image: wikimedia.org

Strong Female Characters: Sookie Stackhouse

For those of you that don’t know, Sookie is the main character of Charlaine Harris’s The Southern Vampire Mysteries – or as it’s more widely known thanks to the HBO adaptation, True Blood. Set in a world where vampires have “come out of the coffin”, the plot follows Sookie, a telepathic half-fairy waitress who gets into a series of supernatural scrapes with a selection of hot, shirtless men. Unsurprisingly the show was a hit – largely thanks to the post-Twilight vampire boom, catapulting Harris’s novels – and Sookie’s – into the spotlight.

But does she measure up to the hype? Let’s find out – but watch out for spoilers!

 

  1. Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?

Sookie isn’t really in control of her own destiny. What tends to happen is that this season’s villain will kick-start their plot, Sookie will investigate, and get drawn into the plot whether she likes it or not. It’s a pretty standard interpretation of my Universal Monster Law – all the weird vampires/shapeshifters/werepanthers (no, I’m not kidding) are the ones that are calling the shots.

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Seriously. (image: tumblr.com)

This is confusing because from the beginning of the series, Sookie is set up as a strong female lead – she runs off to investigate things, gets herself into trouble, and yells at people who try and tell her what to do. But if you look at Sookie’s decisions it becomes clear that she’s not as independent as she’s set up to be. The various supernatural goings-on usually end up presenting her with a range of options, from which she has to pick. She never really considers making a choice that isn’t on that list, or acting before someone or something else has a chance to force her hand.

I will say that within this range, Sookie can have a certain amount of control over her own life – the choices she makes do have an impact on her life, with consequences that can stretch out over her ‘destiny’ as a larger whole. But it’s constrained to the options that someone else has given her, so she never really acts without something else hemming her in. I’ll give her half a point, but I can’t help but feel I’m being a bit too generous.

SCORE SO FAR: 0.5

 

  1. Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?

We don’t hear a lot about Sookie’s hobbies, but we know that she enjoys sunbathing. Her beliefs are much more well-founded: she has a vague and non-specific belief in God, she believes in being kind and accepting to outcasts, and she firmly believes that she can take care of herself, even when going up against centuries-old bloodthirsty vampires who want to eat her.

Unusually, it’s her goals that aren’t so well-defined. When the series begins, Sookie doesn’t really want anything from her life – not a better job, not a new boyfriend, not even to leave Bon Temps, the small Southern town she grew up in. It’s only when she starts meeting her sexy supernatural boyfriends that she starts wanting things – and it’s usually related to a) who she’s dating or b) what undead menace is harassing them all this week. Her goals are very circumstantial, and as such she forgets about them pretty quickly. I’ll give her half a point.

SCORE SO FAR: 1

 

  1. Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?

Sookie is consistently shown to be kind, accepting, brave and loyal – as well as more than a little impulsive. She remains this way throughout the series, but her skills are another matter. Sookie is part-fairy, which in the True Blood universe means that she is telepathic, is really attractive, smells great to vampires and has the power to shoot light out of her hands.

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…all right then. (image: tumblr.com)

Sookie’s powers are a little bit patchy. Her telepathy is well-established – she can’t switch it off, and this has a real impact on her life. She has to concentrate all the time if she wants to block out other people’s thoughts, and finds it difficult to form relationships with people when she can hear what they’re really thinking. Shooting light from her hands is another matter: it often only turns up when it’s convenient to the plot, rarely fails her even though it’s supposed to be difficult to master, and it also comes with convenient extras, like the ability to break spells. Sookie’s powers tend to be used as a way of solving a dilemma in the plot, so once again she’s only getting half a point.

SCORE SO FAR: 1.5

 

  1. Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?

A kind, tolerant young waitress must survive in a world of the supernatural using her secret fairy powers.

SCORE SO FAR: 2.5

 

  1. Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?

A lot of Sookie’s decisions are influenced by her love life. As she doesn’t really have a clear, overarching goal that motivates her through the series, the people she’s dating do end up providing her with a lot of her motivation.

true-blood_men
Presented here without comment. (image: themortonreport.com)

In fact, most of the time she’s dealing with a supernatural entity that wants to rip her head off, it’s either a) someone who her current boyfriend has to deal with, and she’s insisting on helping him or b) one of her ex-boyfriends who’s still holding a torch for her. She does have other motivations – usually protecting her friends and family – but there’s no denying that her love life is what propels her through the plot. I’m withholding the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 2.5

 

  1. Does she develop over the course of the story?

Sookie doesn’t really develop much over the course of the story. When True Blood ends, she’s much the same character as she was when it began. Part of this is due to her lack of something she wants to achieve – she has no impetus to go out and change things, so she’s less likely to change herself. When you consider all that she goes through in the series – which includes the violent deaths of several friends and family members, people trying to kill her and the discovery that she’s not even fully human – this is all pretty unrealistic.

