The Trials, Tribulations & Turning of True Blood’s Tara Thornton

In case you don’t watch it: True Blood is an HBO show during which humans, vampires, fairies, werewolves, and other “supes” (that’s short for supernatural if you’re out of the loop) have sex with each other and also often try to kill/eat each other in Bon Temps, Louisiana.

Initially, the writers of True Blood were fairly responsible about addressing issues of race, gender, and sexuality – basically All The Things that queer and other marginalized peoples care about, which is how I initially got hooked on the V. The vampire plight as the gay plight extended metaphor was well thought-out; the main characters were diverse-ish; and the women were allowed to talk to each other about topics other than men (mostly).

And the show also gave us Tara Thornton, played by the beautiful and talented Rutina Wesley. Tara is the BFF of the main character. Tara is also a woman of color. Popular television shows on networks like HBO are totally whitewashed and it’s consistently super problematic (see: Girls), so I was really hoping that this would change and Tara would be a character written with the respect she deserved – because truly in the beginning she breathed fire into the show. She was unapologetically the smartest person in town, she called white people out on their racist bullshit and she stood up for herself and for her friends. Her character was filled with anger because she had some major things to be angry about, like child abuse, and her anger made her stronger.

via HBO

But as the seasons progressed, and we got to know Tara more and more, a disturbing pattern emerged: the more complex her character became, the more she was punished. As her insecurities were revealed one by one, a supernatural creeper would show up to take advantage of her based on whatever weakness had just been revealed.

And most upsetting of all, these various traumatically violent and rapey subplots all involved Tara’s literal enslavement by not one but SEVERAL different supernatural creatures, all of whom are white. If this had happened to her one time amidst a plethora of various other plot lines, it would have been concerning. But the fact that Tara’s enslavement has become the central theme of her subplots throughout all the seasons is horrifying. I am not a woman of color nor am I a rape survivor, so I’m not in any way claiming that I can speak to these experiences with authority. But I do feel confident in saying that True Blood approached a chance to respectfully write a major queer female character in probably the worst way possible.

For example: Tara is kicked out of her house by her alcoholic mother, and so because of her emotional vulnerability and loneliness, she is hypnotically controlled by the evil maenad Maryann. Maryann forces her to do nasty things like eat a human heart pie and build a giant meat statue. While under Maryann’s influence she falls in love with a human named Eggs, who is also controlled by the maenad, and very unfortunately dies. While grieving the loss of Eggs, Tara is kidnapped and held hostage/raped repeatedly by a sociopath vampire named Franklin who wants to make her his forever slave bride.

via HBO

After Tara escapes from Franklin, she’s at her breaking point and leaves Bon Temps. And then the writers give us a teeny tiny gift: they patch up the wounds on her spirit by bringing her back the next season as a lady-who-likes-ladies. A queer lady! No one saw that coming. Tara herself probably didn’t see it coming. But hey, when life hands you lemons, why not start carpet munching? Actually I don’t really think that; I think based on her superior arm structure that she was always destined for lesbianism.

So, it gets better, right? Not yet. Despite being given a super hot cage-fighting girlfriend (symbolism!) and a long-lasting post-orgasmic glow to her face, things only get worse for Tara, and her girlfriend isn’t even on the show for a whole season. Then at the end of the last season, Tara’s girlfriend is killed and Tara actually gets shot in the head while trying to defend Sookie. Oy!

via HBO

Much like last season’s attempt to heal Tara’s soul wounds by making her a lesbian, this season so far says that the only way for Tara to be a survivor and rise above all she has been a victim of is to make her a VAMPIRE. To the margins of society with ye, O damaged woman! It seems the writers couldn’t conceive of a female character who could survive several seasons worth of enslavement and rape and still be a successful human. So time to try a different form of existence. And time to Other her even further.

Fortunately/unfortunately, depending on your general outlook on life, Tara is turned into a vampire by Pam, who is a) another prominent queer female and b) not a Tara fan – she tried to kill her a few times. So now I think we are supposed to be excited that two main queer ladies are thrown together for a shared storyline, which I guess is nice because usually they are isolated from other sisters in straight-land. But also there’s this thing in the vampire world where the vampire who made you actually owns you and can control you forever until they decide not to. And Pam needs someone to bartend, so. Again, Tara finds herself held hostage by someone who doesn’t have a problem abusing her.

via trueblood.wikia.com

This is all to say that despite this season’s repetitively problematic premise for Tara, I have hope and you should too. And here’s why: True Blood has new blood in the form of a writer named Angela Robinson. You might know her as the writer and director of the cult classic lesbian espionage film D.E.B.S. She also created some episodes of a show some of you may have heard of called The L Word. Do you see where I’m going with this? Robinson is a professional lesbian, and a lesbian of color, at that. Do you trust her with Tara’s fate? I would like to trust her. I’m getting old and I need someone to rely on (sorry, that terrible Keane song is stuck in my head).

