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They want to do real bad things to you: Class War on True Blood

“Capital is dead labor, which, vampire-like, lives on by sucking living labor and lives the more, the more labor it sucks” – Karl Marx, Capital

The vampire has long been a potent metaphor for cultural anxieties of many kinds.  HBO’s True Blood is a fun, sex-filled take on the urban fantasy genre, combining vampires, werewolves, fairies, witches and various other supernatural .  True Blood’s vampires have been read, with various plausibility, as metaphors for gay rights, the civil rights movement, and even veganism.  But though there is a persistent classed element to vampirism in the series, this has remained largely critically invisible.

The basic conceit of the series is that True Blood, a synthetic product, has made it possible for vampires to live without the need to feed on humans (this is where the vegan metaphor comes in).  Yet no vampire consistently stays away from exploitation and violence–instead, the question is how long they can get away with feeding on humans, how well they can hide the bodies.  Even with consensual feeding relationships with humans, sooner or later, the urge for something fresh.  True Blood is nothing but the fallacy of self-regulation – there is no real possibility of vampires without violence, of “mainstreaming” being anything but a patently ideological ploy designed to facilitate acceptance and further exploitation.  Exploitation is inherent to the vampire/human relationship.  Hunter, prey.  Capital, proletariat.

Vampires are the ruling class, the owners of capital – so much so that they have taken on the stylings of the European aristocracy in the New World.  Most are vastly wealthy, having accumulated immense wealth over the centuries. The old style aristocrat Sophie-Anne, the dissolute Queen of Louisiana, is replaced by the new high-tech business-suited Bill as King.  Russell Edgington combines the old with the new, using his own blood to control werewolves to do his bidding, while his husband Talbot cultivates a refined aesthetic approach to consuming.  Nan Flanagan is shown primarily through the media on screens or in the rareified world of the global class, moving from place to place via plane and limousine.  Even Erik, relatively low on the vampire pecking order, owns his own bar.

A promotional poster for True Blood, featuring Bill (Stephen Moyer) hovering over Sookie (Anna Paquin). Bill has a line of blood running down his mouth, Sookie has two neat punch marks on her neck.

Like any ruling class, the vampires work to control via ideology as much as brute strength, via Flanagan at the American Vampire League.  When Russell Edgington rips out a man’s spine on television and declares “this is the true face of vampires,” it’s hard to disagree.  The difference between he and the other vampires is a matter of intensity and visibility, not of kind–much as the Ponzi scam of Bernie Madoff was simply a less sophisticated version of the normalised scam that is high finance.  The crime among vampires worthy of death is being filmed feeding on a human, not doing it–bad PR is far worse than the action itself.

What is interesting in True Blood, particularly in its first season, is that it shows the struggle of people in rural Louisiana–making the class structure both literal and metaphorical.  Most of our characters are working class, working either in a bar or as road crews.  Indeed, Lafayette works two jobs (at Merlotte’s and on the road gang) to pay for his mother’s medical bills–something certainly not uncommon in Louisiana.  We first see Tara working in a box store, reading a copy of Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine, Jesus at a nursing home. This is our revolutionary class, or it should be.

Sookie is the mediator between the ruling and working classes, the middle class.  She works at Merlotte’s, but has inherited her house, claims human friends but primarily associates with vampires.  Apparently best friends with Tara since childhood, she is basically the worst friend in the world, responds to Tara’s incredible losses with stunning apathy.  Eggs is dead, but hey Bill’s missing too.  Sure, Bill left Tara alone to be raped and imprisoned, but hey..  something.  And sure, Erik tortured Lafayette and then coerced him into working for him but y’know… something.

Sookie’s is the callousness of the bourgeoise writ large–eroticising and sympathising with the glamourous ruling class exploitation of the working class she claims to be friends with.  Where Tara, Lafayette and Jesus are engaged in a class struggle against the vampires who have oppressed and tortured them, Sookie demonstrates her solidarity with the extremely pale violent ruling class at every step of the way (race and class solidarity at once – no vampires of colour last on the show).  Though she has no energy to save her best friend from violence, everything involving her vampire paramours is a crisis requiring immediate action.

