Racialicious Presents…The True Blood Roundtable

Hosted by Thea Lim, featuring Tami Winfrey Harris, Andrea Plaid, and Latoya Peterson

It was bound to happen sooner or later.

We proudly (or shamefully?) present the True Blood roundtable.  And don’t worry, if the Racialicious Roundtable hex gets True Blood canceled, we promise to never roundtable another TV show again. And now, let us begin with True Blood Season 3, Episode 2: Beautifully Broken.

WARNING: SPOILERS!

Black Family Dynamics

Thea: So the first thing that popped out to me about this episode was Alfre Woddard as Lafayette’s mom…and of course the fourth member of this family would be institutionalised*, homophobic, xenophobic, racist and full of general hatred. Now, I don’t expect some kind of Cosby Show happy black family, but it continues to rankle me that the only family of colour on True Blood is so messed up. Or perhaps it’s not that they’re messed up, but that they’re messed up in a very flat, monochrome way, while the other families (if you think of Eric and Pam, Bill and Jessica, and Sookie and Jason as all families) seem to have much more fleshed out, good-and-bad dynamics.

And sidebar: There’s not much love or compassion for the mad people’s/people with disabilities movement on True Blood either…Lord, I hate it when TV shows use mental health institutions (I officially stopped watching House over their representation of an “asylum”). At least Meadowlands looked like a nice enough place.

Tami: Can we get a functional, true-to-life black person on True Blood? Just one? See here’s my problem with the “diversity” on TB: It’s like Alan Ball realized he had to do better than Charlaine Harris’ whitewashed Sookieverse (Harris wrote the books on which the HBO show is based.), but his solution was just to toss some stereotypical, one-dimensional characters into the town. Sassy, tough-talking, angry black chick? Check. Bible-thumping, “Oh, lawd!” hollering mama? Check. Large, stern black woman in public service profession? Check. Drug-dealing black man who frequently calls women “bitches” and “hookers?” Check. Ex-con who winds up with bullet in his brain. Checkitty check check. You know I love me some Lafayette as much as the next TB fan. His bon mots are my favorite. And I have been thankful that they have allowed him some depth and humanity. Nevertheless, when I look at Lafayette together with all the other black folks in fictional Bon Temps, I get a little queasy at how “typical” and uninspired the show’s portrayal of my people is.

Andrea: ::Stumbles in from watching all of the episodes in a week:: True Blood newbie joining the discussion here. So….those dysfunctional Negroes. I agree with you, Tami with every critique you have about Tara’s family. I also think a far more sinister message is getting played out via Tara’s fam: if Black folks don’t let go of their -isms and -phobias, they will be locked up in sanitariums. Bill having slaves? Groovy, because he’s renounced his evil ways and is trying to mainstream. Eric being a Nazi? Well, Eric *is* a vampire. Jason having all sorts of -isms and -phobias? Well, that’s aight because he’s, well, young, dumb, and full of cum. Arlene? Well, she’s coded as “poor white trash,” and, by extension, not having the educated sophistication to realize how “ignorant” she is. But none of the white characters suffer from debilitating mental illness because they’re holding on to bigoted views. They’re just quirky, lovable them. (/snark)

Latoya: I take a different view on this one . To me, the revelation that Tara’s family has a history of mental illness provided some much needed context and backstory to characters who were in danger of being sidelined. A lot of Tara’s development and characterization have been around how she has coped with her childhood – showing how her family has a history of mental illness provides even more depth to her mother’s struggle with alcohol, Tara’s own struggle, and why she and Lafayette can be so cold and secretive. They are doing it to protect themselves and hide their background. And considering mental illness in the black community gets so little attention (see here for some studies and discussions) I was glad to see it receive a frank discussion. These scenes weren’t played for laughs until Lafayette made that crack about the sexy attendant.

And while I will second Tami’s call for “a functional, true-to-life black person,” I have to say that any remotely functional, clear thinking person would have gotten the hell out of Bon Temps before the end of the first season.

Nazis and Political Subtexts

Thea: So, is True Blood taking inspiration from Twilight? Oh just kidding. Werewolves! Nazi werewolves! If vampire narratives are always about sex, what are werewolf narratives about?

Tami: I beg your pardon–The Sookieverse had werewolves before that story about those dang, sparkling kiddie vamps did! My outrage at comparisons to Twilight aside…werewolf narratives are still about sex–just different sex. Vampires always have some air of sophistication and gentility, even though they are predators. Werewolves are, literally, animals–untamed animals. It’s like the difference between smooth, sexy, sophisticated jazz and up-against-the-wall, dirty blues. Now, if you’ll excuse me. I need a glass of water and a fan.

