Loving Vampire Diaries: Why History, Slavery and Race in Fandom Matters

Bonnie (Kat Graham) and Emily (Bianca Lawson) in CW's Vampire Diaries

I spent a good chunk of my Thanksgiving break falling into the CW’s Vampire Diaries (thank you @Netflix).  In the process I turned Little Sis, T the Great and Nuñez Mom into fangirls and addicts.

I didn’t mean to get sucked in.  I cut my tween Sable Fan Gyrl teeth on the original Vampire Diaries trilogy (plus one post mortem) by L. J. Smith.  And when the CW series started, I was determined not to watch because it couldn’t possibly be as amazing as the books were.  I was convinced the casting was all wrong and a little pissed the disgusting success of Meyer’s Twilight was the only reason anyone even seemed interested in L. J. Smith fandom.

I was stupid, ignorant and wrong all at once.

I spent the weekend re-reading Smith’s series.*  It reads just as well as it did when I was a young adult.  And Smith’s Vampire Diaries are “feminist” in the sense that the main character is female, aggressive ( especially in pursuit of her main man, Stefan), sexual (if “sinking fangs into” isn’t a metaphor for penetration, I don’t know what is) is a leader in her community and that her leadership comes from a strong work ethic, ability to organize on the ground and the way she commands attention.  Consensual and non-consensual sexual interactions of the fanged and unfanged variety run through the series, as they should in any YA novel, and the “bad guys” (Tyler and Damon) play their role by getting all rapey and forcing intimate interactions.  If fashionable is a feminist trait for you, then this book is also “feminist” in that regard.  Much ado is made about the way clothes and clothing mold to the bodies and personalities of our young protagonists.

But the main female characters are Magical White Women and there is nothing feminist about that.  Elena, Meredith, Bonnie, and Caroline are fashionable, beautiful, and just domineering enough to get the guy but not scare him off (of course, they each need rescuing at some point).  Their “beauty” in the books is premised on typical genre tropes–long, flowing hair, slender bodies, white, translucent skin, etc.  Those who do not fit this image are pointed out for some reason:  Bonnie has short curls but she recently cut her hair; Meredith is olive skinned but “elegant” and “exotic;” Caroline’s curves and sensuality seem to foreshadow the betrayal and scheming she will eventually be at the center of.  And Elena’s immense focus on getting a man (Stefan), keeping a man, or spending time only with her man played closer to a Bella-and-Edward pattern of intimate relations than I like to admit.

Most important, there are zero people of any color.  In Fells Church, Virginia?  Meredith is ambiguously “olive” but otherwise the absence is obvious.  And I could forgive it when I was a pre-blackness, pre-Butler fledgling but it is too obvious for me to ignore now.*

And yes, this IS the decisive unfeminist element.  By not bringing up the issue of race in a southern town, Elena is able to act out a comfortable, middle-class, pre-Civil War property-owning, summer in France, Ivy League aspirations existence where the only question of status, hierarchy or socioeconomic position is whether a family is directly or indirectly descended from a town founder.  Who are the janitors?  Who are the maids and the babysitters?  Who lives on the other side of the tracks?  How’s that desegregation going?  Hell, who were the town founders…and how many slaves did they own?

In other words, by ignoring race, the books are able to ignore a whole host of issues that could have added depth to the setting but would certainly have distracted from the overarching girl-and-two-brothers love triangle.  Ignoring race also allows Elena’s confidence, popularity and assertiveness to appear natural by erasing the trappings of entitlement and never placing Elena in the position of deconstructing where her privilege (or clean shirts) come from.  In other words, the link between her upper-middle class upbringing and her social status among students at school is never discussed much less questioned.  Imbued with WASPy confidence, Elena is free to participate in what is a pretty unhealthy preoccupation of chasing down Stefan and still appear “feminist.”

In short, the books are good but they aren’t perfect.  And they definitely aren’t worth shunning a TV series for.  Like I said, stupid, ignorant and wrong.

