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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Comments

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I haven't read these books,

I haven't read these books, but I have watched the show. The reason I didn't read them is because I read Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake books (also supernatural, feminist, southern, sexual, racial parallels...) and felt this series was kind of a rip off. Although I guess they're both kind of rip offs of Anne Rice. But I do enjoy the show.

Er.

Charlaine Harris, Laurell K. Hamilton, and Anne Rice all have very different world settings, characters, and storylines. They all involve vampires, sure, but a common theme does not make something a "rip-off".

Except for Twilight, which is

Except for Twilight, which is not only a terrible ripoff, but a total bastardization of the vampire lore (and her so-called "werewolves" are not werewolves at all).

yes!!

I often found myself having to defend reading the sookie stackhouse series. People are so critical of any fantasy written by a woman...

I worked in a bookstore and the series sold so quickly (often purchased by other women) and they would sort of apologize or feel embaressed when buying it. I would always loudly say, "these books are awesome!" so that they knew I recognized them as totally legitimate reads. As someone who also studied english in college, I am so sensitive and defensive to the discussion of what is 'real' literature and what is 'bad' or 'fluff.'

I think Sookie's character is badass and I am pleased you mentioned her disability and the difference in how it's potrayed in the show. I do, however, think Anna Paquin has done an amazing job showcasing the awesomness that is Sookie Stackhouse.

So glad you said this!

"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.)"

Thank you, thank you, thank you! I wish more people would realize that just because you don't always read Dickens, doesn't mean you have to apologize!!!

So glad you said this!

I could not agree more.

Sookie Stackhouse

I Love reading all of the Sookie Stackhouse novels by Charlaine Harris!! This is from a woman who HATES to read and yet I have read these books at least 20+ times each! That says something right there in my opinion. If her books can keep me going when no one else has Charlaine has talent. I am obsessed with the books , show, and the comic books! Anything True Blood captures me and is nothing like Twilight.

Love the books, love the show. Love it, love it, love it...

I'm a huge fan of the books and completely agree with the "wonderment and sex" assessment. They are fun and Harris is an engaging storyteller...hers have been the few books that have pulled me out of the rat-tat-tat that is the constant running of my brain and make me truly forget about "real life" for a while. And Sookie is a huuuugggge part of that. She is complex and fierce and fearless - a character I admire and relate to (I also agree with the commenter above...Anna Paquin is killing it). The series, to me, is a ramping up of the id - just full on sex (yum) and extremes (but all the more fascinating because of the parallels to social movements, e.g., gay rights). And also...weird. On the page, the beatings Sookie takes are easier to digest, somehow. On the screen though...phew. Tough. One more thought on Sookie: I love that you bring up the whole she's not educated, but she's smart point. I love seeing her seeking and analyzing and applying knowledge. Just a simple example: book four - her "word of the day" vocabulary features prominently - and it's just...(searching for the right word)...heartwarming? Charming? Inspiring?

Great post!

I <3 Sookie

I adore the Sookie Stackhouse novels! As you pointed out, the author really tries to tie in issues of social justice, and her insights (though for the supernatural world) are comparable to the struggles we have here in reality. I love Sookie's personality, she is a strong character despite her at times, very human frailty. Even when she's submissive or cares for a man, or when her situations leave her powerless, she still asserts her agency in whatever way she can, like many women do. Harris does a great job of avoiding over simplistic characters and instead puts together a poignant array of thoughts, emotions and actions into each of her characters. Nobody in her books can be predictably "boiled down," even the non-human characters seem very real and relatable.

I loved the first series of

I loved the first series of True Blood and then was really disappointed in the second series when Sookie's character seemed to fall into more stereotypical "damsel in distress" roles. I was wondering if the books went the same way or if they would be better. Reading this post has convinced me that I would enjoy the books, even if she does end up just trying to not get beaten up. At least I'm sort of prepared for that now!

