Thought Catalog

On Rape In True Blood

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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. TC mark

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On Rape In True Blood is cataloged in ,
  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1415031788 Sharif Youssef

    The show is horrible sensationalism. Alan Ball is an idiot.

  • Amanda

    1. facts, spelling, etc. it was Sookies grandma, you got the season and episode mixed up in the Jason/Hoyt example, etc.

    2. this article was very interesting to read-that is, until you used “is what it is” in there. Very much undermining your efforts to write an informative article and completely undoing all your unnecessary big words/thesaurus tool 

    3. all in all, i DID cringe when Jason was raped, Tara was taken against her will, etc.. horrible stuff. I believe in the books the consequences are alluded to a bit more, and lets not forget, Tara’s taker was killed after all that. we will see where jason’s goes, but i think if we’re going to explore the consequences of rape in such detail, why not explore the fact that the “werepanthers” were going to die out if they didnt have someone to father their babies.. many science fiction films revolve around the same concept at one point or another, that is, using a human as a means to continue the population, and im sure if humans had to keep their species alive, we would resort to the same thing. im just saying if we’re going to go this deep with true bloods horrid rapes, why not go further?

    • http://twitter.com/galette_rois Julian Galette

      The fact that were going to die out isn’t really relevant. They altered Jason’s genetic code against his will and raped him multiple times to make up for the effect generations of inbreeding have had on their people. They’re less like the society from “A Boy And His Dog” and more like the freaks from The Hills Have Eyes.

      I think what’s significant about the show’s portrayal of rape is that Tara gets raped and it breaks her to the point where she needs to flee town, change her name…and then there all all the psycho-analytic implications of her subsequently engaging in a sexual relationship with a female while simultaneously becoming a female cage fighter…

      But Jason gets to go have pancakes with buddy and whine about all the pussy he’s ever gotten.

      • Micheria101

        We don’t get to see what happens next ( with Jason ) . This happened at the end of the episode so maybe next Sunday we can see with how he deals with it.

  • http://twitter.com/ward_hegedus Ward Hegedus

    I like True Blood. I like it because it’s fluff television based off of a fluff book series. Tara and Jason are minor characters in the show and are not the primary focus. What happened between two main characters on Buffy is different from side stories. I’m sure if this situation happened to Sookie instead of Jason there would be more focus on the aftermath.  I’m not trying to justify how the producers handle rape but if you look at it from a character study, it doesn’t seem that outrageous. Tara tries to go to counseling after her assault. It doesn’t work for her, which I’m sure happens frequently with real life rape victims. Not everyone receives comfort and closure and healing in the same way. This is how the character Tara processed her rape. She ran away, looking at how her character reacts to situations that seems par for the course. 

    As for Jason, he’s obviously not as well educated as he could be and in processing his trauma he does blame himself and gets angry at god for letting this happen to him. The fact that Jason is a man and was raped is a pretty big thing to show on television. I’m sure there were some TB viewers that are still under the assumption that men can’t even be raped. If Jason Stackhouse handled his rape any differently fans would say that the show isn’t being true to the characters. 

    The fact is that anyone who has been sexually assaulted processes things differently, and not always in healthy ways. Yes, these scenes aren’t a good example of how people should handle their assault, but it’s HBO. We shouldn’t be learning anything from True Blood; it’s television. You wrote “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.” I completely disagree with this. Media has no responsibility at all. 

    • agree

       boo ya!

  • http://twitter.com/kyleangeletti Kyle Angeletti

    Don’t watch the show?

    I would disagree that this type of medium has any obligation to ensure that ‘real-life’ issues such as rape are addressed in a morally responsible and realistic fashion.

  • Kat

    Dear Kat,

    In comparing two low-fantasy stories, where fantastic scenarios are imposed on every day life, True Blood and Buffy will never have the same level of depth, or character development, or pathos. One show is based on serial novels meant to entertain and thrill, and the other is written by a team of highly literate writers led by the story-teller who is arguably our current master of blending genres.

