I am vaguely ashamed to admit that I have been a loyal fan of The Vampire Diaries since it first came out. Nina Dobrev is a Toronto girl, and Ian Somerhalder was lol-erific on Lost (perhaps not the point of the character, but that's what I got out of it!). Not to mention - Bonnie Bennett, resident witch and potential bad ass, is played by a WOC (Kat Graham). But the truly addicting qualities of the show were that it was catered directly and unashamedly to the female gaze, and that it was entirely plot-driven with quick changes and resolutions and increasingly evil villains.
It's exciting to watch, so why would I want to stop?
Race and Racism: History Ignored, Repeated, Re-Written
The Vampire Diaries has serious issues with how they deal with (or rather, don't deal with) complicated race issues. They often ignore history (as characters of different centuries communicate), repeat it while ignoring it - thus pretending like they aren't replicating problematic dynamics and stereotypes, and rewrite their own version of American history that conveniently places white people are "Originals" and pretends that aboriginal and indigenous people did not exist/were not around/have no role in the story.
Wow, here goes.
Mystic Falls is a town in Virginia that holds incredibly frequent "Founder's" day events. These founders are white colonizers who owned slaves - including the Salvatore and Lockwood families. There are no families of colour on the Founder's Council, which, yes, is still noteworthhy because it presumes there has been no interracial relationships in the 150-odd years between when the town was founded and its present state.
It's not entirely clear that the Salvatore family owned slaves, although it seems more than likely due to wealth and status alone. At the very least, they turned a blind eye to it as Katherine had a "handmaiden" in Emily Bennett who was clearly in her servitude without choice or payment. Even more, Damon was a Confederate soldier (!!!). Yet, nowhere in the story do they explore Damon's move from Confederate soldier to modern man.
Never does Bonnie or any other character challenge the Salvatore's role in the racist, slave past. Bonnie never has a problem with any of the Founder's day events, with the Council and how power is structured and maintained along racial lines (in effect if not in intention), or with how her friends seem to romanticize the founding families or the era in which slavery was OK. An annoying hum throughout the series, it becomes most blatant when the audience is supposed to happily (and not critically) think of Elena as Scarlett O'Hara a la Gone With The Wind. (Which, if I am not mistaken, is a book owned by Damon, further emphasizing his relationship with the historic South that is never challenged, abandoned or questioned).
I specifically mention Bonnie not because she is black, but because she has been the most vocal in standing up to the Salvatores - Damon in particular. However, Alaric would be equally appropriate for this role of addressing history, the world that informs that Salvatore's views and their interactions with Bonnie, since he is a) a history teacher, and b) friends with the most offensive vampire.
While ignoring the existence of race (and history), TVD seems to replicate the racial dynamics through the role of witches on the show. To further emphasize this point, the vast majority of witches (and the witches without power, in comparison to, for example The Original Witch) are black.
Bonnie seems to "serve" Elena in the same way Emily "served" Katherine, even without the formal bonds of slavery. Her character's primary motivation is to save and protect Elena although Elena does nothing to deserve her loyalty. Likewise, Abby loses her powers to protect Elena as a favor to her mother (that is, to "serve" the Gilberts).
Witches are also positioned as being in servitude to vampires as a class. Damon and Stefan call on Bonnie throughout the series to help them, and they never offer her anything (rarely even a kind word) in return; instead, they seem to expect her assistance because her role is to protect Elena. Klaus (Greta, Chicago witch), Elijah (Luka and his father), and Katherine (Emily, Lucy) also have witches in their service when we meet them, and at various points throughout the story. Even Pearl, a WOC/tomb-vampire, has the loyalty of a black vampire (Harper) that some have described as being similar to 'servitude' (not that either lives long enough for us to find out).
