When the CW’s hit fantasy series The Vampire Diaries premiered in 2009, it emerged onto a landscape largely overwhelmed with vampire and fantasy content. Preceded by Twilight and HBO’s True Blood in 2008, The Vampire Diaries built on the momentum of palatable, mainstream vampire-centered content catalyzed by the 1990’s cultural phenomenon Buffy the Vampire Slayer. When The Vampire Diaries premiered, it quickly amassed a largely-teenage audience, much of its appeal owed to its ability to reimagine a society where love, romance, and danger are intrinsically tied. However, when depicting and representing characters of color on the small screen – particularly women of color – The Vampire Diaries falls short. Owing to the erasure of both history and race, the show possesses a tendency to represent character of colors as simplistic, service-oriented objects through heavy-handed use of the Magical Negro trope. Often, the show finds itself replicating racist and sexist ideals, rather than reimagining society as the fantasy genre contends. Instead of reconceptualizing society and its many systems of oppression, the CW’s The Vampire Diaries operates within patriarchal white supremacist frames. Supernatural black women are constructed as peripheral objects whose sole purpose is to serve her white counterparts, rescue the world, and advance the arcs of the show’s white protagonists. The show centers the danger-filled love triangle between Elena Gilbert and vampire brothers Stefan and Damon Salvatore, accompanied by a cast of secondary characters – one such character being secondary character and black witch Bonnie Bennett who, along with her ancestors, is the focus of this analysis.
II. POLITICS OF MEMORY, HISTORY, AND RACE
The concepts of place, knowledge, and memory are vital in examining the show’s appropriation of Colonial and Antebellum history – an appropriation done with the double objective of
garnering sympathy for the show’s protagonists and
masking the uneven service-oriented dynamics between members of the Bennett family and the central characters.
The show, set in small-town Virginia in a place called Mystic Falls, explicitly utilizes history – both American and its own. Throughout season one, there are numerous Founders Day events, balls and parades being some of the most notable, which celebrate the Old South and the Antebellum period. However, despite this hyperattention focus given to history, there are two looming absences missing from the show’s narrative: slavery and race. This absence becomes starker when considering protagonist Damon Salvatore’s brief time spent as a soldier for the Confederacy during the Civil War. In episode 13, “Children of the Damned,” during a conversation with their father Giuseppe – a staunch racist and supporter of the Confederacy – younger brother Stefan defends Damon’s decision to desert the army stating, “Damon left the Confederacy on principle,” but never is the principle or even the reason behind the war explicitly stated.
The writers not only assume that the audience understands that slavery was at the root of the Civil War, but through this vague language, the writers are able to divorce Damon from the racist ideals of the Confederate States of America, allowing sympathy to grow for what would be an otherwise unforgivable character. This ambiguous, nondescript language becomes especially egregious when considering Bonnie’s Bonnie’s position as a descendant of slaves and Damon’s tendencies to reduce Bonnie to her service abilities. In these instances, Damon’s history of being someone raised in a society where black people were, by and large, servants necessitates critical examination. In this world where a vampire is able to serve as a Confederate soldier then desert because of unstated principles, the audience can separate his current existence from his past. It is this divorcing of history that allows Damon to demand service from the show’s primary black character without criticism, because, ultimately, he deserted the army. He disagreed with unspoken principles. Intentionally bereft of slave history. the audience will never know what he disagreed with.
Not only does this appropriation of history help garner sympathy for the protagonists, but this manipulation of memory justifies the positions of service occupied by the Bennett Family, helping conceal the inherently unequal, racialized dynamics of such a service-based transaction. Again in “Children of the Damned,” it is revealed to the audience that Bonnie’s ancestor Emily Bennett, similarly a black witch, was a handmaiden to one of the show’s main antagonists Katherine Pierce during the Civil War. While the word handmaiden still evokes a sense of service, it is less brutal and harsh than slave.
However, when considering the unequal power dynamics and racialized conceptions of being during the Civil War in the Confederate South, this particular use of handmaiden is peculiar and brings forth a few questions about Emily’s position in society. Perhaps Emily Bennett possessed privilege as a witch and was able to exist as a free black woman. Maybe she was born free. Or perhaps this revised version of history helps transform an unequal relationship from one of brutal, coerced labor to a similarly unequal, but less harsh version of service – laying the foundation for later Bennetts’, such as Bonnie’s, continuous service to the Salvatore and Gilbert families. It is in this historical landscape that Bonnie Bennett exists – one bereft of history, where race and its harmful effects are erased.
