BHM: Rutina Wesley and Her “True Blood”

I recently included Rutina Wesley on a list of potential up and comers in “young Hollywood” in response to the Vanity Fair “Young Hollywood” edition that includes no women of color. Wesley was born in a working class area of Las Vegas to a Vegas Show Girl mom and a tap dancer father; thus, dance was her first love. While Rutina’s most famous character to date is an under-educated young black woman whose bitterness defines most of her life and relationships,  Rutina herself is a classically trained actress/dancer with a degree from Julliard and a summer study at the Royal Academy for the Dramatic Arts in London. Anyone who has spent time in Las Vegas schools knows that both official and unofficial tracking occurs for youth of color, particularly young women of color, so Rutina’s success was no doubt guided by the myriad of Las Vegas teachers bucking a system, dedicated parents, and her own amazing intelligence and will.

Wesley  no doubt channeled her early educational experience into her role as Reyanne, the strong female lead in the 2007 film How She Move. Her character was an aspiring medical student who had lost one of her siblings and was forced to return to the neglected public school of her youth after her family fell on hard economic times. The story centered on her sense of duty to herself, her family, and increasingly the community she left behind in the hopes of a better life. And as she defends herself and her dreams, she also helps others discover their own potential and re-discovers her own. The film centered a black female experience that recognized the humanity, intelligence, and struggle of black women abandoned by districting/red lining. By including not only Reyanne’s story but that of her female friends who were left behind, and the hopes and dreams they struggled with supposedly in her shadow, How She move moved beyond a narrative of exceptionalism to a subtle critique of gendered life in low income urban centers that work to pit women and young girls against one another and reduce them to exploitable objects. Wesley also pointed out that the character has a strong mother who is constantly encouraging her dreams . Unlike other films about young black girls that often show emotional absent or drug addicted black mothers, How She Move made sure not to vilify black motherhood while keeping the realities of working class/subsistence level existence fully centered.

How She Move also attempted to update the urban dance film genre that had largely left black women behind for stories about black male dancers and/or interracial relationships between black men and white women or between Latin@s and Anglos. Unfortunately, the market for the dance movie had already reached its saturation point and so Wesley’s work failed to reach a wide audience. However, the film was a unique addition to black herstory precisely because it centered an African American woman dancing in a male dominated competition who struggled with the dual oppressions of gender within the scene and racialized class issues within society at large. The story was not just a dance vehicle that showed off Wesley’s considerable dancing talent and played off of some half true half-imagined version of the hood, but rather a critical look at the complex negotiations of talented young black girls trying to thrive in a world that is riddled with racism, sexism, and classism from within the community and outside of it. Wesley’s performance in particular helped elevate the low production value of the film out of the realm of typical MTV exploitation film.

Where Wesley’s proud African American girl character failed to resonate with audiences, her problematic turn as Tara Thornton in True Blood has captivated them. Like the women reviewed in the previous post on The Vampire Diaries, Rutina Wesley’s role on True Blood is important partially because it integrates a genre that is increasingly devoid of racial diversity. Unlike the women on the Vampire Diaries however, Tara and her family are much more stereotype than counter-stereotype. Despite this fact, however, it is interesting to note that Tara has far more sexual agency and overall power vis-a-vis the supernatural men she encounters than the far less stereotypical Bennett women.

The Story (Note I am told that the tv show varies widely from the books which many black readers have called openly racist, & so we are focusing on the story as told by the show)

The Thorntons and the Stackhouses are neighbors in Bon Temps, a small, somewhat backwood, Louisiana town. The young girls in both families are drawn together because they are both poor and outcasts. People in Bon Temps think Sookie Stackhouse is slow because they don’t know that when she gets that glazed look in her eyes it is because she can hear their thoughts not because her own have stopped working. Tara, on the other hand, is stigmatized by her quick temper and her alcoholic mother who make the townspeople both suck their teeth and avoid her. In a desperate attempt to find friendship and safety the two girls bond and are best friends. This friendship is meant to tie the Stackhouses and the Thorntons together throughout the show, but as we shall see, it seldom resonates after the first season.

