“Vampires were people too.”
Those are the words used in True Blood’s early viral marketing, a pro-Vampire Rights Amendment ad that spoke in broad terms about equality in order to mimic the contemporary civil rights conversation. From the beginning, True Blood’s allegory has never been subtle: The opening credits depict a church marquee reading “GOD HATES FANGS,” a reference to the Westboro Baptist Church’s “God Hates Fags.” In the world of True Blood, vampires have always been a metaphor for the LGBT community.
Since then, the series has made these references more overt: Anti-vampire church the Fellowship of the Sun is a clear stand-in for the religious right, and the fifth season saw a rise in hate crimes against vampires. This season True Blood introduced Gov. Truman Burrell, whose conservative policies echo the political side of the civil rights struggle. His extreme anti-vampire laws actually mirror anti-Jewish legislation in prewar Nazi Germany — and the references to vampire camps seem to be setting the stage for a vampire Holocaust.
That the analogy is in poor taste is secondary to the larger issue at hand. Here’s the real problem with True Blood’s civil rights allegory: In this case, the so-called bigots are right. Their discrimination of vampires is reasonable, because all of their fears about vampires are true.
On True Blood, even the likable vampires are incredibly dangerous, frequently shifting allegiances and getting the people around them killed. While their opinions differ on the concept of mainstreaming — that is, fully integrating into normal human society — it’s always easier said than done. These are creatures with an unquenchable bloodlust: They may be able to survive on artificial substitutes, but they will always have the desire for human blood. Anything else would be against their nature.
But the anti-vampire ad that aired in conjunction with the Vampire Rights Amendment spot offers some of the language we’ve come to expect from small-minded racists and homophobes: “I don’t feel safe at night anymore,” “I don’t want them anywhere near my kids,” “They make me scared.” When a person makes these statements about LGBT people or African Americans, they’re steeped in ignorance — they come from a place of fear and baseless stereotyping. But when it comes to vampires, these concerns aren’t off the mark. Vampires do make being out at night more dangerous, they do prey on children (among others), and they are — to put it simply — really scary.
The initial connection between True Blood’s vampires and LGBT people predates the series: In author Charlaine Harris’ first Sookie Stackhouse novel, the basis for the HBO show, Harris writes about vampires “coming out of the coffin.” In a 2009 New York Post story, Harris reflected on her decision to use the analogy back in 2001: “When I began framing how I was going to represent the vampires, it suddenly occurred to me that it would be interesting if they were a minority that was trying to get equal rights. It just seemed to fit with what was happening in the world right then.” But Harris only used the allegory as a jumping off point, as her subsequent novels veered away from politics.
True Blood, on the other hand, has only doubled down on its metaphors, which is confusing given creator Alan Ball’s assertion that such a connection was problematic. In the same article, Ball is quoted as saying, “To look at these vampires on the show as metaphors for gays and lesbians is so simple and so easy, that it’s kind of lazy. If you get really serious about it, well, then the show could be seen to be very homophobic because vampires are dangerous: They kill, they’re amoral.” But as Ball chastises viewers for their analysis, he ignores the fact that he’s the one who put it in there. The “God Hates Fangs” phrase is unique to the TV show.
If season six seems more overtly political than past seasons, that could be a testament to Ball’s departure from the series at the end of the fifth season. Current showrunner Brian Buckner has not spoken out against the civil rights allegory. But as the series moves away from LGBT rights and to a broader statement about equality in general, the allegory remains troubling. If True Blood’s vampires are now Jews in Nazi Germany or African Americans in the pre-civil rights South, that still doesn’t address the underlying problem with the comparison. On True Blood, the larger fears about vampires — that they’re out to kill, corrupt, and ultimately destroy human society — are entirely accurate.
The struggle for vampire rights is not the noble fight of the civil rights movement, because it’s not simply about letting vampires live their lives in peace alongside humans: Vampire rights means that innocent people are going to die.
To be fair, True Blood isn’t the first piece of media to employ the civil rights allegory — but it may be the first to use such blatant visuals. The most recent episode included a vampire being dragged behind a car, a reference to the 1998 lynching of James Byrd, Jr., and a group of vampires trapped in a shower and murdered en masse, the Nazis’ preferred method for executing Jews during the Holocaust. When X-Men covered similar terrain, it did so with a subtler hand. Perhaps more to the point, X-Men’s gay rights analogy began at a time when such LGBT representation (implied or otherwise) was revolutionary. True Blood airs on the network that gave us Behind the Candelabra.
In 2013, what is True Blood really trying to say? The underlying message becomes more muddled as the subtext becomes text. “The Sun” introduced the character of Nicole Wright, who urged Sam Merlotte to come out as a shifter:
I want you to come out as a shifter. I want you to tell your story to the world. … The movement has to start somewhere, so you need to have the guts to stand up and be counted, because then you’ll inspire the other supernaturals to do the same. … My white grandmother and my black grandfather were Freedom Riders. And in 1961, they defied members of the civil rights movement, even Dr. King, and they boarded a bus and drove down to the Deep South to end segregation. And they were attacked. And yeah, they were a little naïve. But their actions started the civil rights movement.
Speak up, or they’ll come for you next, Nicole warns Sam, and she might as well be quoting “First they came…” Now that there’s no doubt about the connection True Blood is trying to make, the series can no longer pretend it’s not about civil rights. Ball may have tried to create a distinction between vampires and LGBT people, but today’s True Blood draws a direct link between supernatural creatures and all disenfranchised minorities.
What True Blood still can’t explain is why the rights of supernatural creatures, particularly vampires, matter. In the same episode that Nicole gives her impassioned speech about the civil rights movement, Bill — now imbued with the power of original vampire Lilith — telepathically breaks the bones in a hooker’s body before draining her. At the end of the episode, Bill watches a televised vampire hate crime with horror, his cheeks stained with bloody vampire tears. Are we supposed to feel sympathy for the vampire being dragged to his death? And is it possible to do so when we’ve just witnessed the latest grotesque display of vampire-on-human violence?
True Blood puts the audience in an uncomfortable position, not unlike Dexter, which forces viewers to sympathize with the protagonist’s moral ambiguity. But Dexter doesn’t advocate for serial killer rights: We accept Dexter as flawed and we like him anyway, but the show isn’t making any larger statement about equality because doing so would be, at best, ridiculous, and at worst, deeply offensive. We can root for a character who does bad things, but there are limits. On True Blood, the vampire species as a whole is inherently evil. Why should they be treated with the same rights as everyone else?
Gov. Burrell may be the villain of season six, but it’s hard to hate someone who seems to be one of the few sane characters on the show. Asking the audience to boo and hiss at his apparent bigotry is a cheap ploy drawing on our real-life struggle for equal rights for all: We hate him because we’re supposed to hate him, even though his anti-vampire rhetoric is founded in fact. Remember that he doesn’t discriminate against vampires because the Bible tells him to — he does so because he believes vampires are bloodthirsty monsters, and True Blood has done little to dissuade that notion.
At this point, True Blood has no real agenda to further, aside from stirring viewers with an allegory that doesn’t fit — the writers continue to exploit the metaphor because it’s hip to make the show about civil rights. In the midst of a nationwide marriage equality debate, it all feels especially relevant. And yes, on the surface, True Blood’s allegedly progressive politics may appeal to more liberal-minded viewers. On further analysis, however, the analogy is bloodless.