Saturday, June 11, 2011

Sexual Violence and Vampires: or, why "True Blood" is much more offensive to women than "Game of Thrones"

Rutina Wesley of True Blood and Emilia Clarke of Game of Thrones. Photos courtesy of io9.com and ugo.com.

In the past, I've written several articles about the role of sexual violence on Game of Thrones. This issue has recently become a hot topic; it was addressed in a story by Jace Lacob on the Daily Beast, where Lacob discussed how the role of sexual violence has actually been diminished in the TV show, compared to the prevalence of rape in George R.R. Martin's novels. In that same article, Lacob discusses the amount of sexual material in the show, saying that the (non-violent) sex in Game of Thrones is even more gratuitous than the sex in other HBO shows, specifically citing True Blood as an example of a show with less gratuitous sex and nudity than Game of Thrones.

Lacob's reference to True Blood - which was one of my favorite shows until it completely ran off the rails last season - got me thinking about the role of sex, specifically violent sex, on True Blood. It isn't surprising that True Blood contains a lot of gratuitous sex; after all, it's a show on HBO based on a series of extremely sexual novels. However, the show also contains worrisome amounts of violent, unwanted sex, perpetrated almost entirely against victimized female characters.

It isn't really surprising that a show about vampires would contain sexual violence; after all, the vampire mythos is rife with sexual symbolism, a tradition that dates back to what is widely considered the first true vampire novel, Bram Stoker's Dracula. In an article about portrayals of gender roles in both general audience and young adult vampire fiction, Melissa Ames, professor of media studies at Eastern Illinois University, describes scholarly analyses of Stoker's novel that emphasize the sexual metaphors inherent in vampirism. She specifically mentions Christopher Bentley's reading of the novel, in which he finds "'deviant' sexual behavior throughout the entire novel from the incestuous relationship Dracula has with his three sister/daughter figures [...] to the 'forced quasi-fellatio' invoked when Dracula imposes his blood upon Mina [quoted in Ames 2011]." In addition, the symbolism of drinking blood - a form of penetration - is often connected to sexuality, and unwanted or violent attacks can be read as sexual assault.

The role of sexual assault on True Blood is, then, even more prevalent than one might have originally thought. In addition to scenes and storylines that clearly dealt with rape and sexual assault - the attempted rape of Sookie (Anna Paquin) during her excursion to Dallas in the second-season episode "Rescue Me" and Tara's (Rutina Wesley) repeated rape at the hands of a vampire in the third season - there are less obvious examples that can be read as representative of sexual assault. Sookie's initial attraction to Bill (Stephen Moyer) was the result of her consumption of his blood, which caused her to have sex dreams about him; a scenario which can be expressed as unwanted penetration of Sookie's mind with these images, and coercion on Bill's part. A similar process takes place in the second season when, after drinking Eric's (Alexander Skarsgard) blood, Sookie once again experiences sexual dreams. Hoyt (Jim Parrack) and Jessica's (Deborah Ann Woll) relationship also has sexually violent undertones, as sex is always painful for Jessica due to the fact that she will always be a virgin no matter how many times she has sex.

Now, I don't necessarily have a problem with the portrayal of sexual violence onscreen (although I agree with A.O. Scott of the New York Times that seeing sexual violence in film or on television can lead to fetishization of such violence), as I think it can be done well and addresses an important issue. However, I have a serious problem with the rampant sexual violence on True Blood, and the way this violence victimizes the show's heterosexual female characters (and occasionally homosexual male characters) while not allowing the women to grow, or even change as a result of their experiences. As a result of this victimization, True Blood is, to me, one of the least feminist scripted shows on television. (Reality shows like Jersey Shore or The Real Housewives of... are an entirely different ball game).

The most prominent example of female victimization in True Blood is Wesley's Tara Thornton. Over the course of the third season, Tara was raped repeatedly by James Frain's Franklin and was shown being unable to save herself. Instead, she was ultimately rescued by Jason (Ryan Kwanten), in an example of the kind of damsel-in-distress storytelling that is disturbingly common on True Blood. Indeed, her relationship with Franklin only begins when he comes to her rescue during an attack in the parking lot of Merlotte's. Indeed, much of Tara's life - like the lives of the other human, female characters on the show - is defined by men, whether they are rescuing her or terrorizing her. She never gets the upper hand in a romantic relationship.

