A special edition of DBW. I have some other posts in the pipeline but this is first. Occasionally I troll around looking to see how DBW is surviving in the interwebz. This morning, I discovered this: a response to an earlier piece* I wrote about Vampire Diaries and its ambiguous relationship to race (Find that here). Initially taken aback by the really potent response, what started as a really long comment has turned into a blog entry. And, while the points I am making are in response to her blog post, my remarks aren’t just directed at her but at the largest critiques she is participating in. So, I want to thank Unemployed Theatre Major for helping me stay on my toes. Please, let’s discuss more!
Anywho, onto my long ass comment/response:
Dear Unemployed Theatre Major, this is Dear Black Woman. I am so upset I just found this now! I totally would have responded sooner. But let me just respond to a few of the underpinnings of your argument here.
1.) I’m sorry, but how exactly do you want Bonnie to show that she knows she’s black? Like, what does “culturally specific” even mean?
So, cultural specificity is actually a word used in media studies and particularly in critical race theory that essentially describes that practices of particular racialized groups that resonate with others within the same group. I use resonate because it’s more of a feeling than a fact. Careful to note that I’m not using the word “authenticity” because there is no such thing when it comes to identity. We are all bricolages. But, there are traditions and practices and ways of seeing that resonate with groups. Now, this cultural specificity is different from stereotype in that stereoytpes simply seek to reduce, naturalize, and fix differences. In other words, they reduce all racialized groups to a set number of traits (usually phenotypic traits), naturalize those traits so as to seem that they emerged biologically (and of course we know that race is not biological thus there is nothing inherent in Asians, for example, that makes them more proficient at music, there is nothing inherent in BF that make them able to run faster or be more suitable for outdoor work–the logic that supported slavery, etc.),and it fixes difference in that it makes all those traits forever linked to the racialized group (and we know that these things change over time, right?)
So, no, I’m not asking for Bonnie to be a stereotype. But, in a town like Mystic Falls, where there clearly aren’t alot of minorities, it would be nice if Bonnie could acknowledge or could have what we call an “insider” moment (there’s a future DBW blog post around a transgressive reading of the conversations among the black witches in Mystic Falls so stay tuned). But she can’t. And she can’t precisely because of what I was mentioning earlier: she was blindcasted and that allows the writers of the show to sidestep trying to provide cultural differences while giving the “look” (the literal, she’s brown not white look) of difference.
2.)I’m Asian, I know I’m Asian, it’s who I am, but I hardly if ever bring it up in everyday conversation with my friends, and I especially think I’d have better things to do with my time than remind everyone how my outlook on things is so much more different from theirs because of it.
First of all, you’re not just Asian–that description doesn’t exactly tell what you are. Are all Asians the same? No, of course not. You’ve a specific nationality and ethnicity. My point with this is that blindcasting supposes that all people of color are the same– not white and thus can stand in for whatever difference is allowed. But, if you’re Chinese, then you wouldn’t necessarily have the same cultural experiences as if you were Japanese or Southeast Asian. To lump all Asians together and say, “you can play an Asian” but never specify the kind of Asian you’re supposed to play because it’s assumed all Asians like the same things is just WRONG.
Second point: You don’t bring up race everyday with your friends. Fair enough. But there are many of us who do because for many of us it points to how we are being perceived by others and how we react to those perceptions. I’m also not sure if you’re speaking about talking about race with friends who are also Asian or with white friends. I can assure you I understand how uncomfortable it is to have that conversation with the latter. It can make me feel like the person with the problem. Which brings me to Bonnie: how could she even imagine having that conversation? How could she even imagine having a talk with Elena about how her ancestor Katherine OWNED for all intents and purposes her ancestor Emily (this was back in slavery days so we have to assume such)? But rather than try to have that conversation, the show just skips right on over that. They don’t even really use the word “slave” when talking about 1864.
But that’s the problem with race: it’s painful. It’s hard. But, that doesn’t diminish the realities that it EXISTS in real ways. Now, you may not have time to get to it , but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth discussing. I highly recommend you to try.
3. There were crazy vampires on the loose, and [if] I had magical powers, with which I could be doing way more productive things. Making a big deal about how different she is doesn’t seem like it’d be any better.
Honestly, I don’t see how any of these things adversely affect her being culturally specific. I don’t know how being culturally specific would affect her productivity as a witch. I don’t see how her being culturally specific would change the crazy vampires on the loose.
But this statement is the crux of the problem of race in television and in society as general: Making a big deal about how different she is doesn’t seem like it’d be any better. No offense, but that statement is so full of insensitivity. First of all, race is a big deal. People have been lynched, beaten, sold, traded, killed, raped, castrated and maimed over it. That’s just the facts ma’am. The fact is that racialized difference is one of the major functions in our little society and so I don’t care what kind of show it is it could be about hoarders, drug addicts, forensic policemen, or, yes, vampires, it needs to be handled with care and respectfully. Now, am I expecting Bonnie to say, “I’m black, I’m black, I’m black?” No, but that’s not very culturally specific either. That’s way too superficial. But I am expecting Bonnie to be able to resonate as a person of color. And she doesn’t do that. Let me rephrase: she’s not allowed to do that. Moreover, her lineage is all kindsa problematic because instead of making her fit the lineage of a woman of color in the Americas, they linked her with a white group of witches. They weren’t even trying. And that’s why it’s a big damn deal.
4. Other issues with Bonnie that are brought up: she doesn’t have a boyfriend. Well, you know what, if you’re a high school student in a small town plagued by evil vampires and your best friend is dating pretty much the only non-evil one and you’ve just discovered you have magical powers and (spoiler alert!) your super-cool witch mentor grandmother just died on you and you apparently don’t have parents who care about you, and your biggest problem is that you can’t get a boy to notice you? I’d say you’re doing pretty all right for yourself.
