Search This Blog

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

My thoughts exactly

I've had a sour taste in my mouth since watching the first True Blood mini-episode over at HBO. You might notice that, despite the presence of vampires, and a guy I find attractive, I haven't linked it, or gone on about it. That's because I wasn't really sure how to articulate what ruined my enjoyment of the clip without seeming overly sensitive. Today, over at Racialicious, Tami does the work for me.

Ya’ll know I love HBO’s True Blood series like I love my mom’s dressing on Thanksgiving. But the show’s writing team clearly doesn’t know what to do with black folks. For a fictional town in Louisiana, Bon Temps is awfully monochromatic. Though, I guess Alan Ball and co. deserve some “props” for doing better than than the books on which the show is based. Author Charlaine Harris rarely paints a black person that isn’t a stereotype or a cipher. Ball gives us Lafayette (a minor character who dies at the end of book one in Harris’ story ) and Tara (white in the book, new black Tara is essentially a sassy, black sidekick). But even for a less than racially conscious show, the mini-episode above is some hot buttered bullshit.
The rest of the article is also exactly right.

I don't have a lot to add, but I'll leave you with a list of the black characters on the show.

Tara - Sassy sidekick and occasional magical negro with zero self-esteem and anger issues. Also the locus of the show's winking nod to domestic violence.
Tara's mom - Raging alcoholic, Church Lady, believes she's had her demons exorcised by Miss Jeannette, out at her gris-gris trailer in the woods.
Miss Jeannette - Exorcist/charlatan/murder victim.
Lafayette - Sassy Gay Man with a dash of Mouthy Black Man thrown in.
Kenya - No nonsense mountain of a black woman (in the books, she's repeatedly described as big and scary; in the show, she's just mean-faced).
Eggs - Tragically evil, which I take from this excellent open letter to the creator of Supernatural (I do not watch the show, because the first few eps were too scary for me, so I only know secondhand what I would like or be bugged by)

I think this list pretty much speaks for itself.


  1. Can they ever win though? If they had a black girl with no personality they would be accused of tokenism, and any other personality type would probably be considered another stereotype. I'm not saying I agree with what they've done with this show (I've never watched it), but put in their shoes I would rather be accused of putting too much personality in a character than none at all. What is the happy medium anyway?

  2. What up, sis?

    I hear you - no personality would definitely get objections. But I'd object for character reasons - who wants to watch a character of any color with no personality?

    And, I do think they've mostly escaped tokenism, in my opinion, because at least there are a handful of black characters, and not just the one (this is better than the books, in which there's really just the one, and he gets killed really quickly)! But I'm not sure that the solution to not having one poorly constructed or throwaway black character is to have a list of characters whose "personalities" are basically built on a set of recognizable clichés of Black Characters. My issues is not that Tara has a strong personality - I like characters with strong personalities. I like real people with strong personalities. I HAVE a strong personality! But, when creating a character, is the choice really between no personality and a personality (strong or not) that is largely signaled (rather than developed) by reproducing well-known stereotypes? I don't think it has to be.

    I think it's really only a challenge because a) they're working (by choice) with so few African American characters and b) they insist on writing Black Characters, rather than actual characters who could, in fact, be of any ethnicity. There are ways in which it can be important for the character to express specific cultural things., but if all of your black characters express the same short list of things that aren't even necessarily reflections of their ethnicity, I think there's a problem. More characters, with more nuance, played by actors of various backgrounds, might make their situation a lot easier, if only because the variety of personalities would make it clear that they weren't just lazily trotting out clichés.

    All of that said, on this show (which I often find highly entertaining), I don't complain about it until it's egregious, because *everyone's* personality is a little broadly drawn. There are surly rednecks, some dumb ex-jocks, an old-time southern gentleman, and a sassy southern white chick as well, so it's not *just* race that they're clumsy about :)

    But in a world where there just aren't as many counterexamples (on the show or at large in the media) of well done black characters, it sticks out to me more that Tara (black) is a little one-note than it does that Sookie (white) is.