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Is the Sex on True Blood Too Violent?

Does the violent sex depicted in True Blood go too far?

The final scene of “It Hurts Me Too”, the third episode of True Blood ’s third season, depicts some of the most horrific violence I have ever seen on screen. In the scene, Bill, the vampire antihero played by Stephen Moyer, has been arguing with Lorena, played by Mariana Klaveno, who is his ‘sire’—the vampire who made him a vampire. Lorena has manipulated Bill in an attempt to rekindle their romantic relationship, in part by attempting to have Bill’s current girlfriend killed.

After Bill tells Lorena that he will never love her, the two kiss before Bill pushes Lorena down onto his bed and begins to penetrate her. Bill is on top, Lorena is on her back. The aggression and intensity of the sex builds until Bill grabs Lorena’s head, twisting it around 180 degrees. He does this slowly and deliberately, and accompanying a shot which visually leaves nothing to the imagination is the sound of the bones in Lorena’s neck snapping. Next, a long shot shows Bill continuing while Lorena’s head is twisted completely around, facing the floor. The next shot is from below her, of her face. Apparently still alive, blood bubbles up out of her mouth as she says: “I still love you.” Bill keeps at it until the credits roll.

When I first watched the episode I wasn’t sure how to react. Once I had dealt with the initial shock of viewing the scene I began to realize that for me, the show had crossed a line. I was not OK with what I had seen. Curious to know whether others might have reacted in the same way, I looked online. The internet was indeed buzzing with comments about the episode, most agreeing that the scene was shocking and leaving it at that. There were exceptions—one reviewer wrote that she would not continue to watch True Blood —but for the most part discussion seemed to indicate that my reaction was particularly extreme. But if I say I thought the scene crossed a line, what does that mean? What is the ‘line’? Can we say that any depiction of violence more graphic than a given standard is somehow unacceptable?

The scene in True Blood is certainly not the only violence that I have ever found disturbing, so here I feel it necessary to clarify that beyond finding the scene disturbing, I found it unacceptable. It made me angry. I have never thought of myself as having a low tolerance for violence—there are scenes in films for example that are perhaps ‘more’ violent that I haven’t had a problem with. Therefore, it seems necessary to explore the idea that problematic depictions of violence in popular culture are a function of more than simply the level of the violence depicted. The question that True Blood ultimately raises is: why is some violence OK and some not? A good place to start finding an answer is with other depictions of violence in popular culture.

Gus van Sant’s film Elephant tends to provoke strong reactions. The film depicts a massacre carried out by two students at a fictional American high school. Any film dealing with the topic of high school shootings is bound to be upsetting; however, the disturbing nature of Elephant’s violence is compounded by the film’s structure and tone. The first half of the film plays like a naturalistic high school drama, with long, unmoving camera shots and without nondiegetic music. When the shooting begins around halfway through, the tone of the film doesn’t change at all—the violence is contextualised within the pre-established naturalism of the first half of the film. The film’s structure changes our perception of its violence—it is completely unexpected and therefore more shocking. Tonally, the film’s refusal to submit to the kind of quick camera movements and dramatic music that we often associate with violence or action in film renders the violence more upsetting, as it is taking place in a world which continues to feel realistic.