During season one of True Blood, we are introduced to Tara through an internal dialogue in which she is raging at the ignorance of the people she has to serve in her working class job and the town itself. As her raging grows louder, she has an altercation with a white customer who asks her for help finding a rake. Instead of helping, Tara launches into a verbal tirade followed by her accusing the woman and her supervisor, who fires her over the incident, of being racist. This scene solidifies the point of view of the show, which is decidedly eurocentric. Not only is Tara the stereotypical angry black woman, her rage has no explanation in this scene. She’s just angry because she is angry. Worse, when she gets caught raging and refusing to do her job, she cries racism. Thus the scene follows a narrative of the white imaginary in which racism is a figure of the black imagination; we are in a perpetual inexplicable rage that causes conflict and confusion amongst the poor white people just trying to go about their day, and if we don’t get what we want we just pull out our huge deck of race cards. Not is this ridiculous but even its profound disservice to both the character and black people in general, the scene’s ultimate conclusion with Tara losing her job proves how very useless such a card would be if in fact we had them.

As if this is not bad enough, soon after Tara is fired from her job we are introduced to her mother, a stone cold, fall down, drunk who quotes the Bible at her daughter while beating her. Like Tara, Lettie Mae Thornton is a stereotype born straight out of the Moynihan report, which referred to the female headed households of black families as a “tangle of pathology” and “fundamental source of weakness” (Moynihan: 218-19). Where Sookie Stackhouse was raised with a doting grandmother who teaches her morality and kindness, Lettie Mae is a violent and angry woman who barely swims up from the bottle long enough to tear her own child down. And we are told that part of what binds Sookie to Tara is the desire of the Stackhouses to protect her from drunken beatings in the night.

This vision of black female pathology is mediated only once in the first season, when Lettie Mae is seen to ask Adele Stackhouse to care for Tara because she cannot. In these scenes we are introduced to a mother who actually does care about her child’s emotional well-being but recognizes that her own disappointments turned to addiction prevent her from meeting those needs. It is a story, when divorced from racism, with which we can empathize. On the one hand. Lettie Mae is an addict who recognizes that in her addiction she cannot parent but her child still needs love and care. On the other, Lettie Mae is one of two main characters who is black and female and one of two who is completely dysfunctional in stereotypically racist ways. For most viewers, the brief scene that allows us to see the former is forever eclipsed by the hegemonic nature of the latter coupled with the writers utter failure to provide any back story for Lettie Mae’s behavior or any counter narrative of black female normalcy in the show. Worse, the writers have Tara Thornton telling Sookie how much she wished she was a Stackhouse and lived with them. The Blue-eyed doll of Morrison has been replaced with the blue-eyed live action figure of True Blood.

Tara is also enthralled with white men in season one; and while interracial dating is normal, unless your John Mayer, Tara’s obsession seems more about the character’s racialized self-hate brimming just below the surface than her desires. Thus she has a long time crush on Jason Stackhouse, the town slut, that is intimately mixed up with her feelings about her mother and the Stackhouses as refuge. Unfortunately for Tara, while Jason will sleep with anything that moves in Bon Temps, he apparently is another one of those guys with a “David Duke penis”, because no matter how much Tara throws herself at him, he does not even notice she is alive. While this could easily play out as an issue of desire in which Jason thinks of her as an official sibling, Jason’s entire character hinges on the fact that he doesn’t care who he sleeps with as long as he does not go to bed alone. This should make Tara easy pickings and yet it does not.

When Tara is given the opportunity to build real love near the end of the first season, it is with one Sookie’s cast offs, Sam Merlotte. In the early days of their relationship, Sam makes it very clear that his true desires lie with Sookie and Tara’s self-esteem is so low she is willing to be the Jezebel in waiting. But Sam is not a bad man, and soon he actually develops real feelings for her that her anger management issues promptly punish and try to destroy. The message, Tara is unlovable. Like the myth of the angry black woman who works men to death with her constant criticism and mood swings, Tara oscillates between rage and judgment with Sam, refusing to let him in. Their interactions are scripted to highlight her dysfunction vis-a-vis his attempts at understanding rather than give us a complex portrait of a young woman broken by abuse re-learning to love. Again the racial overtones of this relationship never allow it the depth it deserves in which come to understand the particularly brokenness both Tara and Sam seem to share.

As if to reinforce the idea of black female pathology in True Blood, the season also includes a backwoods swindler, also played by a black woman, who tells both Tara and her mother that they have demons inside them. It isn’t racism and classism in a small southern town that is making them angry and broken, it is the evil inside them. Worse, in season two, that evil will be externalized in such a way that the entire town is at risk. And part of what makes Tara and her mother at risk for both being swindled and actually possessed by a real demon, is their ignorance. That ignorance is  seemingly embodied by their belief in syncretic African inspired religion in these scenes which the show about supernatural beings depicts as sham.

