Those Ads

June 10, 2009 § 23 Comments

true blood

This is an advertisement for the second season of True Blood, a television series on HBO.

I have never seen this show, and my thoughts on this poster are difficult to articulate. But they’ve been stewing for weeks, and I know for sure that I am troubled by the combination of the sexual picture and the words “It hurts so good.” A few days ago I saw one of these on a payphone booth, and on the plastic cover was written in black marker: “Stop Domestic Violence. This Ad Is Dangerous.” I am seriously inclined to agree.

My response is complicated by my knowledge that some people achieve certain kinds of pleasure from certain kinds of pain. Some people embody the phrase on this poster. These people might be my friends, partners, teachers, or peers. They might even include my future self. I am conscious that this group, linked by sexual preferences, has a history of being demeaned and fetishized and caricatured by society, and I want no part in that degradation.

But at the same time, this advertisement scares me. Like the glamourization of dead women, this design portrays direct physical violence as something sexy. It tells boys and men that women will automatically lust after violent sexual interactions. The problem is not that women may indeed have such fantasies, and that they will have male partners who will participate – it’s that this ad sanctions sexually violent attitudes on a grand scale. In our consent-confused culture, this subtext could easily translate into an implicit excuse for sexual assault: it was hurting her good. She liked it, even if she didn’t say so.

That thought makes me more than a little nauseous.

§ 23 Responses to Those Ads

  • Le sigh… this is a case of missing the point. The show is about vampires that coexist with humans, right? So why would the poster not be something in this vein (no pun intended)? I don’t think it is implying that love should hurt or any domestic violence undertone for that matter. I think it appeals to the S&M fantasy, no more, no less…

    • mirandanyc says:

      I take your point. But to me and others who haven’t seen the show, this ad — however ironic or nuanced — sends a violent message.

  • S. says:

    As someone who is addicted to True Blood, I agree with Miranda. In the context of the show, I think the ad makes sense. The show doesn’t actually de-humanize or fetishize women who like rough or violent sex, but it does deal with the rougher and seedier side of some peoples’ sex lives. For someone who doesn’t watch the show, however, I can tell exactly what this ad looks like, and it’s not very nice.

    I should also say that the show doesn’t exactly score a 10 on the feminist scale. I take several issues with it. However, it is a great big allegory for the civil rights and gay rights movement, the characters are great, the writing is great, it’s wildly creative, and I’ve never really seen anything like it. And even though I despise violence, I am a firm believer that it has its place in art and imagination.

  • gingerlady says:

    i’ve also watched most of the first season, and as a partial viewer, i can say that ‘it hurts so good’ is a) a really stupid way of characterizing the show and b) it does not describe just the womanly perspective on vampire rough sex- mad male characters in the show are portrayed as really liking rough vampire sex too. i know that that does not come across, and i think that someone should have thought of that when they made the ad. so i guess i would just say that the ad is creepy, but maybe don’t judge the show by it.

  • Rosasharn says:

    “The show doesn’t actually de-humanize or fetishize women who like rough or violent sex”

    Oh, like the two or three women in season one who have rough sex and then get murdered? Yeah…

    • S. says:

      Well, they get murdered by someone who is evil and a bad character. Their murders weren’t justifiable or excused – the audience knows that they were horrible. The man who murdered them saw them as worthless and gross, and he was a bad person for it and doesn’t receive any sympathy from us.

      And Sookie has a relationship with a vampire and she’s a complex, interesting character in her own right, and I don’t think that she’s fetishized or demeaned for her choices at all.

      • mirandanyc says:

        I’m writing as someone who hasn’t seen a single episode, someone who saw the ad and is disturbed by it. As you’re saying, people who watch the show will know that it’s not promoting violence — but the ads, which are much more visible and much more public, intentionally or unintentionally do.

      • S. says:

        Ah, yeah, I was responding to the comment about the show specifically, not the ads. I agree that the ads are way creepy.

  • Sarah says:

    It tells boys and men that women will automatically lust after violent sexual interactions.

    No it doesn’t.

    It’s flippin’ vampires. Fake, not real, made up, imaginary, still not real, vampires.

    It’s fetishizing that in many examples of “vampire fiction”, the bite is erotically charged.

    To say this makes men and boys think women want violent sex is seriously underestimating the intelligence of males, and is pretty damn insulting to them.

    • mirandanyc says:

      I understand your response, Sarah, especially the idea that throwback gender roles are insulting to both men and women. But I do think that ads like these are significant. They help create a social climate where sexual violence is excused.

  • The Cat says:

    That ad makes me incredibly angry because I’m a huge fan of the original Sookie Stackhouse books (that the TrueBlood series is based on – and that I can’t watch, it’s just … not the right adaptation of Sookie at all).

    The ad implies that Sookie becomes a helpless victim of Bill’s advances, both sexual and violent, and that she then enjoys it. This is wrong on so many levels – and also just plain does a huge disservice to her character! Sookie chooses to have a relationship with Bill, knowing the consequences of that relationship. She also chooses to break up with him when she feels that it isn’t emotionally (or physically) healthy for her to continue seeing him.

