring violent echoes of enslavement?

It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to untangle the shifting master/slave dynamics embedded in the show’s mortal/vampire relationships. In a manifest sense the vampires, campaigning for equal rights, are equated to the descendants of slaves struggling for full inclusion in civil society. But in the show’s tangled underworld, vampires themselves are generally figured as masters, “glamming” their susceptible, frail human subjects and draining the life force out their subordinated mortal “pets.” In turn, Jason and his dangerous girlfriend Amy attempt to enslave the nascent vampire Eddie as a permanent source of intoxicating vampire blood. In some respects, Jason himself is enslaved, to Amy, his libido, and his addictions, even at the moment when he longs for a degree of reciprocal equality with the temporarily enslaved Eddie. The African-American gay man Lafayette (named for the anti-slavery foreign hero of the American Revolution) subordinates and subjects himself in prostitution and yet maintains that only he is truly free.

Presumably, the impossibility of determining the precise analogues of slave-owner and slave in "True Blood" is precisely the point. Claude Levi-Strauss, whose birthday anthropologists and students of culture around the world celebrated last week, has long argued that myth is not so much the fixed statement of a solution as it is the dynamic, shifting articulation of an insolvable problem. Polynesian mythology, for instance, centers on the vital (if irresolvable) cultural problem of determining how the relationship between brother and sister is like and unlike the relationship between husband and wife. If “True Blood” is a contemporary American exercise in mythology, is it a comparably dynamic, unstable exploration of the core American cultural conundrums: Who is truly enslaved and who is truly free? Can Master and Slave every exist without one another? And are there mysterious traces of the Free and the Unfree in each and every one of us?

1 comment:

Rizzla said...

like it - there is definitely an attempt within the show to both espouse more "liberal" ideas of race and tolerance, yet built into that is a self-reflexive critique of identity politics itself. Early in the season when Tara more vocally challenges and uses black sterotypes, there never seems to be one conclusion, for better or for worse.