Before the John Mayer debacle broke on Wednesday, I had been planning to do a slightly fluffy Black Herstory/Latinegras post on the black diasporic connections embodied by the family of witches on the Vampire Diaries. The post was fluffy, but I had a critical race feminism point. (see footnote one for more) It is broken into two parts: analysis of the black female characters on the show and praise for the black diasporic actresses who played them, and marked accordingly. Even if you don’t care about the show and its meanings for black female representation in television take some time out to read the second part on the amazing black actresses who play the roles.
The Plot and the Characters:
Vampires are hot, or so sayeth the media. Since True Blood took HBO’s ratings to new heights and Twilight sent tweens and their parents into uncritical swooning fits, Vampires have dominated television, film, and published Young Adult fiction. Despite the rush to capitalize on the vampire craze, many of these projects have failed to garner the attention of break outs like True Blood and Vampire Diaries (which is based on a YA series). These two shows have dominated the ratings amongst their age groups and represent key anchors in the line up for their respective networks. Both blend vampire lore with other supernatural forces and the strong bond between a lead actress and an apologetic vampire lover that seem to be critical to the fan base, and both have a black family amidst their main characters, but that is where the similarities end. While True Blood offers us a dysfunctional black family riddled with racial stereotype and storylines that often capitalize on both a racialized and sexualized gaze, Vampire Diaries offers an alternative vision of blackness as critical to the town’s success.
Thus in the small town of Mystic Falls, the popular kids, the stoners, and the vampires (all mostly white) are joined by a matriarchy of witches, all of whom are black. Like the white families in this small town, the Bennetts can trace their heritage back to the founding of Mystic Falls and also like them, the Bennett’s friendships and relationships are entwined with all of the prominent families in town. Though this seems like an obvious way to build character development and ensure cohesion of story lines, Vampire Diaries like True Blood stand out precisely because they tied the main black character’s histories and story lines to the main white ones rather than using the add black people and stir method. In most television programs black characters’ story lines only go back as far as their present friendship with a white character, they often have more relationships outside of town and off screen than on them, and they often represent the only person of color or the only black person on the show. All of these factors help make it easy to write black characters out of multiple episodes in a season or drop their story lines all together; in the worst versions of this, black people simply disappear one day without the writers or the show ever explaining where they went. And while True Blood has come dangerously close to permanently splitting the story lines between white and black characters that facilitates this process, after such a promising start, the same cannot be said for Vampire Diaries, where not only do the humans have important generational connections, but the supernatural characters are dependent on their connections to one another.
The fate of Bennetts (the black witches) and the Salvatores (the white upper class vampires) were forged through persecution. At the center of both their stories is an ancient vampire named Katherine, played by Easter European actress Nina Dobrev. For love of Katherine, the Salvatore brothers become vampires just before the Mystic Falls vampire massacre led by their father, while Bonnie Bennett’s Great Grandmother Emily arrived in town as part of the famed vampire Katherine’s entourage. While Katherine and the other female vampires in the town successful insert themselves as prominent Ladies (title not gender) in the town, Emily Bennett is left to play servant. She moves amongst the then-young/human Salvatore brothers with an ease that shows their respect for her and while she maintains her servant role, Katherine’s references to her invaluable interventions speaks to her import amongst the vampires as well. When the town’s people rise up against the vampires, Damon Salvatore asks Emily Bennett to save the vampires’ lives. In his mind, and that of his brother Steffan, Emily Bennett casts a spell that saves the brothers and the vampires at his request; however, her spell gives both families their freedom. Emily is set free from the servant role she plays vis-a-vis Katherine’s class aspirations and the Salvatores should be set free from their blinding love for Katherine. Emily’s magic also seemingly binds the two families together in ways that has often protected both their lives through generations.