Thea: Ahem. My apologies Tami. :)

Andrea: Then, Tami, I’m sorry, but this particular crew of vampires and werewolves are the equivalent of Kenny G doing “Songbird” and John Mayer doing “Stitched Up.”:-P But I am digging where Thea’s question is coming from: The Twilight-verse and its vampires/werewolves was rocking for a while before True Blood decided to roll in with their version of the rivalry this blessed season. But my rusty memory sort of remembers that when the vampires and werewolves came into contact in pop culture, ity was as a desperate attempt to continue cashing in on the old horror movies of yore. The whole Dracula vs. the Werewolf Z-movies back in the day. Somewhere, the backstory with those creatures got so incredibly layered to the point where it’s almost expected for them to show up together in plots.

Tami: “…this particular crew of vampires and werewolves are the equivalent of Kenny G doing ‘Songbird’ and John Mayer doing ‘Stitched Up.’” This is so wrong, yet so right. I may never forgive you.

Andrea: You know you lurve me and my point, homie. ‘Cause I merely speak truth.

Thea: And…Eric was a Nazi. For a good cause, apparently, but still a Nazi. I’m still hanging on to the fact that Bill (maybe?) owned slaves. It strikes me that True Blood could get a lot of mileage out of the fact that many of the characters on the show have lived through fairly gruesome periods of world history. I’m thinking Octavia Butler’s Kindred or even Louis C.K.’s Time Machine bit. But it disappoints me that instead, these historical references are usually just played off as scenery, as if the makers of the show are dabbling in politics for fun, and never truly taking these ideas seriously. Sort of similar to the way that, when the show first came out, it played itself off as being an allegory for the same sex marriage debate (lingering evidence of that is still in the credits, when a sign saying “God Hates Fangs” flashes across the screen) but in the end never really went anywhere with that…and now seems to have forgotten it entirely. I feel the way about this that I feel about characters of colour – either use political subtext right, or don’t use it at all.

Tami: Okay, I need to read what other folks thought of this scene, because I’ve watched it twice and still can’t quite understand what the Nazi regalia was about. I fear that it was simply an excuse to get the show’s lead heartthrob into a sexy and dangerous costume, which is an awful trivialization of what was a horrific moment in human history. I agree with you, Thea, that the show very often glosses over history that is too troubling for the narrative. (BTW, Bill said in season one that his father owned slaves, but he did not. This was offered in response to Tara’s questioning, which, by the way, was painted as angry and inappropriate.)

Alan Ball has long maintained that True Blood’s supernatural characters are NOT stand ins for real-life marginalized groups, which I think is disingenuous. If you don’t believe me check out the website for the fictional American Vampire League, which was created as part of True Blood’s amazing online marketing campaign. Or, watch the AVL’s PSA promoting tolerance. Yeah, see what I mean. Ball uses the allegory when it’s creatively convenient, but stops short of doing something really interesting. What’s worse, some of the one-dimensional portrayals on TB actually amount to the same sort of stereotypical treatment that the AVL’s real-life counterparts might rail against.

Thea: Yes, I was confused about the Nazi costume too. Is Alan Ball getting inspiration from Jesse James and Michelle McGee? Kidding, kidding…

Latoya: Actually Thea, you might be right. Eric and Godric are part of the regime, but instantly mitigate what they are doing by mentioning they aren’t on either side in human conflicts. And yet…they never end up on the side of right, now do they?

Andrea: Eric in Nazi costume is to further Eric’s alleged badassery, nothing more. And I say “alleged” because I’m not buying him as a badass at all. Just blond, pretentious, and mildly criminal, which get equated to his being a “sexy bad boy.” He’s the old dude at the goth club who impressed the goth gals with his story of how he “did time”…when the story is further dug into, he did two hours in the pen for littering.

Men of Colour Eye Candy, Gay Men VS Gay Women

Thea: Did anyone else notice that there was a lot of man of colour eye candy this episode? (Andrea, I’m looking at you) This is also known as “man-ass” to steal a phrase from Fatemeh. The vampire king who abducts Bill has some good looking guards. I am looking for the name of the actor who played the guard who looked Asian (is this True Blood’s first Asian??) but no luck so far. And of course there’s Jesus, Ruby Jean’s nurse, who doesn’t get treated very nicely by the show, if you ask me.

