By Guest Contributors Kendra James and Jordan St. John
It was a rough few days last month for The Vampire Diaries executive producer Julie Plec and actor Matt Davis, and probably rougher still for actress Kat Graham, who plays Bonnie Bennett. Starting with Davis’ dismissive response concerning a recently deceased fan after her battle with cancer, the day only got worse when Plec got into it with a fan after being asked why the writers can’t give Bonnie a love interest who isn’t her step-brother.
Adressing her comments to “certain Bonnie fans,” Plec responded on Twitter:
Fandom never takes well to being talked down to by creators and, while this was bad enough, Davis insisted on having the last word, via his own Twitter. Picture Plec as Elena, and Davis as, well, Alaric … or any of the other men who consistently come rushing to her aid short of reason and with half a plan. The result was just about as successful as anything that would have played out on the show.
And then when it was speculated that Bonnie’s treatment on the show might stem from her status as a POC, Davis–once again half cocked–fired back:
Kat Graham is of Black and Jewish descent, as Davis so kindly reminded fans while completely missing the point of the argument. His wild insensitivity and ignorant–if not blatantly racist–comments prompted some fans to call for a boycott of watching the show’s March 22 episode live or through DVR recordings. Not to have the show cancelled, mind you, but to show through a dip in the ratings that the fans would not tolerate this sort of treatment from the show’s writers and actors.
With that in mind, your resident Racialicious TVD obsessees, Jordan and Kendra, sat down for a short chat on how this exchange colored our view of the episode and Bonnie Bennett.
Kendra: So, this was interesting timing. 48 hours before this broke my Twitter and Facebook feeds were filled with my gleeful squeeing over finding out that Matt Davis wrote TVD fanfic. My love for him suddenly knew no bounds. We were one in the same.
And then this. Way to break my heart, Matt Davis. It’s been no secret in fandom that Plec isn’t Bonnie’s biggest fan (I think we first got that clue when she flat out buried any and all notions of Bonnie/Damon becoming canon), but this was not a side of Davis I’d ever expected to see.
Whether he agrees with Bonnie’s character arc or not, “Are Jewish people upset about Bonnie’s treatment too?” shows a complete lack of understanding concerning the message bothered fans are trying to send, while also introducing a factor into the equation (Graham’s Judiasm, Bonnie’s lack thereof) that is simply irrelevant to the conversation.
Bonnie is continuously handed the short end of the stick–I was actually impressed that the show allowed a character, Caroline, to point that out a few episodes ago and allowed her to stay angry with Elena for two whole weeks!– and her character development is nil compared to the other main characters. He shows a complete lack of understanding that the dismissal of Bonnie’s character likely doesn’t spring from her white Jewish background, and that ignoring that is just putting on blinders to the realities of the Black Best Friend and Magical Negro tropes. Most importantly, with these comments Davis sends the message that certain fans–myself included–don’t matter in his world view because only Black fans care about Bonnie.
As for Plec? Well, she calls Bonnie “strong and beautiful” in her Twitter statement. My question for her then is, if she’s such a strong character then why does she continually need other people to speak for her? Caroline is the one to continually express to Elena how angry Bonnie is with her. We find out, through lazy exposition, that Bonnie’s mother is going through her transition to becoming a vampire while neither of them actually appear in the episode. Characters are forever delivering messages for Bonnie rather than letting her speak for herself. Even if Plec’s issues with Bonnie aren’t racially related, it’s time for her to finally admit that she does not like Bonnie Bennett’s character.
The boycott that was called for was ultimately a dud (ratings for the episode fell within the average, with 2.44 million viewers). Calling for a boycott amongst internet fandom is never, I think, the correct solution to a problem, especially a problem dealing with race. Because Internet fandom is so present and so vocal, it’s often easy forget that of the 2-3 million people who watch the show each week we make up an incredibly small percentage.
Most TVD watchers are like my friends: viewers who genuinely enjoy the plot and would never miss an episode but who don’t spend much time thinking about the show once it’s over for the week. They’re not writing fanfiction, making gifs, or following Julie Plec’s every word on Twitter. The other part of the equation of course is that, even being as vocal as we are, Internet fandom is not comprised of one hive mind and as countless examples have shown us (most recently The Hunger Games), we certainly do not always agree on issues of race. A campaign to save a show, a la Community, is massively different and easier to mount than making people understand just how wrong Davis was and why Plec’s attitude is problematic, and I worry that seeing someone try to mount this protest and then watching it sputter only helps to bolster their views.
