There has been a thought bouncing around in my head for a while now and I've never been entirely sure how to approach it. With the opening of X-Men: First Class and the upcoming premiere of the fourth season of True Blood, maybe now is the time to explore it briefly. There won't be any spoilers for First Class since I haven't seen it yet, but I will cover the X-Men as an idea in general, and there might be some spoilers for True Blood, since I have seen that.
Spoiler line just to be safe, la la la.
All right, so Southern-fried vampire soap opera and classic comic book showcasing people with superhuman powers fighting for the good of the very people who hate and fear them. What do they have in common? Well, the X-Men book started back in the 60s when the Civil Rights movement was starting to gear up. Whether or not that was the original intention is a little beside the point since by the time Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum took over in the 70s, that was most definitely the running theme of the book. The vampires in True Blood, as in the book series the show is based on, are also used as allegories for oppressed minorities: in the beginning they have recently "come out of the coffin" and face fear and prejudice from the general population, law enforcement, politicians, and the religious right. Both series mix different obstacles faced by various groups over the course of history, like the Mutant Registration Act from X-Men being analogous to the laws in Nazi Germany requiring the "undesirables" of society to be made identifiable, and the Fellowship of the Sun in True Blood being rather like a combination of the Westboro Baptist Church and the Ku Klux Klan. So to compare the two series on that front seems pretty fair to me.
From True Blood's opening sequence.
Now, as much as I enjoy both of these series and agree with the spirit of the message, here's the part where I run into a little bit of trouble with the actual practice of using fantasy/science fiction analogies for the real-world oppression of human minority groups: the basis of Civil Rights and of basic human rights is that no matter what the racial, ethnic, class, sexual preference, gender or religious background may be, these differences are superficial and pale in comparison to the similarities inherent to simply being human. There is nothing a person from one group can do to anyone that a person from another group, including the majority group, could not also do. Underneath, we're all fundamentally the same.
This is not the case with mutants and vampires. As soon as you introduce the possibility of a teenager being able to blow one of their classmates' face off with lasers from their eyes, we have gone from "propaganda threat" to "that registration act doesn't seem so unreasonable." A black person being pulled over for driving a car with a white woman in it cannot, in fact, magically hypnotize the police officer into handing over his gun during a very tense confrontation.
The perceived threat from real life minorities becomes a very real and potential threat as soon as the supernatural gets involved, which changes the dynamics of the entire situation. This isn't to say that I think these ideas are stupid, but I do think this fundamental flaw in the message needs to be addressed, which also means that the people writing them need to be aware of it. Otherwise you wind up comparing a gay man who has no greater physical or supernatural abilities than a straight man would have to a man who can physically pull the iron from your blood through your skin in order to escape from prison. As well-intentioned as I think X-Men is, I don't think it gets this.
I do, however, think True Blood understands and has very subtly commented on this over the past several seasons. The imagery of a young gay, black man being chained by the neck in the basement of a blond-haired, blue-eyed vampire who at one point literally rips someone in half with his bare hands speaks to this point, as does the image of a young black woman dressed in an old-fashioned nightgown trying to escape from a plantation mansion where she has been sexually assaulted by an Anglo vampire. There are things the show does that make us uncomfortable this way, and there are simply too many of them for me to believe this is a coincidence. As much as I admire this about the show-- along with its recognizing its own inherent cheesiness, its refusal to take itself too seriously, while also managing to dance along the line between funny and horrifying-- this does raise another issue: because of the very strong overt message of vampires as an allegory for oppressed minorities, what will happen as this story progresses and the subtle commentary about the unfairness of this comparison becomes more noticeable? Will it undermine the legitimate arguments from real life activists who demand equal rights by unintentionally validating the fears of the majority? I certainly hope not, and if I'm right and this commentary is deliberate on the writers' part, I have faith in them to handle this with the intelligence and delicate footwork it will require. In the meantime, it seems like a good idea to bring this subject up and mull it over as we watch our entertaining fantasy versions of the state of civil rights and public attitudes toward The Other.