“Ugh, a Vampire!” How a Pop TV Show Teaches Us about Discrimination
A couple of years ago, I advised on a research project looking at the way language was used for discriminatory purposes in the American TV show True Blood (HBO, 2008-2014). This research became my then student’s thesis and, later, a paper we published together, which you can check out here.
Since this sadly continues to be a current issue, I decided to write this post to share the main findings of said research.
The Show: Universe, Premise, and Themes
The TV show True Blood ran for seven seasons. It takes place in the town of Bon Temps, Louisiana. In this universe, vampires are real and, two years prior to the beginning of the story, the invention of synthetic blood allowed them to “come out of the coffin”, seeing as they no longer needed to survive on human blood.
Vampires are split into two factions: those who wish to integrate into mainstream society and campaign for citizenship and equal rights; and those who believe the inherently violent nature of vampires makes coexistence with humans impossible.
The show explores several contemporary issues: the fight for equal rights, discrimination and violence against minorities, the role of faith and religion, and the control and influence of mass media. The way vampires interact with humans clearly reflects a discriminatory reality: romantic relationships between the species are condemned, vampire culture is attacked…
It’s obvious, then, that vampires are used here allegorically, made to stand in for other oppressed minorities. This is apparent even from the opening credits (an analysis of which can also be found in the original paper). The interest of the showrunners was never subtlety.
What Did We Do?
The first thing we had to do was, of course, watch the entire show. It wasn’t a chore; the show is quite entertaining and we enjoyed it.
As we were watching, we collected 128 lines or utterances said by various characters. They weren’t randomly chosen. We followed three main criteria:
- The utterance had to show an opposition between humans and vampires;
- It had to be said in a confrontational context (for example, an argument), rather than in a cooperative one (for example, a friendly chat); and
- It had to show the character’s subjectivity, especially a positive or negative evaluation of the other.
In analyzing these 128 utterances, we looked at several things. Mainly, we looked at the attitude the character assumed toward the other, which aspect of the other they focused on, what resources (words, grammar, figures of speech) they used to talk about the other, and, on two occasions, how the character strung all that together to build their discourse, what’s known as a discourse strategy.
I’m talking about characters here, but we were of course aware that, behind the characters, there are writers.
What Did We Find?
Our first finding won’t surprise anyone: the vast majority of the utterances show a negative evaluation of the other. Among these, a considerable amount are said by characters in positions of power, and their negative evaluations are stronger, because they’re based on religion (in the case of a religious leader), on human law (in the case of elected officials), and on vampire law (in the case of the Vampire King of Mississippi).
Also, it turns out that, in many of these negative evaluations, the characters are quite certain of what they’re saying. This certainty can be seen in language, in words and phrases like I know that…, I’m convinced that…, No doubt…, and so on. There’s a reason for this: discriminatory evaluations are based on absolute, unquestioned beliefs about the other, which prompt the speaker to show a maximum of certainty when she talks.
These negative evaluations are mainly focused on two aspects or features of the other: their quality (what the other is) and their behavior (what the other does). It will come as no surprise, either, that this feature often alternates with that of the speaker: humans negatively evaluate vampires; vampires negatively evaluate humans. Fun fact about this show: discrimination goes both ways.
Negative evaluations are clustered around two main domains: the ethical, moral domain; and physical-physiological domain. This is to be expected: we’re in a context of discrimination where the main criterion for exclusion of one group is its belonging to a different biological species.
An Example of a Discoure Strategy
Let’s look at the case of a character in a position of power: Truman Burrell, Governor of the state of Louisiana. For this exercise in “anatomy”, we’ll look at his speech during a televised press conference (season 6, episode 1), right after a radical faction of vampires carried out an attack on synthetic blood factories, ending the supply in Louisiana, which made some desperate vampires go back to hunting humans in the streets.
The Governor says:
“I swore an oath to serve and protect the people of this state. People, not vampires. (Crowd cheers) No, no, hold on, hold on, hold on. I’ve nothing against vampires as a species. When they made themselves known to us, this office, my family, the good people of Louisiana, we welcomed them with all the generosity, acceptance, and Southern hospitality this great state’s always been known for. (Crowd cheers) That’s why our vampire population is the largest in the country. And that is also why this Tru Blood [synthetic blood] shortage has hit us so very hard. Since the terrorist attacks on Tru Blood factories last week, 246 human Louisianans lost their lives. When human, tax-paying citizens can no longer walk on these streets at night without fearing for their lives, then we have to take our streets back! As of this moment, I’m instituting a state-wide vampire curfew. All vampires are to remain indoors or underground after sundown. Furthermore, I’m enforcing Executive Order 846 of the Louisiana State Constitution: we are closing down all vampire-run businesses. (Crowd cheers) That’s why I’m saying to all of you that have the financial and legal, legal means to do it, buy a gun. Buy as many as you can. Stock up on wood bullets. This is still America; you have the right to defend yourselves and the people you love!”
Let’s dissect this:
I swore an oath to serve and protect the people of this state. People, not vampires.
The Governor took an oath. So, he has no choice but to fulfill it. Everything he does under the umbrella of said oath, he doesn’t do because he wants to, but because he contracted an obligation. To who? To “the people of this state”. Everyone who lives in this state? No, he quickly clarifies: “people, not vampires”. Vampires are thereby ranked, from the very first few seconds, below humans. They don’t fit the category “people”; they’re missing some criterion (their biological species, we infer) for that oath to apply to them as well.
(Crowd cheers) No, no, hold on, hold on, hold on. I’ve nothing against vampires as a species.
