Is True Blood’s Lafayette Punished for Being Gay?

17 Feb

By now you all know my love for political discourse and vampire TV, so I decided to tackle a project that I’ve been thinking about for a long while.

I started watching True Blood last year, late after the show’s birth, and I had to get caught up quickly in order to join in on the screening parties several of my friends were having every Sunday. More interesting than the nasty blood and sex scenes, though, were the complicated representations of racial and political discourse in the deep South.

It’s clear that the show’s creators made a conscious decision to create complex characters highly influenced by an intricate social community. The books, which I finished reading last summer, are not quite so nuanced.

Plots in the Sookie Stackhouse novels mainly revolve around everyone trying to kill Sookie and lots of men-folk saving her.* After the third book (I think), the plots consist of Debbie Pelt and her family members coming up with more and more complicated and unlikely plans to kill Sookie, all of which require near constant protection by –you guessed it– men-folk. This gets pretty boring seeing as there are like 13 books, as of right now.**

One thing the books lack is Lafayette,  perhaps the TV show’s most beloved and most discussed character. By season 4, Lafayette has a love interest and super power of his own. In the novels, LaFayette is killed off in book 2, Living Dead in Dallas, in a scene that closely resembles the death of Miss Jeanette in episode 12 of True Blood.

"Lafayette, the cook for one shift at Merlotte's, had been shoved in the backseat. He was naked. It was Lafayette's thin brown foot, its toenails painted a deep crimson, that had kept the door from shutting, and it was Lafayette's corpse that smelled to high heaven." From page 7 of Living Dead in Dallas.

According to Nelsan Ellis, the actor who plays Lafayette, Alan Ball decided to keep the character alive after seeing the pilot episode. Ellis explained in an interview that Ball had the vision for Lafayette’s character, imagining him to be “a myriad of things.”

And Lafayette is a myriad of things, at least the way Ellis plays him. He represents several communities– he’s gay, he’s black, he’s a prostitute, he’s got three jobs and he lives in a back country town in Louisiana. And I absolutely praise Ball and Ellis for creating such a complex and real character.

HOWEVER– I started rewatching the series this week, and I realized that the Lafayette we see in season four is dramatically different from season one’s flamboyant drag queen, and I think there’s something up with that.

In season 1 Lafayette doesn’t take any shit and he is highly protective of his identity as a gay man. There are several incidents when Lafayette plays the activist, fighting for his right to dress and act however he damn well pleases. In one episode, Tara and Arlene walk in on Lafayette in the ladies room. When Arlene implies that he belongs in the men’s room, Lafayette questions her definition of “lady.”

Arlene: “Excuse you, it says Ladies on the door!

Lafayette: “So, what you skank hos doing in here?”

Tara: “Watch ya self Bitch!”

Lafayette: [looking into the mirror] ” I am and I is Gorgeous!”

Although this might not seem political, Lafayette more explicitly defends his lifestyle in earlier scenes. In season 1, Lafayette risks losing his job as a cook at Merlotte’s in order to confront some homophobic “red necks” who refuse to eat his burger because it “has aids.”

His most memorable line sounds distinctly like Tina Fey’s apology for Tracy Morgan’s homophobic remarks— lots of people are gay and always have been, and anyone who won’t accept that fact is living in the past.

Redneck: “Yeah, I’m an American and I got say in who makes my food.”

Lafayette: “Well baby, it’s too late for that. Faggots been breeding your cows, raising your chickens, even brewing your beer alone even before I walked my sexy ass up in this mother fucker. Everything on your god damned table got AIDS.”

Tina Fey: “I hope for his sake that Tracy’s apology will be accepted as sincere by his gay and lesbian coworkers at 30 Rock, without whom Tracy would not have lines to say, clothes to wear, sets to stand on, scene partners to act with, or a printed-out paycheck from accounting to put in his pocket.”

Of course, Lafayette’s speech is more aggressive and confrontational than Fey’s– and less politically correct. However, later in the season Lafayette shows his ability to play nice when he confronts a senator who libels homosexuality on TV.

Lafayette misses work, puts on a suit, and goes to visit the senator at a fundraising event. The senator is distinctly uncomfortable, and is obviously threatened by Lafayette’s homosexual presence in the political arena. Rather than back down, Lafayette displays his power. In front of the everyone he shakes the senator’s hand and warns about hypocrisy, inserting a veiled threat to expose the senator’s homosexuality.

Clearly, in season 1 Lafayette uses his power (both physical and intellectual) to secure respect for his personal lifestyle and for the gay community. But in season 2, there is a distinct shift and Lafayette is punished for his lifestyle, never fully recovering his flamboyant nature or his power.

