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.
The sun wasn’t doing anything to help things. Sweat began to pool under my collar, causing an unbearable urge to scratch—made worse by the fact that I couldn’t move a muscle. I stamped my foot in frustration as the word escaped my lips.
To be honest, it was the first thing that I thought of. I stood there, watching my classmate crumple in front of me as tears began to well in her eyes. This, I think, was when I committed my first hate crime.
I was seven.
I’m neither particularly proud of this moment nor ashamed of what happened. I don’t view myself as exceptionally racist, but I recognize my biases. This story is important to me because it reminds me that we are all capable of committing hate crimes—these are not things that are just perpetuated by other people. I can recall the way that I felt on that day in second grade and I realize that people engaging in these heinous acts must feel something similar. This is not to say that any amount of prejudice is acceptable, but I think that it is important to be just as hard on ourselves as we are on others.
In my last post, I talked a bit about power and I think that some of the same ideas apply to this week. This time, however, it’s personal. How do we react to our perceived loss of power? What do we do when we’re up against a wall? When we’re strung out and broken? When we think that there’s a demon inside of us? What do we look like when we’re grasping at straws? We’ll use anything, and everything, that we can to try get back to where we once were. Calling to mind scenes from True Blood, it’s Tara throwing things off of the mantle to make herself feel better, it’s Jason willing to dance on a webcam, it’s Lettie Mae pulling her cards out left and right. There’s so much in the show about possession, and drawing lines, and standing your ground. Who has the power? Who wants it? Who needs it? Who doesn’t have it? Who merely feels like he doesn’t have it?
Recall the idea of “the Other,” as well: power is all about the “haves” and the “have nots.” It’s about the fear that stems from feeling powerless and misusing power. It’s personifying the fear that we have into characters that we can relate to, and, more importantly, name.
Shows like this, or Battlestar Gallactica, are interesting in our post-9/11 world because they are so much about the powerless striking out in fear against those who they think can harm them. It’s weird to me, because I don’t think people become terrorists (or individuals who commit hate crimes) unless they feel like they are backed against a wall and don’t have much to lose. Terrorism is the language of the oppressed, of the beaten down, and of the people who are desperate to regain a semblance of power and control. Our fear of those who we perceive as more powerful is one of those dirty things that we don’t like to think about because I think it makes us too similar to “terrorists.” There’s certainly the whole X-Men/mutant thing where we see people with powers vs. people without them but it’s the same story over and over with different characters and us playing different roles. It’s no wonder that we respond to these sorts of stories when so much of our history has been a power struggle over various things—perhaps we’ve been programmed to identify with this concept.
In a flash of light it happens.
It makes sense that Sookie’s faerie powers help to set Eric right, for his reclaimed memory is conveyed through a set of remembered images. Faeries, as masters of light and image, allow us to realize what has been in front of us but just out of sight. And, what does it mean that the show conflates Wicca and witchcraft? Is magic grounded in Nature and, if so, what does it mean to break that spell?
Nan, with her head in the game, reminds us that image is all important.
In so many ways, this episode is about collapsing the structures that we have erected around us: physical, ideological, and of course those associated with personal identity. (It’s a more direct way to show that everyone’s starting to wake up from their various dreams.) Tommy, who gave up on himself a long time ago, killing himself time and time again as he became anything he could to escape, finally finds release.
And as heartbreaking as Tommy is, we have Marnie who becomes grosser (and more dangerous) than we could for she is the kid who’s so beaten down by the world that she has become vengeful. She will bring the world down just to see the pain end. It’s a dangerous proposition at best and one that will only get uglier before it gets better.
Extrication is the name of the game.
What happens when you’re in over your head and up against things that you couldn’t possibly understand? What happens when the adage holds true and “too much of a good thing” becomes your reality? When the thing you wanted becomes the thing you fear?
The only way out isn’t up—the only way out is through. Debbie, Tommy, and Lafayette get it. Jessica’s finally got the tools. Jesus and Jason got it because they’ve lived through this before. Eric, Sookie, and Bill will get it in the end.