Lest we miss the non-verbal cues that black people are ignorant, Tara is also a school drop out. Early in the show, Tara actually explains:

School is just for white people looking for other white people to read to them. I figure I’ll save my money and read to myself.

I don’t think there is any black person in the world who thinks this way about education. In fact, since slavery black people in the United States have struggled to get equal access to education, first risking their lives to teach each other to read and write on plantations and then risking them again to start or attend freedom schools, forcibly integrated schools, and panther schools. North American history is littered with broken, bruised, bombed, and even lynched bodies of black educators and their white allies. However, Tara’s belief that education was for white folks resonates with victim-blaming school of thought that argues black people are responsible for their own lower test scores and educational attainment because they do not put enough stock in the importance of education.

Season Two

The hope that the Thortons might get better in season two is quickly dashed by the slavery-reminiscent opening scenes with Tara’s cousin Lafayette which set the tone for the entire season.The backwoods scam, aka the mock African syncretic religious service,  Tara and her mother participated in leads to the rise of an ancient evil creature that feeds on people’s excess. Maryann Forrester, aka the Maenad, introduces violence and sexual abandon that threatens to tear the town apart.

While the whole town is under Maryanne’s spell, Tara and her mother bear the brunt of her abuse and like everything else it is tinged with racialization. Though Lettie Mae has found Jesus and subsequently sobered, she begins the season by telling Tara that she is unlovable and must move out. Like the audience, Tara is incredulous at her mother’s lack of maternal care and unrelenting judgment in the face of all the care Tara has given her in life. And though Lettie Mae tries to make up for it, even being the first to notice that Tara needs help and to seek it out for her, Maryann is there as a constant reminder that Lettie Mae is a failed mother. Several episodes are filled with Maryann, played by white actress Michelle Forbes, viciously tearing into Lettie Mae for being a bad mother, a pathological abuser, and a failed human being. The vehemence with which these scenes are written and acted was hard to watch as they dripped with unchecked racialized self-righteousness that we as the audience are supposed to overlook precisely because of how bad a mother Lettie Mae has actually been. Yet, these scenes do not mirror those of a woman defending an abused young women but rather smack of race hatred in which Maryann’s innocence and authority are assumed for no visible or explained reason. Her anger and constant derrogation far exceed her knowledge of the events or her actual support of Tara. Nor does her behavior enable Tara to find her own voice, define her own abuse, and confront it. Instead it silence and entraps her. Yet Tara drools on at her surrogate mother in the same way she once did with the elder Stackhouse. Again, the opportunity to actually explore abuse survivor narratives and resolution or conflict within abusive natal families is lost to uphold the overarching narrative of black pathology. Sadly, this is only slightly tempered by the fact Maryann is completely pathological herself since this is revealed long after she tears into Lettie Mae unchecked.

On the postive side, Tara’s sexual agency is a critical part of the show. In True Blood, in general, much of the story lines and the characters identities are tied up in who they have sex with, when, where, and how. Tara’s character is no different. That very fact is somewhat revolutionary since black women are often depicted asexual in movies and television in which they are not the main characters, and some times when they are the main characters. While the show has been extremely timid in its depiction of black gay male sexual relationships on the show, Tara’s character ensures that there is some equity in the depiction of heterosexual relationships on the show. (I discuss the good and the bad of homosexual relationships on the show in a different post.)

Until Maryann begins messing with her, Tara’s sexual agency shows real progress from her first introduction in Season One as the only unrequited Jason Stackhouse groupie to an adult relationship with series newcomer Eggs. Tara chooses who she likes and with whom she sleeps. And once she gets over Jason, she also ensures that her sexual needs are met even as she tries to figure out her emotional ones. Where she is played as purely unlovable in her relationship with Sam, she develops the ability to discuss her feelings and her needs and work on needed compromises in her relationship with Eggs. Eggs willingness to do the same, makes the relationship between them one of the most mature of the entire season and the show in general. It also a pleasant counter narrative to the stereotypical depiction of black couples as non-existent or violent, but only for a while.

