The following refers up to season 3 only.
The concept of gender, as we know it now, is used as an analytical category to differentiate biological sex differences which are then assigned as either ‘masculine’ (man) or ‘feminine’ (woman) (Pilcher & Wheleehan, p. 57). However, the meanings attached to these terms are socially constructed, changeable and can be interpreted differently based on our own historical cultural context (Pilcher & Wheleehan, p 58). The masculine and feminine gender follow four key features that form a dichotomous relationship: they are founded on a difference and so each gains position/definition from not being the other; there is a hierarchical order; an assumption that the pair cover the range of possibilities; and the subordinate of the pair can only move upwards in the hierarchy by becoming like the dominant (Pilcher & Wheelehan, p. 24). This paper will explore the representation of the feminine gender in the series True Blood and in doing so will focus on two of these four features: the hierarchy and the upward movement of the subordinate in said hierarchy.
The series produces two notable images of the feminine gender, seen in the two leading female characters, that of the stereotypical feminine and the masculine-feminine the latter, however, only gaining meaning through contrast with the former. In this regard the term masculine-feminine means a female who shares more characteristics with men than with women (Seal 2010). Although other female characters do appear in the series they are often relegated to supporting or minor roles and usually fit within one of the images (usually that of feminine stereotype) mentioned earlier. There are, however, exceptions that will be dealt with in regards to the two images produced by the two lead female characters, Sookie Stackhouse and Tara Thornton. These images of gender are, however, encapsulated in a larger framework which give them context and deeper meaning, the show’s setting: the South, a place that invokes images of slavery, segregation, religion and bigotry (if these images don’t appear readily then they would certainly be instilled in you during the opening credit sequence). Had True Blood taken place anywhere else it would have lost some of its meaning; in New York Sookie would probably have been more of a Carrie Bradshaw type rather than a waitress at the only bar in town, her sweet innocent nature transposed for that of a calloused, sexually promiscuous woman who’s seen it all. It is the setting of the series that roots the characters beliefs and views and so produces these specific genders.
In Bon Temps, Louisiana, an area steeped with history of slavery, class distinction and bigotry, it becomes more believable that a patriarchal society would form. In True Blood this is exactly what is seen. The masculine gender appears superior to that of the feminine (and so occupies the dominant position in the hierarchy; this is also true in the stereotypical sense) and often treat them as property (several times Bill says of Sookie “she is mine” and Coot tells his fiancé “I own you”). Women are rarely shown as strong and independent mostly portrayed as emotional and irrational whereas men are calm and collective (violent when the need arises and then only to achieve their own ends).
Nowhere is the gender representation I have just described more evident than in Sookie and Tara. The two are of the same social class with the exception that Sookie is white and Tara is not (which in the South would put her below Sookie), are waitresses at Merlotte’s and are best friends. It would be simple to assume that they are strong feminist characters since the events that move the series along show them fighting off vampires, Christian fanatics and werewolves but lets take a closer look at the two characters. Sookie Stackhouse is set up as the atypical blonde victim of the horror genre in that she is not helpless. She possesses powers (which in itself should make her powerful but does not) that make her unique within the True Blood universe, however, at every turn she is captured (King of Mississippi, Eric Northam, Fellowship of the Sun), abused (Werewolves) and objectified (all of the above!) by her apparently superior male adversaries. Even her love interest, Bill Compton, was initially tasked with procuring her (a word Bill himself uses thereby furthering his objectification of her) for the Queen of Louisiana. “Sookie is also not much on traditional feminist independence. She lived with her grandmother well into her twenties” (Wilson 2010, p. 65) and believes she needs a man. Also, she works because she has to not because she’s following a career path.
