Vampires, Race, and a Global Pandemic: Standing with Bonnie Bennett

Kat Graham as Bonnie Bennett in TVD. Source: Hypable.com, 2015

If you casually peruse my posts, you might be fooled into thinking I only watch things if a particular genre. That’s not true. But maybe there is a pattern I should think more deeply about. Anyway, that’s not what this is about.

As I am writing this, I am enduring, like many, the realities of racial injustice, racism, violence, white rage, all around me. The world is literally on fire and many of my friends, colleagues, and students are literally under siege. They are — we are — being terrorized by the United States of America. As a Black person in this state, I am concerned for my life every day. This post is like therapy for me.

I need to talk about racial justice. I need to talk about racism. I need to talk about George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, among too many others. I need to talk about the COVID-19 pandemic. I need to talk about how this ridiculous (and in some ways, very inappropriate) escapist teen drama, The Vampire Diaries, has been playing tricks on my mind over the past couple of months, and over the past few weeks, especially.

Like you, I’ve been affected by the coronavirus pandemic. Perhaps, also like you, I’ve spent a lot of quality time with Netflix as a kind of coping mechanism. Since the outbreak in the U.S., I have been fortunate to complete my PhD. I have also been fortunate to not have been physically afflicted by the virus during this time. But most all of my “plans” have been canceled outright or adjusted. The world is in a new place. I’m temporarily unemployed, but that’s to be expected since I’m in the transition phase from one job to another. Most of my money in this season has gone to moving expenses and meal delivery. You probably can understand at least one of those.

One of the shows I’ve binged during this time is the CW’s The Vampire Diaries (TVD), a “steamy” entertaining teen drama that spanned eight seasons in the 2010s. Like most media in the genre (Buffy, True Blood, Twilight, etc), it follows a young white woman who falls helplessly in a love triangle with supernatural creatures of the night — vampires (and sometimes werewolves). Drama ensues. People die and come back to life. Black people get sidelined. Rinse, wash, repeat. In a show founded on supernatural fantastic principles, in a fantasy escapist genre, the only realist aspect of the show is its representation of race, in all its problematic, white-centered ways. TVD is a series that shows viewers how to be white — especially those of us who can never be white — and how to get away with and champion the social disease of whiteness, time and time again. It’s a show that shows us what happens in a fantasy world where whiteness goes uncriticized, unchallenged. It’s a world where whiteness never truly fails and suppresses blackness, black joy and black grief alike, at every step. It’s a black person’s worst nightmare, for both the characters in the show (and probably the actors playing black/brown characters) and the real black people watching.

I’m not the first to point out all the incredible problems with racial representation in TVD — some of which are improved in it’s marginally superior yet still incredibly toxic spin-offs (The Originals and Legacies). Most of such analyses (see below) focus on the repeated sidelining and gaslighting of Bonnie Bennett across the show’s 8 seasons. And Bonnie is absolutely sidelined. Bonnie is a powerful black woman witch who functions (notice my intentional verb choice) as a kind of deus ex machina for the show. She shows up only to save her white friends. And never gets to live a fulfilled life. The show frequently comments on this. Bonnie, in the most recent episode I watched, complains to her college roommate and BFF Caroline Forbes (a blond vampire representation of the liberal suburban white woman), who has been romantically linked to every male character on the show, that she desperately needs a man. Bonnie is the embodiment of the “I have a black friend” black friend. Many of us know her. Many of us have been her. Her first real boyfriend (who cheated on her with a ghost) was murdered in front of her as well as every other love interest she’s had, and often murdered in the service of plot or the other white characters’ survival. She herself died and was cursed to be a kind of ghost in an endless lonely void for an entire season only to watch her friends — who didn’t know she was dead — go on with their lives. That was because she was forced to save Elena’s emotional comfort while sacrificing her one chance to go back to the land of the living.

