More Vampires, This Time With a Twist

Sarah Seltzer

It may not escape some of the conservative currents that inform vampire stories, but True Blood does a good job of scrambling and subverting them.

Vampires. Every time we think they’re dead as a trend, they pop back up out of their coffin, and no amount of garlic or silver can get rid of them.  The fact that HBO’s campy new southern vampire drama, True Blood, has definitively become the network’s most popular show since The Sopranos, (a third season was just announced) means that even in between Twilight installments we’ve still got the alluring undead on our collective brains.

But what to make of True Blood, which aims to be the anti-Twilight, a progressive, sexually explicit, provocative mishmash of vampire motifs? In its world, vampires have "come out of the coffin" and begin to debate assimilation, while human-vampire couplings are frequent, hot and viciously targeted by religious conservatives. On the surface we appear to be a long way from Forks, Washington, the setting of the breathlessly un-feminist  Twilight.

But is True Blood the same thing sans abstinence? Vampires after all, are often reactionary messengers masked in seductive cloaks, symbols used to express fears of changing sexual dynamics. Some observers think True Blood fits the trend. But to read True Blood as just another retrograde vampire tale would be to simplify the message of this admittedly absurdist series, which centers around the residents of Bon Temps, Louisiana, both human and supernatural, as they adjust to each other and track down the murderers and evil creatures in their mix.
Rather than making an explicit political point, True Blood is a series of thought experiments and playful takeoffs on our sexual mores, fears and paranoia.

It may not escape some of the underlying conservative currents that inform vampire stories, but it does a good job of scrambling and subverting them. The show follows the same impetus with racial, regional and even supernatural-identity stereotypes: when it started the characters all seemed to fit into predetermined niches based on external characteristics, but their personalities, motivations, and destinies get confused over the course of the wild soap-opera ride. Maybe that’s creator Alan Ball’s parodic intent: we are and aren’t what society labels us.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

In the past month, as True Blood’s ratings climb higher, progressive critics have identified what they see as troubling implications . Latoya Peterson at Double X makes the point that the primary relationship between heroine Sookie Stackhouse, a human, and her Southern gentleman vampire lover Bill Compton does have some echoes of the icky Bella-Edward pairing from Twilight–positing an overprotective, dangerous,"old-school " male partner as the ultimate sex symbol. Sookie also has a whiff of wholesomeness about her: she started out the show as the town’s only virgin (although it wasn’t out of choice, it was because she could read the thoughts of her partners and therefore never go through with it). Peterson writes:

But, from a feminist perspective, [True Blood creator Alan Ball] is still transmitting the same idea: To be desired, a woman should be beautiful, virginal, and submissive.

In both series, sex is spiked with danger. A man’s protection and a woman’s desire are intimately connected to violence. Sookie frequently finds herself the subject of Bill’s wrath while he is trying to protect her.

She’s right. Particularly in recent episodes, Bill’s neuroses about Sookie’s well being indeed results in him being a little Edward-ish, as does his catchphrase growl: "Sookie is Mine!"

But Sookie is far from naive, self-hating Bella, Edward’s love object. Sookie openly grapples with the fact that her lover has a superpower and its implications for her life as an independent women. She is an unmarried woman who is quite content with her healthy sexual appetite–which she realizes after understanding she can’t read Bills’ thoughts in bed–and she doesn’t get punished for it by the show’s creators. She is smart in a "Southern-cute" way (which can be quite irritating). But she’s perhaps better able to manipulate the vampire hierarchy than the quick-to take offense Bill with his male pride. And instead of swooning over her handsome partner and talking marriage, she accepts that it’s an imperfect pairing that may not last. In a recent episode, she tells her best friend Tara that Bill is not Prince Charming, but rather the most compatible partner she can find–and as we know from the books, theirs might not be a monogamy-until-undeath pairing.

Finally, Sookie may be naive and silly at times, but she gets a lot of things accomplished that the men around her can’t, most notably offing a vampire-hating serial killer with a well-timed shovel blow to the neck, as two of her shape-shifting and vampire beaux try and fail to protect her. She rescues fan favorite character Lafayette from a vampire dungeon by commandeering a gun and driving a shrewd bargain with his captors. In short, just as Bill’s desire to live among humans subverts his image as a cold vampire, Sookie subverts her image as a simple southern belle. The other characters who begin as stereotypes have begun to branch beyond them as well, from Tara who started off as a bit of an "angry black best friend" stock character but has shown sweetness, insecurity and understandable hurt, to Eric who began as an icy, authoritarian Nordic vampire king but has recently shown some sentimentality and even humor. The fact that we basically have no clue what direction any of the characters are headed in right now is evidence that our initial stock impressions of them have been largely swept away.