For Damon Salvatore, the Bennetts represent power he both needs and coerces to his own ends, while for Stefan the Bennetts are important allies against any number of supernatural evils, including in the vampire ranks. While from the perspective of the Salvatores, the Bennetts fulfill the traditional role of black women in the white imaginary, as Saphires and caretakers for their hopes and dreams, rather than subjects with their own agency, the Bennetts are far from stereotype. In fact, not only do the flashback episodes (“History Repeating”, “The Turning Point”, and “Bloodlines”) call into question how the humans learned of herbal defenses against the vampires, something a witch would certainly know, but when Damon first attempts to free the vampires from the spell Emily cast to keep them from dying in the town’s genocidal burning attempt, Emily returns from the dead to stop him. It seems her goal was not just to save the lives of the vampires but also the humans whom they would have extracted vengeance upon. Further, Emily lets Damon know that she has seen how he has threatened and harassed her family throughout the generations and that he cannot win. Though the youngest Bennett, Bonnie, has barely come to know her powers and is taken hostage by Emily’s possession of her, she too stands up to Damon to ensure that she and her family are not manipulated or abused by him. Finally, as Shiela Bennett warns Stefan, in “Bloodlines”, “I will help you but if it comes to a choice between you and Bonnie, I will protect my own.” In other words, the witches are willing to help out but they are not objects for the Salvatores to move across the chessboard of their own making; the Bennetts make their own destinies and their own choices and ultimately determine their own subjecthood and agency. And while Stefan Salvatore is clearly protective of Bonnie and treats all of the Bennett women with respect, Sheila Bennett’s warning also reminds us that Stefan’s kindness still does not completely translate to seeing the Bennetts as equally important in his struggle with his brother Damon.
Unfortunately, the repeated powerful agency of the Bennett women begins to wane in the serious as Damon enacts vengeance on several of the Bennett women. Though Emily is able to best Damon magically and ensure that her will remains unbroken, Damon repays her defiance with a violent banishing of her soul and an attempt on the life of her grand-daughter. This penchant to murder Bennetts for failing to do what he wants, will ultimately decimate the Bennett line before the end of Black History Month. In what will likely be seen as a throwaway episode in the franchise, Damon takes Stefan’s girlfriend Elena, to visit Bree Bennett, played by Cuban-American actress Gina Torres. As “Bloodlines” unfolds, we find out that Damon found and wooed Bree Bennett in college, failing to tell her that he knew exactly who she was and that his love/attraction to her was a mask to get her to do help him let Katherine out of the tomb in which her ancestor Emily had sealed her. And though we are told that Bree considers Damon the love of her life, we are not told why they broke up, only that he cannot be trusted. Since Bree is the one who told Damon how to do the ritual that brought Emily back to protect the spell in the first place, we can only imagine that part of Bree’s broken heart is related to Damon’s obvious manipulation of her.
Bree is no victim however. While she pretends to entertain Damon, she is secretly helping to get him drunk and off guard so another vampire can kill him. She sets him up for heartlessly killing Stefan’s best-friend, a 300 year old white female vampire who poses no threat to the Salvatores except that she encourages Stefan’s independence. When Damon discovers the ruse, Bree also makes it known that she takes the same vervain that the humans who hunted down Katherine miraculously “discovered” in the past.
There are two ways to interpret Bree’s actions and her ultimate fate. On the one hand, while Bree never paid Damon back for whatever emotional, and potentially physical and sexual, violence he has done to her in the past, she risks her life to make him pay for killing her white female friend following a mammy narrative that disregards abuse against black women for the safety and comfort of white ones. On the other hand, Bree’s final stand can be interpreted as her fially coming into her own against Damon’s abusiveness and showing female solidarity. In other words, Bree had to come through whatever abusive history she had with Damon first, in order to find the strength to fight back; often we think of empowered, strong, women as exempt from cycles of violence and the emotional scars that come with them, but DSV crosses all classes and all types of women and Torres infuses Bree with a knowing reticence that speaks to this history even where the writers have failed to provide it. If we see Bree as a survivor, then we can also interpret her actions in “Bloodlines” as an attempt to ensure that Damon is not able to perpetrate against any other women, vampire, witch, or human, ever again.