    My point is that True Blood will never have the pathos that Buffy has because it doesn’t have the bone structure to support that level of depth. I think that is what makes the impact of Jason Stackhouse’s rape so significant. A. Ball’s team took a character who is by turns sympathetic and unsympathetic, and managed to create a situation where there was no doubt in a viewer’s mind, this man, this hombre, is being raped, and the viewer is not alienated or bored or otherwise put off from staying with the story. I think that in itself is an achievement in a show that spends a lot of time hooking people with ace art direction and fantastic looking actors taking off their clothes in gruesome surroundings.

    Of course Spike’s attempted rape of Buffy was infinitely more affecting. He went after BUFFY, for Pete’s sake. When her back was hurt and she was already blue- and this was Buffy. I can’t even get started- being too much of a Buffy fan, I’d get lost in the weeds. Suffice to say, you’re absolutely right in saying that comparing the two examples of the sub-genre as similar renderings of “rape with vampires” would be the proposed effort of a dilettante.

    Winding down, I’ve got to get back to my MMO or something, obviously.

    Best,
    (also) Kat

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1580441990 Kim Brobeck Hill

    I was in love after reading the Sookies Stackhouse series and was completely excited about the show.  I still watch every Sunday, along with a living room full of my friends, but I have to agree that I think Alan Ball is an idiot.  I know its a show BASED on the books…as I have been told by fanatics on other forums.  But, I have to say that I think what Allan has done to the series is a true shame.  I don’t know if its possibly to jam more plots in an hour long show, but I continue to be suprised as well as disappointed.

  • HS

    Thanks Kat. 

  • Andiemoon

    I completely disagree about the likability of Franklin. I found him totally revolting and the way he was portrayed as funny was, to me, a display of how psychotic he was. He was eventually killed.

    In the Jason situation, those girls were not willingly raping him. The rapist in that situation, was really Felton and the other old guy. Those girls were being raped as well, and as you mentioned had been raped before.

    Let’s face it, to address rape in these episodes the way it should be discussed would take a whole episode. Each episode revolves around maybe 20 characters that each get their own time in each episode. There isn’t the time to discuss it in that much detail, and honestly people don’t watch the show for that.

    If anything, True Blood makes people question rape and think about it and hopefully have discussions like this. And to me, that is a good thing.

    • Amber

      I completely agree with this comment. Besides, Jason saying, “Maybe God’s punishing me for having too much sex” is, I think, a perfectly normal response to what happened to him. Many rape victims wrongly blame themselves after they’ve been attacked, thinking they could have prevented it if they had done X, Y, or Z. Jason is doing exactly that, and definitely not insinuating that “sexual ‘sins’ are tantamount to punishment by rape.” I mean, come on.

      Also I absolutely do not think that the rapists were ever portrayed as likable or sympathetic. Franklin was a fucking psycho, and so are the male werepanthers. Franklin was killed, and I’m sure the werepanther leaders will be, too—Jason’s rape only happened a few episodes ago, Jesus, give the writers some time to inflict retribution. 

      I just don’t think rape was brushed aside in any of these circumstances, and I would much rather see it being discussed in pop culture, like it is here, then never mentioned at all. I think True Blood actually does a good job of bringing up controversial societal issues/ideals, and I hope they keep it up.

    • Amber

      I completely agree with this comment. Besides, Jason saying, “Maybe God’s punishing me for having too much sex” is, I think, a perfectly normal response to what happened to him. Many rape victims wrongly blame themselves after they’ve been attacked, thinking they could have prevented it if they had done X, Y, or Z. Jason is doing exactly that, and definitely not insinuating that “sexual ‘sins’ are tantamount to punishment by rape.” I mean, come on.

      Also I absolutely do not think that the rapists were ever portrayed as likable or sympathetic. Franklin was a fucking psycho, and so are the male werepanthers. Franklin was killed, and I’m sure the werepanther leaders will be, too—Jason’s rape only happened a few episodes ago, Jesus, give the writers some time to inflict retribution. 

