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"True Blood" Storyline Tackles Abortion

This post was originally published at RH Reality Check, a site of news, community and commentary for reproductive health and justice

I’ve maintained since its inception that “True Blood” does its darndest to defy strict allegorical reading. First its vampires were supposed to be gay, demanding the right to marry humans; then they were locked in an Israel-Palestine esque suicide bombing-riden war with fundamentalist Christians, now they’re being obliquely compared to Muslims, as confused citizens equate a“terrorist” loner with an assimilationist mainstream.

Over the course of the series, they’ve stood in for a hundred other groups from Nazis to social outcasts. Plus, these undead characters still maintain the qualities that have made vampires fascinate us from Nosferatau to Edward Cullen--their bites indicate sex, their immortality brings both power and ennui, their status as nightwalkers asks what it means to be human. And so on, and so forth.

In terms of the sexual fantasies these vamps conjure up, the show tries to provide something for everyone. There are topless females at a rate only matched by rear male nudity. We’ve got gay and lesbian sex scenes and same-sex bites. And on top of all that, we’ve seen plenty of vampire-blood fueled dream sequences that pair up the most unimaginable characters for steamy make-out sessions. The show has ratcheted up the violence, the gushing blood and tissue, the severed body parts and exposed bone, to a point where it’s almost too campy to be believable. Creator Alan Ball seems to have figured out how to consistently reel the most disaffected, ready to give-up viewer back in by sprinkling the show with what amounts to a bit of visual candy for every type of television watcher imaginable.

And that is the essence of the show; True Blood is a concoction of playful, provocative and shocking visuals without much underneath them, some of which hit the mark, many of which don’t. Tara, the show’s primary black female character, running away from a vampire mansion in Mississippi pursued by werewolves brought up slavery imagery that didn’t sit well with race-conscious viewers--while teenage vampire Jessica biting her formerly virginal human boyfriend Hoyt resonated because it reversed teenage gender roles and poked fun at chaste films like “Twilight.”  Jessica, a baby vampire struggling to both accept and control her appetites for blood, sex and mayhem is one of “True Blood”’s most consistently-developed and beloved characters, an assertive she-vampire in the midst of too many victimized women. With lovestruck Sookie and hounded Tara, both made into whiners by the writers, the show has lost some of the sassy “you go girl” attitude that makes the books a pseudo-feminist treat.

But one cheeky bit of satire that has worked well this season involves a Wiccan abortion ceremony. Arlene, another whiner, is the only waitress who has ever lasted long at local dive Merlotte’s. She’s meant to be a local Red-State gal, a small-minded, tough, single mother, susceptible to manipulation and suspicious of supernatural creatures. She loves men, but she still hasn’t recovered from the shock that the stable guy she recently found, Rene, turned out to be a psychotic serial killer targeting every vampire-friendly lady within a ten mile radius. Sookie finished him off with a shovel.

And then, this season, once Arelene has finally landed an actually decent guy (Terry, Merlotte’s cook), she realizes she’s carrying Rene’s baby. And she is convinced the deceased papa has passed on his evil ways genetically--she’s got demon spawn inside of her! First Arlene goes into denial, letting Terry think the baby is his; then she tells him the truth and he swears to her that loving parenting will erase the satanic genetic coding of the future infant.

But this reassurance doesn’t satisfy her; she wants to end the pregnancy. She decides to turn for help to Holly, a cheerful Wiccan who’s just begun work at Merlotte’s--”do you want someone to take you to the clinic?” Holly once asked before. “Oh no,” says Arlene, horrified at the very thought. If there’s one thing she finds more unnatural than vampires, we assume, it’s abortion. But she’s desperate, so she agrees to let Holly take her out to the woods, draw a magic circle around her, feed her what we assume is pennyroyal tea mixed with a drop of blood, and offer prayers to the great Mother Goddess to kindly lend her services in order to get rid of Arlene’s little bundle of horror. Arlene shrugs away her skepticism and offers up her earnest prayer to the Goddess, mixed with an exhortation to her own mom [emphasis mine]:

“I never thought of God as a woman, but if you’re with me tonight, maybe you are. And mama, if you can hear me, would you listen?... You gotta know this is the right thing to do. It’s the only way to be sure that Rene will never pass his sickness on to the world. Then Kobe and Lisa [Arlene’s kids] and Terry will be safe and I wont have to live my whole life in fear, and the baby won’t have to be a crazed killer. I don’t believe in abortion, but I’m doing what needs to be done.”

Anyone watching can see Arlene’s desperation, hypocrisy, and self-centered view of the world--this abortion is necessary because my ex was a murderer, but abortion itself still is wrong. Supernatural going-on are against my beliefs, but I’ll take advantage of them if they help me. And yet she’s sympathetic, too. It’s painful to watch Arlene’s relief when she thinks that the ceremony has worked and she’s miscarried, and her eventual terror when the doctor tells her, “you’ve got a strong little critter in there” (cue Rosemary’s Baby theme music).

This being “True Blood,” the season finale will probably offer us many more twists in Arlene’s saga and maybe turn our stomachs with some sort of bloodcurdling birth down the line. But as we await such developments, we can agree that Arlene’s approach towards her own failed abortion was a perfect send-up of American attitudes towards the procedure. Her speech was the kind of thing that clinic workers hear daily from “anti-choice” women who arrive for their own abortions. It explains why many Americans self-identify as anti-choice but are reluctant to fully ditch the right to choose, and abortion remains common despite a hostile climate.

It’s also a nice echo of the tone of Charlaine Harris’s book series, which are a loving parody of small town life and the conflicted psyche of the modern American woman fed on both feminism and sexism (I want to be independent, but he should be a gentleman!), in a way I wish the show would do more often. Since the Wiccans and witches will be a major part of next season, maybe my prayers to the Goddess--er, to Alan Ball--will be answered.


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