Unfortunately for Bree, the assassination fails. Damon kills Bree by reaching into her chest and pulling out her still beating heart. The implication is that Damon is crushed by her betrayal because a part of him loved her and that he thinks her attempted murder was heartless and her inability to help him save Katherine has ripped out his heart. But again, that version of the story requires the centering of Damon and his desires over those of the women he continues to manipulate and/or kill. Both Bree and Emily understood that where they had shown love and compassion to Damon he could only repay in violence and thus had to be stopped. It was not an expression of Damon’s broken heart then that caused him to tear out Bree’s but rather a visual reminder of how Damon expresses his own disappointment and desire for dominance through emotional violence and manipulation of women’s desires often culminating in murder. Thus watching “Bloodlines”through the lens of intersectionality moves us away from a throwaway “road trip” bonding episode between Damon and Elena into the realm of powerful commentary on how we, as women, especially young women, are conditioned to interpret abusive behavior as love and obsession as praise. If you are inclined to see Damon as tragic the way Elena does despite all of the violence she saw him enact on her own friend, Caroline Forbes, in this episode, the image of Bree’s still beating heart in Damon’s bloody fist, reminds: He’ll tear out your heart, if you let him.
Bree’s senseless death marks the beginning of a critical shift in the discourse of female power represented by the Bennett women. For all their magic, Damon continues to kill them. Bree casts no spells, she places no protections around herself, her bar, or the vampire she calls to kill Damon. Outside of drinking vervain “every day since [he] left”, Bree does nothing but beg Damon to let her live. Unlike Emily, who stands defiant against Damon at the tomb, Bree’s last breaths are choked out through sobs begging for her life.
In “Fool Me Once”, the final episode before the current hiatus, Sheila Bennett, played by the formidable Jasmine Guy, also dies because of Damon’s quest to free Katherine. The strongest of the Bennetts, Sheila agrees to help Stefan and Damon free Katherine in the hopes of ending Damon’s reign of terror against her family. Though she warns Stefan again that her help will not supersede her commitment to her family, both brothers rush in as if their desires are the only relevant ones at play. However, they soon discover that Sheila’s warnings are never idle and that the Bennett women are never just pawns in vampire games. While Sheila promised to open the door to the tomb, she never promised to lift the curse that keeps vampires inside it and thus when Damon rushes in to get Katherine, he should end up trapped forever.
Though the Bennett women should finally have been free from the menace of rogue vampires, Stefan also enters the tomb against warning to save Elena who he fears is being drained by an Asian-American vampire named Pearl, also trapped in the tomb. Though Sheila warns him against it and feels no remorse for the choice he makes, the youngest Bennett, Bonnie, begs her to let him out. When Sheila refuses, Bonnie, like Bree, puts her friendship with Elena over that of everything else and tries to work the magic on her own. In an act of female and familial solidarity, Sheila helps her, echoing a tradition of joining magic across generations of black women in the show.
Despite great risk, the two remaining Bennetts work the ancient magic needed to free Stefan from the tomb. Had he exited the tomb with Elena, this act of solidarity would not only have upheld the bonds of women within and outside of the Bennett family on the show but also ensured the ongoing love story between Steffan Salvatore and Elena upon which the show hinges. However, with little regard to the lives of the two black women holding the magic at bay, Elena gives Stefan permission to go back into the tomb to find Damon because her word to a manipulative and often abuse vampire matters more to her than the friendship with and the lives of the black women who put their lives on the line to save her boyfriend. Stefan, who was prepared to be trapped forever only moments before, rushes back into the tomb to save his brother with equal disregard for the weakening witches reminding us of why Sheila keeps her distance from both Salvatore brothers.
Like Bree, only a few episodes before, the Bennett women’s cross-racial feminism is repaid by death. By episode end, Damon, Stefan, and Elena are free and primarily worrying about each other. Pearl and her daughter Ana are also free; though once again, Damon shows up and threatens them, almost crushing the life out of Pearl, because he didn’t get what he wanted. The weakened Bennetts go home with a simple “thank you”, and while Elena goes to check on her bestfriend, after taking care of herself and her boyfriend first, Stefan makes no similar gesture. As evening turns into night, Sheila, the most powerful of the Bennett witches, dies from the expenditure of magic it took to hold the door open for the Salvatore brothers. Three black women gone, two in the course of black history month, all walking a very thin line between subject and object.
