From the beginning of its debut, True Blood has pushed the edge of what was possible with TV violence and sex. But is there any point to the extreme sex and violence on the show? And has it gone too far?
Is This Rape Or Vampires Being Vampires?
This brings us back to True Blood, and to the scene outlined at the beginning of the article. As I mentioned, internet chatter following the episode’s airing revealed that viewers took notice. However, most discussion of the scene revolved around whether or not what we had in fact watched was a rape scene. Viewers and reviewers alike considered whether Lorena had in some way been able to consent to the act, and most decided that her blood-choked gasp of “I still love you” was the golden ticket.
From here the collective commentary went on to conclude that obviously this is just what vampires do. It makes sense that vampire sex would be rough, and a conversation between Bill and Lorena—who appeared ‘alive’ and well—at the beginning of the following episode seemed to indicate that this was the case. For me, herein lies the crux of the issue: the context effectively decontextualises the scene’s violence, thereby rendering it unproblematic. The scene showed the most graphic act of sexual violence done to a woman by a man I’ve ever seen in mainstream popular culture. We should be discussing it in these terms, contextualising it in reality instead of mitigating its severity by trying to justify it in the context of the show.
When I watch the scene what I see is this. Bill, in a moment of rage, uses sex as a way to violently humiliate Lorena. He does this through the ultimate act of sexual objectification, reducing her to a lifeless but still sexually desirable object. By twisting her head around completely during the act of sex he is able to have complete sexual power over her body without having to even see her face—he doesn’t need to think of her as a person in any way. Worse, to make his domination of her complete he gets to have her say she’s OK with it. This appalling line of dialogue not only demonstrates his complete sexual, physical and emotional power over her but also seems to have restricted debate around the issue by reframing it in terms of consent. Even reframed the debate remains simplistic, with consent somehow to be taken as an on/off switch, as though as soon as Lorena indicates that she’s OK with what’s happening Bill can go to town. If someone consents to an initiation of sex it is still rape if things become nonconsensually violent halfway through.
While it may seem callously trite to compare the scene to sexual violence in reality, to my mind it doesn’t make sense not to. Whenever a creator puts something out into the world—film, TV, book, music, video game or anything—it is going to resonate with reality whether the intent is there or not. While no creator can ever fully anticipate what that resonance might be, they should certainly be able to take responsibility for their creation and defend it if necessary.
I tried to find out what if anything the show’s creative team had said about the scene, but creator Alan Ball doesn’t seem to have addressed it. Best known for the excellent Six Feet Under, a show which explored issues around sex and gender with intelligence and maturity, I was surprised at his silence. All I could find were a few quotes from actress Mariana Klaveno, who said the scene was “the most shocking thing that I've ever read in a television script”.
At face value, the scene seems to touch on everything I’ve discussed regarding problematic depictions of violence in popular culture. It is certainly graphic, and being completely unexpected it succeeded in shocking viewers. I have argued this is not in itself a problem—True Blood is horror after all and frequently revels in gruesome shock tactics. Where the scene runs into trouble is context and justification.
I believe that it is unacceptable to show sexual violence of such an extreme nature in a program that seems completely unwilling to address the social and political ramifications of such violence. Worse, we as viewers are actively discouraged from engaging with the violence as problematic through the scene’s situation in a fantasy world, a world where no consequences for Bill have been discussed. We wouldn’t be asking whether or not True Blood had depicted an act of extreme sexual violence if it hadn’t occurred between two vampires—we would know it.
The week after “It Hurts Me Too” aired I warily sat down to watch the following episode, “9 Crimes”, unsure of what to expect. I can’t tell whether I’ve been sensitised to the show’s violence or whether it has simply become worse, but none of the women fared particularly well. Over the course of the episode, True Blood’s women were held hostage by psychopaths, attacked in their homes, murdered in limousines, and in a particularly stressful scene, publicly branded.
I wouldn’t argue that acts of violence against women or marginalised groups depicted in popular culture are never OK, but here the context seems to speak for itself. One act of violence may be just that, but I’ve seen enough in True Blood to indicate a pattern, and now I find it hard to watch at all. For me, the show’s misogyny is pervasive and unjustified.
There is no clear cut way to decide when depictions of violence in popular culture “cross the line” and when they don’t—anyway, that line is going to be different for everyone. All we can do is be critical pop culture consumers and look for context and justification when we are confronted by what we consume. It might seem as though I’m singling out True Blood, and to be honest I am, I think fairly so—I did not sit down to watch it expecting to be confronted with one of the most disturbing depictions of violence I’ve ever seen.
The experience has made me reassess Alan Ball, who had won so much good will from me for Six Feet Under. I suspect that with True Blood, Ball has pulled the wool over the eyes of the world. They say that first impressions never lie, and I remember when the show began two years ago that critics and viewers were skeptical.
Perhaps it is merely time, sentimentality and Ball’s status as an acclaimed creator of television that have clouded our judgment and led us to proclaim that True Blood is nuanced and politically aware and somehow an allegory for our times. I have come to believe that it is not. That’s fine, it doesn’t need to be, but until its violence can be justified as something other than unaware, gratuitous misogyny, we should not pretend it is anything else.