Tough Black Women & Women in Refrigerators: the Roundtable for True Blood S03E04

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

Thea: So to start with the moment that had your faithful Racialicious True Blood team scratching their heads, what was with Franklin telling Tara that she could take being bitten and tied up because “she was tough”? Apart from the fact that that seems like textbook abusive behaviour (abuse, then flatter, or simultaneously abuse and flatter?) telling a black woman that she is “tough” and can take it, falls in step with oh so many bone-wearying stereotypes. Did that line spring out of the racial imagination of the TB writers, or are we reading a racial moment where there isn’t one?

Andrea: For some really strange reason, the abusive behavior isn’t cultivating a racial analysis…yet. Yes, this is a white man abusing a Black woman, but I’m not getting the weight of the white race/white privilege/white supremacy on Franklin and the weight of the Black race/Black oppression on Tara. I’m not jumping up with a “that’s so racist!” because it feels so singular in that it’s Franklin and Tara, and Franklin has proven to terrorize younger women (I’m thinking of the time Franklin freaks out Jessica here). So, my initial thought is, “This is some misogynistic/sexually violent shit!” I think I may have to look at the ep again for a racial reality check.

Joe: The “white” Tara (from the books) went through the same thing that the show Tara is going through so I’m not sure the whole concept of her being in an abusive relationship is racial (I’m hoping that doesn’t give anything away, future book readers) however, after the episode all I could think about is that Sojourner Truth getup Tara is wearing in the preview for next week. (see picture above)

Joe (continued): Does Franklin think he’s dating Celie from The Color Purple? What is with that outfit?!

Latoya: Joe, you wrong! But I have to admit, I thought the same thing when I saw her running across the field. I was on the couch like “run, Tara, run to FREEDOM!”

Andrea: I think Prince sums up my feelings about that outfit…

Joe, I haven’t read the books, so you didn’t ruin a thing for me.:-) But I think you may helped me with my racial analysis regarding Tara/Franklin. It goes back to my question that I asked on the last thread: even those this particular storyline is following the book rather closely (which I find interesting because I wonder how many other storylines are adhering to the book), doesn’t casting a Black actor color (no pun intended) some of what we’re viewing? Example: when Franklin is kidnapping Tara and driving her to Jackson, he tells her that she’s “tough” because he “could taste it in her blood.” If he would have said that to a white woman playing Tara, some white feminists would have been applauding and striking riot-grrl poses and typing riot-grrl posts. But he said it to Tara, played by a dark-skinned Black woman, which would get an “of course” from several white feminists and maybe a mixed reading from feminists of color, from the excoriation of the “Strong Black Woman” stereotype to the rah-rah-ing of same stereotype. And with a white guy saying it, it just falls into that corner of “liberal racism” in which some white people who sleep with PoCs think they can manifest it to us ‘coz consensual sex is, in their heads, license to say all sorts of assy things. Perhaps this is a case where “colorblind” casting goes awry?

Joe: “I just love the contrast of our skin.”– Something I’ve heard multiple times from partners who aren’t my race. On one hand the fact is interesting… I’m an artist, I get why tonal differences are visually appealing. But on the other hand, phrases like that just make me pause and think, “Is there something racist there?” Perhaps liberally so, as Andrea points out, perhaps not so. Maybe they don’t even know that we think of it that way.

Still on Franklin and Tara, Franklin definitely didn’t say much other than, “You’re mine, woman” and other vaguely misogynist phrases in Club Dead. (I nominate myself the voice of “That didn’t happen to ____ in the TB books”.) So, the fact that he’s calling her tough because of her blood might be a bit of hyperbole from the screenwriters. Racially motivated? Maybe. I get a lot of that from people dealing with Lafayette, although, they might be trying to figure out ways to make his character mad so he can say something sassy. And they know we love it when Lafayette gets sassy.

Tami: For the reasons Joe outlined, I’m not so concerned about the racial dynamics of Franklin/Tara. The abusive relationship is one that plays out with Tara in the books, though she is white in that case. I am concerned that more and more Alan Ball is leveraging violence against women/women in peril for entertainment, which is such a lazy, lazy thing to do. I mean, damn, was there any woman in Sunday’s episode that wasn’t on the pole, on a torture rack, getting punched in the face, tied to a toilet, eaten by hungry vamps, branded with an iron and possibly mounted by a giant wolf? Even bad-assed Pam was spread-eagle and screaming. Charlaine Harris’ books at least feint at female empowerment.