I also re-read Arturo Garcia’s great piece, “White Vamps, Black Witches: Race Politics and Vampire Pop Culture” via @Racialicious:

“Because here is a show about a small Virginia town (Mystic Falls) that is, yes, overrun by hot vampires, but also obsessed with its past. Its’ Civil War past, to be precise. And not just the mythic/mystical town, but the show itself is obsessed with Scarlett O’Hara et al. There are frequent flashbacks to times of crinolin and Confederate soldier-y. In fact, back when he wasn’t, er, un-dead, hottie Damon was a Confederate Soldier. Yet, we are pointedly told that Damon quit the army because he “did not agree with their ways” (huh? because he was against slavery? spit it out, writers!)

There are also references to a Black woman/witch named Emily (pictured above in bonnet, foremother of hazy witch Bonnie) being the ‘servant’ of the super-baddie and super-skinnie white vampire chickie Katherine. Yet, despite both the show and the town’s historical obsessions, not once do I think the word ‘slave’ or ‘slavery’ is ever used. (Nor do we ever get close to finding out how, in Civil War era Virginia, an Asian woman and her daughter could own a store, and said Asian woman could romance a white ‘founding father’ of the town. REALLY, writers? You think us Asian folks could just sweep into town in our hoopskirts and set up shop in the 1800′s? Gimme a break.)”

Reading this, the Sable Fan Gyrl hit me up:

Vampires and witches + the history and memory of slavery?  Fandom and genredom + African-American/Afro-Atlantic history?  Say again?

So here I am.  Finishing up Season 1 and well on my way to tackling Season 2.

So far?  I agree with Garcia.  I am doing too much work trying to make the connection between race, slavery, history and the characters in the story.  And while I do think Tituba is mentioned once in a very casual, off-hand way (they should have dropped bombs all over her name; that was a baaaaaaad black gyrl), Bonnie mentions her ancestor Emily from “Civil War” as opposed to a more familiar expression “slavery days.”  The antebellum scenes are appropriately gauzy and Gone with the Windsy and I’m sure when the season first aired unschooled teenagers everywhere sighed and ooohhhed and “oh, the fashion”-ed all over their TV screens.  Bonnie is also light-skinned enough for Little Sis to call her ambiguous.  I don’t agree but there are clearly issues of color and race in Hollywood (shocker).

And do they get the slavery stuff right?  Well….

RIGHT: #Tituba

If we assume that my ears weren’t playing tricks on me and that my brain is doing the right kind of work, Bonnie is descended from Tituba, the “Indian slave” of Salemite and witch burner Samuel Parris.  I wrote about Tituba and race and memory here but that she may have been of Native American as opposed to enslaved African in the Caribbean descent is not an issue IMHO.  Neither would change Bonnie’s fundamental characterization one jot–her descendants would almost certainly have blended into late seventeenth- early eighteenth-century slave or servant communities and those communities were majority of color.  The idea that Tituba fled Salem and had a family elsewhere is also reasonable although we have no documentation of the same.  Plus the idea of legacies of family magic fits nicely with existing folklore about Salem women, and Native Americans and African women and men enslaved in the United States.

WRONG: #Tituba

But really, Tituba?  You and your family members fled Salem trials….to Virginia?  You, an enslaved woman of color, went SOUTH to escape persecution?  Now why the hell would that happen?  And how, with no freedom papers to travel with or protect you upon arrival from re-enslavement would you head SOUTH?

And no, I will NOT assume that Tituba and family couldn’t have known what Virginia was like in the 1690s (in case you are wondering, it was a swampy, penal, violent hell hole servants and slaves, black and white, spent a lot of time trying to run away from; no gauze or Brett or Scarlett here).  That would presume Tituba wasn’t sharp enough for her own good–and to have Bennetts that survived slavery and segregation into the second millenia, Tituba would have to have been wicked sharp.

Assuming Tituba didn’t know what Virginia would be like, didn’t know that she was more likely to be enslaved and stay enslaved in Virginia than say, in New York, where a critical mass of free people of color left over from the Dutch regime lived and worked…well, that would be #rude.

Or assuming that, as a “good” domestic, Tituba didn’t know than she’d better eavesdrop like her life depended on it, follow gossip, watch out for runaways (and for how runaways were caught), pay attention to what whites said and how they said it, look for allies in servants or slaves, learn about the lay of the land…even more #rude.  Slaves survived slavery by building community.  Period.  And community building is work.  Period.  The  only way this storyline works is if, as Garcia noted, we don’t look too hard at the connection or we do our own work to fill in the blanks (i.e. Maybe Tituba and company headed to New York and she purchased her freedom and then ended up in Virginia…or something….)

