Abstract: In this paper I examine the television program True Blood’s allusions to gay liberation in terms of the biopolitical and neoliberal implications of consuming civil rights as a transmedia story. In the program, vampires have ‘outed’ themselves to the population at large and in conjunction with the invention of synthetic blood (Tru Blood) are able to publicly participate in social and economic activities without harming humans. Home Box Office’s (HBO) use of Tru Blood to market the show is premised on the commodification of a (vampire) rights based movement across a range of different story-telling mediums. On the one hand, this means that the program is drawing attention to the biopolitical function of rights discourse by suggesting that it is the management of particular kinds of life, through particular kinds of consumption, which remains valuable to the dominant political and economic order. On the other hand, the mapping of vampirism onto civil rights also functions to legitimise a political discourse wherein the purported social ‘harm’ of granting minority groups equal rights can be mitigated by market forces and the cultivation of a constituency whose political power is linked to their ability to consume. The consumption of the True Blood story by fans thereby enacts principles of biopolitical management and containment of civil rights groups through HBO’s and fans’ willingness to enact play-political consumption and performance of rights in a transmediated public sphere.
The television series True Blood (HBO, 2008-2014), based on The Southern Vampire Mysteries novels by Charlaine Harris, features a number of allusions to gay liberation and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) politics in its depiction of ‘vampire rights’. In the fictional town of Bon Temps, in Louisiana, United States, where True Blood is set, vampires have ‘outed’ themselves to the population at large and in conjunction with the invention of synthetic blood (Tru Blood) are able to publicly participate in social and economic activities without harming humans. The production of Tru Blood as a commodity enables individual and collective groups of vampires to advocate for the civil and political rights enjoyed by humans. In the vampires’ attempts to become part of ‘mainstream culture’, there are several references to gay liberation. These include the American Vampire League, whose activism and media interventions mirror that of groups such as the Human Rights Campaign, the use of the phrase ‘coming out of the coffin’ to describe the increasing numbers of vampires publicly acknowledging their existence to humans, and the prejudice directed at vampires by humans, particularly by those with conservative or evangelical Christian beliefs. This specific cultural, political and religious milieu for vampire rights is telegraphed in the opening title sequence by a brief shot of a church sign, which reads, “God Hates Fangs”. Amongst the ostensibly non-fictional images of Southern quotidian life—swamps, road kill, baptisms, church choirs, bar brawls—it is the only indication in the sequence of the program’s focus on the supernatural.
The diegetic plausibility of the vampire liberation movement is aided by various transmedia paraphernalia simultaneously operating outside of and in relation to events in the show’s narrative. This includes the availability of Tru Blood beverages and merchandise, Facebook and social media material for the advocacy groups featured within the show and partnerships between Home Box Office (HBO—the channel that broadcasts True Blood) and advertising companies, such as Geico insurance, to produce fictional campaigns targeted explicitly towards vampire consumers but implicitly, True Blood fans. In this extension of the program’s narrative of vampire rights to other types of media and forms of consumption, True Blood is exemplary of the new practices of transmedia storytelling championed by Henry Jenkins. He defines transmedia as
a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience. Ideally, each medium makes its own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story. (Jenkins 2011; original emphases)
For Jenkins, this type of storytelling enables and builds on audience participation in the meaning-making process of media texts (2006). This mode of storytelling is also closely associated with viral marketing, which utilises “pre-existing social networks like websites and YouTube in order to increase franchise or brand awareness” (Ndalianis 2012, 164). Transmedia forms of storytelling, like those employed for True Blood, can be quite complex and multi-faceted, involving the extension of a text across not only different types of media but also different geographical locations and consumer activities. In her excellent book, The Horror Sensorium (2012), Angela Ndalianis details transmedia stories and campaigns involving scavenger hunts, political rallies, social media tourism and urban graffiti that centre on the production of an embodied fan relationship with media texts. She argues that the transmedia stories deployed for texts such as The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008), Lost (Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment, 2004-2010)and True Blood “address the fiction/reality interplay by mitigating their stories more invasively into the social sphere” (165). They do this by encouraging fans and consumers to become ‘actors’ in a transmedia performance of a ‘living’ narrative (166). This performance produces a kind of meta-affect because fans “extract cerebral and sensory pleasure participating in and contributing to a highly crafted fictional world that’s in the process of unveiling itself” (169). An example of this type of meta-affective performance occurred in early 2009, in Auckland, New Zealand, when a series of wooden posters advertising True Blood were installed along public streets. Featuring information about True Blood’s airdate (the series was premiering on New Zealand television at this time), the posters had “In case of vampire” written across the top and “Snap here” at the bottom presented alongside flat wooden stakes. Potential fans and viewers of True Blood were invited to participate as performers in the program’s narrative by exercising vigilance and protection from the newly outed vampires by snapping off a wooden stake and carrying the physical textual detritus into their everyday lives.
