Monday, July 20, 2009

The politics of True Blood

I'm a big fan of Michelle Goldberg's work. Her Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism (2006) is an excellent, carefully research piece of journalism about the far-right politics and emotional appeal of today's Christian Right leaders, factors about which some of their own fans are in denial. Since real journalism is becoming an endangered species in the US, we're lucky to have writers like her around. Her Salon article about the "war on Christmas" fraud pimped regularly every year now by FOX News and the OxyContin crowd is a good example of analyzing a piece of rightwing crackpottery without giving it more dignity than it deserves: How the secular humanist grinch didn't steal Christmas Salon 11/21/05.

Sookie and her vampire boyfriend Bill

But when it comes to TV criticism, she has a ways to go. More specifically, she needs to brush up on vampire lit a little more. Because her essay on the HBO series True Blood is way off base: Vampire Conservatives The Daily Beast 07/18/09.

I don't put a whole lot of faith in arguments that try to derive social trends from the popularity of certain movies or TV shows. True, social trends, economic situations and political concerns play a role in art, and there are ways to discuss what those are. But people don't still read John Milton's Paradise Lost because it drew on the experience of the English Civil Wars. They read it because it's a good story and technically well done, good enough to still make it appealing despite some now-archaic language.

Michelle doesn't quite fall into that bad habit. But what she does do is make what seems like a forced comparison between "antigay literature" (by which I assume she means writing with a propaganda purpose of creating hostility to gays) and True Blood.

Underlying much antigay literature is the unspoken assumption that homosexuality, while disgusting, is also unbearably tempting. And so, in True Blood, is sex with vampires. Sookie aside, those who crave it are somewhat pathetic—they’re referred to, derisively, as fangbangers. Human-vampire carnality is often rough and humiliating. When there is love involved, it's laced with darkness, tragedy, and pain.
And this is supposed to be a contrast to human sexuality in the real world, straight and otherwise? Good grief, love doesn't have to have a lot of "carnality" along with it to produce "darkness, tragedy, and pain."

Vampire sheriff Eric considers the situation

This strikes me as a personal impression. Some people don't like musicals. I don't like slasher movies, myself, because the gore often strikes me as over-the-top and gratuitous. But to say that I don't like slasher movies because they somehow suggest that love involves "darkness, tragedy, and pain" would just be trite. If not entirely meaningless. And that's how Michelle's comment comes across here. (True Blood is not a "slasher" series, by the way.)

The show does use a comparison between the vampires "coming out of the coffin" and the current debates over LGBT rights. But one of the major ongoing themes of the first season (now available on DVD) is whether humans or vampires are more dangerous and deadly. The chief villain of the first season is a human serial killer who has an irrational obsession with human women who sleep with vampires.

In the second season, the human heroine Sookie Stackhouse, played wonderfully by Anna Paquin, goes to Dallas with her vampire boyfriend Bill and her vampire admirer Eric. They find themselves arguing against the aggressiveness of the local Texas vampire leader. In one scene in the fourth episode, Eric tells Bill that the Texas leader wants to just start killing humans indiscriminately to free a kidnapped Texas vampire. Bill expresses shock that he would want to start unprovoked aggression against humans, saying that it's insane. Eric responds, "That's Texas."

In case the George W. Bush analogy wasn't explicit enough, in the fifth episode Bill protests to the Texas leader that his proposed attack would destroy the whole international policy of the world vampire community. The Texas vamp just snarls that he thought the whole getting-along-with-humans idea was ridiculous to begin with.

But someone seeing those episode ten years from now might not think of George W. Bush and the Iraq War immediately, but see it instead as a general joke about the famous stereotypical swaggering Texas style.

I would also question her interpretation of the story itself when she says:

Of course, not all vampires are bad — hence the tragic romance between the series’ leads, the vampire Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer), and the psychic waitress Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin). But Bill retains his humanity through an act of will. He hates his kind and avoids their company, and even he sometimes loses control and turns violent. And as gallant as he is, he's aggressive, even feral in bed, where his fangs come out.
The story does not show Bill as hating vampires and avoiding their company. And Bill's aggressiveness isn't primarily shown through his fangs coming out. (Did she expect a vampire story with no fangs?) Or even his attitude in bed, where Sookie is at least as enthusiastic as he, though she doesn't have fangs. Bill's aggressiveness comes out more in his willingness to get aggressive to protect Sookie and other humans. But he's also a more conflicted character than Michelle's comment there suggests. Just as the more sinister and violent Eric has more positive sides.

(I'm partially influenced here by the Charlaine Harris novels on which the series is based. By the third novel, Bill's uglier side becomes more manifest and Eric's better inclinations - at least from Sookie's point of view - emerge more clearly.)

And a nit: Sookie is a "telepath", not a "psychic", a distinction she insists on making in the books.

And I'd have to say Michelle's also off-base on one of my favorite minor characters in the series:

Homosexuality is not the only right-wing preoccupation that True Blood turns into a genuine menace. One of last season’s most sinister characters was Amy Burley, who played the bohemian Northeastern liberal-arts chick from hell. Among this season’s villain's is Maryann Forrester, an urbane, stylish social worker who lavishes attention on the lost and friendless and feasts on piles of fresh produce while using some kind of evil witchy power to drive people into fits of pagan abandon. She’s a wonderful creation, but she also seems like something sprung from the mind of a lip-smacking, hungry-eyed televangelist railing against feminism. [my emphasis]
I don't understand the bit about the Maryann character. If Michelle goes back to the Season 1 episode where Sookie's friend Tara Thornton gets arrested and uses the pause button, she could see clearly that Maryann's first appearance is as the naked woman standing beside the road at night with a razorback hog. Their appearance makes Tara run off the road and is the reason for Tara getting arrested in the first place; Maryann then rescues her from jail. Maryann is a sinister figure from the start, more like a New Agey cult leader than "something sprung from the mind of a lip-smacking, hungry-eyed televangelist railing against feminism."

The Amy Burley character played by Lizzy Caplan comes off more as tragic than "sinister". And her dark side is portrayed as coming from her traditional human prejudice that vampires aren't as good as humans, and even more so from her physical addiction to "V" (vampire's blood). But she is a very entertaining character, a kind of mystical-minded intellectual who genuinely seems to fall in love with Sookie's unselfconsciously stupid brother Jason. And her "sinister" side itself raises the issues of whether humans are more humane than vampires. She herself falls victim to the human mass-murderer driven by a psychotic hatred of vampires.

Michelle does point out that there is a villainous Christian fanatic group, the Fellowship of the Sun, that plays a big role and does not reflect particularly well on crackpot Christian groups. But I would also say that no one of normal perceptions is likely to imagine that the portrayal of the Fellowship is meant to be some kind of general slam against Christians or even fundamentalists. Their fanatical intolerance of the vamps and human friends of vamps clearly comes off as evil, further teasing out the theme of who is more destructive, humans or vamps.

The Sookie character is central to the series, kind of a Victoria Winters for the 2000s. And much of the charm of the story comes from the tensions that arise as her rural Louisiana community adjusts to the social changes produced by learning that supernatural beings live among them. She's an intelligent, open-minded, adventurous young woman who's also socially and sexually inexperienced. And like the rest of the characters on the show, improved impulse control would probably serve her well. Because her self-confidence combined with her naivete leads her into situations over her head. I think Anna Paquin does a great job portraying Sookie, right down to the beaming smile she makes when she gets nervous.

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"It is the logic of our times
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