by Guest Contributor Tami, originally published at What Tami Said
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.
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?