Media

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.

In Elephant, the violence itself is not particularly graphic. We see gunshots and blood, but we certainly don’t get the level of gore that adorns a David Cronenberg film. So then while it may be a factor, the extent to which a depiction of violence is graphic is not the only thing which determines how disturbing it is.

Although I found Elephant very upsetting, I believe, however, that it is an incredibly intelligent film and its violence is used to great effect. It confronts the audience in a way that makes it impossible not to talk about the film, and interrogates the often simplistic moral discourse that circulates in the media after events such as high school shootings. The film’s violence demands that we examine not just the potential causes of these events, but the question of who benefits from the search for a singular cause. This depiction of violence is political—I find it difficult to make the same argument for True Blood.

So we are left with the proposition that True Blood’s violence is shocking for the sake of being shocking. I do not think this is in itself illegitimate. Horror is an entire genre that seeks to shock us, and I count some horror films among my favorite films of all time. One example is the Australian horror film Wolf Creek, which I find both fantastic and completely terrifying. The film follows three backpackers who end up stranded in the middle of the Australian outback. They are aided by a hunter who lives alone in the area, but soon reveals himself to be a psychopath. Despite being widely considered one of the scariest films in recent years, most of the film is not particularly graphic in its violence. There are exceptions—a few moments are sickening—but the film’s success lies in making the violence unexpected.

Employing a similar device to Elephant, the first section of Wolf Creek is largely violence-free, and feels more like a road movie than horror. When the violence does come it is horrifying because it seems so at odds with the rest of the film. Of course, while Elephant is making a political statement, Wolf Creek simply wants to scare the pants off us, which it does. Again, it is important to separate the question of whether or not violence is graphic or shocking from whether or not it is acceptable, and I would argue that the film’s violence is not gratuitous beyond its dramatic function—it is there to scare us rather than disgust us.

Films like the hugely popular Saw and Hostel series are a different matter, and I can’t say that I’m a fan. Both series involve characters being put through situations of horribly graphic violence, the narrative justifications for which are so inane as to be hardly worth mentioning. This is violence to be experienced as violence, and perhaps something akin to pornography in that sense. While I find these films unwatchable I would not argue against their existence. They are advertised as what they are. We know what we’re getting ourselves in for when we sit down to watch them.

Perhaps the same could be said for True Blood. It is a horror series after all, and there is certainly precedent in the show for graphic violence—for example, every time a vampire dies in the show they vomit blood for a while and then explode, leaving behind a mess of viscera. It’s disgusting. Where in the case of Saw and Hostel this gets a little murkier is when the violence of these films shifts from simply being gratuitous to being gratuitous and misogynist.

Hostel: Part II is particularly illustrative. The victims of the film’s violence are almost exclusively women, and the torture scenes—one of which is banned in a number of countries—have disturbingly sexual overtones. While no actual rape is depicted, the sexualized nature of this violence renders the fact almost irrelevant—we are watching men commit acts of sexual violence against women. Sexual violence committed by men against women happens in the world. It is a problem, and its depiction as a means to shock us for the sake of cheap thrills is part of that problem. In the absence of a political argument for Hostel: Part II, I would argue that even its status as a horror film does not defend its use of this kind of violence. For me the film, like True Blood, crosses a line.

In order to thoroughly interrogate depictions of violence in popular culture we must examine not just how graphic the violence is and its intended effect, but its context in both the world of the narrative and the world we live in. Misogynistic violence is certainly not the only violence which is problematic in this sense—the same argument could be made for any violence which is used as a tool of vilification against marginalized groups, be they racial minorities, sexual minorities, religious minorities or others.

Is This Rape Or Vampires Being Vampires?

This brings us back to True Blood, and to the scene outlined at the beginning of the article. As I mentioned, internet chatter following the episode’s airing revealed that viewers took notice. However, most discussion of the scene revolved around whether or not what we had in fact watched was a rape scene. Viewers and reviewers alike considered whether Lorena had in some way been able to consent to the act, and most decided that her blood-choked gasp of “I still love you” was the golden ticket.

