Saturday, December 18, 2010

White Vamps, Black Witches: Race Politics and Vampire Pop Culture

Ok, so I'm watching the Vampire Diaries marathon on the CW this week and...

Stop laughing. No, I mean it...stop.

I am a YA WRITER I was doing RESEARCH on, er, stuff that teens like. Like vampires, and high school drama, and, er, kissing, and stuff. RESEARCH, I tell you.

As I was SAYING (before I was so rudely interrupted), I'm watching the Vampire Diaries this week and the race politics finally hit me in the face. As a facebook group and several online discussion boards have actually noted, pretty much all the vampires in this show are white, while almost all the African American folks are witches/warlocks.

What's this about?

Now, I'm a bit bored of the 'skinny mainstream white heroine and her black/lesbian/fat/different/witchy BFF' trope. But clearly, there is something of a theme here with this on vampire tv shows. For vampire lover/doppleganger Elena from Vampire Diaries is her witchy Black BFF Bonnie (pictured above, hazy). For vampire slayer/lover Buffy is her witchy lesbian BFF Willow (think Wicka, Womyn-ly energy, etc.). And then there's vampire lover/waitress Sookie Stackhouse from True Blood and her Black BFF Tara, who's not a witch but gets possessed by one. And Sookie's other BFF/Tara's cousin Lafayette who's not just Black but also the most flamboyantly gay and fabulous thing to hit the tiny town of Bon Temps in, like, ever.  But regardless, the trope remains.

So what's the deal?

The 'different'-BFF-as-foil thing isn't new. It provides some nod to multiculturalism or inclusion while not challenging the notion that the main character(s) in most YA fiction/television must be, well, white, able bodied and heterosexual. Even a show like Glee, which makes such gestures to inclusivity in its cast in fact still reinforces white able bodied heteronormativity (check out this great article called "The Trans-Continental Disability Choir: Glee-Ful Appropriation").

Similarly, in Vampire Diaries, the central pouty-lipped triumverate of Stephan (good cop), Elena (oh no! which brother shall I choose?), and Damon (bad cop. bad, bad, so bad he's...mmm... good cop) are all white. But then there's the added twist of the supernatural stuff. Pretty much all the folks who are vamps on the show - old vamps, kinda old vamps, brand new vamps - are white. Any exceptions to the 'vamps are white and toothsome' motif (more on this later) get dispatched rather quickly. For example, there was a cute mother-daughter Asian pair of vamps, Pearl and Anna, but they died unnecessarily the tail end of Season 1 (what, they couldn't keep them on just to keep some Asian American actors working? For shame...). Then there was ONE Black vamp awakened from the tomb (long, unnecessarily complex story), but the show creators were clearly so uncomfortable with having a vamp of color that they insisted on making him weirdly NICE - not just nice, but a little too bow-y and scrap-y for my taste. They obviously didn't know what to do with someone who was (probably) a slave being awakened in the modern age (someone who used the term "Miss Pearl" to refer to above Asian lady vamp)... so he got killed off too, right alongside her. (Great, take out all the people, er, vampires of color in one fell swoop, why don't you.)

And then there's the Bennett family of witches, who are all (relatively light skinned) African Americans. Ok, I get it, they're a family - genetically related - and therefore it makes sense they are all similar ethnically. But there are no other Black people around this town? (Except random walk ons who then get eaten?) And more importantly, WHY is this family of witches Black? We are told the Bennetts are supposedly descended from some 'powerful Salem witches.' Are the makers of the show hinting that they are descended from the slave woman named Tituba who supposedly 'read the fortune' of all those young white Salem girls and got their vicious imaginations spinning?

But no, Tituba is never mentioned by name. Nor ever, ever, ever the word slavery. Which is weird, no?

Because here is a show about a small Virginia town (Mystic Falls) that is, yes, overrun by hot vampires, but also obsessed with its past. It's Civil War past, to be precise. And not just the mythic/mystical town, but the show itself is obsessed with Scarlett O'Hara et al. There are frequent flashbacks to times of crinolin and Confederate soldier-y. In fact, back when he wasn't, er, un-dead, hottie Damon was a Confederate Soldier. Yet, we are pointedly told that Damon quit the army because he "did not agree with their ways" (huh? because he was against slavery? spit it out, writers!) There are also references to a Black woman/witch named Emily (pictured above in bonnet, foremother of hazy witch Bonnie) being the 'servant' of the super-baddie and super-skinnie white vampire chickie Katherine. Yet, despite both the show and the town's historical obsessions, not once do I think the word 'slave' or 'slavery' is ever used. (Nor do we ever get close to finding out how, in Civil War era Virginia, an Asian woman and her daughter could own a store, and said Asian woman could romance a white 'founding father' of the town. REALLY, writers? You think us Asian folks could just sweep into town in our hoopskirts and set up shop in the 1800's? Gimme a break.)