In season 2 Eric kidnaps Lafayette for selling V, locking him in a dungeon for close to 3 weeks with no explanation. On his release, Lafayette’s character completely changes. In addition to his PTSD, Lafayette loses his desire to live flamboyantly, preferring to lay low in order to avoid notice.

On his return to work, Sam is confused by Lafayette’s meekness. Andy Bellefleur doesn’t believe the “gay cruise” story Lafayette puts out, either. Andy speaks for the viewer when he incredulously remarks on Lafayette’s  lost  “pizzazz.”

We no longer see Lafayette trading sex for money, doing drugs, or selling them. But interestingly, we also don’t see him stand up for himself or his communities again. Sufficiently punished for his lifestyle, Lafayette becomes Tara-like in his response to implied insults– and by that I mean he no longer attempts to convert people. After Egg’s death, Arlene says something racist and Lafayette drags Tara away, telling her to keep her mouth shut.

Later, while selling V for Eric, a group at Hot Shots tells Lafayette they don’t accept “your kind,” whatever that means. Rather than challenging them, Lafayette backs away and it’s up to Eric to rescue him from a severe beating. In the car, Eric advises Lafayette to hide his flamboyancy and to adapt his personality according to different situations.

Something about this situation makes me feel uncomfortable. It’s almost like Lafayette is being punished for embracing his homosexuality and for forcing others to accept it, or at least forcing them to keep their mouths shut.

Now, Hall might have simply been trying to complicate Lafayette’s character in the second season– an admirable act. But it definitely seems like Lafayette’s character is being purposefully toned down as a result of his confrontational approach to bigotry. Sure, Lafayette is still openly gay. But he no longer forces everyone in the community to face and accept homosexuality. He has been effectively subdued.

Ellis talks about the change in Lafayette’s character in an interview and seems to believe that a little humbling might be good for Lafayette.

How will the experience of being locked in a dungeon and almost dying change Lafayette this season?

ELLIS: It certainly humbles him. It shows him there are some situations he just can’t get himself out of no matter how slick he is. He’s going to have to suffer the consequences of what he’s done. And I think he reflects back on his behavior and maybe for a second thinks about changing.

And what has Lafayette done? This might be a reflection on his drug dealing, but considering we learn that he works three jobs to keep his insane mother in an expensive intensive care unit, it doesn’t seem like he’s being punished for unethical capitalism. Moreover, Lafayette continues to sell drugs throughout season 2, so apparently all Lafayette’s humbling has taught him is that if you think you have power– you don’t.

Lafayette’s loss of agency and power is eerie to me, as it seems to reflect a growing trend in TV where gay men are intentionally depicted as wholly nonthreatening. Consider Modern Family, where the only gay characters are completely domestic. Even the two gay men in Glee are a “smug married couple” (excuse my Bridget Jones).***

Kurt and Blaine aren't married, but they sure act smug on their friend date with Mercedes

This follows the castration of female agency on television, where characters like Santana from Glee aren’t allowed to have sex outside of relationships without eventually being forced into a love attachment, no matter how unlikely.

There’s something about female sexuality that TV feels the need to tie down into some form of a respectable relationship, and I see the same thing happening to Lafayette and other gay characters on TV.

Notes:

*Although Sookie needs a lot of saving in the TV show, many of her attackers aren’t out to get her specifically– mostly she’s just in the way by accident or coincidence. In the novels Sookie is pretty much the center of the universe and everyone seems to be gunning for her specifically. I appreciate how Ball creates other central characters and plots, something the books lack entirely.

**I will say that the Sookie Stackhouse novels are interesting, but not for the same reasons as the HBO show. In the novels, Sookie is a more realistic and complex character whose very real concerns about money, privacy, and heritage create a nuanced depiction of a Southern Belle. She’s quite articulate and stands up for herself verbally, but is unable to have real agency due to serious plot holes in the novels.  There’s also a wider gay community in the novels, with less of a focus on Black and Redneck characters. It wouldn’t be a far leap to say that the “coming out of the coffin” allegory has a one-to-one correlation with homosexuality in the books. In the TV show that connection is much more complicated, with blurry lines drawn to race, homosexuality, and capitalism. The novels are also interesting in their concern with Katrina. In fact, there’s so much to say about these novels I think I better save it for another blog post.

***I haven’t watched the most recent Glee episodes, so this might not be true anymore. If you know, I would be happy to be corrected!

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3 Responses to “Is True Blood’s Lafayette Punished for Being Gay?”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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