    Sookie is probably not the paragon of feminist characters, but she is a smart, capable, independent woman who enjoys her sexuality. She is a complex, multi-faceted character and a good human being. That she’s being sold as a helpless victim and that this fact is being sexualized? So NOT the original intent of the Sookie I know from the novels.

    Grrr. Alan Ball can do good work, but sometimes I just shake my head in shame.

  • Anton says:

    Vampires and vampirism DO NOT equate with domestic violence! I hardly think that 2 puncture wounds on the neck qualify as grievous bodily harm , let along physical abuse. S&M is not abuse if both partners are consenting , and vampires certainly CAN be gentle when they bite. ;-)

    • mirandanyc says:

      I’m not arguing with the complexity that may or may not exist within the show — I’ve never seen it. I’m saying this picture and the text make me uncomfortable because they simplify the message into one that essentially condones violence.

  • argh says:

    It seems a little ridiculous to say that “It hurts so good” is promoting domestic violence. Well, I guess it is, if your husband happens to be a vampire. Otherwise, it is a stretch to say that the ad is talking about anything other than the two pricks on the neck, because it isn’t. I’m surprised that you couldn’t infer what the show was about, because although not a viewer myself, it was quite obvious.

    • mirandanyc says:

      I know the ad is about vampires! I know it is advertising a fictional show! But as I’ve said, the implicit message condones violence on a larger scale than just this television program.

  • argh says:

    In what way? It really does not.

    • mirandanyc says:

      I guess we should agree to disagree. I find these ads deeply problematic because of what their visual and copy implicitly condones. Obviously others get different vibes.

  • Anton says:

    Vampirism is NOT the same thing or in any way connected with domestic violence! I just *love* how feminists make mountains out of molehills over trashy ads to which they assign symbolism that was never intended by the creators of such ads. *SIGH*

  • [...] December 28, 2009 · Leave a Comment These stickers from Sticker Sisters. My order of 50 just arrived; I wedged a bunch in my wallet and can’t wait to stick them to sexist subway ads! [...]

  • boknafisk says:

    I know this over a year after the original post and many things have happened in the universe of True Blood, but I still take issue with some of the points opposing the post’s. I think the author criticism of the imagery used in the ad is valid and quite essential, and not only because it’s an ad people are likely to see BEFORE they watch the show and build up the oh-so-essential context for the ad. Brief analysis: He’s on top. She’s on her back and bleeding because of him. Not sexy or cool.

    And you can tell yourself that the fetishization of vampires and and the associations to sex aren’t there, that you have to read them into the show if you want to see them, but the reality is that a LOT of people WILL read those nuances exactly that way. The problem is that the show is a product of a culture where violence towards women isn’t “real violence” because she likes it or is asking for it in other ways that are unknown to me. What’s good is that Sookie gets into a relationship with Bill knowing what he is and what he does, but it doesn’t spare her any nasty surprises later in the show. (I couldn’t help thinking that that’s why nobody should get really serious with someone while still an inexperienced virgin, but that’s another story.)

    This example is perhaps not representative of the entire audience or a majority, but a post made at Fleshbot (NSFW, and NOT SUITABLE FOR MINORS! http://gay.fleshbot.com/5608469/the-moment-weve-been-waiting-for-watch-alexander-skarsgard-hook-up-with-a-dude-on-true-blood) just takes the author’s point further. The vampire is staked in a sexual situation, which is connected with penetration, and dies the true death in a shower of blood and slime. Sexy, orgasmic? The gay porn editor seems to think so. So will a lot of his readers, and not just because he put the association in writing.

    It’s all well and good if commenters like S. and Anton don’t read sexualization of violence into the ad or the biting, but still, in my view it takes a lot of glossing-over, shutting your eyes and ears and humming loudly while anyone who’s watched the show for longer than one episode will know that in the series mythology, vampires’ fangs pop out specifically when they’re threatened or TURNED ON. Most of the biting does take place during sexual encounters, and most of the victims are sexy young women. This has been balanced a little since Jessica came into the picture, but it’s there.

    To me it isn’t about BDSM or vampirism as it is done at home between couples and/or other participants; it is a fantasy among many others about openly sexual behaviour and non-suppressed urges being destructive and life-threatening, especially to and in women. It centres around Sookie’s simultaneous awakening to both her sexual desires and a whole new exciting, violent and dangerous world of the supernaturals. No safecalls.

    Like the author said, the smut practically writes itself, and if you want to pretend that there are no sexual connotations in the vampire bitings or fetishization and sexualization of violence (especially towards women) in the show, you’re fucking kidding yourself. I follow the show with great enthusiasm because it is greatly entertaining, but I do have issues with it. If anything, it’s been an eye-opener to how prevalent equating sex with danger and violence still is in Western pop culture, and how sexually active girls and women still have to pay for it by not being taken seriously: she dated/slept with/married/had kids with him first, so she must have been asking for it.

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