Friday, September 30, 2011

‘The Vampire Diaries’: What People of Colour Do When They Aren’t Snack Food

Over the three seasons of The Vampire Diaries, several characters of colour, not including the random walk on characters that were usually fed on by Caroline have appeared on the show:

Bonnie Bennet (Kat Graham)
Sheila Bennet (Jasmine Guy)
Emily Bennet (Bianca Lawson)
Pearl (Kelly Hu)
Anna (Malese Jow)
Luca Martin (Bryton James)
Dr. Jonas Martin (Randy J Goodwin)
Greta Martin (Lisa Tucker)
Bethan (Jenny Perillo)
Harper (Sterling Sulieman)
Tyler Lockwood (Michael Trevino)

This may seem like a decent representation; however, what the numbers don’t reveal, is that these characters were either in servile positions, or were so far separated from their African-American culture that they were rendered almost invisible or race neutral. It is also worth noting that this story is taking place in the south, and the ratio of Black to White is far higher than what is actually represented on The Vampire Diaries.

The only two characters to show any real independence and self interest were Shelia Bennet and Emily Bennet.  Shelia wanted to impart her culture and history to Bonnie.  She set very strict boundaries on her interactions with vampires, and made it clear that she did not exist to serve them.  In fact, Shelia actively threatened Stefan to warn him from harming Bonnie in anyway.  Yet, for all of her warnings and precaution, she still ended up dying to free the vampires from the crypt. 

Emily was in a servile position because she was a slave; however, she used the power that she had to create a better future for her descendants, demanding that they would never know what it was to be a slave. Emily was also not afraid to use her power against vampires when she felt that it was a public good.  Considering that Bonnie has a heritage of strong Black women, it is hard to understand why her cultural awareness is almost non-existent.  It is almost as though Bonnie is a White girl conveniently painted Black for the purposes of inclusion cookies.  I can say this confidently because in the books written by L.J. Smith, not only is Bonnie White, there are no regularly occurring characters of colour. 

Bonnie often seems to have no real independent existence outside of Elena. She exists to serve Elena, on our podcasts we even joked about Bonnie being put back into the “plot box” until Elene needed her again. It seems especially gross to see this when we consider that Emily, Bonnie’s ancestor was a slave who served exactly the same purpose for Katherine. Both was there to provide magical solutions to whatever problems Elena/Katherine had. A matter only made more distasteful by Mystic Fall’s constant worship and romanticism of the Founders that Bonnie is expected to participate in. As a descendant of slaves, Bonnie should take no pleasure in any celebration of antebellum south.

Even when Bonnie herself disagreed with what she was asked to do (being considerably more suspicious of the vampires) she still acted for Elena. Even when the spirits of dead witches, of Bonnie’s ancestors, are telling her not to do something, she ignores them in favour of Elena. Though Bonnie realises that she is pushing herself to perform more and more magic, she ignores the personal cost up to and including, nose bleeds, passing out and extreme pain. Most glaringly of all, at the end of season two Bonnie is ready to die to save Elena. 

Outside of Caroline whom Bonnie distrusts now that she is a vampire, and Elena, Bonnie is closes to Jeremy Gilbert, Elena’s brother. Jeremy actively pursues Bonnie and she is resistant at first because of the age difference between them rather than race. This stands of another example of the desire to construct Bonnie as White though she is supposedly a character of color.  Anyone in an inter-racial relationship will tell you that race is something that constantly needs to be negotiated and yet Bonnie and Jeremy have had no such conversation. Bonnie has not even wondered privately if she is being fetishised and considering the history of Black women and White men in an American context, I find this extremely unrealistic. 

Similarly, Luca Martin and Dr. Jonas Martin were both existed to serve Elijah though in this case it was because they were forced by threats to Greta Martin (who in turn, was a sacrificial, magical tool for Klaus). They were more useful magical tools who followed and served the white vampires, forced to do as they were told even when they disagreed with what they were doing or when they were acting against their best interests. Most telling is that their servitude ended in death. These characters who could have potentially wielded great power were essentially disposable.