Bonnie only exists for the pleasure of the white people in her life who claim repeatedly to care about her…but would never put their lives on the line for her. Much like her ancestor, Emily Bennett, whom Katharine Pierce (a major antagonist) paraded around in the 1850s/1860s as her “handmaiden” (yea ok…) only existed to serve white women and vampires, Bonnie is forced to continue that tradition of the Bennett family. No wonder her grandmother, Sheila, felt such disgust at the sight of the benevolent white savior Stefan (the major protagonist) showing up at her doorstep, of course, asking for her help after years of radio silence. What’s ridiculous is how the show itself gaslights the entire Bennett lineage, depicting them as being crazy for not wanting to effortlessly support the whims of the vampire heroes and heroines of the show, and crazy for believing that nothing good would come from associating with centuries-old vampires. Yes, most of the relationships that form the basis of the show are not age-appropriate. Bonnie was always right and the show always made her exit, stage left. She’s used as is a Joker in a game of Spades, only when absolutely needed. Bonnie’s anger, skepticism, and grief were always illegitimate unless those emotions were expressed freely for the loss of white bodies or unless they served the narrative interests of the all-important white grief of the show’s main figurehead, Elena Gilbert. While Elena puts herself in situations time and time again to play the role of “damsel-in-distress”, Bonnie’s distress is never taken seriously and is never her own fault but rather results from pre-existing conflicts stirred up by her white comrades. Perhaps the strongest character in the series, Bonnie is somehow always the weak link. On several occasions, characters try to kill her just to move the plot along. The show persists in conveying the idea, even subliminally, that Bonnie Bennett is a distraction from the main show plot, the love triangle that really matters. Bonnie’s black body must be eliminated (it’s no coincidence that biracial actress Kat Graham doesn’t show up in episodes where her character isn’t needed in some simplistic way). In season 7, a most egregious thing occurs. Her life is magically bound to (the comatic sleeping beauty) Elena’s such that the only way to “wake” Elena is to kill Bonnie… something all of the major white characters — I mean, her friends, contemplate or try to enact at least once.

Another issue is the Confederate nostalgia on the series. It is a problem that the main vampires on the show, the Salvatores, grew up in the 1850s/1860s in Confederate Virginia and that the show employs many romanticized flashbacks to this period. Damon, the major antihero of the series and love interest of the main character, is a Confederate veteran of the Civil War, though he does explicitly critique the South’s war effort (conveniently leaving out the major concern of the South, i.e. slavery). His brother, Stefan — everyone’s favorite vampire superhero boyfriend — is too focused on the burden of being a brooding white savior in the present day to be concerned much with the horrors of enslavement likely happening all around him in his youth. The show’s main setting, the town of “Mystic Falls, VA”, has all these Civil War celebrations of the founding of the city and the families that created it — the Lockwoods, Salvatores, Forbes’, Gilberts, Fells, etc… Apparently the Lockwoods enslaved people, and their current descendant, Tyler, uses the “old slave quarters” in the forest near their still-used plantation home as a den for changing into a werewolf. Sooo… Yea. Just going to leave that there.

Obviously, this show wasn’t thinking about the movement to remove and or destroy all remnants of the “Lost Cause”. Instead, it parades them around with reverence and nostalgia. Even characters like Stefan and Damon themselves are remnants of the Confederacy. They use rings enchanted by the Bennetts to walk in the daylight (but this is dropped later in the show), so they literally use the labor of black women in order to persist into eternity, actively predisposed to killing human, all the while unscathed from the natural effect of the Sun. Standing with Bonnie Bennett means taking them down too. It means taking a side, and not sitting on the fence of loving both the vampires and the Bennetts who have been forced and subdued to empower them from the very beginning. There is no in-between.

