The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Monday, June 22, 2009

"True Blood" and Resident Evil

I'm on the edge of canceling my HBO. Still enjoy Entourage (a lot) and look forward to the next season. But they got on my last nerve with "Oz" which had about a 40% black cast, and sex damned near every episode, and not once did a black guy get any. Then "Six Feet Under", where the sole black cast member was gay (that would be fine, as long as he wasn't the only one) O.K...

But the vampire series "True Blood" is worrying me. The basic conceit, that the creation of artificial blood has enabled vampires to reveal themselves, if quite interesting, and I want to watch it to see if their world-building is up to snuff. But Alan Ball, the producer, also did "Six Feet Under", so I find the little "black" voice in my head hyper-active.

And I'm not comfortable. The series is set in a fictional South, and the opening credits are filled with racial imagery, including Civil Rights marches, beatings, Klan rallies and so forth. So the film-makers are very aware of the social context. Having vampires fighting for their "Civil Rights" is another appropriation of black (as well as gay: they make this aspect clear) history. Fine--that's valid. But I've seen about 45 minutes covering two episodes (it's onscreen right now) and I've already seen two more black men who are horribly problematic. One is a gay prostitute and drug dealer who so far has been chained half-naked in a basement, very very clear slave imagery. Man-handled by white men, and treated like an animal.

Then there is another black man, a beautiful specimen, who was asked if he had ever been sexual with a friend, a white woman. His reply was no, because she was "far above" him. All right. this week it comes out that he was in prison for drug dealing and armed robbery. I find Alan Ball and HBO to be disturbing. The white people are full-spectrum human beings, the blacks confined to a very narrow range of behavior, all outside either social norms or biological breeding patterns. I'd like to like this show...but wow.


From what I've seen of "True Blood" so far, though, I don't believe their world. These vampires seem to have only come out for a few years. From what we see, they murder, kidnap, and intimidate pretty freely. We see some rallies of anti-vampire protesters (who seem kinda like Christian Abstinance rallies) but no real sense of the absolute terror, intimidation and rage that human beings would actually feel if super-powerful murdering mythic monsters were revealed to walk among us. If they toed the line COMPLETELY, they'd still be blamed for every death or disappearance in the county. Where the hell is law enforcement? The military? Homeland Security? Where the hell is the real, visceral fear? I want to see people actually thinking this stuff through, not just playing with the sexual text and subtext of vampire lore. It's really kind of strange. Has anyone seen this series? If so, can you address my concerns at all?



My comments about "Resident Evil 5" have been partially misunderstood. I was never referring to something specially bad about gamers, Japanese, or white people. My attitude is very very much the opposite: people are people, but there are certain basic human tendencies which, when allowed to remain unconscious, cause massive damage. I was asked to comment on the controversy surrounding the game (and BTW--I can always be reached at: LIFEWRITE@AOL.COM).

I said that it disturbed me a bit that all the monsters were dark, and the heros were light-skinned or white. All that they would have to have done to deflect my criticism was have one of the heros as dark as the enemy. Here are the factors I think lead to this game, or disturbed me about it, or explain why I care about a "mere" video game.

1) The natural human tendency is to make whatever "we" are the good guys, while the "other" is the bad (except for self-loathing individuals, of course.) You would be about 100X more likely to see a game where the blacks were villainous and the whites heroic than vice versa. Such a game just wouldn't sell--and of course, it would never be "because" of the racial imagery. Why, it would suddenly be clear to everyone that the game was hackneyed, or unoriginal, or too violent, or something. In the same way that if a movie has a black man having sex, white people just tend not to like it...but never for that reason, of course. Case in point: Will Smith's "Seven Pounds." White people criticized it. And it won the NAACP Image award for best dramatic film--black people had far less problem with it, obviously. Did black people cut it extra slack? Of course. But if you want to understand the "black tax" in terms of human perception, note the gap in approval for that movie between black and white audiences. Cut it in half. That's the tax: whites tear it down, blacks build it up, and the world keeps spinning.

2) Note the tendency that people have to assume I'm saying there is something specifically "bad" about the Japanese, or white people, or something. No. Just the opposite. I'm saying that there are "emergent behaviors" which in individuals have little impact, but multiplied across millions have huge effects. And when there are huge inequities (say, being outnumbered 10 to 1) have a devastating result. "Resident Evil 5" is completely predictable--the surprise would have been a successful game that had the opposite imagery. And just as predictable is that people would say "it's just a game." Sure. And the fact that there were no black people starring (or for the most part, appearing in) dramatic television during my entire maturation period was just a statistical anomaly. As was black exclusion in the Senate. Or black women having sex in films while black men do not. Now, if this stuff wasn't in the same world as statistics on infant mortality rate, life span, incarceration, education and shattered families, I wouldn't care.

But the human mind has this odd tendency to seek pattern. And the pattern I see is that thi stuff is all connected. And that those who are winning because the judges favor them will go unconscious and pretend its all all right. I have never, ever ever, in thousands of sporting events, seen the beneficiary of bad judging protest that the other team deserved the point. (I'm sure it's happened...I've just never seen it.) Why? Are all those athletes jerks? Not to me--it's that if you are sitting at the poker table winning, you don't ask if the deck is stacked. You just don't.