      I just don’t think rape was brushed aside in any of these circumstances, and I would much rather see it being discussed in pop culture, like it is here, then never mentioned at all. I think True Blood actually does a good job of bringing up controversial societal issues/ideals, and I hope they keep it up.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kittykitty.meooow Donna-Lee Grant

    “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.” Clearly, you cant take this show THAT serious. although rape is not funny…its part of his character to be ignorant or basically everything…to get into social issues that the show is apparently not addressing or dealing with properly in your opinion is silly. Its a fictional Tv show for adults and i think we all understand the seriousness of rape. 

  • Micheria101

    Everyone had their own opinion about the show. I enjoy it ! I watch is every Sunday.
    You can’t look at True Blood as a mentor. Nobody should be ” Learning ” anything . It’s television it’s supposed to be entertaining. You can take a show like Degrassi and try to learn from it. That show is meant to be deep. True Blood is a comedy, Drama , Fantasy, Horror series . Therefor you shouldn’t be complaining when it comes to how they deal with rape, rape is never ok EVER and I understand that but True Blood isn’t trying to go to deep into it. People under the age of 16 shouldn’t even be watching the show. It’s very mature. 

    As far as the plot goes I know that it has a lot of story lines going on. But like Ball says the books were based on Sookie Stackhouse if they made the series only based on her it wouldn’t be worth watching to me. I enjoy the other story lines, getting to know the other characters, seeing what their life is like.

    Don’t watch it if you don’t like it.

  • Gustavo Jimeno

    Kat… it’s an amazing show about vampires, shapshifters, fairy god mothers, rednecks, and the list goes on. Give them a break, watching the show does not mean I will be brainwashed into thinking anything diff of what I already believe about rape or anything else. I know what I am watching is just a show that does not exist in real life and it does NOT have to follow real life issues by the book.

    Just watch and enjoy the show!

  • Ian

    Now Irreversible on the other hand…THAT is some tastefully done rape!

  • Maxwell Smart

    True Blood’s pretty terrible. I watched the entire first season to give it a chance, but it just didn’t do anything for me. And so I tried the books, thinking maybe they were better…no. Charlaine Harris writes on par with a common scribbler of misspelled erotica or a thirteen-year-old author of fanfiction.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1495549613 Casey Morris

    First of all, “it’s worrying to think of the message such dialogue is sending to young audiences, both male and female. ” Whoa, young audiences? I don’t know about you, but the sheer amount of nudity and violence [not to mention that the show is about “monsters”] is enough to ensure that most parents aren’t exactly bringing their kids in the living room on Sunday nights. This is an adult show, made by adults, to be watched by adults. I know it’s not going to stop the young’uns from watching it, but don’t blame the show for that. It’s the same stupid, uninformed argument people use on the GTA video games or the Saw movies — “What about the children?” If you’re really that worried about the damn children, you’ll keep adult entertainment out of their hands in the first place.

    Also, did you ever stop to think that maybe the show IS adressing the rape issues? Tara’s shacked up with a woman who doesn’t show who she really is after a terrifying incident where a man had researched her past her held her hostage and repeatedly raped her. She’s not exactly dealing the with trauma head-on, but if you don’t see those two things as directly related then take another look.

    As far as Jason goes, he’s not the brightest bulb in the fixture, but dreaming of an attractive woman on top of him didn’t exactly send him into throes of passion. It could have to do with it being his best friend’s girl, but Hoyt sitting in the room watching and commenting is a little too reminiscent of what happened to him in Hot Shot. And with Jason being a bit dumb, maybe he’s heard “she was asking for it, she slept with every guy in town, she was being punished for being a slut, blablabla” enough times, and he used that rationalization to his own scenario? Just a thought.

  • http://kylelamar.com/ Kyle LaMar

    I’m surprised no one has used the word “campy” do describe the show, which it often is. If Alan Ball was a chef, Six Feet Under would be a 10 course meal. True Blood is cake… but it’s still really really good cake.