The most extreme example of what vampires and Elena "expect" from the witches (what they almost believe they are 'entitled' to) comes from our Confederate soldier himself. When it becomes clear that Bonnie is the best weapon against the latest threat (Klaus), Damon does not hesitate to give up Bonnie's life to protect Elena's. As viewers, we are supposed to think "Wow, Damon really loves Elena" or "Wow, Damon really hates Bonnie". But given his relationship with black characters in the past, it really makes me read this more as an example of the kind of servitude Damon expects from Bonnie, particularly in relation to those she has been positioned as "serving" (vampires and Elena); just like Emily was expected to serve Katherine (and by extension the Salvatores by giving them day-walking rings).
Even more, Elena does precious little to stop Bonnie from sacrificing herself. When Damon moves to get rid of the body, she protests by pointing out that it is not some random dead body, but Bonnie. But it doesn't take much before Damon is taking her body away anyway (presumably to dump it somewhere as with Vicki). Even Jenna got a funeral, and she's hardly as core cast as Bonnie...
Even more (!), Bonnie is all too eager to sacrifice herself for Elena. Taken out of the context of so many other characters of color sacrificing themselves in service of a vampire or a doppleganger, this would be a reflection of selflessness on her part. But it is precisely that context that makes it problematic. The alternative would be for Elena to kill herself or turn into a vampire (thereby stopping Klaus' evil plan!). But why should Elena die or become a vampire - if good old Bonnie can die-die instead?
History, Take Two
Revisionist history is not fun. It's particularly not fun for those whose histories and realities are erased in favor of ones more palatable to "dominant" (racist) discourse. It's particularly not fun when it seems like the only reason history was revised was to conveniently create a context where a white person - or white family - could exist where they would probably not be otherwise.
While TVD has hints of revisionist history (i.e. calling Emily Katherine's "handmaiden") to make eras of racist WTF-ery more palatable to modern audiences, they really outdid themselves with the "Original" family.
The Original Family, that is Klaus' family, are from a European (but of course) village that was devastated by the plague. They heard from a witch in America (Ayanna), that they could escape the plague by moving to (shocking) the New World. I assume this New World supposedly had indigenous people somewhere or other, but you wouldn't really know it from the show or clips of the Originals' past.
Now, does this jive with your understanding of American history? Probably not.
"But, this is a story about vampires, werewolves and witches, surely some suspension of belief is allowed," you say.
Fair enough, but can we please examine why this ridiculous Eastern-European story needed to exist in the first place? Because The Original family HAD to be white. They would not cast or write non-white character. The Original family could have been just as old, had the same (or stronger) relationship to America if they were indigenous.
Conversely, they could have had NO relationship to America and been just as old and just as white/European and come over to America after it was "discovered" and being colonized. But, this would be more difficult for the writers to motivate Klaus' decision to stay in and terrorize Mystic Falls.
Which is ridiculous. This isn't a fantasy story in some distant past that could legitimately entertain the introduction of characters of color in unconventional ways. This is distinctly attached to the American history and world that we know (via location and reference to real historical events, like the Civil War).
If you're revising history to make your audience (that you presume is white, non-indigenous, non-POC) more comfortable with whiteness in a time where racism was alive and well (even more than it is today), that is problematic. You are writing real histories and real peoples out of existence; you are positioning your white audience members' need to feel comfortable over audiences of colors' need to just exist in the story world*. If you're creating this story because OMG Joseph Morgan is sooo hotttt and Claire Holt is soo fiinnee we havetohavetohaveto cast them.. then that is also problematic, because now you're saying the existence of POCs is less important than increasing opportunities to act for conventionally attractive white actors who are already overwhelmingly present in the television industry.
I mean, even Stephanie Meyer (note: I can't stand Twilight) acknowledged the existence of indigenous peoples and had primary characters who were indigenous (although this is also problematic for the whole indigenous-people-and-animals mythologies that have pervaded public conscience and become stereotypes, tropes and de-humanizing 'animalistic' representations).
Even without touching on the celebration and nostalgic representation of the antebellum south, TVD seems to be incredibly uncomfortable with acknowledging: a) that POCs and indigenous people exist, and b) the relationship between white people and those communities have not been pleasant/are not things to be nostalgic about, and c) that POC watch (or would watch) your otherwise entertaining show if you didn't keep positing white people and their comfort as more important than everyone else.