3) Light skinned women instead of dark skinned? The fact that rappers do this in their videos is EITHER

a) a matter of brain-washing (in America, we're programmed to believe white women are the most beautiful. Rappers would put white women in their videos if they could, but that would cause too much protest, so they get as close as they can.)

b) A matter of a simple truth: mixed-blood people are, on average, considered more attractive than pure ANYTHING.

Now, frankly, I think it's more "a" than "b". Too much other self-destructive stuff in those videos.

3) As I've said many times, Octavia Butler was very afraid for human beings, based upon two tendencies:

a) the tendency to be hierarchical

b) the tendency to place ourselves high on that hierarchy.

She left something out: that those who are hierarchical AND place themselves LOW on that hierarchy are, quite often, brain-washed and broken. I actually use that as one of my measurements of sickness and lack of consciousness (being asleep, dreaming that you are awake)

These include:

1) Being too hierarchical and assuming that this is indicative of some underlying natural order. (In other words, that it is "true" rather than just an interesting way to look at things.) Politics, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation...assuming one or the other side is superior in any of these is, in my mind, a symptom of being asleep and dreaming that you are awake.

2) Being hierarchical and placing yourself low on that hierarchy

3) Grotesque imbalance. This might include someone proud of their intellect and body, but with no ability to form lasting intimate relationships. Or someone intellectual and loving with a body that would greatly inhibit hunting and gathering. Or someone fit and in a long-term relationship who has no intellectual or career skills that provide a satisfying source of income. Any of these things will automatically set my alarm bells off big time.

"Resident Evil 5" is the very picture of a "dream game." Go to sleep and slip into a fantasy of power. You are strong, smart, unkillable. And we'll make the skin color of the lead character your skin color. Yes, sometime the enemies are also the same skin color. But what you will almost never see, ever (can anyone point out a successful game where this is not true?) see a game where the villains are all white and the heroes are all dark. BECAUSE IT WOULD NOT SELL.

There's nothing "wrong" with this. I'm not, nor have I ever, asked anyone to change. But I think that the honest thing would be to say: "I don't give a damn. I want my fantasy. I want to believe that my tribe is at the top because we are better, stronger, sexier, and closer to God. I don't care if this belief, and the things that flow from it, create misery for others."

THAT would be honest, and in truth I have respect for an honest adversary. But make no mistake: those who think that way could never be my respected friends. Never. I would still be at least 1% fairer and more polite to you than you are to me. But the reason I care is that people are never that honest, whether it is about homophobia, sexism, reverse sexism, racism, or whatever.

The truth is that, on average, people don't want to be equal. They want to win. Remember hierarchicalism? If you believe in "this as opposed to that" then you almost HAVE to want your group to win. And people don't criticize the judges as long as the calls are going their way (again, we're talking on average.)

So...if video games, movies, television, politics, economics, death statistics, or anything is to your, or your tribe's advantage...the average person will simply remain asleep and dream that this is the way it's supposed to be. And if you try to even suggest that maybe this isn't natural, that it is a social construct and not truth, they will criticize or even kill you for waking them up from their comfortable nap.

So no, I'm not saying whites or anyone else have more of this tendency. They just have enough power for their tendency to be devastating in its unconscious effect. And I'm not asking people to do anything except be decent human beings.

There are really only two points to bringing these things up (and all these things are from my POV, not some fantasy of "ultimate truth"):

1) I want to indicate the direction of being awake and aware.

2) I want to show people a way of looking "under the mask": watch the media. Television, movies, video, etc. See what people buy. That will show you what they really want, the direction that they will slide if they remain unconscious. Whether the issue that interests you is race, gender, sexual orientation, fat acceptance, or whatever--this is your straw poll. Once you strip the mask off, you can learn anything you want about what people really think, just by watching what the market does. Don't make the mistake of blaming the artists--watch the market.

3) Racially, I hold black people 100% responsible for digging ourselves the rest of the way out of the mess we're in. I have never advocated reparations, affirmative action, or anything of the kind. The door is open, even if people like me are carrying enough scar tissue that I wonder if I can actually get through it. As far as I'm concerned, blacks got that door open by the middle 70's, and it will probably take three generations to maximize the effects of the opportunity that now exists (the last people born under the old system will have to die, otherwise they will pass their attitudes and fears on to their children or grandchildren).

BUT. I will not stand by as those who have benefitted by the system (and if one group got stolen from, do you think that time, energy, social capital, money etc. disappeared into thin air? No! It was invested in the other community.) acting as if those crippled and damaged by the system deserved it, or that that was their natural state.