  • http://kylelamar.com/ Kyle LaMar

    I’m surprised no one has used the word “campy” do describe the show, which it often is. If Alan Ball was a chef, Six Feet Under would be a 10 course meal. True Blood is cake… but it’s still really really good cake.

  • Rachael

    The scene where Jason was (almost) raped in HotShot by the young girl was the first time I’ve ever physically had to turn away from the screen while watching True Blood.

  • Elyse

    One word: bravo.

  • Lily

    In True Blood, they show a male being raped. Not only is that hardly talked about in life, it’s hardly ever mentioned on Tv, so yes, they didn’t do it perfectly but you have to commend them just for tackling that issue even a little. And I don’t know how many rape victims you know, but I think they actually did a really good job coping with Jason’s rape. He blamed himself, yes he said it in a joking matter, but people do that to hide their actual pain. And just because he was raped doesn’t mean he’s not gonna have sex dreams. He drank Jessica’s blood so it was inevitable, but that’s besides the points anyways. Being raped doesn’t stop you from having sex dreams. People have sex just days or weeks after being raped to try to get over it and move on, so it doesn’t seem to weird to me that he would dream about sex.

    And in my opinion Tara’s rape was done well also. Honestly, I haven’t watched that Buffy episode in a long time (so i may be remembering it wrong), but I think it may have been more well done. Tara’s rape was with someone she liked, someone that she chose to sleep with first, and then it went too far. This is the case in so many rape situations, and so often they are portrayed with blame not at the rapist but at the victim, for being dumb and careless. It was done in a realistic situation in a way that Buffy’s was not, in a situation that people face almost every time they go out and decide they might want to go home with someone.

    I don’t think Alan Ball is overlooking it as much as showing it in a realistic way. If you know a rape victim (and im sure you do, everyone does) you wouldn’t see the stuff you want him to show. People see the outside, not  the inner turmoil of the victim and that is what Alan Ball subtly shows through Jason’s joke, and through Tara’s running to New Orleans. 

    • Guest

      spot on. almost exactly what i was going to comment with. thanks for saving me the time, lily!

    • Maxwell Smart

      very good counter-argument!

    • me

      Yea, but the way the rape is portrayed, you have to look at scripteded intent, not just received perception.

  • Dallas Trueblood

    Thanks Kat

    We have been really trying to cover this on my Talk Blood Radio show – you can listen to the podcast of the last 2 weeks discussion at http://lovingtruebloodindallas.blogspot.com/

    I have a number of weekly co- host and all of us Male/Female Gay /Straight have been bothered by this story line and like I said last week,  ALL of us never agree on anything!

    We may need to keep talking about this and maybe I need to have Kat on to talk more about her take ..

    Thanks again,  Dallas

    • Katgeorge

      Thanks for this! I had a look at your site, looks great–when I have some free time over the weekend I’ll try and have a listen to the podcasts! Keep up the great work! xx

  • http://www.aquaticcousins.blogspot.com/ SparkerPants

    I love the discussion this has sparked.

    • Katgeorge

      Me too!

  • Billy Chenowith

    In contrast to Ball’s depiction of rape in True Blood, his depiction of David’s assault & the aftermath of the trauma in Six Feet Under felt extremely authentic. Six Feet Under was the pinnacle of good premium television, I guess there’s no where to go but down from there…

  • Billy Chenowith

    In contrast to Ball’s depiction of rape in True Blood, his depiction of David’s assault & the aftermath of the trauma in Six Feet Under felt extremely authentic. Six Feet Under was the pinnacle of good premium television, I guess there’s no where to go but down from there…

  • LindaN

    As Freud would say, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Lighten up people!

  • Marie

    Thank you. Under no circumstance, in no context, should rape be a punchline. It should also be portrayed with the weight and devastation that it actually causes in real life. If the aftermath of Rene’s murders are still felt, seasons later, the least they can do is continue to portray, even if subtly, the characters’ struggles after surviving rape. 

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