True Blood may at first glance appear to be a fantastical glimpse into an imaginary world where vampires and humans coexist, designed to satiate our escapist desires to watch plenty of gore, sex, and scenes of forbidden love. While all of these crowd pleasers are part of the series’ appeal, after watching closely it becomes clear that the show is actually much more intelligent and complex below the surface, serving as a commentary on contemporary societal issues, ranging from homophobia and racism to larger questions of ignorance, intolerance, and the role of religion.
The premise of the show, as described on HBO’s website reads as follows:
Thanks to a Japanese scientist’s invention of synthetic blood, vampires have progressed from legendary monsters to fellow citizens overnight. And while humans have been safely removed from the menu, many remain apprehensive about these creator ‘coming out of the coffin.’ Religious leaders and government officials around the world have chosen their sides, but in the small Louisiana town of Bon Temps, the jury is still out.
It is clear from the use of the phrase “coming out of the coffin” which is thrown around a bit in the beginning of the show, that the premise of vampires being integrated into mainstream society can be viewed a metaphor for gay rights. There is even mention of the controversy over vampire marriage a few times (if you listen closely) in season 1. Even though vampires have been allowed to “come out,” they face discrimination from religious groups, government officials, and individuals who are vampire-phobic (to continue the metaphor). Vampires themselves are divided between those who want to “go mainstream” and assimilate with the rest of human society and those who want nothing to do with humans, and continue to feed off real blood (analogous to the civil rights movement, in which some groups encouraged assimilation, while others, such as the “back to Africa movement” and the Black Panther Party advocated a return to African roots and a defense of freedom though revolutionary and sometimes violent means when necessary). Similarly there are those humans who accept vampires and see them as equals, and those who feel strongly that vampires do not belong in their communities, an allusion to the real life racism and homophobia that is (unfortunately) still prevalent in our country today.
Of course there is one thing that makes vampires a quite different than minorities: the fact that they do have the power to kill people and feed off of their blood. But that aside, the vampire situation is similar to that of ethnic and sexual minorities in the US throughout history, those who have been regarded with hate and intolerance by the rest of society. The fact that the show takes place in a small town in the South makes this statement all the more dynamic.
The DVD version of True Blood Season 1 includes two bonus features that are mock public service announcements, one pro equal vampire rights (sponsored by the American Vampire League) and one anti-vampire rights (sponsored by the religious group, the Fellowship of the Sun). These videos play off of the anti-discrimination platform in a more heavy-handed manner than the rest of the show, with catch phrases like “vampires were real people too,” calling for an end to hatred and ignorance. The anti-vampire video pokes fun of racism and sexism in America, featuring angry citizens who don’t want vampires moving into their neighborhoods or exerting a bad influence on their kids for fear that they will “imitate” the vampire lifestyle.
This whole dynamic is present in the very first scene of the pilot episode when a couple, curious to see that True Blood is being sold in Louisiana (“I didn’t even think we had any vamps in Louisiana!”) pulls over to a gas station on the side of the rode to see for themselves. When they enter the station, the news is on and we can hear it playing diagetically, as the camera pans around the store. The woman speaking, Nan Flanigan, is the spokesperson for the American Vampire League, a group advocating equal rights for vampires. She is often seen on the news throughout the season, debating with right wing government and religious leaders. “We’re citizens,” she states, “we pay taxes. We deserve basic civil rights just like everyone else.” When the counter view is stated, that “your race has exploited and fed off of humans for centuries,” she responds “doesn’t your race have a history of exploitation? We never owned slaves, Bill, or detonated nuclear weapons.”
The show also overtly addresses racism and other forms of intolerance. When Tara quits her job in the pilot episode, she threatens the white store manager, “I’m gonna get my baby daddy who just got out of prison to come and kick yo teeth in” and when the manager begs her not to, she responds, “I’m not serious, you pathetic racist.” Lafayette, an openly gay character, consistently threatens to beat up any of the customers at his restaurant (who he calls “ignorant rednecks”) who make any derogatory jokes about homosexuality.
Tara, however, is never totally sympathetic to the vampire cause, continually warning Sookie to stay away from vampires for her safety. Sookie scolds her for being “small minded” when Bill first enters the bar and Tara warns her to be careful. This attribute is part of what makes Sookie so relatable as the protagonist of the show. The fact that she herself is different than most people (she can read minds–crazy, I know) makes her more accepting of others. She never once questions her acceptance of vampires and her conviction that they deserve the same rights and kindnesses as human beings.
True Blood also delivers a biting critique of religion (no pun intended). The fictional conservative religious sect, “The Fellowship of the Sun” is devoted to preaching against vampires and even going to far as to advocate their murder. In episode 12, the finale of the first season, an advocate of the Church comes to visit Jason in prison when he is wrongly accused of murdering “fang-bangers” (people who have sexual relationships with vampires). He condones the murders, declaring that the Church is “dedicated to the preservation and salvation of the human race.” The church views murders of vampires as “a service to Jesus.” The role of the church in the show points to the hypocrisy of an institution that is often narrow-minded toward those who are different, the same institution that, over the course of history, has often advocated hatred and violence in the name of a higher power.
You can view that episode (illegally) here. The scene takes place 10 minutes in.
As Artistotle writes in Poetics, “The poet being an imitator, like a painter or any other artist, must of necessity imitate one of three objects– things as they were or are, things as they are said or thought to be, or things as they ought to be” (p.111). The whole notion of using art as a form of social commentary can be related back to Aristotle’s concept of mimesis as the imitation of nature. True Blood uses a fictional tale of vampires to comment on real life issues, showing us things as they are through a different perspective. The plot of the show may not be realistic, but it’s underlying message, one of acceptance and tolerance, is as real as ever, especially in light of the current debate over gay marriage. The beauty of art, whether in the form of painting, or television, is that it can creatively address these serious issues in a thought provoking, yet entertaining manner.
So, for all of you True Blood fans who used to view the show as a guilty pleasure, embarrassed that all of your friends thought you were a Twilight-obsessed, Edward Cullen lover who just jumped on the sexy vampire bandwagon because everyone else was doing it, you can now breathe a sigh of relied. You are actually watching an intelligently-written artistic form of social commentary and therefore care about social issues….or at least you can say that to your friends so they won’t judge you.