First published on Nerve.com on July 14, 2009. Read the original with comments here.
To talk about True Blood is to talk about sex: barely a scene goes by without something between innuendo and a full-on orgy. This isn’t new to vampire fiction, as Latoya Peterson pointed out in a piece for Double X. That the sexuality of the female leads is under heavy scrutiny is no surprise, given how much horror fiction has centered on feminine helplessness. To Peterson, the current crop of pointy-toothed dramas continues the genre’s fascination with sexual violence and the idealization of the chaste woman. I can’t fault her for taking issue with eroticized depictions of abuse, often against women. But she’s wrong to equate the sexual politics of True Blood with those of the abstinent, repressed Twilight.
These two are not the same animal. Twilight‘s Bella Swan is a virgin until marriage, and the influence of author Stephanie Meyer’s Mormon ideals is well-covered territory. The entire series is heavy with the sex the characters can’t have; it gets its charge from the tantalizing and unattainable. Sookie Stackhouse, the female lead of True Blood, may have started as a virgin, but soon she, like almost every other character on the show, is getting down, having grimy, sometimes wildly unhygienic sex with her vampire boyfriend Bill. But despite her “transgression,” Sookie remains the heroine of the series.
Of course, last season featured the problematic subplot of women, or “fangbangers,” being murdered for sleeping with vampires. Even though the killer was set up as the season’s ultimate villain, showing these women getting punished for their sexual activity ran the risk of keeping the old, unfortunate trope alive. But, unlike in traditional horror films where virginity equals salvation for the scantily clad heroine, Sookie not only lost her virginity and lived — she killed the bad guy. And Season 2 has found Sookie getting more and more in touch with her inner wildcat, going after what she wants sexually and in her relationship.
As is Tara, the other main female character, who’s keeping busy in the bedroom and remaining quite alive. Really, there are few abstinent characters on this show, especially now that mysterious MaryAnn, a woman who looks human but definitely isn’t, is throwing parties that turn into Caligula-like orgies. And even the characters who do abstain — and promote more traditional values, like Sarah the preacher’s wife — seem to be sexually smoldering at the core. If anything, repression signifies “evil” in True Blood’s evolving universe.
Arguably, all this transgression could make for a portrayal of sex as simplistic as Twilight‘s, just reversed. But then True Blood gives us a subplot about newly-made vampire Jessica, once a tightly controlled and religious girl, now a petulant and confused perpetual-teenager. When she gingerly takes home a boy she meets at the town bar and accidentally pops her fangs, it’s like every fifteen-year-old boy’s nightmare made flesh. And when her new boy sweetly tells her that her fangs are beautiful because they’re a part of who she is, it’s a rare moment of sweetness amid the hormonal madness.
Jessica is almost the anti-Sookie. She was widely hated last season for being a one-dimensional annoying brat, whose sole reason for existence was to put a kink into Sookie and her vampire lover Bill’s own kink. But this season Jessica is growing up, and the excitement and fear that comes with everyone’s introduction to sex has made her the most compelling character on the show. While Sookie was tormented by the choice between two men last season, and is dealing with some often-boring relationship bickering this season, Jessica is eager and hungry to experience all the things she thought she’d missed out on — from making out with boys to telling off her parents. When, in the latest episode, she orders a snack from room service (“male, straight, B-negative”) at a vampire-friendly hotel, you don’t think she’s sleeping around. You cheer her on.
To a degree, True Blood is confused and confusing when it comes to its portrayal of sex. But the show seems to be growing towards a more natural and nuanced depiction of sexuality, not just for the women but for everyone in the vampire-filled town of Bon Temps. If the show were all bacchanal madness and beefcake adoration, Peterson would be right: we’d have a problem. But as long as we can find a spark of soul amid the profane, watching True Blood should be a guiltless pleasure.