*Please note, I am all for diversifying traditional stories to be more reflective of diverse, multiracial and multicultural audiences, particularly in an increasingly globalized society. I am not for pretending that communities of color that have already been historically marginalized for centuries (and are still suffering the effects of that marginalization) do not exist to make white audiences more comfortable or white actors more employable.
Characters of Color
Characters of Color and Stereotypes
Ok, let's talk about the characters of color and stereotypes.
In TVD, the "magical negro" trope is alive and well. While not every witch is black, most are. While not every black person is a witch, most are. It's so bad that if you see a black actor on the show, you can basically guarantee that s/he is a witch. When we saw a black woman singing in the 1920s Chicago scene, you could be certain she was a witch. And guess what? She was.
Luka and his family? Witches. Sheila, Abby, Bonnie, Emily and Lucy - witches. And the witch who brought the Originals to America? Black.
The only non-black witches so far (that everyone likes to point to to be "see! not racist!") are Maddox who worked for Klaus and the Original Witch (Klaus' mommy). Maddox seems to be the only true exception, and his number (one) is so small as to not derail the main point. As for Mamma Klaus, she is a powerful, bad-ass witch of enormous power. Please don't tell me that a witch of that power, who can put a centuries-long curse on Klaus and defeat death (yet still talk to ghosts) is on the same level as the black witches who are relegated to servitude and often die in the name of that service! If anything, the contrast enhances the pattern.
There are a few black characters who are not witches. So few, in fact, I can identify them: Harper, the tomb vampire; Jamie, Bonnie's sort-of-brother/possible-creepy-love-interest; and Caroline's snack after she turned (forgot his name, let's call him CS).
Caroline's snack and Jamie have been on the show so little that I barely have much to analyze. All I can say is that, with both of them, there was some potential flirtation with our only main character of color (Bonnie) that culminated in some form of violence. In CS's case, he was devoured by Caroline. In response, Bonnie tried to set Damon on fire (but he was, of course, saved). In Jamie's case, he was compelled to shoot himself; but Bonnie managed to save him (though Stefan seems angry because this places him in a precarious position as it weakens his hold on Klaus). Essentially, the risk of violent death seems always present. Whether or not Jamie will fall to the same fate as CS is yet to be seen.
Jamie reminds me of Luka: a black male with some potential for Bonnie-flirtation introduced to the cast - except the former lacks the latter's magic abilities. However, even Luka's magic couldn't save him. Both Luka and his father die incredibly violent deaths as they try to save Greta.
Harper's death wasn't too pleasant either: staked by a Gilbert. A soldier (I assume, Union? Though it is not explored - see point 1: ignoring history) who agrees with (blindly follows?) Pearl's respect or affection towards humans, Harper seems like one of the few genuinely good vampires out there. He would have been entombed very shortly after turning on the battle field and would have relatively few kills under his belt. Not to mention, Sterling Sulieman is cute. He seems like such a great foil for Damon! I was so excited to see him (and possibly some banter with Bonnie); but never got the chance. Harper died pretty quickly (like Luka), and so many things were subsequently left unexplored - including the incredibly complicated and volatile relationship he would have with the Salvatores (and possibly all of the Founding families) and his empathy for humans that would position him as an ideal companion or ally for Bonnie.
The death of every black character has been either violent (Harper, CS), in service (Sheila), or both (Luka, his father, Greta). In contrast to white characters who die off screen (Elena's parents), sacrifice themselves for a family member and not a 'master' of sorts (John Gilbert, Jenna), or die peacefully in accord with their morals (Caroline's father), the treatment of black characters seems pretty clear. I'm not saying white characters don't have horrific deaths (this is a vampire show, after all), but that they also have deaths with more meaning, peace or grace than black characters have enjoyed. Or, like Caroline, Katherine, Elena, John, Jeremy, Alaric and the Original Witch - they escape death altogether.