What structures this kind of performance and participation by fans is the story and narrative used to extend a text via transmediation. In this paper I want to examine the execution of True Blood’s transmedia storytelling through a narrative of vampire rights that alludes to civil rights debates around gay liberation. I want to focus on the specifically transmedia dimensions of this narrative and how this particular media form interpellates viewers into a biopolitical and neoliberal mode of consuming civil rights. The program’s use of Tru Blood, both intra- and extra-textually, is premised on the commodification of a rights based movement across a range of different story-telling mediums. On the one hand, this means that the program is drawing attention to the biopolitical function of rights discourse by suggesting that it is the management of particular kinds of life, through particular kinds of consumption, that remains valuable to the dominant political and economic order. On the other hand, the mapping of vampirism onto civil rights also functions to legitimise a political discourse wherein the purported social ‘harm’ of granting minority groups equal rights can be mitigated by market forces and the cultivation of a constituency whose political power is linked to their ability to consume. Fans’ affective investment in vampire rights is then managed via consumption in a transmedia format that mirrors biopolitical strategies of management and containment of minority groups through civil rights discourse.
“No darlin’, we’re white, he’s dead”: Vampires and biopolitics
In her essay “Technologies of Monstrosity”, Judith Halberstam argues that “[a]ttempts to consume … vampirism within one interpretive model inevitably produce vampirism. They reproduce, in other words, the very model they claim to have discovered” (1993, 334). For this reason, in her analysis of Bram Stoker’s Dracula she argues that the central figure is “not simply a monster, but a technology of monstrosity” (334). Representations of monstrosity in texts like Dracula function not so much to reify particular characteristics of monstrosity (be it sexual immorality or corporeal difference) but to produce and disseminate particular discourses constituted as monstrous. So if we take a particular representation of vampires to signify for example, minority rights, we are also at the same time producing an understanding of what minority rights mean in popular and political culture.
Given that monstrosity is typically construed as a threat to human life, textual portrayals of monstrosity are also concerned with the management of that threat and the balancing of the value of human life with the containment of monstrosity. The development and application of various governmental strategies designed foster the life and health of citizens is defined by Michel Foucault as biopower (1991b, 263). In order to maximise the economic productivity of the state, governments and state institutions have “to qualify, measure, appraise, and hierarchize … the living in the domain of value and utility” (1991b, 266). One way to organise social practices around ‘value and utility’ is to encourage citizens to invest in a racialised and heteronormative construction of the family as the site through which life can be fostered or neglected (1991a, 99). As the management of the economic and social life of the polity comes to pivot on heterosexual familial reproduction, non-heterosexual or non-normative sexualities can be positioned in biopolitical terms as threats to the ‘health’ and productive order of a society. In her essay “Tracking the Vampire” Sue-Ellen Case explains:
From the heterosexist perspective, the sexual practice that produced babies was associated with giving life, or practicing a life-giving sexuality, and the living was established as the category of the natural. Thus, the right to life was a slogan not only for the unborn, but for those whose sexual practices could produce them. In contrast, homosexual sex was mandated as sterile—an unlive practice that was consequently unnatural, or queer, and, as that which was unlive, without the right to life. Queer sexual practice, then, impels one out of the generational production of what has been called “life” and historically, and ultimately out of the category of the living. (1991, 4)
In a biopolitical paradigm, subjects deemed unable to contribute productively to the life of a society can be excluded from the rights and protections offered by that society. This exclusion is then overlain with a naturalising discourse, which works to justify the asymmetries of legal and social recognition as simply part of the ‘natural order of things’. This is why Case sees a link between the cultural discourses used to frame both vampirism and homosexuality. In a dominant heteronormative order that conflates a particular kind of social and political life with life itself, both vampirism and homosexuality become aligned with death or unlife.
The representation of the various kinds of harm vampire rights pose to humans in True Blood then seems an apposite metaphor for the biopolitical exclusion of LGBTI people from certain state-based rights. As a number of scholars have pointed out, True Blood’s treatment of vampiresis characteristic of a wider shift in textual portrayals of vampires “from the right to exile … to the right to citizenship in the postcolonial United States” (Hudson 2013, 663). Bernard Beck sees “[t]he plain message of today’s vampire lore” as evidence “that we are becoming less fearful and hostile, more curious and sympathetic to those we insist on defining as strangers” (2011, 92). This narrative shift from exclusion to inclusion in representations of vampiric difference is reflective of a broader social and political consensus around managing minority groups through integration rather than expulsion from a neoliberal economic order. Deborah Mutch notes that the narrative framework for the acceptance of vampires in book series such as Twilight and The Southern Vampire Mysteries are premised on “accepting human definitions of nation and race which are then superceded by globalised trade” (2011, 75).
While the supernatural genre has the ability to, as Dale Hudson puts it, “decolonize our familiar habits of thinking”, particularly with respect to cinematic and televisual “political realism” (2013, 662), textual portrayals of supernatural creatures nevertheless tend to incorporate dominant biopolitical conceptions of human life as the normative narrative bedrock against which other kinds of lives or living is measured. Hudson points out that in True Blood, vampirism is constituted as species difference through reference to characters as ‘vampire Bill’, whereas human characters are not described as ‘white Jason’ or ‘black Tara’ within the diegesis of the show (666). Where vampirism is discursively positioned as bodily distinct from human-ness, the nation on which this embodiment is placed remains invisible. True Blood’s representation of First Nations peoples and their interaction with vampires (those old enough to have arrived in North America during colonisation) is limited enough to suggest an erasure of colonialism as significant to the historical formation of the United States. As Hudson notes, “Indigenous nations appear only in the realm of the supernatural in True Blood” (669). For Hudson, the program’s use of the supernatural allows an imagining of “the New South as a space inhabited by multiple species on multiple planes of reality” (664), which invites consideration of “the right to rights” (685). My interest in this paper is how True Blood’s portrayal of “the right to rights” is linked to the public management and presentation of rights-based groups via transmedia texts, which are dependent on public forms of consumption and fan activity.