Tami: Hell yes, I noticed.

Andrea: I’m sorry, the sight of James Frain just obliterated the other man-asses. What was the question?

Thea: And I guess we also got the introduction of another queer character for the show: the vampire king. Can Alan Ball will do a better job with queer representations than of colour ones? I did, however, enjoy the affectionate jabs at gourmet, organic, shade-grown, free-run meats with the whole “consensually donated tangerine-accented” blood thing.

Latoya: Spoiler – Entertainment Weekly was all a flutter a few months back with the news that Jesus was going to be Lafayette’s new love interest. So now there’s a potential second queer of color, I’ll be really interested to check the representations.

Thea: Ooo! That would be nice. Poor Laffy deserves a good boyfriend.

Latoya: Well, Mr. Schlubby Vamp from season one seemed to like Lafayette enough to allow himself to be milked for V in exchange for companionship. (And has anyone else noticed Lafayette’s sex life, which served all kinds of purposes in season one, has been dead in the water post imprisonment?)

Tami: And have you noticed that despite all the prominent male homosexual characters, lesbianism is kind of played for sex appeal to the male gaze. They serve up Pam, Eric’s sidekick, and the Queen of Louisiana as traditionally hot, hypersexual chicks who are down for whatever–the ladies…the dudes…

Andrea: I agree with how lesbianism is played, but I also think Sam’s dream sequence, where Bill invites Sam to shower with him, gets played for the guy/guy-action lovers in the audience. But also note that it was a tease, too…as if the writers didn’t want to have the audience judge Bill’s and Sam’ sexual identities too much ’cause, you know, they’re all in lurve with Sookie, the litmus test of heterosexuality on the show, apparently. ::eyeroll:: But to Latoya’s point: I think Lafayette isn’t sexual because he’s over-his-head with PTSD. It’s to the point he doesn’t like to be touched, let alone fuck.

Tara, Lafayette and POC Mental Health

Thea: To circle back to my original point, I’m just not liking the Tara/Lafayette dynamic. Neither am I liking the way Tara’s grief is written…it feels very melodramatic and not particularly nuanced. I hope Rutina Wesley is taking care of her vocal chords; she seems to have spent most of the entire show screaming. But back to Laffy/Tara: contrast their 3 scenes with Jason/Sookie’s conversation about Bill being gone. There is some bickering, Jason gets distracted by Santa, Sookie tries to act strong and then cries instead of spelling out what is wrong to Jason. Jason wants to protect her; it is sort of sad and sweet because we know he can’t. In other words, they seem like human beings. Now look at Laffy/Tara: in both their scenes (by night in Laffy’s car and then by day at the reception desk at Meadowlands) it just feels like their lines were written for them. (Yes, I know that their lines were actually written for them…but we’re not supposed to notice!) Laffy basically gives Tara the same uncreative pep talk twice (big ups to Buddha!), Tara only gets to have two facial expressions (lip quivering shock or hysterical meltdown), and they only have two settings: choked-up & hugging, or tough love. There’s very little humour, there’s no nuance, there is nothing unpredictable about their exchanges…Or am I being to hard on the writing?

Andrea: I’m down with the Buddha, but this one time I wish his name wasn’t in someone’s mouth. It just felt like, as usual, some cultural nod to show how open-minded/liberal a character is. Just unnecessary. As for Tara, I just roll my eyes when the poor chile is on the screen. To me, she and Sookie are two sides of the same late-teen mentality coin: they fancy themselves more mature than what they actually are. But, as you all are pointing out, it’s how people react to them that makes the difference: Sookie gets coddled; Tara gets the “we gotta be tough!” when what she really needs is some therapy. So, there’s that insidious message of Black people not needing to seek mental-health care help, just to “toughen up,” though it’s clear Tara needs to get help. What also pisses me off is how Tara is written, as if she’s getting punished for straightforward fucking, either by twisted, thwarted affection (Sam), unrequited love (Jason), death (Eggs), or drug-induced partner violence (Eggs). Sookie saving it for Bill gets a proposal.

