19 October 2011

True Blood's Pariah, America's History, and Black Women's Representaitons

There has been a great deal of hate poured on Tara as a character on the show True Blood on HBO in the form of multiple Facebook groups dedicated to hoping she dies, and blog posts complaining about her. Did I mention Tara is a strong, outspoken, often justifiably angry, and determined Black Female character? Sigh.

I found the most cogent and sharply examined analysis of the hatred Tara receives so far in a blog post about "Strong Female Characters" at TigerBeatDown.com. Demanding a full reconsideration of what it means to be "strong" in the context of these cinematic and visual media, the author calls upon us to consider why to be "strong" is good for White women - historically rooted perceptions of weakness and and wilting-Lilly quality as natural - and why it is always perceived as very bad for Black women - historically grounded perceptions of Black women as inherently masculine, animal like, the diametric opposite of all that is wonderful and White. Therefore, a strong White woman is good and show's gumption, a strong Black woman is annoying.

Unfortunately, I found this analysis through the link in a Think Progress blog posting about why the brilliant critique at Tiger Beat Down was wrong because Tara is unloved due to being "Static" not due to being Black. If I wasn't also reading Killing the Black Body by Dorothy Roberts and Hortense Spillers' Black, White and In Color, I might not be quite so imbued with excitement over TigerBeatDown's insight and anger over this blogger's shortsightedness and seemingly ill-intentioned attack. But alas, reading the history of Black women's treatment within the U.S. will do that to you. But that aside...

As is too often the case, liberal, well educated, White women still refuse to believe race can play a role in the abuses suffered by a Black woman and other Women Of Color because it would force a questioning of their own relatively privileged position within an extant representational/power hierarchy, within an evolving cultural milieu, and within a functioning historical narrative that prizes their supposedly inherent positive attributes to the detriment of Women Of Color who are perceived as all that is opposed and awful. After one too many frustrated flipping of pages, figurative and literal, to escape their narrow thinking, I decided to answer the lunacy of this blogger, and have included the content below:

Alyssa, your comments about Tara with regards to race and her representation on True Blood go from unfair to downright vicious - especially growing as they do out of a desire to declare the profound and insightful commentary at TigerBeatDown.com to be false. You state:

"It’s that the character never grows, and exhibits consistently poor judgement [sic], sabotaging a potential relationship with a nice, stable man and taking up with a former criminal, seeking protection with and then falling under the spell of a powerful, chaos-inclined magical entity, and then when she gets therapy and rebuilds her life outside of Bon Temps, sabotages it again for no discernable [sic] reason, taking up with a genocidal witches’ coven."

What character on the show miraculously evolves as you would demand of Tara? NONE. Part of the show's allure is the constant danger and impulse of so many characters to constantly make decisions which place them in mortal danger. Thus you could create a list like the one you spill over Tara for any of the other characters on the show! The only one to demonstrably change in any real way is Eric, and only because he suffered a witches curse, now his memory is back and lord knows if he'll stay all sweet.

Everyone on the show consistently makes bad decisions - Sookie can only love men who desire to eat her. She slept with Eric! He's hot, but vicious. She didn't pick the hot, available, stable werewolf, but instead the crazy, scary vampire. Or how about Arlene who went from a serial killer to a mildly deranged military vet. Or Sam who consistently does the Wrong thing - whether killing folks in the past or kicking his brother out when what his brother needed was stability, a place to call home without dog-fights, and someone to call him on his BS for a change.

But even if we only consider what you are asking of Tara and not her characterization compared to others (even if I think the comparison is sufficient to show similarity, but in the interest of answering the insulting length of your demands...) there is still something amiss in your desire to declare Tara "Static" if we consider what you list as the reasons why she is a static and hated/unloved character:

1- Who is this nice stable man she sabotages a relationship with? Who on this show has ever been shown to truly be stable at all? Maybe werewolf man, but then he does change into a beast when the full moon pops up.
2- Are you really beyond the ability to understand or see the desire of a child of an alcoholic single mother (with no other family) to take advantage of the shelter and care being offered by a woman with so much to give and other people in need under her care? Can you truly be faulting Tara for being bewitched? Do you fault everyone else for their bewitchment as well? And are You Really asking Tara to have been psychic and discerned that the nice lady was really a maenad intent on destroying her life? Because I refuse to believe that someone who went to college would expect precognition of a Black female character as the grounds for the character to be considered 'dynamic.'
3- If you do not know why Tara sent her girlfriend away - to avoid her being hurt/killed - and believe the show's creators so inept as to have had her take up with the coven for no reason - if you watch the show, there is a reason - then I don't know what to say.

Clearly, the reasons you present for why Tara is "static" are really reasons rooted in a desire for her character to be superhuman, infallable, maternal, and rooted in a quasi-behavioral Whiteness which you point out as being necessary for this to be possible. And before you dispute this, you do say:

"Tara’s character [in the novels] is a recovering abuse survivor who’s sometimes brittle because of it, but she’s also a small business owner, a good friend to Sookie (though they have their fallings [sic] out), a wife and mother—and she’s white. If Ball had kept that character development arc, and committed to that emotional growth, but cast Rutina Wesley in the role, I think we’d think Tara is a hero. Instead, he both made her black and an object of perpetual humiliation. If we’re not cheering Tara it’s because the character has no discernable [sic] investment in her own life and happiness."

Now, if you list wonderful things and add, "--and she's white.", then follow by saying, "he made her black and an object of perpetual humiliation", what you are doing, even if inadvertently, is setting up the similarity between the wonderful world of possibility that is White Tara in the book and how awful Black Tara is in the show. You are linking the characteristics to color not for the purpose of clarity, but to further establish why Black Tara is so faulty for this indistinct, intangible but seemingly preferential list of vague plot details. (We'll leave aside discussion for now of all the troublesome undercurrents of your desire to see a Black, single mother Tara character with children.)

Done so casually, this comparison is scary to me. Especially because it renders inauthentic your claim to want to add business-owner as a part of Tara's character to make her better. Oh, and a business-owner without any ups or downs natural to all characters on a show, and with a perfect supportive relationship to Sookie at all times. Perhaps one can fault the show for not giving Tara enough purely self-motivated, self-oriented actions, but to demand perfection is... odd.
And it goes without saying that None of the characters demonstrate a serious investment in their own happiness as far as making good decisions.

When you present such an insubstantial and specious list of reasons for why Tara is hated by so many, and use it as a direct assault on the sound, historically and theoretically grounded arguments of the authors at TigerBeatDown.com, I would question the stakes for you in derailing the cause of honest discourse about women and racial representations on TV. I would question your reasons for trumpeting Tara as "perpetually humiliated" rather than as an able, adaptable, strong, survivor of multiple horrific incidents who still manages to support her friend Sookie by refusing to sugar-coat the truth or allow her to make crazy decisions without reflection. The best moments are when they are honest and real with each other about what is going on, even if one end up angry about it. So again I ask, what is at stake for you in derailing the cause of Honest discussion about these representations the way you are?

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