“You are not our equals. We will eat you. After we eat your children”: Vampire rights
In True Blood’s narrative conflicts around vampire rights, there are several allusions to civil rights and equality movements. The series has been received predominantly as a commentary on gay liberation. A New York Post article, for example, contends that “the fictional vampires’ quest for the same rights and social acceptance enjoyed by” humans “has become synonymous with the very real fight for gay rights” (Shen 2009). The author of the novels on which the show is based also seems to encourage this association (see Solomon 2010). As with the gay rights movement, vampires’ attempts to achieve equality are perceived by their opponents as a threat to the social and cultural stability of the polity they inhabit. However, the crucial difference between vampires and LGBTI peoples is that the alleged ‘harm’ posed to society by granting the latter civil rights is symbolic and imagined whereas vampires, within the diegesis of the show, do perpetrate considerable violence. In this vein, a reviewer of the show opined, “[t]hese vamps are assholes, not oppressed minorities. They deserve to be hated. If these murderous, evil creatures are figures for gay people, then they are figures for the religious right’s worst nightmare of what gay people are” (Newitz 2008). The program’s creator, Alan Ball, also avers with this reasoning “because the vampires on our show are, for the most part, vicious murderers and predators, and I’m gay myself, so I don’t really want to say, ‘Hey, gays and lesbians are basically viciously amoral murderers’” (Grigoriadis 2010).
The question of whether rights should be reserved only for those who are morally deserving is addressed in an interesting way by the American Vampire League (AVL) within the show. In the first episode (“Strange Love”, 1.1), the AVL spokesperson, Nan Flanagan (in an interview with Bill Maher) refutes assertions that vampires perpetrate large-scale murder and assault against humans (for lack of documented evidence) and counters that humans themselves are responsible for slavery and genocide. Later on in the series, another vampire Russell Edgington uses this same logic—humans have caused irreparable damage to the environment and the species they share it with—to reach a very different conclusion regarding vampire-human relations. For Edgington, vampires are right to insist on their superiority to and difference from humans. He broadcasts these views on a live news program and after deboning the anchor, proclaims to the human audience, “You are not our equals. We will eat you. After we eat your children” (“Everything is Broken”, 3.9). Human anti-vampire bigotry meanwhile stems from a corporeal vulnerability to vampires’ biological requirement for human blood. In its extreme form, anti-vampire prejudice manifests as a speciest right to survival exercised by vigilante groups such as the one seen in Season Five. This group of men don Barack Obama masks as they inflict violence and in some cases, death, upon vampires and other supernatural beings. This group mentions and appears to be linked to the ‘Keep American Human’ movement, which has its own website and promotional material. This doubly imbricated right to ‘America’ and to life is framed by anti-vampire humans as exclusive. One of the vigilante characters complains, “it’s some sort of crime now being a regular old human” (“In the Beginning”, 5.7) as if the uniqueness of being human cannot be co-extensive with the existence of other species.
Vampire prejudice thus goes beyond the simple fear of death or bodily harm and involves a speciest condemnation of vampire existence that is often inflected with a moral discourse. When the show begins, vampires have achieved a limited degree of civil equality such as the right to marry (in certain states in the US and if the unions are heterosexual) and are protected by anti-discrimination laws (businesses cannot refuse to serve vampires as customers), which are reluctantly enforced by police. There are also a series of moral and social codes, centred primarily on sexuality, that police vampire and human interactions. Humans who engage with or are thought to engage in sexual relations with vampires are derisively referred to as “fang-bangers”. The central character Sookie Stackhouse is often judged negatively in terms of her moral standing and character for her relationship with the vampire Bill Compton. The first season features a violent expression of this chauvinism in the form of a serial killer with a pathological hatred of women who sleep with vampires.
The corporeal vulnerability of humans to vampire attack is balanced by the portrayal of vampire blood as producing hallucinatory and amphetamine-like effects when consumed by humans. Vampire blood or V-juice is a highly sought-after but illegal commodity associated with the vampire bar scene and fang-bangers, which may allude to subcultural forms of clubbing and recreational drug use. In Season One, a lonely vampire named Eddie claims that he can only express and act on his homosexual orientation by trading his blood for sexual favours with human men (in particular Sookie’s co-worker and friend, Lafayette Reynolds). In an inversion of the life-giving connotations of heterosexual sex, one scene in the first season shows Sookie’s brother Jason and his girlfriend consume V-juice and make love whilst Eddie is tied up and tortured in the basement below them. Here it is an undead subject whose blood provides the impetus and facilitation of heterosexual sex.
The moral repugnance at the tarnishing of human life and sexuality bought about by vampire-human contact is aligned with most (although not all) forms of Christianity in True Blood. The second season features an evangelical group called the Fellowship of the Sun that promotes “pro-livin’ values” (Home Box Office 2012) and warns the human polity about the dangers of vampire rights and the “the wing nuts on the left” who advocate for them (“The Fourth Man in the Fire”, 1.8). In a television interview, the pastor of the church, Reverend Steve Newlin, explains that vampire rights threaten “the rights of our sons and daughters to go to school without fear of molestation by a bloodthirsty predator in the playground or in the classroom” (“The Fourth Man in the Fire”, 1.8). One of the advertisements produced by the Fellowship of the Sun, not featured in the show but distributed online and in poster form in some cities, depicts a young blonde boy with the caption, “To them he’s just a midnight snack” (Ndalianis 2012, 178).