Pearl and Anna
Pearl and Anna seem to be the only non-black characters of color who have more than a passing role on the show. I'm not sure what to make of Pearl and Anna. Because TVD is so good at ignoring historical racial dynamics, it is unclear if Pearl and Anna are meant to be WOC (biracial or otherwise), or if they are meant to "pass as white" in the antebellum South. They are given very little backstory - including any explanation as to why in the world Pearl, who seems to care so much for humans and for her daughter, would be friends with devil-may-care/Emily-owning Katherine. Pearl is also responsible for 'turning' Harper, who has a loyalty to her that is also not completely explained - is it because she turned him when he was dying, or is it because he is somehow 'in service' to her (a carry over from his past). Even more, does Pearl empathize with slaves (and is that why she turned Harper, who died on the battlefield just a few years shy of legal, if not actual, freedom?). If so, why was she friends with Katherine? Did she have a secret friendship with Emily?!
In the modern world, Anna's racial identity is as unexplored as Bonnie's (even less so). As a very old vampire who may have been racialized, her perspective on historical events could be very interesting and worth exploring but.. she is only really interested in her mom and Jeremy, and that's basically all the plot she gets.
I wish we could have delved more into Pearl's mind and world. It had so much potential to be brilliant (as with Harper). But both Anna and Pearl die violent deaths before we really get a chance to explore their motivations and histories (like, how does Pearl know about Mikael? What was her relationship with the Originals?).
On a sidenote, Jeremy, while a weak character who has had his mind wiped twice, has a special place in my heart. Although yeah, he cheated on my girl Bonnie, he is the only character who has been in a relationship with two WOC while knowing everything about their supernatural states.
Where is Bonnie Bennett?
This could easily have fit in the "characters of color" segment but as a main character, I though Bonnie deserved a section of over-critical analysis all her own.
How the character of Bonnie Bennett is treated on the show - both by writers, and by characters in the story world - tells us a lot about the message we are supposed to take away about the value of POCs in real life, and in Mystic Falls.
This may seem like a stretch for some viewers (particularly younger viewers), but bear with me. If you do not, and can not, relate to a traditional "founding family" main character because of their connection to whiteness, colonization and slavery, then Bonnie Bennett necessarily becomes your only access point to the show. Thus, what the show's plot and progress teaches us about Bonnie Bennett and her value in that world, has implications on how viewers (and viewers of color)* can access and relate to the show as well.
*(Need I say, viewers who think about these things in the way that I do, and have trouble distancing their race/relationships with colonization from their conceptions of self).
As the only main character of color, Bonnie is uniquely positioned to have the same quality of dialogue, plots/storylines, and character development that other protagonists (who happen to be white) receive.
It starts out promising enough with Bonnie learning of her powers and going toe-to-toe with resident bad guy Damon. When her grandmother dies trying to open the tomb and even after Damon snacks on her neck, Bonnie is principled, strong and fearless in the face of danger or death. She uses her power to keep the vampires in check, and is a very strong female lead. Particularly in comparison to Elena and Caroline who, at that point, had done little more than worry about boys and ask Bonnie for help, Bonnie had the potential to be awesome.
But that potential was never realized.
Bonnie's character doesn't develop likes others do. Bonnie begins with very clear motivation: she has a strong conscience, and she will not bend on this easily - not even for Elena or Caroline, let alone Damon.
She soon shifts from using her potential powers to control and keep the Salvatores in check and starts using it to serve and protect them. By the third season, she is serving them with little question: Need to kidnap Mason? Got a spell for that. Need to freeze Katherine? Got a spell for that. Need to unseal a coffin? Got a spell for that. Need to kill Klaus/myself? Got a spell for that. It gets to a point where even Klaus is demanding action from her by threatening Elena's life - and it works.
The line of good/evil that she had originally clung to blurs so much for Bonnie with very little motive outside of Elena and her service to Elena. Bonnie's character isn't developing a better sense of the grey areas of life - she is blindly sacrificing everything and focusing her life completely on Elena and her safety. She even considers Elena's feelings and reactions when she is considering dating Jeremy. She goes from being a bad ass witch who will protect the town she loves from vampires; to being the 'weapon' of the Salvatores to protect Elena mindlessly, and forget the rest of the town and her own well-being in doing so. This is the opposite of character growth!
