The Supernatural Civil Rights Movement of True Blood
BY Daniel Reynolds
June 20 2014 9:00 AM ET
“He didn’t play evil, he played thoughtful,” Bauer van Straten says. “And the dialogue supported that. He said, ‘Are you kidding me? Vampires are doing what human beings have been doing to each other for centuries.’ He had an intellectual view of supporting his villainy. And I thought it was delicious.”
The character of Steve Newlin, a Christian zealot in the vein of Pat Robertson, was another antagonist out for the blood of vampires and their lovers, who are known in the series as “fangbangers.” But his evolution throughout the seasons, from zealot to closeted gay man to out and proud vampire, exemplifies for Bauer van Straten one of the keys to True Blood’s success: its ability to impart humanity, and occasionally sympathy, to its monsters.
“The characters are many shades of good to evil,” Bauer van Straten says. “Nobody is really black or white. We’ve had a couple really great villains. But even the Denis O’Hare character loved one person and was good to one person. Everyone has one redeeming quality, much like the real world. Life is not so simple and clear.”
These blurred lines have not always existed in American media. Section II of the now-defunct Hollywood Production Code outlawed the depiction of homosexuality until the latter half of the 20th century. Before this point, cinema would swap in monsters like vampires as representations for gay men and women, says KP Pepe, the director of programming of Outfest, one of the world’s most prominent LGBT film festivals.
Almost invariably, these characters would meet with an unfortunate end, “a punishment to set this moral compass for people,” she says, pointing to such films from this year's Outfest lineup like Lyle, Jamie Marks Is Dead, and the shorts in the series Scared Stiff as evidence of the lasting bond between LGBTs and their identification with the horror genre. What True Blood has accomplished is the de-closeting of these characters from cinema history, she says. The fact that some have remained slightly monstrous has raised controversy among LGBT audiences.
“There’s been a little bit of fear in the gay community about us not being seen as villains and having this free very mainstream, squeaky-clean image that Bill the vampire is trying to do in the first couple of seasons,” Pepe says, referring to a fanged major character that makes efforts to blend into society rather than rebel against it. “But the gay community is more complicated than that. And that’s what True Blood is giving to us. It’s showing us both sides of things.”
Pepe stresses how the show continues to hold a significant place in the lives of LGBT viewers, serving as a reason to congregate at a friend’s house each Sunday “to watch this show together and to laugh and yell at the TV, and bet on who’s gonna win each fight.” From the beginning, she has recognized “the wink, the nod” being sent from the writers to their gay audience that has only grown more prominent with each season.
“We relate to being the underdog,” she says. “In 2008, when that show came on, there was so much horrible homophobia in [California]. It felt very empowering to watch the show. … And as these rights have been won state by state, they seem to be broadening what their impact is, and having fun playing with the high and low camp, that they tend to do, in a way that is really overt.”
GLAAD, a national authority on LGBT media representation, has applauded True Blood’s growing volume of minority voices, honoring HBO with three nominations for its prestigious GLAAD Media Awards. The show won Outstanding Drama Series in 2011 for its ability to tell LGBT stories in a “fresh new way,” says Max Gouttebroze, GLAAD’s entertainment media strategist.
“True Blood's fantastic, allegorical premise allowed it to tell stories about prejudice and acceptance in a fresh new way,” Gouttebroze said. “Yet over its seven seasons the series also went the extra mile by including many gay, lesbian, and bisexual characters who were just as diverse, dangerous, and memorable as Bon Temps' other residents.”
As a major queer character since the first season, Bauer van Straten has been overwhelmed by the reaction from LGBT viewers to her character, a sharp-witted, fiercely dressed, no-apologies lesbian whose life began more than a century ago as the madam of a San Francisco brothel. The character’s cutting one-liners, like “I am so sick of Sookie and her precious fairy vagina and her unbelievably stupid name” (a favorite of Bauer van Straten’s), have established Pam as a favorite among the queer community, which celebrates her sass and brass. As a result of her positive portrayal, she has been invited to engage in a number of LGBT charitable efforts, ranging from cohosting drag bingo at Hamburger Mary’s in Los Angeles to speaking engagements organized by the Human Rights Campaign.
“I think I cried through the whole thing,” Bauer van Straten remembers about the HRC event, “because people were so intensely sweet and really just felt like Pam was a good representation. I’m mainly coming from the perspective [where] I’m given the dialogue written by other people and I’m dressed by other people, and I step into those shoes and it’s a real collaborative effort to create this character. To then find out that there’s this other wonderful side to it, where I’ve actually contributed to happiness for people, is the greatest joy. Not only do I get to be Pam and make a living and have so much fun on the set, there’s this other side to it that’s pretty amazing.”
Women have taken note of her fierce portrayal, telling Bauer van Straten on more than one occasion, “It’s so nice to see a lesbian character who’s a snappy dresser.” (Lesbians are simply in love with Pam and Tara, confirms Pepe.)
The trailer for the upcoming and final season of True Blood, which features dialogue and imagery that conjures the terrible aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, demonstrates that the show will continue to tackle social and political issues — in this instance, the capability of a government to abandon a minority in its hour of need.
“We’re playing heavy fiction, and True Blood is over-the-top,” Bauer van Straten says. “But … is it really? Because we just saw a part of the country abandoned and left to their own survival not that long ago.”
“It’s not far off,” she concludes. “In fact, it’s not off at all. It’s what we’re dealing with.”
The last season of True Blood premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. Eastern. Watch the trailer below.