Commercial break. Bonnie is not the only black person done wrong in the show. There’s Beau, the mute and seemingly noble vampire who unquestionably loyal to his “friend” or “mother”, w/e, Lilly Salvatore. We only know him through her ventriloquism. He never can speak for himself. Let’s talk about the intersection of blackness and disability! Actor Jaiden Kaine, who plays Beau, is an American actor, who is not mute. However, the character is, but there is absolutely no attempt at ASL or BSL (we don’t know Beau’s origin though his comrades are all English-sounding), only glares and grunts. It’s despicable. Then there’s Abby, Bonnie’s mother, who was turned out of spite by one white vampire to get back at another white vampire. The other members of Bonnie’s family (her father, grandmother, and ancestors). There’s [Jamie?] whom Caroline thinks is “cute” and is kidnapped and turned into a vampire-eating vampire as an experiment by a white science professor. Hello history of medicine! There’s Qetsiyah, a brown woman and ancient witch whose only purpose in the show is to show up in a few episodes as a vindictive ex-girlfriend and then kill herself. There are Luka and his father Jonah Martin, the black male witches who manipulate and physically harm Bonnie in the service of a white male vampire. It’ crazy what your own people will do to you once they feel the proximity of whiteness and power. Pearl and Anna are very old vampires, Asian women, and potentially very interesting and complex characters who never get their due and are never given a history outside of their relationship to white characters like Katherine and Jeremy. Pearl is murdered in a white people conflict. Anna is burned to death by Elena’s father, who is the show’s version of a white supremacist who claims to his brown woman-loving nephew Jeremy that hate runs in the family. Yes. Anti-black racism is intergenerational and inherited. Heritage-not-hate, right? Smh. There’s Connor, the vampire hating hunter, whom the show makes out to be a naturally bigoted mass murderer and terrorist, too narrow-minded to change and accept that all lives matter, I mean that all vampires aren’t bad.

In The Originals spinoff, where everyone’s a semi-complex antihero at some point, the vampire Marcel (about whom I could write a whole post) is a primary character who (surprise!) makes it all the way to the series finale. The self-proclaimed “King of New Orleans” starts off as the antagonist but soon becomes a hero of the show. He’s only an antagonist when he’s threatening the power of the white Original Vampire family when he presents the proposition that power is grabbed not inherited. Marcel works for his place at the top of New Orleans power whereas the Mikaelsons claim to power by birthright. Marcel, a former slave, represents anyone who has had to work twice as hard to get half as much. He is and claims to be something like the people’s champ. Marcel is constantly critiquing and undermining the Mikelson’s idea of power, that is, white property. In the third season, Marcel becomes the world’s most powerful vampire-werewolf hybrid, out for vengeance against the white family of nearly-unkillable original vampires that once “saved” him from enslavement — something they hold over him for nearly two centuries as they repeatedly call him by his slave name, Marcellus. The noble but duplicitous Elijah — who proves to us time and time again that we can’t trust “woke” white men, and Rebecca proves that we can’t trust “woke” white women — tells Marcel in no uncertain terms that he will never truly be “one of them,” a Mikaelson. The idea is that you must be born into white privilege. You can’t buy your way into it. You can’t even be the President and accumulate it. To white people who have not interrogated their whiteness, Marcel’s example shows us that you will always be Black. You will always eat crumbs. You will never “get the girl,” and even if you somehow manage to, your relationship will never be secure. Benevolent white people may still try and kill you. In this show, Marcel is one bad decision away from being lynched in the streets of the French Quarter. Instead, Elijah kills him and throws him off a bridge…

The Originals s3 ep31. Elijah kills Marcel

So when Marcel turns out to be their worst nightmare, it kind of feels like vindication for all the ways that TVD did black people wrong…kind of. And I love it when it says that his egomaniac tendencies, his lust for violence and vengeance, his desire for law and order and hierarchy — he learned it all from them. Yet he is still portrayed as naive and vindictive and everyone he ever loves is violently taken from him. One of his major desires is to finally live out a romantic life with the white original vampire sister, Rebecca. But even his righteous Black rage (coupled with that of Vincent Griffith, the witch, his ex-wife, Eva Sinclair, and the medieval Moorish vampire antagonist Aiya) is portrayed as the result of a simple misunderstanding gone dangerously wrong… But racism is not a misunderstanding. Like Bonnie, Marcel knows this but somehow none of the white characters do. But The Originals allows Marcel to win, to have a complex narrative, to have a life and love that matters much more than TVD ever did for Bonnie.