And Marnie? She’ll get it just before she dies. Again.
It’s hard to come back from an episode that ends with a fade to white and a gasp. Taking a bit of a breather (was there ever any doubt that Jessica was in real danger?), it gives us a chance to reflect on times when the one thing the want—the thing that we burn for—is the very thing that will kill us. This story has been told time and again throughout history, with varying levels of moral shading, but, in some ways, it’s one of the things this show has always been about. It’s really kind of amazing, when you think about it—in this season, there’s the idea that the repressed part of you is going to destroy you, the notion that we will kill ourselves in order to save or protect the ones we love, and this last bit about the death drive.
And maybe this is particular to me, or the way that I see the world, but my favorite episodes with this, Caprica, BSG, or Six Feet Under are always ones where things are crumbling down everywhere you look. I suppose that part of it is that I trust these shows and know that the breakdown is delicious because it helps the characters prioritize and realize what is really important and what is really worth fighting for. I am always interested in the the choice to become hard or to become strong and episodes penned by Alan Ball do that so well.
Knowing, for example, that Eric will eventually get his memory back only makes it sweeter when Sookie allows herself to believe that Eric will never betray her. Sookie being happy and/or in love are somewhat surface issues for me—the real question is how, when, and why we choose to pursue a path that we know is going to come back to bite us in the end. The pain is going to be that much worse for all that we put into it. I don’t think the show comes down on either side but hopefully causes viewers to think about which choice is right in their own lives.
Homeostasis. Nature has a way of correcting itself, resetting the scales and maintaining a kind of chaotic order. Tumbling, turning, Halloween, shifting, and inversion–this season is all about seeing the same old things in the cold grey light of dawn.
Or maybe it’s really just seeing things as they really are (for the first time?). To live in a post-Edgington world is to live in a world that is constantly under surveillance. We work ourselves into a frenzy over issues of privacy and security, not realizing just how hard we have bought into the system. We have, collectively, become Big Brother (something anyone from Gossip Girl could tell you if he or she just thought about it hard enough). Social paranoia is the name of the game as we look for the first thing that’ll confirm our suspicions. We see things, then, not just as they are (to us) but as they have always been–and always will be. We are deaf to protestations, because, after all, that’s exactly what a zombie would say (and we knew it all along, anyway). To live in a post-Edgington world is to live in our world.
Or maybe it’s seeing the evident truths of others long before they do? Our gaze, focused at a distance, loses perspective on who and what is in front of us. We struggle to see what we’ve already lost. Older, wiser, we see the long view and just how far away we are from where we want to go.
Or maybe it’s seeing the truths that are all too evident to us. Driven by the spirit of Mab, we fixate on revenge, redemption, absolution, forgiveness, or our maker. We cling, we claw, and we scrape by because, for us, there’s only one way out, one way forward, one way through.
Sight. Seeing. Being seen. It’s what a part of this season is all about.
In different ways, we deal with the fracture of our selves, forgetting that we, as creatures of Nature, will also be set right by the cold grey light of dawn.
As children, we are taught that we can be anything we want to be, whether it be a President, an astronaut, or a firefighter. We can become, it seems, anything–as long as that thing is not ourselves.
We become the thing we hate because the thing we love is too much to bear; it’s too raw and too real, too fragile to survive. Defeated, we strive to be our worst, confident that, if nothing else, we can be that. Despite our best intentions, we become the person that we swore we’d never be, finding out that everything is just a matter of perspective once it’s too late. In order to protect the parts of ourselves we hold most sacred, we offer up our best parts of ourselves; in order to become who we want to be, we give up who we are.
We become the thing we love because the thing we hate is too much to bear; cobbled together with spent wishes and worn-out prayers, we cling to the thing we hope to be because it beats the hell out of who we really are. We focus on who we can be–who we could be–or who we were because who we are is too much and never enough. A shine, a sheen, a glamour–one day we’ll forget that we’ve slipped into another skin and it’ll all be for real.