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It’s Not a Race Thing

I don’t normally like to get medieval on people, but it strikes me that this piece by Jon Stratton on vampirism as an analogue for race in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and True Blood is deeply wrong on two major levels. One is conceptual: vampirism in both shows, but especially True Blood, is about sex and sexual orientation rather than about race. And the other is analytical: even if it’s true that True Blood is about race, vampires are far too integrated, and there are too many white vampires who play key roles, for them to represent invading hordes taking over white society and provoking intense anxiety as a result.Let’s tackle the second claim first, though. Stratton tries to build his claim that vampires represent concerns about racial others by seizing on the portrayals of several minor characters in the show, writing:

Chow is an American amalgamation of ‘Asian’ characteristics. What’s more, LongShadow, who thieved from other vampires, was killed by Bill Compton, the good vampire who is also Sookie’s desire interest. He was played by Raoul Trujillo, and was identified as a Huron native American. LongShadow’s untrustworthiness is a trait associated with native Americans in many traditional Westerns….Structurally, the Fangtasia bar can be equated with Merlotte’s, run by Sam Merlotte, the human bar where Sookie, the archetypally American, blonde white, heroine, and Tara and Lafayette work.

All well and good, except how does that analysis cope with the fact that Fangtasia, the theoretical representative of otherness in opposition to Merlotte’s, is run by this hunk of delicious, who also plays a major role in the local vampire hierarchy:

Image used under a Creative Commons license courtesy of r9M.

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I’m sorry, but dude’s name is ERIC NORTHMAN. He’s explicitly of Viking origin, so if you want to look at it from a white supremacist perspective, it’s hard for the dude to have a whiter pedigree. He owns Fangtasia. His deputy, Pam, is also a gorgeous, pale blonde who speaks to him in Swedish. Bill Compton is a former Confederate soldier. The larger vampire community is clearly racially integrated, but it’s by no means a dominant front for minority groups confronting a white-black alliance. And while Merlotte’s may appear to be a human enclave, the guy running it isn’t actually human. I also think Stratton is deeply misreading True Blood’s credits sequence:

There are absolutely images of the black Civil Rights movement, and of the Ku Klux Klan in there, but they’re presented as part of a larger tableau of Southern Gothic. There are as many intensely sexual images in the credits sequence as there are ones of racial conflict. And the image of the “God Hates Fangs” sign gets at a dynamic that Stratton’s completely missing, the attempt by the gay rights movement (and explicitly the vampire rights movement in True Blood) to build a civil rights movement of their own. It’s a continuation, rather than the same old dynamic.And I also think he’s absolutely wrong to quote another author saying “[N]either Tara nor Lafayette seems to exist outside of their relationships to the white characters. They are the racial equivalent of the wise, gay sidekick who has plenty of love advice for his female friend, but no apparent love life of his own.” The only way he could possibly believe this to be true is if he just completely missed the extended plot arc about Tara, her mother, and the possibility of exorcism, which I thought was beautifully done and deeply felt, and, uh, doesn’t involve white people at all.Given all of this, I tend to think a reliance on “true blood” as a link back to racialized religious conflicts conflicts is a bit of a stretch. The interaction between blood and practice is important: one of the ways you can get found out to be a converso or of a converso family is because someone catches you — or accuses you — of keeping to Jewish custom. Blood may have mattered, but behavior was how enforcement of blood laws got triggered. [I screwed up some history here. S set me straight in comments, which I appreciate.] And I think Stratton has to prove something deeper than a link based on terminology that isn’t reinforced in the image and the tropes of the show. Because on the show, blood desirability works in two directions: vampires miss human blood, and vampire blood is an extremely valuable black-market commodity for humans. Blood is “true” in multiple senses.But more to the point, and as a bridge to an explanation of why the framework is mistaken: if we look at the points of competition and conflict between vampire and human society in True Blood, those interactions almost all take place on sexual terms. The competition between Sookie’s suitors isn’t racialized, it’s sexual, pitting vampires against…well, a shapeshifter. Sookie’s connection to vampire society is measured by her deepening and intensified sexual involvement with Bill. She doesn’t get less blonde or white, but people’s perception of her sexuality change. Rene kills his sister — and tries to kill Sookie — because both have had sex with vampires. If it was a miscegenation narrative, Rene might be going after the vampires who have had sex with human women, but instead, he’s trying to kill the women themselves, something that suggests he views them as sexual deviants, not as women. The same is true with Lafayette: being gay is one thing. Being gay and trysting with vampires to have a steady supply of V to sell is quite another. But the reaction happens along the axis of his sexuality, not along the axis of his race.  The “coming out of the coffin” formulation isn’t incidental: vampires sell themselves to human society as having an involuntary condition that leads to behavior that can be controlled and channeled into acceptable formulations. That linkage of identity and behavior reads as much more strongly as coded sexual orientation to me than a racial formula.I realize my ire here is probably way out of proportion to the actual offense. But I’m a big believer that our popular culture explains important things about us. Misguided criticism isn’t just annoying: it’s a sin against a valuable practice. And in this case, Jon Stratton:

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