Presentations of Gay Vampires in True Blood – Not Just A “Teenage Dream”

This post was originally written in October of 2013 for the course
Queer Cinema at the University of Florida with Dr. Barbara Mennel.

True Blood is an HBO show which has gained extreme popularity and a budget to match it. Throughout the series, allusions to the struggles of “vampire rights” as similar to gay rights appear through imagery and terminology. For example, rather than coming out of the closet, a vampire in the series would “come out of the coffin” (Hahn 2008). Additionally it acts as a contemporary show on television openly portraying queer people as main characters. However, whether or not the portrayal acts as a positive or negative statement for the queer community remains a hotly debated topic. Season five episode ten offers several readings of queerness through filmic techniques to portray the characters, and in turn queerness itself, as both positive and negative.

Set in a modern timeframe at night, the director, Scott Winant, pans the camera to the front of a frat house with a lit streetlight in the foreground out of focus and the house itself behind in focus, to set an establishing shot for the audience. Then the camera cuts to a close-up two-shot of True Blood’s season three villain, Russell Edgington (Denis O’ Hare) and his lover, the former Baptist preacher, Steve Newlin (Michael McMillian) clothed in suits spattered in blood slow-dancing (Winant 2012). Both are vampires, one close to three thousand years old and the other but two years old (in terms of length of their vampire life). Edgington describes a way that the two can both “walk in the sun” (Winant 2012). Then the music, formerly very quiet in the background grows louder, and Katy Perry’s song, “Teenage Dream” plays once the dialogue ends (Winant 2012). Edgington then dips Newlin and the camera follows Newlin back up and thus transfers the shot to a mise-en-scene filled with bloody fraternity youths scattered across the improvised-dance floor[i] (Winant 2012). The two vampires continue dancing and eventually begin romantically touching as Edgington bites Newlin (Winant 2012).

Slow Dance.png

The vampire often stands in during horror movies as a metaphor for queer sexuality (Benshoff 259). While formerly more subtle in representation, many fans of the horror genre enjoy it because they “identify with the monsters’ outsider positioning and his/her queer sexual appeal” (Dresser qtd. in Benshoff 235). True Blood much more overtly associates sex appeal with vampires and specifically a type of hunger/thirst that overrides the heteronormative boundaries of gender. In this scene, the establishing shot reinforces the idea that vampires are limited to only certain spaces and times, given the necessity of demonstrating the nighttime atmosphere and the source of lighting as artificial and therefore not harmful to them. The close-up of Edgington and Newlin then evokes an emotional tenderness from the audience as Edgington describes his desire to break the limitation of nighttime and “walk in the sun” (Winant 2012). In many ways, this could be viewed as a way for queer people to free themselves from the constraints that society has put upon them. By challenging the boundaries of where vampires can exist, Edgington also metaphorically challenges the boundaries of where openly queer people can exist.

Close Up of Edgington and Newlin

However, all of the positive work this scene accomplishes through creating the queer vampires as “counter-hegemonic figure[s] who forcefully [smash] the binary oppositions of gender. . . sexuality,” and social placement, remains somewhat undone by the long shot encompassing the massacre of bodies lying around them (Benshoff 231).   Unfortunately, the shot “equates on many levels overt queerness with explicit gory violence” (Benshoff 262). It adds to the accusation of homosexuality as “decadent” or “perverse” by having sensual touching take place among the corpses (Sedgwick 9). Additionally, the scene damages the queer movement by potentially informing non-critical film viewers that the gay vampires are this incarnation of ultimate, careless, evil.

The choice of the artist Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” as a diegetic song choice affects the scene’s viewers in particular due to her association with gay rights. Some find her offensive in her portrayal of queerness while others hold her up as a positive advocate for gay rights. She is often labeled “pro-gay” for her songs, “Firework,” “Ur So Gay,” and “I Kissed a Girl” (Badash 2011). However, some members of the queer community find her songs offensive and dislike lyrics which they feel compare lesbians to “science experiments” and promote gay stereotypes (Bendix 2008 qtd. in Carilli and Campbell 78). Thus, the choice of her as an artist for their dance scene further complicates the portrayal of gay people. Considering that the characters themselves continue to listen to the music and sway indicates an appreciation for the song and indeed it is romantic and encourages the giddiness of the audience over a new couple. Additionally, the lines “we can dance, until we die, you and I will be young forever” allude to the ability of vampires in the series to never age (Katy Perry qtd. in Winant 2012). However, the significance of two older men dancing to a teen pop song does encourage the stereotype of gay men as feminine and pop-music enthusiasts (Stereotype Presentation 2009).

Finally the identities of the characters also add to the analysis of this scene. The three thousand year old age of Russell Edgington indicates that gayness is not new or modern but is old and therefore as “normal” for an individual as heterosexuality. Additionally, Steve Newlin’s previous mortal life as a Baptist anti-gay, anti-vampire preacher continues the stereotype that “the most violently homophobic people are often themselves closeted queers” (Benshoff 260).

Overall, True Blood gives representation to the queer population in a stereotyped manner. While the show seems to seek positive gay messages to coincide with the main series’ positive vampire heroes, it often times falls short by falling into stereotypes and creating two of the central gay characters as villains. Season five episode ten offers several readings of queerness through the utilization of filmic techniques to portray the characters, and in turn queerness itself, as both positive and negative. However, the scene “nonetheless reaffirm[s] for uncritical audiences the semiotic overlap of homosexual and violent killer” (Benshoff 232).

 Works Cited

Badash, David. “Anti-Gay Michele Bachmann Uses Pro-Gay Katy Perry Firework As Theme Song | The New Civil Rights Movement.” The New Civil Rights Movement RSS. N.p., June 2011. Web. 10 Oct. 2013.

Ball, Alan, Charlaine Harris, and Alexander Woo. “Gone, Gone, Gone.” True Blood. Dir. Scott Winant. HBO. HBO, 12 Aug. 2012. Television.

Benshoff, Harry M. Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1997. Print.

Campbell, Jane, and Theresa Carilli. Queer Media Images: LGBT Perspectives. Lanham: Lexington, 2013. Print.

“Gone, Gone, Gone.” IMDb., Aug. 2012. Web. 10 Oct. 2013.

Hahn, Kate. “HBO’s True Blood Is ‘Co,ing Out of the Coffin'” TV Guide. CBS, 4 Sept. 2008. Web.

Jack 2009. “Stereotype Presentation.” Empty Closets A Safe Online Community for Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgender People Coming out RSS. N.p., 2009. Web. 10 Oct. 2013.

Sedgwick, Eve K. “Introduction: Axiomatic.” Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California, 1990. 1-66. Print.