The figure of the child here is important as Ben Davies and Jana Funke note, “the teleology of straight time is projected onto the sex act, which displaces its own meaning, significance or indeed non-significance for the production of the future” (2011, 6). In this way, the future viability of a heterosexual society is linked to the purity and protection of children. In a video press release for the advertising campaign, the elder Reverend Theodore Newlin passionately declares, “our children are our most precious resource, our lifeblood” (the video appears on YouTube under the category ‘Nonprofits & Activism’). On the Fellowship’s website, homosexuality is listed alongside vampirism as a social danger: “It’s nothing new for teenagers and young adults to flock to the newest trend, and it’s hardly uncommon for these fashion choices to be self-destructive, like smoking, drugs, tattoos or homosexuality. But the latest fad—a soulless eternity of drinking blood—can’t be undone with a laser treatment or rehab. Vampirism is forever” (Home Box Office 2012). While some organisations and US Republican presidential candidates view homosexuality as a choice or temporary lifestyle that can be cured or corrected, what makes vampirism especially pernicious for the Fellowship is that it cannot be erased or overcome, it’s “forever”. In another television interview, the younger Reverend Newlin says, “the vampires as a group have cheated death. And when death has no meaning, then life has no meaning. And when life has no meaning, it is very, very easy to kill” (“Nothing but the Blood”, 2.1).
Anti-vampire sentiment is not an opposition to the merits or otherwise of particular vampire rights, rather the opposition stems from the consequence that these rights serve to entrench vampire presence in civil and social spaces. It is precisely because vampirism constitutes a permanent state of being that the necessity of repealing vampire rights takes on an apocalyptic sense of urgency. Such rhetoric alludes to and perhaps parodies anti-gay rights activism, particularly the National Organisation for Marriage’s (NOM) Proposition 8 “gathering storm” commercials which featured activists and citizens expressing concern about marriage equality backgrounded by blue screens depicting severe lightening storms and flooding. Here the public recognition of difference is conflated with disaster. In the type of advocacy employed by the Fellowship of the Sun, and NOM, the out-group’s very existence seems to imperil a safe and normal social and political order.
Where NOM’s advocacy and rhetoric is left open to debate and parody in the marketplace of democratic political suasion, the Fellowship is clearly set up as an object of ridicule within True Blood. First Newlin (in Season Two) and then his wife Sarah (in Season Six) are positioned as villains whose attempts to instigate genocidal war against vampires figure as obstructions and then climatic battles against which Sookie and friends must contend. Hudson argues that “Steve’s punishment is to be ‘made’ vampire, presumably unleashing his latent desires for Jason” and he “becomes a self-defined ‘gay vampire American’” (2013, 672). Such a transformation is presented humorously as a revelation of the character’s moral and political hypocrisy because his hatred of vampires is ostensibly linked to a self-hatred of his orientation. The reading of groups such as the Fellowship as opposed to progressive social and political causes is reflected in scholarly and popular reception of the show. For example, J. M. Tyree explains the premise of True Blood by noting, “The resistance movement to vampire rights is formed out of the ideological dregs of fundamentalist Christianity” (2009, 32). An online recapper describes the vigilante Keep America Human group as “a bungling bunch of bigoted idiots who spew thinly veiled Fox News talking points like ‘lamestream media’” (Berkshire 2012).By framing the Fellowship and Keep America Human’s advocacy against vampires as villainous, True Blood can be seen as participating in progressive representations of civil rights wherein “proclaiming a future in which the current resistance to gay marriage will seem backward” allows those subjects who already accept civil rights to be “projected forward in time” (Davies and Funke 2011, 6).
True Blood’s vampire rights narrative enables the production and facilitation of a set of transmedia texts framed around advocacy. As various groups within the show vie for political, cultural, economic and species preservation, this sets up an affective biopolitical participation wherein fans and reviewers debate the merits of civil rights, equality and state protection. A positive reading of this biopolitical transmedia engagement with the show is that a popular political consensus around inclusion and integration encourages fans to view the contribution of violence and essentialised forms of prejudice to political debate in negative terms—whether in the form of the Fellowship’s moral inflection to humans’ right to life or vampires’ reduction of human ontological existence to food. In the next section of the paper, I want to unpack the implications of how this fan engagement with the biopolitics of vampire rights is achieved through transmedia storytelling as a specifically commodified activity.
“There’s no such thing as bad; or time for that matter”: Vampires and neoliberalism
Aside from some obvious corporeal differences—fast movement, sharp orthodontics, sartorial preference for dark, binding clothing—vampires in True Blood attempt, for the most part, to fit into the social and cultural environment around them. In an interview for The New York Times Harris explains that her vampires “are more sympathetic” than previous sanguisuge incarnations. Of Dracula she says: “He had disgusting personal habits. He had the three wives; he crawled up the sides of the buildings; he had the sharp teeth and fingernails. Mine are at least trying to look like everyone else, but it’s not working out too well for them” (Solomon 2010). While earlier representations of vampires tended to exacerbate their monstrosity as difference, in Harris’ novels and its televisual counterpart, monstrosity is framed around the problem with assimilation to a human-centred social and political order. This integration is premised on the presence of a biotechnological industry, economic infrastructure and political consensus enabling them to do so.