The other concern levelled about the show is that the allegory of vampires as a persecuted group fighting for acceptance is a dangerous one for gays and minorities because a lot of vampires really are bad and do want to eat people–in other words they’re an oppressed minority who may deserve it. Michelle Goldberg at the Daily Beast writes:

This conceit is cheeky and clever, but it has troubling implications, because the vampires, political rhetoric aside, aren’t really interested in joining human society…most of the vampires we meet are arrogant, perverse, and cruel—everything the far right believes gays to be…the local vampire headquarters is tawdry, decadent nightclub called Fangtasia, where human tourists come for the kink and some are ensnared and corrupted. The vampire leaders are voracious and vain; in one of this season’s most darkly funny scenes, one of them dismembers a man while getting foil highlights, then frets about the blood in his hair.

It’s a huge mistake to believe that Alan Ball doesn’t know that his vampires, with their sexual magnetism and perverse power, are directly playing into fears about gays as hypnotic sexual deviants. His world isn’t in any way a direct allegory for ours, but rather a purposefully boundary-pushing imaginary world in which a minority group actually does have ungodly power and ability to pull others into their "lifestyle." In this world, there are vampires who want to use their powers to dominate humans and those who want to befriend humans, and on the other side humans who want to accept vampires while their fundamentalist and bigoted neighbors (by far the creepiest characters in the show) want to kill them all. And in the middle, the inter-species couple of Sookie and Bill try to bridge the gap while sometimes showing the price of trying to do so in a polarized world. She can be too trusting of supernatural beings while he, in the midst of self-loathing, can’t imagine his fellows vamps doing anything good.

Ultimately the show looks at sex, gender, race, religion and oppression based on those categories through the lens of outlandish parody. It uses a big bubbling cauldron of different ideas and images as its aesthetic vehicle. So instead of making a explicit "point" or containing a core message, it aims to exaggerate, subvert and muddle the motifs that are already out there. The show is pure provocation–but it’s intentional provocation, and the debates that it’s now engendering are part of its raison d’etre. So don’t worry– even good liberals can enjoy this "guilty pleasure" with clear conscience.

News Sexual Health

State with Nation’s Highest Chlamydia Rate Enacts New Restrictions on Sex Ed

Nicole Knight Shine

By requiring sexual education instructors to be certified teachers, the Alaska legislature is targeting Planned Parenthood, which is the largest nonprofit provider of such educational services in the state.

Alaska is imposing a new hurdle on comprehensive sexual health education with a law restricting schools to only hiring certificated school teachers to teach or supervise sex ed classes.

The broad and controversial education bill, HB 156, became law Thursday night without the signature of Gov. Bill Walker, a former Republican who switched his party affiliation to Independent in 2014. HB 156 requires school boards to vet and approve sex ed materials and instructors, making sex ed the “most scrutinized subject in the state,” according to reproductive health advocates.

Republicans hold large majorities in both chambers of Alaska’s legislature.

Championing the restrictions was state Sen. Mike Dunleavy (R-Wasilla), who called sexuality a “new concept” during a Senate Education Committee meeting in April. Dunleavy added the restrictions to HB 156 after the failure of an earlier measure that barred abortion providers—meaning Planned Parenthood—from teaching sex ed.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

Dunleavy has long targeted Planned Parenthood, the state’s largest nonprofit provider of sexual health education, calling its instruction “indoctrination.”

Meanwhile, advocates argue that evidence-based health education is sorely needed in a state that reported 787.5 cases of chlamydia per 100,000 people in 2014—the nation’s highest rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Surveillance Survey for that year.

Alaska’s teen pregnancy rate is higher than the national average.

The governor in a statement described his decision as a “very close call.”

“Given that this bill will have a broad and wide-ranging effect on education statewide, I have decided to allow HB 156 to become law without my signature,” Walker said.

Teachers, parents, and advocates had urged Walker to veto HB 156. Alaska’s 2016 Teacher of the Year, Amy Jo Meiners, took to Twitter following Walker’s announcement, writing, as reported by Juneau Empire, “This will cause such a burden on teachers [and] our partners in health education, including parents [and] health [professionals].”

An Anchorage parent and grandparent described her opposition to the bill in an op-ed, writing, “There is no doubt that HB 156 is designed to make it harder to access real sexual health education …. Although our state faces its largest budget crisis in history, certain members of the Legislature spent a lot of time worrying that teenagers are receiving information about their own bodies.”

Jessica Cler, Alaska public affairs manager with Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii, called Walker’s decision a “crushing blow for comprehensive and medically accurate sexual health education” in a statement.