For all the power these magical people had (and in many ways they are more powerful than the vampires and werewolves), it was always yolked by the vampires and never actually used to further themselves or their own agenda - assuming they even had an agenda, since they were rarely presented with any real independent existence from the vampires they served. In this series witches are thought of as possession and since they are played by characters of colour this represents the absolutely othering and colonisation of these bodies.  When we factor in that this is taking place in an area that continually celebrates the enslavement of Blacks, to the point of dress up days, as well as a town gathering to watch Gone With the Wind, what are we left to think but that Whiteness continues to be thought of as the only real expression of power and personhood in Mystic Falls? 

Harper is one of the tomb vampires. When Bonnie is forced to break the curse, Harper wanders around displaced and unsure because he has been imprisoned for 140 plus years.  What makes Harper particularly sad is that Pearl changed him into a vampire because he was left for dead as a soldier in a civil war battle. Since we know that he is a civil war veteran we can already assume that his interactions with Whiteness were far from positive. This means, after his death at the hands of John Gilbert, that he was killed twice by white men. It’s notable that all 3 black men on this show have been killed (and Harper killed twice) - I’d like to say this is a commentary on the violence black men face living in a White supremacist state; however,  The Vampire Diaries just doesn’t have that depth.

There is also a difficulty with the character Tyler Lockwood. He has a very anglo name and 2 very obviously white parents. Further, the Lockwoods are one of the founding families of Mystical Falls (especially important in a town that virtually worships the Founders). It is difficult to see Tyler Lockwood as being anything but a white character. However, Michael Trevino, the actor, is Hispanic. We are faced with a Hispanic actor playing a white character - it becomes a question as to whether this counts as inclusion at all?

Pearl and Ana have the distinction honor of being the only two Asian characters to be on the show.  The characters themselves are only understood to be Asian because the actors are Asian and not because there are specific cultural clues within the text itself.  Pearl was seen as the defacto leader of the tomb vampires because she was approximately four hundred and seventy years old.  Before she was imprisoned she owned an apothecary. When we consider that she was an Asian woman in 1800’s who owned her own business that tells us that Pearl was extremely smart and capable.  How is it that this woman met her downfall twice at the hands of White men?  

The first occurred when Johnathon Gilbert betrayed their love and had her imprisoned and the second was when she was ultimately staked by John Gilbert. Even though Damon was aware that Pearl was over four hundred years old, he physically assaulted her twice.  What is perhaps most disturbing is that though Johnathon saw her as an abomination, he did not think twice about splitting her property and cash among the founding fathers of Mystic Falls.  Despite all that she had been through, instead of wanting revenge she said of the descendants, “these people are not our enemies; we don’t hold grudges and resentments.  We’ll get out town back we just have to have patience.”  It is only when she realized that she would never be allowed to  build her life back because too many people knew of her existence that she decided to leave Mystic Falls. Unfortunately, Pearl who had already been through so much was not allowed to live in peace, she was staked by John Gilbert.  Pearls only crime was not being what White men wanted to her to be or obeying when commanded to do so. 

Like her mother Pearl, Anna was a very smart and capable woman.  She actively befriended Jeremy to gain access to Johnathon Gilbert’s journal.  She turned Ben and Logan into vampires and she kidnapped Elena to force the tomb to be opened.  Without doubt Ana was goal oriented and ruthless, yet this smart woman fell for Jeremy, who only desired her because he wanted to become a vampire.  That in and of itself would not have been so bad if it had been been because he wanted to spend eternity with her, but what he really wanted was to dim the pain of Vicki’s death.  Once again, a woman of color is second place to a White woman.  What is even more galling is that she continued her relationship with him and even enrolled in high school to spend more time with him.  Her mother warned her not to get involved with Jeremy but she just had to follow her heart.  Follow her heart all the way to her death because a depressed teenage just had to become a vampire.

At the end of the second season, Bonnie saved Jeremy from death, and as a result, he begins to see ghosts.  Vicki, wants Jeremy to help bring her back to life, but Ana shows up to warn him not to trust Vicki. Uh huh...There we go with another woman of color being ready to serve to protect the White citizens of Mystic Falls. 

Yet again we have to say that mere inclusion of marginalised characters does not make for good representation. The quality and variety of the portrayal also matters, not fulfilling stereotypes or tropes or tried, prejudiced portrayals. It also matters that they should be characters in their own right with independent existence, goals and their own lives and agendas - not just side-kicks, adjutants and tools to further the greater glory of the white protagonists. They need to be more than footnotes in someone else’s story.