I’m re-reading the Sookie Stackhouse novels right now, primarily because I have been reading a lot of heavy stuff and I need some fluff, and also because I’m getting ready to re-watch True Blood, and also for…other reasons. You should assume, incidentally, if you haven’t read these books, that I am going to talk about things that are kind of important plotwise here, and therefore you may want to skip this post if you don’t enjoy being spoiled. (ETA: Spoilers go through From Dead to Worse.)
At any rate, these books are very much designed as fluff, that is their purpose in life, but they are ok for fluff, and kinda fun, and I like reading fluff because I think it provides interesting information about the culture we live in and the way we perceive ourselves. Charlaine Harris wouldn’t have started writing these if she didn’t think there was a market for them, and these books are pretty clever at points. Lots of terrific pop culture references, the kind of Southern flavour that makes them appeal to a mass audience, and some pretty snappy characters.
But there are also some things about these books which infuriate me, and I sometimes find myself on an emotional see-saw with these books. On the one hand, I like that Sookie is a very fully realized, independent, strong woman who takes no shit from anyone, no way, no how. But, on the other, some things about her character cause me to start breathing heavily through my nose. And some things about these books leave me feeling deeply troubled.
I think that the rape is one of the most problematic parts of the book. In Club Dead, she is pretty clearly and irrevocably raped by Bill when she is forced into the trunk of a car by a rather nasty character (who was clearly hoping that Bill would kill her). It’s an extremely intense and traumatic scene. And yet, it’s treated pretty lightly in the framework of the books. We have Sookie acting apologetic about the fact that Bill hurt her, and while she touches upon it in some of the other books, it’s framed as “kind of” rape.
Now, maybe this is how Harris views the character, and maybe she is actually trying to embed a commentary here; perhaps she is hoping that readers note Sookie’s denial and do react against it strongly, and she’s trying to send a message that when things like this happen to real women, they are indeed rape and should be treated as such. But I feel like it’s a casual reinforcement of the idea that someone you are in a relationship with cannot rape you, that it is better to remain silent and deny something terrible that happened in the interests of maintaining a friendship, that there is such as a thing of “kind of” or “sort of” rape. I’d rather see Sookie coming to the realization that, yeah, Bill raped her and that was not ok not matter what kind of state he was in, personally. And I hope that’s something we get to in a future book.
I also have a tough time with the “now that you’ve taken blood from a vampire, you’re attracted to him sexually” thing. Eric is depicted as a figure of fear and danger in the early books, which he most definitely is, but once Sookie has his blood (oddly enough, there’s another rapey scene in Club Dead in which he forces her to take his blood to heal an injury and jerks off all over her back in the process), suddenly she views him as someone whom she is sexually attracted to.
Which strays a little bit too close to the vampires-turn-humans-into-willing-sex-slaves storyline, for me. What I like about Sookie and the other characters in the novels is that they are independent and strong and they make choices for themselves, for the most part. Having Sookie stripped of the opportunity to choose to be interested in Eric feels very disempowering and disappointing for me. I’m not such a fan of the idea that drinking a vampire’s blood creates an instant bond; it feels too close to the trope that having sex with someone automatically creates a sort of bond. While this may be true for some people, it isn’t for everyone, and I’m not sure that I am entirely comfortable with having that trope perpetuated in the form of a blood bond.
Harris also, of course, uses ableist language every which way, which becomes incredibly grating at times, since I’m so sensitized to it at the moment. Everyone’s “crazy” and “insane” or a “psycopath.” And, of course, the framing of the books is a bit ableist in some ways; this is a world in which people can be “cured” of numerous serious disabilities with vampire blood. Perhaps most outstandingly in the case of Sophie-Anne, who is in the process of growing her legs back after a bombing when she is murdered in From Dead to Worse.
I also can’t say that I am totally on board with the fangbangers, as they are known, the people who follow and pursue vampires because they are sexually attracted to them. Yes, there definitely are subcultures like that, but the obsequious and almost slavish behaviour of the fangbangers makes me distinctly uncomfortable. I really don’t like the “vampire penis is so amazing and thrilling that you will become a slave to it” idea, because that comes dangerously close to real-world ideas about the Power of the Penis and the idea that some people are just so attractive that they can’t help but gather followers who will do anything for them. And that it’s totally appropriate to use and abuse those followers, to treat them like they are not human beings.
I want to talk about the framing of Sookie’s “disability” and the idea of Shifters/Weres as people with disabilities in their own rights, but that’s a story for another post, because it’s a bit complicated. And it’s actually something which I would like to explore in much more detail, because I think there’s some very interesting material there. At the same time that the books are ableist in some ways, there’s also a sense of empowerment and reclamation in the discussion of superpowers as disabilities.