This statement evades the point I was making. Let me remind you of my point: I was saying that while Bonnie was a blindcasted role that according to Hollywood logic, should have made it a more equal-opportunity, equitable role, it in fact, allowed the writers to step unintentionally step into old tropes. Tropes, referring to the systems of understanding people according to types, have long followed BF. Tropes that have long followed BW are the tragic mulatto and the Mammy. Bonnie is probably a mixture of both of these types. How? Well, Caroline and Elena both get mad play. They are expected to have love lives. But Bonnie? Somehow Bonnie is just the good friend—completely asexual although she is as you say, gorgeous.
And when she does get male attention? Which up until the last few episodes have all been from white guys (well, there was the black carnival worker who flirted with her and got killed for his trouble)? Well, she’s kidnapped, and damn near killed because neither sincerely liked her. Yes, Bonnie has a lot going for her. But if we are to believe as the show suggests that all the girls are treated equally, then we have to acknowledge that with regard to Bonnie, that maxim is simply not true.
Now, we can just act like that’s what happened within the text and leave race out of it but I would recommend against that. Why? Because like it or not, this storyline is in dialogue with centuries of stories about black life. To leave it out because it’s a television show on the CW about vampires doesn’t actually make sense. The popular is where the contestations of representation occur. Vampire Diaries is the fighting ground.
5. Seriously? I’m sorry, but are you new to the internet? The thing about message boards is that literally every single character has at least a small group of people who hate them and want them dead, and a lot of people online just tend to be bitchier than necessary just because they can.
Okay, so taking the internet snark on the chin, suppose that I was new to the internet. And, I went looking on these things called message boards and blogs to learn more about my “favorite” character on TVD, Bonnie Bennett. And, suppose I found some nice charming things said about her but then I also found a large trend on a number of sites that suggested something else entirely. That the words “hate” and “bitch” and “death” were all circulating around this one character. What kinds of conclusions do you think I’d draw? The fact is that I realize that message boards are these really, nice anonymous spaces we can go and rant on about tv characters we hate. But that still doesn’t mean that those messages a) can’t be examined and b) can’t be examined through a lens of race.
Let’s continue. You say:
It’s not like she’s being singled out for fandom-wide hatred and character death petitions. And since when does disliking a character who is black automatically make you a racist? Her bitchiness has nothing to do with her race. And if you’re one of those people who want her to die because you think she’s boring and/or served her narrative purpose to her full potential, chances are that doesn’t have anything to do with her being black, either.
In fact, I saw a number of places on many blogs I visited where fans were petitioning her death. “When does disliking a character who is black automatically make you a racist?” I think you’ve created a straw man argument here Unemployed Theatre Major. You’ve constructed an argument that responds to the point that I was making just so my point a) sounds utterly ridiculous and preposterous and b) makes it easier for you to poke holes through. I assure you, there are many ways of critiquing my point without making a straw man, lolol. Simply put, yes, people can hate who they like. But, we do have to take into account the fact that at last count, Bonnie was the only MAJOR black female character on the show and so when we attribute her with characteristics that make her characterization “thin” or a “bitch”, we perhaps should examine it more closely. I hated Caroline (and still do sometimes), but I never read a call for Caroline to die—not even when she was at her most mean and insensitive. Is there a double standard here?
6. “Furthermore, if [Bonnie’s] boyfriend were black, they’d call it segregation and ask why black characters are only allowed to date each other, and if the boyfriend were white, they’d take it as a sign that the show believes white males are superior because even the black girls would rather date them.”
Again, another straw argument. However, there is something that can be brought out here especially with what the show is doing currently. So, we’ve discovered that all the witches and warlocks in Vampire Diaries world are black. I wouldn’t say that the show was suggesting (and I use suggest very loosely) segregation, but rather some type of naturalized stereotype about black folks being magical and ALL related to each other. Isn’t that crazy? It’s frakking BONKERS. But, somehow, through casting all these witches as black, that is the implication.
Here’s the killer: if they claim blindcasting, then all the witches and warlocks just HAPPEN to be black—which only magnifies those stereotypes. As to this point: “and if the boyfriend were white, they’d take it as a sign that the show believes white males are superior because even the black girls would rather date them.” Well, right now Bonnie (thank goodness, she’s finally getting some play!) is in a bit of a triangle between Luka and Jeremy. An interesting situation, right? She has to choose between the person who is most like her (both black and has magical ability) but morally ambiguous (complex?) and the person who loves her just as she is (sweet and fine ass Jeremy). You tell me what you see.
7. Last point:
“Maybe this is another hidden reason there are no minorities on television: everything becomes an issue and you just can’t win.”
I think you’ve hit the nail on the head here. This is precisely the logic that Hollywood industry uses as their justification for why minorities in television and film aren’t present. “It’s just too hard!” “We’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t”! “It’s too much work”! “Race is too heavy”! And you know what: all of that is true. Race is a quagmire. But abandoning the effort altogether (or by circumventing the effort through superficial means, aka blindcasting) isn’t the answer. Perhaps hire writers of color? Perhaps hire directors of color (this is something Vampire Diaries is good about and I salute them for)? Perhaps assume that all lived experience is not the same? Perhaps acknowledge that race (and, yes, whiteness too) is more complex than we take credit for. But repressing race, dodging race, only makes race (and racism) emerge in different and unconscious ways.
Are people consciously racist when they say things about Bonnie Bennett? Absolutely not. Or, ot always, no. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t assumptions implicit in the ways that they understand how race works. And not investigating that because race is sticky and touchy? That will only make it worse.