The AVL is able to advocate for the public acceptance of vampires, on the basis that they do not pose a threat to humans, because of the development of the synthetic Tru Blood replacement for human blood. Originally developed by a Japanese biomedical company as a solution for human blood loss and transfusions, an accidental side effect is that the product can provide sustenance to vampires. Thus while the show centres around the politics of integration, the fulcrum for this integration is the successful branding and marketing of Tru Blood as “a globally transported commodity” (Mutch 2011, 81). The second vampire we see in True Blood is shown purchasing the beverage from a 7-Eleven style convenience store. In this opening scene of the first episode, two bored white teenagers eagerly approach the store clerk, fashioned in dark clothing, piercings and long black hair, to inquire about the possibility of scoring V-juice. The clerk indulges the potential V customers, menacing them with intimations of violence, before abruptly revealing his status as human, to the delight of the male teenager and relieved anger of his female counterpart. A burly gentleman in military garb and a cap adorned with a Confederate flag comes forward to express his displeasure with the ruse. After the male teen excoriates the customer by saying, “fuck you Billy Bob”, ‘Billy Bob’ reveals his fangs and responds, “Fuck me. I’ll fuck you boy. I’ll fuck ya’ and then I’ll eat ya’” (“Strange Love”, 1.1). The vampire’s interactions with both the clerk and the young couple subvert generic expectations, from the characters within the show as well as the audience, of the vampire as reclusive and gothic. Hudson reads this scene as evoking “the lingering embers of ‘lost cause’ for white-male-human privilege” where “the privileged position of the white-male-human in the Old South might be restored only in supernatural terms in the New South” (2013, 672). Now a vampire, the Southern white Confederate man can still expect his purchasing power and public presence to proceed without humiliation or impediment.
The development and dissemination of Tru Blood for public consumption creates new forms of human and vampire interaction, which diverse sets of stakeholders attempt to negotiate and regulate in different ways. The AVL attempts to gain political enfranchisement through a Vampire Rights Amendment (VRA) while other supernatural species, such as werewolves, wait cautiously to see how vampires are treated before likewise revealing themselves publicly (Hudson 2013, 665). The means through which a pharmaceutical product propels the development of vampire rights reinforces Halberstam’s point that Gothic monstrosity is always “an aggregate of race, class, and gender” (1993, 334). In order to participate as good biopolitical citizens, vampires must have the capital to access Tru Blood as well as the legal protection to purchase and consume the product in a discrimination free environment. The fake commercials for Tru Blood, released on YouTube, attempt to help this economic and political process along by portraying Tru Blood consumption as alternatively cool and sexy or folksy and non-threatening. For example, in one commercial, three young white men approach a bar and place their orders in quick succession:
I’ll take that vodka with the really cool ad campaign.
Ridiculously expensive imported beer with a name I can’t pronounce.
I’ll have one of those exotic cocktails.
Their requests are interrupted by a conventionally attractive white woman who orders Tru Blood and then carries it to her wan date, languishing in the shadows of the bar. The men stare at the Tru Blood customer in astonishment and awe. The ad ends with the tagline, “Tru Blood, because you don’t need a pulse to make hearts race”:
The commercial has no branding for True Blood or HBO and is a self-contained transmedia text—the Tru Blood logo shown at the end even has small legalise advising potential consumers, “Synthetic blood products contain varied cellular content than actual blood. Please consult a Tru Blood Cellular Specialist for specific nutritional information”. True Blood fans are addressed as both consumers of the show and of the fictional Tru Blood beverage. These fans are positioned as savvy and media literate cognisors in a way that disarms the purpose of both the True Blood text and the Tru Blood advertisement to establish a blatantly commercial relationship with fans through a postmodern knowingness of alcohol marketing. The intended affective response here, as per Ndalianis, is to generate meta-pleasure in recognising the text’s transmedia connection to the show (in the absence of specific show branding) amidst the generic conventions of alcohol commercials.
Another commercial features a group of mostly white men camping and enjoying beer around a fire. We then see the group through a point of view shot from the darkness in a way that appears to show a predator sneaking up on them. In a reverse shot, a vampire emerges behind one of the men and snarls. The men are startled and then begin to laugh as they welcome the vampire as a recognised friend. “You boys got something for me to drink?” the vampire chuckles as his friends hand him a Tru Blood.
These commercials generate a convivial affective connection to the show anchored through transmedia commodity relations that mirror the internal commodity relations between characters in True Blood. The success of Sookie and Bill’s relationship for example, is implicated in the proliferation of cheap pharmaceutical substitutes. After a passionate bout of lovemaking and bloodletting, Bill tenderly instructs Sookie to take vitamin B-12 tablets to compensate for and replenish her blood loss. Coming out of the coffin is also made more consequential for some vampires due to their social media proficiency. Hudson notes that, “Unlike Jessica today, whose ‘babyvamp’ blog is part of the series’ multiplatform format” Bill “could not interact with a human society that knew him to be a vampire” (2013, 665). Here the internal narrative of the show permits a younger character to be expanded into its transmedia storytelling in a way that would seem implausible and inauthentic to Bill’s character (at least before he is recruited as an AVL figurehead in Season Three). These video blogs, which are performed by the actors in character, also function to link consumption practices to vampire integration. One vlog has the vampire Pam dispense fashion advice to Jessica and her ‘audience’ about where humans should shop to avoid wearing silver (a metal that enkindles vampire flesh in True Blood). Extra-textually, the real brands that Pam lists off as acceptable for human-vampire contact also confirm to True Blood viewers which consumption practices will identify them as fans of the show (below).
