‘True Blood’ to Women: “I Am Death”

Okay, guilty-pleasure-I-had-to-pay-for:  you’re Death.  And I choose life.

BFFs Tara, Lafayette and Sookie, in better days.

In the past couple of episodes of True Blood, I’ve noticed female characters getting punished for the apparently unforgivable crime of being female.  After the rape scene at the end of this season’s Episode 3 (do I spoil?  Oh.  Whoopsie), I thought I’d give the show I’ve watched for its entire run another hour to see if I should keep going.

Here’s what I saw in that hour (Episode 4, aptly titled “9 Crimes”):

  • The main character, Sookie, wearing a skimpy outfit to a bar (a place she’d have gone by herself, dressed very differently, in Season 1), chaperoned by a man
  • Another female character kidnapped by a male who claims to be “in love” with her
  • A fight between two women, on the topic of being “redheads”
  • Not one, not two, but three torture scenes, with a woman as the focus of each

It was the first time in my experience of media that a TV show closed two consecutive episodes with rape scenes.  As a female viewer, I got the message.  Loud and clear:  Better not come back.  Thank you, I won’t.

I know that the series creator is busy now, working on something else, and may not know what’s up on his old project.  He should, though.  True Blood is churning out some squicky, truly misogynistic stuff.  Earth to Alan Ball:  this moment, of women outnumbering men in the workforce and making the clear majority of purchasing decisions, is not the time to be pushing the ladies out of your clubhouse.

From The Ampersand:

… Something’s changed this season. Can you feel it? In the absence of a kick ass villain in Maryann, or a comedic Jester in Jane Bodehouse, or even the archetypal evil mother in Maxine, it seems like this season is focused on putting women in crappier and crappier scenarios… But something’s going on here. I find more and more that I spend a good portion of each episode wagging my finger around the screen. “What’s going on here? What is this? What am I looking at?”

… I feel a bit icky, and so I’m questioning it. I know I’m not alone.

You’re not, dear blogger.  Pop-culture barometer The Gawker weighs in on the subject, and is bummed.

From New York Magazine’s Vulture blog:

There’s usually a difference between the highly sexualized, twisted gore of True Blood and, say, the Saw franchise. But last night, the Nazi references, Eucharist, racism, theme of despair (apparently if you glamour a girl, she’s bound to tell you love is doomed and people only disappoint), collective screams, and seared female flesh didn’t seem to be building toward a point other than shock.

Not all reviews are negative.  This guy (who never watched The Wire?) finds commentary on the drug war in True Blood, calls it “devastating,” and particularly likes the line comparing a woman and a cigar.

To be fair, he writes for Slate (aka Saint Bartholomew’s Blog for Boy Writers).

I subscribe to pay cable, and I loved Six Feet Under, The Wire, and The Sopranos.  Each rewarded close attention with layered characters, great writing, and well-developed plots.  All of these hold up well; I still learn something new when I revisit episodes, even years later.

But those were programs for adults.  The people who made them understood pay cable.  The subscriber base exists for the same reason network TV rules do:  to define, restrict, and in some cases advance what people can and can’t do onscreen.

I’m sure the pay-cable landscape is challenging.  But watching True Blood lately, I wonder:   are there things people have to do in 46 minutes of HBO screen time?  Drop 25 f-bombs?  Show three and a half sex scenes, walk around naked in a mall?  How can it be this prescriptive, unless you don’t have much of a story to tell in the first place?

In that case, True Blood, screw the plot!  Let characters do what basic-cable people can’t, for 80 percent of every screen hour.  Don’t dress it all up in wolfskin and nonsense about the street prices of fake drugs.

Hell, torture porn is torture porn, right?  Why distract your new rapist viewers?

I believe in freedom-to:  freedom to spend the money I earn on the things I want to do, to choose among many options.  Freedom-from is not what I would advocate.  I’ll never say to anyone, male or female:  stop doing that.  I don’t know why anyone else consumes media, what he or she gets from the experience.  Nor could I tell them that quality is wrong or right.

But for me, there is a line.  A program, a movie, any art form can cross it.  Once this happens, it is exactly the same as what happens when someone I respect hurts me.  Somewhere inside, something breaks.  There is no going back.

I don’t long for it, wonder what happened to it or miss it.  It is simply over.

For True Blood and me, this actually is Death, I guess.


3 responses to “‘True Blood’ to Women: “I Am Death”

  1. LOM in the house! Mine, in fact! 🙂

    Now that you mention it, there was a time when I strayed (and stayed away) from “Six Feet Under”. It was during the time when Brenda became a caricature, I think. The whole crazy-siblings-whose-dad-was-a-shrink thing always felt a bit off, to me.

    But I came back around to loving them in the end: because of David and Keith, and the generous acting of Frances Conroy. Nate Fisher and his wives always seemed a bit out there to me, however. If any of them were puppet people: there you go.

    There may be something in Alan Ball that is deeply contemptuous of his characters. This was what made us in the audience feel smug, watching “American Beauty” — but it was also what kept those people insecting around in their little caricature of a neighborhood, in that endless suburban purgatory.

    Great observation. And thanks for the tip … I’ll be careful in the cabin for now on!


  2. PS– Hey! I agree about Slate writers but I like that Kipling quote; not for the misogyny but because I honestly like a good cigar.

    Don’t leave ’em burning in the cabin though.

    (disguised props for the Basket post)

  3. I wish I were up-to-speed on True Blood so I could address the specifics you mention, it sounds consistent with how I thought the show would eventually devolve, but I let HBO go (for varied reasons) just after TB season one. However Anne you mention Six Feet and think this I can add something to.

    I remember I had such high hopes for Six Feet after watching the first few episodes. Wow, an entertaining, adult examination of death and culture, I thought. It had that great dark gimmick to open with each week, and it had mood and I recognized and related to almost all the characters, sometimes in very off-beat ways of course, but I felt a human common ground under all their idiosyncracies. And S1 worked; I got hooked.

    But sometime in S2 I started getting the idea that the writers were just trying to shock and appall the audience strictly for the sake of the *Shock and Appall*. Ironically I can’t give you the specific moment this feeling tripped for me, I’d have to rewatch it all and I can’t, but I sensed a change in the “aura” ?? I don’t know what to call it. I felt like at some point I wasn’t watching a story being told anymore, I was watching a puppet show which had the intent of demonstrating how twisted and contorted the puppets could get. This grotesquery alone would not necessarily be a deal breaker for me, I appreciate the honest ugliness of the human condition, but it felt manipulative and manufactured and by the end of the S5 I was kind of glad it was gone. (Though the ultimate epi was pretty well done.)

    I’ve rambled. But my point is I think it’s Alan Ball. **Big General Statement Alert!!!** I don’t think he likes his characters, male or female. IMO, it’s been sadism disguised as “Honest ugly portayal of the human condition” or something. And from what I’ve just read about TB, it’s not disguised anymore.

    But now I’m really kinda curious to see if it’s as bad as you describe. (Not that I don’t trust your opinion AB. hee, hee)

    Ever want to write about The Wire, or the Sopranos, or Breaking Bad?

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