Unfortunately, Tara’s relationship with Eggs is also marred by Maryann’s racialized interference. While she manipulates all of the townspeople into having sex against their will and in perverse ways (someone actually has sex with a tree at one point), she takes perverse pleasure out of making the black characters in town mix their sex with violence. Thus the same woman who dares to position herself above Tara’s mother because Lettie Mae beat her, has Eggs beat Tara while she watches. Worse, she uses magic to make Tara laps it up and beg for more. They are the only couple to whom Maryann makes this happen. In other words, the director and writers subject the audience to drawn out domestic and sexual violence scenes between Eggs and Tara in which Tara plays objectification loving black female to Eggs violent black male. Also, while all of the couples engage in sex acts forced upon them by Maryann’s presence, no other couple is depicted in increasingly bestial rape scenes in which the female partner has expressly said no before hand.

Maryann also uses this same magic to have Eggs kill people for her. Despite being able to manipulate anyone she wants and having the entire police department at her disposal, as well as being superhuman herself, Eggs is the only person she manipulates into committing murder. The number Eggs has killed under her sway is never revealed but several scenes imply there are many victims. When he discovers this, he goes to confess and is murdered by Jason Stackhouse who, of course, thinks he is a violent criminal. Like the underlining narrative of the show itself that perpetually connects black characters with violence, Jason’s white normativity makes him assume that Eggs is violent and so he shoots him. The tragedy actualized far too many times in real life in North America is played out in close up for True Blood viewers’ entertainment, just like Tara’s rape and brutal beatings.

Sisterhood?

And where is Tara’s best friend when all of this is unfolding? In season One, Sookie Stackhouse actually steals Tara’s boyfriend, not because she wants him but because of a sense of entitlement. Even though Sookie is dating Bill and has no desires for Sam, when she finds out about Tara and Sam she has the nerve to ask him if the relationship is real. For some unexplained reason, she just can’t wrap her mind around why Same would date Tara instead of pine for her. And though she has never actually dated Sam, and does not think the relationship he has with Tara means anything, she actually gives Tara permission to continue dating him. Again, some how she seems to have the right to decide what is real and what isn’t and who her black best friend can and cannot date, even though she was already doing it at the time.

Why does Sookie have the right to judge their relationship, let alone give permission for it? And if she has given permission than why does she ultimately take Sam back like a pair of borrowed socks she sees on the floor of Tara’s room? Asking these questions requires a racialized lens that subverts the centrality of the main female character of the show in order to see how identification with her excuses both patriarchy-serving gendered competition between heterosexual women and gendered racism that erases black women’s desires in order to not only privilege white women’s desires.

When Bill leaves town, Sam not only comes a runnin’ but Sookie takes Sam back first as an interested friend and then as a lover without ever asking about the impact on Tara. Like the friendship that Stefan Salvatore has with Bonnie Bennett, black women’s agency only matters to these sympathetic main characters in as much as it does not get in the way of what they want or feel they are entitled to. And like so many other shows where black people simply fade into the background when included at all, Tara disappears for several episodes while Sam and Sookie hook up. When she re-enters, there are no recriminations for Sookie’s behavior nor judgment for Sam. Tara simply agrees with Sam that they had nothing going on anyway. Tara’s decision serves two purposes, to reinforce the idea of her character as unlovable, which is underpinned by her low self-esteem and subsequent inability to fight for her relationship, and to re-establish racial hierarchies that permeate the narrative of the first season. (It should be noted that this narrative is not only present between black and white people in Bon Temps but also in the subtle differences in which white and Creole characters are developed, so that racial hierarchies in the show follow distinctly colonial gradations that place upperclass European whiteness at the top even as the narrative centers a working class white female character.)

Now ask yourself, why does Sookie think she has the right to give Tara permission to date Sam but no one thinks Sookie should ask Tara before she sleeps with her boyfriend?

Sookie is also absent in Season Two when Tara is seduced by Maryann. While this is due largely to her trip out of town with Bill and a completely separate story line that unfolds as a result, Sookie is in town when Maryann arrives and Tara is Sookie’s roommate when she leaves town. Before Sookie leaves town she registers several red flags about Maryann and does attempt to get Tara away from her influence. However, just like how Elena’s obsession with Stefan causes her to put him first at a critical moment for the Bennet women in Vampire Diaries, Sookie’s obsession with Bill ensures she does not follow up with Tara before it is too late.  She does not ask Tara what is going on and does not call to check on Tara prior to when Sookie gets kidnapped and has her own showdown to deal with. At least Elena Gilbert actually does look out for Bonnie Bennett most of the time. Even when her self-absorption costs Bonnie’s grandmother her life, Elena eventually goes over to check on Bonnie and will likely lend her comfort when the season returns. Sookie shows no similar compassion for Tara until it is far too late. And if the promos for the third season are any indication, her lack of compassion based on the centering of her own desires and the negation of Tara’s only deepens as the series continues.