We can see a real-life parallel in the way the 2008 stock market crash was considered a crisis that required billions and even trillions of dollars, but the crises produced by capitalism (poverty, the AIDS crisis, climate change, the slashing of public services, education health etc) do not provoke any kind of concerted, collective response.

In contrast to Sookie’s false consciousness, the serial killer Rene’s violence against vampire sympathisers can be seen as a form of horizontal oppression in response to an unfightable capitalist system.  But a Maoist purge of counter-revolutionaries is not helpful, does not fight the true enemy.

Last night’s episode found Tara and the witch Antonia, both raped and tortured by vampires, bringing together a group of humans to attempt to pull all vampires into the sun.  Bringing together disparate people, the more the merrier.  Personally, I hope they succeed, taking all the vampires into the sun in one fell swoop.  But this being episodic television, sadly it is a given that the ruling class will live to feed on humanity another day.

As much as Alan Ball and company have changed the Charlaine Harris penned Sookie Stackhouse mysteries, the basic system of eroticised exploitation remains the same.  It’s telling that vampires are completely eroticised, but Lafayette and Jesus are not, and Tara rarely is.  The question therefore is: why does True Blood stage this?  It is very clearly not in the name of critique–no matter what they do, vampires remain generally sympathetic given the show’s Sookie-centred point of view.

This points to a broader, infrequently noted, problem with popular entertainment–the continual reinforcement of class structures, the way it encourages us towards towards aspirational identification with the rich, the powerful, the glamourous.  We watch the rulers and not the ruled; True Blood is followed on HBO by Entourage and Curb Your Enthusiasm, two shows about the elite of Hollywood.  In a world where the Tea Party protest for the rights of billionaires to receive tax breaks, it’s hard to underestimate the effect of capitalist ideology in convincing working people to identify with the powerful against their own interests.  True Blood is just one tiny little data point in a broader pattern, but it’s a telling one.


  1. Princess R wrote:

    Surprisingly, this is the first thing that’s ever made me want to watch True Blood. Not because I have any desire to see it…but because I am fascinated to see if the class war is really that plain and yet still invisible to all my friends who tell me “OMG THIS IS THE BEST THING EVER.” (I have my own problems with the show’s eroticized Vampire/prey relationships, which is why I haven’t picked up before now.)

    Monday, August 8, 2011 at 3:01 pm | Permalink
  2. Em wrote:

    I haven’t seen many non-rich/aristocratic vampires in any stories, and the ur-example of the modern vampire was based on an actual prince, so yeah. (The vampire in The Night Wanderer: A Native Gothic Tale is a different story, and there vampirization is a metaphor for European violence against Native peoples, but that is a rare exception.)

    I also now can’t help imagining a world where vampires create humanoid robots (complete with synthetic blood) to be both oppressed factory workers and literal food. (Maybe they ate all the original humans after a vampire baby boom, or the humans got zombie-anomie virus or something.)

    Monday, August 8, 2011 at 4:24 pm | Permalink
  3. RVCBard wrote:

    I’m looking forward to a vampire novel, movie, or TV show where most vampires work the overnight shift at Walmart.

    On “True Blood,” I think that Jessica is the only working class vampire in Bon Temps, but even she has connections to Bill Compton.

    Monday, August 8, 2011 at 5:44 pm | Permalink
  4. Ksiusia wrote:

    Interesting–I had noticed the queasy-making racial and gender politics in the show, but not the class ones. I think that was because vampires are depicted as a threatened minority, even though some of them are wealthy.

    But if I remember correctly, Rene didn’t kill vampire sympathizers–he killed young, beautiful, presumably fertile women who had sex with vampires. He did kill Sookie’s grandmother, but only because she caught him sneaking in to try to kill Sookie, and he regretted it. This doesn’t say purge of counter-revolutionaries to me–it says honor killing.

    Monday, August 8, 2011 at 10:05 pm | Permalink
  5. Emmitt wrote:

    In one of the latest episodes, it’s mentioned that vampires have had connections to the most powerful institutions throughout the ages. Like they’ve had people in the Catholic church ages ago and in the modern day, they’ve got vampires running Fox News and Google. Funny stuff, that True Blood.