Thea: I have to say I felt more out of breath and queasy at the end of this episode than I usually do…Season 3, while better on the storylines than Season 2, sure is heavy on the violence against women. First Lorena gets punched so hard in the face that she flies across the room (of course this follows having her head twisted around last ep, so that Bill wouldn’t have to see her face while he had sex with her…which in this ep, she tells us she thoroughly enjoyed) then Franklin imprisons, assaults and then ties Tara to a toilet. And we end with the gory, violent, sexualised murder of a stripper.

The violence against Lorena puzzles me. It is plain and simple, extreme violence, but it is complicated by the fact that she is a vampire i.e. has superhuman strength. But just in terms of optics, it is shocking to see.

And I have to say it was extremely disturbing to see Pam tortured…even tough bitches are ultimately vulnerable to male violence. (And I would argue that it was male violence – even if was by rule of vampire law.)

Tami: @Thea, you said:

The violence against Lorena puzzles me. It is plain and simple, extreme violence, but it is complicated by the fact that she is a vampire i.e. has superhuman strength. But just in terms of optics, it is shocking to see.

…and this is what makes the incessant violence against women even more nauseating. Because the narrative has these elements of the supernatural in it, you have TB watchers parsing the violence, like Well it’s okay for Bill to be sexually violent toward Lorena because she ultimately is physically stronger than he is. She has super powers and will heal. Released from having to worry about this supernatural woman being physically hurt, I‘m seeing people move to cheering on the violence. Yeah, Bill punched Lorena dead in her grill! She deserved it! She’s such a bitch! It makes me very uneasy.

Thea: Yes, I totally agree. Because the reasons that the narrative gives for justifying the brutality Lorena experiences are that she is hyperstrong and hyperevil…and the “hyperevil” justification leads us down the “she deserved it” path, which is just wrong. It creates a space in which viewers can watch violence against women in comfort.

Andrea: As some commenters pointed out in the last thread, Bill is a rape victim, too–what (finally) tipped me off when he countered Lorena’s assertion that their sex was “passionate”: “At least one of us enjoyed it.” So, that says right there Bill didn’t consent to it. But because his attempt to rape Lorena as punishment, Ball and Co. cheated with the idea of rape and consent themselves. So it all gets reduced to “rough sex” for Lorena and Bill serving thwarted perpetrator/ostensible Stockholm Syndrome victim (per his “confession” to Sookie)/actual victim–and, because of that cheat, viewers can do the parsing your’re talking about, Tami. They’re off the proverbial hook from dealing with the sexual violence between Bill and Lorena and the implications.

With everything else you’ve said, Tami, big ol’ co-sign.

Latoya: The whole sexualized violence theme of TB is really creeping me out this season. Those final few scenes in the strip club and the wolf den were really about adding a sexy edge to all of this darkness. I mean, some of this is part and parcel to exploring the darker side of humanity. But at the same time, each of the female characters seems to get more and more vulnerable, needy, and irrational as the series goes on. Sookie, despite her claims she can kick some ass, is generally in need of a hero. (Has she done anything since beating those guys back off of Bill in the first season?) Tara is in the middle of grieving, but ending up strapped to a toilet was not her finest moment. All the vampire women – Pam, the Queen, Lorena – talk tough, but often are on the verge of breaking down or needing rescue. I feel like this is the fantasy version of “women in refrigerators” syndrome.

Joe: Lorena seems awfully… clingy for someone so mature, doesn’t she?

I think maybe there are perversions of strength that we mortals have trouble getting used to. We immediately react to the violence against Lorena first, because it was much more visual, much more clear. Lorena took Bill away from Sookie by force. He was raped, not even technically, his choice was taken away when she ordered him to sleep with her. However, the writers took the attention away from that and instead have Bill so memorably hurt her, forever etched in our memories, no doubt. How that deflects from the fact of the male rape is a slightly disturbing dichotomy, don’t you think?

Thea: Wow Joe, that is true…and disturbing. I watched last week’s ep alone (sniff) and didn’t pick up on the fact that Bill was raped, but now that you mention it, that is extremely problematic. All of the violence Bill (now) visits upon Lorena is extremely graphic (setting her on fire, twisting her head all the way around, punching her so hard she flies across the room) which is what, as you note, remains memorable about their interchanges. The fact that she is abusing him does not remain memorable – even to the point of not registering.  Once again I am mystified by the writers – they continually wade into the waters of challenging and difficult subject matter (like female on male abuse in a show that has violence against women as its backbone) but then get freaked and run screaming back up the shore to stereotypes.

Thea: But jeez…can it get any worse with Tara? I was trying to remember if we have seen any other characters have their agency removed in such a profound way. We did see Bill get tied up in silver, along with Jason & gf’s basement vampire in Season 1…Lafayette also got chained up in the basement of Fangtasia.