I don't believe in affirmative action not because it isn't "fair." The situation as it exists isn't "fair" and I wouldn't be increasing the net amount of "fairness" in the entire system to shift some of the pain around. I don't believe in it because I see no way for it to work: too many people are unconscious. Too many people hierarchical. Too many people secret racists who hide behind reasonable conservative rhetoric. We are outnumbered too badly: if 10% of human beings are racist, then there is one white racist for every black person in this country. If every racist decided to be a suicide soldier and take one of the "other" with them, then 10% of whites would be dead...and 100% of blacks. That's not a war I want to get into.

I'm against affirmative action despite the fact that I think it would increase the net amount of fairness in the culture, in the world...because it cannot work (from my perspective) and I won't support a policy that feels doomed.

But I point out the cultural evidence of a ghastly disadvantage blacks have suffered for 400 years, because of this horrible tendency that people have to think: "there is no problem except the problem within THEM." Whites have been saying blacks were "just fine" since before emancipation. I will believe that there are no social pressures that crush the weak and depress the average when 5-10% of the Senate are black, and not before. That indicates power, money, social acceptance and enough other factors that I'll finally start to relax. Before that, bigots want us to go to sleep. Because if we do, they win--that natural, unconscious human tendency, combined with statistical advantage, will finish the job for them.

"Resident Evil 5" is a symptom, not a cause. Go ahead, enjoy it. But be awake as you do. Or if you must remain asleep at the wheel, please don't drive our culture as you do.


Steve Perry said...

When the series True Blood first came on, last year, I tuned in. Aside from the fact that no two characters in the little Louisiana town have either a) a Louisiana accent or b) anywhere close to the same southern voices -- they are Gone With the Wind generic -- it's not up to any of Ball's previous work.

It's all pretty much smoke and mirrors and (or maybe not mirrors, them being vampires and all) and as deep as a postage stamp.

Seems to be an excuse to show nice-looking naked people and vampires doing a lot of humping and the usual vampire-biting and moving-really-fast EFX.

The lone black guy until late in the season was gay, and a drug-using prostitute, albeit he was one of the two more interesting characters to watch because he didn't take any shit from anybody until the vamps got him.

The lone black woman sleeps with the white guy -- the were-dog pub owner -- a few episodes in, and is thoroughly messed up.

The lead is of the Chuck Norris school of acting, and her emotional range seems to run from A to A-minus in this role.

There's no there there. Not even enough to make it a guilty pleasure for me.

Sure helped book sales, though. All eight of Charlaine Harris's novel featuring Sookie Stackhouse were on the bestseller list at once by the end of last season -- seven paperbacks and the newest hardback.

Lobo said...

My girlfriend loves the show. She loves it because it's just her kind of porn. I tolerate it because there's a better than average chance I'll get lucky afterwards. Otherwise, meh. The books aren't any great shakes, either. Read three pages in the local B&N to know it wasn't for me.

As far as Lafayette, the white guy that was chained up in the basement with him got drained and dismembered the week before.

I have an off topic comment, though. I just bought "Dreams With Sharp Teeth" and have watched it more than once. In the credits, Harlan Ellison lists Steven as one of the people he wishes to thank (top of the list, even.) The man is a real character and I was curious how well you know him.

Steven Barnes said...

I know Harlan very well, for almost forty years. I love him dearly--he is beyond eccentric, and one of the most brilliant men I've ever known.
I could care less that the white guy in the basement got killed. If he was the only white guy on the show, that might make a difference. But there are tons of others. The trick is that whites are shown full-spectrum human beings, and 100% of the black males are criminals and social outcasts. The black women screw white guys. Fuck this show. I'm a hair's breadth from canceling HBO.

Hugh said...

I'm kind of sorry I kicked of the Resident Evil debate, but thanks again for the response.

As an engineer, I have little input into the content of the games I work on, so I'm hardly "driving our culture," but I'll send you my thoughts on the subject anyway. (As an employee in the industry, I'm restricted as to what I can comment on publicly.)

Pagan Topologist said...

Steve, I cancelled HBO in 2006. Unless you need to watch it because you are trying to sell them scripts, your reasons seem more than sufficient to do so.

bud said...

My D-I-L is into that sort of stuff (did you know that there is an entire genre' called "Paranormal Romance"?), my wife inheirits the books, and I've read a couple of the True Blood series books - verdict: much less sappy than most "romance"-of-any-sort books - and I don't remember any of these characters or characterizations. Sounds like pure "Hollywood" (as in "let's make...") to me. Gave up HBO years ago. Try Netflix.

Ashe Hunt said...

Don't really have much to add. Wanted to say I really appreciate your point of view and willingness to express it in such a public way. I also agree. One thing I found interesting was this comment:

"So...if video games, movies, television, politics, economics, death statistics, or anything is to your, or your tribe's advantage...the average person will simply remain asleep and dream that this is the way it's supposed to be. And if you try to even suggest that maybe this isn't natural, that it is a social construct and not truth, they will criticize or even kill you for waking them up from their comfortable nap."

I think this statement pretty much sums up why the two Matrix sequels are considered so bad or sub-par to the first one.

Unknown said...

I love your posts. HBO was really bad, so i canceled and choose NetFlix, have not looked back since.