Jordan: Oh, Twitter battles. SMH. You think of a “clever” response in the heat of the moment, hit send, and then it lasts forever with the added bonus of being infinitely sharable. Someone, please remind of this remark if I am ever getting into a heated discussion with any of you guys so I can take a second to remember myself, make sure I’m not being an ass, think about it again, and then send an individual email. As someone who puts my thoughts on the Internet, I feel bad when people get caught up in things they would probably think better of if they just took a second to think. But they didn’t, so here we are …
Let’s start with Mr. Davis, and his “Are Jewish people upset about Bonnie’s treatment too?” His logic is flawed in both the specific and general sense. Kat Graham is Jewish, but Bonnie Bennett’s religious background is unclear. Viewers may not be aware of Graham’s religious beliefs but, unlike race, (which TVD has put front and center in Bonnie’s backstory) it is not integral to the character she plays. Perhaps if both the actress and the character were Jewish and Bonnie was depicted in a way that reinforced negative Jewish archetypes often portrayed in TV and film, Jewish people would take offense. What we do have is an actress of African descent playing a character of African descent who seems to be subject to a lot of marginalization and stereotyping that women of color suffer from on TV and film.
Bonnie, the main character of African descent in the show, is expected to suffer losing most of her family in service to Elena’s well being (her grandmother died helping Bonnie help Elena; her mother, Abby, abandoned Bonnie after helping Elena’s mother, came back to help Bonnie help Elena, and then was turned into a vampire to save Elena); to still put Elena’s life before her own all while being “strong” (which I will get to in a minute when we address Ms. Plec’s comments), resilient, and alone with no love interest who values her and puts her first. The scenario is frustratingly familiar to anyone who has spent a lifetime watching black women serve as snappy voices of reason for white main characters and then (as Kendra pointed out) become startlingly silent when it comes to speaking up for themselves.
At heart, Davis’s trivializing comment is a variation on the ever popular “why does it always have to be about race” defense, with a religious diversion thrown in for good measure. What Davis fails to realize is that, just because we have become so accustomed to racially influenced dynamics and depictions in media that we don’t even notice them anymore, doesn’t mean they aren’t there. Perhaps to him, Bonnie’s marginalization is akin to the show’s depiction of an entire town where no woman is above a size 6–such a common occurrence on TV that he never questions why.
Perhaps to him, this is just The Way Things Are and to look deeper into it would mean acknowledging his own complicity in the status quo and responsibility to change it. All that introspection is a lot of work. Mr. Davis seems to find it easier to simply dismiss the questioner.
As for Ms. Plec, I understand her initial point. While I can see how some members of fandom can see Jamie as Bonnie’s stepbrother, I can also see the argument for another interpretation. Jamie was first introduced a couple episodes ago and he and Bonnie have not grown up as brother and sister. While it would be a little strange for Bonnie to start a relationship with a guy who was introduced as having a mother/son relationship with her mother, it is surely no stranger than Elena openly dating two vampire brothers. What is a little annoying is the fact that Jamie was introduced a few episodes ago and may be heading out a few episodes from now.
The fact that of all the characters including several hundred-year-old vampires, adults, and witches, Bonnie must be the “strong” one and moral compass but is rarely given a long-term love interest and certainly not lusted after like Elena and Caroline, who seem to have a steady stream of protectors and admirers, is frustrating. Bonnie was given one regular love interest: Jeremy, Elena’s brother who promptly cheated on her and left. It was a far cry from The Salvatore brothers’ ceaseless devotion to Elena and Tyler and Matt (now Tyler and Klaus’) battles for Caroline’s affection. Why isn’t Bonnie entitled to any of these options? I would say that both Caroline and Elena are portrayed as beautiful and strong. If murderous vampires are OK for them, why is Bonnie expected to stoically wait for something better?
Kendra: The interactions between fans and creators is so interesting now that Twitter is involved and fandom can throw feedback a writer’s direction in realtime. While I’m very against the idea of writers taking too much input from fans concerning things like ‘ships and character screen-time (I still swear that’s how we got certain seasons of fellow CW show Supernatural), that doesn’t rule out the possibility of having witty, intelligent, and most of all respectful discourse with your fans via social media. As the head writer, Plec obviously knows plans for characters’ arcs that we’re not privy to, so if Bonnie/Jamie is the endgame, that’s completely her right. That said, as the head writer with a plan in mind, I would expect her to be able to explain her decisions with more than what essentially boils down to “she’s a strong black woman.”
Another interesting aspect to the whole situation is Kat Graham herself. She’s incredibly active on both Twitter and Tumblr, where this incident circulated for a week or so after happening. It’s easy to see how she might have heard about this and equally easy to feel terrible for her because of it. Whether she took offense or not, we don’t know. Choosing not to reply was probably for the best career-wise, but I can’t help wanting to know what her reaction might have been. Was she offended? Is she pissed at Matt Davis? Does she want more for her character on the show? Does she resent any of what’s happened? Are we jumping the gun by being offended on her behalf for something that she perhaps simply doesn’t even care about?
It was her name, her character, and her ethnic background that got pulled into this thanks to Plec and Davis, and yet it seems she can’t respond for herself. How eerily similar to Bonnie’s situation on the show.
Jordan: Yes, while I understand Graham’s silence, it would be great to hear her perspective. How does she feel about Davis’ comment? And does she wish to offer any insight into her own feelings on Bonnie’s portrayal throughout the series? Kat Graham, if you’re reading this, we’d love to hear from you.