She added that Walker’s “lack of action today has put the education of thousands of teens in Alaska at risk. This is designed to do one thing: Block students from accessing the sex education they need on safe sex and healthy relationships.”

The law follows the 2016 Legislative Round-up released this week by advocacy group Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. The report found that 63 percent of bills this year sought to improve sex ed, but more than a quarter undermined student rights or the quality of instruction by various means, including “promoting misinformation and an anti-abortion agenda.”

Analysis Law and Policy

After ‘Whole Woman’s Health’ Decision, Advocates Should Fight Ultrasound Laws With Science

Imani Gandy

A return to data should aid in dismantling other laws ungrounded in any real facts, such as Texas’s onerous "informed consent” law—HB 15—which forces women to get an ultrasound that they may neither need nor afford, and which imposes a 24-hour waiting period.

Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down two provisions of Texas’ omnibus anti-abortion law, has changed the reproductive rights landscape in ways that will reverberate in courts around the country for years to come. It is no longer acceptable—at least in theory—for a state to announce that a particular restriction advances an interest in women’s health and to expect courts and the public to take them at their word.

In an opinion driven by science and data, Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for the majority in Whole Woman’s Health, weighed the costs and benefits of the two provisions of HB 2 at issue—the admitting privileges and ambulatory surgical center (ASC) requirements—and found them wanting. Texas had breezed through the Fifth Circuit without facing any real pushback on its manufactured claims that the two provisions advanced women’s health. Finally, Justice Breyer whipped out his figurative calculator and determined that those claims didn’t add up. For starters, Texas admitted that it didn’t know of a single instance where the admitting privileges requirement would have helped a woman get better treatment. And as for Texas’ claim that abortion should be performed in an ASC, Breyer pointed out that the state did not require the same of its midwifery clinics, and that childbirth is 14 times more likely to result in death.

So now, as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg pointed out in the case’s concurring opinion, laws that “‘do little or nothing for health, but rather strew impediments to abortion’ cannot survive judicial inspection.” In other words, if a state says a restriction promotes women’s health and safety, that state will now have to prove it to the courts.

With this success under our belts, a similar return to science and data should aid in dismantling other laws ungrounded in any real facts, such as Texas’s onerous “informed consent” law—HB 15—which forces women to get an ultrasound that they may neither need nor afford, and which imposes a 24-hour waiting period.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

In Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld parts of Pennsylvania’s “informed consent” law requiring abortion patients to receive a pamphlet developed by the state department of health, finding that it did not constitute an “undue burden” on the constitutional right to abortion. The basis? Protecting women’s mental health: “[I]n an attempt to ensure that a woman apprehends the full consequences of her decision, the State furthers the legitimate purpose of reducing the risk that a woman may elect an abortion, only to discover later, with devastating psychological consequences, that her decision was not fully informed.”

Texas took up Casey’s informed consent mantle and ran with it. In 2011, the legislature passed a law that forces patients to undergo a medical exam, whether or not their doctor thinks they need it, and that forces them to listen to information that the state wants them to hear, whether or not their doctor thinks that they need to hear it. The purpose of this law—at least in theory—is, again, to protect patients’ “mental health” by dissuading those who may be unsure about procedure.

The ultra-conservative Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the law in 2012, in Texas Medical Providers v. Lakey.

And make no mistake: The exam the law requires is invasive, and in some cases, cruelly so. As Beverly McPhail pointed out in the Houston Chronicle in 2011, transvaginal probes will often be necessary to comply with the law up to 10 to 12 weeks of pregnancy—which is when, according to the Guttmacher Institute, 91 percent of abortions take place. “Because the fetus is so small at this stage, traditional ultrasounds performed through the abdominal wall, ‘jelly on the belly,’ often cannot produce a clear image,” McPhail noted.

Instead, a “probe is inserted into the vagina, sending sound waves to reflect off body structures to produce an image of the fetus. Under this new law, a woman’s vagina will be penetrated without an opportunity for her to refuse due to coercion from the so-called ‘public servants’ who passed and signed this bill into law,” McPhail concluded.

There’s a reason why abortion advocates began decrying these laws as “rape by the state.”

If Texas legislators are concerned about the mental health of their citizens, particularly those who may have been the victims of sexual assault—or any woman who does not want a wand forcibly shoved into her body for no medical reason—they have a funny way of showing it.

They don’t seem terribly concerned about the well-being of the woman who wants desperately to be a mother but who decides to terminate a pregnancy that doctors tell her is not viable. Certainly, forcing that woman to undergo the painful experience of having an ultrasound image described to her—which the law mandates for the vast majority of patients—could be psychologically devastating.

But maybe Texas legislators don’t care that forcing a foreign object into a person’s body is the ultimate undue burden.

