Was True Blood Really That Progressive?

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When True Blood premiered 10 years ago this week, on September 7, 2008, the country was on the brink of major change: The economy was in a full-on meltdown; Barack Obama was two months away from being elected as the first Black president of the United States; and California would became the first state to overturn its law allowing gay marriage with the passing of Proposition 8.
In those turbulent times, True Blood felt like a way forward, a show that reflected the struggles facing progressives, but pointed towards a brighter future. The HBO show was among the first to tackle LGBTQ+ issues in a mainstream way. It reveled in bloody, dirty sex in an era where vampires were mostly associated with sparkly Edward Cullen and his repressed Twilight romance. And with two Black characters in major roles in a show set in the Deep South, True Blood didn’t shy away from talking about race — albeit clumsily. So, it’s interesting that looking back now, True Blood’s showy displays of progress feel as dated as its flip phones.
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In this fictional universe, based on author Charlaine Harris' popular book series, Japanese scientists have figured out a way to synthesize (and then bottle) human blood, allowing vampires to emerge from obscurity, and mainstream into the societies they’ve been excluded from for years — in some cases, centuries. Now that they technically no longer have to hunt and kill people for food, the idea is that humans and vampires can learn to live together.
It’s in that context that mortal waitress Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin) meets Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer), a dashing former Confederate soldier turned vampire, who had returned to the small town of Bon Temps, Louisiana, to reclaim his lost property — or so he says. The two fall in love, and through her, we get a glimpse at what a modern vampire society looks like, especially when humans (and even part-humans) are thrown into the mix. As in real life, things get messy. Not everyone is as open-minded as Sookie and her friends. For every “fangbanger,” the moniker given to men and women who try to sleep with vampires, there are those who would like to stake them in the heart.
The strength of True Blood's early seasons (things got very weird around season 4, even for a show that casually tried to introduce the concept of were-panthers) lays in the framing of supernatural beings as “the other,” stand-ins for all marginalized people, particularly the LGBTQ+ community. The opening credits, an ode to the Gothic South, not-so-subtly featured a church billboard reading “God Hates Fangs.” A vampire revealing their true identity is known as “coming out of the coffin.” In season 2, we learn that intermarriage between vampires and humans is only legal in Vermont, also one of the first states to legalize same-sex marriage, in September 2009. And despite their new legal status, vampires face heavy opposition from fundamentalist Christian groups, who see them as the embodiment of Satan on earth.
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But the problem with inventing a supernatural race as an allegory for those sidelined in the real world is that you end up excluding the very people you want to include.
Take Sookie, for example. For all the talk about her being an independent woman-fairy who can take care of herself, the fact is that she spends the entire show being shuttled between vampires Bill and Eric Northman (Alexander Skarsgard), werewolf Alcide Herveaux (Joe Manganiello), and her “shifter” boss Sam Merlotte (Sam Trammell), four men fighting over the right to protect her. In the early days of her relationship with Bill, he constantly has to affirm his ownership over her to other vampires, so that they won’t take a bite out of her. “Sookie is mine,” he snarls. And while Sookie takes issue with that term at first, she quickly embraces it as she realizes what kind of danger lies in the alternative.
On the whole, True Blood’s attitude towards female sexuality is actually somewhat regressive. The show’s entire first season revolves around a killer targeting beautiful straight white women who have “betrayed” their race by sleeping with vampires. And while the show clearly seeks to show these women as empowered and sexually adventurous, the fact that it also punishes them ultimately gives a mixed message. Jessica (Deborah Ann Woll), the baby vampire who gets “turned” by Bill when she’s only 17, is condemned to be a perpetual virgin; because vampire blood has magical healing properties, her hymen grows back after every single time she has sex. It’s an archaic definition of virginity, and one that reflects traditional rules of sexual morality more in line with Bill’s Antebellum South than an alternate reality where blood-sucking monsters are potential hookups.
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What’s more, despite True Blood’s much-touted progressive attitude towards queer sex, Lafayette (Nelson Ellis), a fan-favorite, and the only main character who is both gay and human, doesn’t get a full-fledged sex scene of his own until the show’s seventh season. When Pam (Kristin Bauer van Straten) and Tara (Rutina Wesley) — a character who was shown to be straight up until the show needed her to have a mid-life crisis — got together in season 7, their sex scene was cut. The show was happy to show gay relationships — the dynamic between Russell Edgington (Dennis O’Hare) and his centuries-old husband, Talbot (Theo Alexander) was one of the highlights of the third season. But it rarely allowed LGBTQ+ characters to be sexual in a way that didn’t somehow serve a heterosexual-focused plot line.
Stereotypes abound. Vampire clubs like Fangtasia, the black and red extravaganza of kitsch owned by Eric and Pam are quirky attractions for humans who want to transgress sexual taboos. Vampires are fetishized, seen as seductive, sexual creatures that will fuck anything, and anyone, a harmful trope often associated with the gay community. The established convention that drinking vampire blood causes sexual attraction is used multiple times to manufacture situations in which straight men have sexy dreams about male vampires, for comic effect.
In one respect, however, True Blood feels astoundingly prescient. Its depiction of a Conservative backlash to a perceived liberal conspiracy led by vampires and their allies, now plays as a dark fictional precursor to our current political situation. The second season arc revolving around Sookie’s brother Jason’s (Ryan Kwanten) entanglement with an anti-Vampire church called the Fellowship of the Sun feels like it belongs to the Trump era. In season 3, there’s even a passing reference to someone calling a Mexican immigrant a rapist.
That’s not to say that a True Blood re-watch isn’t fun, or worth a couple of stray rainy afternoons. Overall, it’s still a hugely entertaining show, full of campy theatrics and hilarious line deliveries. Only Riverdale has attempted to fit as many plot twists and invented drugs into any single season.
In the end, True Blood feels dated because it is. And that's a good thing — imagine how disappointing it would be to look back on a show from a decade ago and finding that nothing has evolved. In 2008, GLAAD's annual diversity study found that of the 616 series regular characters on five broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, The CW, Fox and NBC), only 16 identified as LGBTQ. By 2017, that number had increased to 58, or 6.4%, the highest percentage in the history of the report. On scripted primetime cable, that number increased to 173, including series regulars and recurring characters, and streaming services like Hulu, Amazon and Netflix had featured a combined 70 LGBTQ characters. Seventeen regular and recurring transgender characters were tracked across all three platforms, and for the first time, the study was able to track representation of non-binary characters. Shows like Orange Is The New Black, Transparent, The Bold Type, Pose, and Billions, among others, have given us complex, nuanced, and diverse LGBTQ+ characters and relationships. In August 2015, 10 months after the True Blood series finale, the Supreme Court ruled that gay marriage was legal across all 50 states. The vampire allegory has lost its bite.
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