Monday, March 3, 2014

The Hue of Gloom: True Blood’s Tara & Symbolic Representation


While having a discussion with an ex- co-worker about our laundry list of issues with the treatment of Tara Thorton from HBO's True Blood, I thought about the very touchy subject of colorism and semiotics in popular culture. But for the sake of time, sanity, and attention retention, I'm working with an approach that is hopefully profound, yet (somewhat) brief. Tara, executed strikingly and hypnotically by Rutina Wesley, has arguably had it the roughest on a series whose very lifeforce is over-dramatization with a heavy dose of all things supernatural. With that being said, I think an examination of its religious implications (or lack thereof) would be easier than what I'm about to tackle.

I believe what Tara embodies is the recycled introduction to African American women encoded as hopelessly undesirable and disposable, and this notion extends beyond but is not exclusive from her physical attributes. What blows the superficial out of the water is a character, whom we are consistently led to believe that is beyond any sort of redemption or stability. Is happiness is a luxury that she'll ever indulge? Far from arms length, Tara and her bloodline, paraphrasing from the character Lafayette, Tara's cousin from the first episode of season three, episode one, carries a "darkness". And that's a pun worth considering.

 My short affair with what I suppose is described as "urban fiction" many moons ago led me to the tale of Leslie by Omar Tyree. The title character, whose dark skin is emphasized throughout the book, is a beautiful (despite her skin color as the atmosphere of the book suggests), bright young woman who has risen above the bleak circumstances of her disjointed, Haitian family and the violent, poverty stricken community in New Orleans. With all the promise of a better future, Leslie, due to various plot circumstances as the tragic heroine, finds herself sitting in a jail cell at the end of the novel. Playing on the spiritual trope of the generational curse, Leslie's descent, in relation to the overt, thematic use of her skin tone connotes to me the "inevitable" disparity representation of darker-skinned folks of African heritage.

Years after this book was published and certainly many more examples later, True Blood viewers witness a similar level of disparity at play with Tara. The sole Black female major character without the mention of a father and a once alcoholic/abusive mother turned religious zealot, Tara's tough-as-nails exterior doesn't pass through our consciousness without some rationalization. Tara as an "angry black woman" seemed almost expected and unwavering. But there's something deeper lingering beneath the surface that makes me a tad more restless and sour. Tara seems to consistently face a more visceral instability in her relationships more than anyone else in the series because she lacks the most control or agency over any of them. Just because True Blood pushes the transgressive envelope in general doesn't mean it isn't complicit in problematic, dominant ideologies. It is, at its best, what gives it a postmodern flare that attracts such a large following. This twist is best demonstrated in my own personal attraction to the series and investment in Tara.


Consider her affair during season one with Sam Merlotte, the shape-shifter. Clearly grappling with an unrequited infatuation with Sookie, Tara's bestie and central character, Tara (due most likely to her own sense of loneliness and need to be desired) initiates an intimate relationship with Sam. Even with a few light protestations from Sam, Tara pushes the proposition. This arrangement doesn't last long when both parties seem to find some way to sabotage it. Tara with her own lovelorn affinity for Jason, Sookie's brother, her coded racial insecurities if you remember, for example, the 'I sound like Serena Williams in bed?!' outrage she lashed on Sam - an additional code for unfeminine, and Sam's relentless feelings for Sookie. Sam, whilst we do understand him to really care for her, sees Tara as a less than satisfactory replacement. Because his true object of desire is her white, blonde counterpart which she physically stands in stark contrast of. The woman who's consistently the orbit around Darwin's dream of the virile male attention attracts. In a nutshell, Tara would never be what Sam really wants.


From there on, Tara has had a tendency to attract 'darkness' so to speak or subversive bodies in the context of a white, racially privileged, heteronormative world: a black male drifter of sorts under the spell of a Maenad who's accidentally killed by an authority hungry Jason; a psychotic vampire who wreaks havoc on her mind and body for the better part of a cable television season (a reading of that storyline and its relationship to Black women and American slavery is a whole other essay!), and a beautiful woman she meets and embarks on an affair with under a concocted identity during her getaway from Bon Temps in New Orleans.

The loveless beating she has taken is only salt on the wound that is her protective nature that serves as another damaging trope which is marked by less of a benevolence and more of a betrayal. In bell hooks' essay "The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators," she discusses black women as potential active agents in their own engagement with media images. She challenges us to look at these images with an "oppositional gaze" by blending critique of the power structure that builds them and devalues black womanhood whilst acknowledging some level of pleasure that could be found within them. She put it rather frankly when she says, "even when representations of black women were present in film, our bodies and being were there to serve--to enhance and maintain white womanhood as object of the phallocentric gaze" (310).


The beginning of season five picked up from the scene of Tara's pending demise in an attempt to save Sookie's life from a pretty damn disgruntled she-wolf named Debbie. As fate would have it, Tara ends up (un)living her worst nightmare. In becoming a vampire, she's further burdened with a forced identity, something she was given no say nor control over. Reacting out of complete selflessness to save Sookie's life cost Tara her own.

Her most noble quality was perverted by the selfish act of both Sookie and Lafayette who stole Tara's destiny to cheat their own grief and panic. Where would they be without their most trusted ally? To a large extent, hooks' statement here holds merit. I suppose the questions we ask ourselves as viewers are: has Tara really evolved since the pilot episode? Further, is she even meant to purge herself out of that darkness? And if the answer is no, what does that say about our own relationship with dominant systems of thought, black women, stereotypes, and the complexities that skin color seems to arouse and make many people uncomfortable?  

I'm perfectly fine with sitting back and enjoy where Tara's character is taken. For better or worse, it is entertaining if not downright frustrating. It's intriguing seeing viewer vitriol about the way Sookie is given much of the leeway, and with that we cannot ignore the semiotic frame of her counter in Tara.

Let's at least have some hope that this last season gives this character some light to chew on. No, wait, light will literally kill her now...
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