Wooden Bullets, “Exotic” Accents & Human Masculinity: True Blood S03E09

Hosted by Thea Lim, and featuring Joseph Lamour, Andrea Plaid and Tami Winfrey Harris (Latoya Peterson sadly missed)

Tara: Trauma and Healing

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Thea: Ok, so after all the hating on this show’s treatment of Tara – or, as has been argued, heterosexual women in general – there were definitely things that True Blood did this week which I actually liked. For one, I appreciate the way the show is allowing Tara continuous episodes to show grief and trauma over what happened to her. I also like the way Rutina Wesley has been able to (finally! and consistently!) show other sides of Tara. There were multiple quiet and delicate moments this episode and last, where Wesley did an amazing job of communicating, through that quiet, the anguish that Tara was/is feeling. To me those sorts of scenes required much greater acting chops than any of the shrill, yelling stuff that Wesley was given for the first two seasons. So nice to see Wesley finally given the chance to show how great she is.

What did y’all think of the rape survivor group scene? What did you think of Holly’s speech? I was slightly taken aback to see Tara visit a rape survivor group — just because it disturbed me (and we discussed this in detail) how much Franklin’s abduction and rape of Tara was treated as comedy…I questioned at times whether or not the writers even knew they were writing rape scenes. So to see the writers flip that upside down, and validate that this is what the character went through, was surprising to me.

And then, after both Holly’s speech at the rape survivor group and her reproductive choice moment with Arlene, could it be that Holly’s supernatural power is that she’s a…feminist? What’s this week’s verdict on Holly?

Tami: Agreed. I think the aftermath of Tara’s kidnapping, bondage and rape is being handled well by both TB’s writers and actors. In fact, this treatment brings the early poorly-drawn relationship between Tara and Franklin in stark relief. I think the problem lies in what TB did to the character of Franklin. His first interaction with Tara was laden with menace. He was sullen, dark, attracted to violence and clearly a bad man to know. Once the pair arrived in Mississippi, Franklin was drawn as comic relief–a lovesick loon who happens to also be a predator–even as Rutina Wesley continued to portray Tara as a woman in fear for her life. Sunday, menacing Franklin returned. I think this is why, on True Blood threads not located on sites that analyze race and gender, some folks are mourning the death of Franklin, despite his role as the abuser of a main character. True Blood’s portrait of Franklin allowed viewers to be ambivalent about Tara’s abuse.

Andrea: I think that Tara’s kidnapping, bondage, and rape all falls under the umbrella of “abuse,” which is the term we’ve been discussing ever since we saw Franklin go that route in his interactions with Tara after he glamored her into getting into Sookie’s house and getting the information that Sookie was in Mississippi. To that end, we’ve had hearty discussions about Franklin’s abusive behavior and how we weren’t cool with that.

Which brings me to Tara going to the rape survivors’ meeting: I. Loved. This. Scene. It rang true for several reasons: 1) as a Black woman who survived rape and felt a bit goosy about seeing a therapist for a while, I know that I received a lot of support attending such “lay” meetings, where I learned a way to form a vocabulary for what happened to me; 2) yes, I learned that vocabulary from white women because, like Tara, I grew up in a town where the people who were having such discussions and support were white. That doesn’t mean, ergo, that white women are “better” at it than black people or other PoCs. It simply acknowledges a reality that people will seek their healing in imperfect spaces that may not “make sense” racially speaking but makes perfect sense to them…as well as speaking to the simple fact of demographics; 3) it reminds me of the connections I’ve made on- and offline with women, especially women of color, who are surviving abuse and simply seek a voice that resonates with their own. Also, Tara was finally given space to tearfully lay her burden down and not be chastised for not being a Strong Negress, which sometimes happens at these meetings, too. Spot on, TB creatives…whether y’all realize it or not.

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Thea: I was reading the round up over at Jezebel and was surprised – just because it’s a feminist blog – to read that they found that scene boring and flat.  Someone asked why Tara couldn’t get more scenes that were campy and funny, like Russell’s. Here’s hoping that’s up next. I do remember her getting to do a bit more comedy in Season 1.

Joe: I keep going back to the theory that True Blood is treating the Tara/Franklin storyline like the archetypal abusive relationship. Anyone who’s had personal experiences with abusers like Franklin will always tell you that their personal perception of the relationship is extraordinarily fickle. A lot of the time it’s horrible, but sometimes its great. Hate, lust, and comedy can make short or lengthy appearances- even, maybe, at the same time. I think the way that they handled the character of Franklin fits that description, at least a little. To me their scenes (and his character) were so circuitous, so shifty and such a rollercoaster, I had trouble seeing where it was going. This I’m sure of: I’m so glad Jason had wooden bullets. Especially, since Tara doesn’t seem to know Vampire Homicide 101.

Franklin Meets a Wooden Bullet

Thea: What did we think of Franklin and Tara’s final confrontation?

