Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

Posts tagged “Lie to Me

Not Just for Suckers

Queen Mab, faerie queen from Season 4 of True Blood

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.[1]

Sookie as a Faerie, Season 4 of 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.

True Blood (top)/True Mud (below)

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.

[1] 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.

Lie to Me

Buffy the Vampire Slayer holds a special place in my heart as a beloved television show that managed to convey rather complex ideas to a somewhat young audience. In particular, “Lie to Me,” an episode from the second season, sees the main character obtain a more mature understanding about the power of deception. Examining the Slayer’s interaction with her mentor, audiences can instantly grasp a sense of Buffy’s internal struggle—one that does not lie in the realm of the supernatural but is entirely human—to make sense of a chaotic and complicated world. Through her words, Buffy demonstrates a desire for falsity that extends beyond a simple “white lie”; Buffy (momentarily) concedes to an untruth governing the fundamental operation of her world in order to decrease her cognitive dissonance.

Deception, in its many forms, can aim to reduce the cost of obtaining something of value (e.g., goods, services, protection, contentment, etc.). While animals will employ this tactic (e.g., mimicry) for self-preservation, human beings have taken the practice to more complex levels. Perhaps unsurprisingly, as we slowly exit the Age of Information, many current deceptive practices revolve around the manipulation of knowledge. Online, we might “fudge” our profile pictures in an attempt to lessen the rejection that we so desperately seek to avoid in real life; we might also alter a personal characteristic in order to test the waters of a new identity in an environment that dampens anxiety and judgment. Yet, while the relative ease of online deception confers us[1] some cognitive defense, it also threatens to overwhelm us with delusion.

We lie to others and, perhaps even worse, lie to ourselves. We look outward for acceptance and affirmation instead of delving inward to confront the deepest parts of ourselves. Technology has allowed us, as individuals, to connect over vast differences and afforded us many opportunities that we might not otherwise have; yet, in some ways, it has also left us disconnected from the things that (arguably) matter the most.

[1]  And our fragile male egos!

Don’t Lie


I couldn’t have asked for anything much better:  I pulled my feet up on the couch and settled in to watch one of my favorite episodes of Buffy. By now, I think it’s evident that I have an appreciation for the show and I promise that this will not be the last time that I talk about it in reference to sex. In any case, I have seen a number of installments in the series and I have to say that this particular episode, “Lie to Me,” was one of the most poignant. In many ways, the theme of the story arc is about growing up and realizing that things in life are rarely uncomplicated.

Throughout the episode, characters demonstrated a number of ways in which people lie. There are lies that we tell others in order to deceive or protect, lies that we tell ourselves so that we can sleep at night, lies that we believe in wholeheartedly when we don’t want to see the truth. We can tell ourselves lies to shield ourselves from things that we don’t want to see. We lie out of fear. There are overt lies and lies of omission. We use lies to create something out of nothing or mask what is already there.

For the next couple of days, I began to mull over the idea of lying; the concept stuck with me but I couldn’t pin down why it was so troublesome. There’s a moral objection, of course, that lying is not good but I’m fairly sure that everybody lies at some point in his or her life. Then, as the pressure of a looming deadline approached, it hit me:  in my view, one of the scariest places where we lie to each other is when we talk about sex (this is a sexual education website after all so you know I had to get there eventually). Lying about (or during) sex is not only upsetting as there are very real consequences for deceiving a person but also because it seems as though lying shatters the very intimacy that the act would appear to foster.

In the realm of sex, we lie about our age, about having a disease or having been tested, about the number of partners we’ve had (and quite possibly who those partners were in the first place). We lie about our experiences (e,g., “I’ve never done this before”). There are the more insidious lies that lead to rape and the lies we tell to get laid. And while all of these are certainly potential pitfalls, it always seems as though the most dangerous deceptions are the ones that we force upon ourselves. We tell ourselves that we don’t need to go get tested because there’s no way that we could have a disease. We tell ourselves that it’ll be okay to have sex one time without a condom because nothing could ever happen. We tell ourselves that we’ll sleep with the next person who comes along because we’re lucky to have anyone show the tiniest bit of interest in us—we lie and say that we’re lucky to have him or her. We tell ourselves that we could never do any better.

Sometimes I can’t help but wonder if, during all of this, part of our psyche actually wants to be lied to even though it knows that it’s being deceived. I certainly don’t want to advocate lying but that doesn’t mean that I don’t understand the temptation to lie or recognize why it happens in the first place. I get it; lies reduce anxiety for us and make the world simpler and although lies never solve a problem, they make things less complicated just for a second and sometimes that’s just what we need.