Instead, we see the creators attempting to approach the issue of race but in strangely obtuse ways. (Yes, this is the maker of Dawson's Creek I'm analyzing here for his racial politics, forgive me academic colleagues). As Lisa Nakamura and her colleagues comment in this great article, in HBO's Southern Gothic Vampire Melodrama True Blood, vampirism becomes a (only somewhat successful) metaphor for racial politics and oppression. In this show, vampires fight to make vampire marriage and other vampire rights legal. Anti-vampire sentiments become ways to explore homophobia and racism.

And yet, as Janani Subramanian notes in this other great article also from Flow TV, Vampire Diaries is Gothic-lite. One could even say, with all intentions of being ironic, that it's race-lite (yes, I did just bold the word race, read into it what you will). It uses race as an organizing principle in its Southern narrative, without ever really talking about it beyond such ridiculous sentences, as this one uttered by a Black warlock to Bonnie: "it's hard being different." (REALLY, writers, REALLY? That's the best you could do?)

Much has been written about the sparkly, white 'good' vampires of the Twilight books being some sort of a metaphor for the ideal Mormon family who are, per their scriptures, "white and delightsome." Then, of course there is the fact that these white and delightsome (yet, oops, bloodsucking) folks are fighting brown skinned Native American werewolves. Yea, too much to even get into here. 

I'm not going to speculate here if Stephanie Meyers was putting forth these ideas about Mormonism and whiteness to critique them or not, but what I do see is a perhaps unintentional mirroring of these patterns in the Vampire Diaries. In Mystic Falls, the African American witches don't want to get dragged into white vampires' problems, Bonnie in fact hates the vampires at some level, and hates their hold on her friend Elena. She can barely face it when their other friend Caroline (who is being called "Vampire Barbie" on Forever Young Adult - hah!) is turned into a vamp. So, yet again, we have a white supernatural world facing off with a supernatural world of color. Yet, and here is perhaps where the show is working off of some silly 'post-racial' imagining, each group really needs the other to survive. (cue audience applause and Oprah-style hugging).  Awwww.

So several questions remain: Is magical power a TV metaphor for the subversive strength that any oppressed community must develop to survive and thrive? Is it anger for past (and, ahem, current -- hello?) oppressions? Why are there no Black vampires in Mystic Falls? No white witches? And how can you not say the word 'slavery' in a flashback about the Civil War? And will Elena see the good in Damon, and give him a chance already, he loves her so much??? (Err, sorry, off topic...)

In the end, if vampirism is becoming a way for pop culture to interrogate race, let's get to it already. Television shows, even ones like Vampire Diaries, wield a sort of cultural magic - and that magic can be used for good or evil. By creating tensions around race and then refusing to deal with them, by bringing up Southern history and then refusing to name slavery, the show is only making more bad cultural ju-ju.  Not talking about race, or wimping out after bringing up race, doesn't make the world 'post-racial.' In fact, it's kind of racist.

I think it's time TV vampires sunk their fangs into their own racial politics.

12 comments:

  1. I don't regularly watch any of the above vampire shows, but I agree. I did watch the first season of True Blood, but I didn't like how it was kind of vaguely maybe supposed to be this metaphor of gay rights, yet the way they treated race was kind of problematic for me. Plus, Sookie was kind of a whiner and her and Bill were just so darn boring.
    But what I don't really understand with these shows--I realize that Hollywood really only recognizes two places in the U.S., the east coast, and California; and so most show are filmed in either location and nowhere else. But if you're a vampire living for a few hundred years in the same place, don't people notice? Why not, especially for some of these characters you mention to explore some of the racial aspects, try setting the flashbacks in different locations (gasp)--what about fur trading posts on the west coast or Hawaii, where there was quite a lot of different races thrown together, or set them in different countries (surely they've got the money to travel after living all that time). Or yes, above all, if they are going to use Civil War flashbacks, you absolutely have to address the slavery issue.