In this way, Tara and the other women of True Blood, particularly Sookie, are constantly defined by their relationships to men. This is a criticism that is constantly leveled at Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series as well; according to Ames, Bella Swan (portrayed by Kristen Stewart in the films), is "constantly depicted as the damsel in distress forever in need of rescue by a male." The same can be said of all the female, non-vampire characters of True Blood. Sookie's life is largely defined by the conflict between her relationship to Bill and her attraction to Eric; Tara is a constant victim who always needs rescuing by the men in her life; Arlene is characterized by her string of husbands. In addition, the more minor characters such as the waitresses at Merlotte's are simply disposable, existing so that bad things can happen to them.

This is one major way in which True Blood differs from Game of Thrones and True Blood. While Game of Thrones depicts a world in which sexual violence is commonplace, the show's female characters are portrayed as more than just victims. Daenerys Targaryen, the show's most prominent rape victim, quickly learns that she can use her sexuality to her advantage and quickly sheds her victimization, learning to use her own power to accomplish things. By the most recent episodes, Daenerys' relationship with her husband, Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa) is one of the more equitable relationships on the show, and Daenerys is using her newfound power to save captive women from being raped by the Dothraki.

The CW's The Vampire Diaries also offers a much more positive, less victimized portrayal of women then True Blood. The show's protagonist, Elena Gilbert (Nina Dobrev) certainly has as many problems as Sookie does, although she is never sexually assaulted. Elena is also in a relationship with Stefan (Paul Wesley), and also drawn to his brother Damon (Ian Somerhalder), just as Sookie is torn between Bill and Eric. However, Elena is a much stronger character than either Sookie or Tara; like Daenerys, she refuses to be controlled by the other characters, even when Stefan tries to protect her by preventing her from taking part in various events.

While the female characters on True Blood are certainly victimized by both explicit and implied sexual violence, that is not the only problem the show has in terms of feminist perspectives and sexual violence. Rape is often trivialized on the show, most notably when Sookie is assaulted and nearly raped in Dallas in the second season. After her return to Bon Temps and her realization that an evil maenad has taken over her house, Sookie articulates her sadness by saying "I was almost raped in Dallas, but this is so much worse." This comment made my jaw drop when I watched the episode, as it takes the pain and humiliation of sexual assault and sweeps it under the rug, much like the way in which Tara's abusive relationship with Franklin is shunted out of the way to make room for the other plotlines.

The issue of sexual violence is one that has been addressed on many different television shows, from Mad Men to Game of Thrones. However, one of the most distressing depictions of violence against women and victimization is that on True Blood, which routinely victimizes women and trivializes issues of sexual violence. The gender roles portrayed on True Blood are often just as old-fashioned and restrictive as those of Stephanie Meyer's infamous Twilight, but with more violently sexual undertones. True Blood can still be fun to watch - it's a soapy guilty pleasure - but I certainly wouldn't let a teenage daughter of mine watch it. Not for the gratuitous sex or the violence, since I don't believe in censorship. I simply wouldn't want my child to think that the passive, victimized behavior of the women on the show is any sort of ideal.

4 comments:

  1. APU I totally agree with this post. To add another dimension to what I like to think of as the "Tara problem," I want to point out that in season one of True Blood, Tara did have the upper hand in her brief romance with Sam Merlotte. Throughout this (now ancient) plot line Tara came across as strong and independent; if anything, she was abusing Sam. Obviously abuse of any kind is a negative thing, but it was good to have at least plot line where a woman was in control. IMHO Tara's downward spiral into a place of total powerlessness over next two seasons, and especially the latest, is one of many reasons that season three was so worthless.

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  2. Great post. I came across this while writing my own article about why some of the accusations leveled at Twilight are off their mark - specifically the brilliance in how Twilight deals with sexual violence and the vampire mythos.

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    1. Hey Anne00 - where can I read your article?
      Please reply by pm on my youtube - www.youtube.com/user/Voesyy

      Delete
  3. Jason was also gang-raped by a whole town of women in one episode, which other characters treat as his punishment for being with a lot of women. Any issues of trauma he might have from this are simply ignored over the rest of the episodes since.

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