Aw, we were wrong. Turns out it’s not their biological species that bother the Governor. It’s right there in the cliché “I have nothing against Xs…”. So, we’re momentarily left without knowing what the base for excluding vampires is. This creates suspense; the audience is now paying closer attention.
When they made themselves known to us, this office, my family, the good people of Louisiana, we welcomed them with all the generosity, acceptance, and Southern hospitality this great state’s always been known for. (Crowd cheers)
Instead of providing a basis for exclusion, the Governor proceeds to exalt the humans of Louisiana, the generous, accepting, hospitable beneficiaries of his oath. But not like heroes, no. Louisiana humans merely did what is in their nature to do. We start to catch a whiff of an opposition in the making.
That’s why our vampire population is the largest in the country. And that is also why this Tru Blood [synthetic blood] shortage as hit us so very hard.
Two consequences of this Samaritan behavior: one good, one bad. The good one is the fact that they have the largest vampire population, something to be proud of, because it reflects that inclusive nature the Governor was going on about. The bad one: the shortage of synthetic blood has affected them harder than other states. Who? Who is that “us”? You guessed it: humans. Humans are the victims of the shortage, but not just any victims: they were too welcoming, too generous, and this is the result.
Since the terrorist attacks on Tru Blood factories last week, 246 human Louisianans lost their lives.
And there’s the big word: vampires are terrorists. This is an official, institutional category, and it of course reflects an ideological decision, considering the speaker’s position and the group he belongs too. These “terrorist attacks” resulted in the loss of 246 human lives. Once again, humans are the victims of the synthetic blood shortage, and the losses are personal ones: we lost 246 of our own.
When human, tax-paying citizens can no longer walk on these streets at night without fearing for their lives, then we have to take our streets back!
The situation is intolerable. We cannot stand idly by while our own, who do everything right (“human, tax-paying citizens”), are in danger. We start to finally catch a glimpse of the basis for excluding vampires: it’s not their quality (their species), but their behavior.
The way this is phrased reminds us, furthermore, of the beginning of the U.S. Declaration of Independence: “When in the course of human events…” This contributes to the solemn character of the speech and adds to its effect on the audience.
As of this moment, I’m instituting a state-wide vampire curfew. All vampires are to remain indoors or underground after sundown. Furthermore, I’m enforcing Executive Order 846 of the Louisiana State Constitution: we are closing down all vampire-run businesses. (Crowd cheers)
This fragment is much simpler. It’s the logical climax of the speech; the emotional climax will come later. It shows us the measures the Governor will take, in the exercise of his authority.
That’s why I’m saying to all of you that have the financial and legal, legal means to do it, buy a gun. Buy as many as you can. Stock up on wood bullets.
This is, plainly put, a call to arms. Phrased as pieces of advice, of course, not as commands, and insisting on legality. This call to arms, combined with the curfew and the branding of vampires as “terrorists”, creates a state of exception: humans are at war with vampires.
This is still America; you have the right to defend yourselves and the people you love!
The ending gives us more details about this war. Humans are the ones under attack, and guns and bullets are defensive in purpose. This softens the call to arms a bit, but doesn’t cancel it.
This is, finally, the emotional climax of the Governor’s speech, an appeal to positive emotions (patriotism, love) that, as a rule, has a much stronger effect on the audience than logical arguments do, especially when left for the very end.
These positive emotions legitimize any negative feelings they might have against vampires, as well as any negative actions they might take against them: it’s not bad if it’s for a good reason.
The phrase “This is still America” is meant to reassure the audience: They haven’t changed us; we are still Us. It’s worth noting that “America” is defined here as “having the right to”. This right “to defend yourselves and the people you love” also works to legally legitimize human action against vampires: it’s not bad if the law says I can do it; that’s what makes us “Americans”, and that’s a good thing.
What we see throughout this speech, then, is how, from a position of power and making use of persuasion strategies, discrimination is legitimized and violence against the oppressed group is encouraged. This is achieved by appealing to emotions and by negatively evaluating the oppressed group, and positively evaluating the oppressing group and any violent actions they might take against the other.
How do fiction writers come up with this crap, right?
In total, we managed to identify 13 discursive patterns of discrimination, 13 linguistic “moves” to promote or reinforce discriminatory attitudes.
- Establishing an opposition between Us and Them (or You), a move typical of political and, more broadly, ideological discourse.
- Referring to the oppressed group by focusing on a differentiating trait. In the show, vampires are referred to as fangs, and humans who habitually have sex with them are referred to as fang-bangers.
- Negative physical-physiological evaluations, often accompanied by rankings where the oppressed group always comes out at the bottom.
- Appealing to institutional authority, which can stem from religious, political, or judicial power.
- Specifically, making use of one’s authority to present negative discriminatory opinions as fact or respectable truths.
- Conversely, refraining from making explicit use of one’s authority to present what one says not as an official position with serious consequences, but merely as a personal opinion.
- Overtly showing absolute certainty when making discriminatory utterances.
- Insisting on the class the other belongs to (for instance, human or vampire) when it’s different from the speaker’s.
- Negating that a negative evaluation is focused on quality (what the other is) and presenting it instead as focused on behavior (“I don’t mind that he’s a vampire, but I don’t want him walking around in my neighborhood”), quantity (“I don’t mind that they’re vampires, but there’s just so many of them”), or on other features.
- Excluding the other from a category or including them in a stereotype.
- Specifically, including the other in negative categories of an official, institutional character, such as “terrorists”.
- Presented the oppressed group as “aggressors” and the oppressing groups as “victims”.
- Using positive emotions (such as patriotism or love for family) to legitimize discrimination.
As you can see, these discursive patterns of discrimination are general enough to be applied to any type of discourse, be it fictional or factual.