True Blood’s Rape Problem
True Blood is one of the campiest, funniest, and most entertaining shows on television right now. Unfortunately, it has a huge problem: Alan Ball just doesn’t know how to deal with rape.
The series, which is based on books by Charlaine Harris, focuses on the life of Sookie Stackhouse, a feisty but slightly dim waitress who has the power to read minds. Recently, we found out that Sookie is actually part fairy — a revelation that she welcomed with an exclamation of “how fucking lame” — which accounts for her strange powers. It also helps explain why so many vampires are head over heels for an uneducated small-town girl with horrible taste in clothes.
In the books, this attraction is fleshed out a bit more and the connection between Sookie’s fairy blood and her relationships with vampire men is made a little more explicit. There is a certain element of Bella Swan syndrome*, but Sookie also possesses a sort of savvy intelligence that sets her apart from the other characters. In Harris’s books, Sookie is sometimes foolish but she is never incompetent. She takes care of herself, and the people (and vampires) she loves, using a mixture of raw courage and intuition. She isn’t fearless, but she is willing to take on forces much larger than herself to save others. For much of the series, she is also naïve, and painfully optimistic. However, Harris forces Sookie to wake up to the reality of her situation with one single scene — a rape scene.
After rescuing her boyfriend from the clutches of his maker, Sookie is thrown into the trunk of a car with the half-starved vampire. Bill must feed, and since feeding is a sexual thing for vampires, he also unknowingly rapes his girlfriend while draining her blood. Here, we see a literal version of the “he just couldn’t help himself” justification for rape. Bill doesn’t know what he’s doing when he rapes her — it is done purely out of survival instinct. Knowing this, Sookie is able to forgive Bill. However, the experience changes the way she sees vampires. It opens her eyes to the reality of her situation: she is a weak human woman, who has somehow become involved with the lives of the undead. She may not be entirely powerless, but she realizes that there are things she can’t control, things she can’t prevent.
While the HBO series follows the books, it does not do so very closely. When it came time to show Sookie being raped in the back of a truck, Ball chose to cut the sexual portion of the attack, focusing instead on her brush with death by draining. Perhaps this was wise, since it would have been difficult to explain to viewers why Bill lost all control, why he couldn’t help himself. And it would have been impossible to do this without reminding the audience of the defense used by rapists throughout history: I couldn’t stop myself. I had to have her.
Unfortunately, this could have been an opportunity for Ball to blast rape culture, to make a scathing commentary on how we still view heterosexual lust, how we still make pitiful excuses for men who view consent as something flexible and maybe even unnecessary. Ball could have dealt with the pervasiveness of rape culture the same way he deals with other social issues — with angry mockery that delivers a biting critique. Yet he chose to avoid the entire thing. Instead, Ball gave Bill and Sookie a triumphant reunion, complete with a violent sex scene that was probably supposed to be hot but felt rather uncomfortable and forced. He was unwilling to make his lead male character a rapist and even more unwilling to break up his happy couple.
But that doesn’t mean Ball is unwilling to depict rape.
Rather than reveal the fucked up thinking that lurks behind our justification of rape, rather than show his “good guy” for what he is, Ball decided to hand the rapist role to a different character: Franklin. Weirdly, he also decided to give Franklin some of the funniest lines of the season, which created something you never really want to see: a lovable rapist. Franklin was funny and witty and strange and off-kilter in a charming British way. He was also, least we forget, a sadistic fucking rapist.
Franklin kidnaps and rapes Sookie’s best friend Tara for several days. While she manages to survive the experience, Tara is understandably traumatized. But even though she has just been held against her will and raped repeatedly, no one really has time for Tara, not even Ball. As soon as her ordeal is over, Tara is pushed to the side. We see her attend one meeting for survivors, but the entire thing feels off somehow, out of place in a show that is campier than a Liza Minelli look-alike drag show. The rape, and the aftermath, are cast in the same half-serious light that defines the show. She was raped, that’s for sure, but does anyone really care when there’s Jason around to say things like “I didn’t think I was smart enough to get depressed” and Eric prancing about this his ice-blue sweater? What’s a little rape and abduction when you’ve got bigger fish to fry — like the insane King of Mississippi — and far more amusing things to focus on?
So herein lies the problem: Ball has introduced rape as an element on his show, yet he has absolutely no idea how to deal with it properly. Sure, Tara gets to see her rapist go up in a geyser of blood, but even his final death can’t undo what has happened to her. Similarly, Ball plays with the idea of maker-as-a-rapist, but while he introduces the possibility of vampire-rape, he never really deals with what this would mean. Or what it could represent in the real world (i.e. rape by coercion). There are so many analogies drawn on the show between the fake politics of Harris’s world and the real politics of ours — vampire-human marriage is made a clear stand-in for same-sex marriage, vampire integration is used to comment on our immigration laws — but Ball never lets this happen with rape. Instead, rape is used as a tool to further the plot, but nothing more. Ball is unwilling to comment on the reality of rape and the resulting trauma. He does not use the opportunity to draw parallels between rape in vampire-land and rape in the real world, and how the word consent is still misunderstood by so many. Ball touches on these things, but quickly draws away. And maybe I shouldn’t blame him. This is, after all, a show about vampires. But I do have one request for the makers of True Blood: Stop.
Stop using rape as a plot device if you’re unwilling to deal with it in a more radical way. Stop showing scenes where issues of consent are ambiguous if you don’t want to talk about the aftermath. Stop making your rapists into interesting characters. Stop glossing over the trauma of rape with throwaway scenes that feel forced. Stop acting like the death of the rapist solves all problems. And stop fucking with Tara — the poor girl has been through enough already.
* Bella Swan syndrome: When a female character is adored for no obvious reason by male characters who are remarkable for their physical attributes. The Swan-girl never need do anything to win the love of the most beautiful man in the world — they just have it. This makes them somehow special, though readers see little evidence of love and get the distinct impression that the entire affair is based on something as mundane as lust.