In contrast, Caroline has become increasingly more bad ass. At this point, the only two truly powerful, strong and emotionally rounded female characters are both blonde, white women with conventional good looks - Caroline and Rebekah. Elena, to some extent, has become stronger, but her main motivatons are still: protect her inner circle (at the expense of others, even if it means wiping Jeremy's mind), and love Stefan (even if he is a crazy Ripper who is tearing bodies apart and putting them back together.. but that's another point for another time). Even Damon, and his concepts of love and sacrifice, have changed somewhat - he even seems sad when Andy, his compelled "girlfriend" (let's talk about consent later, ok?) dies. Even Klaus is given a sympathetic back story and rapid character growth as he is challenged and rises to the occassion.
On a similar note, Bonnie's plot points always revolve around her being a witch. She is drawn into the supernatural drama because of her relationship with Emily. She is drawn into all other plot points because they need her magic to succeed. Caroline, Tyler, Matt and Jeremy have all had moments of soul-searching, whether they get to explore characters' motivations and feelings in complex ways. They have all also had relationships and trials and tribulations outside of their statuses as vampire, werewolf, human and human-ghost/witch/vamplover-dopplegangerbrother.
Bonnie is very, very rarely taken out of the context of witch. She rarely has converstions that revolve around something other than magic, and she rarely does anything that isn't in some way connected to magic (or to a spell to help a vampire). In contrast, Damon, Stefan and Caroline all act out of love or loyalty in ways unconnected to their vampire statuses. That is, Caroline kills to protect Tyler's mom as part of her status as vampire, but she doesn't love Tyler or help him transition every month because she is a vampire. She does it because she's Caroline. Bonnie, on the other hand, seems to be totally synonymous with Witch. Even her mother's apology to her for leaving is connected with a magic spell cast in service of vampires (even its relationship to protecting Elena is tenuous, further emphasizing the decay of her moral compass).
In other words, Bonnie seems to have little value or purpose outside of being a witch.
Bonnie is also relatively un-loved. The only exception to this, and to her relegation to the role of servient witch, is her brief relationship with Jeremy. Jeremy is Bonnie's only on-screen relationship (whereas Elena has been linked to Matt, Stefan and possibly Damon; and Caroline has been linkd to Matt, Tyler, Damon and possibly Klaus). Bonnie seems to have a possible flirtation with Luka that is never realized (he dies), and with a one-episode character that Caroline later snacks on. Yet, even with Jeremy - who she has known presumably as long as she has known Elena - Bonnie is 'less loved' than other characters. Jeremy cheats on her with Anna and can't seem to be loyal to her. Bonnie is strong throughout the relationship (even when she is breaking up with him), and seems to find her moral compass again, at least in this regard. However, the fact that she is posited as a character who is not loved for so long seems to suggest that she is also a character who cannot be loved.
Bonnie has had exactly one loving on-screen familiar relationship, compared to Caroline's two (with both of her parents) and Elena's ever expanding family (her deceased parents, Isobel who seems to care about her somewhat, John Gilbert who seems to care about her a lot, Jenna, Jeremy and now Alaric). Matt has his mother and his sister, and Tyler has both of his parents and Mason (although his relationship with his dad is not positive). Even Stefan and Damon have on-screen parent time, and their descendant (who they kill). Bonnie only has Sheila. Her dad is never on screen, and her mother has only recently returned (and has admitted multiple times to abandoning Bonnie).