Where once vampires could be seen to attest to “the consequences of over-consumption” (Halberstam 1993, 342), the vampires in True Blood reflect a different set of economic and biopolitical concerns. Writing for Newsweek Jennie Yabroff posits that the current crop of vampire films and televisions shows are permeated by “vampires who have enough self-control to resist the lure of human blood, reflecting, perhaps, the conservative direction the culture has taken” (2008). The popularity of vampires who are able to exercise self-control is politically conservative insomuch as it reflects a neoliberal focus on improving and maximising the capacities of the self. In such an economic climate, Stephen Ball writes that workers are encouraged “to think about themselves as individuals who calculate about themselves, ‘add value’ to themselves, improve their productivity, live an existence of calculation” (2001, 223). That this neoliberal calculation and control could be construed as vampiric speaks to cultural shifts in assessing social and economic success. In his book The Culture of the New Capitalism, Richard Sennett writes that workers who flourish in the contemporary business climate are “oriented to the short term, focused on potential ability, willing to abandon past experience”. This type of employee “is—to put a kindly face on the matter—an unusual sort of human being” (2006, 5). While this continual need to improve, calculate and enhance oneself and one’s resources can prove taxing to a living human, vampires have the physical capabilities as well as an endless amount of time to adapt to and thrive in volatile neoliberal economic conditions.
Vampires who are able to successfully pursue their business and political endeavours recognise the strategic value of performance. Despite her exhortations that vampires can ‘mainstream’ through the consumption of Tru Blood, the AVL’s Nan Flanagan presents herself quite differently to humans in comparison with her fellow vampires. In the episode, “Everything is Broken” (3.9), Russell Edgington kills a human on live television and Nan is revealed watching the event unfold mid-snack on a female human. When Bill is invited by Nan to appear at the AVL-sponsored Festival of Tolerance (“Let’s Get Out of Here”,4.9), he queries the political efficacy of only having three vampires present at the event, “it’s like having a civil rights protest without any black people”. In response, Nan scolds him, “They’re called African Americans and maybe those protests wouldn’t have turned into the blood baths they became if they hadn’t been there, ever consider that?” This cynical and racist understanding of minority groups as responsible for the institutional and social violence inflicted on them is an instrumentalised version of strategic essentialism (see Spivak 1987). The disjunction between Nan’s private ‘life’ and the AVL’s public management of vampire behaviour and comportment draws attention to the ways identity politics bargains on the securing of certain rights at the expense of the lived, or undead, complexity of the identities being politicised.
The shifting between rights discourse in Nan and Bill’s conversation, from the African-American Civil Rights Movement to vampire rights, is indicative of True Blood’s dual treatment of historical inequality as a topic that is both serious and linked to a post-industrial commodification of identity politics. The program typically presents critical views of the US’ racist history through the character of Tara. She is sceptical of Bill’s intentions when they first meet because he admits that his family owned slaves (“The First Taste”, 1.2) and complains, “People think just cause we got vampires out in the open now race isn’t an issue no more” (Hudson 2013, 674). Later Tara is ‘outed’ as a vampire to a former high school classmate who patronisingly affirms her identities by saying, “now you’re a member of two minorities!” (“Somebody That I Used to Know”, 5.8). The politics of being ‘out’ as a vampire are also refracted through allusions to racial segregation. Where Eddie and Steve Newlin’s status as vampires allows them to act on their sexual attraction to men (albeit in different and limited ways), other vampires do not have “built-in privileges of masculine whiteness” (672). For Tara, her body reads as both vampire and African-American, Bill meanwhile is discursively positioned as simply ‘vampire Bill’. As Arlene Fowler explains to her child (upon seeing Bill), “No darlin’, we’re white, he’s dead” (“Sparks Fly Out”, 1.5), whiteness and race are embodied by the living first and non-white bodies second. While the AVL stakes an authoritative claim to what constitutes ‘good’ vampire behaviour, vampires must negotiate their public presence among humans along normatively defined lines of race, gender and sexuality.
These intersections of vampire rights and human-centred identity politics are dramatised in transmedia texts which portray vampires’ attempts to police themselves according to competing sets of claims about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ vampire behaviour. In one of her vlogs, Jessica politely advises Tara to avoid saying phrases like “it sucks” now that she is a vampire, for fear of alarming her audience and the public at large (see vlog below).
The ways in which vampires in True Blood are portrayed “both as a threat and as a fully paid up part of civilian life” (Matthews 2011, 200) exemplifies a biopolitical order which depends on the self-policing and disciplining of subjects according to social norms so that excessive external coercion by the state is not required (Foucault 1977). In this sense, True Blood is the culmination of a representational trajectory of vampires as ostensible outsiders to ciphers for sensible consumption, civic pride and business ethics. In an AVL sponsored Public Service Announcement entitled “Accept the Truth” (below), various vampires describe themselves as ordinary “Americans”, for example, “I’m a short-order cook in New York City, I’m cold to the human touch”, and “I run a horse ranch in Northern Montana, sunlight turns me to ash”.