RIGHT: #EmilyTheHandmaiden

Emily Bennett, Bonnie’s Civil War ancestress is introduced as Katherine’s handmaiden not her slave.  She could be both and this is another example of the show avoiding the whole race/slavery thing.  But the handmaiden bit does function against the history.  By 1860, 10% of Virginia’s black population was free and free black communities were well established in cities like Petersburg and Richmond.  Then again, Katherine, “Atlanta orphan” that she is, could have brought Emily with her from there where only .8% of blacks were free.***  Then again again (see what I mean about doing a lot of work), Katherine, undead creature of the night that she is, could have brought or bought Emily who knows where.  New Orleans?  Charleston?  France?  The point is, Emily could be a free woman of color employed by Katherine or a slave and neither would change the storyline…at least not Season One’s story line so far.  I’ll keep you posted.

Last but not least….RIGHT/WRONG: #BonnieBallin

This had better be fleshed out as the series goes on, but I’m struck by how class and blackness is represented in the show even as it’s juxtaposed against a slave past.  Grams (Jasmine Guy) is a university professor who teaches occult.  Bonnie attends what may be the only high school in town but she certainly has no problem being part of the in-crowd which, unlike in the books, is more clearly distinguished by those who have wealth, those who are descended from the founders, and those who are not townies (see: Vicki and Mike vs. Tyler and Elena).  It makes me wonder how they did that and who they are within the community as a whole.  Is there a broader community of color the Bennetts belong to?  If so, how is their socio-economic status measured against that community?  Yes, their economic comfort is easily explained with magic.  Sure, they could have just wished wealth and property into their laps.  But it could also be explained if Emily was a free woman of color.  The connection between contemporary black wealth and free status during slavery is not discussed as often as it should be.  Either way, this could be right or it could be wrong and it is the best example yet of how a trip into the murky waters of race and the less murky if more sordid history of slavery could really add depth to the characters and the show.

Like I said:  I’m still watching.  But good lawd, the show is an improvement on the sries.  Actual characters of color–hell yes.  A renewed link to southern history (albeit watered down to translucence)–hell yes.  Bonnie lights fires and explodes jewelry with her brain, Emily is played by Bianca Lawson (Whedonites will know her as Kendra from Buffy the Vampire Slayer), her grandmother is played by Jasmine Guy and apparently Persia White pops in as her mother in later episodes?  Hell friggin yes.

Black women and gyrls who fight back and aren’t afraid to get dirty but are still fun and sexy (and jeezus, Lady Guy, you are fierce!) and on network TV?

#FTW

I’m spanking myself for letting my own memories be so…well…so Gone with the Windsy.  Boy oh boi, sometimes loving the past is a tricky, thorny thing.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
*I re-read Smith’s original four books: The Awakening, The Struggle, The Fury and Dark Reunion.  I haven’t delved into the new crop of books she’s released.  And given the genrecrack the original books are to me (I finished all four in 24 hours), I think the rest will have to wait for summer.  One must manage ones addictions after all.

**The rest of Smith’s 1990s catalog isn’t quite so whitewashed.  Dee from The Forbidden Game Trilogy is the main character’s black best friend and a sprinkling of black characters appear in the Night World series.  But the main female characters are almost always white or European descent.   

***Stats via Ira Berlin, Slaves Without Masters : The Free Negro in the Antebellum South (New York: Vintage Books, 1976), 137.

5 thoughts on “Loving Vampire Diaries: Why History, Slavery and Race in Fandom Matters

  1. Super great commentary! I loved reading it even though I haven’t watched/read one single page/episode of the vampire diaries! But now I’ve scheduled it in, I’m gonna have to do start paying attention! :D

  2. The Jasmine Guy factor alone could make this addictive and now with this commentary…imma have to completely hold back until after these writing deadlines. Also…is there sucha thing as a TV dramaturge, a historian/literary expert consultant tasked to teach this context to writers to add this depth to pop TV? There should be!

  3. @dcommunicator: Definitely do and please let me know what you think. I fell into a few more episodes last night…;)

    @alexis: Guy is fabulous in everything. Everything! But your comment does make me want to research careers that intersect entertainment with historical research and expert analysis. If you have any ideas–or you find that consultant position–lawd, let me know!

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