It was pretty amazing to see Tara stand up to Franklin after having to literally grin and bear his barrage of abuse. But I felt very conflicted about how that scene ended. On the one hand, because it came directly after Jason carrying on about Crystal, I felt horrified that there was no one to help Tara. On the other hand, when help finally did come in the form of Jason’s wood shotgun rounds (I have to say Jason was really breaking out that dumb blonde mold that Latoya assigned him a few weeks back), I felt disappointed that we didn’t get to see Tara herself kick Franklin’s ass.

Tami: I too wish Tara could have saved herself, especially since I think we’re supposed to see Jason’s saving Tara as a make good for shooting Eggs in the head.

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Andrea: Yeah, I also needed the catharsis of Tara’s annihilating Franklin–perhaps a revenge-against-the-abuser fantasy I apparently harbor in my heart’s recesses. At the same time, I’m going to give this one to Tara: she’s just starting her healing journey and she’s straddling that head- and heart-space between victim and survivor, which is a pretty vulnerable place. Tara’s just learning to harness the energy from exploding outward to weaving inner protection–and both are necessary for her to defend herself. To Tara, telling Franklin that hes a “psychopath” who “violated” her–which is what abuse does–and daring him to kill her is her way of speaking from that sense of inner protection, as strange as that sounds.

English Accents & Exotification

Thea: I would like to say — perhaps controversially, considering the James Frain Fan Club muscle in the room — that I am not into the way the entire Franklin storyline pivoted around Frain’s English accent. Not that I think Frain should’ve developed an American accent for his True Blood stint, but that I don’t like the way that the English accent is used to make his character sexy. What is it, other than his accent, that makes Franklin dishy? I think…nothing. Note I said “Franklin,” not James Frain. :)

Assigning value to accents is xenophobic, (for example, saying that a French or English accent is sexy, while an Indian accent sounds hilarious – you cannot separate ideas about accents from ideas about their countries of origin) and it is off-putting to me when television shows do that, and encourage their fan base to exoticise and sexualise an accent in that way. (Did you ever think I would use the word “exoticise” to apply to something English? Well there you go.)

And in the context of True Blood, I believe that a lot of Franklin’s behaviour would’ve been more clearly coded as abusive, if he had simply done it all in an American accent. I feel like I hear fans going, oh wow, yeah he’s kind of creepy…but oooo, that accent! Who cares?

Tami: You have a point, Thea–as much as I would argue James Frain’s non-dishiness. Having the actor use his own accent was a specific choice by Ball. In fact, in an interview, Frain said he came to the set prepared to use an American accent (which he does often), but was asked to keep his English accent. I wonder why this is so.

Thea: Aha!

Tami: On a note related to our earlier discussion, the interviewer in that same Frain interview says “It almost feels like Franklin and Tara are a good match.” (Remind me not to have this woman match making for me.) This does highlight the problem that I mentioned before–an ambivalence toward the relationship and a lack of willingness to see it as abusive, driven by the shaping of Franklin and his hot accent.

Also, this is probably not the time to mention that I was glad to see Rene and his faux-Cajun drawl back…I was really gutted to learn that Rene was the villain in season one.

Thea: Interruption sustained. I loved Rene. Dreamy!

Andrea: ::Muscles in with the James Frain Fan Club lurve:: I feel where you’re coming from with the accent critique with Fraanklin, and I think you’re right on that tip. I think USians think British voices in particular sound “classy,” which is also coded as “sexy.” It’s that love/hate thing we have for ye olde former colonizers–sort of like some of us think we’re cooler/more cosmopolitan on the strength that we prefer British TV shows than US ones. With that said, I’m sorry, but I’m a sucker for voice timbre–the deeper, the better. And my future husband has that pitch I wanna listen to waking up and going to sleep and especially–especially!–while fucking, British or not.

Brown and Black Religions: Homage or Insult?

Thea: More and more I am not sure what to think of the regular appearance (reappearance?) of references to religions that are culturally marginalised. This week, Jesus uses the Olmecs and Mayans to make his dorky high school tattoo seem cooler than it is. He’s caught in his untruth and the moment is played for laughs, and to show how he is a bit of a fool (well, a hunk of burning burning fool) – but is True Blood guilty of Jesus’ sin, i.e. using these religions to make itself look cooler than it is? Have we had enough of this spiritual name dropping, or is it positive mainstream inclusion of black and brown religions?

Tami: The incessant referencing to brown people’s religions is getting me worried. I heard two women discussing Jesus and they were certain the character was shady based on his knowledge of “strange idols” and “voodoo stuff.” I fear this is exactly the reaction True Blood wants to provoke: Either the “woo woo, evil, non-Christian, jungle magic” reaction or, possibly, the “Aren’t brown people all deep and mystical and shit (with their crazy pagan religions)?” reaction.

At this point, they’ve dropped so many bits of religion in the mix–from Inuit prayers to Yoruban Gods–I’m not sure how whatever they are going for can turn out well.

Joe: I don’t know… to me it seems like this around-the-world view of religion is something that is very typical of the freethinker aesthetic. Whether or not you feel off put by it may correlate to how religious you are in general. I’m not particularly religious person (being a C&E Catholic – Christmas and Easter), so I just take it with a grain of incredulity, kind of like “Oh, those hippies. Aren’t they silly.”

