Iconography: Sookie Stackhouse
We've mostly talked about established icons of feminist interest, but now I want to look to a legacy that hasn't quite taken shape yet. Over the course of this week, we're going to talk about the how icons get to be icons, and Sookie, with her world of glitter, wisps of the unknown, and pushing boundaries, is the perfect character with which to start. The protagonist of the Southern Vampire Mysteries throws up a number of questions around the kinds of characters one sees represented, and what one might be looking for in a feminist character.
The Sookie Stackhouse novels, as they are also known, are premised on the idea that the world is full of supernatural beings—shapeshifters, fairies, and so forth—of which only vampires are open to humans about their existence, as of two years before the novels' start. Sookie meets her first vampire, Bill, in the course of her work as a waitress in her small Louisiana town. She's drawn quickly and irrevocably into the supernatural world, enduring frequent fights for her life. The novels aren't exactly heavy; they're a fun read, full of sex and wonder. (That's not a critique: I'm not a fan of hierarchies of culture.)
Charlaine Harris, born in 1951, has been writing mystery novels for over twenty years. One of my favorite things about the novels is that Harris has social justice concerns threaded right through their base. It's refreshing to have queer characters as a norm, and Harris draws parallels between the treatment of her vampires and queer people. Many fantasy novels which try to address race do so by replacing non-white people with supernatural beings. Harris is unusual for having both groups feature in her novel, often overlapping, and not shying away from the snarls of complications that play out there.
I like Sookie a lot. She's a down to earth young woman on the edges of worlds, one she doesn't quite understand yet, and one in which she's shunned. She's not highly educated, and she's not stupid, and she makes this very evident when people sneer at her position as a waitress. She's a Christian, and it's very interesting to me to see how she reflects on that faith in the light of a situation and changing world such as are rapidly throwing around new challenges to her faith. Sookie is quick-thinking and practical, proud and independent.
The thing I like best about Sookie is that I can identify with her as a disabled woman. Disabled main characters are a rarity, and women who aren't bitter or resentful about their disabilities are even less common. Sookie is a telepath who experiences her condition, and the social position into which it thrusts her, as disabling. Her telepathy is important to the plot, and her identity as disabled is handled respectfully. How often do you encounter a plot with supernatural elements and disability that doesn't involve a Magical Cure storyline? This is why it really annoyed me when, in the TV series, True Blood, Sookie says that she used to think of it her telepathy as a sort of disability as though that would be a bad thing. Sookie's a disabled character who isn't framed as pathetic, but as sexy and bright. It's a really nice change.
Sookie is sexual, and not, on her own terms—well, mostly—and she stands up for herself. She tells her by then ex-lover Bill that "Those words are not a magical formula" when he hurts her and then tells her he loves her. However, there are times when Sookie has had to ingest vampire blood in order to use its regenerative properties to survive injury. The effect of this is to give the donating vampire knowledge of her emotions forever, and to induce sexual attraction. This is a stark illustration of the frequent denial of agency to Sookie in the books. A few books in, her goal is simply not to get beaten up for a while, which is just awful. I admire the way Sookie handles herself while she is subject to the whims of more powerful people for so much of the time, and I find that this is the situation in which she has been placed really disturbing.
The Sookie Stackhouse books are fun and thought-provoking by turns. I can't claim to understand precisely why vampire novels have such a grip on the publishing industry right now, but I like these books. I'll be interested to see where Sookie ends up on the feminist stage.
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