I was also intrigued by the parallels between queer people and vampires, made obvious in the TV show by a sign reading "God hates Fangs" in the credits. In that context, I wasn't quite sure what to make of the distinction between the "good" vampires who try to fit in with human society, and the "bad" vampires, whose highly sexualised, hedonistic lifestyle makes no attempt to conform (and also involves brutally killing people), and generally gives all vampires a bad name. I'm loathe to think that was a deliberate attempt to portray non-conforming queer people as evil, but I don't know how else to read it.

Not to spoil you or anything,

Not to spoil you or anything, but Sookie kind of goes between heroine and damsel in distress. Sometimes she saves the day, sometimes she needs a little saving. Personally, I like that. It makes her character more real. She's not Xena: Warrior Princess and she's not the helpless maiden in a castle under siege.

Just because there is a

Just because there is a parallel between queer people and vampires in the novels and books, doesn't mean that everything the vampires do is a metaphor or a parallel for how queer people behave. Yes, there are bad vampires who still kill people for their blood and cause general mayhem and destruction and do give good vampires a bad name. But that doesn't mean that the parallel extends to that. They're not saying that queer people and vampires are the same, or that they behave the same, or that they believe the same things, they are saying that they are treated by society in the same manner. Both ostracized, both struggling for equal rights, and both thought of in the same way by extremists. That's it.

The only parallel that I drew is that vampires are regarded as sub-human in the books and novels, do not have equal rights, and are most often the victims of vandalism, harassment, and other abuses, like how many queer people are treated as well.

It's kind of like how District 9 is a metaphor for Apartheid... only in the way that the aliens were treated by the government, not in the way that the aliens themselves behaved.

Sorry I disagree

I love the urban fantasy genre, but I don't think that Charlaine Harris is a particularly positive example. First let me say that there is a large difference between True Blood the series and the Sookie Stackhouse Southern Vampire series. Many of the gay characters in the books for instance, end up dead because they are gay. I think the death of Lafayette clearly illustrates my point. I also find it problematic that Harris uses the term "coming out of the coffin" to describe vampires revealing to the world their existence. This specifically conflates the experience of LGBT people and coming out with vampires. Honestly, unless someone comes from that community, such a correlation is appropriation at best.

As an author, I hardly find her social justice minded because she depends upon tropes and then everyone fawns and confuses this with being inclusive. When it comes to characters of colour, Harris makes a point of telling us that Blacks and Whites don't interact. This btw is something she does repeatedly in her other series making her books one long Whiteness fest. In the books Tara is decidedly White whereas; in True Blood the series, Tara is Black.

I think that people have a tendency to conflate the books and the series and this is certainly a mistake, because Ball should be given credit for the work that he has done to make the series more inclusive, and far more palatable for marginalized people. I think it is easy to say that Charlaine Harris is attacked because of gender, but the truth is, despite creating a great world, it is filled with faults that have become truly typical of her work. I think upon a greater reading of Harris, one would find that the benefit of the doubt that is often given to her is not really a good idea.

I love the genre and there are far more positive examples of being inclusive than Harris. Patricia Briggs has First Nations characters along with gay characters, that when placed against Harris really show how far Sookie Stackhouse: The Southern Vampire Series must go to begin to claim the label of inclusive. There is also Kim Harrison. I think that if we are going to talk about the series, we really need to be honest about its faults, while enjoying the escapism.

Credit and Harrison

I agree with you that the TV series' creators deserve a lot of credit. In my opinion they have made an amazing show out of mediocre books. That is not to say that I did not enjoy reading them, just that I think the story and world that Harris created deserve better crafting.

I also agree with you regarding Kim Harrison, and recommend The Hollows series for anyone who enjoys the Sookie Stackhouse books for the reasons outlined in the original post. They have superior writing, they are more layered, more detailed, and more fun. And the sex is better too!

All the same.... can't wait for Season 4.

Love this series

I have read all the Sookie
Stack house novels & love them. The author is right, it is an easy read, but what a wonderful escape with some really wonderful characters. I recommend them heartily!!