The final antagonist of The Originals is a young Native woman, Inadu, an all-powerful witch, shown to be the embodiment of evil (because of course she’s angry and evil; she’s an ancient Native witch…smh..come on, people) who has a bone to pick with the white settlers on what becomes Louisiana soil. She offers a counterpoint to the birthright claim that the Mikaelsons lay to the New Orleans land. It is not their property or their power but rather, by the logic of “first,” it is truly Inadu’s. But this fact is subsumed under her more pertinent narrative purpose. Generally, she’s just shown to be a stereotypical angry brown woman/spirit. who can’t really be killed but can only be kept away as an essence by being “stored” inside the bodies of the white original vampires, who then must separate from each other to keep the evil from being released again. (Hmm. I might do another post about whiteness in The Originals, bc I think it’s much more interesting there than in TVD). It shows us that while whiteness is at its most pungent when white identified people are in a group, whiteness still persists when those individuals are separated and isolated from one another. In the end, the evil witch can only be truly killed once the white male vampire antihero sacrifices himself. We’re made to sympathize with the perspective of him rather than with the witch he’s killing inside of him. #SayHerName Inadu, or The Hollow… Because, yea… Like Qetsiyah in TVD, another brown woman ancient witch, they don’t want her to have an actual personality or legitimate goals. Quite literally, “The Hollow” cannot be a whole person. When she’s whole, she poses a real threat to the entire system founded by the white vampires and witches.

And don’t get me started on the body possession. There’s so much in both shows. In The Originals though, it’s most egregious. Esther (the original witch mother), Finn (one of her original vampire sons), and Rebecca (her o.v. daughter, already mentioned above) all magically possess black people’s bodies for extended periods of time. It’s like supernatural blackface, and no one bats an eye for the safety of the black bodies being used as vessels for white advancement.

Moving back to TVD. When vampires in this show don’t want to feel their morality or emotions any longer, they turn off a little switch in their brains (it’s seriously odd) that makes them emotionless blood-sucking beasts. They call it “turning off the switch.” All the white vampires are shown to do it all the time. Many of them do it as a means to an end — because the pain of feeling emotions is naturally heightened as a vampire. And so when Elena’s brother dies, she can’t handle it. When Caroline’s mother dies (and can we talk about the multiple, repeated deaths of mothers in this show?), she can’t handle it. Turning off this so-called switch becomes a convenient way to remind the viewer that vampires aren’t inherently “good”. But it’s also a convenient way to show how unfeeling white people can be. It’s a way to feel or not feel at will. It’s a privileged way to choose to be connected, or not, not just to the self but to the other. When the mostly white vampires on the show want to stop the pain of empathy, they have a little switch to pull. How nice. To center Bonnie Bennett means to center the pain of being Black in a society meant to use your pain for the service of the greater good.

And what about death? During this pandemic, the only thing that is constant is death and the grief surrounding death and loss. TVD is a vampire show so of course people die. But the death of parents (and mothers, especially) is a constant issue. As we are in our own current moment, the most at-risk groups are our parents and grandparents, not our children. But particularly, black and brown people are feeling the effects of loss during this pandemic more than anyone else due to longstanding racist healthcare industry practices. And so black and brown parents are literally dying and we can’t do anything about it. Bonnie grows up with her grandmother, Sheila — because black people are always raised by our grandmothers, right? — who dies trying to save white people and a trio of vampires. Then later, Bonnie’s absentee mother turns up dead (we really only come to know her as an undead vampire). And later still, Bonnie’s absentee father is brutally murdered in public by a Stefan lookalike. And she’s helpless watching it all due to being a kind of ghost at the time. Later, Bonnie becomes the “anchor to the Other Side,” a supernatural purgatory, and feels the excruciating pain of every single supernatural death. She’s literally the conduit for white pain.