If you can remember, how did those scenes of imprisonment contrast with Tara’s imprisonment? Maybe it was just me, but I felt like there was something slightly comic with the way Tara’s imprisonment was filmed. She’s tied to the toilet (ha! toilet!), her phone slides into the sink (ruh roh!), and throughout she keeps on making that bug-eyed, shocked face that makes me feel like they are just wasting Rutina Wesley’s talents. It seems like she only has one setting: screechy. No matter what is going on.

When I think about Bill or Lafayette’s imprisonment, you saw the pain and terror on their faces in a very real way. With Tara, if you can let slip from your mind how frightening her situation is, the filming doesn’t really encourage the viewer to interpret her suffering as true, real suffering. For example, at the end when Talbot says “it’s so skinny!” – is it just me, or was that supposed to be a comic moment? So that kind of turns my stomach. None of the other major characters (except for Jason and gf’s vamp, but even he had a lot of pathos circling him) had moments of humour lacing their torture.

Tami: Yeah, I think part of Tara’s imprisonment is being played for comic effect. There is a disconnect between the joshing, witty, psychopath Franklin, who gets these great lines for us to titter at–The one thing I miss more than the sun is fresh frrruit–and Tara, who seems truly frightened (with good reason). By making her captor sort of a lovable rogue, the writers reduce the impact of Tara’s imprisonment.

I remember Lafayette’s imprisonment feeling differently. First, the imagery of a black man, huddling in a dark basement with a chain around his neck obviously evokes strong, negative feelings. And even though Eric bounding down the stairs with highlight foils in his hair added a moment of levity, he also eviscerated a man while wearing those same foils, so we were clear that Lafayette was in peril.

Joe: Duct taping flowers to her hands was quite creepy to me, in that I knew how many people thought it was funny. Again, its a deflection of what is actually happening (Tara having her authorities taken away.) After being blood-sucked and violated, she’s bound half naked. She didn’t even get to eat that day while Franklin slept, and well into the next evening, during the drive to Mississippi, I imagine. Is that a plot hole, or is it something we’re supposed to realise? Both or neither? It makes you admire her attempts at escape knowing how tired a person would be at that point.

Andrea: Confession time–This week’s ep has changed my mind about Tara. Screechy as she is, she’s really out there by herself, isn’t she? The closest person who’d love to help her, Lafayette, can’t. And Sookie’s in too deep about her ex-man/Alcide/herself to be of any help. So, Tara’s stuck with Franklin, who’s not just obsessive, as someone called him in the last thread, but really, really abusive.

But what you said about Tara, Tami and Thea, really cements what seems to be the age-old stereotypes about Black women: we’re fuckable and so gosh-darn funny but unworthy of healthy love and identification with our pain(s) and most certainly of assistance and rescue. What Tara is going through isn’t funny, full stop. A Black woman’s suffering constructed for comic effect says to me that the creators don’t really take her suffering seriously–and neither, the creators implicitly convey, should the viewers. In a country that doesn’t take Black women’s suffering seriously anyway, this is just an enforcement.

Tami: Right, Andrea. The contrast between Sookie and Tara this week was stark. Sookie seems always to have a ready protector. Alcide, who barely knows her, has waded into danger for her twice now. There is always someone there to save Sookie in the nick of time. Tara…not so much. If next week ‘s previews are any indication, Bill is going to decline to come to her rescue. Something tells me Tara is always going to have to save herself…cause she’s tough. So tough you can taste it, I hear.

Latoya: Seriously. They could subtitle this show “Everybody Hates Tara.” I hate how this sanctity of womanhood shit denies Tara the right to be rescued in the same way as her white counterparts (shit, even trifling-ass Eric decided to save Pam, Godric, Lafayette AND Sookie). But at the same time, I feel like Lafayette and Tara need to take that ferrari and ride off into the fucking sunset already. Kourtney and Khloe got to spin-off and head to Miami – I would totally watch Laffya and Tara in New Orleans. Just saying…

Thea: At the risk of Tami’s rage, did that Bill/Sookie breakup scene feel just a little Twilight: New Moon?

Latoya: No, it was totally the same scene. However, Sookie did not go comatose…though at this point, maybe Sookie looking out the window for a few months would do everyone in Bon Temps some good.

Tami: (seethes silently)

Thea: Ok ok I take it back.

Joe: Vamp or not, Thea, after the one month mark, breaking up by cell phone is a faux pas. Tsk, tsk, Bill.

Andrea: Maybe Bill’s not skilled with texting.

Tami: I am desperately looking for an occasion to say “…well, I don’t have a nutsack.” Comedy gold, right there.