These dramatic declarations of nationality read as humorous precisely because audiences are used to seeing vampires as obviously different from and suspicious of human life. The extension of the True Blood narrative primarily through these media texts, which simultaneously exhort and parody ‘good’ performances of citizenship and consumption, interpellates fans into a transmedia public sphere along the same lines, through HBO-approved forms of consumption. In the final section of the paper, I want to unpack the distinctions and comingling of political-play as consumption and activism in terms of the role of transmedia storytelling and marketing in disciplining the use of public space.
“But please remember I can rip your throat out if I need to”: Vampires and political-play consumption
I have argued so far that True Blood’s vampire trope conjoins civil rights with consumption and civic pride based on a neoliberal performance and management of the self. The program’s focus on the performance of vampirism enabled by a state protected mode of consumption is carried over into fans’ engagement with the show through officially sanctioned forms of consumption. The program’s production and broadcast through the premium HBO cable channel enables a much more explicit and liberal portrayal of sex and violence than traditional broadcast television, and this is undoubtedly a significant reason the show was pitched to and commissioned by HBO. The positioning of the show as both risqué and compatible with a politically progressive demographic is used in marketing material for the show.
For example, one HBO commercial (above), advertising the Season Two DVD box set, has a white family unwrapping Christmas presents from a young woman, presumably their daughter. In response to her Grandma’s query, “What’s this honey?”, the woman gives a quick recap of the season culminating in this description, “and the whole town has a huge orgy. Merry Christmas Grandma, I love you so much”. The commercial’s tagline is “The perfect gift for almost everybody” . The marketing of True Blood’s sexually explicit and graphically violent content as different to or in opposition to the ‘safe’ television programming that your grandmother enjoys sits at odds with the class and cultural capital required to actually consume the show. This includes access to premium cable or at least reliable broadband Internet to download or view the program as well as the supplementary web material that accompanies the program and is designed to satiate audience interest in between episodes and seasons. Whatever form of risk or subversion the vampires in True Blood present to the existing textual order of vampirism is incorporated into an already safely established mode of television production and consumption.
As Ndalianis points out, the goal of an effective transmedia campaign and story is to make audiences “forget that they’re a marketing strategy devised to sell a product” (2012, 166). Fans are encouraged to immerse themselves “in an emerging narrative that isn’t fixed or pre-staged but which they perform a key role in unraveling” (189) and “the participant is invited to literally play and become part of a performance as if it’s real” (172; original emphases). The unfolding of transmedia participation in ‘real-time’ is precisely how the constructed nature of the story is obfuscated. While fans can unravel or make sense of a transmedia story in diverse ways, the underlying narrative which structures the assemblage of transmedia texts is nevertheless necessarily fixed or pre-staged in order to generate an economy of performance that will move the story along.
The framing of transmedia stories around questions of rights, survival or torture can legitimate biopolitical performances through the commodification of fan activity. For instance, Ndalianis describes an aspect of The Dark Knight campaign, which “included phoning a security guard and trying to convince him to save someone being tortured” (168). In this scenario, fans can ‘create’ their own story based on their conversations with the ‘security guard’ but the narrative economy of bargaining over torture still remains intact. An interesting feature of the transmedia campaigns analysed by Ndalianis are the attempts to import ‘real’ protest into the fictional political campaigns devised for Harvey Dent, the protagonist/antagonist in The Dark Knight,and True Blood’s AVL. In the former, Dent’s campaign website was overlain with graffiti that painted his image with clown make up, signifying the Joker’s growing ‘invasion’ of the movie’s promotion (186). In the latter, AVL ads promoting the VRA were covered over, after their initial ‘clean’ public presentation, with anti-vampire slurs such as ‘Killers’ (179). The more consumers interacted with the campaigns, the more oppositional dissent was introduced into their advertising. This ‘dissent’ then becomes an entertaining spectacle, in which fans can participate, that drives the unfolding transmedia narrative as a story about biopolitical conflict; i.e. what are the democratic limits to expelling the Joker and criminals from Gotham City and vampires from public space in True Blood respectively.
In Simulacra and Simulation, Jean Baudrillard argues that the “impossibility of rediscovering an absolute level of the real is of the same order as the impossibility of staging illusion” (2006, 19). To illustrate this point he talks about the impossibility of staging a ‘fake’ bank robbery and assumes that “the network of artificial signs will become inextricably mixed up with real elements” (20). It is impossible therefore, to stage something that remains “close to the ‘truth,’ in order to test the reaction of the apparatus to a perfect simulation” (20). I would argue however that successful transmedia campaigns illustrate the degree to which the simulacra of political and juridical order is routinely accomplished by corporate and commercial interests and even accommodated by municipal councils and local governments. These transmedia activities seem to be premised on an expectation and acceptance that political campaigns which ostensibly aim to address crime and inequality will inevitably meet public backlash or violent acts of civil disobedience. Contestation over rights and public space are a normalised feature of transmedia campaigns.