Tami: The character of Tara makes me itch, I swear. (Love actress Rutina Wesley, though) More so because I sense that she was purposefully written as a Sapphire. Book Tara is white and utterly benign. TB Tara is black and a loud-talking, quick-to-anger man repellent. This seems to be a choice on the part of writers who think black women behave a certain way. The different ways that Sookie and Tara were treated last night are illustrative of the differing places of black women and white women in the public psyche and pop culture. Sookie is brave, but tearful and delicate. The town’s men all wish to protect her: Jason…Terry…Eric. They hug, gently console and worry. Tara is explosive and violent. She shrieks and screams. She throws punches “like a man.” Her help comes in the form of tough talk, a trip to the local asylum and being called “bitch” and “hooker” a few times.

Latoya: Well, there’s that dynamic. There’s also the dynamic of those of us who have been taught to close off their feelings. I felt like Tara and Lafayette’s scenes had this pervading sense of “We’re family, damn it!” That he was there for her in the best way he knew how. All of us don’t communicate with tears. Some of us do hold everything in until we explode or lash out. And sometimes family love comes with the dozens. Especially, for folks like Lafayette and Tara, who are holding their own demons at bay while courting half of the ones in Bon Temps.

Thea: I like your interpretation Latoya, but I feel like this might be a case of the writing actually being smarter than the writer…I don’t really buy that Alan Ball was conscious he was providing his black characters with a reason for being so closed – something that lots of POCs might relate to in terms of cultural attitudes around expressing hurt and depression – I think it might just be accidental that we can read that kind of depth into the choice to reveal a bit about Lafayette’s mother’s state of mind. New nickname for Alan Ball: Lady Gaga!

Tami: I agree, Thea. I was talking with Renee at Womanist Musings about this. She felt that some of Tara’s anger stemmed from being one of few people of color in a majority white environment and dealing with the resulting marginalization–something a lot of POC can relate to. The problem is, like you, I just don’t buy that True Blood’s writers are that aware of the pressures of being “the only” (Renee) or the dynamics of some black families (Latoya). I think they are writing in easy stereotypes and, like a stopped clock, stereotypes are right sometimes, but right in a way that is nuanced and complicated.

Latoya: I haven’t finished all my fan readings, but the actors have spoken before about receiving flexibility with some of the lines and the plot focus. I’m hesitant to under-estimate their influence over their characters, especially since these incarnations of Lafayette and Tara are uncharted territory.

Hooker as a term of endearment?

Thea: To backtrack a few beats, yes to Tami, what is it with Lafayette calling people “hookers”?

Latoya: I remember reading an interview (possibly EW) where he said he ad-libbed that, based on a saying from one of his aunties. (Not sure about the link – ever since I started streaming feeds on my phone, I forget where it came from unless I tag it for delicious.) But you were saying -

Tami: Latoya, see I don’t have a problem with “hooker” per se. I’ve heard the word used in vernacular before and it seems true to the character. It is simply that Lafayette uses this language, which reads as stereotypical, in absence of any other non-”hooker”-using black men. That’s why it rankles.

Thea: Also, please note the way Pam responds to Laffy calling her a hooker last episode (in a particularly unpleasant bit of blocking, she acts as if she is about to rape him), and then notice that Tara raises nary an eyebrow. Pam won’t stand to be called that, Tara accepts it without comment. Yes of course, Tara is more used to Lafayette’s ways than Pam and they have a completely different relationship, but I still think it is worth noting how the black women on the show are spoken to, vs how the white women are spoken to.

Snoop “Oh Sookie” Dogg?

Thea: And…special request from Latoya: let us talk about the Snoop Dogg video.

Latoya: Is Snoop out of money or something?

Andrea: SMH…I’m surprised none of the actors appeared in the video. Alexander Skarsgard and Stephen Moyer in Sookie wigs and miniskirts would have been utterly bawse!

Thea: OMG I would love to see Eric in a Sookie wig. I have to go out on a limb and say I sort of like Snoop’s tribute…The privileging of ideal white beauty aside, I appreciate that Snoop is saying “What? You don’t think gangsta rappers like to watch HBO on Sundays like everyone else?” From the youtube comments (yes, I know, I should never read or quote them) there is a bit of pushback to the idea that Snoop would do this, as if it is not appropriate behaviour for a “pimp” or simply a public black man to like a show like True Blood…for that reason I like the vid.

Tami: It bugs the heck out of me that Snoop has been embraced as sort of a harmless, funny, black man mascot for the masses, despite his insistence that pimping is cool and women belong at the end of a leash. So, I’m not so much feeling anything he does. That said, best line about the “Oh, Sookie” video goes to Elon James on Twitter: “I’ve never seen such high levels of commercialism…Snoop might as well make songs about how Walmart keeps shit real…”

Andrea’s Future Husband & True Confessions Time: Why do we watch this show?

