The Transcontinental Disability Choir: True Blood: Sookie Stackhouse, Telepathy, and Disability
The Sookie Stackhouse novels, on which the hit series True Blood is based on, are your typical fantasy fluff. Charlaine Harris has imagined a rich and complex world populated with vampires, Weres, shape-shifters, fairies, maenads, and other mythical creatures which live in secret (or not so secret) with humans. Dead Until Dark evidently inspired Alan Ball enough that he decided to bring the world to life on the television, and I anticipated True Blood with a great deal of excitement when the show first started to be talked up.
But the reason I anticipated it is probably a bit different from the reason most people were excited. Vampires are it right now, which of course means that HBO was going to jump on the show and people who just can't get enough of their vampire fix were delighted to have another world to explore.
All well and good.
But the reason I looked forward to True Blood is because the Sookie Stackhouse novels feature a disabled heroine. And, as a person with disabilities, that is something that I do not get to see very often. Despite the fact that we make up an estimated 20% of the population, our representation in film and television is quite small. This means that I rarely get to engage with a character who is like me, with whom I can connect because we share commonalities.
Was I in for a disappointment when I cracked open my DVDs of the first season. My copy of Dead Until Dark identifies Sookie as disabled right on the jacket copy: “It's just that, well, Sookie has this sort of 'disability.' She can read minds.” Putting “disability” in scare quotes in the blurb aside, Sookie explicitly identifies as disabled throughout the books and talks about her telepathy in terms of a disability.
Which it definitely is. Indeed, telepathy is a superpower which is often presented in the framework of disability; whether temporary, as in the Buffy episode “Earshot,” or permanent, in Sookie's case. Hearing the thoughts of others and being unable to turn them off is depicted as traumatic, and while telepathy has benefits, it also comes with costs.
Telepathic characters are sometimes assumed to be suffering from mental illness, for example. They may be institutionalized and subjected to invasive medical procedures. Or they are feared and avoided. Harris strikes a nice balance in the books; she doesn't play into the disability-as-tragedy thing, but she doesn't make Sookie's superpower cost free. She shows us how much Sookie has to work to control it, and how vulnerable it can make her.
In True Blood, though, her telepathy is framed a bit differently. We repeatedly see quotes around the Big Bad D word in discussions of the show, including on the HBO website, or we see qualifications which seem to suggest that we are not supposed to accept Sookie's self-labeling. She may call herself disabled, but viewers are not supposed to read the telepathy that way—instead, they are supposed to see the telepathy as a positive power. As, indeed, a traditional superpower.
This may stem from the idea that disability=bad and superpowers=good, so disability≠superpower. Because how could a superpower be bad?
Neuroatypical people and people with mental illness are often told that their disabilities are not real, or informed that they cannot self label themselves. Like Sookie, they have invisible disabilities which are not readily apparent on first presentation, and because they do not meet with someone's personal definition of disability, they are informed that they are not actually disabled.
It's really disappointing to see HBO marginalizing Sookie's disability status and self identification as disabled, and it's sad to see the idea that neuroatypicality is not a “real” disability subtly reinforced in the framing of her character and discussions about her.
HBO is certainly not required to stay true to every detail of the books. I wouldn't expect it of them. But explicitly self-labeling as disabled is an important part of Sookie's character, and it's an important part of why I read the books. I am not telepathic, but I am not neurotypical, and I experience many of the same hardships Sookie does: feeling awkward in social situations, being shunned and avoided by people because I unnerve them, being marginalized and ignored because people assume I have nothing of value to add.
Sookie may inhabit a totally different world than mine, but I connected with her and with her story because I identified a kindred spirit in her. I'm hoping that the second season True Blood (which I haven't had an opportunity to watch yet) will bring some of that back for me.
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