The text from the letter (sent both to NOW and to key members of the True Blood creative team) is italicized below; it will flesh out some of our thoughts on this scene & give you deepened insight into our motivation for starting this blog and some of our goals for this forum. ~ Rachel
LETTER TO THE NATIONAL ORGANIZATION FOR WOMEN (NOW):
We watched—eyes wide and jaws agape—as during what some call an act of “hate sex,” vampire Bill Compton hurled his maker Lorena to the bed, tore off her clothes, and twisted her neck, turning her face to the floor as he forcefully thrust into her. Despite his contempt and brutality—and with blood dripping from her mouth—Lorena told Bill that she still loves him. This explicit rendering of eroticized rage played out during the final minutes of True Blood Season 3; Episode 3 entitled “It Hurts Me Too” and it shocked us at a gut level akin to the way feminist scholar Vicki Noble describes women’s response to the obscene prevalence of rape: “We experience our collective annihilation repeatedly, psychically and physically as a woman is raped every thirteen seconds in North America…”.1
And yet, we can’t condemn or denounce this scene bravely and powerfully acted by Mariana Klaveno and Stephen Moyer which according to the National Organization for Women (NOW) Media Hall of Shame blog entry “True Blood Depiction of Sexual Violence Goes Too Far” would appear to be the right and proper feminist response. Rather, we see this deliberately shocking scene—shocking not because it shows that Bill might not be right for Sookie but because of the vivid picture it paints of the brutal fantasies and realities of penetration, destruction, and domination that have pervaded our culture since its birth and continue to prevail—as an opportunity to interrogate violent misogyny. As women, feminists, and truebies we call upon NOW to reconsider this scene in a light more conducive to opening wider dialogue about sexual violence and gender politics.
We agree with NOW that although True Blood and its characters are fictional, this scene parallels real life in ways too horrifying to ignore; as Lisa Bennett, NOW Communications Director writes in the blog entry, it “taps into a hatred of women that still exists in our society—a revulsion toward women with power and a desire to punish them for making men feel weak”. Debates about the rough nature of vampire sex or Lorena’s acquiescence to Bill and her consuming desire for him aside, we think this scene viscerally raises issues around the proliferation of rape culture within the larger context of a culture of violence that are better addressed through thoughtful dialogue than censure.
NOW is unequivocal in its analysis of the scene in question as a “messed up depiction of women, men, violence, and sex” as well as in its call for feminists to deliver a “thanks but no thanks” message to HBO. Before we discard or avert our eyes from the difficult-to-digest imagery “It Hurts Me Too” hits us with, we should consider its value as a potent means through which to critically engage the cultural currents that animate these provocative issues and confront the places in our society where patriarchal power-over is nurtured and rationalized.
The power of pop culture in today’s media saturated world is undeniable; it’s a sociological phenomenon of unprecedented scope and effect which can immediately reach millions and True Blood is a part of it. Instead of vilifying True Blood and HBO—an easy out—why not leverage the widely viewed show’s potential to bring questions about the crucial social problems it addresses directly into the living rooms of more people than countless sermons, political tracts, or speeches could ever reach and to get viewers, male and female alike, to start looking for answers?
Several questions ripe for discourse spring immediately to mind: If Lorena is as NOW suggests the classic “bitch” archetype; the vamp viewers are encouraged to hate—a characterization that reduces her to a monolith—how might this comment on our culture which has long fragmented the Feminine; that so readily casts women as either virgin or whore? What kind of cultural context would need to exist for us to think differently? Given that Bill would have been compelled by vampire law to obey Lorena’s every command and therefore would have been unable to resist having sex with her had she not—through an act of compassion ages ago—released him from her control, she seems to us (for this and other reasons) a character with the light and shade of human nuance driven by a full range of emotion. Does she contradict herself? Or is she, as sage poet Walt Whitman describes himself in Leaves of Grass, large, containing multitudes? What does this say about women? Why does this scene disturb us so? Is it too hard to reconcile the genteel and romantic Bill Compton (currently tenuous grip on his humanity and all) with his willful despoiling of Lorena; his determination to utterly ruin her—and harder still for us to place such a rapacious mindset not at the margins of what this nation is all about, but at the center? And then of course, there’s the tired, old “but she asked for it” argument. Lorena is physically stronger than Bill; she could have stopped him if she really wanted to, right? Our sisterly bond has been strengthened through our feminist activism and one of us is a social worker who for a decade has worked with women who have been beaten, abused, stalked, raped, and threatened with death by men. In this instance is it too far a stretch to see in Lorena the faces of women who are “too strong” or “too smart” to stay in a destructive relationship but can’t bring themselves to leave due to emotional paralysis or cold, hard economics?
True Blood and HBO are not promoting, condoning, or glamorizing sexual violence; they are simply holding up a mirror to society and asking viewers—what do you see? True Blood—like all creative works—is inherently subjective; it has no absolute meaning, its value depends on what the audience makes of it. We challenge NOW to expand its involvement with the show beyond critique to active engagement. Check the pulse of how viewers interact with the show, the significance they attach to it and the meanings they construct for it, and then bring them into dialogue to learn how their ideas about True Blood and the problems it raises make ripples in their ways of thinking and being.
The final scene of “It Hurts Me Too” has impelled us to do just that; we are developing an interactive blog of our own in the tradition of the epic literary salons of eras past—theatres of conversation and exchange which were, incidentally, started and led by women—updated for the digital age and designed to facilitate sociocultural and political discourse through the medium of True Blood from a uniquely feminist perspective. We know there are lots of people who—like us—can be found Sundays at 9 o’clock doused in the glow of the latest episode as it flickers across their TV screens and an hour later lit up in discussion about its impact and we hope they, along with more casual viewers of True Blood, will join us as we explore the show’s complexities in a way that can spark transformation.
We respect and appreciate NOW and its members for their leadership and action in the movement for women’s rights. We hope they will find something of value here to sink their teeth into and we look forward to receiving a response to the ideas we have expressed.
1. Vicki Noble, Shakti Woman: Feeling Our Fire, Healing Our World (New York: HarperOne, 1991), p. 3.