She wrote Sunday night’s episode and if you haven’t watched it yet, you should go do so right now and then get back to me. But basically this is the most lesbian-ish episode to date, and there isn’t even any making out. Jessica, another vampire, gives Tara a speech that’s totally an It Gets Better talk only the word “gay” is swapped out for “vampire” and sexual attraction is replaced with, um, hunger for blood. It’s tender and hopeful.

And while Pam is still being super abusive to Tara and controlling her every move, there is a notable shift. Robinson wrote a scene in which Tara is wearing Pam’s black glitter corset, and Pam watches her walk into the bar in slow motion. Pam is noticeably aroused by the sight. In this behind-the-scenes video, Robinson says that it’s intentional:

“Tara, at the end of the last episode, has just fed on a human. And then Tara borrows some of Pam’s clothes… I scripted it in slow-mo because I really wanted Pam to see her vampire that she made, and being kind of hot for Tara for the first time, like seeing her with whole new eyes.”

So for the first time, Tara gets to feed on someone, rather than the other way around (literally and abstractly). Even though Pam is standing over her shoulder telling her how to do it, Tara is in charge of this human’s life. And that feeling of complete control over someone else’s life force gives her new power and confidence – even though she’s technically enslaved. Drinking someone’s blood on this show, as long as they are consenting, is erotic. And so the power that Tara gains from the experience is a power that all of the other females on the show have already been given regardless of species. I’m talking about sexual power.

Sure, Tara has had sex and crushes throughout the course of the show, but she has never really been in control of the situations. Meanwhile, everyone in the American South wants a piece of Sookie Stackhouse no matter what that damn girl does, says or looks like. And all the other women pretty much get what they want from the men around them by batting an eyelash or two (except Marnie the witch, but that’s another story for another time). But Tara? Tara has unrequited love and resents people who are attracted to her. She’s been depicted as a sex object to be owned and abused, but now she is starting to be depicted as someone who has the ability to use sex as a currency to attain power.

via HBO

Rarely on a show that’s not specifically for queers do we get to see an actual lesbian woman using her sexual power over other lesbian women. I predict that now that Pam’s got the tingle for Tara, things will start looking up. But if sexual power is going to be the road to Tara’s liberation, is that problematic? Or should she use what she has to get what she wants, just like literally everyone else on this show does?

This begs the question whether or not it is “right” and/or implicative of privilege for a normatively attractive girl to use her sexual power to get ahead in life. I’m pretty sure this is something that has plagued feminists for basically all of time. And it’s especially complicated when you throw in queerness, race and vampires.

Since much of the violence that Tara has faced thus far is sexual violence, I am thrilled that there is potential for her to reclaim agency of her body in a powerful way. So what if she had to drink someone’s blood and wear a borrowed black glitter corset to tap into her own sexual power? But then again, she had to drink someone’s blood and wear a borrowed black glitter corset to tap into her own sexual power. Do you see the problem?

I am hoping above all other hopes that True Blood gets this situation under control. Now that she’s a lesbian and a vampire, it’s not like there are many more things she can come back as if this season once again wears her into the ground. Angela Robinson, will you liberate Tara from the cycle of enslavement that others have forced her into? And will you do so in a way where all the things – queerness, femaleness, race, a history of sexual abuse, vampires – are respected? Say yes. We need this.

Profile photo of Gabrielle

Gabrielle writes facts and feelings from an old brick house in an outer borough of New York City. When she's not writing about lesbians, she's editing/writing/producing things at her day job in the beauty department of a well-known online style magazine. In her spare time, she helps organize the New York City Dyke March and makes up songs about her dog.

Gabrielle has written 96 articles for us.

20 Comments

  1. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    This is so awesomely thought out/written! I stopped watching True Blood a while ago because all the blood and violence got to be a bit much, but I’m really fascinated by queer/feminist-y analyses of it because I think there’s SO much to talk about.

  2. Thumb up 1

    Please log in to vote

    No wonder I thought Sunday’s episode was the best one yet this season – Angela Robinson wrote it! Thanks for that tid-bit. I love the article, I have been discussing Tara with friends lately and you pretty much sum up the way I have been feeling. I hope/can’t wait for Pam and Tara to get together though – they are both so isolated from everyone else.

    Also, you may want to warn people that there are major major spoilers in this article for everything leading up to this week.

  3. Thumb up 4

    Please log in to vote

    I haven’t been keeping up with the show since the 2nd season, so I wanted to ask: has Tara self-identified as lesbian? Because if not, wouldn’t she fall more under (assumed) bisexual? Her relationships with men in the past were pretty heartfelt.

