Sookie Stackhouse: Stepping Outside the Tropes

Content Note: This post discusses plot points in Dead Until Dark and it also discusses incest and molestation.

I think it has been established at this point that I have a bit of thing for Sookie Stackhouse, lead character in the Sookie Stackhouse novels upon which True Blood is based. She really intrigues me, as a character, and I think that Charlaine Harris has done some really interesting things with her. Especially if you are willing to delve beneath the surface, she is a character who defies a lot of stereotypes and tropes and she’s someone with considerable layers of complexity.

She’s a stealth character, in a lot of ways. People look at the Harris books and write them off as fluff with no real content, but there’s actually a great deal of embedded content in these books. They include commentary on social issues, sly refutations of a lot of stereotypes, especially about women and Southerners, and some very intriguing characters. Yes, they can indeed be read on the level of pure fluff and sometimes that’s enjoyable, but for those who want it, the deeper content is there. For those who don’t look for it, I like to think that it insinuates into the brain anyway.

I’ve written about Sookie Stackhouse and vampire sexuality here and I also discussed Sookie Stackhouse and disability for Bitch Magazine. Today, I want to delve into an aspect of her character which is first brought up in Dead Until Dark, the very first Sookie Stackhouse novel; Sookie is a survivor of molestation.

From the start, we learn that Sookie Stackhouse is different from the people around her because of her ‘little disability,’ the telepathy which allows her to listen in on the minds of humans and some non-humans such as Shifters and Weres. Sookie is also a very independent and strong woman. She takes shit from no one. She is in charge of her body and her sexuality. She has a very low tolerance for misogynist crap and she isn’t afraid to speak her mind about it. Far from a shrinking violet, Sookie is a woman who demands respect and looks down her nose at people who treat her with disrespect, like the characters who refer to her as ‘crazy Sookie’ because of her sometimes peculiar behavior.

For the most part, I really like the way in which Sookie is characterized, and I especially like the framing of her molestation. Often, characters who are molested are depicted as sad and tragic, with a heavy emphasis on how ‘ruined’ they were by the molestation; they can never know true love or affection, or they are unable to engage sexually, or they trust no one because of their molestation. They are framed as broken, partial people with no real hope of ever achieving happiness because they live with the constant memories of their sexual abuse.

Not so with Sookie, and I like that. In a scene with Bill, Sookie quickly sketches out what happened, talking about how her uncle used to molest her while her parents were alive, and specifically describing that the worst part of it was the emotional torment; that she could hear her uncle’s mind as he thought about what he was doing and that was extremely distressing. After her parents died and she went to live with her grandmother, the molestation stopped because her grandmother refused to allow her uncle into the house.

There are a lot of interesting layers going on here. It’s clear that Sookie feels a bit betrayed by her mother and angry about how her mother handled the situation. She told her mother and her mother did nothing because her mother thought that she was making it up. This is, unfortunately, not uncommon, and I liked that Harris included it as a reminder that this is often how such situations play out. Children, even young children, are informed that they are making it up for attention or faking it, although one wonders how, say, a six year old is coming up with such graphic detail, seeing as how molestation isn’t really a subject which comes up in picture books very often.

There’s also tension between Sookie and her brother Jason about the situation, another plot element which speaks true to life. Jason is skeptical about Sookie’s past and seems to suggest that she’s making too big a deal about it. He expresses a fondness for their uncle and seems to resent Sookie for her refusal to have any contact with him. Jason doesn’t believe her until after the uncle dies and Sookie informs Jason that she wasn’t the only person molested by him, that it was a pattern endured by many women in the family, and Jason suddenly realises the import of the situation. This is also not uncommon; abusive situations do not become real in the eyes of others until they are informed that the situation wasn’t just about one person.

What I love most of all about her depiction, however, is that Harris didn’t succumb to any cheap tropes. She told Sookie’s story very matter of factly, without any fuss or drama, simply telling readers what had happened. She didn’t portray Sookie as damaged and irredeemable as a result of what happened and she avoided reinforcing a lot of really unpleasant tropes about victims of incest and molestation. She made it clear that no, Sookie did not enjoy being molested in any way and that no, Sookie was not broken as a result although it certainly coloured her life.

And, above all, she refuses to let other characters and readers stigmatize her. A common issue for victims of incest and molestation is the intense stigma which surrounds them. They are afraid to come out to their families, let alone friends and partners, because of a lot of bizarre and highly negative beliefs about incest and molestation, many of which also feed into the things which support rape culture. Even seeking support on the Internet, where one might benefit from anonymity, is fraught with perils; searches for topics related to incest return a great deal of triggering pornographic material, and predators are also present in communities established for invest survivors, looking to get their thrills from people who are processing their pasts.

I would like to think that people who read the Sookie Stackhouse novels are taking away some good messages about molestation and incest, like that it’s not the victim’s fault. That victims are not somehow lesser human beings because of their experiences. That victims process their experiences in a lot of different ways. That being a victim does not make you a bad person: The abuser is the bad person.