From here the collective commentary went on to conclude that obviously this is just what vampires do. It makes sense that vampire sex would be rough, and a conversation between Bill and Lorena—who appeared ‘alive’ and well—at the beginning of the following episode seemed to indicate that this was the case. For me, herein lies the crux of the issue: the context effectively decontextualises the scene’s violence, thereby rendering it unproblematic. The scene showed the most graphic act of sexual violence done to a woman by a man I’ve ever seen in mainstream popular culture. We should be discussing it in these terms, contextualizing it in reality instead of mitigating its severity by trying to justify it in the context of the show.

When I watch the scene what I see is this. Bill, in a moment of rage, uses sex as a way to violently humiliate Lorena. He does this through the ultimate act of sexual objectification, reducing her to a lifeless but still sexually desirable object. By twisting her head around completely during the act of sex he is able to have complete sexual power over her body without having to even see her face—he doesn’t need to think of her as a person in any way. Worse, to make his domination of her complete he gets to have her say she’s OK with it. This appalling line of dialogue not only demonstrates his complete sexual, physical and emotional power over her but also seems to have restricted debate around the issue by reframing it in terms of consent. Even reframed the debate remains simplistic, with consent somehow to be taken as an on/off switch, as though as soon as Lorena indicates that she’s OK with what’s happening Bill can go to town. If someone consents to an initiation of sex it is still rape if things become nonconsensually violent halfway through.

While it may seem callously trite to compare the scene to sexual violence in reality, to my mind it doesn’t make sense not to. Whenever a creator puts something out into the world—film, TV, book, music, video game or anything—it is going to resonate with reality whether the intent is there or not. While no creator can ever fully anticipate what that resonance might be, they should certainly be able to take responsibility for their creation and defend it if necessary.

I tried to find out what if anything the show’s creative team had said about the scene, but creator Alan Ball doesn’t seem to have addressed it. Best known for the excellent Six Feet Under, a show which explored issues around sex and gender with intelligence and maturity, I was surprised at his silence. All I could find were a few quotes from actress Mariana Klaveno, who said the scene was “the most shocking thing that I’ve ever read in a television script”.

At face value, the scene seems to touch on everything I’ve discussed regarding problematic depictions of violence in popular culture. It is certainly graphic, and being completely unexpected it succeeded in shocking viewers. I have argued this is not in itself a problem—True Blood is horror after all and frequently revels in gruesome shock tactics. Where the scene runs into trouble is context and justification.

I believe that it is unacceptable to show sexual violence of such an extreme nature in a program that seems completely unwilling to address the social and political ramifications of such violence. Worse, we as viewers are actively discouraged from engaging with the violence as problematic through the scene’s situation in a fantasy world, a world where no consequences for Bill have been discussed. We wouldn’t be asking whether or not True Blood had depicted an act of extreme sexual violence if it hadn’t occurred between two vampires—we would know it.

The week after “It Hurts Me Too” aired I warily sat down to watch the following episode, “9 Crimes”, unsure of what to expect. I can’t tell whether I’ve been sensitized to the show’s violence or whether it has simply become worse, but none of the women fared particularly well. Over the course of the episode, True Blood’s women were held hostage by psychopaths, attacked in their homes, murdered in limousines, and in a particularly stressful scene, publicly branded.

I wouldn’t argue that acts of violence against women or marginalized groups depicted in popular culture are never OK, but here the context seems to speak for itself. One act of violence may be just that, but I’ve seen enough in True Blood to indicate a pattern, and now I find it hard to watch at all. For me, the show’s misogyny is pervasive and unjustified.

There is no clear cut way to decide when depictions of violence in popular culture “cross the line” and when they don’t—anyway, that line is going to be different for everyone. All we can do is be critical pop culture consumers and look for context and justification when we are confronted by what we consume. It might seem as though I’m singling out True Blood, and to be honest I am, I think fairly so—I did not sit down to watch it expecting to be confronted with one of the most disturbing depictions of violence I’ve ever seen.

The experience has made me reassess Alan Ball, who had won so much good will from me for Six Feet Under. I suspect that with True Blood, Ball has pulled the wool over the eyes of the world. They say that first impressions never lie, and I remember when the show began two years ago that critics and viewers were skeptical.

Perhaps it is merely time, sentimentality and Ball’s status as an acclaimed creator of television that have clouded our judgment and led us to proclaim that True Blood is nuanced and politically aware and somehow an allegory for our times. I have come to believe that it is not. That’s fine, it doesn’t need to be, but until its violence can be justified as something other than unaware, gratuitous misogyny, we should not pretend it is anything else.

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