What started out as a powerful commentary on black female strength and a critical counterpoint to the weakness and obsession shown by many of the younger female characters in the show, regardless of race, ends with a dignified whimper.
The Actresses and the Diaspora:
Not only does the Bennett family initially offer us a critical intervention into the increasingly eurocentric vampire folklore and a media machine that sees black women as tangential if at all, its existence also offers the opportunity to see powerful black female actresses infusing the roles with both feminism and to some extent race consciousness. Just as three generations of Bennetts are shown on screen, the actresses who play them also represent three generations of black women. The casting of the characters also gives us an opportunity to see the diaspora at work, as two of the actresses are Latinegras/Afra-Latina, one is Black British/African and the other is an African American.
I was actually drawn to the Vampire Diaries because of the re-emergence of Jasmine Guy on the show. Guy, who is African-American and Portuguese, is best known for her role as bourgeois Whitley Gilbert on a Different World. She infused the character with such elitest flair that I actually despised Guy, the actress, for some time. And yet, anyone who watched that show, also witnessed Guy transform Whitley from a stereotype of the light-skinned black bourgeoisie into a complex character with insecurities, heart ache, and compassion.
After a series of guest appearances on black sitcoms, including a powerful role as a therapist to Khadija, played by Queen Latifah, on Living Single, where she helped Khadija come to terms with her mental health issues and how “strong black women” are encouraged not to take care of their mental health, Guy returned to serialized tv on Dead Like Me. While her character in Dead Like Me, Roxy Harvey, was also largely a stereotype of the angry black woman, Guy infused the character with just enough pathos and compassion to elevate it out of stereotype.
Having watched her expand so many black female roles into complex meditations on the lives of varied black women, I can’t help but think of Jasmine Guy as a modern Hattie McDaniel. For those who do not know, Hattie McDaniel was instrumental in transforming the role of Mammy in Gone with the Wind. While the character remained largely mired by stereotype, McDaniel refused to say several of the more offensive lines in the original script, successfully getting them removed at a time when black female actresses had even less power in Hollywood than they do now. McDaniel’s also managed to work in double consciousness readings of several of her lines and unscripted appearances in that otherwise extremely offensive film “classic”, and was rewarded for her talent as the first African-American woman and person to win an Academy Award. If Guy were given the right vehicles, I think she could become one of less than a handful of black women who have been awarded in this way.
Her ability to transform characters no doubt also stems from her commitment to black women’s empowerment. Among the many speaking engagements she has done to encourage black women and girls to follow their dreams and love themselves, Guy collaborated with Afeni Shakur to write one of a handful of black female panther memoirs, Afeni Shakur: Evolution of a Revolutionary. Thus it comes as no surprise that Jasmine Guy’s Sheila Bennett was a powerhouse on Vampire Diaries despite being given so few lines. Each time Guy graced the screen, she infused Sheila Bennett with compassion and care for the women and girls of the show and strength beyond measure against the men who would manipulate and potentially abuse them. Though most of her time on the show amounted to a few lines uttered through a cracked door way, Guy made Sheila sing with strength and race and feminist consciousness. When Stefan Salvatore waxes poetic about his memories of her oratory skills during the Civil Rights Movement, it comes across as genuine rather than pathetic chronology which always reduces blackness to either slavery or civil rights in this country, precisely because of Guy’s presence in the role. And when she steps outside her house to stare down Damon Salvatore, I actually stopped breathing. The way she put him in check with one glance spoke volumes about the potential for female power on the show and for Guy to transform and lead the female characters around her.
Watching Jasmine Guy die on Vampire Diaries was like a knife through the heart, as the last death of the established strong black women actresses on the show, she left behind only new comer Katerina Graham to fill the void. However, Guy was at least given time to infuse her character with such strength and determination that she became invaluable to the storyline and at least my connection to the show, beyond an academic interest. Gina Torres, on the other hand, was largely wasted talent on the show.