    – Gabby, new resident bi crusader against bi erasure!

  4. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    This is so well written! You helped solidify a lot of the things I was thinking about Tara and remind me why I love her so much as a character. I can’t wait to see what happens next in her plot and I hope that this new writer does more empowering things with her.

  5. Thumb up 1

    Please log in to vote

    You pretty much summed up my feelings about Tara and her storyline as I watching True Blood last night. Hopefully, they’ll begin to do her character justice because this show is addicting. I don’t want to continue to watch a show that treats one of its only people of color like that. I’m excited to see who she becomes now that she’s a vampire. Should be interesting.

  6. Thumb up 3

    Please log in to vote

    I’m not feeling it. I’ve been disgusted by how she’s been treated in previous seasons and I’m still disgusted now. There’s no “claiming her power” now that she’s been truly and completely enslaved by Pam.
    Turning her into a vampire was alternately cheesy, cheap and extremely degrading after everything she’s been through. Tara HATES vampires.

    Also, I can’t speak for anyone else but I’m pretty tired of the writers using the struggle of vampires to be accepted for the murderous, barely controlled monsters that they are as an allegory for the gay rights movement. Vampires are not victims of oppression, I don’t care what anyone says.

    • Thumb up 1

      Please log in to vote

      Exactly. I always think Fantasy Racism as a metaphor for real life oppression is a questionable trope, since it’s allows the writers to pat themselves on the back for addressing racism and homophobia without any of the messiness that come with actually addressing racism and homophobia (or even have PoC or queers in the cast, though to be fair, that’s not true of True Blood.)

      But when it’s bloodsucking killers as a metaphor for gay people? How is that not double-plus fucked up bad?

  7. Thumb up 1

    Please log in to vote

    My take on Tara being turned into a vampire is a bit different – it is, as the show points out, immensely empowering. Previously, Tara was also the only person in her peer group without supernatural powers (Lafayette is a witch medium or whatever, Sookie is a half-fairy with mind reading powers, Sam is a shifter.) I was unhappy with Tara’s repeat victimization, and I think in the show’s universe, this is making up for it, not victimizing her further or othering her. It’s also in keeping with the queer = vamp thing.

    I am also very intrigued at all the bisexy subtext in Tara’s new life. Not only is feeding eroticized (I think pointedly, Tara feeds on both males and females), there have been lesbian undertones (or overtones) in all of Tara’s interactions with other female vampires, Jessica as well as Pam.

  8. Thumb up 1

    Please log in to vote

    I feel much more between Jessica and Tara than between Pam and Tara. Especially when Jessica, as she gives Tara the rather erotic It Gets Better For Vampires talk, proclaims, “Now we can hang out! We can be girlfriends!” I don’t think Jessica means that in a queer sense, but with Alan Ball and Angela Robinson writing, why plant those words without following up?

  9. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    Is the extra checking Rutina out, or is she just napping mid scene?

    Also the maker/made vampire dynamic is like a teacher/student sort of thing, if the teacher and student end up having sex (what usually happens) and the teacher’s version of discipline is to hold them against a wall by their throat to teach them not to bite people in public. So I don’t think that this is Tara being enslaved and is more a case of her being given the tools to own the world if ykwim? Pam will only extend her power over her if she acts like a dumbass because she doesn’t want to treat Tara badly overall because she has a duty to Eric (and to herself) to make a good progeny.

  10. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    Im struggling to see the empowerment. Tara was made a vampire despite clear objections. She is completely under Pam’s control – she does not even get to decide whether she wants to live or die. Pam has literally called her a dog, a pet. Where is the empowerment? Pam is simply another master. Why can’t Tara be delivered by Tara, why does she need a white savior? The msg being sent is that Tara can’t do it without a white women – fail or succeed. There is no extended black community, her own mom is written as an enemy even though Tara must have got her heart from somewhere of course it can’t be from her heritage, her culture, her mother. I am supposed to think it awesome that she’s Pam’s pet and essentially owned by this white women. In the latest episode, Tara can’t even deal with racism without permission. She’s gifted a white slave and this is supposed to be her empowerment? Because the fantasy of ever oppressed black woman is to turn the tables right? And of course we can’t even accomplish that without permission from our master who gets to say when & how we get our revenge.

    I’m about done with this show.

  11. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    Does everything have to be about race or women’s issues?  Do you people view every single aspect of every single situation through such a prism as it feels like you do?  If you want something to whine about just think how through the roof you would be if a female was shown and portrayed the way Jason is.  Or, how you would feel if Andy was black and just as dim witted and pathetic.  No, that just would not do, but until we do, we are stuck with the straight white male punching bag (the “AIDS Burger” scene or the people of Hotshot are good examples too of how the race issue has got out of hand).

Contribute to the conversation...

You must be logged in to post a comment.