Elena and Jeremy Gilbert’s parents die before the show begins. Also, their aunt/caretaker is killed, turned into a vampire, and then kills herself to avoid being sacrificed. Elena’s biological father sacrifices himself to save her. Her father-figure, Alaric, also dies (several times) in a strange set of events but is eventually resurrected after being enchanted as an unkillable vampire, but is then magically remade into a regular human. Her brother dies but is brought back by Bonnie, at her own peril. Oh, and Alaric’s enchantment is triggered by Esther, the matriarch of the Mikaelson family of vampires — who have all sorts of parent issues. Tyler Lockwood is the show’s resident werewolf, and his mother is forcibly drowned while his father dies in a fire after being discovered as being a supernatural being. Caroline’s father is murdered (all these fathers are trash dads btw), and her single mother, Sheriff Forbes, dies from cancer — strangely the most “human” and thus peaceful death of them all. Stefan kills his bigoted father in the 1800s after turning into a vampire. He and Damon both witness their mother (a vampire and abuse survivor) die a second time. Matt (a human) witnesses his addict mother abandon him time and time again. His sister is killed, becomes a vampire, and is killed again. Alaric’s wife is murdered by her own sociopathic brother (their mother is never even mentioned, but they both have “daddy issues”) on their wedding day, leaving their unborn twins motherless (though Caroline is magically, and without consent, impregnated to save them….um, yea). Alaric’s first wife, Isobel, left him to become a vampire. Isobel was also Elena’s absentee biological mother and burned herself in broad daylight right in front of her daughter. There is clearly a lot of family death on the show. It almost seems like death is the only thing consistent and to be expected in the world of the show. And the main characters, children, are left behind to grieve. It’s a cycle of death and grief and barely missed death and resurrection…

It all feels so close to home given the pandemic presently and the realities of racial violence happening all the time. This show is absolutely escapism. But it’s also an interesting vehicle to think about what’s been happening, what could happen, what isn’t happening but should. I think that we — and I mean white people — should develop an ethic and a way of feeling that centers Bonnie Bennett. For when we do, then the least of us in society will be served and not sidelined, violated, killed, gaslit, or ignored.

Source: Vanity Fair/Getty Images

It’s not enough to say that Bonnie’s Life Matters and leave it at a BLM (Black Lives Matter) hashtag. Caroline says it. Elena says it. Stefan says it. Damon says it. Alaric says it. Enzo and Jeremy say it (and might mean it). Matt says it. They all do. But only when their own lives and other white characters aren’t on the line. To truly believe that Bonnie’s life Matters is to value, amplify, celebrate, and validate her pain, her joy, her grief, her happiness, her confusion, her skepticism, her beauty, her desire, her intellect, her needs, her wishes. Stand with Bonnie. Fight for Bonnie. Her life, her whole life, not just the magical parts that are convenient to white interests, matters.

Let us each recognize that when Bonnie Bennett wins, we all win.

Moral of this story. I’m quite happy calling the show a racist teen fantasy, and its newest spinoff, Legacies, its raceblind fantasy grandchild. I think creator and showrunner Julie Plec might need to work on her racist tendencies and her tensions with her parents. I know the show is based on a book. But come on… It’s not all just the book.

And can we ever get a well-budgeted vampire show that attempts to do justice to PoC? No? Ok.

Essential Readings

Here are a few articles and books you can read, most written by Black women, who’ve expressed their shared and legitimate feelings about the series. Take some time to read:

A Tribute to The Vampire Diaries’ Bonnie Bennett, A Fierce Witch Who Never Should Have Been Sidelined” by Keisha Hatchett for TV Guide

A Toast to Marcel Gerard, The Originals’ Unapologetically Black Vampire King” by Keisha Hatchett for The Mary Sue

Writing ‘The Vampire Diaries’ Fanfiction Helped Me Realize That Black, Queer, Fat Girls Like Me Belonged In Fiction, Too” by Kristyn Carter for Bustle

Necessary but Unknown: Black Women as Peripheral Objects in The Vampire Diaries” by Channelle Russell for Emory University’s BLACKSTAR*

Stop killing so many black characters on the Vampire Diaries” by Cherie Briscoe for Change.org (petition reached its goal)

The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to The Hunger Games (NYU Press 2019), Ebony Elizabeth Thomas (chapter 4)

How The Vampire Diaries Wronged Bonnie Bennett” by Kristen Carter for BlackGirlNerds