Of course, all of this must be contrasted with Elena and Caroline. If it was also rare or difficult to love her white counterparts, it might not be a big deal that Bonnie is so alone. Elena is the holy grail of love. Everyone loves Elena and is fighting each other to die for her. Which, I'll be honest, totally baffles me. But in any case, she has been loved ardently by: Matt, Stefan and Damon. Her dopplegangers were also fought over by the Salvatore brothers and by Elijah and Klaus. Her family (extended or not) also loves her, and her friends often risk their lives for her. Although she makes a show of (what the writers want us to believe) being a "martyr", Elena doesn't really ever sacrifice anything for anyone. Caroline is loved by Matt, Tyler and possibly Klaus (Damon doesn't count - seriously dubious consent, but let's talk about that later). She also has two parents who love her and, despite her insecurities, seems to be well-liked by everyone in the community. Caroline is loved even after she snacks on a classmate. Caroline is loved even after her parents (staunchly anti-vampire) find out she is a vampire. There seems to be no limit to how much Caroline or Elena are loved. And yet, it seems like it's impossible for a character who does or may possibly love Bonnie, to continue on the show. They either never love her, stopped loving her, didn't love her "as much", or died.
It is also important to note that Bonnie is not alone by choice. Not all female characters need romantic interests or male counterparts to complete them or to make them valuable/loved. If Bonnie was choosing to be alone, then this would be a non-issue. However, Bonnie never chooses to be alone - she is just never given a real opportunity to love and be loved.
Bonnie Bennett and the Writers' Decisions
Bonnie Bennett's non-existent non-witch story arcs, backwards character "growth", role as vampire/Elena servant, and lack of lovability all ultimately comes down to the writers.
Whenever there have been hints that Bonnie (or witches) will have a more prominent role on the show, it has been within the described restrictions. Bonnie's only role is as a witch figuring out or casting a spell - in relation to the Luka/witches arc, in relation to Klaus' demise, and in relation to openning the coffin. Her "big role" on the show has basically been a tool to move along the plot. Even her relationship with her mother was treated with less intensity or gravity than Caroline's relationship with her father (or mother), or Elena's relationship with her parents, or even Tyler's, Klaus' or Stefan/Damon's relationships with their dads. Abandoned her for 15 years? Whatever, cast this spell with me and all is forgiven! Magic is the only way their relationship is sustained (leave Bonnie, lose magic; teach Bonnie magic, strengthen relationship).
Likewise, whenever fans have clamoured for a specific romantic interest on the show, it has not happened. I'm not saying that fans should be listened to (that would be ridiculous) regarding plot. However, the recent sway of fans on the internetz makes me wonder.. People have wanted Bonnie to have some kind of romantic connection with Damon (because there is some flirtation in the books) and with Tyler. There also seemed to be some possibility of a relationship with Matt - as they were the only two single main characters, both "good" guys, and both with strong senses of what was right. None of these things happened. Now, there is a vocal community of fans who wanted Klaus and Bonnie to get together.
But that's probably not going to happen. Klaus is probably going to start pursuing Caroline. Which is all well and good except... Caroline already had a love-triangle story line, and romantic involvement with two other characters (not including Damon) - romantic involvements that are still alive and well.
I'm not saying that not putting Bonnie with Klaus specifically is problematic. But choosing to devote show-time to another romantic connection, and that connection is yet again unrelated to Bonnie... is problematic. You're basically saying you are OK with introducing new relationships, spending time on new love-story angles; just not with Bonnie.
Any why not with Bonnie? And before you say Kat Graham can't act - I'm not saying the girl is gonna win an Oscar any time soon, but you could at least give her the chance to flex those acting muscles. And let's face it, if you didn't think she could act, you really shouldn't have cast her.
This very, very (absurdly) long post has basically been an exploration of why I should stop watching TVD from a purely historical/racially aware perspective (leaving out any other feminist issues I have, as regards consent and the fetishization of murdering/torturing women). I think I make some pretty compelling points. And yet, I have no idea if I will stop watching or not. I guess I still hold out hope that the lone WOC protagonist who could be allowed a story arc with minimal intrusion on the Elena-focused plot might actually have one, and might actually began to fight back against all of the stereotypes and problems that are detailed above.
But, I am probably being totally naive and will continue to cringe and rage through the rest of the season before I find something more addictive and less problematic to obsess over.
Wish me luck.