III. THE ROLE OF GENDER AND CARE FOR BLACK WOMEN
Reimagined in this vampire society is not the position of a black woman – no, she is still a servant, as she is often represented in Old South history – but, rather, her understanding of herself. Mirroring the experience of her ancestor Emily, Bonnie occupies a service-based position, oriented around helping her more developed white counterparts. Between the two witches, there is a temporal gap that affects how they perceive their positions; in the contemporary age, Bonnie posits her own sometimes-fatal, self-detrimental use of magic as an expression of strength. This is best reflected in season 1, episode 14 “Fool Me Once” when Bonnie and her grandmother Sheila are demanded by the Salvatore brothers to perform a dangerous, potentially fatal spell that would reunite Damon with the love of his life. His demand, done by proxy through Elena, states, “They need a witch,” thereby reducing Bonnie’s character to her abilities and implying, through the use of the unspecific a witch, that any old witch will do. In such instances, Bonnie occupies the position of the Magical Negro, or an often supernatural black character whose abilities and wisdom benefit the white protagonists.
By reducing Bonnie to a figure with magical abilities whose purpose is to aid the white protagonists, Bonnie is deprived of her selfhood, which the writers try to justify as merely an extension of her willingness to sacrifice for her friends. This tradition of sacrifice – one that is historical, as black women on the fields and beyond are no stranger to sacrifice – is no clearer than during a later moment in “Fool Me Once” when Bonnie and grandmother Sheila Bennett, while performing the spell demanded of them by the Salvatores, are forced to exert themselves even more. Sheila refuses, defending her decision stating, “I protect my own.” Bonnie, determined to help her friends, begs her grandmother to help, When her grandmother attempts to rebut her, Bonnie declares, “Help me, or I’ll do it alone,” prompting her grandmother to not only assist with the spell but to overexert herself in the process, resulting in the untimely death of Sheila Bennett, the then-matriarch of the Bennett family.
In the first season (and many of the following seasons, in fact), Bonnie is allowed no room for self-reflection, and there is no space to grieve. To allow Bonnie emotional competency would force her to question her constant sacrifices and tendency to overexert herself for friends who would not (and, largely, have not) done the same for her. Writing the experience of the Bennetts, the show’s writers draw heavily on a historical tradition of sacrifice in the world of black women. When Sheila dies, Bonnie’s first instinct is to grab her grimoire (her family’s book of spells) and “fix” it. Even while struck with the death of the matriarch and only maternal figure she’d ever known, Bonnie’s immediate response is to remedy and persevere.
However, this death is only ruminated on by Bonnie for a few moments (the very moments shown in the above figures) and is immediately swept aside to instead focus on Damon’s spiral after learning that the love of his life had been lying to him for over a century. Again, Bonnie’s own emotions and experiences are written into the periphery of the show, where her emotional competence and ability to grieve is divorced from her. Instead, rather than reflecting on her loss, she must work with the Salvatores to carry out their self-centered plans. The death of Sheila Bennett was just the beginning of a long line of deaths suffered by Bonnie for the benefit of Elena Gilbert and her Salvatore suitors. Just two seasons after Sheila’s death, Bonnie learns that her absentee mother Abby Bennett abandoned her as a child to protect Elena and moments later, the humanity of Abby is traded for Elena’s life. A few episodes later, Bonnie’s father is introduced…and swiftly killed off as a plot device. In neither instance is Bonnie allowed room to grieve; consistent with the theme of the show, she must wield her own abilities to benefit the larger Mystic Falls community at the behest of the Salvatores. These instances mark several moments where Bonnie’s existence is reduced to her magic, even by her friends and the community of people for whom she has and would continue to sacrifice her life.
IV. THE ROLE OF SEXUALITY
Perhaps there is no better way to examine Bonnie Bennett being written in the margins than by gazing critically at her sexuality and the ways the writers construct and limit her self-expression of intimacy. In “Children of the Damned” and “Fool Me Once,” Bonnie is approached by vampire Ben, whose objective is not to romance Bonnie but to gain access to her family’s grimoire. When discovered, Ben cruelly states to Bonnie, “you shouldn’t be too desperate. You made it too easy,” revealing that his true intentions were never to gain her romantic favor. In this instance as in many others, Bonnie’s sexuality is conveyed only to advance the plot, with particular focus on her family’s magic.
Examining The Vampire Diaries’ construction of Bonnie Bennett helps illuminate the many ways the fantasy genre replicates harmful, simplistic representations of black women that are rooted in a historical tradition of service, sacrifice, and severing from sexuality. Careful examination of the ways these dynamics are reiterated throughout media can change these representations and the way black women are constructed. One such way to both remedy and address these harmful depictions is through careful attention paid to language. For example, in the Vampire Diaries, Bonnie’s magic is often referred to as witchy voodoo and witchy stuff; by Damon, she is often referred to as Witchy rather than by her given name. These dismissals render her practice as something to be made light of or less important, despite her magic’s importance in saving the town on multiple occasions. The language used constructs an unequal dynamic: Bonnie provides the town her magic, her service, but is disregarded in favor. In these instances, she becomes not a person but a passive character who does, reduced to her magic. Further attention paid to such seemingly small moments in writing – with the dedicated focus on accurate depictions of history and power – can help transform the role and representation of black women in speculative fiction as The Vampire Diaries.
By Channelle Russell , Secretary and Editor