It look me a while to catch on to True Blood; weeks of friends talking nonsense about Jason Stackhouse’s sex life, several Freudian comments on the part of my mother regarding race relations and the sale of vampire blood, and a picture of Alexander Skarsgård without his shirt on, to finally get me watching. And, admittedly, it wasn’t until about halfway through season 2 that I really got hooked. I had a voice in my head—I can’t remember whose—but it was someone’s who had promised me that True Blood was ‘the new Buffy.’ Needless to say, True Blood pales to Buffy in every way possible, and I would be reluctant to say that the two are even comparable thematically or in genre, apart from the vampires and other pervading supernatural elements. Yet True Blood has its important moments—drug abuse, eternal virginity, bestiality, orgies and a human-vampire media war. In short, there are redeeming qualities that, through the gratuitous gore and graphic sex, give True Blood a point.
That’s not to say that meaning is essential to True Blood—the success of the True Blood phenomenon rests upon the exploration sexual taboos, unnaturally attractive characters and soap-opera story lines starring a host of supernatural entities. This would suggest that there’s little to be taken seriously about True Blood, but the show presumes to fulfill some kind of metaphorical dialogue, both in the way it is marketed and in the audience it receives. Furthermore, I think there’s an expectation that something born by the hand of producer Alan Ball is going to be weighted in some kind of poignant subtext—and as a result, I, for one, have been pleasantly surprised to find elements of the Ball semantic in the elaborate bricolage of Bon Temps’ denizens.
What is disturbing then, is the representation of rape in True Blood. While, traditionally, the vampire bite itself is often read as a rape (penetration of an unwilling victim), True Blood broaches the topic of rape repeatedly, and not just ‘fang-rape’ as Sookie Stackhouse so endearingly calls it. There are instances where the whole town is possessed and forced to have sex with one another, a scene where vampire Bill Compton crawls out of the ground and ‘rapes’ Sookie (although despite the intention of this scene the sex seemed complicit to me), and the two instances that I’d like to focus on—the forceful detention and repeated rapes of both Tara Thornton (in season 3) and Jason Stackhouse (in season 4). While Tara is abducted by the vampire Franklin, tied up and abused as his unwilling sex slave, Jason is violently taken by the residents of Hot Shot, of whom at least 12 different women take turns raping him repeatedly over a period of time.
In both instances, there is a certain sympathy lent to the rapists in both action and dialogue. The vampire Franklin is perhaps given some of the best dialogue, including laugh-out-loud one liners, cheeky asides, and an obviously unhinged mental state. He shows true affection for Tara at times which, perhaps, induces a reluctant sort of understanding for his motives. Moreover, he is strikingly good looking, and his jovial remarks are highlighted in his British accent. Indeed, he is quite a likeable, and even understandable rapist at times. Likewise, Jason’s assailants are presented as redeemable characters. They are dirty, desperate and abused themselves. Jason’s attackers are portrayed sympathetically—one woman, climbing off Jason after raping him, even alludes to her own rape at the mercy of her husband as she breaks into hysterical tears. There are also comical elements in the story of Jason’s rape, with the ‘Ghost Daddy’ scenario (whereby a colony of werepanther women are using him to reproduce little baby werepathers, to whom he will be ‘Ghost Daddy’) adding elements of absolute ridiculousness to the whole saga.
Following both rapes, there is a brief acknowledgement of the act taking place, a slight nod to the trauma, then back to the prevailing sexual politics between Bill, Sookie and Eric Northman. Tara is shown at one support group following her rape (episode 9, season 3), then at the start of season 4 we learn that she has run away to New Orleans—ironic in the sense that the plot has essentially run away from her, abandoning the issue of her violent rape almost entirely as the story races on. Similarly, Jason has a brief scene (episode 5, season 4) in while he discusses his rape with best friend Hoyt Fortenberry. Perhaps more frightening than the complete dismissal of Tara’s rape, Jason says of his:
“As much as I love it, every bad thing that has ever happened to me is because of sex, [he enumerates on his fingers] jealous boyfriends, becoming a drug addict, being accused of murder… Maybe God’s punishing me for having too much sex. He’s like ‘Jason Stackhouse you have fucked too many hot women, now let’s see how you like it.”
Excuse me a moment while I scoff incredulously. Firstly, this insinuates that sexual ‘sins’ are tantamount to punishment by rape. Secondly, the delivery of these lines is both humorous and cutesy on Jason’s part. Thirdly, since when was it ever OK to deserve rape (and how would we feel listening to a woman declaring that a rape was her just desserts)? Contextually, this boys-in-the-locker-room conversation is chilling to behold, and it’s worrying to think of the message such dialogue is sending to young audiences, both male and female. Once this scene is over, Jason’s rape is not referenced in the episode again, and his next scene involves a racy dream-sequence sex scene between himself and Hoyt’s girlfriend, vampire Jessica. Rape, in both the cases of Tara and Jason, is thus pushed aside in lieu of more action, leading me to the disturbing conclusion that perhaps rape in True Blood is merely a plot device—used to further the action rather than to tangibly inform or address any deeper social issues.
I don’t want to overly demonize True Blood—it is what it is. But under no circumstances do I believe that rape ‘is what it is’, or that it should be treated with the same attitude, even within fantasy genres. In True Blood the consequences of rape are buried within the supernatural context, and overshadowed by subsequent action. One of the most moving portrayals of rape I have ever seen was actually in Buffy—where Spike attempts to rape Buffy. The way this affects both of their psyches afterwards pervades the entire remaining series until the last episode. Rape in Buffy is dealt with on an incredibly human level even though it is a vampire who attempts to perpetrate it, and, most importantly, the consequences of that action do not become peripheral to the otherworldly context. In the case of True Blood, where it seems the writers and even Ball himself are unwilling to broach rape in a real, meaningful way, perhaps the best solution is to not show it at all.
However, it is not the depiction of rape in pop culture, and in particular, True Blood, that is problematic, but the way in which it is dealt with. Rape should always be difficult to watch; it should never be sexy or galmourised. Regardless of the simplicity or stupidity of the context in which it appears, the media has a responsibility to follow up such an act in a responsible fashion. In True Blood, murder is punished. Sookie is deeply disturbed for a substantial period of time after finding the blood bath in which her grandmother died. Betrayals between characters in romantic relationships are drawn out through whole seasons. And yet: rape is brushed aside. Yes, True Blood is fantasy. Yes, it is far-fetched and inane. But even the nonsensical world of Bon Temps is capable of talking to ‘real life’ issues, and has an obligation to do so when such topics are breached on screen. Rape in society is pervasive, disenfranchising and subject to the harmful effects of misinformation, and it certainly should not play second fiddle to the romantic drama of Sookie Stackhouse.