Gina Torres, an Afra-Latina of Cuban descent, played Bree Bennett in a single episode during black history month. Despite only having the one show to work with, Torres brought her immense strength and humor to the character and the show. Her Bree exuded sexuality and power, humor and flirtatiousness, and a quiet strength that was only undermined in the last few minutes of the character’s life. Two moments speak to her considerable talent in this episode: the way she managed to show solidarity with Elena, warning her about the company that she kept with body language and inflection in dialogue that in less capable hands would never have brought the two women’s story lines together, and the fact she managed to make Ian Somerhalder look taller in the scenes where they flirted and menacing/able to best her in the scene where he ultimately kills her despite being several inches taller and more muscular than he.
Despite the fact I know they won’t, I can only hope they bring Torres back in flashback sequences. She has a long list of scifi and fantasy credits under her belt, including the critically acclaimed Firefly, Alias, Angel, and Matrix series. Whether in hit or miss television shows or films, Torres has always been a powerful presence on screen. She infuses her characters with strength, humor, loyalty, and knowledge that makes her stand out in even the smallest of roles. And what some may not know is she is also a theater actress, who has appeared in stage productions like Antigone, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and Dreamgirls.
Like Guy, Torres also brings considerable socio-political consciousness to her roles. Prior to moving in to television, Torres worked with a theater company that brought classic plays and plays written by and about black people into low income schools in New York in order to encourage people of color to embrace the arts and see themselves reflected in them. At the same time, these performances also helped mainstream audiences learn the tradition of black theater and imagine canonized plays beyond the unspoken race orientied casting that often excludes black performers. Also like Guy, Torres has resisted the urge to play a “pretty face” on television and film despite overwhelming beauty in order to be taken seriously and to develop/use all of her considerable acting talent; subsequently, she helps show young actresses that while looks are becoming even more important in Hollywood than ever, that what really matters is your ability to act.
Gina Torres’ work not only encourages basic gender and race consciousness in tv and film, but she also helps to reverse the trend of erasing the African diasporic presence in Latin@ communities. As and Afra-Latina/Latinegra, Torres reminds mainstream audiences of the diversity of the Latin@ community and Latin@s of our mixed heritage. She also provides Afra-latinas themselves the chance to see one of their own succeeding in Hollywood as a beautiful and powerful woman. This impact is immeasurable.
I can only imagine what it was like for African-Swiss “new comer” Katerina Graham to work with these two women (if in fact she was able to meet Torres, with whom she shared no scenes). Guy, who played her mentor and grandmother on the show, no doubt also mentored her off screen as well.
I recently pointed out that Katerina Graham could easily have graced the cover of the Vanity Fair “Young Hollywood” edition. She began her entertainment career at the age of 6, starring in a series of commercials before landing several roles on Disney shows known for making tween stars, including Hannah Montana. Disney was committed enough to her to offer her a major role in their remake of 17 Again, which though it flopped helped her land the Vampire Diaries.
What you may not know, is that Katerina also has a successful music and dancing career amongst the international tween market. She has danced on the BET Awards and as back up to artists like Missy Elliot, whose choreographer is universally critically acclaimed. While it isn’t music I would listen to it is certainly no less insipid than Cyrus or Swift. Her collaborative work continues work with the Black Eye Peas, Will.I.Am and Snoop. One of her first songs was featured in a blockbuster film. More important, she is a self-taught engineer and producer. After her first few songs broke, Graham decided to buy her own studio and learn that production end of music in order to empower her own craft and that of other young artists. She later went on to complete a degree in music engineering before reaching her 17th birthday.
Her role as the youngest Bennett on the Vampire Diaries represents a critical shift away from the unofficial whites-only policy that seems to dominate the casting of teen and tween shows on the CW network. Graham plays the bestfriend of the main character, Elena, on the show and also the youngest witch on the show. Her character follows in the footsteps of the other young women on the show in being concerned about fitting in and dating that is both typical of the age group and yet handled by the show in ways that is largely miss in terms of female empowerment. Graham’s character Bonnie, much like Caroline Forbes, often makes the wrong choices in love and finds herself on the receiving end of mental and physical abuse or disdain. During black history month, she was beaten, kidnapped, and ridiculed by the boy she liked for being “so needy”; but that is pretty much par for the course for the young women on this show, with the exception of Elena and Ana.