But… you know what hippies seem to have in common a lot of the time, though? Wicca. I’m holding on to the “Jesus/Laffy/Ruby Jean/Tara as witch” theory like a dog with a bone.

Sam & Masculine Violence

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Thea: What did y’all think of Sam’s storyline this week? It was clear that his brutal (and confusing – why didn’t anyone separate them sooner?) attack on Crystal’s dad was some serious misplaced rage. It seems like Sam is constantly mocked for being caring – e.g., trying to take care of his little bro, trying to be chivalrous to the bevy of hapless blonde beauties who cross his doorstep, and unpredictably, he is the only one Tara feels able to spill her guts to – at the end he finally explodes under the pressure of being punished for doing the right thing. Since the entire final exchange hinges around the insult “pussy,” it seemed pretty clear to me that this is about masculinity, and the disparity between how masculinity defines a Good Man, and what it actually means to really be a good man.

This was particularly engaging to me because in the first season I felt like Sam was only interested in being a Good Man in the mainstream masculinity sense of the word, i.e. a gross, Edward-style, paternalist. As a character I found him pretty boring, a bit of a wet lettuce, as my mother would say. But the revelation of his own painful past, and now this conflict between what it means to be manly and what it means to be good, is making me root for him much more than I thought I would. (Of course that’s not to say I was all for the violent beating. That was a little much.)

Tami: I think Sam’s violent outburst sent a maddening message re: masculinity. Sam has always been positioned as a “nice guy.” He is shown being easygoing and caring to family, friends and co-workers. He is one of a very few people, save Lafayette, who truly engaged with Tara and offered her solace. This, it seems, makes him a “pussy”–a label he can escape only by dispensing a righteous beat down to Calvin Norris, sending him to the hospital. Yeah, I know violence and masculinity are often intertwined in public consciousness, but Sam’s storyline Sunday gave that harmful idea credence.

Andrea: All I could think of was a paraphrase from the X-Men movies: that was a helluva reactionary show of testosterone on Sam’s part. And I mean that in the worst way possible, for the exact reasons Tami stated.

Thea: I agree with this, except that I don’t think that we are meant to see Sam’s beatdown as “righteous.”It becomes clear by the end of the scene that he is taking out his anger over Tommy – as well as other things that have happened – on Calvin, and that the beating is unacceptably brutal. This is what makes me think that the whole scene is a comment on masculinity — to the point of saying that the demands masculinity places on men are cruel, and drive them to violence.

Tami: True, but I think the fact that he kicked the ass of a meth dealer from a squalid side of town, I think, made the violence more acceptable.

Joe: He did push Crystal, though. And hard. That took it from acceptableness into something he might need to see a shrink about.

Thea: It is interesting to contrast Sam’s masculinity with Eric’s whole “why should I have burdened you as well?” thing to Pam. Serious heartstrings there (and I have a cold and shrivelled heart). Eric is the best vampire daddy ever. And also very sexy, which confuses me.

Russell’s Moment + Vampires as Analogy for…?

Thea: And…open mic. I LOLed at Russell carrying around Talbot’s, uh, remains in a crystal jar, though maybe that part was not supposed to be funny…And his final scene with the spine and the eat-your-children stuff was just fantastic TV.

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You know, this is the one thing I have thought about this show’s murky vampires as analogy for gay people (or people of colour) from the very first episode: it is not such a good analogy. Because, unlike same sex couples who want to get married or black people, vampires actually will brutally eat and murder you and your children. Meanwhile gay people and black people are just trying to get by. So that analogy actually kind of sucks.

Joe: I’ll try saying this in the most diplomatic way possible: maybe True Blood is showing what the sheltered public thinks will happen if full equality is reached. Alan Ball has said that True Blood is not an analogy for any group but you have to think that he might put something in here and there just to keep us thinking.

Andrea: I’m calling bullshit on Alan Ball’s declaration that this isn’t an analogy of any group. Though I’m not sure which group he’s symbolizing with vampires–that goal post keeps moving almost every damn week–he’s most definitely making an analogy about marginalized groups. Russell’s bloody, murderous bogarting of the national airwaves plays on the fear that some privileged folks have of marginalized people, given equal rights and equal oppotunities, will use it for bloody, murderous payback.

Tami: Long live King Russell! I know this character is gonna have to go down by the end of the season, but I’m gonna miss Denis O’Hare’s brilliant, equal parts menace and campiness portrayal.

Watching King Russell go rogue on national TV made me think of the dread many POC feel when the media spotlights a member of our race doing something bad, dysfunctional or stereotypical–that sense that the bad behavior of another will stick to you in a society that lumps every brown person together. I just pictured vamps across the States watching Russell and shaking their heads. Aw, shit! This motherfucker…My neighbor is going to be giving me all kinds of side-eye tomorrow!

Joe: All I can think of is how much I wanted him to put that spine down. I think I was covering part of my screen with a coaster for most of the end!

Andrea: And I just wanna cuddle with Hoyt’s ever-loving self. He devastates me with his confessing to Jessica that he’s dating Biscuit Lady because “it beats sitting around thinking of you.” Dammit, he’s just full of win, even without the bassy voice.

Thea: Everything is dolls and showtunes!