thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Re-Plotting History: Omission, Race, and “The Vampire Diaries”

In race, teen soaps, The South on December 5, 2013 at 1:54 pm

Aoife Ní Dhochartaigh

THE VAMPIRE DIARIES

It’s no secret that The Vampire Diaries is obsessed with history. I suppose it’s kind of a given on a show about immortality. The past informs the present: the characters constantly react to, reference and repeat history. Mostly, of course, they engage with their own, private histories. Stefan thinks of the people around him in terms of people from his past: Caroline as Lexi, Elena as Not-Katherine, Klaus as Damon (once upon a time.) Damon casts his sexual partners as himself, and himself as Katherine – reliving that particular shitstorm over and over – which has resulted in some pretty horrific abuse over the course of the show.

And one of the great things is that TVD references its own history – the history contained within the show – in really effective ways. They don’t need to tell us that history is cyclical, because they do such a good job of showing us. The dialogue and visuals contain so many parallels that the repeated settings and lines become hugely meaningful, especially to dedicated viewers like me. (To name but a few: Wickery Bridge, Elena’s porch, the whole ‘always’/’right now’ thing.)

Despite this historical obsession—both American history and the show’s own history—the story TVD tells is structured by one clear and egregious absence: slavery. Instead, the hideousness of slavery keeps being suppressed, and keeps manifesting in gross, awful ways: compulsion, sire bonds, the relentless economics of the doppelganger body.

Indeed, like many of its characters Mystic Falls has a violent and destructive relationship to its own (even unspoken) history. Considering the relevance of slavery to the show, explicit references to the area’s history of slavery are few and far between. Well, this is the South, honey, but no-one likes to reminisce about the old slave days. It’s a history that’s deeply repressed, which traditionally – in the Gothic tradition, anyway – results in exactly the kind of horror so common in Mystic Falls.

The issue of slavery is conspicuous by its absence. The slave narrative is negative space in TVD; in the midst of all these interweaving voices, that’s the one we’re not hearing. And it really is a glaring absence; the narrative deals directly with such subject matter as the Confederate Army; a former slave being resurrected from the tomb; Emily Bennet, for God’s sake. This is a very deliberate, pointed omission. It becomes even more pointed when you consider that setting the Salvatores’ origin story in Civil War-era Virginia was a change from the original books, which places them in Italy (as their surname suggests.) It’s not a case of an unfortunate historical association, which they’re trying to avoid; the question of race is one that’s purposely been brought up, and meaningfully (but not completely) suppressed.

Disturbingly, that racial bias even happens on an extra-textual level. TVD is notorious for bringing on characters of colour (largely Bonnie’s extended family) only to kill them off or get rid of them. Bonnie is the only woman of colour who’s been there all along, and she gets increasingly little screen time. A recent development was making her a ghost; they managed to actually kill her off while still keeping her nominally on the show. It’s about as suppressed as you can get without firing Kat Graham. Bonnie, as a character, was then filtered through Jeremy, who is of course lovely, but also – unavoidably – a White Dude. She quite literally had no voice without him, and that’s incredibly disturbing in the context of the antebellum South.

The positive note here is that it’s such a self-conscious suppression. There are enough references to show that the writers are aware of the history; the Gone with the Wind (GWTW) stuff in particular is spot-on, because GWTW has such a similar structure both in terms of the four leads, and the lack of real focus on slavery. GWTW, as a notoriously racist text, actually suffers from a lot of the same problems as TVD; it’s only when we step outside of the text, and consider some of the criticism of it over the years (in terms of the racial bias) that it obviously can’t be brought in as an uncomplicated reference. It is difficult, if not impossible, to think of GWTW without considering its racist implications; ignoring those in TVD is almost more of a statement than addressing them. Having Bonnie tell Caroline that “You channel Scarlett daily,” is cute right up until the point when you think about it, and then it’s gross, in precisely the same way that a lot of the show is.

This grossness – the GWTW of it all – results directly from the negative space of slavery; the ways in which the story is being twisted in order to avoid it. And quite apart from all the oblique ways in which that history keeps manifesting, we’re being shown exactly how that process is happening through Stefan’s story. They say history is written by the victors; well, on TVD, history is mostly written by Stefan. Stefan’s account is biased, like everyone’s, but out of all the stories on the show it’s the one that usually takes precedence. It’s how the whole show is structured, in fact – we started when Elena met Stefan (Stefan’s Year Zero), and went from there. Three seasons later, we found out she’d met Damon first. Stefan is really talented at plotting; twisting the narrative into the shape he wants it to take. Not in a deceitful way; he’s so good, he even fools himself. Stefan as a character is fuelled by massive amounts of denial. It’s how he survives. Just like Mystic Falls, he takes the bad parts of himself, and represses them into the ‘Ripper,’ who is treated like a character quite separate from Stefan.

The great thing is that, as we progress, Stefan’s narrative of repression is becoming increasingly undermined. Season four was wonderful in the way that it took Stefan’s assumptions about the way things were – and, by extension, the viewers’ assumptions – and overturned them. Elena, a character for whom compassion has always been a defining characteristic, was cruel. We saw a softer side to Katherine through her relationship with Elijah. There has been and continues to be a gap between the story as narrated to us by Stefan, and what we’re seeing onscreen. Qetsiyah’s appearance is even more promising, as is her challenging of Silas’ story: explicitly a challenging of the dominant (male) narrative.

If the show’s portrayal of the characters’ stories are symptomatic of its relationship with slavery – and there have always been strong parallels between the two – then hopefully we’ll soon start seeing a more politically challenging narrative on TVD too.

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Aoife Ní Dhochartaigh studies English literature and film studies at Trinity College, Dublin, a degree which has greatly improved her critical analysis of prime-time soap opera. She likes cats, paperclips and structuralist literary theory.

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  1. *spoilers* Aoife, I thought of your post watching the most recent episodes, where there’s also an acknowledgment of historical evils done in the name of medicine and science (evoking Nazis as well as larger white, male, heteronormative hegemony?) but then set design that still hearkened back to the slave era. It was like Mad Men meets slavery meets now. More a comment then a question but I’d be curious if you have follow-up thoughts?

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