Thea: Here another question about how the show directs us to interpret it: is it offensive when Russell says “how about ethnic?”, considering that he is definitely a character who is marked as “bad,” so when he says effed up things the viewer is supposed to interpret that comment as “bad”? (We can also ask this question of his “a woman is just a woman” speech.) In other words, is it all right for a writer to write racist dialogue, as long as it is spoken by a character that the viewer is not supposed to identify with? Or is having a character utter racist dialogue a racist act, no matter what? Another Or: Russell is Bad, but is it the kind of badness that is seductive rather than dislikeable, and as such, are racist-misogynists-in-training currently memorising his “woman is a woman” speech and pointing at people of colour and calling them “ethnic”?

Tami: See, but are we sure that Russell’s comment was meant to read as offensive? I suspect the writers don’t find it offensive at all. I think it was meant to demonstrate Russell’s worldly tastes. Consider the scene last episode where Talbot calls for the Thai boy to fulfill the next dinner course.

To answer your question, Thea, I think racist dialogue can be used to help draw a character. I have no problem with that…in theory. But note, in the face off between Arlene and Tara in the season’s first episode, the dialogue about race was used to advance two common stereotypes: That working class white people (Arlene) are racists and that black women (Tara) are angry and overly sensitive.

It gets particularly dicey–to your point–when the racism comes from a character that we are supposed to like, for instance: Arlene. Casual racism then gets coded as, if not admirable, at least not a big deal.

Latoya: Wait, we’re supposed to like Arlene?

Tamara: @Latoya, Well, Arlene isn’t the heroine of the show, but I think we’re supposed to view her as one of the lovable, quirky townsfolk. The Terry/Arlene pairing is supposed to be one we’re rooting for.

@Thea, Russell is definitely a baddie, but I think you nailed in on the head that he is seductively bad.

Thea: I would agree that we’re supposed to like Arlene. Especially after her trials and tribulations in Season 1. Admittedly I do kind of like her, especially because of Terry. I feel like she is scapegoated by the show’s writers as the resident small town racist.

Andrea: See, Russell’s statement tripped my anti-racism radar far more quickly than Franklin’s and Tara’s dynamics. I know Russell’s a vampire and vampires feed on humans and blah blah blah, but literally categorizing someone’s ethnicity as a food descriptor just gave me pause. And, I agree with you, Tami, that Russell’s comment isn’t supposed to be read as offensive precisely because he’s supposed to be so worldly. It’s the sleight-of-hand quite a few liberals and progressives like to use to deny their racism, namely they couldn’t possibly be racist because they’re well-traveled/educated/cultured. But there he, Lorena, and Bill, are, killing an “ethnic” woman–and a sex worker at that–because they knew no one would care if she was missing or found her dead.

Thea: As soon as I saw they were at a strip club I was like “For real? This is where you’re going to get your ‘meals’?” I feel like this is yet another case of the writing being smarter than the writer…our total cultural disregard for sex workers bodily safety is definitely something to be explored on mainstream TV.  I feel like the writers were doing something quite progressive without realising it…and then of course totally botched it with the tittilating rape-murder scene that finished off this ep.

Tami: Can we also talk about Eric’s throw away line when he rescued Lafayette in Hot Shot? Come on, RuPaul. Watchers seemed to love that line. It blew up my Twitter. (I preferred the shout out to “Goody Osbourne,” cause I’m a book nerd.) But Come on, RuPaul irked the hell out of me. It’s like Eric was doing that thing that happens to marginalized folks all the time where someone compares you to the only other person they know–famous or not–that shares your color, sexuality, etc….even if said person only has that one thing in common with you. It’s like deciding to call your gay neighbor “Jack” or the middle-aged black woman in accounting “Oprah.”

Andrea: Tami, I was all like, “What the hell did you just say?” when that crack came out of Eric’s mouth. That would be like me rolling up to Alexander Skarsgard and saying, “Hey ya, Nazi Wet Dream! How *you* doin’?” If he (rightfully) tries to call me out, I can pull a Russell and say that I couldn’t possibly be racist because 1) I took a class in Literature of the Holocaust and Genocide, so I studied what Hitler’s ideal was and 2) I’m a Black woman, so I can’t be racist, anyway. :-P I can’t with Eric. I really can’t.

Joe: The RuPaul comment really made me stop for a moment. Eric-don’t fight the hotness with stuff like that. Laffy didn’t really react to it either, which I found strange.

I think, though, it boils down to this: as humans we like to associate. Life is easier to take when things are in a row, folded and neatly stacked. It’s where this type of associative stereotyping originates, and it seems these comments are a recurrent theme in True Blood. Most of the time, though, we realize when we speak out of turn. Vampires must lack the ability.

Andrea: Vampires need their own Tim Wise.