Presumably this is entertaining in the context of a performance for a fictional text, albeit one that requires performance in the non-fictional social and political realm of everyday life, but we might compare this transmediation of political contestation with the everyday disciplining of activism in the public sphere. For example, in 2012, pro-Israel advertisements placed in New York subways by the American Freedom Defense Initiative were defaced with words such as “Racist” and “Hate Speech” and activists such as Egyptian-American writer Mona Eltahawy were arrested for spray-painting over them (Holpuch 2012). Here the spectacle of the invasion and countering of advocate discourse is swiftly disciplined by police and security forces, who acted to protect the purchase of advertising space by the American Freedom Defense Initiative. In New Zealand, 2007 saw a series of anti-terror raids resulting in heavy fines, long court proceedings and jail time for anarchist and Māori activists. Among the evidence used to surveil and arrest the defendants were recorded conversations detailing an apparently jocular suggestion that former US President George W. Bush could be assassinated on his next visit to New Zealand by launching a bus at his person (see Operation 8 [Abi King-Jones and Errol Wright, 2011]). Vijay Devadas (2008) provides a thorough examination of the events by situating them within the convergence of government and private security agendas during the ‘war on terror’. I note here that in distinction to transmedia campaigns that compel play-performance of public safety and order issues, parodic suggestions in the execution of advocacy by marginalised communities exacerbate rather than diminish their biopolitical position as threat.
Of course the difference between these ‘real’ events and transmedia storytelling is that the latter involves “a cognitive and sensory satisfaction that relishes in the performativity and playfulness of the text” (Ndalianis 2012, 183). The playfulness and enjoyment of transmedia fan participation seems to occur by virtue of the lack of substantive social and political consequences to transmedia performances. Where Baudrillard might see such performances as testing the authoritative apparatus of juridical and state institutions in such a way as to restate the latter’s epistemological authority to delineate ‘real’ from ‘fake’ civic activity, I would argue that transmedia activity, provided it is authorised by corporate and municipal bodies, does not test ‘the apparatus’ of a juridical and institutional order so much as it ‘simulates’ this order safely and with a positive affective disposition protected by officially authorised forms of consumption.
Ndalianis’ work maps out a framework of analysis, which takes into account the embodied, affective and urban social participation of transmedia storytelling as a significant dimension of fan activity. Given that transmedia storytelling involves the cultivation of activity and participation in the public sphere and urban environment, by connecting private acts of consumption to a theatre of public brand performance, it would be productive to extend Ndalianis’ analytic framework to an investigation of the types of affective relations emerging between fans, the public sphere, media texts, corporate industry and processes of social and political inclusion and exclusion. Does transmedia storytelling encourage a positive affective relation to biopolitical performance so long as this performance is confined to the ‘fictional’ realm? Do media scholars need to account for the consequences of transmedia ‘play’ such as the mass-shooting which took place in an Aurora, Colorado, cinema during a screening of the film The Dark Knight Rises by a young man impersonating a character from the Batman textual archive? How might we compare the increasing surveillance of political advocacy and creative protest with the seeming acquiescence of municipal and city councils to permit corporate branding to invade civil and public spaces for transmedia storytelling campaigns? Notwithstanding the possibility for resistance or divergence on the part of fans with the ‘intended’ transmedia story, the type of narrative used to anchor transmedia campaigns nevertheless frames and orients fan relations to texts through modes of consumer engagement that are legitimated by corporate, state and municipal institutions. Although my focus here has been on the ways in which transmedia consumer engagement legitimises biopolitical modes of performance and debate around civil rights, it may prove fruitful to investigate other types of relations that emerge from embedding fans into state institutions and discourses via transmedia storytelling.
Conclusion: “That’s the sickest shit I’ve ever seen … and I watch Dance Moms!”
In this paper, I have examined how biopolitical imperatives and constraints around vampire integration in True Blood are mediated through transmedia forms of storytelling and marketing. The transmediation of vampire rights involves fan immersion in discursive and representational practices which (re)produce vampirism as an allusion to gay liberation and LGBTI politics. The program’s use of Tru Blood, both intra- and extra-textually, is premised on the commodification of identity politics but also attests to the permeation and popularisation of a rights-based consensus for minority groups. In a positive reading of the program’s allusions to gay rights, True Blood’s transmedia storytelling appears to evince an inclusive textual and representational landscape for LGBTI politics. At the same time, the program draws attention to the biopolitical function of rights discourse by suggesting that it is the management of particular kinds of life, through particular kinds of consumption, that remains valuable to the dominant political and economic order rather than the identities these rights are attached to. In this sense, the mapping of vampirism onto civil rights also functions to legitimise a political discourse that measures some rights against others in terms of the strategic economic and social benefits such rights grant to the polity or fan community as a whole. This weighing up and measuring of rights in terms of who deserves social and political life, and what ‘life’ can be ‘good’ for the community, is surely more monstrous than anything True Blood’s vampires are capable of.
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 My thanks to the anonymous referee for their thoughtful comments and suggestions for improving the paper’s analytical focus. I am also grateful to Kevin Fisher for sharing his insights on Baudrillard and transmedia during the writing of this paper and to Katharine Legun for her help with improving the clarity and coherency of the paper. An early version of this paper was published in the magazine Cherrie. The original version of the paper can be found here: http://gaynewsnetwork.com.au/feature/vamps-and-queers-5136.html
Bio: Holly Randell-Moon is a Lecturer in Communication and Media Studies at the University of Otago, New Zealand. Her publications on popular culture, gender, and sexuality have appeared in the edited book collections Common Sense: Intelligence as Presented on Popular Television (2008) and Television Aesthetics and Style (2013) and the journal Feminist Media Studies. She has also published on race, religion, and secularism in the journals Critical Race and Whiteness Studies, borderlands and Social Semiotics and in the edited book collections Religion, Spirituality and the Social Sciences (2008) and Mediating Faiths (2010).