Tara Thornton on the other hand has no supernatural powers and is often in need of rescuing too but unlike Sookie she does not expect it (whereas Sookie often shouts Bill’s name or threatens her captor that Bill will come for her) and will take matters into her own hands which asserts that her character as independent (but is she feminine?). In the episode I Have A Right To Sing The Blues to escape the vampire Franklin she pretends to love him, waits till he falls asleep and then bashes his head in with a mace. Freeing herself she proceeds to save Sookie. She saves the day but is she the heroine? It is in comparing the two characters that Tara’s gender representation becomes more evident. Tara is Sookie’s polar opposite. Sookie is blonde, slender, soft spoken and often seen in summer dresses. Tara, however, is neither of these things, she is often loud and profane; short tempered; and favours shorts and tank tops which show her muscular arms (associating her more closely to the only two other characters on the series that constantly wear clothes that shoe off their arms: Jason Stackhouse and her cousin Lafayette. Both men.). In addition to these Tara is sexually promiscuous (at least in comparison to Sookie). She appears lacking in particular gender signals (those socially constructed and accepted characteristics such as gentle and nurturing) that would identify her to me as feminine although her breasts and voice to identify her as female (and so here the difference between the biological female and the socially constructed concept of feminine is evident). Also, the manner in which she dispatched Franklin using a weapon, not usually associated with women, that required physical strength and determination (I would imagine crushing a skull would need greater resolve than pulling a trigger) further goes to separate her from the female image held by society. In this sense the show has conveyed to me that to produce a strong female character they had to remove all the traits that make her identifiable as feminine and associate the character with more masculine traits such as aggressiveness. In the episode I Have A Right To Sing The Blues Sookie is brought to the mansion of the vampire king of Mississippi as a prisoner. Bill tries to save her but fails and she pleads for Eric to help her but he ignores her. While being dragged to a room she threatens a guard that she has powers but the guard doesn’t listen and throws her into the room. For all her power she is helpless and looks to men for help and security but in contrast Tara, a simple human, kills a vampire, tricks and subdues a guard and saves Sookie. And so by contrast they portray two different images of femininity.
In the same episode we meet two other female characters which take up considerable screen time (in comparison to the other female characters): Bill’s maker, Lorena, and the Queen of Louisiana, Sophie-Ann. Lorena, in being Bill’s maker (vampires can only make other vampires, whom they refer to as their progeny, as they are unable to procreate naturally), is associated with the image of birth typical of a woman and she, like Sookie, needs and fantasizes about a happy life with a man. The Queen, however, needs no man and has in fact refused several proposals of marriage from the King of Mississippi. She is an independent feminine figure (probably the only one in True Blood) and lives in a large mansion surrounded by bodyguards and servants. Also, she always appears in white pant suits, which identify her as equal to men, and wears red lipstick which show her as feminine (thus separating her image from that of Tara). Further, the Queen is the most powerful (in terms of position) female in the series as all other female characters have been depicted as waitresses, social workers and police officers (further proof of the patriarchal society in True Blood as most men are land, bar or club owners or independently wealthy. Another example of gender hierarchy and which reaps with more meaning in the South). Therefore, the Queen has become the representation of feminism in the series. However, even her strong feminist character is unable to break the gender hierarchy and is subjugated by her “stronger” male adversaries and forced to marry the King of Louisiana (thus making her his property).
In conclusion, the representation of femininity in True Blood is restricted to that of the stereotypical feminine (one which possess those qualities society deems typical of females such a slender figure, gentle, polite, nurturing and weaker than men) and that of the masculine-feminine as portrayed by Sookie and Tara respectively. Although we do get a glimpse of one other type, the feminist (a female that believes she is on equal standing as a man), but she is not a main character and so only appears as a subplot to the main story. Therefore, for the series to produce a strong female lead they had to create a character lacking in most feminine qualities but more attuned to masculine qualities (aggression, violence, crude behaviour, physical toughness) thereby subverting the hierarchy, as mentioned in the introduction, to gain a higher position. The question now becomes if the feminine representation is only biologically identifiable as feminine and not socially can she still be considered a feminine representation?