    Monday, August 8, 2011 at 10:34 pm | Permalink
  6. Raemon wrote:

    The first season of True Blood was clearly trying to make a few deliberate statements. Something I really liked was that the show had several metaphors going on with the vampires (“God Hates Fangs,” “He came out of the coffin” are obvious, and the outspoken hateful prejudice in the south had echoes of racism). But it didn’t use that as an excuse to avoid actual gay or non-white characters, which is a problem I have with a lot of “obvious racial metaphor” stories. They make a big deal about prejudice using imaginary proxies, and then have a cast of white people (or use non-white voice actors to represent the Other. Looking at you Avatar).

    Back in Season One, Tara and Lafayette were still interesting and looked like they might actually be players rather than just side characters to be manipulated. And they both dealt with racism and homophobia. I liked that the all the vampire metaphors were layered on TOP of all the existing problems that the world faces, rather than an excuse to sweep them under the rug.

    Then Season 2 happened, and it took me a while to realize that now, I was just watching a fun, campy show with no depth whatsoever. There’s leftover metaphors you can read into (Vampires are almost always associated with wealth and power and lust, and the working class side characters definitely add a class warfare subtext) but at this point I think all you can do is read into the writers’ own biases rather than any intentional metaphor.

    Tuesday, August 9, 2011 at 12:23 am | Permalink
  7. Amber wrote:

    Excellent piece. But I think the wealth of vampires vs. werepanthers/werewolves/humans has a lot to do with time as well. Putting a couple grand in a bank account for 100 years is nothing for them. Since they can glamour, they are probably stealing money as well.
    Please do not think I am taking up for the vampires, but that’s what many of the vampires in Anne Rice’s canon did.
    If vampires were apart of Catholic church, then they had access to priceless artifacts. But in the end, it’s time to amass that wealth.

    However, I do not think the plot to give all the vampires the true death is justifiable.
    Yes, many people were raped and killed by them.
    But Tara was raped by a white man and yet no one (on the show) is blaming white men. If vampires were replaced by Latino men, would we still feel the same way?
    I hope not.
    As a black woman living in the south, the idea that a certain group is evil, predatory, rapist by nature screams Jim Crow to me and I cannot condone that.
    Everyone that was credited in Antonia’s rape and murder is now dead.

    Tuesday, August 9, 2011 at 12:39 am | Permalink
  8. ellen wrote:

    I agree with much of this article but I think we need to give Tara, Lafayette, and Jesus more credit. We have three people of color breaking out of cycles of violence in their families, digging deeply into their ancestral roots, and empowering themselves with their own magic from within to resist exploitation. There is nothing else like this that I’m aware of happening on television.

    Wednesday, August 10, 2011 at 2:38 am | Permalink
  9. hapa wrote:


    Tara was drugged the second season. Raped the third season. Being hunted this season. Lafayette was a hooker and drug dealer. Chained to the basement and tortured multiple times. Jesus was nearly killed by his grandfather. Vampires are always after them for one reason or another.

    I get the gist of what you’re saying, but they aren’t making out that well.

    Friday, August 12, 2011 at 8:57 pm | Permalink
  10. Hollis wrote:

    Great analogy, though I would add that the depiction of Sam’s family and the people of Hotshot provide yet another layer to the class analysis. It’s an orgy of ‘white trash’ stereotypes.

    Wednesday, August 17, 2011 at 11:12 pm | Permalink
  11. ASG wrote:

    Late to the party as always, but I wanted to register my mad love for this post on the off-chance that anyone’s still listening.

    Emily and Em, you might be interested in the academic work of John and Jean Comaroff if you are not already aware of it. They are anthropologists who did research on zombie scares in South Africa in the 90s, and their readings of moral panic about a (literally, in this case) undead labour market are very explicitly Marxist. I see the aristocratic vampire as the flipside of the zombie factory worker, and I think the project in this post dovetails nicely with some of the stuff they had to say. Feel free to contact me, Emily, if you’d like to talk more about this.

    But at any rate keep posting the popular culture beatdowns; they’re great and I’ve missed them.

    Wednesday, August 31, 2011 at 2:41 pm | Permalink