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True Blood Season 3 and Morphological Freedom
Ben Scarlato   Jun 21, 2010   Ethical Technology  

This summer True Blood, now in its third season, continues to explore the issues that it has in the past, such as personhood and the coexistence of humans with a species that has many advantages over humans. However, with the introduction of werewolves and the greater focus on shapeshifters, this year there are even better opportunities to relate True Blood to morphological freedom.

It’s relatively common to look at vampires as analogues for posthumans, and even compare whether vampires or other supernaturals make the best posthumans. Still, this analogy can only go so far, for as an editorial in h+ magazine pointed out last year, True Blood’s vampires don’t act much like posthumans. Yes, they might serve as reminders of what can go wrong with enhancement, but overall the weaknesses and limitations of vampires mean they serve as much better models of how society might view another species than what that species would actually be like.

One of the key limitations of vampires is that they lack the ability to make lasting changes to their bodies. This is a key ability that any transhuman, let alone posthuman, we might want to create should have. It doesn’t often arise as a limitation though, because vampires are typically portrayed as being made when they were beautiful and sexy. But that’s all the more reason why this reflects a misconception around human enhancement.

Transhumanism isn’t about reaching towards some static ideal of the perfect being or the perfect body. The point is to let people choose what ideals they want to aspire to, and to use science and technology to help them achieve those goals.

Perhaps the best example of this lack of morphological freedom is the young vampire Jessica, who was turned as a virgin. Each time she has sex it’s very painful for her, because her body is so good at returning to its original state that her hymen continually regrows and is torn again. It’s as if she had to keep undergoing hymen restorations. Humans having hymenoplasties is one thing, but there are several other vaginal enhancement procedures that are increasing in popularity.

Vaginal Rejuvenation

AlterNet has posted a few negative articles over the past year on procedures such as vaginal rejuvenation and labiaplasty. Of course, it’s unfortunate when society encourages women to feel bad about their bodies. And there are indeed some serious problems with the lack of data on the safety and efficacy of procedures like vaginal rejuvenation. But that doesn’t mean there’s something intrinsically wrong with these procedures, just that more rigorous studies are needed or surgical techniques need to advance and improve in safety.

More importantly though, if a woman wants to change her body, there shouldn’t always be an obligation to help her rationalize the one she has now. Yes, for some women the right choice is to accept the beauty of their current body, and that choice should be supported, as should the choice to reject society’s ideals. But if a woman wants to change how she looks, she should have the opportunity to do so. Even if what she wants to look like is arbitrarily shaped by a society filled with images of inhumanly perfect vampires and unrealistic models. If we don’t have the technology to safely perform a procedure now, we should look forward to a time when we do.

In her AlterNet article Rebecca Chalker notes that little attention is paid to the “wide range of normal genital appearance.” Women who are considering these procedures should be made aware of this, and of course be given a thorough understanding of the physical and psychological risks and benefits of any plastic surgery. But if one’s goal in enhancing their beauty is not to have a normal appearance, but to look better than normal, then surgery may still make sense.

Shapeshifters and Werewolves

What about True Blood’s werewolves and shifters? These beings obviously do a better job of representing morphological freedom, but even so they’re cast in a negative light. The shifter Sam is obviously to be sympathized with, but when he’s reunited with his family his brother tries to get him killed, and the werewolves are portrayed as brutish and stupid. Unfortunately, such negative depictions of beings capable of radical transformations are all too common in popular culture.

Is such a charge against popular culture fair, or is it the case that Hollywood helps transhumanism? Certainly there are exceptions; superheroes are cast in a much better light than werewolves, and even in True Blood the discrimination suffered by the various supernaturals evokes some sympathy. But by and and large, as Robert Tercek argued in his excellent presentation at the recent H+ Summit, transhumanists are losing the pop culture war.

Even in True Blood, there’s a great deal of negativity about nonhuman-persons. Eric’s actions that help Sookie, for instance, stand in contrast to the expectation that he act in a malevolent and untrustworthy manner. In the most recent episode when Sookie cries, Eric asks her not to do this because it makes him “feel disturbingly human.” Perhaps this illustrates that nonhumans are capable of “human” emotions, but the clear implication is that with enough work, nonhumans could feel the kinds of emotions humans do. There’s little sense given in the series that with enough work, humans could overcome their nature and feel emotions such as empathy in a more refined manner.

Overcoming our Nature

Jessica is uncomfortable being a vampire because it’s in their nature to cause suffering and kill, but that doesn’t mean they have to. The King of Mississippi for example, serves cruelty-free blood. Similarly, if some study shows that a particular behavior is “hard-wired” that doesn’t mean we should give up on altering that behavior; if anything, an understanding of its causes should give us a better understanding of what therapies might be effective in altering it. Knowing the heritability of schizophrenia means that screenings can be done on family members, giving them a better chance to get effective treatment.

Perhaps the best scene from the most recent episode of True Blood was a fight between Jessica and her human (ex-)boyfriend Hoyt. Jessica says that he doesn’t know what it’s like because “biting people, getting so mad that I do bad things by accident, that’s in my nature.” Although Jessica doesn’t buy it, Hoyt responds by saying:

“You know what’s in my nature? Running back to my Momma and doing anything that she tells me for the rest of my life. I ain’t gonna do it. We can fight our natures together.”

We all have the capacity to be more than our nature. Just because we don’t yet have the technologies to be as rational and healthy as we might like, we still have an obligation to be the best we can be. It’s the choices we make today, the things that we do to increase our intelligence, understanding, and health, that increase our opportunity both to contribute to and live to see a better future for our planet.

Ben Scarlato, a former IEET intern, studied Computer Science at Rochester Institute of Technology and works as a software engineer focused on security.

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