When Sookie finally does return to Bon Temps and is alerted, by Tara’s relatives, to the Tara’s demise, Sookie is positioned as the Angel on high vis-a-vis Tara’s demon possession. Like a bad Beneton ad, Sookie pours out the light while Tara growls black eyed. Sookie manages to save Tara through some untapped magical goodness inside only to stand in judgment of Tara’s commitment to save Eggs. She seems horrified that Tara wants to go back for Eggs as if the life of her black boyfriend is some how less relevant than the life of either Bill, who Sookie has risked her life for on more than one occasion, or Sam, who Sookie will risk her life for before the end of the season.

Ask yourself how many times Sookie has put her life on the line for Bill or Eric, neither of whom were under the spell of a woman forcing them to beat, rape, and kill people. Why is Eggs life less important?

Like Maryann, Sookie also has harsh words for Tara’s mother, who, in recognizing the equal humanity of black characters to white ones, is swayed by tara’s argument that somebody must save Eggs. She judges Lettie Mae’s need to bond with Tara after so much abuse with complete disregard for both the underlining repositioning of black subjecthood, ie black lives matter, and the reality that while Sookie was off making sure Bill’s friends were helped, Lettie Mae was the only one who was trying to save Tara from Maryann. The irony is lost on her and is written in such a way as to ensure it is also lost on the audience. Just in case, they also have Lafayette tear into Lettie Mae with complete disregard for Eggs’ life or Tara’s love.

It takes a profound level of cognitive dissonance to watch these scenes and imagine Sookie as Tara’s savior both in terms of the action of the season and in contrast to Tara’s caretaking of Sookie when her grandmother dies in the previous season. Like Bonnie in the Vampire Diaries, Tara takes the friendship to heart in ways that Sookie fails to do. While some of this is about the intoxication of new love Sookie feels, much of it is inexplicable when you add up the amount of abuse and abandonment Tara has been left to deal with in the wake of limited to no support from her best friend.

Conclusion

The depictions of black womanhood on this show are offensive at best and at worse they underscore much of the negative stereotypes about black women in N. American society. If you couple the depiction of black women with the stereotypical images of both black straight and gay men in this show, it isn’t hard to understand why the producers chose to include historical footage of a Klan rally in the opening credits despite no characters in the Klan on True Blood. The juxtaposition of depraved and abusive black women with magical white women caretakers whose sexual agency is always to their benefit, plays out like a bad John Mayer interview. Gone from the adult world of vampires is a real commitment to sisterhood in action, though still present in word. And while the black family in True Blood has survived two seasons while the black family in Vampire Diaries is hanging on a thread, it is clear that to truly enjoy True Blood one has to divorce it from any critical race and racialized gender analysis.

At the same time, Rutina Wesley and Adina Porter, who plays Lettie Mae, turn in powerful performances as mother and daughter. Both infuse the characters with as much critical gaze and irony as they can. In less capable hands, both of these characters would be even more offensive. Instead Wesley and Porter constantly raise the bar and attempt to re-center the gaze while working with material which I would argue is decidedly anti-black female personhood. I don’t know if that is a good thing or not, but I do know that Rutina Wesley has consistently shown the acting chops to do much better things in the future and the popularity of True Blood can only help to make that happen.

—–

images

  • How She Move/MTV/ 2007
  • True Blood/HBO/2008
  • True Blood/HBO/2008
  • Fan Pic/hyrulebranch
  • True Blood/HBO/2009
  • True Blood/HBO/2009
  • True Blood/HBO/2008
  • True Blood/HBO/2008
  • True Blood/HBO/2009

4 thoughts on “BHM: Rutina Wesley and Her “True Blood”

  1. True Blood is a ‘guilty pleasure’ indeed. Your analysis of the show was thorough and insightful explaining stereotypical behaviors that tend to always make me uncomfortable, but I keep tuning back in for the simple fact that I like Tara and particularly Lafayette. I find myself curious about the course of their lives in a way that Sookie and Bill never have managed to interest me.

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