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  2. Good point about geographic coastal-centrism (also Sookie and Bill being boring - I stuck around until Eric, who is very not boring, showed up on the scene...). Race is terribly problematic on the show - even though it THINKS it's being really progressive and dealing with race... Which is what I think is going on in all these shows - they think they're dealing with race without ever, uh, addressing racism. So the whole thing becomes a bit of a cop-out..

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  3. Great post! I think it was more obvious (to me, anyway) that in the show True Blood, the creators were drawing a parallel to race/sexuality issues iwth the "coming out of the coffin" stuff. Perhaps I just missed it in the books..or was too caught up in the...um...romance/blood sucking/love triangle stuff to notice? (Shame on me!) Never watched Vamp. Diaries because SOMEONE (who shall remain nameless but writes great blog entries) turned me on to a sci-fi series I HAD to watch instead! :)

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  4. The Vampire Diaries is seriously terrible and terribly wonderful if you know what I mean (which I think you do!) - it's on Netflix!

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  5. OOOHHHH NOOOOO! Not another series to watch on Netflix!! I'm gonna go out on a limb and say it will be harder to get the hubby to watch this one than it was to get him to become a Battlestar addict with me. (That show was CRACK via the Wii. Scary.)

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  6. This is an old post, but I found it while trying to find answers about why all the witches in Vampire Diaries are black. Very interesting post! It really made me think about the subtext of popular vampire stories; I like that you tackled the issue without being derogatory. I wholly agree about VD being terrible and wonderful at the same time.

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  7. Thanks for your comment, The 100 Blogger. I still haven't found an answer to the race politics on TVD. Now, in later seasons, the mother of the "original" vampires, seems to be a white witch - but I'm pretty sure she's the only not-of-color-witch on the show...

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  8. Great analysis. I agree with you about Pearl and Anna. I liked those characters. I also liked the black tomb vamp. I thought there was a lot they could have done with that character. But I guess it didn't fit with the main story line.

    I am struck by the fact that not only are all the witches/warlocks black in Vampire Diaries, but they are basically slaves to the vampires. The vamps control the witches and force them to do spells against their will. The Bennetts make sense because they are family. But every other witch in the show also? I'm still in season 2.

    I haven't read the books. I wonder if the race issues are from them or if it is just being created by Hollywood.

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  9. Thanks for the visit Candace! There is another major witch who is not of color in an upcoming season, but I still think the overall trend and the power dynamics remain...
    Good question re: books vs. TV in re: race dynamics -- hm. Must go see!
    Cheers!

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  10. The Lockwoods were slave owners. You see Tyler's Uncle Mason lock himself in an underground location. Tyler mentions the place to his mother in Bad Moon Rising:

    Tyler: Have you ever been down to those old ruins in the woods?

    Carol: The old Lockwood estate?

    Tyler: Yeah. What do you know about it?

    Carol: It was the original plantation house. Beautiful antebellum architecture and if it hadn’t burn to the ground we’d probably be living in it.

    Tyler: What’s the deal with the freaky underground cellar?

    Carol: We don’t talk about those kind of rooms.

    Tyler: Why not?

    Carol: Well, this is the South, honey, but no one likes to reminisce about the old slave days.


    The following is from Kill or Be Killed:

    Liz: Careful. The wooden bullets and vervain won’t keep them down for long. What is this place?

    Mason: Old slave quarters from the original Lockwood house.

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  11. I enjoyed your commentary on the white lead trope here. I have been interested--as a side track from my research on the media's portrayal of "powerful" women--in stereotypes and why a good 90% of YA books have white leads. Including my own, I might add.

    Also as an LDS writer, I rather resent the insinuation that my religion is racist. "White" in the scripture you quoted refers to a state of soul not a color of skin. If you research our religion without bias, you will see that we fully embrace and love every ethnicity. Everyone is one of God's children.

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  12. hello I just found this post.

    my main problem with the show is how it seems that there is no flexibility in the characterization of blacks/colored people on the show. We show up as witches and witches only. While it seems as though white people can be vampires, werewolves, or even just plain normal! Not only that, witches seem to be awfully powerful,yet easily disposable. Has anyone noticed how every witch that appears on the show only serves as furthering the storyline-and is later killed? I don't understand hollywood.

    The same is true for the show Supernatural...all of the blacks are either evil, quickly done away with, or killed....

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