After all, if foisting ultrasounds onto women who have decided to terminate a pregnancy saves even one woman from a lifetime of “devastating psychologically damaging consequences,” then it will all have been worth it, right? Liberty and bodily autonomy be damned.

But what if there’s very little risk that a woman who gets an abortion experiences those “devastating psychological consequences”?

What if the information often provided by states in connection with their “informed consent” protocol does not actually lead to consent that is more informed, either because the information offered is outdated, biased, false, or flatly unnecessary given a particular pregnant person’s circumstance? Texas’ latest edition of its “Woman’s Right to Know” pamphlet, for example, contains even more false information than prior versions, including the medically disproven claim that fetuses can feel pain at 20 weeks gestation.

What if studies show—as they have since the American Psychological Association first conducted one to that effect in 1989—that abortion doesn’t increase the risk of mental health issues?

If the purpose of informed consent laws is to weed out women who have been coerced or who haven’t thought it through, then that purpose collapses if women who get abortions are, by and large, perfectly happy with their decision.

And that’s exactly what research has shown.

Scientific studies indicate that the vast majority of women don’t regret their abortions, and therefore are not devastated psychologically. They don’t fall into drug and alcohol addiction or attempt to kill themselves. But that hasn’t kept anti-choice activists from claiming otherwise.

It’s simply not true that abortion sends mentally healthy patients over the edge. In a study report released in 2008, the APA found that the strongest predictor of post-abortion mental health was prior mental health. In other words, if you’re already suffering from mental health issues before getting an abortion, you’re likely to suffer mental health issues afterward. But the studies most frequently cited in courts around the country prove, at best, an association between mental illness and abortion. When the studies controlled for “prior mental health and violence experience,” “no significant relation was found between abortion history and anxiety disorders.”

But what about forced ultrasound laws, specifically?

Science has its part to play in dismantling those, too.

If Whole Woman’s Health requires the weighing of costs and benefits to ensure that there’s a connection between the claimed purpose of an abortion restriction and the law’s effect, then laws that require a woman to get an ultrasound and to hear a description of it certainly fail that cost-benefit analysis. Science tells us forcing patients to view ultrasound images (as opposed to simply offering the opportunity for a woman to view ultrasound images) in order to give them “information” doesn’t dissuade them from having abortions.

Dr. Jen Gunter made this point in a blog post years ago: One 2009 study found that when given the option to view an ultrasound, nearly 73 percent of women chose to view the ultrasound image, and of those who chose to view it, 85 percent of women felt that it was a positive experience. And here’s the kicker: Not a single woman changed her mind about having an abortion.

Again, if women who choose to see ultrasounds don’t change their minds about getting an abortion, a law mandating that ultrasound in order to dissuade at least some women is, at best, useless. At worst, it’s yet another hurdle patients must leap to get care.

And what of the mandatory waiting period? Texas law requires a 24-hour waiting period—and the Court in Casey upheld a 24-hour waiting period—but states like Louisiana and Florida are increasing the waiting period to 72 hours.

There’s no evidence that forcing women into longer waiting periods has a measurable effect on a woman’s decision to get an abortion. One study conducted in Utah found that 86 percent of women had chosen to get the abortion after the waiting period was over. Eight percent of women chose not to get the abortion, but the most common reason given was that they were already conflicted about abortion in the first place. The author of that study recommended that clinics explore options with women seeking abortion and offer additional counseling to the small percentage of women who are conflicted about it, rather than states imposing a burdensome waiting period.

The bottom line is that the majority of women who choose abortion make up their minds and go through with it, irrespective of the many roadblocks placed in their way by overzealous state governments. And we know that those who cannot overcome those roadblocks—for financial or other reasons—are the ones who experience actual negative effects. As we saw in Whole Woman’s Health, those kinds of studies, when admitted as evidence in the court record, can be critical in striking restrictions down.

Of course, the Supreme Court has not always expressed an affinity for scientific data, as Justice Anthony Kennedy demonstrated in Gonzales v. Carhart, when he announced that “some women come to regret their choice to abort the infant life they once created and sustained,” even though he admitted there was “no reliable data to measure the phenomenon.” It was under Gonzales that so many legislators felt equipped to pass laws backed up by no legitimate scientific evidence in the first place.

Whole Woman’s Health offers reproductive rights advocates an opportunity to revisit a host of anti-choice restrictions that states claim are intended to advance one interest or another—whether it’s the state’s interest in fetal life or the state’s purported interest in the psychological well-being of its citizens. But if the laws don’t have their intended effects, and if they simply throw up obstacles in front of people seeking abortion, then perhaps, Whole Woman’s Health and its focus on scientific data will be the death knell of these laws too.