Graham’s character actually has some of the most potential on the show. As a new witch who was just learning how to use her powers, she has the ability to grow and develop into a powerful presence in the town. Stefan Salvatore has already showed considerable interest in helping her develop her powers and stay safe from Damon’s unfair influence; though as I noted in the first part of this post, one cannot assume his interest is completely altruistic. It is also disconcerting that the show’s producers decided to leave a vacuum in Bonnie’s education by killing off her grandmother that will now be filled by Stefan. Not only does reinsert a master narrative of race and gender, but it severs the important storyline about shared female power and powerful family ties in the black community.
Finally, African-American Bianca Lawson rounds out the cast in the critical role of Emily Bennett. While she wasn’t really given a chance to breakout in the role, she did a great job of playing both a subtle background character in the flashback sequences and a powerful presence in the tomb sequences against Damon. Both she and Graham collaborated well to pull of a possession that was partially acted by Graham and partially by Lawson. Lawson has over 37 television and film credits during her long career as a child star turned young adult actress. She has appeared in a number of television roles including her brief stint as Kendra, the racially problematic slayer on Buffy, and is set to appear on ABC Family, an affiliate of Disney’s, as 1 of 4 main characters in Pretty Little Liars, a YA book series turned tv program. Should the show do well, Lawson may finally be poised for her big break.
While I am sure the casting agents at the CW do not pay nearly as much attention to ethnicity as I do as a teacher and published author on race and media, it was nice to see them include such a wide range of the black diaspora in their show. For young black women watching, it provided them not only with the rare chance to see talented black women doing there thing on a popular tv show but also to find their unique reflections in one or more of the actresses. The only thing missing in their casting decisions was the use of dark-skinned black actresses along side these talented, and mostly bi-racial, women. By casting astute and gifted actresses who took their roles very seriously, they also ensured that even the smallest parts would resonate along both feminist and race consciousness lines while appealing to a wide range of the audience.
Now that the black history month cleansing of black folk on Vampire Diaries has come to an end, it will be interesting to see if they retain Bonnie as a central character or shove her to the side like that black kid from Smallville. While I still believe the show has done more for ensuring the presence of positive black characters, played by strong black actresses, than many other shows on tv, I can’t help but be concerned about the recent loss of so many of them coupled with the rise of the black male demon image in the final moments of “Fool Me Once.” For now, I am just grateful to see so many amazing black women in major roles on the show and the reinsertion of diversity into both the CW tween market and the vampire folklore as depicted by modern television and film.
- My goal in writing this post had actually been to use the tween-oriented People’s Choice Award winner for Best New Show as a launching point for talking about the diaspora and setting the stage for a contrasting piece about the treatment of blackness and black families in popular vampire television. The post was partially inspired by my post, Do You See What I see the Black Herstory edition, on the Vanity Fair white washing of “young Hollywood”. It was also an attempt to reconcile the differences between a show that most of my contemporaries find entertaining and frothy, while failing to address the overarching racial messages embedded within, and a show that is universally mocked outside of its age demographic that openly chooses to avoid these messages. Unfortunately, in the two days that the post waited on the shelf in my brain, the realities of blackness on Vampire Diaries radically changed. In the course of just 3 episodes, all aired in February, the black matriarchy on the show has been reduced to one survivor; two of three black women, both played by Afra-Latinas, have died or been killed in the service of the white male leads. Another member of the matriarchy, who was already dead, was also re-killed last month. And while brutal murder is an essential part of the vampire lore of the show, the death of 3 of 4 central black characters to the show, espec in February, raise major questions about the shows actual commitment to diversity; what ultimately clenched it for me was that last night’s show ended with the resurrection of the black demon/black male rapist as a cliffhanger for their second mid-season hiatus.
- Unpleasantville episode Guy D’alema/The CW
- Children of the Damned. Quantrell Colbert/The CW
- History Repeating. Quantrell Colbert/The CW
- Bloodlines. Guy D’Alema/The CW
- Fool Me Once. Quantrell Colbert/The CW
- Unpleasantville. Guy D’Alema/The CW
- Bonnie and Grams cast spell. Quantrell Colbert/The CW
- Jasmine Guy/unattributed
- Gina Torres/unattributed
- Buffy The Vampire Slayer/WB/unattributed