Thea: And, open mic! The best characters are the minor ones who don’t get much screen time (Terry! Jessica! Andy! Hoyt!), Sam finds his bio family, a creepy white guy vampire is macking on Tara, and it’s very easy to identify racists (see the two white guys who disrespect Eggs’ death and then get smacked around by Tara): they usually wear plaid and trucker hats, they have poor diction, and they drop n-bombs like it’s going out of style. Also my fave moment of this episode was when Anna Paquin went all meta and made fun of the way Stephen Moyers says “Soookeyyy…” Heh heh.

Tami: I am joining with Andrea to demand you take that back about James Frain. He is not creepy…usually.

Thea: Ulp. My apologies! This is the first time I have made James Frain’s acquaintance. From now on I will refer to him as “Dashingly Beautiful High Quality Actor Who Happens to Play Creepy White Guy Vampire”…or DBHQAWHPCWGV.

Andrea: “Andrea’s Future Husband” will do nicely, too. And much shorter.;-) And speaking of husbands, isn’t Stephen Moyers Anna Paquin’s future husband? So that really was a meta moment. (Nice touch, Anna and crew.) And, looking at Twitter, I think several of the women I follow get all shivery with the way Moyers says Sookie, with that cross of a short “u” sound and the double “o” sound. And he does it all raspy-whispery and shit.

Tami: And, Thea, not only are “bad” racists easy to identity, but sometimes good, non-racist white people have to school angry black people about what racism is.

You know what I am interested to know–why do so many folks who spend time analyzing race and gender bias (Myself included.) love this show, despite its problems? Yeah, I have watched a lot of crap TV in my day, but usually when a show has so very much wrong, my love wanes. Not so with True Blood. Is man-candy, sex and violence enough to make highly-conscious folk say “Fuck it! I just like it. (TM Latoya Peterson)” For me, this is a fabulously engaging show for all of the reasons Latoya laid out below. It is cheesetastically camp with smart writing and unforgettable characters, so y’know, for me the answer is “yes.”

Thea: I must admit I quit watching the show last season during the episode where Sookie gets imprisoned in the basement of the church and the guard tries to rape her, before Godric comes to save her. I just felt so upset and disgusted by the way that rape scene was played: the crotch shot, the panties…it was totally sexualised, in other words a rape scene that was filmed in a way to be sexually tittillating. That horrifies me. It was like a last straw moment for me, because the show has just so much sexualised violence. I also just did not care for the Maryann storyline…

And yet here I am, back for more with Season 3…I think I watch the show because as someone who proclaims herself as a pop culture connoisseur, the whole thing is too much of a part of pop culture today for me to not watch it. Not only do we talk about it all the time on Racialicious, I have oodles of friends who are plain obsessed with it. Which is why I suggested the roundtable: if I’m going to watch the show, I need some space to vent. And on top of that, there are peripheral characters that I really like. It would disingenuous for me to say I think the show does everything wrong; it some ways it is darn good entertainment. I think that gets to the crux of why the race/gender/sexuality missteps on the show annoy me so much: I just want to watch TV and zone out, and it makes me hoppin mad that I have to consistently have my entertainment and zoning out interrupted by kyriarchal bullshit. To also quote Latoya Peterson, where pizza is a metaphor for the human right to relax in peace: “Fuck, can’t I just get a pizza?”

Latoya: Thea made her reasoning sound so nice. I’m just a fan. Lafayette had me from “Who ordered the burger with AIDS,” Terry’s character just keeps getting better and better, and I’m hoping Tara comes out of all this drama with a renewed sense of self. And Jason amuses me. He reminds me of my dog, they have the same confused puppy face on all the time. Oh yeah, and Eric’s ridiculous treachery and blatant sexual come-ons are achieving new heights of awesome. Needs more Godric flashbacks though. I’m not really invested in anyone else on the show. But it fills the same need as Kim Harrison novels and the increasingly campy episodes of the Legend of the Seeker – its watchable with minimum effort on my part, despite the flaws and ridiculousness. And it’s less rage inducing then, say, Tough Love: Couples or any of the other zillion reality shows that I watch while cooking or doing laundry. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a win – unless they kill off Lafayette, which would lead to me finding some other way to spend my Sundays.

Andrea: I’m still in shock I watched the whole series in one week. ::Eyes go inky black::

Thea: Andrea, I swear you should get a Anti Racist Pop Culture Soldier award for that.