Not Just for Suckers
As I’ve grown older, I have to increasingly come to appreciate the ways in which I have managed to pursue an academic discipline that affords me the ability to watch copious amounts of television. Who would have thought that I could go to school to watch vampires on TV? And yet here I am.
But as much as I watch television for fun, I also constantly find myself turning a critical eye to the subject at hand. A long-time fan of mythology and the power of narrative, I often think about how characters and tropes in television shows reflect, articulate, and create new aspects of culture. Very much in alignment with Stuart Hall’s notion of decoding/encoding, I believe that television is dissected by viewers and the pieces are shuffled around to enact new forms of meaning.
As such, I’m quite intrigued by the viewers of shows like True Blood (HBO, 2008-present). Over the years, vampires have been theorized to embody issues of gender (e.g., Nina Auerbach’s Our Vampires, Ourselves), sexuality (Camilla and the lesbian vampire or James Twitchell’s work on the fears of male heterosexuality), and medicine and the body (Ludmilla Jordanova’s Sexual Visions: Images of Gender and Medicine and Science between the Eighteenth and Twentieth Centuries). And while these themes are still relevant to contemporary culture, I think that it would be interesting to investigate issues of authenticity and representation in a show like True Blood.
Although this past season featured a number of references to illusion, appearance, and authenticity (ranging from introduction of faeries—long known to be notorious visual tricksters—to politicians and amnesia), the series itself has also wrestled with “realness” over its run. Whether it is vampires struggling with their “true nature,” the duplicity of organized religion, or relationships wherein one is cruel to be kind, I’m curious to examine how viewers interpret themes of authenticity and employ these incidents as references or models of behavior. How, for example, do viewers navigate the multiple layers of reality that exist on the show? How do stereotypes (i.e., “this is what you say I am) meld with religious themes (with an underlying current of “this body/life is not all that I am) and the lingering accusation of “Are you now or have you ever been a vampire?” Are the contemporary interpretations of vampires consistent with previous ways of thinking? Who watches the show and with whom? Do viewers watch a show multiple times (and does their understanding of the show evolve)?
Admittedly, one might be able to develop a rich body of work as a result of conducting a media ethnography on a show like True Blood but one should also be mindful of who is left out of this type of investigation, namely that one might miss the effects that a particular program has outside of its primary viewership. Obviously researchers must eventually decide who to examine in the process of ethnography as resources are not unlimited; this reality does not, however, excuse researchers from clearly labeling the bounds of their inquiry and articulating the limitations of their work. But, if we follow the argument that media can constitute culture, we can see how individuals may interact with a particular property at the level of culture without ever viewing the source material.
Take, for example, the Sesame Street short “True Mud,” which is roughly based on HBO’s True Blood. Here we see the potential for a wonderfully rich and complex set of meanings as Sesame Street appropriates a popular (and very adult) television show in order to wink at parents who might have seen True Blood. Although a portion of parents watching the “True Mud” skit might think back to an episode of True Blood, there are also assuredly parents who understand the reference but have never seen the show or parents who have no idea that “True Mud” is a parody of anything. These parents would most likely not consider themselves viewers of True Blood but their voices might tell researchers something about how True Blood fits into a larger media ecology.
Watching the clip, one immediately begins to develop a host of questions. What is the importance of the Southern setting and what does such an environment evoke for viewers of “True Mud” and True Blood? How does this contrast in setting relate to the environment of Sesame Street, which is urban? What is the demographic makeup of audiences for “True Mud” and True Blood and how does this constitution affect the way that the South is understood in relation to the property? How and why does the concept of a vampire map onto a grouch from Sesame Street? How does this presentation of a grouch differ from Oscar?
Ultimately, interviewing viewers of a property allows researchers to develop a complex understanding of the ways in which a piece of media might influence individuals but we must also recognize that the impact of media does not just stop with those who watch it directly. References made in pop culture, interpersonal interactions, or even children’s shows indicate that media can exhibit echoes as it permeates our lives.
 As a side note, this theme has been something that has been building up steam for a couple of years as I am curious about the seeming need for characters who can see through the veil or otherwise ascertain a measure of “objective” truth. We’ve seen shows like The Mentalist and Psych that feature incredibly observant individuals; Lie to Me, which concerned itself with Paul Ekman’s micro-expressions and truth telling, Ringer and The Vampire Diaries, which both feature doppelgängers, and Once Upon a Time and Grimm that both prominently feature a character who can see things that others can’t.