SCORE SO FAR: 2.5

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

Sookie’s biggest weakness is that she can be very impulsive, particularly when she’s angry, and this often gets her into trouble. She’ll decide to investigate something or snap at a supernatural creature without thinking of the consequences – and usually these involve Sookie getting beaten up.

I will say that she doesn’t really get much of an opportunity to learn from her mistakes. When her impulsiveness gets her into trouble, there’s usually a hot shirtless supernatural creature around to stop things from getting too bad. Other people always step in to save her, so she never really has to deal with the full consequences of her own actions. I don’t think that’s enough to stop her from passing this round – she does have a flaw, and it does affect her – but I think it’s worth noting.

SCORE SO FAR: 3.5

 

  1. Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?

Sookie is another one of those characters who influences the plot just by being in it. Her part-fairy heritage means she’s naturally attractive to vampires, so theoretically the plot could bob along nicely if she did nothing more than stand in front of a wind machine.

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But when has that ever been used as a plot device? (image: blogspot.com)

She does make decisions, and they do have an impact, but unfortunately a huge part of True Blood’s plot is also made up of Sookie needing to be rescued from various kinds of peril. She’s one of those characters that insists she can take care of herself, and then promptly gets captured at least once every season and has to wait for someone to come and rescue her. When you add that to her lack of real control over her own destiny, it doesn’t look good for her.

SCORE SO FAR: 3.5

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

Sookie is a bit of a mixed bag when it comes to gender stereotypes. Sometimes, she can be quite subversive. She’s an attractive blonde waitress who everyone assumes is stupid, but it’s revealed that Sookie plays this up deliberately in order to deal with hiding her telepathy. She’s a sexually active woman who doesn’t restrict her sex life to committed relationships, and she’s never condemned for this. She’s a relatively ordinary woman in a supernatural world but she soon finds she can hold her own against the best of them.

However, at the same time she can also stumble into some really old-fashioned gender stereotypes, some of which are deeply cringey. She gets rescued by a man so many times I’ve lost count. The majority of her decisions are heavily influenced by whatever her current boyfriend happens to be doing at the time. And, perhaps worst of all, she grieves when her boyfriends die, but when her friends and family members die she forgets them pretty quickly. I’ll give her half a point.

SCORE SO FAR: 4

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

Sookie has plenty of relationships with other female characters. There’s her best friend, Tara, with whom she has a very rocky relationship after she saves Tara’s life by turning her into a vampire. There’s her grandmother, who pretty much raised her after the death of her parents. There’s the vampire Pam, who she’s mostly just polite to as the two of them really don’t get on. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg – Sookie has different relationships with several female characters.

FINAL SCORE: 5/10

 

Sookie is a relatively consistent character with a range of relationships with other female characters, who isn’t completely defined by her appearance or love life, but that’s nowhere near enough for her to pass my test. Her biggest problem is that a lot of elements of her character aren’t really followed through – her agency, development and goals aren’t really a part of her character, as they’re much more dependent on the plot.

Personally, I think most of this stem’s from Sookie’s ultimate role: wish fulfilment. She’s not really a fully fleshed-out character because the focus is not on her as a person – it’s on what she experiences and who she meets. She’s not quite a blank slate, but she is something of a placeholder: her lack of a more well-defined character makes it much easier for the reader or viewer to imagine themselves in her shoes. It’s something that many writers are guilty of and Charlaine Harris certainly isn’t the first – or, for that matter, the worst.

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NAMING NO NAMES. (image: wikimedia.org)

And that brings me nicely onto what I’ll be looking at next week. The next post is going to be the one hundredth blog post on Strong Female Characters, and the last before the new year. And, judging by last year’s essay, I’ve got a hell of a lot to live up to.

And I’m going to hate every minute of it.

Next week, I’ll be looking at some of the absolute worst books in the English language and talking about the character at the centre of it all. Brace yourselves, because this is going to be a real punishment.

 

Ladies and Gentlemen:

Anastasia

BLOODY

Steele.

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I feel like I’m going to get a lot of use out of this gif. (image: giphy.com)

And if you’re looking for all my posts on Strong Female Characters, you can find them here.

 

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4 thoughts on “Strong Female Characters: Sookie Stackhouse”

  1. I wasn’t expecting Anastasia Steele as the next character! Does that mean that you read 50 shades and actually managed to finish it? Or will be the movie the source for your analysis? I never read the books or watched the movie, the few excerpts I read were enough to make me wonder how it was possible they got published not to mention the phenomenal success they managed to achieve.

    1. I read it in fits and starts and supplemented it with some really good recaps – definitely not something you can read in one go! I think to be honest, EL James’s Twilight fanbase is at least half the reason why it took off in the way it did – it’s certainly not the writing.

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